Then, I saw a single Junkers, an angel of death in the dark sky…
Along with my older sisters Carys and Ffion, I lived with Mum and Dad in a two-room cottage at number eleven, India Row, Monkton. We lived, ate and cooked in one room and slept in the other. The living room had a table and five wooden chairs. On the mantelshelf over the black range, which we used for warmth and cooking, stood two photos and a clock. In a Huntley & Palmers biscuit tin with a picture of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth on the circular lid, we kept the money, the rent book, the insurance documents and a candle, and next to it on the table stood a bottle of whisky for emergencies.
On the December night of my seventh birthday, when the moon’s milk-white disc loomed large over Pembroke castle and the smell of my recently baked birthday cake lingered, my father came home from working at Simonds shipyard. With no words of happy birthday, he started to moan and curse the cold weather. He stamped his feet and outstretched his calloused hands to the range. ‘Now, where are my slippers?’
Suddenly, the siren on the police station roof droned an ascending atonal sound. Its wailing output warned everyone for miles around, jarring bones and fraying nerves.
‘Wynny,’ he said to Mum, ‘Get the kids ready. Duty calls. It’ll be a bad one tonight, what with the moon to help Jerry.’ Straightaway, he unlaced his steel-capped shoes, then he grabbed his Home Guard uniform from the peg behind the door. Frantically, he pulled off his heavy working jacket and kicked his way out of his trousers. He yanked on his khaki tunic and trousers before sitting to pull on his black boots. Finally, he fastened the wide web belt with its shiny brass buckle around his waist.
‘Get your coat on,’ Mum urged me. She ran into the back bedroom to chase up my sisters who always took ages to do anything.
At that moment, there was a knock at the door and in walked Uncle Edward wearing his gas-mask loosely around his neck. Those two goggle eyes stared blankly at me from the middle of his chest. He looked like an alien out of one of my War of the Worlds comics. I loved him, and as usual he playfully ruffled my ginger hair. He was much taller and younger than Dad, and enjoyed kicking a football about in the street with me. He had a wicked left foot and he always let me tackle him.
‘Happy Birthday, Rhian,’ he said. At least he hadn’t forgotten, but, to my disappointment, he did not produce any present. As usual, he had cycled over from his lodgings in Pembroke Dock. He had recently developed the habit of coming over to have dinner with us away from the bombing and he would sleep in the sanctuary of our local church. He did this most nights, for Monkton, away from the docks and shipyards of Pembroke Dock on the Cleddau, was thought to be a safe place. With the siren wailing, he took Dad outside and lit a cigarette. Feeling like an adult, I followed them with my coat on. I heard Uncle Edward say to my dad in lowered tones, ‘It’s going to be bad tonight, Cynan, Thank God for your long garden. You can go to the bottom away from the house.’
‘Are you mad?’ Dad was angry. ‘I’m taking the children up to the shelter at Orange Hall Farm opposite Ferriers. We had better get moving. Wynny!’ Dad called back through the front door. He raised his voice above the wailing of the siren. ‘I’ve got Rhian.’ He pulled the collar of my coat and me nearly off my feet. ‘Carys, get the whisky and Ffion, don’t forget to bring the biscuit tin. Come on now everyone, get moving, chop, chop.’ He shouted his urgent instructions and everyone obeyed. ‘Chop, chop!’ It meant things needed to be done ultra fast. ‘And don’t forget to lock the door,’ he instructed Mum who emerged with her heavy dark coat neatly fastened around her waist. My two sisters tumbled out with their winter coats which, unbuttoned, flew open as they stepped outside in the breeze. Carys clutched the whisky and Ffion held the biscuit tin under her arm.
‘Come on, come on,’ he said. His repeated stern urgings seemed unusually urgent, and along with the noise of the siren, I was worried. We all marched off at a brisk pace. I tried to keep up with Uncle Edward, my three steps to his two.
‘Edward, knock up the Joneses from next door and the rat catcher at number fifteen as we pass. He can be like the bloody Pied Piper playing to the children to follow him.’ Dad laughed to lighten the sombre mood cast by the continued wail of the siren.
Quickly, in the milky moonlight, our small band strode up to Orange Hall Farm by Ferriers.
I kept looking to the cloudless sky, and thought of the birthday cake with si xcandles that Mum had made. It would be sitting untouched on the kitchen table.
One hundred yards, no bombers.
