....from one who was there, Larry Stevens writes about the Plymouth Blitz - a first hand experience


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Larry Stevens during the Plymouth Blitz

left, James Place, Larry on bike, note square white sign on wall pointing you to the ill-fated Portland Square Air Raid Shelter; right, in front of home, note paper strips glued to window to help reduce glass splinters flying through the air due to bomb blast

I have been asked to give a brief account of some of my experiences during the Second World War, especially those relating to the blitz on Plymouth. When the war began, our family had just returned from a stay of three years in Hong Kong . While in Hong Kong the newspapers were continually publishing news about the progress of the war which was then taking place in Northern China. Some of the photographs and reports that were being published were horrific, a large number of the pictures were of severed limbs and mutilated bodies. I also remembered seeing the film "Things to Come" by H G Wells which showed scenes depicting air-raids of the future. With these things already impressed on my mind, one can imagine that when war was declared on Germany in 1939 I felt very apprehensive about our future and as it turned out all my fears were to be justified.

At the outbreak of the Second World War I was 11 years old and we were living in James Place which is one of the streets leading off from the Northwest corner of Portland Square.The street still exists but the houses are no longer there. Being so close to the centre of the city it was not one of the best places to be when the Luftwaffe began bombing Plymouth. In the lead up to the War, people were being encouraged to erect Anderson shelters in their gardens. These shelters were basically corrugated iron structures sunk in a deep pit and covered over with a thick layer of earth and/or sandbags. However, there were a large number of people living in the centre of the city and elsewhere who did'nt have gardens so special communal shelters were built by the Government to accommodate them in the event of hostilities. These public shelters were mainly in the form of concrete tunnels with whitewashed interior and wooden, slatted seats fixed to the walls. A shelter of this type was constructed in Portland Square. The shelter consisted of a network of tunnels, one group in the Northern half and the other in the Southern half. We were among the people who were obliged to use these shelters.

As soon as the air-raid warning sounded we gathered up some warm clothes/blankets etc., and made a dash through the streets to reach the shelter before the "fireworks" began. I can remember running to the shelter with anti-aircraft shells exploding overhead and bits of shrapnel hitting the ground and sparking in the road behind me. I can remember during the air-raids, how the people kept their spirits up by singing songs which were popular at the time, such as "Run Rabbit Run", "The White Cliffs of Dover", and " The Quartermasters Store" etc.

There | were also times when people were too weary to sing and just sat in silence hoping that the next bomb was not for them. The air-raids took place mainly at night and continued for three or four nights in succession and then there would be a lull for a week or so before we were subjected to another series of attacks. Through the day people endeavoured to lead as natural a life as possible and the amazing thing was that, to a certain degree, they did. During a period of raids one seemed to get inured to the situation, however, after one of the lulls, as soon as the siren sounded the Alert, my stomach used to do a complete somersault and then settled down to meet the next onslaught. However, life did go on.

I was in the Boy Scouts and our troop still went camping at Estover. I used to spend many a week-end roaming the woods around Shaugh Bridge and Bickliegh with another scout friend of mine. One day we were out in the woods and heard the sound of anti- aircraft fire quite close-by and there above us flew a German fighter plane dodging through the clouds with shells bursting in his wake. As for life in the city we still went to the cinema and to concerts which were given by various concert parties which helped to maintaining the peoples moral. One of my worst memories of the Portland Square shelter was of the night when the Eastern half of the shelter received a direct hit from a landmine killing about one hundred people. I was sitting in the Western half of the shelter at the time. We felt the terrific blast and heard the screams. As far as I can remember there were very few survivors, however I do recollect I that one young girl did survive and she was one of twins. She belonged to a family of four who owned a shoe repairing business at one corner of the square. Ironically, they generally stayed in their own Anderson shelter but I that night they decided to go to the public shelter instead which proved to be fatal for them.

