Thursday, August 19, 2010

How to Live Through A Bombing

I have never lived through a bombing in Canada like the one on 9/11 in New York. But I do know someone who lived through the World War 2 bombing in England, and she does not seem to be anywhere near as crazy as some right wing extremists in the USA. This person is my mother, and until recently I had not taken much interest in her experiences in WW2. So I asked her to fill me in on what happened the day they were bombed out of their house, and I thought I would put this in my blog, because it's kind interesting.

My mother, Joyce, was the second youngest of 7 children, and 15 years old at the time their house was hit by a bomb. Her family lived on Humberstone Road in Leicester, a city in the middle of England. The bomb did not make a direct hit, and they were in the basement, so nobody in the family was killed. But many other people were killed by the bombs that night and the next.

The main Leicester blitz was two nights, the 19 and 20th of November, 1940. This was a major offensive against this particular city. The rest of the war, bombing of Leicester was more scattered.

The night of November 19, the family was sitting around the table having supper, and her brother Ray had just returned from a day of work at a munitions factory. He was a bit late and started supper just as the rest were finishing up. Her older sister Kitty, who lived a few streets away, arrived, asking why they were not in the basement, as there was real air raid going on. They were not paying much attention as there had been a lot of false alarms so far during the war. Everybody quickly moved downstairs to the basement, and not long after, a series of three bombs struck the neighbourhood in a straight line pattern, one after the other. One of these bombs destroyed a factory behind their house, and sent brick rubble crashing into the room where they had been sitting just before they ran to the basement.

The next day, they discovered that the house was shaken badly enough to put all the windows and doors out of alignment, and to knock off the roof over the back bedrooms upstairs. The family would have to move, at least until the house could be repaired. The family had a guest staying with them. She was a friend named Mrs. Rodwell from Frisby on the Wreake. The morning after the house was bombed, Joyce was delegated to take Mrs. Rodwell to her son who lived just outside  Leicester. It should have been a 30 minute walk and bus ride, but they kept coming across streets that were closed due to unexploded bombs, so they ended up taking over two hours. Mrs. Rodwell was elderly and it was about all she could do to get there.
No one was home when Joyce returned four hours later, and she then had to start off to find her older brother Jack's house amid all the rubble and people running around. This also took a few hours because of more closed streets.

Although several factories were largely destroyed, the biggest damage caused by an explosion (as opposed to fire), was a parachuted land mine that hit the building of Messrs. Steels and Busks Ltd. On St. Saviour's Road, the next night (the 20th). The factory made ladies corsets, which seems to not be mentioned in any of the historical records I saw. However I guess if you know the word busk means a part of a corset, then it's obvious.

In the days that followed, everyone found a temporary place to stay. Joyce, who was working at the time, was offered a room to share by a co-worker. The various other sisters and brothers moved off to live with relatives, while Veronica, the youngest, stayed with her parents. My grandparents owned a cottage with a garden plot just at the edge of the city where they grew vegetables. They would use the cottage as a make-do shelter until they could find a better house. It had a sink, an outhouse, and a wood stove.

Everyone went back to work, but Kitty didn't like what she saw. Near her office was the burned skeleton of a night watchman still at his post. I personally find some of these stories kind of shocking, possibly stretching belief at times, but hey, it was a war and people really did die. Stranger things have happened.

It took a few months for my grandparents to find another place to live, during which time their damaged house was looted of rugs and curtains, and the water pipes burst.

By January, the family finally was able to find a new home in the village of Kilby, it was the 300 year old pub called the "Dog and Gun". My Grandfather and Grandmother took jobs as innkeepers, so that they could live there. The day they moved in, Joyce showed up at the pub, looking forward to seeing all her family again, but met her mother in the middle of unpacking, who impatiently asked her if she couldn't have stayed a few more days in the city while she got the house/pub ready to live in. My mother said she was somewhat put off by the welcome, but it was understandable. The first night at the Dog and Gun, it snowed, and water leaked on to the bed she was sharing with Veronica. Her sisters Veronica and Olive hated living at the Dog and Gun, but Joyce did not mind, although it was a seven mile bicycle ride to Leicester, and uphill all the way back. Her father did not have enough petrol ration coupons to drive to the city, so he sold the family car and bought a pony and trap in order to bring supplies to the pub.

It took two years to finally get their old house repaired and moved back to Humberstone Road in Leicester, but the repairs were not good enough and finally the house was pulled down entirely.

Near the end of the war, my mother married a French Canadian soldier, and moved to Canada. Her father died a few years later. She is now the only living member of her family, and is 85 years old.

According to this website, surprisingly, the corset makers Steels and Busks are still in business in Leicester. The last time I was in Leicester, in 1989, I visited the "Ladies Underwear Museum", which I suppose I don't need to add was very interesting.

Picture 1: Back in 1939 when this picture was taken, both my uncles rode Rudge Ulster motorcycles, made in Coventry. The motorcycle on the right has my uncle Ray and my mother at 14 years old. This was just before the war started, and a year before they were bombed out. Alf, on the other motorcycle died of a brain tumor less than a year later, before the bombing. The picture is taken behind their house on Humberstone Road.

Picture 2: Taken from a book "Leicester Blitz Souvenir", shows Humberstone Road on Nov. 20th with the family's house outlined in a red pen. Click on the picture to zoom in.

Some first hand accounts of the Leicester Blitz: (Steels and Busks Engineering Factory?)


  1. Actually, I also have a comment on this.

    Ironically, during the bombing of Britain, the USA was still helping to finance the Nazi regime, and providing fuel and equipment to Germany, although all that stopped on December 7, 1941.

