Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The London Blitz: A Ralph’s Eye View

This is the transcript of a radio broadcast from October or November 1940 – not sure which station – featuring the text of a brilliant letter Ralph Yull wrote home to family:

“…now here is something different:  it is a most remarkable account of the last raid on London, as witnessed by a Sergeant in the C.A.S.F. [Canadian Active Service Force], and recorded by him.

He explains that he had been taking supper with his sister, who is a London ambulance driver, and that at about half-past twelve he “stepped outside to have a look about, in the hope that I’d be lucky enough to see one of our night fighters score a victory.  I was quite surprised to see fires of considerable size blazing about two miles away.”

“I slipped a coat on” he continues, “and walked to the top of a hill, the better to see – and the higher I got, the more serious it looked… 

Ralph Yull (left)

“From where I stood, I could look over the Regents Park area to Baker Street Tube Station, and beyond to Marble Arch, Piccadilly, Hyde Park and the west-end in general. 

It was a holocaust of flames and smoke; bursting bombs, and more and more incendiaries starting more fires.  Broken gas mains were flaming, and there was a veritable devil’s tattoo of anti-aircraft fire and machine guns. 

It’s awful to think that such a destructive and inhumane thing as an air-raid in which people are dying and homes being blasted, could be beautiful – but actually from a distance it was a sight worth seeing.
From my eminence, it was [as] though I was looking into a vast cauldron, from which arose a dull red glow, shot through with terrific, vivid white flashes; while clouds of smoke, dust and sparks billowed up and caused the moon to change from pale green to a rich orange tinge. 
On my left was a battery of three light guns, whose muzzle-blast reminded you of the yapping of a bad-tempered terrier dog.  Dead ahead, another battery of heavier guns were going off with a report like a giant firecracker exploding in an iron drainpipe.           

Then there was the crash of the heavy-calibre guns that might easily be mistaken for an exploding enemy bomb.  Firing in groups of three, combined with all the other sounds you hear in an air-raid, it is like a sort of symphony orchestra.
Through all the noise and confusion, there is a constant consciousness of whistles; as an inevitable background to any air-raid, there are always police whistles, wardens’ whistles, signals from rescue parties, and other whistles that impress themselves on your mind by their constancy. 
They never seem loud or close at hand – yet you always hear them.  One of my clearest remembrances of air-raids will always be of this particular sound.
Well, anyway, I stood watching the great fire, and said to myself, ‘I’ll walk down to the next corner, to see if I can see it better from there’.  When I got there, the next corner looked a better vantage point, and so on, until I was rushing up the street towards the area that had been paid particular attention by the Luftwaffe.
On the way down, I stopped to talk to a group of fire-watchers, and we all suddenly heard the oddest sound – like the sound of old brass cow-bells at home, that go clunk-clunk, instead of ringing clearly.
The sound was overhead and all around us, coming nearer.  It was such a gentle sound that no-one took alarm, and we finally started to hear things falling in the road.  A policeman came up, and told us they were probably booby-trap bombs – that is, a tin of fifty De Reszki cigarettes – which exploded when any attempt was made to open them!  Several had been found already.
We spent a fruitless ten minutes trying to locate them, and then I continued on down to the fire.  Just as I was leaving the group, a big one started to come down, and it sounded as if it was landing fairly close – so the five special Wardens flung themselves down on the ground like so many rag dolls!  But when it did land, it didn’t explode.
I continued on down the street, past Lord’s Cricket Grounds, and rounding the curve, came in full sight of the fire.  It was ghastly, yet magnificent.
At the extremity of the street a broken gas main was flaming like fury.  Flames towered up fifty feet or so and brought into sharp relief the tiny scurrying figures of the Auxiliary Fire Service and the other workers, as they raced between the flames and me. 
I hurried down, and the first job presented itself in the person of a girl, who asked me to help put out incendiaries that she had located in a row of flats round the corner.  Several of us polished them off, and in the doing of it, I got drenched.
I was flinging a pail of water at a blazing hole in the ceiling, just when a guy on the floor above was flinging a pail of water at a blazing hole in the floor – the consequences were staggering, as the pail-full caught me squarely in the chest!
All this time, that man was circling about overhead, dropping things on the fire.  Strangely enough, you don’t hear them explode if you’re working hard – or else, it may be that you don’t care!
Further down the street I saw a fireman struggling to get a hose into a four-storey building, the top floor of which was well alight; so an air force bloke and myself gave him a hand, and up to the top we went, by a circular stairway.
On reaching the top, the fireman said, ‘Hold onto the hose, while I go down and start the pumper’.  We were holding on like mad – but nothing happened.  So the other chap, fearing that something had happened to the fireman, went to the window to have a look – and at that moment the water came on!
The hose started leaping and bucking like mad, and as the first surge of water came spurting through, it bashed me up against the wall as if I were a straw.
We soon had it under control, though, and as three men trying to point a hose seemed to me one too many, I went down to the street, to see if I could help elsewhere.
All I can remember of the next two hours is being on a roof, and my foot going through the slates and cutting my shin; climbing endless stairs with sand and water; kicking down locked doorways to gain access to houses on fire, and holding the hose.
The house whose roof I stuck my foot through we couldn’t save – and yet the lady who owned it had the pluck to crack jokes and make us tea, while her top storey was blazing.
Next I spotted a rescue party hacking at the indescribable wreckage of a house – mattresses, bird-cages, tables, linoleum, bedding, chesterfields, lumber, steel, bricks and dust, all welded into a seemingly immovable mess.
‘There’s three in that lot!’ said a grim-looking old cuss – so off with the coat, and everybody tore into the pile, and miracle of miracles, we found the man of the house alive – shaken but unhurt – lying in a small groove-like space, sheltered by flooring boards from above.
He was able to tell us exactly where to find his wife and mother, and although we could see them and hand them water, it was another hour and a half before we got them out – both almost completely unhurt.
By now almost every other roof for blocks around was blazing.  Not just small fires, but ones which everybody at home would turn out to see if they occurred in London, Ontario. 

There were twenty fires to every fireman, and being old-fashioned buildings, with steep pitched roofs, thousands of gables and chimney-pots, it was very difficult to get at them.

The houses all butted together, so that if one fire got out of control, it pretty well spelt finis to the others in that block. 

There were many unusual silhouettes, as churches and other buildings of unusual design would be a seething mass of flames inside, and the lovely arches, and odd corners with their gargoyles, etc. would stand out framed blackly against the angry red of the inner fire.

At last it began to get light, and the last of the Hun raiders dropped his load and scooted.  The anti-aircraft bursts pursuing him grew farther and farther away.  I felt about done in, so I trudged home tired but happy – glad to have been some help in London’s biggest blitz so far.”

Editor’s note: Some years ago, long after I had had a short story published in a literary magazine, my Uncle Ralph read it and was generous in his praise. I was very touched, but surprised. In my youthful arrogance, it had never occurred to me that tough, practical Ralph might be interested in anything as effete as literary story-telling (for so I flattered myself that it was.) Of course, I was forgetting he was a born oral story-teller, the master of “Betty and the Golden Arm.” And now I realize he was a very fine prose stylist as well. Papa Hemingway couldn’t have described this scene more vividly and affectingly.

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