Wednesday, 27 May 2020
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Editorial: A blitz of a different kind

Guest Editorial by FRANK HAMPSON

I WAS once among a group who cheered a Royal Air Force pilot as he flew his Spitfire at just above rooftop level in pursuit of a Luftwaffe light bomber during the London Blitz of World War II.

In a sense that moment is now being re-enacted as groups of people around the world are applauding health care workers to show their appreciation for their courage in the World War III battle against the Coronavirus.

It’s not the same kind of physical courage as demonstrated by the RAF in their dog fights with the Luftwaffe hordes of the 1940s - fighters on each side  vying to dive on the other from the glare of the sun. 

But it’s up there for comparison: Our surgeons, doctors, nurses and other health care workers constantly risk death as they strive to save lives and protect each other from attacks by an unseen enemy, while hampered by limited defence resources.

The Spitfire incident happened in Ipswich, Suffolk, in September 1941. Me and my twin brother, Vincent, were both five. We were standing in the street with our 13-year-old brother, Joe, and a group of other children and adults, watching the aerial dog fights, highlighted by their curving and criss-crossing contrails in the clear blue summer sky.

Occasionally, there would be a plume of black smoke from one aircraft and we would cheer as it went into a death dive. Until an adult pointed out that the last victim we had witnessed only had one engine and could just as easily be a Spitfire or Hurricane as a Messerschmitt.

Our house was on the corner of a side street and a quiet main road which provided the terminus for an electric trolley-bus service. 

Suddenly up above this main road roared a German twin-engined light bomber with tail fins - subsequently identified as a Messerschmitt Bf110E.

It had a long twin-seater cockpit, pilot in front of navigator, and was travelling at moderate speed at rooftop height, so we had a good view of both men who turned their heads to see us booing as they passed.

But our boos quickly turned to cheers when we saw the German plane was being followed by a Spitfire travelling slightly higher. The pilot responded by waving and waggling his wings.

One of the adults in our crowd explained that the Luftwaffe pilot was flying low among houses to avoid being shot down. But he was heading for the east coast and once there he could be in serious trouble.

We ‘helped’ our Dad and Joe dig out the trench for an Anderson air raid shelter in our backyard with our own buckets and spades, last used on the beach at nearby Felixstowe.

It was a great novelty at first but not so attractive when we had to spend some serious time in it during air raids. There were only a few opportunistic ones, though, as Luftwaffe bombers, on their way to London but low on fuel, reportedly sought to unload their bombs on non-civilian targets.

As of now, times of war were times of fear. But there could also be good cheer. We weren’t in quarantine and I remember us going on a farewell outing for our Dad, who was about to join the army. The venue was a club in Felixstowe where a glamorous young woman sang the latest hit - Somewhere Over The Rainbow.

An appropriate song for a man about to leave for war. And he wasn’t the only one there.

Our parents were from a cotton mill town called Oldham, now a part of Greater Manchester. When Dad left, Mum, fearful of the raids and alone with no family support decided to head back home.

And with the end of the London Blitz the air raids followed us as the Battle of Britain began - the Luftwaffe turning to night raids on cities like Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, and, devastatingly, Coventry.

Oldham, with many of its cotton mills being converted to the production of war materials, was also targeted. 

Once again, we stood in the street, this time to watch nearby Manchester going up in flames as searchlights raked the night skies, illuminating the ghostly shapes of barrage balloons, with their long trailing wires a hoped-for defence against low-flying aircraft.

Later, in daylight, we would play in the fenced off skeletons of mills and search for fragments of shrapnel - the legacy of exploded bombs and shells.

Oldham’s terraced housing for workers had no backyards for individual shelters. And the public shelters were brick with concrete slab roofs, benches inside  and big enough usually to accommodate about 40-50 people - possibly even more in a squeeze involving small children.

Unfortunately, the legacy of this tended to make them dank and smelly. I mention this because there was such a shelter near a cinema we used to go to. And one day we went there with brother Joe to see a movie called Target For Tonight.

The 1941 documentary (it’s still available on You Tube) was made by the RAF and put its audience in the cockpit of a Wellington bomber during a low-level night raid on an oil depot in Germany. 

The entire cast was made up of RAF personnel who took part in the planning, preparation and execution of the bombing raid.

Its propaganda purpose, to lift the spirits of victims of the blitz, was not obvious to us at the time. But it’s a tactic that would not go amiss in the current war that is being waged against the Coronavirus. It would be nice to see the global news picture painted with more hope and optimism instead of the pervading patina of pessimism.

Not too optimistic, however. An enemy like the Coronavirus has a nasty way of reminding the incautious just how deadly it can be.

Just as the Nazis did in their death throes in World War II with their V1s (forerunner of the Cruise missile), V2s (long range rockets), and jet planes.

I almost lost my wife, Marlene, before I even met her. She was six-years-old when, on Christmas Eve 1944, her bed was hurled over by the blast from the last V1 of the war. It killed 27, injured 53, destroyed 35 homes and damaged 1,025 more over a three-quarter mile radius of an Oldham suburb.

But in the ‘Target’ movie it was the RAF doing the bombing in a low-level raid on a Rhineland oil depot. And the piercing whistle as one dropped from the Wellington’s open bomb rack was astonishingly loud and realistic - as was the explosion which seemed to shake the theatre and our seats in the stalls.

We were still thrilled by the success of the bombing raid as the movie ended and we stood for the national anthem before preparing to leave.

Only then did we realise that the cinema wasn’t as crowded as it was when the movie began. And when we asked our brother, Joe, what had happened to all the people, he said: “Didn’t you see the Alert light flashing earlier? There’s been an air raid.”

The Alert light was next to the Exit light and gave audiences the opportunity to leave for nearby shelters or remain in the cinema during a raid - though in heavy bombing raids audiences would be evacuated.

So it was like moving from one movie to another when we emerged from the cinema to a scene of complete bedlam. On the opposite side of the wide road, and some distance away, a row of about six houses had been turned to rubble and flames by a single bomb.

Firemen, ambulancemen and police fought to control the scene to a background of noise studded by the clangour of the different bells of fire engines, ambulances and police cars.

That was why the whistle of the bomb and its explosive impact had shaken us in the cinema. By some freak of timing the bomb-drop outside had coincided exactly with the bomb-drop on the movie screen.

Not only that, we learned later that some of the crowd who left the cinema took refuge in a public air raid shelter on spare ground near the houses and there was a number of deaths and injuries when the slab roof collapsed.

Our mother said we were lucky she wasn’t with us at the cinema - because when the Alert signal flashed, she would certainly have taken us to that air raid shelter.

And, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this at the Editor’s request, describing a time of peril before Covid-19.

Unlike today, it was a time of noise - of air raid sirens, bombs, gunfire and screams - rather than a time of increasing silence. A time of rationing for food and clothes, as happened also in Australia. There were no fights for toilet paper when most workers were already accustomed to squares cut out of newspaper and stuck on a nail in the lavatory.

Today, there is no noise from the silent stalker. There is fear and confusion and concern about the fate of our loved ones and a sense of our lack of control over the enemy’s movements. Yet, there is also an unbeatable strength of caring – the caring of our health workers, the caring of neighbours looking out for neighbours, the caring evidenced but often not witnessed, every day in our community. 

Caring for others involves an armament of social distancing, hand washing and avoiding unnecessary travel – an array of small arms we can all access and use with distinction.