BOMBS IN THE BLACKOUT – interview with author John Orton

This is the third blog on a series of books written about South Shields by author John Orton. The first appearing on 1st October ‘Bobbies, Bookies and Beer’ and a second installment last week ‘Bread, Jam and Cow Heel Pie’…John takes up the story…. ‘I had just published the Five Stone Steps: tales of a Policeman’s life in 1920s South Shields. I was writing a sequel and wanted a last story about the War years. Sergeant ‘Jock’ Gordon whose memoirs inspired the book does not say a lot about the war and most of that is taken up and criticising the War Reserve Police. I started doing my own research. I had no idea how bad things became for everyone during the War, and in particular how much the town of Shields had suffered during the Blitz. There was enough material for a book let alone one story.

When people think of the War their first thoughts are of the heroes on the front line but the battle at home during the German blitzkrieg was in its own way just as tough. There was a whole army of young and old, men and women, who became ARP Wardens, street firewatchers, auxiliary fire-fighters, and ambulance crew, war reserve police, rescue squads and the WVS who took out the mobile canteens for the rescue workers’.

National Fire Service Mobile canteen STH0000228

National Fire Service

‘Then I discovered the PAMs – police auxiliary messengers – lads between 16 and 18 with their own bikes who would go out during and after raids to deliver messages – when the phone lines were down they were the only way of getting messages through. The thought of young lads riding their bikes in the blackout, with bombs flying round their ears, was the inspiration behind Blitz PAMs. Once I’d got the idea and finished my research I found the perfect voice for the story – Mossie Hamed, a 16 year old delivery boy, of mixed English and Arab stock, who speaks with a broad Shields accent. The story told itself and sometimes I had a job keeping up with it! The book was finished in about 6 months which is quick for me’.

How much of the book is fact or fiction ? ’The story of the book is how six young PAMs, Mossie, Davey, Jimmy, Freddie, Mattie and Jackie, who turns out to be a lass, live through the blitz on Shields, and cope with life knowing that their name might be on the next bomb. Their adventures, scrapes and adolescent fumblings with lasses, paint a vivid picture of what life was like for teenagers in the war.

The PAMs are all fictional characters but their exploits – uncovering a black market racket, exposing a Policeman who is looting bomb sites, and rescuing a budgie from the ruins, are all things that happened during the war.  The descriptions of the air raids themselves, the death and damage they caused are all based on fact. A German Henkel did crash land on the seafront and the German pilot who baled out was killed when he landed on the live trolley bus wires. A 1000kg bomb did crash through the roof of the power station landing on the top of one of the boilers without exploding; a direct hit on the underground shelter in the market place killed at least 12 people who were sheltering inside. The foreman of a rescue squad was awarded the George Medal for bravery’.

Did researching the book effect you in any way ? Where you saddened or shocked at the amount of war damage done to Shields ? ’I was really moved by the resilience of all the emergency services and their auxiliary/volunteer helpers in the face of the German bombing. These were people who for the main part had full time jobs but still turned out at night if there was a raid. On Wednesday 9th April 1941 a major raid targeted the riverside. About 6,000 incendiary bombs were dropped. Once The Lawe Top area lit up it was a perfect target for the bombers. Mile End Road and the surrounding streets were hit hard’.

Surface Shelter Mile End Road STH0001089

Mile End Road, South Shields

‘This shelter was surrounded by houses – they were all blown to smithereens but the shelter stood firm – you can see the six inch crack that went from the ceiling to the ground but all inside were kept safe. The unsung heroes in this case were the corporation brickies who built the shelter – thank heavens they didn’t have a team of cowboys who are putting up modern houses! During this raid the Shields ARP called for mutual aid from surrounding towns. Sunderland sent their fire-fighters who took on the fires at the dockside. The ferocity of two other raids did shock and sadden me. They were only a couple of days apart and left a lot of the town in ruins’.

Can you tell us a story from the book ? ’There are many humorous passages but here is one that brings home how dangerous life could be for the PAMS. The action takes place during the raid on the Market Place on 2nd October 1941. Mossie and Freddie have been sent out on their bikes to the Market Place to see what help is needed. Freddie has had an on and off relationship with Gertie, one of the auxiliary ambulance drivers. As they near the Market Square Freddie sees Gertie in her ambulance.  Mossie takes over the account of what happened next…..

“I’ll cut them off,” Freddie called oot as he tore strite across the Market Place standing on his pedals. I was way behind, and riding ower cobbles is bad enough when you’re gan’ slow. He was past the auld Town Hall and took one hand off the handle bars to wave to the ambulance driver, and then the bombs came doon. I dain’t kna’ how many there were but the last thing I saw was Freddie flying through the air, and then the blast caught me. I was oot for a couple of minutes and didn’t kna’ where I was. I came to, feeling a bit sick, and couldn’t hear owt. I was just behind the auld Town Hall and that must have saved me from the full force of the blast. All I could see was flames all roond. Me bike was on top of me and I pushed it away and got to me feet. I had a stab of pain in me left leg and had a job putting any weight on it, but that was all. A trolley bus ootside the Tram was alight.

I then saw Gertie get oot of the ambulance. You couldn’t mistake her. She was running towards where I’d last seen Freddie. Then she was doon as there was a geet big explosion from Dunn’s Paint stores, and blazing tins of paint and oil were gan’ up like rockets and then coming doon like fire bombs. She got up and ran forward and I limped across as quick as I could. I saw her bend ower and pick something up – it looked like a pile of rags. I was nearly there and realised that it was Freddie – I was reet beside her but she was strong enough and then something dropped doon. I bent ower to pick it up and it was the bottom part of a leg with a boot on. Gertie had stopped as well. “What should I de with it?” I started puking. “Bring it with you, Mossie. We’ll keep him all together. He’s still breathing”.

blitz pams cover

If you want to know what happens to Mossie and his ‘marra’s’ read ‘Blitz PAMS’. Out now on e-book or paperback through Amazon or you can order copies at The Word bookshop, South Shields. What else have you been working on John ? ’After I’d finished Blitz PAMs I started on ‘A Chill Wind off the Tyne’. My sequel to the Five Stone Steps had been put on hold while I wrote Blitz PAMs. I went back to it but it was one of those works that you’re never really satisfied with and I rewrote it several times. It tells the lives of the working class in South Shields in the first half of the twentieth century. The harsh working conditions, the pit lock-outs of 1921 and 1926, the riots in Shields when Arab and white seamen fought over jobs in the streets. Life on Tyneside during the depression of the 20s and 30s was hard but folk got on with it, laughed and loved, liked a pint and a bet. Bought their shopping on tick and ate bread and dripping, tripe, brawn and even cow heel pie… ‘Well, you’ll eat owt when you’re hungry’.

Photographs courtesy of South Tyneside Libraries.

Interview by Gary Alikivi September 2018.

Recommended:

Secrets & Lies, Baron Avro Manhattan documentary, 17th July 2018.

Westoe Rose, Amy Flagg documentary, 19th July 2018.

Zamyatin, Tyneside-Russia documentary, 7th August 2018.

Peter Mitchell, Life In a Northern Town, 9th August 2018.

Ray Spencer MBE, That’s Entertainment 6th September 2018.

John Orton, Bobbies, Bookies & Beer 1st October 2018.

John Orton, Bread, Jam & Cow Heel Pie 17th October 2018.

Why not subscribe to the ALIKIVI You Tube channel for more Tyneside stories. You will find the link on the ‘About’ page.