The Point of No Return
THE POINT OF NO RETURN
When war was declared in 1939, against the might of Germany, certainly, as far as the first six months were concerned, few, if any, could have anticipated that the Swansea we knew was already on the pathway to oblivion, its very being threatened with annihilation, both total and devastating.
The build up leading to the clash of most of Europe against Germany and Italy had gone on for a long time, so when a state of emergency was declared, it came as no great surprise. Within days the propaganda machine was in full flow. The unity of the British people, the combined strength of the British Empire, and that of other European countries would make the war one of short duration, we thought. How wrong we were.
Looking at newsreel shots of the highly mechanised German army, navy and air force, in pictures released after the war had finally finished, the only point that continues to astound me is how we finished up as winners, that is if there is such a thing as a winner in war time.
We were, at the start of the hostilities, outnumbered in just about every conceivable way. Evidence of this quickly came, when all that Europe had to offer in its efforts to halt the German advance was swept aside, as if no opposition existed. The real truth of this emerged when the dark days of Dunkirk and its evacuation of armed troops left the British Isles as a lonely sentinel in a European world that had been crushed and left helpless by an invading force.
However, all this was yet to come, and the early days of the war were still treated in a cavalier fashion by many.
Anderson shelters started to appear in back gardens. These were corrugated sheets that fitted into large holes dug in back gardens, only the roof of the shelter remaining above ground level. This was covered with clods of earth. Inside the shelter, ingenuity, in certain cases, almost converted them into a second home. Certainly bunk beds were installed, stools or chairs, some form of lighting and drapes on the tin walls and carpet on the floor to keep the place more comfortable. Other shelters were also created inside the house, generally cupboards under the stairs, that were fitted out for possible future emergencies.
Bags of sand were distributed to householders and also buckets to hold stirrup pumps. All these were likely to be useful if any incendiary bombs should fall. Sticky black tape was criss-crossed over the windows, to stop them shattering if a high explosive bomb went off, and heavy thick curtains or black drapes were hung over the windows when darkness fell, to keep chinks of light out, thus denying any enemy aircraft that might be passing overhead, a clue as to the whereabouts of towns and cities that lay below. Overseeing all this were Air Raid Wardens, assorted men and women, who underwent simple training in how to cope with emergency situations should bombs fall. In those very early days not many expected to be tested to the full.
As the war dragged on, so the inevitable adjustments took effect and started to bite. Not in any particular order or sequence, changes took place to the social and geographical life of the town. Rationing was introduced, coupons being required for a host of things – meat, buyer, eggs, sugar, fat, petrol, clothes, even sweets. Each person was allocated a specific amount each week, hence the real start of the black market operations when, for a price, even commodities in short supply could usually be obtained by someone.
With the destruction caused by the German U boats, so scarcities became greater. Newspapers were smaller, many going out of existence. Toys of lead or tin were replaced by poor wooden substitutes. Old clothes were looked after and brought, once more, into use.
Vanishing from the scene were the legions of iron railings that adorned the frontages of many homes and large public buildings. Scrap metal of all sorts was eagerly collected, as were rags, and newspapers, for reprocessing.
All types of “fighting funds” were launched. Towns would adopt a fighting ship and arrange collections to purchase items of luxury or necessity for those fighting on board. People would be urged to contribute towards the purchase or upkeep of an aeroplane – a Spitfire or Hurricane – fighting aircraft always attracting money.
The evacuation of youngsters to safer places in the country was brought into operation. Familiar faces vanished from the neighbourhood, turning up again for a fleeting moment at a later date, regaled in army, navy or air force uniform.
Test runs were made. Sirens sounded and everyone was expected to make for their home fox holes, or, if in town, one of the large brick built shelters that mushroomed all over the place. Barrage balloons, large silver shaped balloons, sprouted all over the docks, Kilvey Hill and other points, in a bid to deter enemy aircraft from raiding the town.
Battery emplacements of Ack Ack guns graced Ashleigh Road, Mumbles hill and other places, while large concrete pill boxes, defence walls and iron stakes driven into the seabed, just off shore in Swansea Bay, and in the surrounding bays, were introduced to repel possible invasion forces. Numerous forms of volunteer forces were created, possible the best known being the Home Guard.
Gas masks in cardboard boxes were issued to all. By now the optimistic note struck earlier, that this would be a short lived affair had gone. Everyone was aware this was going to be a long, hard road.
The press and radio kept everyone informed of what was happening. At least they managed to minimise the major setbacks that were received. The propaganda machine was working full blast. On Sunday night before the main news was read, the national anthem of every country associated with the allied forces battling against the Germans, was played. How the length of this anthem list grew and grew.
On the radio, in a bid to alleviate some of the gloom, comedy shows appeared, like I.T.M.A, with Tommy Handley, Band Wagon with Arthur Askey and Richard Murdoch, Stand Easy with Charlie Chester, while Workers’ Playtime would present variety acts from factories, dockyards, army camps etc.,
The beginning of the end for Swansea, according to its official records, happened on June 27th, 1940, when the town had its first air raid. By the time the massive, wholesale destruction of the town took place on the nights of February 19th, 20th, 21st, 1941, there had already been a total of 26 air raids on Swansea, 121 people being killed.
But if that was bad, worse was to follow, when, on the three consecutive February nights in 1941, non-stop German air raids, timed as lasting a total of 13 hours, 48 minutes. Thousands of incendiary bombs and high explosive bombs, removed from the face of the map, virtually the entire centre of Swansea town, and also devastated many quarters of the outlying town areas.
By the end of the first night, on February 19th, gaping holes had appeared among the principal town buildings and shopping premises. Water supplies had been reduced to nothing in street after street. Fires raged all through the night and throughout the next day, presenting an inviting low to the German planes that again attacked Swansea on February 20th and 21st.
It had become a town virtually defenceless, a target area for bomb happy airmen, who could come and go with little hindrance.
By the end of the third night it was all over. The Swansea I had known and grown up in was no more. All that remained were massive mangled piles of crashed buildings, derelict skeletons of once fine Victorian premises, streets and roadways that had no beginning or end, just merging into each other in a broken line of rubble and debris.
By 1944 records show that Swansea experienced a total of 44 air raids on the town, killing 387 people and injuring a further 850. Of premises, 8882 were totally destroyed, a further 27,000 damaged, many seriously. It has been estimated that over 30,000 incendiary bombs and about 1,500 high explosive bombs fell on the town, cold statistics that only tell a part of the story.
And so, on this sad note, my recollections of Swansea as a child and young man come to an end.
The centuries that went into the creating of the town were wiped away in moments of madness, with a trail of horror and devastation that will forever remain the blackest period in the history of the town.
Maybe there are some who will say that what has arisen from these ashes is vastly superior to what was in existence before the war years. To me, I care little for the equating of the modern appearance of the now city to its predecessor. The streets might be wider, the buildings brighter, the street lights give a greater glow and the town may be cleaner. But what has happened to the character of Swansea? Today it is identical to a hundred modern towns or cities in architecture and style. The time when Swansea dominated West Wales in a thousand ways has gone forever.
In fifty years hence or less, even memories such as I have recalled of another era will remain nowhere, except in written form, such is the pattern of everyone’s lives.
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