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What WAS it like, on the night of 9th/10th April 1941? A bit like this, perhaps?

I know what I have got to do. I'm running across the street, diagonally, trying not to trip over the pieces of timber and fallen masonry. It's dark, but I can see well enough because of the fires. With every step there's a crunch of glass and broken slate under my boots. I'm gasping for breath. We've just run all the way from our post up Nechells Park Road. Streets have been hit all around and many are burning but someone has decided that this is where we can be of most use.

I nearly collide with a fireman, running blindly in the same general direction as he reels out his hose, holding its two handles almost level with his eyes. I can hear his appliance down the street starting to rev up and one of the other flat hoses at my feet suddenly swells and cracks into life. There is a whoosh as the stream of water passes over my head and slaps against the brickwork near to an upper window. That's one of the windows which is belching black smoke and tongues of flame, right out over the street and above our heads. Everything inside is well alight. The drums of cutting oil, the rubber, the paint, all the litter of a workshop, everything soaked in oil and caked with grease. I pause for a second to catch my breath and turn. The A.F.S. man holding the hose leans far forward as he counteracts the force of the water cracking and roaring out of the nozzle. He braces himself with even more determination and most of the stream finds its way through the open window. The smoke hesitates, just for a moment, and then pours out anew.

There's shouting. Shouting everywhere. Shouts of orders, excited shouts, shouts of panic even. Someone's screaming. Terror or pain. I don't know. Three or four Home Guards are ushering a stream of people up some steps from a basement under the factory. There are men and women, mostly in overalls, some of the women wearing scarves, others bare-headed. Some hold their hands over their heads for protection. All are covered in dust. Like ghosts. They are running, stumbling, heads down, almost crouching, some of them, no one looking right nor left, all intent on reaching safety. One man is being half carried, a bandage held to his face. "Keep moving everyone, this way, keep moving!" Every man in uniform seems to know what he's doing. We all do. We've had a bit of practice. It's just tough on the civilians, especially the young kids and the old people. And the animals. They know all about it, well, the humans do, of course they do, but they hadn't thought it was going to happen to them.

The noise is overwhelming now. The roar of the pumps, the shouting, the thunder of anti-aircraft guns not far away, the jangling bells of emergency vehicles and from all across the city, near and distant, the regular thump, thump of high explosive. And of course every dog in Nechells is barking. What I can no longer hear over all this and my own noisy breathing is the drone of Heinkel and Dornier above. We heard them arrive, earlier, not long after the sirens went, and they are still there, one knows it, wave after wave of them passing over the city, shovelling out incendiary and high explosive down upon our heads. Are our lads up there in amongst them I wonder? In their Defiants? And their new Beaufighters? Sorting the bastards out?

I feel, before I hear, the clatter of something hitting my helmet. Lucky I remembered to grab it on the way out. Just a tiny piece of shrapnel from an AA shell, or another piece of falling slate. Nothing. But mixed in with the smell of burning and scorching which is filling the street I am sure I can now smell gas. Perhaps I am imagining it. I hope I am.

I've paused for too long. Only for a couple of seconds, but it's too long. That's the trouble. One mustn't pause, mustn't think, just close one's mind, get on with it. I know what I've got to do. I look at the front of the factory building. Water is now cascading down it. And at the main entrance. It's been blown wide open. One half of the double door has disappeared, the other leans outward, supported by a single hinge. I can see some of the interior through the opening. It's a tangle of timbers and machinery. Some of the stuff has obviously fallen from the floor above. As I watch, one machine settles down another couple of feet with first a creak and then a crash I can hear over everything else. And there, deep inside, is the glow of a new fire. Probably another incendiary. Brought down from the top storey by the h.e. bomb which has smashed its way through every floor, right down to this level. How can I possibly go in there, into all that? "Try and see if anyone is trapped on the ground floor" I've been instructed. All my instincts tell me not to go in, to do anything, but not that. "Just do your best, lad" he told me. And I will. Of course I will. Like everyone else on this dreadful night. I know what I've got to do.

© CM…2007