It’s been a strangely schizophrenic week. One moment I’m hunkered down with ‘Doc’ Harden in a slit trench as mortar bombs rain down on an abandoned brickworks in Normandy, and the next I’m reliving the Baedeker blitz in a corrugated first world war vintage hall somewhere between Beccles and Lowestoft.
And between charting ‘Doc’s’ progress for my new book, Commando Medic, and talking to the Lowestoft Aviation Society about my old book, Norwich – A Shattered City, I was being drawn back to the scenes of devastation 70 years ago through the power of Irene Mould’s graphic letter.
Written in response to reading my book, it is a further vivid illustration of the enduring impact of the April raids on those who lived through them, as well as a moving expression of one young woman’s emotional reaction to experiences which all but beggared belief.
Irene was 21 at the time. She lived in Epsom Street, just off Rupert Street, and worked at Rowntree Mackintosh’s great chocolate manufacturing factory, better known by its original Norwich name of Caley’s. It’s incredible how reading those two names – Rupert Street and Caley’s – can send a shiver down the spine. But as soon as I read of those connections I found myself picturing those ghastly scenes captured by anonymous newspaper photographers and the late, great George Swain: of children picking through the mountains of rubble in Rupert Street and firemen dwarfed by the leaning walls of Caley’s incendiary-ravaged chocolate mills.
As it happens, Irene spent the night of April 27/28 at her sister’s house in William Street at the foot of Grapes Hill. Her sister had been to the Lido dance hall that night, but she stayed in and washed her hair. Next thing she remembered was hearing the Caley’s crash warning followed by the unmistakeable sound of aircraft engines. It seemed to be flying low:
‘I went to the front door and I heard the plane diving. I saw a glimpse of the plane and then it dropped its bomb on ‘Beers’ in Oak Street. ‘
It started a ‘huge blaze’.
At that moment, Irene’s sister came running in:
‘I’d called my niece to get dressed. She was 11 at the time. She, of course, was very frightened, as, I guess, we all were. We went to an Anderson shelter. I think there were about 12 of us in there (by the way, the siren didn’t go for a few minutes after the plane came over and bombed). Sitting in the shelter I could hear from the direction of Chapel Field, Rupert Street area that they were being bombed to Hell…
‘Then we heard this awful screaming sound. It was a huge bomb that fell [at the junction of] Dereham Road, Barn Road and St Benedict’s Street. They did say it was a landmine, by the size of the crater it could have been. Parts of the shelter we were in began to fall on us. So my sister, niece and myself got out of the shelter and started to run down William Street only to be machine-gunned. They were so low… Luckily, they missed. We eventually made it to a brick shelter at the other end of William Street. We stayed in there till the all-clear went…
‘I said to my sister, ‘I’m going to see how Mother is.’… When I approached Rupert Street it was an unbelievable sight, devastation everywhere. Homes close to us were completely destroyed. The rescue [parties] tried to stop me going through the mess, but I told them I lived there and was going to see if my Mother was OK. I went in our house; windows broken, doors and tiles all off. We always used to set our table for the morning. It was an awful sight. The table was covered in soot and parts of the ceiling…’
Her mother wasn’t there, so she toured the stricken streets in search of her. Eventually, after some time scrambling through the rubble, she found her:
‘She didn’t know me. She had hurt her back as she came down the stairs and a door had fallen on her back. I took her to my sisters who lived in Copeman Street. My mother didn’t seem to know any of us. I guess it was such a shock to her.
‘Likewise for everyone in Norwich. We had had tip and run raids, but never [anything] like that…’
In all my researches and interviews, I have come across few more harrowing accounts which better reflect the human suffering than this extraordinary story of a woman so stunned and confused by the horrors of that night she could not recognise her own children.
Thank you to Irene for sharing her heartrending story with me. I hope that it might inspire more people who lived through those difficult days to set down their recollections for posterity.