The Second World War through primary sources.
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The following is a personal account of the events surrounding the last V bomb to land on London during the Second World War. It was kindly submitted to this site by Dr. Ben Glaizner.
Flats such as Hughes Mansions provided very much better quality accommodation
than was available from commercial sources. Our population was of mixed ethnicity,
mainly Christians and Jews. We lived happily together as friendly neighbours.
Children enjoyed growing up together and went to schools, nearby, and also to
the nearby youth clubs.
Many friends were among the dead after the bomb fell.
I was aged 15 at the time and was apprenticed to my father, who was a barber.
He had admirable skills and an eye for excellent tonsorial design.
It was quite cold at night in March 1945. Most homes (anywhere) did not have central heating, at that time.
The last words that my father spoke to me were said when he woke me up on the morning of 27th March. He said "Get up son, we're late for work". He proved his point by showing me his watch; it showed 7:20. He then left the bedroom to go and wash. In those days council flats were not provided with washbasins, only a sink in the kitchen to use for this purpose also; it was situated by a panelled kitchen window.
After he went out I raised myself off my pillow on my right arm. I stared at the bedroom light and contemplated the ghastly fate that awaited me. First I would have to get out of my nice warm bed, then I would have to put on my ice cold clothing and I would start to shiver. Awful!
As I continued to stare at the bedroom light it suddenly went out and simultaneously there was flash of blue light. Then nothing.
When I woke up and I saw that I was in complete darkness. Then I began to realise that I was completely covered in rubble. I was trapped. I couldn't move. I became terrified and began to scream. When you have a strong urge to scream loudly you must first take a deep breath, just as you do when you want to shout loudly. As I tried to breathe in I experienced sharp pains in my chest because the rough surfaces of the rubble began to stick into me, like so many pins. But I couldn't control myself and I screamed repeatedly. Eventually the pain became unbearable and I was forced to stop.
Eventually I began to calm down, I have no idea of how long this took to happen.
I tried moving my head, I couldn't. I tried moving each of my limbs, I couldn't
move them. I lay still for a while and then I became angry. I was going to move
something, because I wanted to; because I had to!
I wriggled first one arm and then the other and then my legs. It hurt but eventually I compressed the rubble and made spaces, so that limited movement was now possible. I then had a go at moving my head and that worked less well, but it helped a little. My head remained bent forward.
After a time I began to hear voices. Up till that moment I had heard nothing. No sound of the explosion or the building crumbling, or people screaming.
"Ben, are you alright?" My older brother and our other brother's future wife had arrived on the scene. Of course I wasn't "alright", but they loved me and wanted to comfort me. I replied by shouting "yes". I couldn't think of anything else to say. They then told me that the Rescue Squads were on the way and that they would tell them about me and my brother, also buried with me. He was at that time still unconscious and still has limited memory of these events.
We were very fortunate in that the Government had organised "Air Raid Precautions". For example, two kinds of rescue squads were in being. A "Light Rescue Squad" and a "Heavy Rescue Squad". The former dealt with people who could be easily taken from the debris, if lightly covered, like my mother, and my father. Those rescued by either group were taken to hospital to be discharged only if fit. Those released from hospitals were then accommodated in "Rest Centres". Our local Rest Centre was my old school which had had two class rooms converted into dormitories. They were equipped with 3 tier bed bunks. One room for females, the other for males. Food was brought in for people. Many had lost their entire possessions, including clothes. Second hand clothing, contributed by volunteers, was provided. We were eventually able to join our neighbours in the Centre. My mother, two brothers and were myself were later accommodated in a house not far away.
My mother and I would go shopping near to Hughes Mansions. She of course knew the shops and costermongers who sold food. On our way back we often visited the bomb-site that had formerly contained our home. The area to one side of the remaining block was now a flat area covered in broken bricks and other rubble. The bomb crater had been filled in. For some weeks we would both stand there and weep. Notwithstanding this miserable experience we returned from time to time. The weeping episodes gradually decreased as we came to terms with our experience.