We all quickened our pace, for the Orange Hall Farm shelter was nearly three hundred yards from our house. Then, I saw a single Junkers, an angel of death in the dark sky. Just like the aircraft identification poster at school, its black wings splayed out from its belly-load of destruction. Then another, and another, looming ever larger in the sky, si xin all. I had never seen so many bombers so close before. Now the droning noise of the aircraft combined with the wail of the siren scared me and I increased my stride passing Uncle Edward who also broke into a jog. Next, I heard the repeated explosions of falling bombs. Pembroke Dock was being heavily bombed. By the time we neared the shelter, we could hear the crump, crump, crump of anti-aircraft guns and the explosions of falling bombs and see the fruitless needles of light stab the haystack of darkness. Then there was a terrific explosion.
‘My God, that was close. They’re bombing Monkton! Get in that shelter now,’ screamed Mum. ‘Get in, get in the shelter, now.’ She screamed at us again. She hitched up her coat and ran in her funny wide-legged fashion to underline her sense of panic.
Chasing alongside came Carys and Ffion. I sprinted the last ten or so yards into the empty, dark corrugated-iron shelter. ‘Beat you,’ I cried victoriously as I crossed into the blackness and safety of the shelter ahead of my older sisters and Uncle Edward. Then came Mum and Dad, the Joneses, the rat catcher and his wife, and, finally, the owners of Orange Hall.
‘Did you bring that candle, Ffion?’ said Dad.
From the biscuit tin, Ffion extracted a candle and Dad lit it. Its feeble glow showed nervous faces made more anxious by the shadowy light which shone faintly on their lined expressions in the dark space. Another loud explosion told us that Monkton had been bombed a second time. Mum winced. Ffion gave out a small cry of fear. Dad, Uncle Edward, Mr. Jones and his wife, the rat catcher and his wife along with the owners of Orange Hall said nothing. We looked at each other and instinctively the adults comforted us children by putting their arms around our shoulders as if that additional protection would help us survive. Under Dad’s protective arm, I mumbled a simple prayer, ‘Dear Lord, protect me and my family.’
The third explosion was closest. ‘That must have hit India Row,’ said Uncle Edward.
‘Stay here,’ said Dad, ‘the raid is still going. No one move.’
We sat in the semi-darkness and helplessly listened for the next explosion. The candle made it just tolerable, its flickering light cast dark and distorted shadows on the curved corrugated walls of the Anderson shelter. Ffion started to cry. Mum swept her up in her arms and kissed her on the cheek. ‘It’ll be over soon,’ she said soothingly.
After what seemed an eternity as we waited for another explosion, I saw Carys look at her radium, glow-in-the-dark watch. The second hand swept round once, twice and, as it completed a third sweep, the All-Clear sounded.
I thanked God.
Dad said, ‘Wait here, no one leave the shelter. Pass me that bottle of whisky, Carys. I need a drink.’
Carys passed him the bottle. He took a good two-fingered swig and drew the back of his hand across his mouth.
‘This is not enough for everyone, it’s almost empty!’ he said holding up the bottle.
‘I brought a full one too,’ said Mum, ‘just in case.’
‘Good girl,’ said Dad. He unscrewed the cap and passed the bottle around the nine adults. ‘We deserve this. Let’s finish the bottle, we’ve probably a long night ahead of us,’ he said. And we all sat and finished the second bottle of whisky.
That was the night that Jerry bombed Monkton. Three bombs fell. One hit the triangle of land between our house at number eleven, damaging the roof and blowing out all the windows, and number twelve India Row, that suffered much more and was eventually demolished, and Short Mains, the land where we had our chicken runs. They died, of course, but Mr. James had stayed in his house in Short Mains. Luckily, he didn’t get hurt despite the flying glass from his broken windows. One bomb fell up at the field owned by the smallholder, Evans the milkman, and one on the Shortman flats.
It was a night I’ll never forget, not only for the bombing which wrecked my cake with flying glass or for it being my birthday. I watched as the whisky was passed from person to person in the shelter, accompanied by the smacking of lips and exclamations of appreciation. Dad held the cork, and, as the bottle arrived back with him, I said, ‘Can I taste it?’
Mum said sharply, ‘No,’ but Dad said, ‘He’s a big boy now. Go on, son, just a taster, mind.’
I lifted the bottle to my lips and I’ll never forget that moment. It was horrible and it burned my throat!