The 6th and 7th of May, 1941 are two days which shall live in infamy for the people of Greenock. For two harrowing evenings Hitler’s Luftwaffe rained death and destruction down upon the unsuspecting people of the small Scottish town as they fled to makeshift shelters, tunnels, or anywhere which might have provided some respite from the bombs.
Greenock had not been widely evacuated. While the ministry of defence recognised that it may provide a target, due to its extensive role in shipbuilding on the Clyde, it was not thought a critical enough risk to warrant the policy. The result was 271 people killed and more than ten thousand injured while many of the crippled homes and businesses of the proud seaside town burned for days. As with Clydebank and Peterhead, which suffered similar fates, it was the citizens of Greenock who bore the brunt of the destruction rather than the shipyards, which escaped relatively unscathed.
To this day memories of the Greenock blitz live on in the collective consciousness of the town, which has changed much over the years. They live on most keenly though for those few survivors who can still recall the wailing sirens and crumbling rubble of their once happy childhood homes. Two such survivors are Agnes and William Malcolm, life-long residents of Greenock, married now for over 60 years, who each recall vividly their own experiences of the events of those terrible nights.
“I was four, and I was in bed”, said Agnes Malcolm, “and my mum and dad wakened me up and put my things on and we crossed the street from where we lived up onto the park where the shelter was. We went up there and we were in there and the bombs were all dropping down round about me because the building that we stayed in got hit and we had nowhere to stay after that. A bomb dropped on a wee building just beside where we were in the shelter and an old man in there, who my dad knew, he died. He’d went in to go to the toilet out of the shelter. He died in that.”
Agnes and her parents then faced a harrowing experience when the roof of their own shelter came in on them.
“When the bomb hit that the roof came off our shelter and all the bricks came in on top of us. So we managed – we were quite near the door – so we managed to get out. My dad lifted me up and we were running across the park because the bombs were dropping in all the streets round about us. I could see – when my dad lifted me up – I could see the planes and the bombs dropping. I could see all that. As I say, we ran across. My mum was crying.”
The family were turned away from a school they had hoped to take shelter in as they dashed across parks with sirens wailing and searchlights blazing overhead while Greenock residents frantically attempted to take shelter from the aerial terrors of the Luftwaffe.
Even people with less obviously dramatic experiences were still left traumatised by the infamous night attack. Agnes’ husband, William, (or ‘Bill’ as he is known), was also a child of war in Greenock during the blitz. His family’s flat on Prince’s street was not bombed but the terror visited upon him and his fellow Greenockians that night has lived with him forever.
“We lived in the bottom flat of the building.” Bill recounted, “It was about three of four stories high and we were in the bottom. It was near enough where buildings would have cellars. There were different hooses doon there. There was aboot four different hooses in the bottom of the building, right. When the blitz was on, you know, the planes were flying over dropping bombs. The people up the building, insteed o’ goin’ tae the shelter, you know, the air raid shelter, they aw came doon intae oor hoose. I remember – I’ll always remember it – see lying in bed. It was a double bed in a single-end. It wasnae much bigger than this living room, but aw the people were in there from up above us and I’m lying in bed with the covers wrapped.
“I was sleeping, so I wakened up, with people sitting on the bed, you know on each side, and the covers were pulling into my chest and I could hardly breath, and that’s why it was; people sitting on the bedcover and it was pullin’ doon on tap o’ me. I ended up just sayin’ “I cannae breath”. My mother and faither made them aw staund up ‘cause they were gonnae kill me. That woulda killed ye. It wasnae soft mattresses or anything you had either. They were hard and when you’re lying on that with these covers over ye, people sitting on each side, it was like a belt getting pulled over ye.”
This episode still haunts Bill to this day, 78 years on. He said: “I still, see even at night, the bedcovers, I still cannae keep them too tight roon’ here (his chest) because o’ it.”
For the two days and nights of the Greenock Blitz, Bill’s flat on Prince’s Street was seen as a safe haven as, according to Bill, people were “afraid to stay in their own hooses”.
