Blitz Story Archive, part 9

This is an archive of true stories about life in Coventry during the Blitz, as told by survivors and by the friends and families of victims. I would like to add as many Blitz memories as possible to this archive, in order to preserve history for future education, and to honour the memories of those who were killed by the bombing raids.

If you have any interesting memories or family stories of wartime Coventry or the Blitz please email them to met and I shall be happy to add them to my site. Any wartime snapshots would also be much appreciated.

The Blitz – November 1940 – and afterwards.
Memoirs of Gwendoline Holmes, née Ryland, then aged 19.

Text and photo kindly provided by The Revd Dr Jonathan Holmes.

Gwendoline Holmes

Photo of Gwendoline Holmes

It was a few minutes before 5.00 o’clock on the evening of 14th November 1940 when I jumped on the train going to Coventry after leaving my day’s work at the University of Birmingham (where I was a student studying for a Certificate of Education). It was not worth getting out any work to do on the train because the journey only took 20 minutes, however I was thinking about the geography essay I had to write that evening. From Coventry station it was straight on the bus for Green Lane and home to our house, 32 Beanfield Avenue. At that point in the early evening, it was a very dark night – gloomy. It was good to get home to share a cup of tea with my mother and my elder sister, Christine, who had just got in from her job as a teacher at Cheylesmore Secondary School in Coventry. My father (Bill Ryland) was on duty with the Home Guard (he was a Lieutenant helping with the anti-aircraft guns – he had been a Company Quartermaster Sergeant in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in the Great War). We had to be careful over our cups of tea because of the rationing – I’d given up sugar in my tea because my Mum couldn’t manage without it (I’ve never taken sugar in tea since)! We had a quick meal and I got my work out on the dining room table because I had to start writing the essay for my geography tutor on ‘The Wheatlands of Russia’. It was a very interesting topic because I had been reading that the Russians had developed a new strain of wheat that would grow to fruition in six months, thus growing to maturity and harvest before the harsh winters set in.

Suddenly – not long after 6.00p.m. – all the lights went out in the house and we could hear a terrible noise. The air raid sirens had not gone off, but we quickly realised there was a plane close overhead and it was dropping bombs. We all ran into the front room and started to draw the blackout when we saw the houses on the opposite side of the road suddenly collapse – gently, without a sound. (We were later told a landmine had fallen on the house over the road - the people there were all killed; on our side numbers 28, 30, 32 were destroyed – the lady in No.28 was badly hurt and sadly lost her sight). “Get under the stairs”, my mother shouted. We were on our way, making sure our mother was with us, when Chris suddenly called, “Where’s the cat?” and ran into the dining room where we had left ‘Figaro’ in front of the fire. She managed to grab him but at that moment the house began to collapse around us. The dining room door came off its hinges and fell against the sideboard – Chris and Figaro were safe in the gap underneath the door as our home began to disintegrate and tumble down. Mum and I had made it to the cupboard under the stairs when I suddenly said, “Mum, my face”. I put my hands up to my face and my fingers just went straight into flesh. At the same time I could see my mother had tiny cuts all over her face – we had been hit by flying glass.

We knew my Dad wasn’t there to take charge and rescue us, so, after a while, Mum took hold of my arms and she and Chris, who had the cat under one arm, helped me over the rubble which had been the hall and the doorstep. I remember looking up where the hall ceiling ought to have been and seeing the sky. We managed to clamber out of the ruins of our house so we could go to the Air Raid Shelter in the road. When we got to the shelter – it was about two doors down – it was already full but they managed to make room for us. There were several people with minor injuries but I was pouring blood everywhere. After a time - I may have lapsed into unconsciousness – a voice at the door said, “Anyone in there?” Everyone called out, “Yes”. “Anybody injured?” and my Mum called out, “Yes, my daughter”. Two air raid wardens appeared – they made a chair with their arms to give me a lift and carried me all the way to the first aid station which was in Green Lane School. There weren’t any first aiders on duty, so the wardens laid me down on a bed and that was about all they could do. They said, “Wait here, we’ll get someone to take you to hospital”. It wasn’t organised because no-one expected bombs out in the Green Lane suburban area, so far away from the city centre and the industrial areas.

