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Coventry was subjected to the most severe of German bombings on 14th of November 1941, but before this night the city was under attack from the Luftwaffe almost on a nightly basis because of the heavy industry and ammunition factories within and about the city, and it was during one of these air raids that my dad was killed.
First, we heard the approaching aircraft, a low drone that gradually became louder. This was broken by the air raid sirens – Coventry was once again under attack, so we abandoned our homes and made our way to the air raid shelter; mum, Ken and me, Jim was out at the local youth club with his latest girl friend, Rita, and sheltered nearby. Dad was on duty as an ‘Air Raid Prevention’ (ARP) warden and with the St. John Ambulance Brigade. The bombs whizzed and exploded above us with a tremendous boom, the vibrations caused mortar dust to fall on our heads. Ken and I nervously giggled at mum who looked like a Scottish banshee – white faced with those piercing blue eyes frowning at us, others laughing out loud. It was how we coped. Later we all emerged as the ‘all clear’ was sounded. Rubble and destruction surrounded us, smoke and flames rising from the ruins of shattered homes, but our house was still standing. Dad met us and we walked back to our house on the Walsgrave Road, almost opposite Gosford Park.The evening was unseasonably cold for October and in our rush to leave we were only dressed in trousers and shirts.
I shivered. Dad decided to get some warm clothing for us and began to approach the house when I shouted “There’s a hole in the roof”. Mum immediately realised that a delayed action bomb had hit the house.
“Don’t go in, Gavin”, mum advised dad, knowing it could explode any minute. But dad was adamant and Ken and I were determined to see what it was like inside. Against mum’s better judgement us intrepid explorers entered our home to find some coats. It took only a few minutes to find some warm clothing. Dad stopped and looked down a hole the bomb had made, we were several yards behind him.
He turned to speak.
That was the last image I had of my dad; pointing to us with his mouth open and eyes wide, the rest was a blur as the bomb exploded.
Bricks, tiles, beams and upstairs furniture descended upon our heads pulling the air from our lungs and filling the empty spaces with dust. Dark night became a black pit from Hades, closing down all my senses; eyes blind, ears deafened, taste acrid, mind numb.
Coughing, I lay there. “I’m alive!”, I felt Ken next to me, breathing but not moving, my arms were trapped so I nudged him with my foot, “Ken, speak to me. Are you okay?” He did not immediately answer but I could hear his breath, “dad’s dead”, I said flatly, feeling numb and emotionless. I didn't know what to feel; relief for my saved life? Sadness for dad? And mum, was she alive, outside, waiting for us to emerge from the carnage?
As Ken and I dropped to the floor a huge roof beam had fallen across us, wedged between the stairs and the wall we were protected from falling masonry and debris. That bomb had dad’s name on it all right, but not Ken’s nor mine, although we did not escape unscathed. Ken suffered severe shock and a head wound and I was concussed from a head wound also. The rescue services took all night to dig us out and finally got us to hospital in the early hours of the day.
Under the rubble Ken gradually began to move and I began to talk, although I suspect he did not understand me, I wanted to keep him awake fearing that if he fell asleep he would die – I learned that from the Saturday morning movies at the Gaumont – Hopalong Cassidy or Flash Gordon would keep a wounded friend alive by talking to him, so it must be true. Anyway, i talked, about anything I could think of; of the war, of football, of girls, especially Peggy Parker, who I was later engaged to – she was fun to be with; of the movies we had seen and the heroes I wanted to be like and of the horror flicks that scared us so much we ran all the way home! Until my mouth dried up, and all the time I could hear the rescuers shouting and scraping and moving masonry. I called several times but the dust in my mouth caught my breath and merely a dry cough left my mouth.
