My mother once persuaded my aunt to write down her childhood experience of a Zeppelin raid on Derby in 1916. My aunt was eight years old at the time of the raid and this is what she wrote...
There were no air raid sirens as such in the First World War. When there was an alert, a local factory’s maroon sounded. In Derby they were called ‘Bulls’. I don’t know why unless the sound was similar to that of a bull roaring! We quite often heard them but nothing happened until one night in February 1916. I think it was the sixteenth but am not quite certain of the exact date. Oddly enough, we hadn’t ourselves heard it that night. The sole form of heating in our three bedroom terraced house was the fire in the living room, so it was here we congregated and children playing noisy games perhaps drowned out the noise from outside.
We were always early in bed, half past seven in the winter. The maroons usually blasted out their warning at around seven o’clock. Dark green blinds covered every window, curtains were drawn over them to stop any chink of light from showing outside. We weren’t allowed to have the gas mantle in our bedroom lighted, went to bed by candlelight. My mother would come upstairs, see we were all tucked up in bed and when she went back downstairs, the candlestick went with her.
Our bedrooms, extending over the entry, was large, ample room for two double beds as well as other furniture. Two girls in one bed, two in the other. It must have been around eleven o’clock that we were awakened by our mother shaking us by the shoulder.
‘Come on,’ her request not loud but urgent. ‘Get up, the Germans have come.’ Her words and anxious face, lighted candle in one hand, the other shielding the flame, roused us quickly enough.
I dragged some blankets from the bed. My burden, flip flopping round my ankles almost tripped me on my descent of the steep narrow stairs. My eldest sister stood at the top of the cellar steps, shepherded us down. My mother carried the youngest. Swathed in blankets, for a time I became stuck behind the door, but my eldest sister hauled me out, took possession of my wrappings. I negotiated the steps down the cellar much more easily than I had those from the bedroom to the ground floor.
My dad, in peace time an accountant with the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, was home on leave. Like so many others, he’d enlisted on the outbreak of war. After only a short training, was in France in the trenches, up to his waist in water. A far cry from a warm, dry office. He developed enteric fever, was ill in Boulogne hospital for weeks. The upshot was that he spent the remainder of the war in the Treasury Department in Whitehall. Still on a soldier’s pay of course! It did mean though that he got home a bit more often and was safer though there were some bad air raids on London. I never heard him speak of them – in those days the horrors were kept away from young ears.
He was a handsome man, tall and broad and we were in awe of him. That night he’d pulled on trousers over his nightshirt and in the cellar directed operations. We’d all settled down when to my surprise a further influx! With much shuffling and whispering, muted telling off and some pushing and pulling the big family from next door trooped down the cellar steps and arranged themselves judiciously in our underground shelter.
Our street, a cul-de-sac ended in a high brick wall. On the other side lay the main railway line. Our neighbours lived in the very end house, in extremely close proximity to the line. The railways were a lifeline then, not only for troops, goods and coal, but also communications. Derby an important junction, might be the target of an enemy bomb. Our neighbours would be safer with us. It did make a crowd but being so close together we were warmer. And so we sat, the adults talking in low voices for maybe an hour when Dad held up his hand.
‘Quiet, I think I hear something.’
‘It’s a Zep,’ came an excited whisper – one of the boys from next door.
To me the menacing drone sounded like an irregular drumbeat. Everyone froze except for my dad who stole up the cellar steps. We could hear through the cellar grate, his footsteps on the blue brick pavement of the street. Rejoining us, he made no comment. Catching the eye of my mother, he nodded. Then he bowed his head, uttered the words of the Lord’s Prayer and as he came to the end we quietly chorused ‘Amen’.
We stayed where we were, the sound of the Zeppelin faded. Perhaps half an hour later it came back again. An almighty crash, the ground trembled beneath our feet. Broken glass tinkled somewhere at hand.
