World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                         May Roberts 

Inspecting Bomb damage

By Actiondesk Sheffield

People in story: May Roberts
Location of story: Welwyn Garden City,
Background to story: Civilian


Inspecting Bomb damage
Mrs May Roberts

I was 16 when the war broke out. Men of 18 were called up and later conscripted; women were drafted into useful work in offices, factories and the forces. My parents thought a shorthand and Typing course would be best for me, ”So as to be able to look after myself, if anything happened.” (To them) I never got up speed in the former but the latter has always been useful.
In summer 1940 I got a job with a local Architect in Welwyn Garden City, whom I shall call Paul. I was a secretary at £3.00 per week, what wealth!

Paul’s partners and office staff had all joined up and his office building had been commandeered for Government offices, as had the premises of so many small businesses. He still had several jobs in the pipeline, which couldn’t be left, and several new ones. He was planning some day nurseries and British Restaurants these were in prefab buildings. They were all going up for the benefit of women who were working full time at factories and so could get child care and a cheap place to eat as well, both were good things that came into being in war time.

So Paul had moved all his papers into his garage, and his desks into his bedroom. He installed me in the tank room on the flat roof, up a little steep ladder through a trap door where the typewriter had been installed and where I typed his letters.

By that time air raids on London, just 20 miles south of Welwyn, were frequent but quite sporadic and random. We would look out at night to see the orange glow of fires and try to calculate where they were- what area might have caught it. I was a volunteer fire-watcher at a neighbour’s house but there were only two nights when bombs rained down on Welwyn, it was not a target but many ‘planes would drop their bombs randomly in the country before returning to Germany. The blackout at nights was remarkably total. Wardens used to knock at the door when only the tiniest chink of light was visible, and no streetlights glowed and Welwyn had very leafy streets to conceal it in the daytime.

The Government promised compensation for war damage but how were they to know what was genuine of the many claims that flooded in? (It might simply be neglect) Architects were given the task of checking out people’s claims; some seemed bizarre in the depths of the country. Paul had a square of country from Bishops’ Stortford in the north to Ware in the south, roughly nowadays bisected by the M11. Then it was mostly small villages and extremely beautiful rolling countryside on the Hertfordshire/Essex border. He had a petrol ration to drive there and a mileage allowance.

But maps were at a premium and all signposts and most house and building names had been removed especially village names, just in case Germans landed and tried to find their way to important places. I didn’t drive yet so I became map-reader. Two or three times a week we’d set out with measures, notebooks and a list of names, places, addresses: they might be big houses, tiny houses, farms, cottages, barns workshops, all sorts of buildings with any degree of damage on ancient or new buildings.
I knew I was a good map reader but I got a great kick out of landing up at the right place from the map alone, without confirmation of signposts and mileage and without wasting the precious petrol. I suppose I also greatly enjoyed seeing the inside of so many houses from the ancient to the modern and the spick and span to the downright messy, which only shows my curiosity, although it fed a desire to do Architecture, seeing the most beautiful and the ugly.

When we got to most places we would be greeted by plaster ceilings all scattered on the floor, cracks in the walls, broken glass and windows blown in, roof tiles blown off, chimney pots tumbled, sometimes extensive wall collapse or roof down.
But this was deep country, not the big fires and direct hits of a big town, but blast from sometimes a mile away. We were shown the craters but I don’t think they necessarily got compensated. We were often taken aback at the distance blast would travel, but sometimes a geological map would tell us the strata carried through under a hill and could rock the building.

So there was Paul measuring everything for renewal and verifying it was genuine, and I, writing as fast as I could, the amounts needed for repair as given me by him. Sometimes we found ourselves visiting the same place again and certainly could see that most of these people were paid enough to repair the damage. How thankful we were, not to be dealing with house contents. Most of this minor damage could be repaired with the help of compensation.

I often remember the deep wintry cold of these days and the bliss of finding the rare village café where you could get hot cocoa, in summer it was easier.

When after two years things in London were a bit quieter and I had become enamoured of the idea of studying Architecture, and girls of 18 were now called up, but Architecture study was allowed under call up. I started at the Regent Street Polytechnic. So then I had long days in town plus travel to and from Welwyn. A half hour train journey often became 2 hours because of stopping in a tunnel, while there was an air raid, or to let troop trains have priority. I usually walked from Kings Cross because the underground was so full of people sleeping there as a shelter. On many mornings there were bits of damage with staircases or furniture suspended in the air. Some of the now empty basements were made into water tanks for use in the fires. The carnage was totally different from the minor damage of the countryside.

At Architectural school work was very interesting but there was no chance of going to see fine buildings- they were all sandbagged or bombed, nor could we see exhibitions of painting, they were all stored for safety in caves like the ones in Derbyshire. But the National Gallery, kept the hall open with one picture, often changed, on view with a detailed history around it. And there too at lunch times, Myra Hesse (later Dame) would give a fine piano recital free. All of which kept my cultural learning higher, but it was well after the war before I finished studying Architecture.