I lay on the bed for a time, semi-conscious – I didn’t dare put my hands up to my face again. Eventually they said, “We’ve got someone here with a car who can take you to hospital and your mother will follow you”. It turned out (I didn’t find this out till many years later when we happened to meet at a local church) to be the brother of another Gwen. We went down Kenilworth Road – there were bombs dropping seemingly all around us. By now it was bright moonlight and we could see clearly. I knew my Dad was manning the guns in the Memorial Park which were firing away. We went past the station and Greyfriars Green and up Hertford Street. There seemed to be bombs raining down everywhere – it was a miracle we weren’t hit. As we got to the city centre we could see up the narrow lanes by the cathedral and there were flames shooting out of the cathedral’s upper windows. The Council House seemed to be alright but behind you could see the cathedral and many other buildings on fire and burning fiercely. We came then to Gulson Road Hospital – the so-called ‘secondary’ hospital of Coventry (which used to be the old workhouse).

I was taken into Casualty and the first thing the nurse did was to get scissors and cut off my dress – I was very upset because I was particularly fond of that dress as it had been my first ‘grown-up’ one. She put some pads on my face and on a large wound in my upper chest (which she seemed particularly worried about). She then said there was nothing more she could do until they could find a doctor. So I was put into a hospital gown and taken up to a ward and onto a bed. What a night ensued. More and more casualties were brought in until there were not enough beds and there were people lying all over the floor. I just felt how lucky I was to have a bed as I was among the earlier casualties to arrive at the hospital. About 3-o’clock some doctors appeared and looked at my injuries, particularly the hole in my upper chest/neck. However, they said there was nothing more they could do for me for the moment as they had to deal with more urgent cases, so I would have to just wait. There was no surgery going on because there were no lights, just a few candles, and there were people all over the place on mattresses, in beds, just on the floor, groaning and moaning. I was horribly frightened and there was no sign of my family. You couldn’t even try to go to sleep because they had started to bomb a factory just opposite the hospital and there were anti-aircraft guns banging away near at hand.

Daylight came and revealed an awful scene of badly injured people lying on the floor or on mattresses all around me, many moaning pitifully. I was unable to eat or drink because my mouth was so badly cut. Various people talked to me of their strange experiences. The nurses and doctors couldn’t do anything to my face beyond putting dressings on. I don’t remember if it was that morning or the next when Mum and Chris appeared – I have never been so thankful to see anyone in my life. They told me what had happened to them. Mum (who was 60 years old) had walked to the main hospital, the Coventry and Warwickshire in Stoney Stanton Road, and had searched every ward looking for me. Eventually she had decided to walk back to Green Lane. She herself was injured but she didn’t seek help. As she was going up through the ruins of Broadgate, she found she couldn’t get through – there was an enormous hole in the ground where there had been a shelter that received a direct hit, killing a lot of people. She had to find another route and eventually got to Greyfriars Green and on to Kenilworth Road. She made her way to the first aid station – Chris was still there with the cat. They then walked to my eldest sister Dorothy’s house in Dillotford Avenue in Stivichall and left Figaro with her. Dorothy would have kept him with pleasure but he decided he wanted to go up the hill and he chose to live at Stivichall Vicarage. Dorothy got him back two or three times but he adopted the vicar and lived there happily for many years. Dorothy was in a state because her house had lost part of its roof and there was no gas or electricity. She could only boil a kettle on the fire. Mum and Chris then set off to see if they could find me in Gulson Road Hospital. The only way to get there was up through Stivichall and through the cemetery. London Road was blocked completely. The cemetery had been badly bombed and there were bits of coffin and bones scattered all over the place – a gruesome sight.

