First Aid Post Disaster
TERRIBLE NIGHT WHEN DISASTER RAINED DOWN ON PAISLEY
The doctor’s daughter says the only comfort was that her dad never knew what happened to his beloved First Aid Post.
ANOTHER air raid warning, another few hours spent in the shelter – and so to bed – such was life during the Second World War.
But when dawn broke on May 6th, 1941, Buddies awoke to find a tragedy on their doorstep.
During the night, a parachute mine floated down from the sky and wreaked terrible destruction on a First Aid Post – killing 92 people.
Two fire service personnel died on the same night when another parachute mine fell on Paisley’s Newton Street.
It may be 60 years since Stella Gibson was told her daddy wasn’t coming home – but she remembers it like it was yesterday.
“disasters like the one that hit Paisley that night”
75th Anniversary Recording
75th Anniversary Recording from James Ferguson who’s father was there on the night of the bombing, also featuring Councillor Mark MacMillan created by Peter Greenwood of paisley.org.uk on May 2016
“It was all so casual,” she recalls about the way the news was broken to families.
Sitting at her dining table, the 73-year-old points to a yellowed newspaper cutting and an old photo resting on the lace tablecloth.
“That’s him there,” she says, indicating her father, Dr William Gibson.
Dr Gibson was the medical officer in charge of First Aid Post Number Five. Ironically, the post was set up to train people to deal with casualties from disasters like the one that hit Paisley that night.
Stella, who went on to be a doctor too, says the only comfort was that her dad never knew what happened to his beloved Post.
“I am always grateful that my father never knew what happened to the First Aid Post, because he was so proud of it, especially the new one because it was all purpose built,” she says.
“My father talked a lot about the Post. He had a tin hat with CS on it, casualty surgeon,” Stella picks at the lace table cloth, “more like casual surgeon!” She was 13 when the air raid warning signal went off.
Safely deposited in the basement of Wellmeadow House, Stella, her twin sister Iris, older brother John and mum Grace waited for the all-clear so that they could return to their beds. At 3.30am they did just that.
“We heard the mine fall at about 2am and then, later, the sound of marching feet. It was soldiers from the Drill Hall who were on their way to the Post.
“He was only 10 minutes back in the Post when he was killed”
“So we just went to bed, but mother stayed up because she liked to see father in and give him a cuppa. When he didn’t come in, she started sweeping the steps and saw crowds of people passing from the West End red-eyed.” Still expecting her husband through the door at any moment, she prepared breakfast which John ate then went out about 8am.
“A workman grabbed him by the sleeve and said: `Is it true the doctor has been killed?’ “My brother went back and asked my mother if dad had been injured and mum phoned the First Aid Post.
“John went up there and we just had to wait. It must have been a nightmare to see it.
“About three hours later, we were told by my uncle.” Stella gazes out of the window into the street.
“I imagine that’s the way that all the people heard. It was all so casual. Then my brother went to the emergency mortuary in the hall of St George’s Church (since demolished) to identify my father, finding to his consternation that they didn’t accept him.
“It must have been because he was a minor.” Dr Gibson, then 51-years-old, was in charge of training the medical staff as the medical officer. He went to the Post every time there was a raid.
“He was only 10 minutes back in the Post when he was killed,” says Stella.
The following day, a lorry drove around the town, delivering the coffins to houses. Stella felt she wanted to go to the funeral to say goodbye properly.
“There were crowds of people, patients and police. The Provost was there and various people like that. The police were there because the gravediggers were digging the mass grave (many of the victims were buried in a mass grave at Hawkhead Cemetery) “see above image”.
“There’s nobody left to ask now”
“It’s not marked as a mass grave, which I always thought was wrong.” Dr Gibson wasn’t the only doctor to lose his life. Dr Leo Skinnider, a colleague of Stella’s father, was also killed in the blast. He left behind two young children.
“He died probably because of his friendship with my father,” says Stella.
Dr David Dickie of the public health department died in hospital four days after the blast.
At the memorial service held in the town 50 years after the tragedy, Stella was asked to speak on behalf of the relatives. There she met one of the survivors who had been standing next to her father when he was killed.
“They said he was treating a casualty, but I still haven’t been able to work that out because it was a training post,” she says. “There’s nobody left to ask now.” The `casualty’ could have been someone like Peter Stewart. The 74-year-old was at the Post two days before it was hit, taking part in a training exercise.
