Tonight was the night of the Blitz, the unforgettable night during the Second World War when Luftwaffe planes swooped on Clydeside. Below is a chapter from my book All Our Yesterdays in which that devastating event and so much more social history has been chronicled.
The blitzed ruin of old Cardross Parish Church. Picture by Bill Heaney
I have been handed a scoop – a first-hand account of that dramatic and terrible night of The Clydeside Blitz in March, 1941. Mrs Jeanette Scobie, wife of the late Rev Andrew Scobie, who was minister of Cardross Parish Church for 45 years and who died in 2010 aged 75, has passed on to me previously unpublished correspondence which came into the hands of her husband. It was a letter from an Air Raid Patrol man, Mr Shanks, of Westonlee Terrace in Bonhill Road, Dumbarton, who was on duty in the village that fateful night.
First though, I must to say something about Mr Scobie, right, a minister who gave long and distinguished service to the Church of Scotland at a time when, unlike today, ministers were plentiful. Andrew was proud to describe himself as the last Kirk minister who could not be forced to retire. His fellow minister, the Rev Johnston McKay, said Mr Scobie belonged to a former age — ‘not in the sense of being out of date or touch but both his preparation for and style of ministry have been overtaken by far less academic training and much less formality in church life. ‘I doubt if any minister will ever again serve 45 years in the same parish.’
He added: ‘Always impeccably dressed and wearing a pectoral cross, he would never have dreamed of being casually clothed for parochial duties or General Assembly. Unlike many today, he had a view of the parish ministry as requiring him to be available whenever he was needed.’ His friend and presbytery colleague, the Rev David Munro, said: ‘Andrew was a very keen parish minister. His congregation knew that they could contact him any hour of the day because he was totally committed to the ministry.’
The correspondence from Mr Shanks about the Blitz is contained in two accounts, one of which he sent to his daughter and son-in-law, Frank and Jean, who lived in Liverpool and who offered to put the Shanks family up after their own house in Cardross was razed to the ground. He wrote: ‘Very many thanks for your very welcome letter which I was exceedingly pleased to receive and I am delighted to learn that you are both so well and quite happy. Isn’t the coming home a wonderful thing. And I think I should know after all the experience I have had. I note that you speak of Frank being transferred to another vessel and the possibility of shorter voyages, which if it materialises, will be a decided and much more pleasanter change and more congenial to you both. You will observe the change of address this week. Ella and I have moved into Westonlee this morning. Grandpaw is staying on with Aunt Nellie. They have built a fine new shelter in the garden and think it will be more convenient for them should the Jerries make up their minds to pay us another visit. Not that we have any desire to go through the same again but of course one never knows.’
Mr Shanks then added: ‘I know your city (Liverpool) has had its share or perhaps more than its share, not to mention your own particular district. As for myself, I am carrying on or at least trying to carry on as usual but it does indeed seem strange that the home we took so much pride in, is no more. However, this is, I suppose, the fortune or should I say, misfortune of war and I have only to look around me and see, many more who have been less fortunate than me and thank God I have still got my life. I appreciate to the full, the consideration that both Frank and you have shown and for the sincere and open-hearted offer you have extended to me – to reside in your home. I have been thinking this over and I feel in leaving here I would be guilty of deserting Alex who, poor boy, has lost everything, not only in clothes but in home comforts – and only newly engaged too. Then I also know, you will be taking up your new appointment when Frank rejoins his ship and that would mean you being on duty all day and so in order not to upset your arrangements, I think I will (with Grandpaw’s permission) stay put, until the war is finished and I see Alex settled down, just as your dear mother and I had the pleasure of seeing Frank and you happily settled, almost three years ago. When this war will finish no one knows – but we all have the faith we will be on the winning side, however short or long it may be.’
The Muirholm Hotel in Main Road, Cardross, which narrowly escaped being bombed by the Luftwaffe. Picture by Bill Heaney
What did you do in the war, Daddy?
This is a question often asked in jest. However, there was nothing funny about the war for the people here who had to suffer it. In Cardross, 60 families lost their homes and the parish church in Main Street was destroyed. The following is a first-hand account of that night in 1941 when bombs fell on the village. It is from an Air Raid Patrol man, Mr Shanks, who fought the blaze which destroyed the parish church and damaged the manse. And whose own home was bombed by the Luftwaffe while he fought the blaze in the church and manse alongside the minister, the Rev T.D. Stewart Brown, his wife and a volunteer evacuee. It is contained in a letter from the survivor that was passed on to the Rev Andrew Scobie, who was the Church of Scotland minister in the village for 45 years.
