The Blitz: Survivors' stories

Jammed on Underground platforms, putting out fires, digging families out of air-raid shelters, waking to find an unexploded bomb in the garden, getting separated from siblings: ten recount their experiences


Len Phillips, 80, of Bloomsbury, London, sheltered at night in Holborn and the now defunct Museum Tube stations.

When I go down Holborn Tube now I always look at the platform and think "I used to sleep here of a night". There were quite a few hundred people there, with the passengers stepping over you because it was still being used as an Underground station.

When the siren went, we used to go down and wait for a tram. We would stand at the tram stop and see the searchlights. The trams did make a lot of noise. You felt safe in the tram. I don't know why. It would rattle around and we'd go down to Holborn and get out and go down to the Tube station.

It was cold and there was always the fear that if they burst a water main we might get flooded.

They were the early days, so the spirit was quite good. We got on fairly well together and mucked in together. Once the Museum station had been made habitable, we went down there.

The lift shaft was the washing facilities and toilets. If the bombs were dropping, you could hear the bombs echo down the lift shaft.

People did various things. The kids used to play. There was a photo of me putting up Christmas decorations where we had the bunks. I think we had a little party at the end of the platform that one year. It probably would have been Christmas Day. It wasn't long after that I was evacuated.

I was getting very fragile round the edges. I kept thinking: "Is it ever going to end?" That's what I think it was: "Are we ever going to get out of this somehow?" And, of course, we did. It was one of those things we had to put up with.

John Gent, 78, a retired London Transport worker, was an eight-year-old living in South Norwood, London, in 1940.

By the end of the year, Croydon had experienced 399 air raids. We would all sit knitting squares to make into quilts for the troops and Merchant Navy. As the bombing worsened, we took to going to bed in the shelter and spending the whole night there.

My grandparents lived in Peckham and Mother invited them to spend a weekend with us in our shelter. While they were with us, a bomb fell near their home and rendered it uninhabitable. As a result, their weekend visit lasted for the rest of their lives, until Grandma died in 1946 and Grandpa in 1957.

One evening a friend and I were in my garden when I remarked on the really beautiful sunset. The bright red sky was due to the fires in Docklands. It was a spectacular and memorable sight. That night was one of the worst of the Blitz.

One day we heard that a bomb had destroyed the home of a classmate, Derek Barnes. His mother, father and baby sister were killed. Our class clubbed together to buy him a Meccano set. To this day I can see him standing forlornly as he received his gift and said goodbye to us, presumably to start a new life with relatives.

Julia Draper, 89, of Chelsea in London, worked as a British Red Cross nurse during the Blitz at an army base in Camberley, Surrey.

One lived day to day. One didn't think of tomorrow until you got there. And, in the morning, we said: "Thank God we are here."

I had just been married to my first husband whom I had met at a dance I had organised for the servicemen in 1939. He was a wonderful man called Frank Vogel who was one of President Eisenhower's aides at the British embassy. He was one of the influential men who were tasked to persuade the Americans into joining the war. He later died in a plane crash coming back from North Africa, where he had been sent by the president to meet General Mark Clark of the US forces in Rabat.

During my time at Camberley, we were attacked on a couple of occasions. Thankfully, I was never near them. We maintained a courageous and resilient spirit to serve our country. And even as the times were trying, we tried to keep a semblance of normal life. We just got on with it. I even appeared in the Tatler .

We had parties, pictures, theatre, plays. Sometimes young people met and had more romances in a carefree manner as no one knew what tomorrow held. We didn't always obey orders, but it was most important that we tried to. Still, we were better behaved than today's youth as we had a strict upbringing.

In London, people were always fearful. When the Blitz ended, we said we could finally breathe.

Betty Popkiss, 87, who lives in Cape Town, South Africa, had just left school when she joined St John Ambulance in Coventry. She won the George Medal for her actions on 19 October, when she dug out a family after its Anderson shelter took a direct hit.

It was a frightening time – the start of saturation bombing of munitions and engineering works in Coventry. I had just become a St John Ambulance volunteer. It was my first job after leaving Barr's Hill Girls Grammar School and that night I called into the air precaution post that stood in Hen Lane, Holbrooks. As our post was only round the corner from where we lived, I used to call in most evenings and see what was going on.

