Thursday, 11 July 2013

The Night It Rained Fire

Seventy years ago this April, Aberdeen experienced the worst air raid of World War II; over 130 bombs fell on the city, killing 98 civilians and 27 soldiers.  The servicemen were killed by a firebomb which ripped through the mess hall at the Gordon Barracks.  Only after the war would the full horror of that raid be appreciated; of the total civilians killed due to enemy action, seventy percent lost their lives during those few hours in Spring 1943.

Dornier 217 - the plane of choice by the Germans in 1943
From late in the evening of 21 April that year, a squadron of Luftwaffe Dorniers terrorised the streets, dropping high explosives and deadly phosphorous shells.  The latter were incendiaries; used because the phosphorous pentoxide gas burned brightly and provided a beacon for further airstrikes.  Use of such a weapon was in direct contravention of the Geneva Protocol of 1929 which banned the use of “asphyxiating, poisonous gases” in warfare.  A 50kg phosphorous shell landed in Stafford Street, on the Victorian granite tenements, the old lath-and-plaster walls going up like candles as the gas ignited.  As the timbers fell down it must have looked to outsiders as if fire was raining from above.

Swanson McKenzie remembers that night.  As a mere youngster, he and his father were attempting to get home to Belmont Road, Kittybrewster.  “We were baith flabbergasted,” he said, remembering the sight of a huge hole torn through numbers five to nine, Stafford Street, including the tenement in which his grandmother lived.  Describing the scene as “eerie” as the area was deserted, Swany and his father ducked into the doorway of number four opposite, when a surprising sound broke the silence.

Stafford Street after two incendiaries fell
“We heard the dog, Maxie, my grandmother’s dog squeaking!” With that, McKenzie senior boldly dug his way into the wreckage and discovered that his mother and her neighbours were all perfectly safe in the cellar of the house. 70 year-old Andrew Webster, a veteran of both Boer and Great Wars, had ushered them all down there when the air raid siren had sounded.  Deciding it was safer to stay there for the time being, Mr Webster promised to move everyone to the nearest air raid shelter, which was across the road at the rear of number four, as soon as the debris had been cleared.

Meanwhile, in that shelter, also a cellar, which belonged to the corner grocer, the residents of 4 Stafford Street, including 11 year-old John Mann, knew a bomb had fallen outside, but not the extent of the damage.  John recalls his mother being very agitated as her husband had been out on ARP duty and had not returned at the usual time.  They were eventually joined by Swany’s grandmother, Mr Webster and the others from across the road, who told of their excitement.  However, the old soldier was still only attired in dressing gown and pyjamas, it having been well after dark when the siren had howled ominously across the rooftops.  John remembered him going out of the shelter, apparently to retrieve his medals from the tenement, believing that it was unlikely the enemy would double-back this way.

Andrew Webster never did return.  A second incendiary fell on the house, trapping and killing him.  George Mann, John’s father, returned just as the all-clear sounded to tell them there had been another bomb.  Last year, one of his descendants, attending my “Aberdeen Blitz” tour, poignantly revealed that all Andrew intended to do was get a pair of boots as he had been standing around in his bare feet and didn’t want to catch a chill.  There are new tenements there now, but if you look at the wall of numbers four and six, you can distinctly see the pitted areas caused by shrapnel damage from that very night.  RIP Andrew Webster.

Mash-up of 1943/2008 images of Stafford Street 

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