For approximately one year of the war, my brother and I were evacuated to Bideford in North Devon, which was quite another experience, however, at the end of that year I was approaching the age of 15, and the raids had seemed to have subsided for a time and since I would soon be in my last year of schooling, it was decided that I should return home to complete my last year at Public Central School in Coburg Street which of I course was just down the road from where we lived in James Place. My aim was to take the Dockyard Exam which I eventually did and passed.

In the August of 1943 whilst waiting to enter the Dockyard as an apprentice Engine Fitter, disaster struck another blow only this time much nearer home .

Although they were losing the War, the Germans were still carrying out raids ,which were mainly "hit and run". They used to fly in low to defeat our radar. First we would get the warning of a pending raid and then shortly after we would get an All-Clear. No sooner had the All-Clear ended, a plane would fly over and drop flares to light up the target and a second plane would follow to drop a stick of bombs to straddle the target It was on one of these nights that disaster struck. I was in bed asleep at the time, the Alert had sounded but I was awakened by the All-clear and my mother's voice shouting to me that everything was OK. Suddenly I heard a plane fly over dropping flares and from my experience the previous week I knew exactly what was to happen next. I quickly got out of bed and ran into an adjoining passage and then the bomb hit and I was engulfed in choking dust. At first I was a bit disorientated but soon recovered my senses amid all the confusion. As I ran downstairs, or should I say slid down over the debris, I could hear my mother's cries for help together with the screams of the old lady across road who eventually died under the pile of rubble which was once their flat above the hairdresser's shop opposite.

At first I could not locate my mother but after calming down I found her in one of the upstairs bedrooms buried up to her head in debris between a wall- cupboard and a table. There was a gapping hole where the roof used to be letting in the light from the fires.When I eventually extricated her from the wreckage she was bleeding profusely from her head, face and neck and the blood on her face was shining in the fire-light. My mother was soon taken off to hospital together with my brother who had suffered deep gashes in his legs. When I first found my brother, he was outside the house in the fire-light trying to find his trousers. That left me and my father to take care of ourselves. We both went our own ways. We arranged to meet the next day in town at the clothing centre as we only had the clothes we stood up in. I was only in shirt sleeves and trousers caked in blood from my mother's wounds.The last I saw of my father that night was when he was drinking from a bottle of "scrumpy" that he had hidden away under the kitchen cabinet. I discovered the next day that he had found refuge with some distant relations in Plympton, whereas, I was offered shelter with people called Connick who owned a furniture business in town. The only thing was the Connicks were staying at Whitchurch which meant that I had to cycle all the way to Tavistock. Not knowing what else to do I began my journey to Whitchurch to find the address they had given me.

Thank goodness it was summer or I should not have been able to have undertaken such a journey attired as I was. I remember getting about half way, near Yelverton, it was beginning to get dark when I was stopped by a policeman because I had no lights, but under the circumstances he let me carry on regardless. When I arrived in Whitchurch it was completely dark and I strove for a long time trying to find the place but it was impossible. Eventually I ended up sleeping on a narrow bench in a repair garage. The garage still exists on the main road into Tavistock where one turns off for the main car park.

At that time all garages were guarded by soldiers in case of invasion by parachutists. This garage was being guarded by two American soldiers and on hearing my story one of them gave me a blanket and allowed me to stay the night. In the morning I returned to Plymouth to meet my Dad at the clothing centre as planned and then we went to the hospital to visit my mother and brother. Later, I returned to our wrecked house to assess the damage and to see what could be saved. When we returned from China my parents had brought back quite a fine collection of Chinese porcelain and furniture which was irreplaceable as far as we were concerned. Sadly a large amount of the porcelain was destroyed but somehow I was able to salvage some of the furniture some of which my brother and I still possess. We eventually went into temporary accommodation at Lower Compton and Greenbank and were finally housed in the new housing estate at Ernesettle and from that time onward the War gradually became a thing of the past, but nevertheless an unforgettable and exciting experience which I would never like to go through again.

Larry Stevens of Plymouth, England - one who was there

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