The bombing that night began with a shower of slow-burning incendiaries. We all ran around putting them out with sand and earth. A man ran up and told me one was smouldering on his roof. He asked me if we could get a ladder and go up into his loft before the house caught fire. I hated heights and was really nervous, but between us we managed to put out the flames with the help of a bucket and a stirrup pump.

Then, as I walked home, the main shelling suddenly started. It was very dark; the sirens were wailing and our anti-aircraft guns were blazing as the bombers dropped their high explosives. Suddenly, a little girl who lived on my road ran up to me and just said: "Mummy, Daddy... please..." Something was obviously terribly wrong and I told her to run on to the ARP post to get help while I dashed down the road.

As I ran, I looked ahead and realised a bomb had made an almost a direct hit on an Anderson shelter. As I got near, I realised our neighbours, the Worthington family, were all trapped inside. Instinctively, I started digging into the rubble with my bare hands. It was too slow to work like that and I frantically looked round for something to use. Remarkably, I found a spade lying near by. I remember hearing moans from inside. There was no shouting, no screams.

A young boy on a bike appeared in the street and as I looked up I noticed the kitchen door of the family's house had been blown open. I shouted to him "go upstairs and get some blankets" – but he was upset and didn't want to go into somebody else's house. I can still see his frightened face. I told him "just go and do it" – then other people started arriving to help. We all worked together, fumbling around in the dark with only light from the shells exploding overhead.

Together, we got the family free. There were Mr and Mrs Worthington, their daughter Joan, who was a friend of mine, and I think two other sisters and two other girls. I helped to give them first aid. I just pulled off my brand new black coat and laid it over them. I was awarded the George Medal.

Jimmy Fraser, 88, a retired chief ship draftsman, worked all his life at the shipyard in Aberdeen where he was nearly killed by a bomb during the Blitz.

I was 18 and a shipyard's apprentice. One day I was in the drawing office when a bomb dropped in the yard just before lunchtime. We were on the top floor and on our way to a shelter across the street, just below a granary. When the bomb dropped, we just lay on the office floor as the windows shattered. It was a good thing we didn't get as far as the shelter because we would have been killed. The people in the shelter were killed, as well as quite a few in a nearby boiler shop.

I had another near miss. As an Air Raid Precautions messenger, I was stationed at a fish market. One of the nights that I was there a bomber coming across dropped a bomb in the pub across from the ARP station. I was lucky again. When I came out, there was just a white cloud of smoke left.

Reginald Willis, 92, was a rigger at an airdrome just south of London during the Blitz and courting his future wife when he had a near miss.

During the Blitz, I was part of the support team at Kenley Airdrome, looking after the aircraft. I was 21 when I was nearly killed when a bomb went off across the road from me. I was courting my wife at the time. I had been visiting her house when I had to leave to go and meet a friend at Thornton Heath Ponds. When the bomb hit the glass from shop windows didn't shatter but blew apart as it flew towards me. I immediately ducked down to get away. I was left shaking but I wasn't afraid. I don't remember the blast from that bomb, but I still remember the shrapnel bombs and the metal flying all over the place; when it hit the wall it was a bright star.

Jean Savill, 74, was evacuated from her home in Lewisham after a series of air raids, with two of her neighbour's children.

Once, before I was evacuated, a bomb dropped in our garden, but it didn't go off. We had an outside toilet and one morning my sister went out there and there was a bomb on the ground. We called somebody for help and two wardens came with a barrow and shovel and wheeled it away.

"I seem to remember the silly little bits about the Blitz. I don't remember the rockets or bombs, but I recall the window of my bedroom blew in on me during a raid and I was picked up and taken to a safer house. There was a shelter at the end of our road, Boone Street in Lewisham. I remember I quite liked it in the shelter because there was singing. After I was evacuated, my next experience of the Blitz was coming back to find everything had been bombed at the end of the war.

Ron Leagas, 85, of Ramsgate in Kent, lived in Walthamstow, north-east London.