‘In my last letter I said there was a history attached to my experience during the Blitz we had here. I was on duty all night and what a night it was. Two incendiaries came through the roof of the Manse. The Minister and an evacuee put the one out in the loft, while I put one out in the roof of the passage between the kitchen and back room. I had to stand upon a pair of steps and as I could not get the skylight window open I had to lift a 60lb sandbag right above my head and crash it through the glass. Talk about perspiration. It was simply oozing out in gallons. Then the electric light failed just as I was groping for the stirrup-pump. When I managed to get hold of the hose I had to feel for the nozzle end. Eventually I shoved my hand with the nozzle out the broken window and started spraying the bomb, the minister’s wife down below was working the pump like a hero! As soon as the spray doused the bomb, the molten metal commenced to fly about and it was some job, dodging the molten fragments. All this time the steps I was standing on were swaying backwards and forwards and I had to prop myself up against the wall to save myself being precipitated. After ten minutes of hard work we finally had the fire under control while the minister and his helpmate upstairs were equally successful with the blaze inside the loft. I was at the telephone, when the church was set alight and what a blaze!!
‘Then one of the Jerries came down low and dropped an H.E ten feet from the wall facing the river side. What a thud! The whole manse shook, down came the ceilings, in came the windows and shutters. I dropped on my face against a wall in the lobby. I thought my last hour had come and yet I had the feeling I would get out of it safe. I was covered over with plaster and soot and as I picked myself up and shook myself like a terrier dog out of the water I can still hear myself saying, ‘You’re O.K. Shanks carry on’. Instinctively I gripped the phone but no reply, the telephone wires had been smashed and we were isolated with no means of communication. Incidentally I had a phone message earlier on, stating there was an incendiary on the roof of Lenaville (Mr Shanks’ own house in Station Road). And later when I phoned back, I was informed it was okay and the fire was under control. That was all I knew and the severing of the telephone connection cut us off from all further news.
‘After I found the telephone to be out of action the next best thing to do was to find out about Mrs Brown (the minister’s wife), the two children and the maid whom I knew were in the front dining room and naturally I wondered were they killed, were they injured or had they escaped unscathed and as I groped my way in the darkness over gas mask boxes and skin suits and broken plaster and debris on the floor. I could not hear a sound or even a moan as I struggled into the room which was brilliantly lighted by the glare of the burning church outside. I noticed all the windows, window frames, shutters and so on had been blown in and broken glass was lying everywhere. Even the room door had been lifted from its hinges and was lying across the dining room table which had been placed, not in the centre of the room, but against one of the side walls for safety. I shouted out ‘Are you alright’ and lo and behold four figures struggled out from below the table where they had been lying on a mattress and beyond being badly shaken, were, ‘glory be’ unhurt. The children were whimpering but what an escape. That table saved them alright littered as it was with fragments of glass, broken frames and on the top of it lay the big heavy school room door. Then Miss Chrystal of Bloomhill and a Mr Mitchell arrived on the scene. They had braved the dangers of falling bombs and took Mrs Brown, the two children and the maid up to Miss Chrystal’s house which had fortunately escaped damage. At this moment Mr Brown arrived. He had been in the Church porch when the H.E. exploded and for five minutes he said he remembered nothing. And then what do you think we did? Out we went ‘him and I’ into the churchyard. By this time the flames were reaching from 100 to 150 feet into the sky. Then down would come some of the strutted roof beams, then a clatter of slates, then up would go showers of sparks and dense volumes of smoke and fire. The pews were burning out and flames were dancing out in forks everywhere. We had to get two firemen to burst open the vestry door and in Mr Brown and I went and trailed out a large wardrobe containing the robes, hymn books and valuable papers. When I tell you that this piece of furniture measured about 5 feet x 4 feet x 2 feet broad and was made of solid oak you will have an idea of the job we had, more especially as the roof of the vestry was alight and the flames from the church were just missing us by inches. Then as we laid the wardrobe on its back on the graves outside, back into the vestry we went and broke open the locker and saved all the communion cups and silver, collection plates, forms and church chairs. The last thing I came out with was a statue about 12 inches high of John the Baptist. All the time the flames inside the church were crackling away, then the pillars, those solid iron pillars, supporting the gallery fell outward, and down came the gallery in flames and with it the beautiful organ reduced to scrap the pipes twisted and bent beyond recognition. Even the War Memorial marble plate, erected to those who died in 1914-18 was cracked and damaged, the lead letters comprising their names all molten and running like silver streams down the beautiful polished marble face. ‘No wonder Mr Brown and I shook hands and no wonder he said ‘Mr Shanks don’t you think we should get down on our knees and pray that our lives have been saved?’
