LEARNING TO COPE

   During the blackout, we developed a certain technique to walk at night to guard against walking into the baffle walls which were put up along the sidewalks in front of the "closes" to guard against bomb blast.  For example, when I came home from work by tram car, I got off about 100 yards from the corner where I turned left into Bouverie Street.  I used to look up and to the left, where a long advertising billboard was about 20 feet high and the top could be seen against the sky.  One night, watching the top line as I walked, I saw the end of the billboard and turned left -- directly into the wall, which went about six feet past the billboard.  My eyebrow and cheek took the brunt of the impact and I lost a lot of skin and some blood, too!  It wasn't too bad in the summertime, because in wartime Britain, we had two hours' daylight savings time in summer, which gave us daylight until 11 p.m.  But winter was a drag.  I don't remember much snow in our wartime winters after 1941, when we had very heavy snow -- three to four feet -- in May!  But our winters were more dank and dismal and everything was exaggerated by the blackout.  I know it was worse for the women with children who stayed home, than for men or women out working, as we had our work to take our minds off air raids and other scares.

Bessie was a real rock and I don't know how she put up with the hardships and shortages.  Looking back, I know she didn't get the support and understanding she ought to have had from me.  Not that I loved her any less, but I just wasn't as perceptive then as I am now.  In retrospect, I think these six years of war had a lasting effect on all of us who lived through it.  The ups and downs of the war itself, with so many ships being lost to submarines and setbacks in the land war, with the to and fro actions in North Africa, all had an effect on everyone's morale.  The BBC radio was the most reliable news source, but we always felt that they tended to play down the worst news.  With it all, I don't believe anybody in the whole of Britain believed in anything but ultimate victory, even before the United States came into it in December of 1941.

We got through the Dunkirk evacuation, which I believe would not have happened if there had been less corruption and more guts on the part of the French.  The so-called "invincible" Maginot line turned out to be a joke, which the enemy ignored and went around against the French Army, who had little stomach for war anyway.  Hitler's judgement of the situation after Dunkirk was less than inspired and his indecision allowed Britain and her European allies -- men who had escaped from Norway and Denmark, the Low Countries, Holland, Belgium, Poland and France -- to regroup and re-arm.  Thus we were able to mark time to some degree, until we were able to take the offensive again.  We did this in North Africa, driving the Italians right back to Tunisia.  The Germans came in with Rommel and the Afrika Corps and drove us back to Egypt.  But Churchill appointed a new General -- Bernard Montgomery -- who held the line until he could build up the greatest concentration of heavy artillery ever seen.  When he was ready, his guns pounded the demoralized enemy for days, until they started on the retreat from El Alamein to Tunisia, where they were met by green American troops facing the enemy for the first time.  In spite of heavy casualties, numbers prevailed and finally, North Africa was cleared of all fighting.  Thousands of German and Italian prisoners were marched away as POWs and sent to camps all over Britain, Canada and the United States.  This was one of the morale-boosting events which we civilians saw as a light at the end of the tunnel. 

I was saddened at times to hear of some friend who was killed or missing.  One old school friend -- "Wee" Georgie Hacket -- was killed in North Africa.  Another -- Finlay McPherson -- was shot down over Germany in a bomber.  We gradually learned the names of victims we knew who were killed in the 1941 blitz.  Seventeen members of one family -- the Rocks family -- who all lived in Beatty Street in Dalmuir -- killed in a tenement bombing.  Sadie Malone -- an ex-bus-conductor we knew from the buses in the 20's, had been trapped below a four-story building which collapsed.  Her husband was a naval officer at sea and she died with her five children before rescuers could reach them.  Young Archie Adamson, who lived in Roseberry Place, was walking home when the bombing started.  His parents and five sisters were home and safe in a street shelter, and when the night went on without the family seeing Archie home, his father went out during a lull in the bombing to see if he could find him.  Fifty yards from home, he found his son's body, without a mark or wound on him, but dead, presumably from a blast, which could suck the breath from a body and leave it unmarked.  I don't believe we ever got callous about these things, because they happened and had to be faced.  Different folks had their own way of coping.  Some of us took a wee bit too much Scotch and I knew one man for whom even that wasn't enough, and he jumped from a top-floor window and killed himself. 

My friend, Tony Ventilla, whose parents were Italian nationals, had his own personal tragedy.  Tony had married a beautiful girl named Helen McParland, and moved into a flat in Napier Street, Clydebank, next to where his parents lived.  When war broke out, Tony, who by that time had upgraded his transport from bicycle to motorcycle, was called up to the Army and became a transport sergeant.  He was home on a leave which ended March 13, 1941, and left Glasgow by train at 7 p.m. to return to his depot.  At 9 p.m., the bombing started in Clydebank, and around midnight, Napier Street got a direct hit, which killed Helen, Tony's parents and his youngest brother, Luigi.  His other brother, Ernie, aged about eight, was dug out alive and taken to hospital.  When Ernie recovered, Tony brought him to my mother, who raised him until he was a young man.  The two sisters, Rose and Vera, escaped, because Vera had been at work and Rose was out on a date.    

The irony of this story is that after Dunkirk, when Italy declared war, Britain rounded up all Italian nationals who were living in restricted areas or defense areas and moved them to places where there was no industry or possible targets.  The Ventillas were moved to some place in the country -- not an internment camp -- but supervised housing, and they were not allowed to travel. Through Tony's commanding officer and other efforts, they were cleared to return home at Christmas 1940, which, in retrospect, was not the best thing.  After the war, Tony went back to his own line of work -- mainly hairdressing -- and he opened up two or three ladies' beauty establishments.  Later, he became President of the Scottish Hairdressers Federation and also Principal of Hairdressing at the College in Glasgow.  But again, I'm jumping ahead in time. I must mention that Tony married -- another Helen, and had a family of his own.  I'm sorry I didn't keep in close touch, but I suppose everyone has drifted away from old friends at times.