Page last updated at 13:23 GMT, Friday, 12 November 2010
Remembering the blitz in a letter from 1942

The letter from Carol Rutherford
It is unclear whether the letter was printed in the Herald Tribune in New York

While collecting stories and memories for Beyond the Blitz, we received an email from Caroline Rutherford. Her uncle, who originally came from Warrington, was a warden in Coventry during WWII and wrote a letter to the Herald Tribune in New York two years after the Coventry Blitz. Caroline is unsure as to whether the letter was published, but she has shared with us a copy of the letter which describes the night and aftermath of 14 November 1940. The text below has been copied exactly from the letter by Samuel.


Coventry Remembers by Samuel Bate (written in 1942)

It is almost two years since that terrible night that shook the world to its very core, yet to us it was but yesterday. The only difference is that the horror and stalking death of that night is merged in our memories with all the other nights of dread, for November 14th 1940 was only the culmination of weeks and weeks of constant bombings.

Every night, as the early dusk deepened into darkness, the sirens began to wail.

You have never heard that wail, have you? It gets you in the pit of your stomach and ties your nerves into knots. Can you imagine it, America, every night for weeks and weeks, about five o'clock in the evening, nerves begin to tighten, tempers to fray. Not just one night but long endless weeks of nights. We knew that, as sure as night would come, Jerry would come too.

Then everybody - old women, old men, mothers with babies, young children and cripples - hurried to the shelters long before the sirens did sound, and stayed there until five and six o'clock the next morning.

You have never heard the zoom-zoom of enemy planes, have you, America. It's nothing like the zoom of your own planes, believe me. You have never heard the crash of bombs, never scrabbled through a fog of grey dust, among bricks and rubble, trying to rescue some poor souls buried beneath what was once the home they were proud of. You have never seen your town ringed round with fires, seen every house in your road blazing, seen the white flickering glare of incendiaries, or the screams of injured and hysterical people.

I hope you never do. I hope you go on your knees and pray that such horror and terror will never bear your souls. But you will never understand. Words, written or spoken, can never make you understand the frightfulness of standing there, while the ground trembles like a giant jelly and the scream of bombs fills the air, while your legs give way under you and your strength is turned to water. You can't do anything - you can't even hit back. All you can do is stand and wait for it.

Never, until then, did I - a Warden on duty during every raid - appreciate what ultimate fear was, the fear which brings numbness of body and mind, until coherent thought ceases and even automatic prayer is impossible.

Have you heard a railway engine whistling as it passes through a station? Well, imagine that piercing scream coming down from the skies from eight different points at the same time, and going on for hours and hours until you are so weary that you forget it is a miracle that you are alive, and you don't care if the next one does hit you.

Letter - Caroline Rutherford
Samuel went on to write many plays and ran a successful play library

I saw Coventry ringed with fires, not once, but many times. Sometimes even before the sirens sounded. I saw young girls driving ambulances through a hell of bombs and shrapnel on four flat tyres. I saw a one legged First Aid man walking slowly up and down the road as if enjoying a country stroll during the then worst bombardment in the history of the world.

I saw old men and women wrapped in little more than a blanket staring dumb and dry eyed in front of what was once the home they had filled with many years of memories, and was now blackened bricks and wisps of smoke. And why?

Because a man who looked like Charlie Chaplin, but who was not half so funny, thought we would break down and cry out for pity. He didn't think that, even if he did make us do that, he still had to do it to America and that they came from the same common stock.

Can you imagine what it was like to find you had no water, no gas and no electricity and that your home town looked like pictures of Ypres during the last war - to walk to the centre of the town and lose yourself, because none of the landmarks were left?

For weeks, I, like thousands of others lived in a house that had no windows. In the bedrooms you could see the sky through the jagged holes. When it rained the bedroom floors were covered with water that seeped through into the rooms below, down the walls - down the light flex and all the time the wintery winds blew through the holes.

Once, I walked a mile and a half for a bucket of rainwater to make a cup of tea. I even saw people with cups scooping water from craters to drink - and that in the heart of the most thickly populated part of civilised England.

One of the worst parts of the aftermath of a raid was going to work the next morning - later because of the roads were blocked - and doing nothing but sit around watching the stragglers come in one by one. Then some of them didn't come in and you knew they had heard the scream of a bomb for the last time.

It may be two years ago, but how can we forget? Coventry is a city of the dead after dark. The streets are empty, the moon shines on jagged bits of wall and piles of rubble that was once a modern shopping centre. The sirens go rarely now, thanks to the RAF but on the occasions when they do sound wailingly through the air, meetings close, people in cinemas and theatres or visiting friends, leave immediately for home. The try to appear cheerful, but the look in their eyes belies their acting.

In my own mind I have two clear pictures. One is of putting out incendiaries with bits of roofing slate because there was no more sand left. The other is of being blown across a garden by blast.

I have come to two conclusions. One is that the most beautiful sound in the world is the All Clear. The other is that the mental effects of feeling the full weight of Nazi hate is shown in the tremendous number of people under forty with grey or white hair. Coventry will always remember.


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