‘And the irony of it all was the fact that my own house was being burned to the ground and I did not know. After we had done all we could humanly do at the church, we both got into Mr Brown’s car and proceeded in the darkness out to Ardoch. Up the Lea Brae we met Mr Cunningham Graham [Admiral Sir Angus Cunningham Graham] and the district warden Mr McSporran and learned from them that part of the village had escaped unscathed. Then back we went to the village and as we arrived at the Golf Club House, which was blazing like an inferno, there were firemen, lengths of hose lying all over the road and an ambulance and an urgent request from those in charge of it for someone to obtain a doctor or at least someone able to give the patient an injection. Mr Brown immediately set off to bring Miss Chrystal who by the way is a qualified nurse.
‘I got out the car and proceeded home. At Station Road I saw a huge blaze and the outline of Mrs Plowdon’s house silhouetted against the flames. I said to myself ‘if that is not my house I’ll eat my hat’. As I came nearer there it was, dear old Lenaville, the upper storey well alight and sparks and flames belching out smoke in ever increasing intensity.
My first thought was, where was my sister? Quite a number of people were standing on the road gazing awe-stricken at the scene. I was then told she and Mrs Michie and the girls were in the shelter across the road. I stumbled in and there they were, white faced, shocked and badly shaken but otherwise unhurt. It was then I learned that when the Fire Brigade arrived they had been sitting on the couch in the kitchen and were ordered to proceed to the shelter at once. Ella had time to grab my attaché case with my valuable papers and two small suitcases containing a change of clothing and get out as quickly as possible. The firemen were afraid the blaze would attract the bombers and that these planes might drop their heavy stuff into the flames and that of course would have been the finish. After ascertaining they were alright, I went over to the house. The main stairway was burning away fiercely and the flames were coming out the front door and parts of the ceiling in the hall were dropping down with a clatter which gave off millions of sparks. As I looked in I saw the hat stand. Upon it was my good soft felt hat, my light grey overcoat and my waterproof. I said to myself ‘So to it’ and believe me in I went, keeping close to the wall, grabbed these articles which were so hot I thought they would burst into flame before I got out. Fortunately I did get out and most wonderful of all, without either a scratch or burn.
‘The Fire Brigade at the house were running out lengths of hose to the little burn at the Geilston end of the village. You see the H.E. bomb had shattered the water mains and this failure of water supply was the cause of disaster to Mr Vallance’s house and mine. Mrs Michie and family were indeed guardian angels to us at this stage. Then to complete the picture Mr McIntyre and I were asked to warn all the residents in Church Avenue and the little village at the shore. A landmine was discovered at the sawmill on the shore and was liable to explode any minute. This was successfully accomplished. As all our telephone connections had been blown to smithereens what do you thing Mr Brown did? He proceeded to Helensburgh at 4,30a.m.to put in his report. It was pitch dark at the time and he stood the risk of running into or over any unexploded bomb that may have been lying on the road. However, he managed to get through safely and might I say luckily. Mrs Michie and the girls made breakfast for Ella and me but I could hardly taste it. My nose ears, and throat seemed to be full of lime, soot and dust but I can assure you we were very grateful indeed and will never forget her kindness to us. This is my experience of the blitz and none too good a one as you will see. I did not want to write to you in detail, it all seemed to me to breathe of a kind of hero-worship and yet on the other hand I feel you would be interested to know. At this moment when I can view all the incidents impartially, I have set them down as briefly as possible. It seems like a story in a novel save that it actually occurred.’
The letter is signed ‘Daddy’.
Arthur Jones and James Adie and the Cardross clubhouse that fell victim to the Blitz.
