UK

70 years on, memories of the Blitz are as fresh as ever

Image caption Scenes likes this were commonplace across the UK during the Blitz

Memories of the Blitz do not go away for the ever-dwindling number of people who lived through it.

The BBC's Ian Shoesmith spoke to some of those who lived through the most intensive bombardment the UK had ever witnessed.

Between 7 September 1940 and 10 May 1941, at least 43,000 civilians were killed, more than 140,000 were injured, and around the UK an estimated one million homes were damaged or destroyed.

Jean Taylor certainly remembers her 14th birthday.

On the night which redefined modern warfare, she was just grateful to have survived long enough to hear the people in the air raid shelter sing Happy Birthday to her on the chimes of midnight as the bombs rained down on her home city of Coventry.

Three quarters of the city was destroyed in 11 hours of relentless bombing, which started in the early evening of 14 November 1940.

By the time Jean emerged from her shelter around dawn the following morning, at least 568 of her fellow citizens were dead and thousands more were homeless.

Smouldering rubble

You would have thought the smouldering rubble of Coventry's ancient cathedral would have served as a metaphor for its inhabitants' morale.

But just as a new cathedral would quickly rise from the debris, so too did the spirit of the people.

Not that survivors like 83-year-old Jean ever doubted it would: "Hitler thought that wiping Coventry out would wipe out the British, but we were bloody-minded and would never have let that happen."

Nearly seven decades on, her memories of that long night are still very fresh: "The air raid sirens started going at 7 o'clock. My mum always had a bag packed, with a flask and sandwiches."

The local shelter was dug into the site of a local school. "It was a horrible, stinky, smelly place," she said, "300 people were cooped up in there and of course everybody in those days used to smoke.

"There were just a couple of latrines, so you could imagine the smell, especially as fear has a certain effect on you."

"The bombing went on and on, for about 11 hours constantly. You'd occasionally hear the 'pom-pom-pom' sound of the ack-ack (anti-aircraft guns) but the planes were so low overhead it was so noisy.

'Huge crater'

"In the morning we came out and it was all horrible and misty and cold. In the estate next to us there was a huge crater the depth of two double-decker buses. The Germans had taken out the gas, the water and the electricity, so it was very hard."

Rationing in the city, though, was cancelled for 17 days afterwards, but it did not matter "because there was nothing anyway!"

She remembers hearing rumours that the government had deliberately sacrificed Coventry so as not to alert the Nazis that Britain had managed to crack some of their top-secret codes.

Had Downing Street increased air defences in Coventry, the rumour went, the Germans would have guessed that the Allies were onto them, and changed the codes they used.

Jean said: "The rumour was that they decided to sacrifice the few (in Coventry) to save the many. Nobody has ever confirmed or denied that, and that says a lot."

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Media captionAlf Morris revisits the bombed site of his wartime home

Hull Blitz survivor Denis Grout is only around to tell his story because his dad had "a funny feeling" that something was about to happen during one particularly intensive night of bombing.

He was only 10 years old when his house was totally destroyed by a bomb which landed at the end of his terrace and killed five people who had gathered in a shelter there.

'Funny feeling'

Denis, now 79, thinks he probably only survived because of his dad's premonition. He said: "He said to my mum 'we're going on the lorry'. My mum said 'why?' and he replied 'because I've got a funny feeling'."

From the hills of South Cave, to the west of the city centre, "we watched the whole of Hull on fire" before returning home to find their house totally destroyed.

Hull was an easy target for the Luftwaffe, being a heavily-industrialised city on the east coast, at the confluence of two rivers.

And it suffered more than most - one estimate suggests two-thirds of the then population of 320,000 were made homeless.

Denis said: "We didn't have shelters at the start of the war, so at first we went under the stairs but that wasn't a good idea because of the gas main. So we sheltered under the big kitchen table we had our dinner on.

"The shelters were damp and everything, but we certainly used them. Basically you dug a big hole and then bolted the bent, corrugated iron around it. Four people could lay down in them, but sat up you could get six to eight people in them.

"A lot of people wouldn't go into the shelters though. My mum did because we were children."

But while Denis and his immediate family were lucky, his cousin Mavis Templeman was not so fortunate.

Both her 18-month-old sister and four-year-old brother were killed when a bomb exploded on their air raid shelter in May 1941, along with her mother and two grandparents.

Mavis, who was then only three years old, was the sole survivor.

To this day, she doesn't know whether her almost total lack of memory of that night is because she was simply too young, or because her brain had erased what happened for her own sake.

Mavis said: "I think I can remember the sirens and going to the shelter. That sound is still in your ears and it still makes me feel weird when I hear them".

One can only begin to imagine how her father reacted to the news that his wife and two of his children had perished.

"Dad was away in the Army when it happened," she said, "He came back and picked me up from hospital, and I had a big bandage wrapped around my head.

"He was so shell-shocked at what had happened. I lived with him until I was eight, but he couldn't cope after what had happened and I was adopted.

"I used to think 'I don't like you' about my dad, but nowadays they call it PTSD."

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