People in story: Doug Sim
Location of story: Birkenhead
Background to story: Civilian
Article ID: A4921823
Contributed on: 10 August 2005
My early memories of which I consider a good childhood were about the war being fought between Great Britain and Germany. Close by our estate were the docks at Birkenhead, with the Liverpool Docks a mile away across the RIVER MERSEY. The docks were an obvious target for the German bombers, as were the ship building yards of Cammell Laird
& Company in Birkenhead.
November 1940 the bombers found their way to the docks and surrounding area. I believe the number of ANTI AIRCRAFT (ACK ACK) Batteries and Royal Airforce fighter stations that surrounded the area deterred the pilots. This made them drop their load randomly resulting in the loss of many civilian lives and property being lost or damaged. The youngsters of the war these were exciting times, we did not give much thought to others suffering, unless it happened to you. Thank goodness it did not directly affect my life or that of my family. I have read somewhere that the first bombs dropped in the Liverpool area fell in the Prenton district of Birkenhead, killing a maid in a house in Prenton Lane.
The government of the day provided all of the people with two types of shelter from the bombing, one of which consisted of half round metal sheets that were corrugate or fluted and bolted to straight sheets. A hole was dug into the earth to a depth of 4 feet. The width and breadth would be about 7 feet x 5 feet. The straight sheets would remain above the ground to a height of approximately 2 feet then the curved sheets bolted to them to form a half round effect giving a total headroom of 8 feet or so. In theory, the rounded shape would deflect any bombs falling onto the shelter. A door shape was fixed on the front this too was formed out of the same sheeting. A curtain or door was fitted to keep in any light and to keep out the weather. Any light seen shining from the shelter would give a target at night to any enemy plane flying above.
The finished shelter would then be covered with the excavated soil then grass or flowers on the soil to make it invisible from the air, as well as making it blend into the garden scenery. Seats to form beds could be placed inside for comfort during the air raids. This type of shelter was called an Anderson. The other type of shelter was of a brick and concrete structure, for some reason these were slightly larger than the Anderson. They had thick brick walls that were topped by a solid roof of concrete to the depth of 8 inches. They stood approximately seven feet above the ground and were approximately seven feet square. They had a doorway to one side of the front elevation. This was to give cover to the inside from any nearby explosive blast. There was an escape window at the rear. The roof of this type of shelter was also covered with soil to make it invisible from the air. Communal shelters were built in the street or open spaces where houses had no room for an individual shelter.
Strategic areas that surrounded important sites were often protected by Barrage Balloons. They were rubber skins filled with helium gas that made them buoyant. These were attached to a lorry by means of a hawser and moved from one site to another. They were silvery grey colour, about 10 feet in length and resembled the shape of an elephant without trunk and legs. A smaller version of the balloon can be seen nowadays advertising car salesroom etc. The balloons would be raised to a height just above the anticipated flying height of the incoming aircraft. The logic was that the planes, flying in the dark would collide with the balloon or more likely with the trailing hawser causing loss of control of the plane. I never witnessed one but I have seen pictures of a balloon catching fire after being hit by a plane or by the gunfire from the plane’s gunners. With all the explosive gas inside them it is a spectacular sight. Who did the falling hawser land on I wonder? My sister Lil helped make the balloons in the Littlewoods factory in Canning Street. Birkenhead towards the wars end. When the war ended and balloons were no longer required production was switched to making safety equipment for ships.
When “MOANING MINNY” the air raid warning siren, sounded giving the populous and advance warning of an impending raid, we took to the shelter, where apart from a direct hit on the shelter we were safe. What we did in the shelter during the raid, which could last for many hours, was dependent on if you could sleep through the noise. We played games or read. We did take plenty of warm clothing, drinks and other comforts that could be mustered. These were kept handy by the back door ready to be hurriedly picked up on the way to the shelter. The mothers had it off to a fine art, as the night raids went on for many months. My mum was no exception she would make sure that we were comfortable for the night ahead.
