B O R O U G H O F S W I N D O N
NUMBER 6 RESCUE PARTY
Here is a brief summary of events, dealing with the occasion when No: 6 Rescue Squad had their baptism of Active Service.
SATURDAY, APRIL 25TH , 1942
11.20 pm. The wail of the Sirens, the long trek to the Depot, the usual reporting in and sit down to recover broken wind, then the 'All Clear' and as Pepys wrote - "So to bed".
SUNDAY, APRIL 26th , 1942.
4.45. am. Sirens again and the usual ride up the hill, and then the "All Clear" at 5.47. am. - BUT - instead of the usual order to dismiss, an order came through to 'Stand by' - we may be wanted for reinforcements.
9.0. am. We were allowed to go home for breakfast.
10.30. am. Excitement rising, lorry loaded with all our equipment and extras for outside service. There was great concern and disappointment over two of our comrades who were absent.
1.0. pm. Allowed home to dinner and, upon return there was still no news. During the afternoon our two comrades turned up amid great rejoicings, as with all due respect to the volunteers to make our numbers up, we wished to go as a complete squad who knew each other's ways and methods.
5.0. pm. Allowed home to tea and back again - still awaiting the word "Go". After waiting and fretting to "Go to it" all day we were sent home to rest, but to be prepared for instant call.
MONDAY APRIL 27th. 1942.
5.40. am. Bang! Bang! on the knocker and I knew we were wanted at last after all those long lectures, nights of duty, Siren calls, Yellow and Purple calls, we were to prove if we were of any use to the Country.
7.10. am. We met Other Squads from Swindon by Rushey Platt and away we went - a convoy of four Rescue Squads from Swindon, to help the people of Bath in their time of need. From now on, time is very confused as events moved so quickly, so the reader must forget such things as clocks.
We were soon crunching over the broken glass and bumping over the hose ramps along the streets of Bath City, and the surprising thing was the lack of rubble and craters in the roadway. I personally did not see one bomb crater and very little wreckage in the roads. There were a few smiling faces and everywhere were people sweeping up broken glass etc. but I noticed during the day how quickly the spirit of the people rose again.
Our Liaison Officer (Mr. P. Robbins) took us direct to Rescue Control Station, Combe Down, where we were issued with Tea and Corned Beef sandwiches, which was badly needed as it was a chilly morning. Before we had completed our breakfast our Leader had already had his instructions and we were off to "ST. JOHN'S PRIORY". A smart lad acting as guide soon got us through to the incident, and tumbling out of the lorry, our first sight of the job which was assigned to us was rather frightening, and with a glance at the other chaps, made us think "What a job to prove ourselves on". All the way there had been much chaffing amongst us in the lorry but at the sight of the job in front of us a silence had fallen, and while our Leader and Deputy Leader went forward to view the incident the remainder of us unloaded the equipment and stacked it on the pavement.
There was no Incident Officer, Warden or Policeman, from which to gather information and a number of men were already clambering among the wreckage. At last our Leader contacted a Priest and found that a young woman was believed buried somewhere below in the basement.
Let me try to convey the chaos with which we had to deal - see sketch - it was a beautiful Roman Catholic Church, Priory and School, all adjoining - see sketch on right. The main of the Church roof was gone and part of the South walls were down. The Priest's quarters were entirely demolished, but the East end of the Church and the Spire was still standing - also the Altars and the schoolrooms were hardly touched apart from broken glass.
Our Leader, anxious to commence the job gathered the men on the wreckage and found they were Roman Catholic Irishmen belonging to the Church, and as they were so anxious to help, he explained the risks, and upon their own responsibility allowed them to help so long as they would obey orders.
At the bottom of the sketch is a small window, just below pavement level in a small area, and clearing some wreckage away, the Leader and Deputy crawled through to investigate. They duly reported it was impossible to start tunnelling owing to the nature of the wreckage above. This was the Priests' quarters, a three storey building and basement, and everything had collapsed and 'jammed' to the basement, so the only other alternative was to clear from the top.
Pick and Shovel, baskets and buckets, hammers and saws were soon in action and a chain of men kept the ones inside busy filling baskets etc. and passing timber and broken furniture through the windows. Everything disturbed raised a cloud of dust which soon turned our faces and overalls into grey mass. The dust was choking but soon the Sisters of the Convent brought tea which cleared our throats for a while. Later in the morning, we were all very busy, when a loud crash and rumble at our backs startled everyone and a huge blinding cloud of dust swept over us. It was impossible to see for a few seconds, as we all dived through the window openings for the roadway. When the dust had cleared we found a high gable wall and a chimney tun just behind the rooms on which we were workings had collapsed and fallen across the side passage and yard of the school. Luckily no-one was there to get hurt.
