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Bonzer Words!: Yuletide Mamories

"I stood on the window-sill, terrified and in awe. The whole district, as bright as day, seemed on fire. I was in the centre of a circle of flames...''

John Powell recalls a far-from-peaceful wartime Christmas.

It was Christmastide, December 1940; goodwill towards mankind. Dad had finished his evening surgery and in the basement of our South London home we were relaxing after supper. Not for long. The radio became distorted as the sirens started up with their chilling wailing, then finished to the dreaded drone of German bombers overhead. It was our turn tonight.

Our guns soon opened up. CRACK! … BAAANG! … CRACK! … BAAANG! The staccato 'crack' of the anti-aircraft shells, hard on the ear-drums and making us flinch, was followed by the loud, echoing, thunder-like 'baaang' which rolled across the London roof-tops, shaking the windows. The clatter of the falling showers of shrapnel signified a brief interval in the percussive symphony until the next salvo, which followed quickly.

We all listened to the whistle of a falling bomb and the 'crump' of an explosion. It was followed immediately by another, this time a longer whistle. We relaxed; we did not mind the sound of the whistling as the bomb fell; the longer the whistle then the further away it was. Then it came!

It was a frighteningly loud noise, lasting but a few seconds; something between that of an express train roaring through a station and a 'swishing' sound of immense power; at the same time, atmospheric shock waves hit us, setting off a powerfully heavy vibration of the air and atmosphere from a bomb's sheer velocity, then there was the deep rumble of an explosion.

The house swayed violently, threatening collapse: the lights went out, came on again, went out, flickered then recovered. The whole basement was filled with a thick dust haze, which we could taste and breathe, shaken from places both known and unknown; then, almost simultaneously, came the sound of shattered glass crashing outside the basement, another of our few surviving windows blown out.

Quickly there followed the ringing of the front door bell for the Doctor. Dad, grabbed his tin helmet and emergency medical bag, and telling us, uselessly, not to worry, was gone.

Immediate whistle-blasts, denoting incendiaries were falling, sent me racing up four floors to the attic to check. From the attic window I saw flames leaping from the flat roof of a neighbour. Grabbing a bucket of sand, and sliding down the roof, my feet came to rest on a small parapet along the gutter. I edged across the roofs to the flames, but the sand, from dampness, stuck in the bucket so I threw the bucket at the flames, sending a cascade of sparks in all directions. 'Clever, bastard' I muttered and then the neighbour opened a trap-door, handing me a hose.

Crawling as near as possible on my stomach, I played the hose on the flames. The guns opened up again; CRACK … BAAANG … CRACK … BAAANG! Salvo after salvo. I felt sure every bomb-aimer in the German Luftwaffe was lining me up in his sights while the 'clunk' and the 'ping' of shrapnel on the slate roofs had me petrified. Finally, with the fire out I returned to the attic.

I stood on the window-sill, terrified and in awe. The whole district, as bright as day, seemed on fire. I was in the centre of a circle of flames. Red glows were in the top-floor windows opposite: from the factory to my right, men were pulling out a hose to fight flames while from windows, choking clouds of thick smoke were billowing, covering the whole area. On the roof of an office block to my left, men were running, extinguishing flames and shouting. On the road behind, scattered incendiaries were burning themselves out with their brilliant glare. In front, more burning incendiaries on the road together with debris of bricks and rubble from the near-miss bomb, while over to the far left, flames were shooting skywards from the Green Line coach station, while more bombs whistled downwards and the earth shook.

Next morning, the acrid smell of smoke everywhere, I realized that fear had driven me; fear our row of houses might be destroyed; fear I'd slide over the edge of the roof into a forty foot drop; fear of being hit by jagged shrapnel. I also realized that fear is nothing to be ashamed of; only when it turns to 'funk', leaving others to do your job, does it become despicable.

Has anything changed? The mayhem, murder, bombs, bullets and bloodshed still continue. Peace on earth; goodwill towards men, is still a myth in many countries.

Let's count our blessings: Happy Christmas to you all—and pray for mankind's sanity!

© John Powell

John writes for Bonzer magazine. Please visit www.bonzer.org.au


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