Rob Cole’s picture of a gravestone damaged by the blast of bombs dropped on Bath during the war – leads into a personal piece from him to mark the 80th anniversary of the city’s infamous and terrible Baedecker Raids.
‘In April 1942 I was living with my widowed mother and my late father’s parents, my grandparents, in the Lodge House at St James Cemetery, where my grandfather was the Superintendent.
Saturday, the 25th of April, 1942 was probably no different than any other Saturday in wartime Bath. Those not required to work were relaxing as they desired. Some, of course, were working, railwaymen on shift work etc.
I was given my tea as usual,and may have watched granddad water plants in his greenhouse, it was then off to bed to sleep with the lullaby of the banging of railway trucks buffers as they were shunted in the goods yard across the road.
Mother and grandparents did their normal thing sitting by the gaseous Somerset coal fire with flames spurting, out burning in the fireplace. Maybe darning socks, listening to the radio or reading the Bath Chronicle that would have been delivered before tea by Mr Hudd whose newsagents shop was in Victoria Terrace.
With aircraft often in the vicinity on their way to Bristol, its docks and aircraft factories were primary targets, it was not unusual for the air raid siren to wail and not a lot of notice was taken.
This, however, was different, magnesium flares were falling, by which time it was too late to walk to the shelter in I think either Sydenham Buildings or Cheltenham Street. The four of us squeezed into a small cupboard under the stairs.
I was shown around the Lodge House quite recently and the cupboard was indeed very small. We were probably living in the worse possible place, between two main railway lines and goods yards, adjacent to timber yards and the large heavy engineering factory of Stotherts that was engaged on war work. We were also close to the gas works, all major targets.
A good proportion of the bombs aimed at these targets landed in or close to the cemetery. According to the map produced by the Bath Blitz Project a high-explosive bomb fell particularly close to the Lodge. I guess it was at this point my Gran told mother to kiss me goodbye. Actually, it was the third attempt to kill me. The first was being born underweight and put under the bed with the expectation that the “problem” (my father was dying of TB) would be over by morning, the second was pneumonia and the third was bombing.
The Luftwaffe were more successful, as my grandfather told how we were at one point reported dead. Looking at the bomb damage map my grandfather’s house in Tennyson Road had also been destroyed, he was particularly unlucky.
I have to thank the late local Historian, Ruth Haskins for telling me how horrific the cemetery bombing was. The day after the raid Ruth was struggling along the lower Bristol Road with her young son Christopher in a pushchair. Ruth was stopped by the Civil Defence and told she should not be there. Explaining that she had to get to relatives further along the road, Ruth was allowed to continue with strict instructions to look straight ahead and not to left or right.
The official jargon was, graves had been disturbed, in reality the contents of graves were in trees and bushes, this probably included my father. Quite understandably my mother never got over it mentally – among other things thunderstorms would cause her great panic. There was no such thing as counselling in those days. Perhaps, because it was so horrific, the raid was never mentioned and I have absolutely no memory of that night.
After the first raids, my mother and I went to live in The Oval with my mother’s sister and my other grandmother. When the air raid siren sounded while at The Oval, no chances were taken and rather than use the Morrison shelter I played in, it was a walk out of the back garden gate with a shielded touch and me carrying my Dumbo elephant my aunt had knitted, to the underground and wet shelter in the south-east sector of the Oval field.
By 1944 we did go back to live in the cemetery lodge. On one evening a small group of American lorries stopped outside, it was dark and gran invited the drivers in for cups of tea. Sitting in the rather small room one of the guys gave me chewing gum, I had not the faintest idea what to do with it. I thought it was like plasticine and made a plane.
It was only a brief encounter but I never forgot them and wondered if they survived the war. I never saw the cemetery as a place of sadness but a place to safely ride my tricycle and watch trains.
My war ended when there was a children’s victory parade around The Oval, I was lent a white sailor suit. I paraded as far as Cedar Grove, my nerves got the better of me, I was a nervous child, and had an overwhelming need for the toilet. I left the parade and ran across the field all the way home, spending time in the toilet when I should have been eating my Victory Tea.
Since the war, there have been a number of coincidences and reminders. When a teenager I met little Christopher, now six feet and nicknamed “Legs” who had been pushed over the rubble by his mother Ruth. We became friends and played in the same band. He moved to Germany and found success as a musician, we kept in touch until he predeceased his mother a few years ago.
The next coincidence was looking in the window of the Orange Grove bookshop. A visitor who, I assumed from his accent was an Australian, asked me if there was a book on the Bath Blitz. I asked why he would want that. He told that he was in Bath during the raid – living in the Bristol Road just along the road from a Cemetery where lots of bombs had fallen. I know that, I was there, the bombs had quite literally fallen between us. After the raid he went to Holcombe, then Australia. This was the first time he had returned and I was the first person in Bath he had talked to.
A few years later I was asked by a contact in the local newspaper if I could find them a 16mm projector. A colour film of the blitz had been found in their basement store. They wanted to show it at a Townswoman’s Guild Meeting on Combe Down. I could get them a projector and project the film if they could let my firm (MoD) copy it to video. The deal was done all unofficially and the film shown.
To my shock there was a shot of one of the craters in the cemetery, never seen a picture before. I went on to show the film at a couple of schools, after the film children were invited to ask questions, a little lad asked “why do they give a war” indeed. The film and the video copy has been shown many times since and featured strongly in the MoD’s fifty years in Bath exhibition, did I get any thank – no
Sitting next to an American visitor on a local bus we got into conversation, she told me that she came to Bath as her father had always liked Bath when he was delivering lorries when with the US Army. Not convoys, just three or four across the south of England. He survived the war and became a Teamster, truck driver, in Chicago. I like to think he was with the ones who drank tea with gran.
Yet another reminder came when in the 1960’s I was photographing the end of the Somerset and Dorset Railway. The goods yard foreman Mr Wiltshire told me how they were bombed and pointed out a bullet hole in a signal and the site of a shelter. He of course had no idea that at the time I was just across the road.
There was also the visit of the Luftwaffe pilots who flew across in one of their parties (Willie) planes to say sorry. They were treated as honoured guests, just nice guys they didn’t want to bomb and I didn’t want to be underneath them. I strangely always felt sorry for the guys flying – at least I was on home ground.
The final link, I met on several occasions at jazz festivals a band from Lubeck called Dr Jazz Companie. They were my age and would have been bombed by the RAF which resulted in the reprisal raid on Bath. The stupidity of it all.
My grandmother and grandfather are still in St. James’s, the family grave is but a few yards from their sitting room window, their son, my father, who died prior to the blitz may not be there, a bomb fell awfully close
There is a vivid account of an RAF bombing raid on YouTube – a radio programme based on LE Deighton’s book “Bomber”. When first broadcast it was in real-time throughout the day and night. A chilling illustration of the reality of war.’