The air once more breathable we got on with the good work and as a crushed desk was moved a shower of money was spread over the rubble. This was at once salvaged and placed in a bucket and handed to one of the Priests. During the rest of the day money was being picked up and placed in one of the Offertory Boxes given us for this purpose. I found out that a Priest who had been killed by blast, had already been recovered from the passage running behind the rooms.
Mid-day, we were invited into the schoolroom for a meal and after a wash, Blitz Soup, bread, milk pudding and bread and cheese was gratefully and hastily eaten, a short rest and a 'fag' and back to work to relieve the other section for their meal. An afternoon of toil and sweat produced no results toward finding the body and a welcome call for tea was made around 5 o'clock. I now heard during the conversation that there maybe three more bodies to account for (2 women and a baby.)
While the other section was having tea a shout from below for a lamp which was passed down immediately, a wriggling end crawling by one of our men, the first body was found. A call was made to the remainder of the party and everyone went to it with renewed energy, crawling behind some floor joists wedged against the wall, part of a body could be seen, and touching it, I instinctively knew we were too late - this body proved later to be the last one that could be released. We could not do anything from this side in so confined a space so we attacked the debris from the other side and careful supervision was necessary by our Leaders as the energy of the Irishmen was greater then their discretion and we were afraid that the way in which they were wielding their picks and shovels would be disfiguring the bodies.
During this time arrangements had to be made for the clearance of a way by which to get out of the building with a stretcher, and a place to be used as a Mortuary. Blankets, sheets, stretchers, slings, benches, washing and cleaning utensils all were prepared and ready when the first body of an elderly women was released and taken to the small classroom, already prepared, where a Sister and a young woman (a trained Nurse) took over the job of laying out the bodies, which was a great relief to my mind.
Back to the scene of operations just in time to prepare the stretcher for the body of a young woman who had died, faithfully guarding her baby which was clasped in one arm, and covered by her body which was crushed over it. The baby wrapped in a sheet was handed over to one of our men who carefully carried it away, closely followed by its mother on the stretcher. The last body removed was the one discovered first, but as mentioned before, owing to the nature of the debris and space permitted, had to be left. This was the young housekeeper, and the others were relatives or friends admitted for shelter in the basement. When I returned after all I could do below, the gang were clearing up, as all the people had been accounted for and it would have been fruitless to have shifted any more rubbish.
Knowing our job was done our muscles relaxed and the effects of the day's labour began to show. The exhaustion was beginning to make itself felt, but I believe if there were any more people to have been left in the ruins we should all have returned to work.
The call came for a cup of tea before we departed and the Priest-in-Charge, thanked us for our efforts end tried hard to reward us with a roll of notes, which our Leader rightly refused. Our reward was a great feeling we had done something to help. After packing up and checking our gear and tools, we returned to the Depot. On the way it was a pitiful sight to see families with young children and old folks, treking for the open country with armfuls of bed coverings and bags of food, although cheerful shouts and handwaves were passed between us.
Back at the Depot another cup of tea and sandwiches awaited us which we could linger over, and therefore enjoy, especially the tea. Our Leader handed in his report and got our release to return to Swindon. Our journey home was commenced to the accompaniment of two time bombs !
Arriving at Box, the landlord of a certain Beer Garden stood us all a Guinness each - Good luck to him. On we went - until reaching Hay lane near Swindon - a loud backfire, and the slowing down of the Lorry, denoted something wrong. Sure enough, our Driver informed us - we had run out of petrol! A few minutes later another Rescue Lorry returning from Bath promised to send out help, so we waited patiently, almost too tired to talk, and in good time a car was out with a supply of petrol to get us home.
On reaching the Butts Depot, we asked for a cup of tea - and the old growl came forth - "I can't make tea, I have to check all this gear" - so a volunteer ("Good old Nobby") (a messenger) set to and made us tea from their own little store, which was much appreciated. Everything unloaded, we signed off and the Lorry took us home - a good night's rest did wonders for us. This Was our first experience of culture as exhibited by the Germans. No matter what else we see or do, this incident will be the one which will be most vivid in our minds.
Now we have seen what we are trained for, the Lectures etc. will not be so boring.
This report, typewritten on yellowed paper, was discovered among Bert Bowron's effects by a relative who passed it on to the Project.
Both Bert and his brother Ernest were part of Number 6 Rescue Squad, but the relative doesn't think the style of writing suggests that either of them wrote it. However, such a graphic account must have been written by one member of the squad, it just remains a mystery which one.
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