The deep depression that affected me remained for about two years. Unlike today there was no useful medical help to be had. "Pull yourself together" was the standard advice given, as if I had somehow been dismantled! On the first occasion I replied with a two word response, the second word was the word "off". Us Cockneys knew a thing or two! It remains to the credit of our family GP that he tolerated my rudeness.
It was not only the experience of being completely buried for more than 4 hours that affected me badly. My dad had been standing behind the panelled kitchen window, washing himself at the sink. The explosion created a blast that smashed the panels of glass to smithereens. When this happened many hundreds of small glass fragments were driven with force, like bullets.
I was taken to hospital after I had been safely removed from the debris. In
the Accident and Emergency Department the nurse began my treatment by taking
a pair of scissors and to cut off my pyjamas. This was the best approach because
pulling them off would have caused me more pain as the cloth would have rubbed
against my damaged skin. My filthy body was then washed carefully and I was
then left to dry out.
Later I was taken to a ward and the kindly nurse there gave me reassurances about my mother and brothers. Then she said "Your dad is very ill. I'll take you to see him tomorrow." Wednesday morning came and the nurse brought in a wheel-chair and after I had got on it she took me to my dad's room where he was in the only bed. Very ill patients needed to be undisturbed.
He was unconscious. He was also restless, as if he was having a nightmare.
(He had a brain injury.) I tried speaking to him but he did not respond. As
I sat looking at him I noticed that his face and the upper part of his body
had been hit very many times by flying glass. Some of the cuts were small and
had been simply treated with an iodine solution. Others were worse and required
2 or 3 stitches in addition.
I sat and stared and analysed the extent of my father's injuries. Then, suddenly, I noticed that his closed eyelids were not spheroidal but flat. They had had to remove both of his eyes. It had become very difficult to accept the facts related to his injuries.
After a while my mother was brought in to the room. She saw me first and put her arms around me, hugged me and kissed me repeatedly, she was overjoyed to see me. Then she turned to look at my dad. She was devastated by what she saw. This time there were no tears of joy, she was heartbroken. We sat holding hands and then began to talk. Would he live? If so how would he deal with his blindness? After all he was proud of being a good craftsman.
My father died on the morning of Saturday 31st March 1945, without regaining consciousness. I had had no chance to talk to him and that mattered a lot to me at the time, he had also been my teacher at work. After about a week I was discharged and joined the rest of the family in the Rest Centre. The we were moved to a terraced house to live in. After a time the remaining Hughes Mansions block was repaired. Former residents were given the option to return to their former flats. Many accepted but some didn't. These empty flats were then offered to others whose flats had been destroyed by the bomb. We talked extensively as a family about moving back. Eventually we agreed that we would eventually get used to seeing the bomb-site, day after day, and would in fact adapt to our changed environment and hopefully we would reduce our feelings of grief. We had to get used to our bereavement and our experience and that’s what happened. When the replacement block was built a few years later we moved across and lived in the much better accommodation. It not only had a bath, it had a washbasin. It also had a supply of hot water and it had central heating. Getting up in the morning was not something to be scared about. My mum was right, we were better off in the new flat.
One of the initial effects of my depression was to think murderous thoughts.
Had I been equipped with a machine gun and all the ammunition I had wanted I
could have cheerfully killed millions of the enemy. Everything had been so very
unfair. Later as I recovered I begin to think about what our bombers had done
to them. In Berlin, for example, there would have been children who had a similar
fate to myself. They too had been treated to a very unfair experience. What
had we done to deserve this treatment?
My xenophobia eventually subsided and for me this change marked recovery from my feelings of depression.
"Two wrongs don't make a right".
True! But who were the adults who were responsible for this terrible time in the lives of very many people? I don't think that the answer is simple.
Dr. Ben Glaizner, August 2004.