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Exeter folk and friends in their own words - 1890's to the 1990's │ << Previous story │ Next story >>  │

Also see St Sidwell's and Sidwell Street

Mrs. M. Balkwill - The War in St Sidwell's and Newtown


Let's go back to May 1st 1942; about that time there was a bomb dropped in Cowick Street and one in Okehampton Street. Everybody was going out of the city into church halls but my husband's mother was sleeping in the fields under a hedge. This worried me so I wrote to my husband: "I'm a bit concerned about your mother: she's sleeping in the fields: she shouldn't do this but she wouldn't listen to me." Anyway he was given 24 hours compassionate leave; it was known as passion leave in the army.

An earlier raid

We'd had a raid in Paris Street the beginning of the week and he arrived at half past nine in the evening, had a meal and before he could get to bed, the sirens went. We had to get the kids up: there was my baby, my sister's baby, my mother and my father. So we get them into the table shelter which was a big steel affair like a rabbit hutch with wiring on the side. Inside we had a mattress, a blanket and some pillows, hoping the kids would sleep. Mine never did: she always used to sit up and say, "Wheee, bang." My mother used to say, "Stop her, May, do stop her. You can't hear what's going on." And when she said you can't hear what's going on you must imagine all hell breaking loose outside the house: bang, crash, wallop - and the bullets hitting the kitchen. My husband said "I've got to go out." Neither of us could get under the shelter: I suffered with claustrophobia and would never get under.

When he got outside the front door, he came back, called me out and said, "We've got to get out: we're the last in the street. If we don't get out now, you know, we're going to be burnt." By this time the planes were still overhead. So we go back and say we've got to get out. He took the two babies and my sister and sent back a little air raid warden: he was only a little short man and he picked my mother up and put her over his shoulder and she kept shouting and screaming, "Put me down, put me down, I haven't got my teeth in." I dunno who she thought was going to look at her with no teeth in 'cos by this time it was what, 12 o'clock, one o'clock in the morning, possibly.

Anyway I was left to take my father down to the shelter. We got my mother's teeth and sent her off on the back of this little air raid warden. My father and I set out to try to go to the shelter; my father had arthritis and walked with two sticks, Outside the front door the incendiary bombs were still burning in the gutter; it was a pure white flame, possibly two foot long and we had to step over these things. It looked as if every house in the street was on fire except ours and next door. As we went down the street the bedroom floors were falling in and crashing everywhere, Right opposite was poor old Mrs Hitchcock's house; through the window - course there was no glass, all blown out - there was her poor old piano: her pride and joy, I'd taken her to the shelter about seven o'clock the night before with all her worldly goods in the push chair. We always used to laugh and say, "Let's take the crown jewels to the shelter," A lot of 'em wouldn't sleep in the street; they were nervous. We used to stay in - if you're going to get bombed you might as well get bombed.

Going down the street with my father there was nobody else in sight. The planes went away, I think, unless I didn't take any notice of them. At the bottom of the road, opposite Kivell's Haulage Yard a telegraph pole snapped in half where it'd been, burning. My father got tangled up in the red hot wires; I had to untangle him. We had to make a little detour round the telegraph pole which almost took us into the burning building the other side. We, eventually reached the swimming baths and went in under the Denmark Road entrance to the shelter.

The roof of the building opposite the swimming baths was on fire; the building contained all the big rolls of newsprint for the Express and Echo. Once we got in the shelter, that building went up in flames and we couldn't get out. The shelter was packed solid; my sister was dumped up the end of the shelter with two kids in the blankets we'd wrapped them in and we'd sent my husband back to salvage some clothes for them. We didn't see him again till the next morning 'cos he couldn't come back because of the fire of the newsprint. When he did come back he brought a pram load of baby clothes they'd all grown out of; Wasn't much help really.

Eventually I got out of the shelter, possibly about nine o'clock next morning and the Salvation Army were there with cups of tea in big white china mugs and their corn beef sandwiches, about three inches thick - went down lovely. I was worried about mother 'cos I didn't know where she was. Eventually I found her in a shelter in the Triangle with neighbours. And all the neighbours kept saying to me, "May, is my house alright?" "May, is my place OK. ?" And what could I say? You can't say, "No, yours is gone, yours is gone, yours is gone, but ours is alright." How the hell could you? You just said, "Well, you know, we can't really tell 'cos of all the smoke and fire."

A fireman saved

I went back to Russell Street where I found my husband had been to the fire brigade who were playing their hoses on some rubble at the bottom of the street, on what was the old dairy and butcher's. He'd fought them for a hose pipe, brought it up and he was up a ladder two doors away pouring water on this house, what was left of it; there was only the ground floor left. Better tell you about the fireman, I suppose: the fireman was called Schofield; he lived in Longbrook Street and he fell off the top of the ladder and as he was disappearing in the flames my husband caught him by his fireman's belt and pulled him out. Never got the VC for it but years later I did meet Mr Schofield's wife and she told me about a young soldier who'd pulled her husband out of the flames.

We had a relation who got leave from the Navy in Plymouth to come up and see if we were still alive and he and I went next door, there was only the ground floor left. We walked up over all the smouldering ruins of the staircase with a bucket of water and some floor cloths. I said, "What the hell are we doing here?" He said, "Well you've got to damp it down, else it'll creep back through and your place'll be going up in smoke." So we spent an hour or two putting out the smouldering ruins. My mother in the meantime, my father and the two babies were taken to my other sister in Heavitree. And we spent the day damping down, trying to clear up. I went up in the attic and thought, "What the hell can I save - it's so hot up here." I picked up two tins of paint and put them out in the yard. Dunno how it helped, but........ We cleaned the brass step to keep mother happy. Now where did we sleep that (night)? Oh, Ken and I slept in the house; we could have gone out but we thought we better stay. The sirens went, but no raid.

