Tuesday, 10 November 2009

The day the Germans came to town.

In the early 1940s my mum was a young girl living a young girl's life in a pleasant westcountry city. Like all the girls at her school, she was well aware of the war going on outside her window - even if her home was hundreds of miles away from the theatre of conflict.

For her, the war existed on the wireless and through family updates of her brave Uncle Harold, a Lieutenant fighting with the Devonshire Regiment in Tunisia. Close to her home, too, the Americans had set up base in the County Ground, a sports stadium which was originally built to host speedway races, rugby and a dog track. She liked the Yanks - they were generous to their hosts, and would shower the local kids with sweets and bubblegum. The local mums would be given nylons. My mum has had nothing but good things to say about our cousins from across the pond ever since.

As the blitz of London took hold, a young girl was evacuated to Exeter and moved into my mum's family home. The two girls got on well, but the visitor ended up half-inching a tiny replica Bible with the Lord's Prayer written inside in very small letters - my mum's most prized possession. That caused a lot of upset, as did regular radio broadcasts by William Joyce aka Lord Haw Haw, the Nazi propagandist who issued thinly-veiled threats to British listeners. "Jairmany calling, Jairmany calling," he would drawl in his peculiar mid-posh British accent, before identifying future Luftwaffe targets with alarming precision: "Coventry, with your broken town clock..." etc.

My mum hated Lord Haw Haw and was terrified by him. She had good cause.

In the summer of 1942, Hitler ordered bombing raids on some of England's most beautiful cities. None of these were military targets in the slightest: they were reprisal raids. Exeter was attacked on May 4 of that year, as a response to the Allied bombing of Lubeck. Ernst Von Kugel, a German bomber pilot, remembers: "I saw whole streets of houses on fire. People were running everywhere - it was a fantastic sight. We thought of the thousands of men, women and children, the victims of our deadly visit. But we thought of our Fuhrer and the command he gave: revenge."

My mum lived, protected by the air-raid shelter in her house. One of her friend's houses was flattened. Exeter was devastated and would never look the same again.

Sometime later, and details are sketchy but it might have been on a similar raid over nearby Plymouth, my mum had an even closer encounter with the Nazis. By 1943 or so, the Germans had become brazen about their raids on the sticks. The RAF was busy defending the South East and, coastal anti-aircraft guns aside, the westcountry was rather open to attack. It seems like on the way home from a raid on the docks at Plymouth, some German aircraft decided to use up whatever ammo they had on a little extra-curricular visit to Exeter.

It could have been a Stuka, it could have been a Heinkel bomber - all my mother remembers is the screaming engine of a warplane hammering along Exeter High Street, guns blazing in the daylight, hoping to pick out any civilians who got in the way. She recalls the postman diving under his mail cart, and she remembers her mum, my grandmother, pulling her to safety into the doorway of Lyon's coffee shop. As the plane streaked past at rooftop level, she saw the pilot's head in the cockpit: she had seen a German!

It struck terror into her heart. She's related the story to me a few times over the years, and each time she ends it with a shudder. "I was a very frightened little girl," she'll say. "I had never seen a German before."

Needless to say, 1945 couldn't have come quickly enough. Not only could my mum enjoy oranges and - what's this? - bananas again, but she could put herself to good use as a young member of the British Red Cross and the Salvation Army. Soon, her world would get brighter and no longer a fearful place. She would enjoy dances at Buller Hall, trips to the cinema and, through her brother Ray, she would eventually meet my dad. The rest, as they say, is happy family history.

But on this Remembrance Day I will be thinking about her Uncle Harold. He was killed by mortar fire on April 9, 1943 just a few days before his 27th birthday. The internet has brought us closer to him, in the sense that there are many reports of his 5th Battalion's movements in Tunisia. He now rests at the Enfidaville War Cemetery and although I obviously never met him, I'll be thinking of him on the 11th hour on the 11th day of this 11th month.

God bless, Harold.

1 comment:

  1. Can I use the above in the Memories section of Exeter Memories?