So, we lay there, exhausted, in silence, listening. Then a hand suddenly appeared just above my head with a chink of torch light behind it. I gagged, unable to speak, but I had to let the hand know I was just below. I craned my neck and raised my head so that my teeth were in range of that waving hand, and I caught the little finger and bit down hard. “Hey! What the hell!” came the anguished yelp, then the call as the hand withdrew and a silhouette of a head appeared just above me, “Gavin? Sam? Ken?” I managed to squeeze out a “Sam” and immediately the head withdrew from on top of us and hands reached down to pull me to safety. “Where’s your dad and Ken?” the rescuer asked, “Ken’s just next to me”, I croaked through dust caked lips and a mouth as dry as a desert. Then Ken emerged carried in the arms of a burly air raid warden. As he passed Ken smiled and his arm reached out to me and I to him and our fingers touched as he was taken to the ambulance.
Mum rushed over to see her boys and tears of relief flowed down her cheeks, but I knew her eyes were masking the dreadful grief of my dead dad.
Ken and I were first taken to Gulson Road hospital, but it was full with the wounded, and so was Coventry and Warwick hospital. We were finally found a couple of beds in a hospital in Leamington Spa and there we remained for about a week, mostly lost in our own thoughts, but constantly in sight of each other, reassuringly smiling across the ward. But my mind constantly wandered and my head was filled with visions I wanted desperately to forget.
After two days of hospital treatment, Ken was sufficiently conscious and I reasonably well for mum to visit us to confirm that dad had indeed been killed. He was only in his early forties. She was so matter of fact about it, almost with an air of ‘told you so’, but she was too gracious to be cynical and accepted the grief as a part of the war, but I could see the hurt behind her eyes that had lost that glow of Celtic humour leaving an emotional hiatus that would bever be filled. Her focus was on ‘us boys’.
Mum left to arrange the funeral for dad that took place while I was in hospital, so I could not even say goodbye to him; to the man who was my mum’s husband but I never really got to know him as my dad. I brooded over this for days; over the loss of my father, over the things I wanted to know about him, the things I wanted to tell him, and to have that kind of relationship dads an sons have – I now missed him dreadfully but it was too late, and it hurt so much. My insides crunched up and I was filled with a deep regret and loss. I silently sobbed myself to sleep, lost in my loss.
Times were tough enough in the Currie household and money was not plentiful, although we never wanted for essentials. I knew dad worked all the hours for the money to raise ‘us boys’, and as ‘immigrants’ from Scotland we had to make our own way in Coventry along with the other thousands who came south to seek work. Dad was a miner, but more importantly, he was skilled in first aid, so he was made the ‘pit medic’ in the local mine, Binley, then at Rootes car factory in Stoke working a permanent night shift, so I rarely had any quality time with him. As I left for school, then latterly when I was at work he was on his way home bound for bed each morning. When I returned home dad was on his bike off to work. We were like passing ships in the night. At the weekends he usually worked overtime and I was enjoying myself; playing soccer, or just doing teenage things – and girls, Peggy, of course. My mind was occupied with so many things and my hours filled with stuff, talking to my dad did not occur to me – until now. Then when the city became a target for German bombers he was a vital link on the local ARP of the city and as a St. John Ambulance Brigade volunteer, thus he was often on duty.
And mum. I tried to imagine the vision outside the house as mum looked on when the house blew up with her husband and twin sons inside. I tried to emote the feelings that must have rushed like an express train through her head as the house exploded – husband and sons unseen within. The horror must have been heart stopping. My mind could not grasp this as words were not sufficient, I tried in vain to find an emotion to express my grief – it transpired anything I had ever felt. Nothing mattered any more, I just wanted to hold my mum. I knew she would help me release this grinding, pent up grief.
Bletchley Park was where one of the war's most famous and crucial achievements was made: the cracking of Germany's Enigma code in which its most important military communications were couched. This country house in the Buckinghamshire countryside was home to Britain's most brilliant mathematical brains, like Alan Turing, and the scene of Immense advances in technology indeed, the birth of modern computing.
The military codes deciphered there were instrumental in turning both the Battle of the Atlantic and the war in North Africa. But, though plenty has been written about the boffins, and the codebreaking, fictional and non-fiction from Robert Harris and Ian McEwan to Andrew Hodges' biography of Turing what of the thousands of men and women who lived and worked there during the war?