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Open Features: My War - Part II

…We lived about eight miles from the center, but the blaze created by incendiary bombs was clearly visible from our bedroom windows. My grandfather looked out over the burning city and immediately collapsed with a heart attack. All public transportation was destroyed or disrupted, so the following day my father attempted to walk to his office at the gas company. When he returned that night he collapsed, his hunched body wracked by sobs. The sights he had seen that day led to him having a nervous breakdown…

In the second of his five-part series recounting his wartime experiences John Merchant tells how German bombing raids devastated the city of Sheffield.

During one of the most severe air raids, after hearing a dull thud and feeling an impact that shook their house, a neighbor saw a sinister patch of clay draped in a parachute in their back yard. This signified the presence of a land mine. Land mines were very large bombs, designed to detonate in the air or on the surface after the parachute let them down gently, so as to cause maximum damage. Some had a delayed action fuse, timed to detonate later, after people had emerged from their shelters, or to be triggered by vibration. This land mine must have fallen faster than intended because it was well and truly buried.

Once the bomb’s presence had been verified, the street I lived on, and several adjacent streets were evacuated. So on a crystal clear, freezing cold December night, we found ourselves wandering the streets of our neighborhood, clutching our most treasured possessions, with no idea where we would go. My grandparents, who were in their seventies and lived with us, were bewildered by this turn of events, particularly my grandmother, who was in the early stages of dementia. My mother was carrying my infant sister.

Eventually we found our way to the parish church hall where, along with scores of other families, we spent the rest of the night. The following morning, residents who lived at a safe distance from the bomb, came to the church hall and volunteered to accommodate the homeless as best they could. No one could take all six of us, so my father and I went to one family, and my grandparents, mother and baby sister to another.

It took a few days to excavate the bomb, and each day, unknown to my parents, I’d sneak back to the site through the cordoned-off streets, and from the cover of some rhododendrons, watch the bomb disposal squad at work. I well remember the obvious tension of the soldiers as they watched while an officer reached under the nose of the huge bomb with a wrench in his hand. After what seemed a lifetime, the detonator was finally removed, and with much back slapping the squad collapsed into nervous laughter.

Later in the war, the Germans built two detonators into the land mines, or a timer, so the bomb disposal squads constantly needed to revise their procedures, and grew very knowledgeable about the outside markings or type numbers, which often could provide clues as to what they were dealing with. For a couple of years it was a common sight to see convoys of trucks carrying unexploded bombs out to the moors to be detonated.

The early air raids were aimed at destroying strategic installations, so the steel plants of my home town were a favorite target. Fortunately, the plants were concentrated in an area away from the most populated parts of the city. But later, when it became clear to the Germans from reconnaissance photos that the bombing was ineffective in stopping production, they turned their attention to psychological targets. In one such air raid, practically the entire center of the city of Sheffield was destroyed.

We lived about eight miles from the center, but the blaze created by incendiary bombs was clearly visible from our bedroom windows. My grandfather looked out over the burning city and immediately collapsed with a heart attack. All public transportation was destroyed or disrupted, so the following day my father attempted to walk to his office at the gas company. When he returned that night he collapsed, his hunched body wracked by sobs. The sights he had seen that day led to him having a nervous breakdown.

The raid had occurred on another bitterly cold night, and in the light of the burning buildings, the German planes had machine gunned the firefighters. Their bodies were encased in the frozen water from the punctured hoses. All the department stores were gutted, and the streets were jammed with burning trams and rubble. The rebuilding wasn’t completed until the 1960’s, and even today there are open spaces where businesses used to stand.

One of the favorite pastimes of we young boys after a raid, was to search for shrapnel, or better still, unexploded munitions. There were two, large anti-aircraft batteries within a mile of my house, so there was no shortage of shrapnel, which during an air raid fell on our roofs like rain. The real prize was to find unexploded German machine gun bullets. I found only one through the entire war, and was stupid enough to put it in a vice and hammer a nail into the detonator cap as my friends watched from outside the garden hut.

Fortunately I was standing with my feet apart when the projectile tore a two foot diameter hole in the earth floor of the shed. My friends were calling to me from outside the shed, but I could hear nothing. I was relieved that I had survived, but then noticed that the finger tips of my left hand, which had been holding the nail, looked like bloody, half peeled bananas. Fortunately my parents were not at home, and irrational as it may seem, my main concern was to prevent them from knowing what I had done.

I persuaded my friends to help me bind up my fingers, and once the flow of blood had been stemmed, began to think I might get away with my stupidity. Then, to my dismay, I noticed a puncture at the base of my left thumb, and a sinister blue lump under the skin, about three quarters of an inch from the puncture. It was a piece of the detonator cap, and my head started to spin with thoughts of how I could possibly lie my way out of that.

I had already concocted a story to tell my parents of how I fallen with a glass jar in my hand, but the piece of copper in my flesh didn’t square well with that tale. So, with a lot of persuading, one of my friends agreed to squeeze the metal back along its entry path. Well, I guess that’s what friends are for. Amazingly, my parents bought the story, most likely because they had more pressing things on their minds at the time.

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