The Phoney War really ended in May 1940 with all the action in France. The Dunkirk evacuation, Operation Dynamo, had taken place over a week in May and June. Up until that point the bombing, which had been relatively light on Britain, meant we all came back home. I was glad to be back from Shropshire, but that didn’t last all that long. Liverpool suffered its first major air raid in August 1940, and there were to be two distinct blitzes, one just before Christmas 1940 and the second in May 1941. Between the August raid and the first Liverpool blitz that December, there were something like 50 raids on Liverpool. Some were minor with just a few aircraft, but others could involve hundreds of German bombers and go on for hours. One night a wing of Walton Gaol was hit and 20-odd inmates were killed, but the worst single loss of life happened in Edge Hill when a parachute mine landed on top of a building that had a shelter in the basement. When the mine detonated the building collapsed, the basement was flooded and hundreds of people were trapped by rising waters and fires overhead. More than 150 people were killed in that one incident. That was near Shiel Road in Kensington where my mother lived later on.
Life tried to go on as normally as possible, so if I wasn’t in school or on an errand or something, I’d be playing football in the street. Soon, we didn’t really worry about the air raids too much, but we would be antsy about knowing what was happening. There would be instances where you would be walking down the street and a lorry would go past you, towing an anti-aircraft gun. It might be right next to you when it would suddenly open fire. That was quite a shock. In time there were air raid shelters built in the street. They were just like brick garages with flat tops and they were absolutely useless. They were more for making you feel safe as well as being shielded from shrapnel, which couldn’t penetrate the walls. There were no doors, just an offset entrance so shrapnel couldn’t make it in. Some of those air raid shelters would receive direct hits and everyone inside would be killed.
When you went into a shelter, being wartime it would be pitch black. It sounds obvious now, but being so dark, it was a really good place not to be seen. Blokes and girls used to go in them, you’d walk in and they would be at it. But I was innocent, ten at the time, and I honestly never realised. It was quite a shock when I found out – it was as if I had been duped or something.
Initially during raids we went down into the cellar in Conyers Street before our official air raid shelter was designated to be in the cellar of a house on Netherfield Road, complete with the warden with the white hat who was a woman of about 90. I remember coming out of there one particular night and looked along to see all of Netherfield Road on fire. Another time we were in Conyers Street and there was a raid – it was late summer. The next thing we saw this black cloud – it was burning oil from an oil bomb. It went down our street, over Stanley Road and finished up in the middle of Great Mersey Street at the bottom where it hit a Welsh chapel. When it hit the chapel it exploded, and the organ went flying up into the air. We were kids standing there watching it happen. I’ll always remember that.
By the time of the first blitz, we had to go to Daisy Street School which was about three quarters of a mile away. They would have us in assembly saying prayers but, being December, we would be coming home from school in the dark. We knew what it meant to be bombed by this time so we would be saying our prayers and watching the sky. As it got darker we wanted to get out because we knew the bombing was coming. I remember the feeling of walking along Stanley Road expecting to hear aircraft at any minute. I remember that quite distinctly – and I heard them on occasion.
One Friday night John and I were running an errand for my dad, because he had to do his fire watch. He had told us to take the football coupon to our cousin, Uncle Matty as we called him, who was a smashing fella and used to live right by Everton’s ground. He had been in the Army – he volunteered as a boy soldier and he had gone out to India for 12 years. Almost as soon as those 12 years were up, the war started in Europe and he went straight to France. He would have been about 30 then. He got wounded, was evacuated from Dunkirk and then discharged from the Army because of those wounds. Ultimately they would kill him.
When John and I got to Uncle Matty’s house, there he was more or less lying in a bed with a blanket over his head. He was basically dying. Then an air raid started up. Uncle Matty had a shelter built in his back garden – a hole dug in the ground with an Anderson shelter, sheets of corrugated iron that would not do anything, and he got us in there. Once inside the Anderson shelter we saw Uncle Matty had brought a cutthroat razor with him. He was more or less sure that if the Germans came, they were such bastards that he was going to cut our throats rather than let them do it. That brought it home a bit.
Matty wouldn’t let us move. There were a lot of dull thuds, but some of them were very loud. We were a mixture of emotions, not least very frightened. We expected gas to be dropped and all sorts of things to give you nightmares. Whatever bravado we tried to put on was always tempered by the fact that one of these bombs might be for you. We’d tell stories about what we would do if the Jerries came, of course, but it was usually down to the adults to try to take your mind off what was happening. Sometimes we would be awake throughout a raid, other times the exhaustion would have you asleep even as the bombs dropped.
There were also sirens, fire engines with their bells, and we used to hear the police whistles. This went on all night. Air raid wardens shouting, “Put that fucking light out!” I remember that quite clearly. It is strange how some things stick in the mind. Another memory I have always had is of the sounds of the police sergeants. They used to carry a certain stick, like a baton, and when they wanted their men to congregate they used to bang it on the ground. It’s surprising that, through it all, you could hear this stick.
As it happened, we passed that night and I remember when John and I walked back next morning, along Everton Valley and then up Netherfield Road, we could see that our street, which was virtually the first street on the right up the hill, was barricaded off. One of the bombs had landed there and I thought, “Christ, I hope it’s not our family.”
It wasn’t, and although I don’t think anybody was killed, a house had been hit. Further down, towards Great Homer Street at the bottom, there was a great big patch where a landmine had landed. It was not just bombs.
When we got to the top of Conyers Street the air raid warden told us to bugger off. There were bricks in the street and smouldering ruins. People were stood around watching. Roads were closed in sections and people tried to get on with it as much as possible.
Another time, halfway down Conyers Street on the left, there had been damage from a landmine which had come into the street. Part of the aftermath was that a huge rusty iron tube, that had previously been in the basement of the house, had somehow been blown up to street level. We used to play on this tube when we were kids but years later they found the body of a man in there dressed in Edwardian clothes.
They reckoned he had been murdered all those years before and stuffed in the tube, where it had remained in someone’s cellar.
The Formative Years of Scouse Boden.
“My children and grandchildren have often heard stories from my childhood in Liverpool in the 1930s and 40s, but it was the birth of my first great grandchild that made me realise I should commit those memories to paper so that one day she too would be able to understand where she had come from. Having never written more than a letter in the past, I found Ghostwriter Books provided an excellent service in terms of making sense of my ramblings. I was particularly impressed with the additional research they conducted to give more context to my story. The books arrived in time for Christmas, and I was delighted to be able to give away copies to my children. Highly recommended.”
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