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Boys became heroes during the Luftwaffe’s Blitz on British cities

Posted in Historical articles, History, World War 2 on Monday, 30 July 2012

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This edited article about the Home Front originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 756 published on 10th July 1976.

London Blitz, picture, image, illustration

Firefighters during the London Blitz by Harry Green

In blinding, choking dust, air raid wardens crawled over the mass of brick, masonry and wood that, five minutes before, had been an underground shelter in Manchester.

Suddenly, someone called for silence and a stillness filled the dust laden air. Through it the faint sound of knocking and muffled shouts could be heard. The wardens at once began to shift the rubble frenziedly with their bare hands.

For two hours they toiled with frantic effort while the raid went on with unabated fury. The whine of falling bombs and the vivid flashes as they exploded sometimes seemed near enough to be touched. At last a hole was made leading down through the debris. It was only a small hole and it needed someone small to struggle into it.

Ronald Orme, aged 16, was the immediate volunteer, and he was in the hole in a trice. More frantic digging – then he reached the imprisoned men and women, blackened faces staring out in disbelief at him and the small ring of daylight beyond. Bearing the weight of the mass of rubble on his shoulders, Orme helped them out one by one.

There were babies in the shelter, too, babies whose thin wailing was drowned in the smash of bombs, the ugly droning of the enemy planes overhead and the bark of the anti-aircraft guns.

Slowly, painfully, young Ronnie Orme lifted the first of them to the surface. Then he took off his helmet and, holding it over the baby, ran with it to safety. He returned for another and another, and still another.

For eleven hours that night, the Germans raided Manchester and for eleven hours Ronnie Orme worked without a break. It was 7 a.m. before he decided to call it a night and go home for breakfast.

In wartime Britain there was nothing unique about the courage of young Ronnie Orme. Every night as the German Luftwaffe pounded the big industrial cities to destruction, scores of similar deeds were performed by citizens of the “Home Front”. Such a hero was Jimmy Cluff, a Stepney boy who volunteered for fire fighting and rescue work. One night in the “blitz” Jimmy and some of his friends had been putting out fires for hours and were about to tackle another when a big bomb burst only ten yards away. In Jimmy’s own words, “I spun round and round, and then a wall came down on top of me.”

Five operations and six blood transfusions later Jimmy was as perky as ever, although he had lost a leg and an eye.

Night after night the German bombers rained death on the East End of London, grimly determined to destroy the docks. At the beginning of the blitz 19 high explosive bombs fell in one night in one area only a few hundred yards square, and 26 more fell in the same area a few nights later. Here, amid the desolation, stood the ruins of the “Richard Cobden” public house, minus its upper storey but still looking like a battered oasis in a desert of destruction. And that, indeed, was just what it was for young Charlie Brotherton and his pals. During an air raid they would shelter in the wrecked pub and, when the incendiary bombs fell, dart out and pounce on them with sandbags. The risk of being burnt to death was extremely high, but the Cockney “musketeers” saved many lives with their cool courage.

Freddie Harrison was only six and his dad was in the army when a bomb hit his home and destroyed it. Freddie and his two sisters, three-year-old Mary and 10-months-old Joy, were in bed. A wardrobe fell across the beds and a brick wall fell on top of the wardrobe.

Freddie wriggled his way out and crawled around until he found the baby. He knew she was all right – she was crying at the top of her voice. He pulled away the bricks that covered little Joy, dragged her out, and wriggled his way out of the wreckage with her.

Having left the baby in a safe spot, he went straight back for Mary and then set about finding an air raid warden to rescue their mother.

Ten-year-old Wolf Cub Royston Newmans of Tonbridge, who received a commendation from King George VI for his “coolness and courage”, was giving his baby brother an airing in the pram when, suddenly, an aeroplane came hurtling out of the sky and crashed nearby. Young Roy snatched the baby from the pram, threw himself in the gutter and shielded the baby with his own small body.

When firemen arrived at the blazing docks in the first all-night blitz on London, they found Sam Stillwell, 17-year-old despatch rider in the Auxiliary Fire Service, had beaten them to it.

Sam was grappling with the business end of a hose, fighting the flames single-handed. For fourteen hours that night, and for five nights afterwards, Sam carried messages and brought drinking water to the firemen who would not leave their posts. For his heroism Sam was awarded an O.B.E.

These are only some of thousands of incidents that went on every week when the big cities of Britain were being pounded in the blitz.

When, often exhausted by a night’s civil defence work, the men and women of Britain’s cities returned to their factory benches, their thoughts stayed with putting some extra effort into winning the war. One of the favoured ways was through War Savings Groups, each of which set out to buy something real – a tank, a torpedo, a field gun or a parachute.

A South London women’s street group had many members whose men were in the forces, so they decided that they wanted their war savings to pay for equipment of a life-saving nature, rather than life taking. Their targets were a parachute and a rubber dinghy, and of course they achieved them.

The Savings Group of a large tobacco company decided not to take any chances with the army quartermasters and raised enough money to equip all the members of their company who were in the forces.

The Stoke-on-Trent Groups were also practically minded. They combined to equip a whole regiment – the North Staffordshire. It took £20 to equip one man, and that, of course, was a lot of money in the early 1940s.

In Coventry, a big motor factory decided to subscribe over £5,000 to buy a fighter plane. The office boy gave five shillings (25p) and the managing director £900. The office boy’s contribution bought ten rivets and the managing director’s cheque bought one of the wings.

Everyone was spurred on by this kind of giving for Britain – so much so that every factory in Coventry set out to buy a fighter plane, and every factory succeeded.

And if you weren’t saving for anything special, you could always be persuaded to put by a little something extra for one of the many savings “weeks” that were advertised extensively all over the country – like “Wings for Victory Week”, “Warship Week”, “Spitfire Week”, and so on.

The statistics of all this effort soon began to make dizzy reading. By the end of 1943 alone Britain had made 7,000 million rounds of small arms ammunition, 83,000 tanks, armoured cars and gun carriers, five and a half million machine-guns, rifles, sub-machine guns and automatic pistols, 90,000 aircraft of all kinds and many other weapons of war.

In that same year, the mobilization of the nation’s man and woman power was complete. Out of an “effective” population (people aged between 14 and 65) of 33 million, just under half were in the services or engaged in full-time war work in factories. Many of the others were doing part-time war work or voluntary work. More than seven million women were included in the total for the Services and war work – a mobilization of women on an unprecedented and unrivalled scale.

For the future generation of postwar Britons it was to be a case not so much of “What did you do in the War, Dad?” as “What did you do in the War, Mum?”

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