I was reminded, this week, of a series of programmes produced by Radio Scotland, that I listened to some years ago entitled “The people’s war”. It was a simple collection of interviews and voices of ordinary folk who had lived through and survived the Second World War. They were not soldiers, officers, politicians or important players but folk caught up in an event quite beyond their control. I was deeply moved by the simple ordinariness of the stories in the face of great horrors. I wrote to the BBC afterwards expressing my appreciation and asking if they would repeat the series. They said they had no plans to do so and I have tried several times to find the recordings on archives with no success. But I remember the stories very clearly.
They focused on the experience of nurses at Strathcathro hospital, the land girls in Angus and the Clydebank blitz. It was the later which I found quite riveting. Over the nights of 13 and 14 March 1941, Clydebank was largely destroyed by a series of air raids. It was the worst destruction and civilian loss of life in all of Scotland. The true death toll is thought to have risen above 1,200, with over 1,100 seriously injured and upwards of 35,000 people made homeless.
My mother was one of them and I remember listening to her speak about the experience. I was interested in the Anderson shelters, built half in the ground and covered with corrugated iron; a simple design to offer some form of protection against the worst effects of shrapnel and exploding buildings. I also remember asking why they didn’t make it more comfortable with seats a carpet, maybe table and lights. But I’d quite missed the point. It was a refuge a place to go to where you might be safe during an air raid. She spoke of the eerie sound of the sirens which still gave her a sense of dread when she heard them years later from a factory yard, the terror of the whistling bombs that went silent just before they struck, and the incendiaries. One hit the home of folks they knew near bye and the whole interior of the building was lit for a split second, as by a floodlight, displaying all the newlyweds’ furniture and decoration, before incineration. Her own home was destroyed in a similar fashion and it was some time before the family was reunited.
One man interviewed in the recordings told how he and his brother, as boys, instead of heading to the shelter with the others, skipped off to check that their doos (pet pigeons) were all right. When they returned, they learned that the shelter took a direct hit and the rest of the family were killed. One survivor told how her three brothers died in a raid. Her mother was bereft and would not speak about it during her life time. Chatting to her, in a retired home not long before she passed away, she summoned up the courage to broach the subject. ” Mum” she said, how did you… how did you manage… how did you cope when my brothers were killed…. how did you manage to go on?” Her reply deeply moved me at the time and it chokes when I think about it still. ” I never understood” she said ” …I never understood why The Lord took my Bairns from me, but I always understood why he gave me you.”