1939 – 42, The London Blitz, Part 2

As far as I was concerned I could never be bothered to get out of bed unless the bombing was so heavy my mother insisted and then she and I sat in the cupboard under the stairs. It was there that I witnessed real fear, almost to the point of terror for the first time. My mother had always been a cool customer in all circumstance. Whatever her emotions, and I have seen her white round the mouth with sheer anger; she was always dignified, usually kept her own council and apart for some slight indication as I have just described, one would not know her real reactions. On many nights when she insisted I join her, in what she referred to as the ‘cubby-hole’, we would hear bombs falling, windows rattling, but on only one occasion when I was at home did a stick of bombs actually threaten us. There were about six in a row. We could hear each explode with barely a second between them, which seemed an age, and there was a steady increase in the vibration of the explosion and in the noise each made. Inexorably they came, as steady as time itself and we were both sure one would hit us. It was then I saw my mother, she was white knuckled, rigid with such a fixed look on her face that I was more worried for her than where the next bomb might fall. It landed beyond us and the house shook. In the light of the torch, with the drama increased by the oblique shadows and sharp contrasts cast by it, I saw her slowly relax, but it was some time before she fully recovered.

The Balham Tube Station Disaster A considerable number of people in London generally, and our district in particular, took shelter from the blitz in the underground railway stations, sleeping on the platforms. There were other shelters, there were brick structures with heavy reinforced concrete roofs, a very common sight on the street corners of Belfast when I arrived there in ’42. Some people used Anderson shelters, made from corrugated steel and provided by the ARP for the householder to erect. You had to dig a hole about half the depth of the shelter height, then the body of the shelter which was like a tiny Nissan hut was put in place and covered with sandbags. The idea was fine if the base of the shelter could be drained and water prevented from getting in, otherwise within months of being erected they were useless. My grandmother was issued with a Morrison shelter some way through the war. This was nothing other than a dining table made from steel and capable of supporting beams and similar debris, should the house be damage. The idea was that the family slept under this thing every night.

It is only as the years have gone by that the true price, of what the Continentals and Russians paid in the Hitler War, has come to light. It dwarfs what I write here, but at the time we, on the receiving end, thought ourselves hard done by. On the night in question my friends and I had been off somewhere and were on our way home when we heard the air raid siren wail. Almost as soon as the guns opened up we heard the most awful bang and reckoned rightly that a bomb had fallen in Balham High Road, but we didn’t hang around to find out what had happened, for once discretion took over. It was therefore the following day before we heard of the disaster and the full extent of what had happened. The story we heard was that the bomb had fallen in the centre of the High Road over the platform area of the tube station, but that was all the damage that was done at that moment. Unhappily though, almost immediately, one of the last buses of the evening ran straight into the hole left by the bomb and burst a huge water main, this in turn poured gallons of water into the tunnel.

It was a disaster contrived by contributing circumstances, each of which, while serious would not have been catastrophic. The authorities knowing about the water main, had taken it into account in the planning. They had assumed that if the pipe received a direct hit the water would flood the street and then descend the escalator, so to avoid that eventuality they had installed water-tight doors which were shut at night. Coupled with this the station was at the lowest part of the line so that any water entering the station could not flow out, and last but not least, it had been designed as a station in peace-time, it was therefore merely an emergency measure, not a purposely designed air raid shelter in the accepted sense. I don’t remember the death toll, it is a matter of record, but most people knew someone who had experienced that awful night or perhaps perished.

Categorized as General

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