“I was 14 at the time, playing in the street, when someone asked me if I would help,” the West Brae man explains.
He was promptly made-up with an injured knee, placed among some flagstones and surrounded by ox’s blood.
“I got landed with a burst kneecap. They rolled up my trousers and stuck a label round my neck to tell me what was wrong with me. I had to moan and groan. It was very realistic.” He was put in an ambulance and taken to Woodside, where he was `treated’ by medics.
“Then they gave me a cuppa. Two days later the Post was bombed.” Elizabeth Wilson gets out of the car and walks over to a lamppost in front of a nondescript boxy building.
“This is where it was,” she says, “of course, it’s all changed.” The 79-year-old tells how her brother Davy became one of two fire personnel to lose their lives when a mine fell near their lorry in Newton Street.
“The lorry landed on top of him,” she says, her eyes looking down at the cracked pavement.
Nearby, she passes number 28 Ferguslie Walk, where she lived at the time.
“All the windows in Ferguslie Walk were all blown in. It looked like a crystal walk with all the glass.” Elizabeth crouched in the close that night with her younger brother Bobby, her mother and Davy’s wife Agnes and daughter Anna, two.
“You could hear the drone of the planes through the baffle-walls (brick walls that were built at the ends of the closes) and it was a bit of a shock.” Davy, who worked for the fire service part-time during the war, had his legs crushed during the raid and died in hospital. We were all in the close when the bomb fell. I knew there was something wrong when Mr Kennedy (the next door neighbour) came in and asked if Davy was back.
“Then an officer came and took my mother and sister-in-law to the hospital. I don’t know whether he died then or on the Tuesday. It was mother who said Davy was gone.” Fireman Archibald Robertson and auxiliary service messenger John Farrow – just 16 – died that night too.
“Then I saw it was a bomb”
Broomlands Street resident Elizabeth Sellers was 19 when she watched as the bomb floated down from the sky.
“We were all in the close when the siren went and we all stood watching the sky,” she explains.
“A plane came over and the parachute came out and we thought it was a man. Then I saw it was a bomb and I shouted: `Duck!’ “We didn’t realise the extent. We got the all-clear and went to bed.
“Going to work at Coats’ Mills, I passed the site and saw the devastation then.
“The daughter of one of my mother’s friends was killed and the only way they found out was because one of her fingers was on top of one of the roofs of the building.” “Everything had to go on as normal, but it was such a terrible feeling to pass by the place and see the devastation.” The tragedy affected everyone in the town.
Maureen Donegan’s gym teacher, Winifred Robertson, never returned to teach her hugely successful first 11.
And it was only when reading an article in the Paisley Daily Express that Maureen realised how much influence the hockey coach had had on her own life.
“She changed my life with something she said on the hockey pitch one day which was significant,” says the 73-year-old Renfrew woman.
“We were on the playing field being taught the tactics of a successful hockey player and she said: `You must not keep running alongside your opponent, keeping company is all you’re doing. You must challenge your opponents.
“That advice was greatly useful. Sometimes you wonder why our generations of OAPs are so helpless, but we were taught that you didn’t challenge. You didn’t dare ask a thing.” Maureen went on to be a teacher herself and has applied Miss Robertson’s outlook by getting involved in various groups, like the Elderly Forum, challenging the authorities.
Maureen lived in the centre of Paisley when the bomb hit the post.
“The next day the headmistress told us that Miss Robertson had been killed,” she recalls. “There was just disbelief that a member of staff had died.” Just two walls separated Jessie Goudie and her family from disaster.
“That’s what saved the building,” says the 75-year-old from her Corsebar Road home.
Jessie was 15 when she crowded with the neighbours in her mother’s Broomlands Street flat, when the bomb fell.
“It sounded like a dull thud. The ceiling came down, all the soot came down the chimney and the windows blew in. That’s when we realised it was serious.
“For weeks afterwards, there were bits of clothes in the trees.” In all the carnage, there was a bit of light relief regarding Snowball the white canary.
“The strange thing I remember is about the canary,” says Jessie. “Its cage was next to the window and the bottom half of it got blown away but the canary was still in the top part. It survived.”
Full Interview with James Ferguson
Interview by Peter Greenwood for paisley.org.uk