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Witness to York’s war
11:04am Saturday 5th May 2012 in Books
CHARLES Whiting, the late York-based war historian and novelist, wrote what is probably the definitive account of the York Blitz. Fire Over York: The Great York Air Raid 1942, told the story of that night with typical zest and, sometimes, humour.
At the time of his death in 2007, Mr Whiting was working on some new material to extend the scope of the book: including a chapter on the ‘phoney war’ of 1939/40, and on the Driffield Air Raid.
To mark the 70th anniversary of the York raid, the updated book has now been reissued as The Great York Air Raid 1942.
Mr Whiting experienced the raid himself, as a 15 year old.
Some years ago, he wrote a piece for the Yorkshire Evening Press about the events of that night.
It is included as a forward to the book. His widow, Gill, has given us permission to reproduce it again here.
"FOR me, of course, it had all been a bit of a lark. After nearly three years of waiting, when they finally came that early Wednesday morning in April 1942, dropping their “Christmas tree” flares across the centre of the old city, it meant excitement, the start of a big adventure for an impressionable 15 year old.
Almost as soon as the sirens started, there were significant thuds all around and through the bedroom window I could see the unnatural glare of magnesium from the incendiaries burning on the roofs opposite. This was it!
My father, in his Home Guard uniform, was already in control, shepherding the neighbours inside the house (no one trusted the outside shelters – garden sheds with the window bricked up and an extra layer of concrete on the roof).
Hurriedly, the women were shoved underneath the big kitchen table, while the men – my father, the neighbourhood warden (who had abandoned his post very smartish as soon as the first high explosive bomb dropped nearby) and I – stood guard. We’d all heard tales of Jerry parachutists being dropped during air raids.
In the event no Fallschirmjäger came winging down. Instead, the hot water boiler in the corner burst, spraying the ample bottom of the lady from next door with scalding water. “I’ve been hit,” she shrieked, “I’m bleeding!” at the same instant as the kitchen door blew off.
My father was propelled by the rush of hot air from the kitchen into the next room, while soot came pouring down the chimney. The air raid warden began to blub and the fat lady’s cries continued: “Won’t anybody help me? I’m bleeding to death!” It was like a scene from an Ealing comedy.
Later, after the Jerries had gone, I went outside to pick up shrapnel and spent bullets as souvenirs. I did not know till afterwards that 300 people had been killed or wounded that night and that one third of all homes had been damaged or destroyed.
It was only later that I heard from a fellow fifth- former how he had watched our dead maths teacher being carried out of his wrecked flat on a door; from another, how he’d seen a delayed-action land mine explode the following morning and shower debris on a mother running with her pram.
The little boy inside had been killed outright. But for me, however, that German Baedeker raid on the fourth English cathedral city to be attacked would remain, as I grew up, something of a comic adventure. A bit of a lark.
Three years later, as an eighteen-year-old soldier in an armoured column working its way through Cologne in pursuit of the retreating Germans, I realised that I had been an innocent eye-witness, in part, to a dreadful and permanent change in the nature of air warfare.
• The Great York Air Raid 1942, by Charles Whiting is published by GH Smith, priced £12. It is available from GH Smith in Easingwold, and from Waterstone’s in York.