Of course the front line wasn’t only occupied by military men. Because often enough the front line came home and took in civilians, including women and children. One incident I can recall only too clearly nearly cost my life. I was very lucky.
I was twenty-one and acting as an aircraft spotter at the time. Not of the military kind. No, I’d been taken on by Rolls Royce to join the night shift at their factory in Derby, which is where I was living at the time. But instead of joining the rest of them in the factory, my role was to go up on the roof and, well, spot aircraft. We were assumed to be a prime target for the Germans because of course Derby was where the Merlin aero engines were built. You know – the engines which gave Spitfires that characteristic sound. One night in 1942 as usual I was by myself. If there was a high alert they’d send more up and perhaps fetch in a couple of anti-aircraft guns, but that night was quiet. So they thought.
About 5.40am I queried the noise of an aircraft in the south – we used to have a lot of trouble distinguishing that sort of thing because of the noise from the engine test beds – and the controller told me: ‘There’s nothing on the board this side of Coventry.’ Ten minutes later there was an almighty roar and a Dornier skimmed No.6 Shop with his bomb doors open and his machine-guns blazing away. He was so low that he had to bank round the factory’s water tower. Then he came back and dropped four bombs. One wrecked the central stores, the steel stores and two adjacent houses in Hawthorn Street. It sent shrapnel whistling all around me, but by some miracle it all missed. The other three missed the factory, but landed in residential streets.
As I say, I was lucky, but twenty-three people weren’t, including nine women, a nine year-old boy and a little girl, aged two. One of the women was called Dora. Only the previous day she’d agreed to go dancing with me that Saturday. I went numb when I found out. I couldn’t believe it. Well, you don’t, do you, when it affects you personally? I’m happily married now, but I still think about her.
By John Emms