Some families would not use the shelters but preferred to place the family either under the stairs or in the bathroom. The construction of a stairway was usually solid and often the only part of a house left standing after an air raid. This was the experience of my wife and her family who were bombed out in 1942, in New Ferry. Their bathroom was directly under the stairs. The three small children and mother were placed in the bath. The house received a direct hit with a bomb. They were not harmed except being covered with dust. I guess the system worked for them.
The morning after an air raid was one of our exciting adventures. You know that what goes up must come down again. That was the case of the shells that the ACK ACK guns fired at the bombers. The nearest gun battery to the avenues was situated alongside Bidston Railway Station manned by members of the Royal Artillery Regiment. They had a large gun known fondly as “BIG BERTHA”, when she fired you would know why she was christened so. Bertha was a 4’7 inch gun. There were other gun sites in and around Bidston. One I was aware of was up the lane opposite St Oswalds Church near the village hall.
The shells were set or timed to explode at the height that the gunners thought the planes were flying at, the resulting pieces of shrapnel then rained back down to earth. The Artillery Regiment also had portable guns that were moved from area to area to take advantage of getting the best shots at the planes. They also served to continue the barrage, if a bomb hit a permanently placed gun. The problem was that we did not have any warning where and when the guns would be fired. A popular place was in the field to the rear of our house, or the open space to the side of the house. Not good for any person living nearby that may have had a weak heart. The portable gun a Bofar, would fire five or six rounds then be on the move to another site. The morning after an air raid the children would then search the streets looking for shrapnel. The bigger the piece found the more you were envied by your pals.
Some unfortunate families did receive a direct hit from a bomb falling onto their house often resulting in the loss of a good pal or school mate. This happened to me. I guess we were lucky, our avenue only had three houses bombed or blown up through a gas explosion due to bombing. With their being so many fighters stations around we would often see the RAF chasing the enemy around the skies. With the help of the ACK ACK a few German planes did not make it back to their base in Northern France. I remember one such plane meeting its end which resulted in some of the crew parachuting out and landing in the nearby fields only to be taken captive by the local police, army or civilians. It is not beyond belief that if you were quick off the mark and got to the parachute before the authorities, the wife or daughter could have a new silk dress.
Dad being an old soldier volunteered for army service but ill health and age were against him, so he joined Air Raid Precaution Wardens Unit that had been formed to attend to any aspect to do with air raids. One of their tasks was making sure that no lights were showing from houses etc during the hours of darkness which would pinpoint residential or manufacturing areas on he ground to aircraft flying above. Sticky brown paper tape about one and a half inch wide was given to each home to place in diamond patterns over each window pane. The idea was that if a bomb blast hit the window, the glass would not shatter into the room injuring people. Black or dark cloth was put up against the inside of each window to stop light penetrating out into the night. This period was called the “BLACK OUT”.
The enemy would drop what were called incendiary bombs that were designed to cause small fires again to pinpoint premises. The ARP warden’s job, with other volunteers, like factory fire watch crews was to put these fires out as soon as possible using sand or water. Dad was stationed in a purpose built hut just inside Birkenhead Park at the junction of Cavendish Road and Park Road North by the tennis courts. If all was quiet he could be found in his hut at night. One such night he had been annoyed for most of the evening and into the early hours by the sound of the meowing of a cat, not being over fond of cats this got on his nerves so he had to do something about stopping the racket. He found the offending MOGGY stuck up a nearby tree. Armed with a ladder he reached the cat, he was just about to dispatch it to the ground quicker than gravity when the local constable who normally called for a smoke and cup of tea hailed him thereby saving the poor old muggy a long drop. On the bobby’s recommendation Dad was awarded a bronze medal from the R.S.P.C.A for his fortitude and bravery in saving the cats life. Lets now leave this period as enough has been said to give a general picture.
Tons more stories here, most from Liverpool but loads from Wirral: https://www.bbc.co.uk/History/ww2peopleswar/user/21/u1510621.shtml