Norman (d. 2006) was not a soldier but a young Londoner during the blitz (Nazi bombing raids) of the second world war, living on Peterborough Road in Leytonstone.
Norman had a brother named William and sisters called Ida, Audrey and Winifred. After the war, he forged a major career as a civil engineer on large technical projects such as Sellafield nuclear power station.
Of the siblings Audrey is happily still with us. She contacted me through this website in 2009 to tell me that she and her brothers and sisters were related to me. Her grandfather Charles Frederick Aylmer, b1848, was my great grandfather. Audrey herself merits her own entry as a Writing Aylmer.
Norman’s grand-daughter Kate sent me these two remarkable letters to Ida, describing the height of the blitz in September 1940.
The first letter – dated 9 September 1940
The first letter opens with Norman recording Ida’s hope that ‘things are quieter now’ in London; but Norman starts writing on Saturday 7 September 1940, the day that the Nazi air force, the Luftwaffe, switched its tactics from bombing Royal Air Force airfields to bombing the great cities of Britain, and above all London. Just before 5pm, Norman hears ‘a roar of planes’ and borrows his father’s field-glasses:
‘The cloud [of planes] separated into hundreds of small dots, big dots going steadily from the [Whipps Cross] hospital chimney towards Canterbury School, whilst all around them, dozens more smaller dots which was their fighter escort, twisted and turned all over the place …’
After weeks of attrition, the RAF is powerless to stop wave after wave of Nazi bombers getting through to the heart of London, about five miles south-west of Leytonstone:
‘As it got dark, the black [smoke] began to go pink and gradually the entire sky to the West and North turned blood red … like an incredible sunset but it was flickering with huge flares going up and every so often an enormous explosion …’
On Sunday afternoon, Norman and ‘Marg’ (sweetheart?) go for a walk in Epping Forest, the area around Waterworks Corner. But:
‘Suddenly the guns and sirens went off together and we had to rush under big trees to get out of the rain of shrapnel that began to fall.’
It is the start of another big raid. Everyone has a bad night, but the next morning is Monday, and Norman and others have to go to work – in his case, to Holborn, right in the heart of the capital.
I find the next passage remarkable. I once worked just a few hundred yards from where Norman did, and remember the terrorist bombings of 7 September 2005 only too well; I was co-ordinating a conference on Regent Street, and with communications badly hit had to run messages on foot between there and my office, through increasingly quiet streets with bewildered locals and tourists alike. It was a difficult time; but look how they coped in 1940:
‘I was with hundreds of people on bikes or walking to their work … I had to make big diversions as many roads were roped off. Huge blocks of flats up Lea Bridge Road … were completely demolished [on Downs Road] that lovely block of flats and shops was just a heap of rubble … there was a huge hole in the road at Islington … There had been a direct hit on the shelter opposite Sadlers Wells theatre, and many killed there … There was no building intact from Chancery Lane to the Holborn Empire [just] pits and smoking rubble … There wasn’t a piece of glass left in [our office building] …
When he got home that evening, Norman built the family an air raid shelter in the garden. A day’s work …
The second letter – dated 27 September 1940
The Battle of Britain had by now ended, and the blitz on London was well into its stride. But those distinctions of history, afforded by hindsight, would have been lost on Londoners then. There had been nightly bombing for three weeks, and there would continue to be nightly bombing for more than another month.
Norman resumes his narrative the day after the previous letter had ended. He had gone with Marg to see North West Passage at the Ritz cinema when …
‘… the film cut off and the manager said “Here’s that man again [Hitler], anyone wanting to leave should go now and we will continue as long as possible”. We decided to stay and saw the film round … Suddenly the building began to shake and we could hear a terrific roar outside … We went to the door but the manager said that we couldn’t go out as it was too bad. Flashes were continuous and the ground was heaving. Shrapnel was coming down like rain.’
A few days later, he records, a Rover scout from Ida’s church named Len Payne is killed while diving for shelter as a bomb parachuted down – the only named fatality in the letters. Norman goes on to describe the voluntary work of his own Rover scout troop, as a hospital stretcher bearer:
‘We were given supper at about ten thirty [pm] and then we three had to go on the first two hour shift at reception. Before we went we arranged our beds down in the basement and put our stuff on them to show that they had been taken … About one o’clock a girl came in with a piece of shrapnel in her jaw … a nurse asked me to find her a bed in the basement as it was impossible for her to go home through the raid. I took her down and she was frightened by the rows of bodies sleeping and the long dark tunnels with big groaning pipes and snoring bodies. There were no empty beds so I got to our three and found that someone had pinched mine so I gave her John’s. With no beds or blankets we decided to go home when we finished our shift. A pity because the action starts after the all clear usually.’
He gives Ida a list of all the local damage and some of that in central London:
‘There have been fire bombs just about everywhere [and] high explosive bombs all over the place … About 150 houses wrecked near Dyers Hall Road and about 20 completely flat from one mine … About 1000 houses are uninhabitable in Walthamstow and much patching up is going on … [In central London] High Holborn is still shut and is piled high with debris although they have been clearing it for three weeks. Cheapside and lots more roads are shut off, the top of Woolworths in Holborn … has disappeared although they have opened some of the shop below.’
As a postscript, presumably on the date of the letter, Norman returns from work to find all the front windows of their house are blown in, so ‘I must stop writing and start to board up the windows’. Finally, a ‘PPPS’ records that ‘Weeks later’ [sic] he:
‘Went to work after a bad night of bombs and found just a big hole in the ground where my firm used to be. The boss was there and many of the older people were very upset. We were given hand written notice of termination and left addresses for our money to be sent home.’
The matter-of-factness in these letters tells of a quiet heroism. The efforts of Norman, and millions like him, are quite the equal of all the bemedalled heroes of the fighting forces.