The person who knew the whole story was my Mum but she would not talk about it. The facts I have come from my Dad, family friends and other relatives, including the honorary Aunt and Uncle who gave the tale its happy ending. Their accounts do not agree on the detail of the adventure but there is, more or less, a consensus on the main events. If you put all the facts on a clean sheet of paper they would amount to a handful of dots, some of them numbered: this is my attempt to join the dots to make a recognisable picture.
I was three months short of four years old on the evening of Thursday, 14th March 1941. I had probably been kept up late to give my Mum company since my Dad, a police constable, had set out for London that morning to escort a deserter back to barracks. Playing with me would have kept her from worrying about him being exposed to the dangers of the frequent terror bombings of the capital.
She would have settled me in good time for her to sit down with a cup of tea to listen to the nine o’clock news on the wireless. That night the news had only started when the wail of sirens got her out of her chair to pick up the wee case she kept packed and push me in my buggy through the close and across the green to the shelter buried next to the washhouse. In the fibre suitcase would be all she needed to keep me clean and fed for the interminable time we might have to spend in the dank, poorly lit hole in the ground shared with our neighbours in 745 Dumbarton Road, Dalmuir West.
They had probably convinced themselves that it would be another false alarm and my Mum would have had her knitting out when the bombs began to fall. The Luftwaffe sent over two hundred and thirty six bombers that night to drop two hundred and seventy tons of high explosive and one thousand six hundred and fifty incendiary canisters on strategic targets on Clydebank and western parts of Glasgow.
745 is on the good side of Dumbarton Road and my parents felt that they had moved up in the world when they had flitted across the street a year before. It was in the centre of a red sandstone terrace one street from Dalmuir Park. Behind it there were three other streets of tenements before the fitting out basin for John Brown’s shipyard where a Polish vessel was being fitted with new guns. In their euphoria my parents bought a carpet for their new ground floor tenement flat that cost more than they could really afford.
The bombers left from airfields in France, Belgium, Norway and Denmark joining up as they made landfall on the Firth of Forth. It was a cloudless night of full moon making it simple to find Loch Lomond gleaming in the moonlight where they turned down the Vale of Leven and started dropping bombs from Bowling to Partick.
About four doors up from us a direct hit destroyed the end of the terrace killing the people in the shelter. The percussion of the explosions made the corrugated iron sheeting of our shelter shake and an almost constant rain of fine, sandy soil sifted through like smoke into the hair and onto the clothes of the terrified occupants. The noise was indescribable and very nearly continuous; it was impossible to talk but they touched each other to maintain human contact and keep their spirits up. You could just discern through the mist of dust that people’s lips were moving in prayer but even in the occasional lulls you could hear nothing. In fact, it was days before hearing was fully restored.
The fear and uncertainty lasted more than nine hours before the all clear sounded just before six in the morning of the 15th. Into the pre-dawn light the survivors emerged to a world that had changed beyond belief. The back green smelled of smoke and cordite and the air was thick with choking dust.
Mum opened the door of our home to be met by a flood. The Polish ship had fired its guns at the raiding aircraft and the concussion had ruptured our hot water tank in the living room. Mum took one look at her wonderful new carpet covered in filthy water and dissolved in tears. All she now possessed was in the push chair and on her back; her home was devastated, her husband was four hundred miles away and she had less than two pounds in her purse.
The full impact of the events of the night only became apparent when she pushed me through the blast wall of sandbags at the mouth of the close and saw Dumbarton Road. Almost opposite an entire street of tenement houses had been reduced to rubble that spilled over the road and tramlines. Fifty yards away a tram at the Dalmuir West terminus had been torn apart. Other trams and buses were being used as dressing stations and make-shift mortuaries.
The streets were filling up with people looking dazed, filthy, red-eyed and coughing in the foul atmosphere, for by this time broken drains and sewers were adding to the stench. Mum turned first towards Clydebank hoping to make her way to her parent’s house in Govan but the devastation got worse when she crossed the swing bridge over the canal. She was beginning to recover from the shock by now and was starting to plan. Just across the canal was the police station and she went in there to leave a message for my Father telling him we were going to Luss, after the desk sergeant had warned her that she had no chance of reaching the Glasgow boundary.
Singer’s factory had been badly damaged and a distillery at Yoker had suffered a direct hit. Incendiaries had set the wood store at Singer’s ablaze and the fire provided a beacon for the second raid on the Friday night. Some buses were still running but there were long queues as more and more people decided that leaving Clydebank was the best option. No record was kept but it is estimated that at least two thousand and perhaps as many as ten thousand fled on Friday 15th March 1941. Many of them never returned to the town.
With no prospect of getting on the busses, full beyond their capacity by the time they reached Dalmuir, Mum set out pushing me blissfully sleeping through the piles of rubble towards Old Kilpatrick. An oil tank at Dalnottar had been hit and was still burning sending clouds of oily smoke across the main road. Fire crews were trying to damp the neighbouring fuel tanks and a pipe had been set up to move oil from the exposed tanks close to the river to the tanks on the hillside that had some protection from earth bunds.
Although it was only nine o’clock in the morning the roads were busy with bewildered people, many of them with minor wounds, determinedly drifting towards safety in the unseasonably warm sunshine. There was a bottle-neck where the pipeline crossed the main road. Engineers were allowing busses to drive over the pipe but only after they unloaded all their passengers. On the Old Kilpatrick side there was a milling crowd of travellers on foot and passengers decanted from the busses. In this melee, Mum hauled me in my buggy onto an empty bus the instant it cleared the pipe.
The only thing she would ever say about the day was that she felt sorry for the poor man that had got off the bus at one side of the obstruction and found he had lost his place when it crossed the pipe! She used to take comfort in imagining him as an unpleasant individual who had refused to give up his seat to an old lady before he was forced off the bus.
Things were much easier from then on and we arrived in the late afternoon at the police station in Luss where my Father’s best friend and my honorary Uncle was the sole representative of law and order.
Dad finally tracked us down despite the message Mum left for him going astray and we returned to 745 Dumbarton Road as soon as it became habitable. We finally left in November 1943 for the police station in Cove accompanied by the living room carpet, cleaned at government expense. It was still in service when I left home in 1960!
I have often thought that this would have made a great story if I could only remember what happened.
The factual information comes from ‘The Clydebank Blitz’ by IMM MacPhail.