BBC Wales has a programme of memories of Wales in the WW11. I recalled some vivid ones of my childhood in my book 'The Unusual Suspect'
Infant school life was electrified by preparations for war. German bombing targets – the docks, the main railway station and Currans munitions factory on the river Taff embankment – ringed Grangetown. Relatives on my father’s side warned that, when the air raids began, poorly aimed bombs would scatter down over the terraced streets of Grangetown, and so my paternal grandparents and a clutch of uncles and aunts decamped from their Cardiff home to the safety of Caerphilly. The air raids were events of wonder for me aged five and my brothers Mike, six, and Terry, nine. They were nights of terror for my mother. My sister Mary was born on 29 December 1940. The first major air raid struck Cardiff five days later on 2 January. We scampered the 100 yards to the communal shelter in Clive Street weighed down with blankets and overcoats, my mother clutching the tiny baby.
It was midnight but the sky was bright with golden flares that burned and crackled as they fell from the sky. In our naivety we mistook the dropping flares for bombs. We were running through a cauldron of noise:the German bombers braying a characteristic engine throb, augmented by the howling banshees of the air raid warnings and the shouts of ARP wardens to ‘get to the shelter, quick now’.
The communal shelter was a line of simple buildings that stretched down the centre of the unusually broad Clive Street. It gave psychological protection only, constructed of fragile brick with a concrete roof. The two hundred mortals jammed into a single shelter were more exposed to bomb strikes than they would have been in the houses they had deserted. The threadbare consolation was that there was more chance of being killed outright in the shelter and less of being buried alive under the collapsed debris of a house. That night a shelter at the rear of Hollyman’s bakery in Stockland Street, a few streets away from Clive Street, was bombed. It was a direct hit and at least thirty-three people were killed. Most of them were parishioners from St Patrick’s Church who had rushed to the shelter from the church. The bodies were never recovered and a hardware store now stands on their unmarked graves.
Many other wartime precautions were equally futile. My father’s brother Ted Flynn was a special constable charged with guarding the Canton bridge over the river Taff during air raids. Dutifully he hurried from his home to the bridge at the bidding of the siren. No one ever told him how to guard the bridge. If the Germans parachuted out of the sky, he had no weapon to defend it. Ruefully he concluded that his job was to spot bombs that were about to hit the bridge, catch them and throw them in the Taff.
The scariest warden’s job of all was forced on a team of steelworkers. They had to climb up the main gasometer at Guest Keen steelworks in Splott and operate a Lewis gun mounted on the top. In peacetime and in daylight I later found that climb a terrifying experience. Those who did it in the blackout to take pot shots at enemy planes were true heroes. The rain of small phosphorus incendiary bombs on the gasometer was constant. They burst into flames on landing. The wardens’ task was to kick them off the edge of the gasometer before they burnt through the metal cladding. A direct hit with a large bomb would have launched the gasometer, wardens and the Lewis gun into the night sky and eternity.
Our infant invulnerability to grief shielded us from the worst suffering. We accepted the empty desks at school the morning after a bomb destroyed four houses in Paget Street, killing two classmates. Worse horrors were ahead. Land mines wiped out entire neighbourhoods in Grangetown and Riverside. We had a dim understanding of the scale of the tragedies, but our grief and fear was stunted and superficial. There was the rich excitement of watching a dog fight as planes fought at midday against a summer sky. Roaring engines, the crackle of guns and cottonwool puffs of smoke was a wonderful drama above our heads.
We experienced the raids through the noises of guns and bombs and the vibration of explosions. When a bomb was heard, beginning with its screaming fall to earth, there was a ritual bowing of heads. Bodies braced themselves for a possible impact. The scream grew louder, sharper. Boom! Relief and mutual congratulations that we were in the right place, again. Alive. Untouched. Wise heads would then announce ‘That one was close’ as they guessed our distance from the sound and flash.
The war came very near in two instances. The first was when the Tresillian Hotel was wiped out by a bomb intended for Cardiff railway station. It was situated on the corner of Tresillian Terrace and Penarth Road where we lived. For more than ten years the ruins remained, broken and gaunt. The shattered lift shaft door permanently hanging open, fifty feet above the ground.
The second was worse. We deserted the Clive Street communal shelter when each home was supplied with an Anderson shelter. It was family sized, half buried in the back gardens. For company two or three families shared one shelter. There was no heating during the winter raids. We huddled close, wearing a couple of overcoats each, and a heap of blankets. Children wore balaclavas and a neighbour, Granny Edwards, sported an unlikely flat Dai cap. The master plan was that families should remain in their Anderson shelters all night. But cold and discomfort drove us back to our beds as soon as the All Clear siren sounded. To ease possible escape we slept downstairs. Following the return to our beds after one raid, my mother woke us up. There was a strong smell of gas. She opened the windows to let it out. That did not help. A time bomb had severed the gas main in the road six houses distant from ours. A passing lorry set off the bomb. There was an almighty explosion as a sheet of flame roared high above our three-storey homes. Even at thirty yards’ distance the heat was unbearable. We were moved out into Granny Edwards’s house where we continued to pull her leg about the Dai cap.
The fuel saving campaign to persuade people to have their ‘Holidays at Home’ was a bonus to working class children who had never had a holiday anyway. Schools and libraries were press-ganged into organising ‘Holiday at Home’ events in the fields near Grangetown.