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A couple of days after the funeral mm came to collect Ken and I from hospital and the three of us allowed our grief to flow out in the hospital corridor. Then mum in her stoic manner simply said “come on you boys, let’s go home”. “Home”, I thought, “where the hell is that? I saw it destroyed”. As though she had read my thoughts mum told us that we were staying with aunt Edie, but not for long, at least that is what we thought.
On returning to the factory the Rootes management decided to send ‘us boys’ on a leave of absence. So, with mum, we all went for a fortnight’s holiday in Scotland. While the country struggled to survive we went for a jolly to Stirling; to cousin Nettie. She made us very welcome and Ken and I made a total recovery, and mum as well, although I could still sense that dull pain of loss without dad. The few weeks became a carefree frolic as the war seemed to be in another time zone and the bombings on a distant land; only the nightly radio broadcasts reminded us of the inevitable, but I did not allow the BBC radio voice of John Snagge to dampen my spirits. I borrowed uncle Jimmy’s motor car and trundled off to find a grassy bank on the river Forth and there we picnicked; or we drove over to Lock Leven by Kinross – Jim swam for miles, Ken and I talked for hours, and mum slept for an eternity! With the knowledge that Coventry beckoned.
We travelled back to Coventry on 14th November 1941.
As the train moved south into the Midlands, the journey became slow., painfully slow, merely crawling along the tracks or not moving at all – I could have walked faster! I knew something was not quite right. I overheard a ticket inspector telling a passenger behind me that there was heavy bombing in the Midlands but not too sure which city was the target. We were held up for hours, sitting in that carriage wondering what was going on, then I heard that Coventry was the target. There seemed to be no escape and I turned to mum – words were not necessary, our eyes spoke; who else could we lose? The thought brought back that gut wrenching feeling of dread but there was nought I could do but wait. And all the time I could hear the distant bombing.
The train managed to get to Balsall and Berkswell station just several miles from Coventry and came to a complete halt unable to go any further due to damaged rails caused by a bomb. More waiting. After two hours buses arrived from Coventry to take us into the city and even that journey was slow and hazardous as the driver constantly dodged potholes, reversing round debris and trundled along in second gear. Then due to the aftermath of the blitz the bus could go no further than Hearsal Common, from there we had to walk to Binley.
The German bombers had done their business.
I could now see the true devastation of the city. A wasteland – ‘or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; I will show you fear in a handful of dust’, how true. I could taste the acrid smell of expired cordite. I could see the myriad of smoke and flames. I could sense the despair of a destroyed city. I struggled to find words to describe scenes, Dickens’ Coketown and the lines from Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ of ‘Dark Satanic Mills’ came to mind as we walked through streets strewn with rubble, an people trying to salvage belongings and valuables from bombed out homes. Some sobbing, others numb, or frozen still with uncomprehending eyes. Many found a spirit, that indomitable spirit of hope, getting on with a bad job, “well, they won’t be back, nothing is left to bomb!”, one jolly fellow called to his neighbour as he dragged out a half burnt chair for his pregnant wife to relax in, “there you are, put your feet up, dearie” as though he was having a picnic, “I’ll get a cuppa for you, old George is brewing up down the street, won’t be long”.As though it mattered, I mused with a wry smile. I then understood that most valuable commodity of the human nature; to face adversity with hope. It sort of lifted me and galvanised my pace. I took the lead urging them to walk faster.
On we trudged. Fire fighters, air raid wardens and the police too busy to help us; it was a lonely trek to Binley, to auntie Edie’s, again. The city was silent on this bleak day; Coventrians in their hundreds moved in non-speaking ways across charred blackened unfamiliar territory.
The landscape had become a backdrop of deserted homes where black broken windows looked for hope, for someone to take care of them, but there was no one. One road merged into the next; buildings had lost their identities. I looked for a familiar landmark across the scarred horizon. Through the smoke I could make out the clock tower of the market hall, and as I closed in on the city centre, the iron skeleton of the hall was all that remained. All around was destroyed. This wouls be my north star – head for the clock tower and out east into Binley. The rising sun to guide me.