Meanwhile Dad had come home from the guns and seen what had happened to the house. He too had gone to Dorothy’s to seek news. When he discovered we were all alive, despite being up all night, he said he must go to work to earn some money. He borrowed Fred’s bike (Dorothy’s husband, Fred Aldridge, was away on war service - he was an officer in the Royal Marines) and cycled to his job as a carpenter at Cortaulds on Fosehill Road. Unfortunately, by the time anyone could get back to the ruins of the house to look for any surviving possessions, it had been looted. They found the settee and, oddly enough, the atlas I had been using for the essay (which we still have) but that was about all. None of our personal possessions or clothes or family photographs and documents survived. We had a huge collection of Stevengraphs (we were related to the family – Mrs Stevens was my grandfather’s step-sister). In particular there was a large and beautiful woven silk picture of Greyfriars Green, but they had all been destroyed or taken.

My boyfriend Trevor Holmes later told me about his grandstand view of the blitz on Coventry. He was a student at Saltley Teacher Training College in Birmingham and it happened to be his turn to fire watch on the college roof. From there he could clearly see the raid and Coventry burning. He was given special permission to go home to Coventry the next day to check on his family. He cycled (there was no public transport) to his mother’s house in The Chesils, Stivichall, to find she was unharmed (though the family car had been destroyed in the garage). He then came on to Beanfield Avenue to check that I was alright and found nothing but a pile of bricks and debris where our house had been. He did not think any of us could have survived and it was several days before he discovered I was still alive.

When Mum and Chris found me in the hospital, it was a very joyful reunion. They stayed with me (because they knew how much I hated being on my own) and, while they were still there, the decision was taken that afternoon to evacuate as many of the people in the hospital as possible. I was to be taken to Rugby St Cross Hospital. Mum and Chris couldn’t come with me as the ambulances were packed full but they managed to make their way to Rugby and went to my mother’s brother’s house (Fred Cox who lived in Bilton Road with his wife Annie – their three children Cecil, Winnie and Fred were all away). They stayed there, sleeping on the couch. St Cross turned out to be a lovely hospital with very caring staff. After I’d been there a few hours, they announced that I was to be taken into theatre for an operation. They wheeled me in and I jumped onto the operating table. They said, “You seem to be pleased to be here!”, and I said I was because I needed something doing with all my cuts. I had a big gash from the back of my chin on the left by my ear lobe right across to my mouth then up to the base of my nose. Also the right side of my lip was cut up to beside my nose and under my right eye there were three deep horizontal cuts across my cheek. The doctors and nurses were most worried by the big gash in my neck (just near the jugular vein) down to my upper chest. It was gaping wide open (I still have a big scar there now). The surgeons did a good job repairing all the cuts. I came round from the anaesthetic and my mother and sister were there!

Dad stayed at Dorothy’s and continued to go to work but there was no room for Mum and Chris. So they hitchhiked over to Rugby from Coventry each evening to see me and then to sleep at Fred and Annie’s house and then back to Coventry in the morning. In the evenings every night they passed hundreds of people trekking out of Coventry to sleep in the fields – much of the city still had no gas or electricity or water. Eventually Chris had to return to her teaching job. I had another operation on my face and throat and then it was nearly Christmas. One of my tutors at Birmingham lent us her flat in Rugby for the holiday. Trevor cycled all the way from Solihull (Saltley College had by then been bombed and the students were evacuated to various centres – Trevor had been sent to Solihull) to see me. Later I went to stay with Trevor for a few days, though his mother was not very kind to me at all. I knew I had to go back to hospital after the holiday. No sooner was I back at St Cross than I developed appendicitis and had to have my appendix removed. In the end I had three big operations on my face, though they didn’t have the facilities or the time to do any skin grafts or other cosmetic procedures.