One man caught up in the Blitz in Cardross that night was James Adie, who was born in the village in 1924, where his grandfather was the chauffeur to a member of the famous Denny shipbuilding family at Cardross Park, writes Arthur F. Jones. Jim’s father was a sea-going engineer, while his mother was the well-respected clubmistress at Cardross Golf Club. Jim was born in the old clubhouse and, as a teenager, had the horrific war-time experience of seeing it burned to the ground during the Cardross blitz. He had to rescue his mother, who was reluctant to leave her charge and her home despite incendiary bombs raining down. Jim always spoke with compassion for all the victims of that terrible period, which added emotional depth to his life-long love of the village of Cardross, its people and its history. He served an engineering apprenticeship with Denny’s and hankered after a life at sea, like his father. He joined the merchant navy in 1945 and studied in Glasgow for his sea-going certificates, eventually gaining his chief’s ticket. He spent many years sailing the seven seas with the famous City Line, of which he always spoke with pride and affection. After a period as chief engineer on some of the Clyde steamers until 1970, he became the on-site engineer at the Brock Baths at Dumbarton, then manager. He used to joke that they had given him this job because, unlike other possible candidates, he would be able to fix the boilers if something went wrong. Engineering inspection work with the Scottish Development Agency then took him all over Scotland and the friendships he made with colleagues outlasted the agency itself.
A spell as a researcher with the Denny Tank Museum in Dumbarton followed before he ended his working life as caretaker of Dumbarton Library. He retired in 1989. Jim was a member of Cardross Golf Club for 74 years and joint author of the centenary history of the club in 1996.
For more than 60 years he was a member of Dumbarton Kilwinning Lodge, in which he held the office of Almoner. He was, in later years, an enthusiastic member of the Dumbarton Burns Club. He researched details about Dumbarton men in the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (Burma), and wrote historical accounts of Cardross Park estate and the Cardross blitz. Jim, who died in Scarborough six years ago, collected old photographs and provided interesting and valuable information to the local history section at Dumbarton Library. Right into his eighties he was busy compiling a photographic record of old Cardross. His knowledge of individual people past and present in Cardross and Dumbarton was astounding.
* Arthur F. Jones was librarian in charge of the public libraries in Dumbarton and Alexandria and is author of Cardross: The village in days gone by
A race between a limo and the Luftwaffe
A Dumbarton woman had a narrow escape that night of the Blitz. Rose Cleary was the daughter of Paddy Cleary, the well known undertaker and hirer of limousines in Strathleven Place. Rose, who later became Mrs Rose Carey and lived in Round Riding Road, was the first woman in Dumbarton to pass her driving test. Her brothers, Charlie, James and Willie also worked in the motor hire business but that night Rose was given the task of driving a priest from St Patrick’s in Dumbarton to St Joseph’s in Helensburgh. She was driving down the Lea Brae towards Cardross when she heard a Luftwaffe plane flying low overhead. The plane started to follow the path of the limousine she was driving when the pilot homed in on her headlights. Rose immediately shut off the lights of the car, pulled off the road and waited in the darkness until the plane had gone and it was safe to complete her journey.
The old kirk at Cardross village before it was bombed by the Luftwaffe.
How Dumbarton coped with the Blitz
Jock McQueen’s Clock on the Co-op building in Glasgow Road, which was destroyed.
Clydebank was the town worst hit by the Blitz, and much has been written about that by the local writers’ group and journalist John MacLeod in his book, River of Fire. Towns and villages further down the river did not escape the Luftwaffe bombs though and had it not been for pre-war preparation the loss of life and destruction of homes, churches and important public buildings would have been much greater.
Before the Munich Agreement was signed in September, 1938, trenches were being dug in Levengrove Park, Dumbarton – this happened in public parks throughout Britain – and gas masks were being distributed. It was some time after the start of the Second World War in 1939 however that the first bombs fell on Dumbarton. Householders were ordered to black out their windows at night and cars and bicycles were permitted only dimmed lamps and headlights. Air Raid Precautions (ARP) wardens patrolled the street at night to ensure the regulations were observed. Air-raid shelters, which were called Anderson shelters, were erected in the parks and open spaces, in schools and factories, and warning signs were sounded from time to time to call people to practice drill with gas respirators. The closes of tenements were strutted and baffle walls, which could be awkward obstacles to negotiate in the blackout. Parents were encouraged to evacuate their children to safe country areas, where some remained for the duration of the war, although most returned after the first few months which were comparatively free of air raid warnings.