We passed a small ambulance and a head leaned out of the window grinning with surprised recognition. A beaming smile called, “Marion!” Mum turned to see Ted Crosby, a colleague of dad’s in the Saint John Ambulance Brigade, driving his ‘blood wagon’. “good to see you back. Heard you all went for a holiday. Are the boys all right now?” “Hello, Mr. Crosby”, we three sang in unison. “Hop in the back – no one’s in!” he laughed, “I can take you as far as the Forum”. Brilliant, I thought, no need to test my rudimentary navigation skills. From the Forum the streets became easier to recognise. “Thanks, Ted”, mum waved goodbye as Mr. Crosby drove back into town, whistling.
We arrived, dirty, hungry and worried. But to greet us was aunt Edie. Such a relief, and the anxiety turned to laughter as from behind I could see another dozen faces; cousins, aunts and uncles and friends, all bombed out. Aunt Edie was the only one left with a home, so we had a party!
After I had scrubbed clean and found some decent clothing – trousers too short and shirt too big, but who cared? I was safe, and with all my relations. What food we had was gathered, a few bottles or pop and ale were found. A veritable feast for us all was enjoyed, bread and dripping sandwiches tasted like caviar on canapés, and that warm beer was iced champagne, all straight from French France. Then mum lifted the lid of the old upright Joanna in the corner and we all sang along to ‘Roll Out The Barrel’ and belted out with gusto ‘Jerusalem’, and rounded off the evening with a reminder of our roots, ‘Glasgow Belongs To Me’. Sleep soon took over my tired body.
Eventually a new house was found for us on Ansty Road, Wyken. Furniture was acquired, bedding and new clothing, and we all settled down to another life, without dad. Back to the track and Rootes provided us with a comfortable income, but my mind was somewhere else.
It was at this time, a few months after the blitz that I began to think about joining the Royal Navy. I had spent a lot of time thinking about my family, my father’s death, and the loss of our home an all that we possessed, and of course, mum, although she did not want to see ‘us boys’ go to war. Emotions had settled somewhat now and it was not an act of revenge nor to get my own back, it was more a calculated decision that it was time to do my bit for the war effort – as ordinarily mundane as that. Not of adventure, not excitement, nor even of patriotism I think, but of a feeling of needing to do something. Ken, Jim and I strolled in from work late one evening and set pensively at the dinner table.
Mum knew, she always did, when ‘us boys’ had something on our minds. She sat, “go on then, tell me”. IU was the first to speak, “I, we, have decided to join the navy”. She was expecting this and asked why, so I explained the reasons for enlisting. She neither agreed nor rejected, just nodded, and ate her dinner. Silence was the only sound until late evening after we had all finished scurrying around doing our chores and bathing and changing. Mum sat next to me and with those piercing blue eyes looking into my very soul, asked if that is what I really wanted. “Yes”, I replied with as much conviction as I could manage and with total sincerity under that gaze. She merely nodded sagaciously and carried on knitting. I agreed to wait for a couple of months while the government was conscripting certain age groups but I was too young, so in March 1942 I entered the Royal Navy recruiting office in the city centre, completed a couple of forms, had a medical, was accepted, and said goodbye to mum on the 1st of April.
That was the hardest thing I had ever done.
The train took me to Portsmouth.
I was nineteen.
In Never Surrender Robert Kershaw captures the authentic voices of the ordinary heroes of the Second World War, from the soldiers fighting abroad to those battling on the home front, and creates an extraordinary portrait of a generation fighting for survival.
Featuring new interviews with veterans and civilians from Britain, the Commonwealth and Germany as well as diaries, letters, and first-hand accounts, this is a testimony to the remarkable men and women who lived through the Second World War – whose refusal to surrender changed them forever.