Mavis's Shoe

Author of two novels and a creative memoir.

Monday, 11 March 2013

'In what street?'

This is one of the saddest pictures I know of the aftermath of the Clydebank Blitz. I've put it here because Wednesday and Thursday of this week, the 13th and 14th March, will be the 72nd anniversary of the devastating bombing of Clydebank, the Clydebank Blitz. To mark this I’d like to talk about the numbers because since last year’s anniversary I have discovered the source of those figures and the date. I was appalled, I have to admit, but subsequently greatly and sadly mystified.

The bombing shook Clydebank on a Thursday and a Friday. On the Sunday the authorities reported 528 dead, stating that there was ‘probably a further 200’. Another 617 were said to have been seriously injured. This report was not made public at the time but these numbers were published the following year by the Sunday Post and the Sunday Mail. This was of course illegal because of war-time censorship and I believe the two papers got their knuckles rapped for their trouble.

The people of Clydebank are said to have been appalled by these numbers too. An ARP warden, who had been part of the rescue operation, is noted to have remarked on hearing the figures, ‘In what street?’ Eye-witness accounts confirm a far higher scale of damage and the sheer ratio of bombs and bombers to houses and people suggests the numbers were far higher: over 4,000 bombs for 12,000 dwellings. This is one bomb for every three houses. There were somewhere between 55,000 and 60,000 people living there, the population having swelled by 10 to 15 thousand because of the availability of war work.

But they don’t know.

And in a way that’s the point. Everybody scarpered after the first night, those who could, those who weren’t part of the rescue operation. And they took some time to come back, those that did. Nobody was there to point out they hadn’t seen Johnnie for a few days, or the guy who’d newly arrived from the other end for the country for work whose name nobody knew. And some areas were just too thoroughly burnt out and flattened.

It’s an ugly competition but Clydebank took more bombs in two nights that poor Coventry had in the entire war. Numbers do actually mean something, and therefore numbers need to be accurate. In some way they validate the experience by confirming that yes, it was that bad, and yes, the chances of escape from certain areas were extremely slim. This is standard post-trauma healing, trying to put together a picture of what happened so you can understand it, deal with it and keep living.

So they don’t know the real numbers. And this is what mystifies me: why put out figures at all and why defend them? Why not just say, especially so long after it all happened, awful though it is, “We just don’t know.”

The chapters in Mavis’s Shoe which cover the actual bombing and the day in between, were derived in part from accounts written by people who had actually lived through this terrifying experience. They also reflect reportage of other more recent conflicts, notably Bosnia. The Clydebank accounts are to be found in Untold Stories: Remembering Clydebank in War-time, which was published in March 1999 by the Clydebank Life Stories group. I was honoured to be invited to their annual reunion when Mavis’s Shoe was first published to read a small section of the book to the group.

You could have heard a pin drop. I was relieved and delighted when so many people came to speak to me afterwards and tell me more stories of their survival or that of their parents and relatives, and that what I had written was an accurate reflection of those people’s experiences. These are things we do know about.

For more information about the Clydebank Blitz go to this website.
Untold Stories can be found here.
And the best guide to the background so far can be found here.