But after that we couldn't go back. Ours was the only house in Russell Street with water, because my father was on the water board, but we had no lights, no heating - well, we could have lit a fire; But we had no gas, no electricity, no water that you could drink. They moved most of our people into private homes, billeted, until such time as they had a council place for them. But we went off to Rugby. We had to walk all the way down Hele's School and get a free ticket: tickets were like confetti - nobody paid for anything. And we went off to Rugby at the end of my husband's 24 hour compassionate leave. We never had any passion out of that 24 hours. Actually he was the only one in our family that was injured and he fell in a trench. The doodle bugs were coming over and they had to jump in a trench when the engines cut out. He went to go in a trench and he tripped over a tent rope and broke his ribs. He was our only war wounded.

When the church tower fell in, it was so funny. They said, "We will toll the church bells if the parachutists arrive". And when the bells went, I thought, "Oh, well, they'm here; let 'em come." Nothing could be worse, At that time I see any sense of danger really, I think the younger ones thought, "Well if it's coming it'll come.'' Live for the day - so many of our friends had been killed. One of the women, Mrs Selly of Newtown, she was coming down to the shelter and she got shot up and this is the sort of thing you accepted like you do with Northern Ireland now. When you hear something in Northern Ireland it's just one of those things, you know.

I remember an earlier raid too when my husband was home: I was cleaning mother's brass doorstep and there was a warning about 10 o'clock. The sirens went and I picked up Carol and put her in the table shelter and got my father out of bed. There was a blacksmith's at the top of our road and he was shoeing a horse and the horse went galloping down our street. And my brave, intrepid soldier husband, instead of going to rescue his mother-in-law who'd gone shopping, went chasing down the road after the ruddy horse. And I looked up and this plane was over Sampson's Pit, where the sport's field is, and I saw him drop a bomb over there, And I thought, "Oh, it's a raid" He turned on the Triangle and he came right up the back of our house with all his machine guns shooting right and left. Then into Belgrave Road which is on an angle to Russell Street.

In the attic of one of the houses there (was) one woman (who) had an eiderdown drying and he shot right through this and the place was full of feathers. I left my father with Carol and went up Hammett's Dairy to see where me Mum was. As I was going up through Cheeke Street I turned round and I saw this pilot bailing out down over the estuary; I hoped he dropped in the sea, When I got to Hammett's Dairy, I said, "Where's me mother?" A trap door opened up from the floor and my mother's little head came up, "Ooh," she said, "Ooh, my god, May, i'n't this awful?" I think we got our two penn'orth of corn beef and our half a round of sausages. That, was another daylight raid.

Fire Watching

You had one fire watcher who was responsible for the street; he came along with his rota and said, "Look, you're on Thursday night." And so on. I was out there one night with this little man and my next door neighbour. The sirens had gone; the searchlights were on up at the airport and the old bombers going zoom, zoom, zoom. We always knew when it was a German one: I don't know why - they seemed to be heavier engines and be slow. They'd go zo-om, zo-om; zo-om. We were watching the searchlights and suddenly the gun at the airport opens up. I thought, "Oh, they're shooting." I watched the shells explode and when I turned round I was the only one left in the street.

Our fire fighting equipment was ridiculous. You had a bucket of water for the brave, intrepid fire fighter that was going to be at the end of the hose. And we had what is known as a stirrup pump and it fitted over the bucket. The intrepid fire fighter was supposed to lie prone and hold the hose pipe over his head and sprinkle the incendiary bomb while the rest of the gang filled the bucket up with a chain of water. One doing the pumping one on the end of the hose and the rest of the gang kept the bucket filled - about five on a crew with luck.

The fact that these incendiary bombs came down in hundreds they hadn't coped for. We were told not to put a jet on the incendiary 'cos it would explode. You had to spray it to keep it under control. You were issued with an ordinary shovel that you used to put coal on the fire and a broom handle. If an incendiary fell through the roof, you were supposed to go in this room, always presuming that it hadn't set fire to the room and shovel up this thing. According to their theory it would just be lying, on the floor, shooting out a flame but not setting fire to anything You just had to crawl into the room on your knees, shovel a up, carry it through the, house, put it in this bucket of sand and spray it with yer little stirrup pump, with a tin hat on which had FW, on for fire watcher. If they got caught in the eaves of the house, you were supposed to go to the highest room in the house, lean out of the window and unhitch it. In the meantime all the heavy artillery is coming: kaboom, wallop: all the HE. bombs falling all around while you're fiddling around trying to get this one little incendiary off the roof.

The incendiary bomb itself was about two foot long, maybe longer, with this great flame on the end: we'd never seen one up to then. Not at all the old idea of a little round thing marked 'bomb' with a fuse on the end which we thought of. We were always told - I don't know where it came from I'm sure, but. it must have been the Ministry of Information, the Min. of In, who gave out such rubbish - we were told that the third bomb that went off you were alright; you knew it had missed you. They said you wouldn't hear the one that hit you: so when these heavy explosive bombs came down, you used to go, "One, two... three... .Well, that's that, it's missed me." But when you went to the cinema and saw these newsreels, the bomb bays opened out and the bombs just showered down.

© 2007 Jenny Lloyd

These blitz memories are taken from the contributon by Mrs M Balkwill to the People Talking project that was created by Jenny Lloyd in 1976.
The full transcript, and other People Talking memories are available at the West Country Studies Library or the Devon and Exeter Institution.

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