I had to come to terms with the way my face looked, but I was alive and had lots to live for, so I made up my mind to go back to college in February. By this time, my mother had found a house to rent in Woodside Avenue – only a couple of streets away from Beanfield Avenue. The house was semi-furnished and my parents found various bits and pieces to make it habitable. It was difficult because so many people were looking for furniture, curtains and so on and they were in very short supply. I went home from hospital, therefore, to 158 Woodside Avenue – Mum told me, “We’ve got a nice house and also a surprise”. “What surprise?” I asked. A cat to live with us! He was called Toby – the people who owned the house had gone to live in Kenilworth and left him behind. He was a beautiful large tabby and I loved him dearly. We eventually managed to buy this house. Before I went back to college, Christine’s old roommate, Gwen Morris, invited me to stay at her house in Wrexham to help me recuperate. Her father kept a shop there and I went to my first football match during the visit. We had wonderful food. While I was there a young R.A.F. trainee, Geraint Evans, took me out walking in the hills. He used to sing to me all the time as we walked (I felt, but never of course said, it was a pity he didn’t sound more like Frank Sinatra). He later went to Germany and was taught to sing properly by an opera company there. He became a very famous opera singer and was knighted. I used to meet up with him sometimes on a Sunday during the war (though I was still going out with Trevor). I didn’t fall in love with him but he did more or less propose. He gave me a book (J.B.Priestley’s ‘The Good Companions’) for my 21st birthday and wrote in it that he hoped I would be happy with my science teacher.

I returned to the University and it was soon after that that I met Peter Snape in the refectory one day. He was the son of a former Mayor of Coventry and his uncle was a prominent city solicitor. We became friends and I took him to meet my family. It was at Woodside Avenue that I introduced Peter to Chris. He was just about to join the R.A.F. In the summer they got engaged (by an extraordinary coincidence on the same day that I did). They went to London for the weekend and stayed at a hotel in Berkeley Square (the song ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’ inevitably became there special tune). They returned home on the Sunday night. Trevor had just asked Dad for his permission to marry me when Peter and Chris turned up and Peter asked Dad for his permission for an engagement too! “Anyone else?” said Dad. Shortly afterwards Peter left for America to train as a pilot – we still have his letters to Chris – then he was assigned to a bomber squadron on the east coast. He was offered officer training but remained a Sergeant Pilot as he wouldn’t leave his crew. He survived the great ‘1000 bomber’ raid on Cologne, however, very sadly, he was killed on his second big raid over Hamburg – the plane was hit and ditched in the North Sea; there were no survivors.

Back at the University I was given some books from the library and a friend gave me her lecture notes so I could catch up. My geography tutor, who lived in Barnt Green, had me to stay for a week to start with. The tutors got together to give me some clothes because I had hardly anything to wear. I was then given a place in University House, the student hostel. I was given a room for free and made many lovely friends – Catherine and Lucy stand out. I went home to Coventry at weekends. I duly qualified as a teacher in 1942, doing quite well in the exams! After graduation, Chris got me a job at the same school at which she taught – we were ‘Miss Ryland’ and ‘Miss Gwen Ryland’. I was however teaching art (at which I was hopeless) but managed to move to another job quite quickly.

Gradually my face healed – it took years – I still (in 2014) have some tightness round my mouth and a few scars. I got a job in Coundon School and had lunch every day with Christine Palmer. Her brother John, who was in the RAFVR, was also killed. He was seconded to teach flying (having learnt to fly before the war) but was also lost in the North Sea when out on a training flight with a pupil. I had joined a first aid post and all the kids at the school were very impressed when my friend Terry from the First Aid Post collected me from school every day on his motorbike.