I experienced at least five or six air raids before joining the Army, maybe more. I remember one night I was out when the sirens started going-off, and I had to run to one of the underground shelters down at Clapham Common. There must have been at least 1,000 people there, all crammed in, and inside it was horrible. It was cold, damp and smelly, and it had really uncomfortable metal beds with no bedding.

You didn't really have any choice other than to go into them. It was worse outside, and if the wardens caught you out on the street they'd throw you in anyway.

Another night, I remember being at home and hearing a German bomber overhead. I rushed out into the street to get a closer look; a hatch underneath the plane opened up and two bombs dropped into the cemetery across the street. The mess it made was unbelievable. There were decomposed bodies and skeletons everywhere, and they all had to be picked up and reburied. It wasn't pleasant, but it had to be done.

June Wilson, 82, who lives in South Croydon, London, was evacuated, first to Hove and then Peaslake in Surrey. Homesick, she returned to South Norwood.

As it was quiet in London for nearly a year, my parents brought me home in September 1940. Within a day or two of me coming back, there were air raids and bombs. However, there was no turning back, so once at home I stayed and went to school in Croydon.

First of all, the sirens would go and then we would hear, well, they called it attack guns, which would try to shoot the planes down. That was a bit scary; and then we would hear a terrific explosion. After a while, you got the all-clear signal.

My dad was a bus driver and he drove to most parts of London but, fortunately, he wasn't involved in any bombs. I did used to worry about my dad because he was in a very vulnerable position.

Everyone, really, was very cheerful and bright. You never heard people complain about anything.

David Varlow, 70, a retired police officer, from Kent, has begun searching for the twin brother from whom he became separated during an air raid in Southsea in Portsmouth.

I was only six months old at the time, so I don't remember the night. The story was that my mother, because she had two kids, was on her way to a shelter during a raid when she gave my brother, Richard, to a nun to carry. The nun then disappeared, possibly in the same air raid shelter. There was bombing going on and so I think she went to one end, while my mother was making her way to join her, but I don't know.

My mother told me this story when I was about seven, but things were chaotic in those days and you don't really think about it or ask too many questions. She died in 1953 when I was 13, so I never got a chance to find out too much more. A lot of what I know is fragmented information that was never verified.

This is the first time I have looked for my brother and I have started by making inquires in Portsmouth. The problem is I can't find a birth certificate or even a death certificate for my brother. You would expect there to be one, so I can't be sure that he exists or that he ever did exist. Although perhaps in those times there wasn't one, or it has since been destroyed. I know the chances of finding him are very remote but my research hasn't finished yet. I'm still waiting to hear from the hospital where I was born on 16 May 1940, at St Mary's in Portsmouth. I'm also going to contact the Salvation Army."

Can you help David Varlow find his brother, Richard? Please contact us at sundayletters@independent.co.uk

Interviews by Kate Youde and Mark Jewsbury

The darker side of the Blitz: A nation united in adversity? Not entirely

The Blitz may have stiffened British morale and brought the nation together in adversity. But there was a darker, less celebrated side to the so-called Blitz spirit that had little to do with the blackout.

Looting was rife; professional criminals prospered and the British were certainly not always all in it together. Records show 10,000 people were prosecuted nationwide and traders in London claimed they lost more through looting than by bomb damage. Rationing was also widely abused as previously honest citizens yielded to temptation. On one occasion, five million clothing coupons were stolen. The government had to cancel the entire issue. By 1945 more than 114,000 prosecutions for black-market activities had taken place – including that of the popular entertainer Ivor Novello, who was sentenced to eight weeks in 1944 for misusing petrol coupons offered to him by a female fan. Criminals even exploited the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) warden's helmet and armband using it as a passport to smash their way into shops when no one was looking. Unsuspecting onlookers, seeing the ARP armband, would help to load the getaway vehicle with loot.

Nor was everyone always in it together. Members of the establishment were able to take refuge in country houses or in expensive basement clubs in the City while lower, middle and working classes were forced to remain in cities and face up to the deadly raids with inadequate shelters. A shelter for government officials was built in the disused Down Street Tube station, complete with offices and living quarters. In Finsbury, a working-class London borough, a scheme to build deep shelters in its garden squares never proceeded.

Mark Jewsbury

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