Greenock had a contingency plan in the event of such a bombardment. A makeshift dummy town was constructed in the hills overlooking Loch Tom and, on the second night, combustible material was detonated so as to appear as though it were a burning urban area with the intention of drawing the planes towards it during the attack. This unique piece of ingenuity undoubtedly saved many lives as dozens of bombs were found to have been dropped there following the second night’s raid.
Bill remembered: “As we got a wee bit older we were up on the hill up behind Stroan Farm and there was bomb craters up there. They’re probably still there. There were people heading to the hills to get away from the hooses thinking they’d be in less danger. It was fake the way it was done but the Germans thought it was the toon and they were bombing it.”
The blitz on the people of Inverclyde, (Greenock, Gourock and Port Glasgow), also resulted in one of the few aerial battles of World War 2 fought over Scottish soil, as night fighters stationed at nearby Ayr rose to meet the German bombers. Only three enemy aircraft were downed but the fleeing German bombers were then forced to drop their payload all over the west coast of Scotland. While lives were certainly saved, neither the decoy town nor the sky battles were enough to save the town completely and an explosion at the distillery works early on the first night seemed to set the whole town alight for a time, acting as a homing beacon for Axis planes.
Agnes said “There was some kind of place that was making whisky and it went all running down the street and it was on fire.
“We had to walk up again up from Inverkip up to Greenock. We couldn’t get in our house ‘cause it was bombed.”
After the blitz Agnes was shifted from pillar to post and she moved from one house to another and to six schools in all.
She said: “The whole family, all the families like the aunties, the sisters and that, they took all the children to my auntie Lizzie’s house – a wee room and kitchen for four families. So the mothers and the children slept on the floor and everywhere in the room and the men slept in the kitchen. And that was for weeks.
“When some of them got their houses back then they could move back into their houses, but we didn’t have anywhere to move to at that point. So we ended up we were going living in this house for a wee while. Somebody saying, “You can stay with us for a wee while”, somebody saying, “You can stay with us for a wee while”, and then we ended up at my Auntie Agnes’s house. She got hers fixed and she took us up to there for a bit so we stayed with her for quite a while and then my Dad was taken away as he was away in the RAF.”
One small consolation was the survival of a beloved dollhouse Agnes’s father retrieved for her from the wreckage of their home the morning after the blitz.
“My Dad, when we got back that day – I mean he was digging out the shelter getting the old man out and all this – then he went over to where we stayed. Now we were in the bottom flat so he managed tae get in the window. He managed tae climb in the window and he wis goin’ through things and he got tae a wee cupboard and opened it and my doll’s house was there so he lifted that and took it oot, but the roof had been smashed in. When I was wee I played with that all the time so I used to say “Aye, it just got bombed”.”
Bill’s father was a minesweeper but when he wasn’t on duty he served as an RP warden. The children of the blitz took it all in their stride. “We were born intae that sorta thing”, said Bill, “We didnae know any different. Up until the war finished we thought that was just the way life was ’cause we didn’t know anything else. There were no clothes other than what you had. You had to get your stockings darned if you got holes in them. Shortage of food and stuff like that, that’s aw we knew.”
Bill also remembers the celebrations that gripped the town and the country on VE day. He said “The first thing that people done was they pulled the doors aff the shelters, the wooden doors and anything that was wood off the shelters.
“People were taking all the furniture oot their hooses and burning it ‘cause they were so excited. They burned anything. People were oot playing guitars and accordions and dancing and there were big bonfires. Oh it was good! It went on all night but we wurnae allowed tae stay oot.”
Agnes meanwhile remembers ships crowding the Clyde, lit up and blowing their horns in celebration. “It was marvellous” she said.
Bill and Agnes met around a decade later at the popular Cragburn dancehall in Gourock. Upon first meeting William declared to his friend his intentions to marry her to a general sense of disbelief and astonishment at such a quick and easy life-altering decision made upon one meeting, but he stuck to his guns and it wasn’t long before the two were wed. When asked what mementos he might still have had from those times he replied simply, with a beaming smile, “I’ve got her.”