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York Blitz: Buried alive
12:20pm Tuesday 24th April 2012 in History articles
All week, we are bringing you memories of readers who lived through the York Blitz of April 29, 1942. Today Kate Houghton, Barbara Weatherley and Christopher Backhouse and his sister, Jane Whitworth, tell their stories.
Christopher Backhouse and his whole family were pulled alive from the rubble of a house in Bootham that had been completely demolished by a bomb.
It was the sound of his baby sister, Jane, crying that alerted a passer-by to the fact that there were people still alive in the rubble.
Christopher, who now lives in Markington, near Ripon, was only five at the time. But he vividly remembers in the days before the raid, ARP wardens coming round to ensure the blackout was observed.
“I remember them patrolling the streets outside looking for chinks of light, and me being shouted at because I dared to look out one day!”
His memories of the night of the bombing itself are a little hazy. But he does remember the sirens, and the sound of the German planes overhead. “They made a different noise to the British planes.”
There wasn’t time to get to the Anderson shelter in the garden. Instead, the whole family – Christopher, his parents, baby Jane, and the nanny – huddled under a metal Morrison table shelter in a ground floor room.
He clearly remembers the whistle of bombs falling, and his father rocking him backwards and forwards in the shelter for comfort. And then came the sound of another bomb falling. Someone – it might even have been Christopher – shouted: “It’s us! It’s us! It’s us!
“And then there was an almighty crash and the whole house came down around our ears.”
It was pitch black, buried alive beneath that Morrison shelter. All he can really remember is the sound of running water – obviously a pipe somewhere had burst. It was terrifying, he admits. “But my father was very calm.”
Eventually, a butcher with a shop nearby who must have come to inspect the damage to his property heard baby Jane crying. The entire family were pulled alive from the rubble.
Christopher’s sister, Jane Whitworth, now living in Bishophill, wrote this account of that night: “On the night of the Baedeker raid my family were living in Bootham. Our house was near the corner of Marygate and stood where the offices of Smiths Gore are now.
“The house received a direct hit and was totally demolished. Our local butcher, Mr Priestley, later passed the house and said to his companion that there could be no possibility of survivors – and then he heard a baby cry.
“He came into the wreckage and found that as well as the baby the rest of the family was alive. I was the baby, and with my brother and parents, was rescued. With all our possessions gone my father had to beg for milk which he did on the Minster steps.
“My brother, Christopher, was unable to go to school because some of the nuns who taught him at the Bar Convent were killed and the bomb damage there was severe.
The butcher’s shop is easily identifiable today in Bootham because of tiles which spell ‘PRIESTLEY’ below the window.”
Kate Houghton was 15 the night of the raids. She lived in Bishophill with her family and went to school in South Bank.
She remembers vividly the aftermath of the bombing, emerging from the air raid shelter that ran beneath the bar walls from Victoria Bar to Priory Street to see the Bar Convent’s stretch in Nunnery Lane in ruins. Five nuns died in the attack.
“After a raid, we didn’t go to school until 10 o’clock. As I walked up Nunnery Lane I saw them taking out the bodies of the nuns. They were covered, but it is a vivid memory and one I have talked about since with nuns at the convent.”
A couple Kate used to pass on her way to school every day were also killed when their house took a direct hit in the raid.
Kate, now 85 and living in Poppleton, remembers being “scared” every time she had to go into the air raid shelter during the war.
“You would hear planes, but you never knew whether they were ours or the Germans’.”
Barbara Weatherley was 13 at the time of the blitz, and living in Nunthorpe Grove. She and her family were awakened that night by the air raid siren and the sound of bombs dropping.
“No time to gather up clothes or shoes – it was straight down the garden path into the Anderson Shelter, no looking out to see what was happening, door shut tight and shaking with fright!” writes Barbara, who now lives in Bishopthorpe.
“We could hear the bombs exploding. We lived at 37 Nunthorpe Grove and we were told if the bombs whistled on the way down, you would be all right but if your heard a rushing noise they were too close. They rushed on that night.
“When we emerged from the shelter, Nunthorpe Grove was a scene of devastation. Those at No 41 were extremely lucky. Their shelter was teetering on the edge of a crater. We walked on broken glass into a house that was totally wrecked, no roof, windows broken, treasured possessions gone and wondering what we were going to do with ourselves.
“Mother, father, two brothers and myself, all very young. The house, built in 1936, was our pride and joy. We had moved from a small terrace house to the three bedroomed semi with a large garden – but we survived with a tarpaulin over the roof and windows boarded up until the next disaster, a Halifax bomber crashing in Nunthorpe Grove in 1945.
“No counselling, just get on with life, and back to school along with many others in the same situation.”