We were all frightened. Birds, bees and butterflies we naturally were used to but not flying monsters intent on our destruction. For several minutes we were all too shaken to say anything and then everyone seemed to talk at once, making vague suggestions.
I don’t know if the factory did sound an all clear. I have a faint memory of a long clear whistle and all of us trailing up the cellar steps and into the living room. A strange time to be up, at half past three in the morning we should have been asleep in our beds. Dad poked the remnants of the fire into a bit of a blaze, added a few pieces of coal and we young ones sat on the pegged hearthrug, glad of the warmth. My mother set about making her panacea for all ills, large jugs of cocoa sweetened with treacle and soon everyone was sipping the reviving drink.
The neighbours returned home. Dad, feeling a draught went out into the passage to investigate and found a gaping hole in the fanlight over the front door. On the floor lay an ugly piece of shrapnel – six inches long, about one inch thick and two inches wide with a jagged edge. Yet another unprecedented episode of that never to be forgotten night. We went to bed and despite the trials and tribulations we’d undergone, slept soundly – due to Mam’s cocoa perhaps?
The next day we learned that every window in every house in the street running parallel with ours had been broken and some damage had been done to roofs. There were tramlines in that street, two trams on their way to the tram sheds when the alarm sounded. The drivers stopped, the conductors with their long poles pulled the trolley poles away from the overhead lines to put the lights out.
Drivers and conductors heard the Zeppelin, heard it move away and decided to attach the trolley poles again to the overhead lines as they were anxious to get back to the tram sheds. However, apparently the Zep, after flying as far as Burton-on-Trent decided to return. The supposition was that the target had been the railway station and the two trams resembled from the air a lighted train.
Many stories were bandied about, one being that the Zep had picked up the trail of a train. The fire box had to be opened to keep the fire stoked up which must have made a steam engine not difficult to find from the air.
The driver of one late train was supposed to stop at Derby station, but aware that a Zep was in the area and afraid of the damage that could be done should he become the target for a bomb, the houses close together, many accommodating big families, he drove straight through open country. Actually to Chaddesden sidings about two miles the other side of Derby. We were told later that the driver’s nerves were so shaken by the terrors of that night he never drove another train again. I can’t verify the truth of that though – it was hearsay. Months later my oldest sister told me that some men, six I believe, had been killed. They’d been engaged in repair work at the sidings. Mam never mentioned these fatalities. As I said before, horrors were kept away from young ears.
We were told innumerable tales of personal experiences such as that of a spinster lady who lived across the street with her father and two nieces. The lady took her nieces down the cellar but her father refused to join them.
‘Clara,’ he said, ‘no German is driving me into the cellar.’
The words were hardly out of his mouth when a huge piece of shrapnel, shattering the window pane, cannoned into the wall above his head. Unhurt, he was covered in plaster and dust. Chortling, he still wouldn’t take refuge down the cellar.
The field at the bottom of our garden ran at the back of most of the houses on our side of the street and along the backs of the houses on the main road at right angles to us. Mr Scott the grocer who kept the corner shop, stabled his horse in this field. I don’t know whether the horse would be outside in February, certainly neither horse nor stable were damaged.
Only my older sister and I went to school on the morning following the air raid. Our younger sister still asleep, my mother wouldn’t disturb her. We saw the pavements in Bateman Street covered in glass and slates, broken windows, holes in roofs. Pupils seemed thin on the ground when we went into the hall for assembly. Miss Johnson the headmistress said as usual ‘good morning girls’ and we replied ‘good morning Miss Johnson’.
‘Some of us have had a disturbed night,’ she said, ‘but I notice that two girls from the worst hit area have come to school. Others with less excuse have stayed away.’ Making this observation, her eyes rested on my sister and I. Nudging each other we blushed, thrilled that our presence had been both noticed and commented on.
Our hymn that morning was of course ‘Fight the Good Fight’. I don’t believe the Zeppelins ever got so far inland again. At any rate I don’t recall spending another night in the cellar. Once was enough.