The air raid siren had hardly finished its always welcome “all clear” wail when it started to rain. Not a violent downpour. Just a steady rain that a few hours earlier would have made a pleasant thrumming on slate roofs of row houses in a small English midlands town.
But on this night the roof-slates that for decades had steered rain water into gutters and downpipes were not in place. They had been lifted roughly from their anchored spots by a near-miss bomb blast to shatter on the streets and yards below. The shuddering, slithering of slate tiles mingled with the sounds of a hundreds of windows shattering at the same time is one to be remembered for a long time.
In the aftermath of silence the rain fell and the rows of humble houses stood in the feeble light of dawn, bare roof timbers hunched against the unkindness of nature. And I remember, as clearly as I remember the sounds of roof-slates scudding and shattered glass falling into the streets, escorting my mother “home” from the garden air raid shelter where she and my sister and neighbours had spent the night.
My father had been on night security duty at a factory a few miles away. I, aged 16 and a half, had been on “go-fer” duty with a fire-watch warden. Mother was so delighted I was okay she chattered happily – with few rebukes that I should have been in the shelter with them “not running wild about the streets.”
Having checked the house earlier I warned that her always sparkling kitchen was a bit of a mess. “It won’t take long to clean up” she said. I opened the back door and she walked in, looked — and wept as steadily as the rain.
The back door opened directly onto to the kitchen-dining room, immediately to the left was a wooden staircase. And down that wooden staircase was a cascading waterfall, flooding across the always freshly scrubbed kitchen floor to form a giant sludge with decades old soot shaken from the chimney by the blast.
This wasn’t our first air raid. Our first was on August 25, 1940, for an anniversary of sorts next Tuesday; the last came two years later on July 28, 1942. It was a popgun raid with a single bomb dropping on the outskirts of town, a calling card reminder that though not a prime target my home town, Nuneaton, had been noticed. Siren free nights became rare as summer drifted into Fall with nervous pilots or poor navigators unloading their deadly cargoes without discrimination.
It was a nervous time living as we did nine miles from Coventry, 20 from Birmingham and waiting, expecting every night, the Big One. It came close on November 14-15, 1940, when Germany launched Operation Moonlight Sonata and coined the word “Coventrifide” to describe destruction. In Nuneaton we watched Coventry burn on a not so distant horizon. An estimated 30,000 incendiary bombs were dropped along with 64 flare bombs to light the way for 449 bombers which unloaded around 1,500 high explosive bombs along with 50-parachute bombs known as a block-buster. The dead totaled 568, seriously injured 862, and wounded 393.
Five days after that devastating attack we walked Nuneaton’s night streets again, this time to listen as the German Air Force launched its first major attack on Birmingham. Again 440 bombers were overhead to drop 400 tonnes of high explosives plus 18-parachute mines and kill 450 and badly injure close to 600. The following night the Luftwaffe returned with 118 tonnes of high explosives and 9,500 incendiaries to create further massive damage, deaths and injuries. A third raid followed with at one point on the night of November 21-22 some 600 fires burning in the city as water mains failed. Fire brigades drafted from across England drew their water from canals to get the fires under control but the regional commissioner for water supply warned a fourth night of fire raids “and Birmingham will burn down.” Fortunately the Luftwaffe changed targets.
In Nuneaton we watched, listened, and still waited fearfully for the Big Raid we felt doomed to receive. It came in the dark of May 17, 1941, the night the tiles flew off the roof and soot crashed down the chimney to mingle with unblessed rain from heaven.
The soot and the rain, harmless in a way, were shocking only because they were totally unexpected. Which leave me wondering what surprises my next Big One – if I live long enough to see a nature-created one and survive – will bring? My emergency bag is packed, is reasonably well supplied. I expect some miserable unexpecteds but hope a vile mix of chimney soot and rain isn’t among them.
Been there, done that – and once is enough.