Remembering those who remember The Blitz

Baby gas mask
My father would hand-pump air into one of these to keep his baby brother alive

There was quite a bit of stuff on TV over the weekend regarding the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Included in any tale of the Battle of Britain will always be The Blitz and these were no different.

Watching these programmes reminded me of my father. Growing up in Islington (which was not the trendy place it is now) he was 5 when Britain declared war on Germany. By 6 he had been evacuated to Whitney in Oxfordshire where he stayed on a farm but – like many – found his hosts not to be as warm as his own parents. In 1941 my grandmother gave birth to my twin uncles so my Dad, aged 7 was brought back to London (at the height of the Blitz) to help her. He has told me of his nights sat in an air-raid shelter wearing his “mickey mouse” gas mask and pumping air by hand into one of his baby brother’s gas mask (see image right) while my grandmother did the same with the other one. I have a son about the age he was then and the idea of my boy going through what my dad went through is horrendous.

A while back (I think it may have been during the 60th anniversay of the Blitz) the Imperial War Museum1 in London had a Blitz exhibition. I accomanpied my Dad hoping he could give me some first-hand references to the displays and features. He did. One of the exhibits was a “Blitz Experience”. You walked into a mock anderson air-raid shelter and then sat there whilst a simulated air-raid took place. The narrative was interesting and to me it looked like they had taken a lot of care over the authenticity. When the “bombs” dropped you could “hear” the planes and “feel” them exploding in the surrounding area as the shelter shook. During much of this time the lights were either out or very low. Thinking the experience was quite good I turned to my Dad for an opinion on just how realistic it was. My Dad was a white as a sheet and staring ahead. I touched his arm and he looked at me with a tear in his eye and simply said “That was a bit too close for comfort”.

At that moment, more than any other I began to appreciate what those who remember the Blitz went through and why they rarely speak of all of it. I imagine it is similar for the pilots of the RAF and all those who served, fought and just lived through those times. Later my Dad would tell me how it brought back memories of the time and of those who went through it with him but are no longer around. At that moment also my respect for my dad grew at an exponential rate and still does.

So here’s to my Dad and the thousands like him who lived through times that I couldn’t possibly imagine living through. They didn’t ask to or want to and I doubt they would want to do it again but they did and had they not: how different would the world be now? While we’re at it here also is to those around the world who live through such times today and here’s hoping we can finally get around to making sure nobody else has to.

1 _If you live in London and have never visited the Imperial War Museum, I recommend it. Far from being a celebration and glorification of military might as the name might suggest it takes a sensitive, respectful and careful look all the aspects of war, the people involved, the tragedy and the reasons behind it. I am yet to go and not come away even more convinced that war must end._