    England declared war on Germany two years before Pearl Harbour. It took a lot of guts for an unprepared country like Britain to pick a fight in 1939. But if Britain had not attacked when it did, or had not been able to hold on for two years, Hitler could have accomplished his goal of annexing the USSR to Germany to become the world's sole superpower.

    The world would have looked very different today.

  2. A fascinating vignette of life in England during WWII - thank you for sharing this.

    Although you only obliquely refer to the 9/11 attacks, I believe this is a point that deserves more emphasis. Not only did the U.S. enter WWII more than two years after Britain (and Canada) but the continental States (and Canada) were never subjected to enemy bombing.

    In perspective, as well, American casualties in WWII were insignificant compared to those of its Allies - less than 0.32% of its population, compared to almost a full percent for the UK and a massive 14% for the Soviet Union. (Even in little Estonia, where my family hails from, the casualty rate was almost 5%.)

    So, although this sort of destruction, death and disruption remains part of the cultural background of most Europeans, Americans are generally only vaguely aware of it as distant background noise. And I suspect that this is a major contributing factor to the massive overreaction we have seen to the 9/11 attacks.

    I think it is extremely difficult for most Americans to empathize with the victims of the consequences of their aggression. In contrast to Europeans, for whom this kind of death and destruction is all too recent.

  3. A couple of comments on your comments on your own blog entry ...

    First, you write, with respect to American cooperation with the Nazi regime, 'that stopped on December 7, 1941.' I beg to differ. In fact, the evidence indicates that American business interests carried on in Germany well into WWII. Well documented culprits include IBM, Ford, GM and Chase-Manhattan.

    Next, you speculate that, without British resistance, 'Hitler could have accomplished his goal of annexing the USSR to Germany'.

    I believe that would have been highly unlikely. This is a massive subject in its own right, but here's a quick summary ...

    Stalin took a stance of trying to placate and appease the Nazis during 1939 through early 1941, deliberately minimizing Soviet preparations for war, hoping that Hitler would honour his non-aggression agreement. That stance (no doubt combined with the effect of Stalin's military purges of the late 1930s) allowed Operation Barbarossa significant early successes in June through October 1941.

    However, once Soviet military industry was ramped up (coupled with American Lend Lease), the Red Army reorganized and the Soviet position consolidated, the German invasion quickly faltered. And Stalingrad (July 1942 - February 1943) is generally accepted as the turning point of WWII in Europe.

    Although Britain certainly played its part (the Allied bombing campaign, the Battle of the Atlantic, the North African Campaign, &c., &c.) this was of limited help to the Soviets; Stalin continued to plead for the Allies to open the 'second front', something which was not achieved until 1944, with progress in the Italian Campaign and with Operation Overlord.

    But the most significant factor, in my humble opinion, is that Germany's war efforts depended on limited and rapidly depleting resources, both materiel and manpower, whereas Soviet resources were, to all intents and purposes, unlimited. In any war of attrition (as in WWI) Germany was bound to fail.

  4. You are right, a massive subject, the war between Nazis and USSR without Britain and France jumping in.

    If Germany had been more successful, they could have captured the USSR's resources.

    A couple of other things to consider. Might the Nazis have developed the atomic bomb? They were working on it, and the British made some moves to try and slow them down.

    What if Japan had attacked the USSR instead of the USA? The attack on the USA had much to do with the British persuading Roosevelt to provoke Japan.

    It's hard to say how the war might have turned out if the British had stood on the sidelines. Obviously, they were very concerned that Germany would win and annex the USSR, thereby giving Germany unlimited resources. That's the main reason I think they declared war in 1939 instead of waiting for Hitler to attack the USSR.

  5. Golly ... there's enough in your comment to base several postgraduate papers on ... LOL! ;-)

    First, with respect to the German nuclear bomb: Hitler's primary strategy was to rapidly overwhelm his opponents ('Blitzkrieg'), and this strategy succeeded in Poland, Norway and France. Germany's choice of weapons was geared towards these 'lightning' campaigns. For example, at the outset of the war, they were completely lacking in strategic bombing (long-range, heavy) aircraft.

    Throughout the war, German weapons development priority was given to projects with short-term payback. Once the magnitude of the nuclear bomb project was realized (in 1942) most of the research resources were reallocated to weapons with a shorter development period. British 'moves to try and slow them down' most likely had less effect than Hitler's own policies.

    Next: 'If Japan had attacked the USSR instead of the USA.' It's worth bearing in mind that that there had been almost continuous conflict in Asia throughout the 1930s, especially in Manchuria. In fact, a primary reason the Imperial Japanese Navy was able to prevail over the Army, instituting the Co-prosperity Sphere strategy, was because the Army had bogged down in China.

    Once committed to its Co-prosperity Sphere strategy, Japan was forced to deal with the only other naval power in the Pacific, the U.S.A. And their ('faint hope') tactic had to be an attempt to destroy the American Navy at anchor in Hawaii. That attack finally overcame American 'isolationism' and brought the U.S. into the war. What is interesting is that Roosevelt agreed, with Churchill, to giving first priority to the European Theatre.

    Finally, what 'if the British had stood on the sidelines'? I've always found it less of a question of 'Why did Britain declare war on Germany?' than 'Why did Britain agree to a Polish defense pact?' (1939). After the successive political embarrassments of the Rhineland, the Anschluss, the Sudetenland, and the Czech 'rump', there was considerable political pressure in Britain to resist further aggression by Hitler.

    By September 1939, opposition to Chamberlain's 'appeasement' policies had grown to the point where Chamberlain effectively had no political option, especially in the light of the Polish defense pact, but to issue the September 3 ultimatum. Hitler, though, did for some time continue to entertain the hope of effecting a separate peace with Britain.