Retirement gift – Lennox Herald editor Bill Heaney presents a bottle of Scotch to Dr Ian MacPhail to mark his retirement while librarian Mike Taylor looks on.
Dr Ian MacPhail, the Dumbarton historian, has recorded that in the Leven Shipyard, owned by Denny’s, and the Blackburn Aircraft Factory in Newtown overtime became regular for the first time since the First World War. For those who were not called up, local defence companies were organised which in time became known as the Home Guard. In addition to the ordinary British service personnel, Dumbarton had for most of the war a Norwegian Royal Navy Unit stationed at Helenslee House in Kirktonhill – it later became part of Keil School – and from time to time Polish and French soldiers, exiled from their homelands, were also based there. Some of the Poles, unable or unwilling to return to their home country, which had been given over to Communist rule after the war, stayed on in Dumbarton as did some of the East Germans from prisoner of war camps in places like Drymen, where Rudolf Hess, deputy Führer to Adolf Hitler, was held. Hess had flown to Scotland and landed in a field in Eaglesham, Renfrewshire, in an attempt to negotiate peace. He was taken prisoner and held with other POWs in Drymen. Eventually, he was was convicted of crimes against peace and sentenced to life imprisonment but committed suicide.
German raiders swooped over Dumbarton regularly between March and May of 1941, and in all 17 lives were lost and around 100 houses destroyed. On March 13 and 14, under a full moon, Clydebank and Partick bore the brunt of those raids, but on the night of May 5 considerable damage was caused in Dumbarton by high explosive bombs and incendiaries. Fortunately, according to Dr MacPhail, the quick action of the ATRP wardens and fire-fighting units prevented the spread of many fires but the Catholic school near Dumbarton Central Station and the Scottish People’s Theatre, a wood and iron structure at Dumbarton Common, were burned to the ground. A parachute mine and incendiary bombs destroyed houses at the end of Levengrove Terrace and Veir Terrace. One woman was killed in that incident. High explosive bombs wrecked two tenements in the Newtown, one in Glasgow Road, where the majority of the casualties were badly injured and one woman was killed. In Wallace Street it is believed the strutted closes saved all but one child and the following morning a delayed action bomb destroyed the Co-operative Society building and Jock McQueen’s clock. Many of the large sandstone executive houses in Kirktonhill received direct hits and a woman ambulance driver was killed in Dixon Drive. On the other side of town, at Stirling Road opposite Dumbarton Cemetery, a fortunately unoccupied bungalow was razed to the ground. Windows in houses and shops all over the town were shattered and ceilings brought down by the blasts. Up in the Long Crags behind Maryland Farm more than 90 bombs were dropped on decoy targets prepared and manned by the Royal Air Force. A series of sites on the Kilpatrick Hills had been arranged to simulate the lights of the shipyards and docks on Clydeside. This clever ploy by the RAF, who were stationed in MTBs at Sandpoint beneath Dumbarton Rock, resulted in the shipyards receiving little or no attention from the Luftwaffe and saved many lives in Dumbarton and Clydebank.
The staff at Blackburn Aircraft Factory in Dumbarton in 1945.
Munitions workers who were employed on building the Sunderland flying boat aircraft at the Blackburn factory include my mother, Mary Heaney Hay, Tilly Neeson Allison, Jessie Cooley Gillies and Nan Smith Roberts.
Dr MacPhail, in a publication for the old Dumbarton Town Council, states that one of the consequences of the ending of the war in 1945 was a drastic reduction in the manufacture of aircraft and another was “a pent-up demand” for new housing because none had been built for more than five years. As a result, the Blackburn aircraft factory went over to the production of aluminium houses, which were intended for temporary use until the housing shortage was remedied. Two of the streets in Castlehill where these first houses were erected were called Blackburn Crescent and Sunderland Avenue, after the flying boats which had been built by the aircraft company. Later the company continued with the manufacture of pre-fabricated houses, but the conventional, standard types of houses, which were often cheaper, were preferred and by 1960 the Blackburn factory was being run down and eventually it closed.
Castlehill mothers and children pictured celebrating the Coronation in 1953.