I caught a bad cold that winter which turned to pneumonia and pleurisy. I would have died if I hadn’t been one of the first people to have been treated with antibiotics. It took me a long time to recover (maybe the chronic asthma from which I now suffer is a hangover from that episode). Mum and Dad were given some compensation money for all their losses at about this time and Mum thought it would be good to spend some of it on taking me on holiday to help me recuperate. We went to Torquay and stayed in a small hotel near the beach. The beach itself was off limits, of course, as it was mined to repel any invasion by sea. One morning Mum and I were walking along the promenade enjoying the sea air when we heard an aeroplane. It was rather cloudy and murky but suddenly the plane emerged from the low clouds and we could plainly see the swastikas. We flung ourselves down beside a wall by the harbour as the plane started to machine gun all down the main road where we were. After the plane had stopped strafing the sea front and had disappeared back into the clouds and everything was over, we were standing trembling in shock when people rushed out from the Grand Hotel and ushered us inside for coffee or tea and some t.l.c. Neither of us had ever been in a hotel like that before – it was huge, magnificent and unbelievably luxurious. We eventually had a lovely fortnight’s holiday, including a few trips to Exeter, where my cousin’s sister-in-law Mavis Lee was an undergraduate at the University and entertained us there.

Gwendoline Holmes, Cheltenham, September 2014.

Gwendoline Murial Holmes was born in a small terraced house, 152 Fosehill Road, Coventry, on 5th June 1921. She was the youngest of the three daughters of William and Margaret (Bill and Maggie) Ryland. Bill worked as a carpenter for Courtaulds, the big works on the Fosehill Road, and also in the evening as part of the maintenance team of Perkins Flower Shop and also managed some garages in Fosehill Road. In 1926, after Gwen’s maternal grandparents died, the family moved to their old house at 86 Fosehill Road and then in 1934 to a brand new semi-detached house in the southern suburbs of the city in Beanfield Avenue. Gwen followed her older sisters Dorothy (born 1914) and Christine (born 1918) to Barr’s Hill School and in 1939 started training, like both her sisters, as a teacher. Bill Ryland was churchwarden of St Michael’s, Coventry Cathedral, and Dorothy married another teacher, Fred Aldridge, there in August 1939 – one of the last couples to be married in the Cathedral before war broke out.

Gwen eventually married Trevor Holmes in 1946 at St James’, Stivichall (it is not recorded whether Figaro the cat attended). Their only child Jonathan was born in 1949. Meanwhile Chris met and in 1946 married Frederick King, an estate agent in Gloucester, and their only child, named Peter after Chris’s late fiancé, was also born later in 1949. In 1952 Gwen, Trevor and Jonathan went to live with Chris and her family in Gloucester. Bill Ryland died of a heart attack in 1958, aged 73 – he was on his way to work, having refused to retire. Maggie eventually joined her daughters in Gloucester, but in 1961 Chris died aged only 43 of disseminated lupus. In 1965 Fred King announced he wanted to live in a flat near his office, so Gwen, Trevor, Jonathan, Peter and Maggie all moved to a house in Cheltenham. Gwen, who had been helping her brother-in-law with his business, went back to full-time teaching. Maggie died at the age of 86 in 1966 and is buried with Christine in Gloucester. Gwen and Trevor both retired from teaching in 1981. Jonathan won a place at Cambridge and qualified as a vet but remained at the University as a lecturer. He is just retiring as Dean of Chapel of Queens’ College having been ordained in 1988. Peter has also just retired as Professor of Local History at the University of Leicester. Dorothy, who had also moved to Cheltenham in 1966, died in 1998, aged 84, a couple of years after her husband. After over 65 years of marriage to Gwen, Trevor died just short of his 92nd birthday on New Year’s Eve 2011. Despite a lifetime of poorish health (a cousin once remarked, “Poor Gwen, she’s never been well since the bomb fell on her in the war), Gwen is now 93 and still living in her home of more than 50 years in Cheltenham. Unfortunately, however, her health has deteriorated dramatically in the few weeks since she dictated this memoir.

The Story of Coventry by Peter Walters

The Story of Coventry traces the evolution of the city, from the myths of Godiva, through to the issues, challenges and opportunities facing it in the twenty-first century. Exploring Coventry’s heritage through records, architectural developments and anecdotes, it reveals a fascinating and much misunderstood city, whose history is often overshadowed by its bombing during the Second World War.

Peter Walters, well known for his numerous newspaper features and active role in local heritage, shows that there is a great deal more to the history of Coventry than first meets the eye. This beautifully illustrated text will delight both residents and visitors alike.