By Thomas Griffen
It seems that most of my earliest memories were of events which were rather frightening. The more everyday events, I find I cannot recall properly, maybe because they were more ordinary, so they didn’t leave an impression in my mind. For instance, remembering St. Charles School more vividly at a younger age than trying to recall my later years at St. Mirins Academy.
The German Bombing, who could forget about that? That is what I would like to write about now.
It was the first air raid and we heard the warning siren sounding for real this time, no longer a rehearsal. My dad told me to get some clothes on quickly because we were going down to the shelter, which was situated on the other side of Stirling Street, in the longer garden belonging to a rich businessman by the name of Pinkerton. It was all surrounded by tall metal railings, with a gate which was opened to let us all get inside.
Before we could run downstairs there was a loud drone of an aircraft engine as it flew very low over our house. On leaving this, my dad dashed back into the main room, put all the lights out, and pulled up the windows, and I recall squeezing beside him to have a look out, too.
It was a German bomber, and it was black, but as we watched, the beams of the searchlights landed on it, and WOW it was changed to silver! It looked very impressive, but would have seemed more so had it not been so menacing. I will never forget that.
We rushed down to pitch darkness as no lights were allowed, and that is when I saw my first casualty. An Irishman who lived a few houses from us, raced over in a panic, and ran straight into the railings – head first!
The shelter was mostly underground, with concrete steps leading down. It was cold, because there was no heating, and it smelled of dampness and on either side there was a long seat which was extremely uncomfortable. It was monotonous sitting together waiting for the all clear siren so that we could get back to bed again, but sometimes we were just settling down between the blankets and the cursed siren would once more warn us of another raid. Then we had to drag ourselves back down to the shelter. Next day I would still need to go to St.
Charles school, feeling so tired, because we were never allowed to take a day off, no matter what had happened.
My dad also had to go to work on the railway at Abercorn, leaving the house at around 6.40am and travelling by tramcar, but some
mornings he would leave much earlier, when it was foggy, for he had to put explosive detonators on the tracks to warn the train drivers they were approaching Gilmour Street Station. I did feel sorry for him, having to do a full day’s work, especially when it was freezing outside and him having no sleep. He would never go down the shelter with us because he preferred to stand up above with the air raid wardens, but they had helmets to protect them from falling shrapnel, whereas he had only his old bonnet. The only time I heard him go really mad was one morning when he couldn’t find his old cap to go to work in. He was shouting and telling my mother he would go without it. Then she found it and everything went back to normal. I think in those days, most men felt naked without their auld bonnet.
When I reflect now, I can understand why he never seemed to be frightened, because he had fought in the trenches in France and Belgium, plus Turkey as a Corporal in the Machine Gun Corps, with the Irish regiment of the 16 Inniskillen Fusiliers. I imagine that all this which was happening now was nothing in comparison to the 1914 war in which he had been injured by shrapnel which left him with a slight limp. It was more terrorising for the rest of us.
One day, some older boys told me a bomb had landed between the two asylums behind Crow Road in a field where the New Alexandra Hospital is now, and where I would collect manure several years later.
I never expected a high explosive bomb would ever have made such a large deep crater. It looked big enough to put two double decker buses down it. My father’s glass house was about 100 yards away, so the blast had destroyed all the glass, and a massive stone that came out of the bowels of the earth had landed directly on top. All the boys were looking inside at what was left of his glass house, but there was no way I could keep them out and I told my dad the bad news when he came back from work. I did feel sorry for him, as it must have been heart breaking after he had grown all those tomatoes from seed and tended them until they were large plants bearing fruit. Then this happens and everything is gone.
I remember going with my mother to visit my brother who was in a hospital at Millport. On the train we saw Port Glasgow the day after it had been bombed, the worst that ever happened in Scotland. It was difficult to believe what we were seeing, because we couldn’t identify one house that was not either completely destroyed or very badly damaged. It was devastation on an immense scale. All along the railway track there was masses of debris lying on either side where it had been cleared off the rails. There was all sorts of furniture, including beds, all blown over from the houses. I don’t know how many people must have been killed that night, but it must have been abundant. This is a sight I will never forget.
The same day when my mother and I were leaving Millport, we were on the ship when the siren sounded and the Captain wouldn’t move out of the harbour. I suppose we would be a very easy target out in the Irish Sea. I never remember my mother being scared even when everyone on deck heard an aircraft’s engine somewhere up in the clouds, and it coming nearer. Everyone seemed to get into a panic until they could identify it as one of ours. An old Sunderland flying boat, quite useless except for detecting submarines – but for bravery, I think back to mum in the Royal Oak, Moss Street, bashing rats with a broom in the food store room. That was more than I could ever do. I would give her a medal for that.