The Portsmouth Blitz

Archive ref. PCRO: Blitz Photographs, 9222, from Box 2

As part of my role as Poet in Residence: Portsmouth City Council Library and Archive Service, generously funded by Arts’ Council UK, I’ve been preparing a writing workshop for 12 – 16 year olds. Some of the archive material we’ll be using is about Portsmouth during the war. As a Naval town it was hit badly, with over 2,000 civilians losing their lives between 1940 -1942. A collection of dramatic photographs, some of which I share above, show the impact and devastation the city suffered. Here I’m focussing on ordinary homes that were obliterated. Many of these suffered in the first raid. It must have been devastating for the families and particularly terrifying for children not evacuated – who, having been versed in what to do, may have relaxed over months of expectation into thinking it might never happen.

The following poem was written after research regarding bombing adjacent to the Portsmouth property I’d just bought. That was two years ago. It was written to echo children’s playground rhymes, such as Oranges and Lemons, and counting games that would have been sung by children at the time. It also has a darkness found in children’s cautionary tales and songs such as Lizzie Borden’s Forty Whacks, so seems appropriate to include in this portfolio blog.

One of the images above, taken in Copnor, clearly shows someone’s bedroom. We can only hope the inhabitants were safe in an air-raid shelter when the bombs came down; in early night raids many will have died in their beds. My own mother lived further along the coast, in Kent, and used to talk about counting the seconds as bombs whistled down. When the sound stopped you had, she thought, three seconds to a direct hit. At the time of writing I also spoke to an elderly lady who remembered being dug out from an air raid shelter after a bomb, hitting close by, entombed them.

Counting

We used to play counting and jacks in the dirt.

Then came sirens to sound the alert.

“Go get your granny she’s still in her bed;
the wailers are coming to blow off our heads.”
So Rosie McVickers ran off back home

to waken deaf Annie the neighbourhood crone.

We counted the engines that flew in our skies
and wondered at Hitler telling his lies.
We ran down the path, like helter and skelter,

counting the steps from kitchen to shelter.

We sat on the benches or damp and dirt floor

and counted each person that came through the door.

There was Freddie and Masie, old Tom from The Tuns.
We counted the firings from ack-acking guns.
There was Mary, my mum, and baby Charmaine

and Peter, my friend, and Jane and Elaine.

Then came the whine of the bombs as they dropped
And we counted the seconds until the sound stopped
and we knew that the silence meant this might be it

the time when the Anderson could take a hit.

The impacts were close, the booms all around,

as the mortars struck home and walls crashed to ground.
Outside there were shouts that the church was on fire

Three strikes to the roof and one for the spire.

Mum counted our blessings and hugged us all tight

as they pulled off the rubble and let in the light.

But where was deaf Annie and poor little Rose?

Two spaces beside me that should have been filled

were empty the day that those two were killed.

Amanda Garrie
(2017)

(I don’t want to give too much away, as yet, but writings on this theme continue. I’ll add songs and poems, as workshops progress.)

 

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