WW2’s Blitz Repair Squads, The Men from the North and South of Ireland
Much has been written over the decades … and rightly so … about the men and women from all walks of life whose heroic deeds helped Britain and the Allies to victory in WW2. However, there is one group that to date has had little mention … the Blitz Repair Squads. These brave, hardworking men (for I suspect they were predominantly, if not all, men) flocked to England from all over the UK, and Ireland, both north and south. They helped build airfields, aerodromes, and hospitals, and braved … amongst other things … dreaded V1s and V2s. In Britain’s major cities, while others were being evacuated, they arrived to deal with the havoc these caused, ensuring that remaining Londoners, and other city dwellers, were able to remain in their damaged homes.
Amongst these men came my grandfather, Joseph Whittock, a master bricklayer, with his two sons, trainee brickies, Victor and Alan, hailing from Newry in Northern Ireland. The latter, my father, was aged only fifteen when he sailed for England. Victor, his elder brother, was a year older, and their father, Joe, middle-aged by then. Joe, an ex-army champion boxer and champion runner, had fought in the trenches of France as a young man, and as a consequence of being gassed, suffered badly with both bronchitis and asthma. Though he applied to rejoin his regiment upon the outbreak of WW2, he was rejected on health grounds.
Sent to join the Blitz Repair Squads by Newry Labour Exchange, Joe and his two boys sailed for Liverpool on 12th July, 1942. Alan would be sixteen in five days time. Joe would receive a full bricklayer’s salary, which amounted to £3 per week, while the boys would get 9d an hour, just over three pence in today’s currency. They were part of a larger group of men from Newry, Protestants and Catholics alike, and would be joined in England by others from all over the north and south of Ireland. The Newry men sailed from Belfast on a boat packed full with others like themselves, servicemen and women … and, unfortunately, cattle. According to my father, this was the worst Irish Sea crossing he’d ever, or would ever, experience. Not only was he seasick, along with most of his fellow passengers, but the tarpaulin covering the hold of cattle was blown away and muck from the cows was swept under the bulkhead and into the ship itself, flooding the passenger quarters with filthy water.
After what seemed like an endless night at sea, the group, tired and dirty, finally arrived in Liverpool, where they were taken to a big shed and provided with hot tea and sandwiches. From there it was on to Diss, in Norfolk, and to the Wimpole Estate in Cambridgeshire, where the men would assist in the building of an American army hospital. The estate, now owned by the National Trust, was where, over a period of months, my father supplemented his income by trapping grouse to sell to the American soldiers. With the proceeds he purchased not just cigarettes, but an old bicycle, enabling him to cycle to nearby Cambridge. Along the way he claims to have spotted German prisoners of war from the Wimpole POW camp. Many local women married these men, identifiable by the diamond shape on the back of their tunics. Whether the prisoners, who were tasked with labouring, such as the laying of pipe tracks, should have been out and about in such a way is a question my father couldn’t answer.
With the hospital complete, it was on to London, travelling by steam train to Liverpool Street Station. My father recalls the day he arrived: it was raining and an air raid was in progress, my father’s first experience of terrifying V1 rockets. The men were forced to lie in the street and wait for the army lorries to arrive that would take them to Wembley’s Empire Pool. Here, to my dad’s chagrin, they were hosed down and their clothes taken away to be fumigated. A blanket was provided and until the return of their clothes next morning, the men bedded down at the pool. Finally, the group proceeded by army lorry to Swanscombe, near Dartford, from where the men, billeted in a military camp, would travel to work each day in Forest Hill, South East London. Work commenced at 7.30am, and finished at 7pm in the evening, and went on seven days a week … the Luftwaffe was no respecter of weekends. Add on the daily train journey back and forth to London and this must have been a grueling week for a young lad just turned sixteen. Fortunately for my dad, his father had been working for a Mr Addison, repairing his bomb-damaged house in Forest Hill. Mr Addison worked nights, his wife was dead, and both his sons were away in the army. Burglaries were not uncommon in the blackout, particularly in houses where windows and doors had been blown out, so Mr Addison took my father and his brother in as lodgers and night caretakers. Unfortunately my grandfather had by this stage developed serious stomach ulcers and was forced to leave work to undergo major surgery. He would not return and both young lads were left on their own in London … a city at war … a sometimes frightening but often invigorating experience for both. My father’s older brother was also to leave eventually, joining the army, never to return to building work, or to live in Ulster. My father, all alone, stoically remained.
Each morning, as part of a team of five … a southern Irish man called Tom in charge … Alan and his mates would start off at the main store, fill a handcart with roofing felt, hardboard, lathes, nails and the like and set off to whatever streets had been recently hit by German bombs. The men’s main task was to secure damaged windows and doors, or tarpaulin over wrecked roofs. Sometimes these would be re-slated and damaged chimneypots restored. However, at times the air raids came so thick and fast that there was little time for any more than basic repairs. The occupants of damaged houses were often very grateful to the Blitz Repair Squads, and the young men were sometimes rewarded with tea, and if fortunate, cake. My father recalls coming home each evening covered in dust, his dungarees and shirts (some of which, like cigarettes, he’d bought from the American soldiers) filthy. While his father was still about, these work-clothes were probably scrubbed fairly frequently … when Joe left, my father laughingly admits that washing clothes became a less regular event. And he also admits to using his bedraggled appearance to his advantage … when there was a grateful housewife about handing out cake.
While up on the roofs, my father and his workmates would sit and watch out for doodlebugs … or V1s … a bomb with wings that looked like a small aeroplane with no pilot. Thousands of these were launched against London, flying until they ran out of fuel when they would fall to the ground and explode. If the engine stopped before it got to my father he knew that was the time to worry. Sometimes a doodlebug dropped to earth immediately, sometimes it continued to glide, gradually losing height. These were superseded in September 1944 by V2 rockets, akin to a modern ballistic missile. It was much bigger than a doodlebug and even more dangerous, so fast no one saw or heard it, not until it landed with a loud "whomf" sound. My father quickly learnt to grease his ladder to quicken his escape from the roof. When he saw the V1s approaching, or when the sirens went off to herald a raid, he and his mates would slide down these and head for the nearest shelter. The lads spent many nights in Mr Addison’s Anderson shelter, or in the basement of local pubs or underground stations. Often, my father would lie down and cover his head as the noise was so terrible. And he talks of the condensation that would run down the walls of the Anderson shelter, making everything, including their clothes, damp.
Life, of course, wasn’t all work. Evenings were free, and Saturday evening was time for spending ration coupons. My dad and his brother would blow the lot and eat everything that evening and the following day. Then it was a case of going to the British Canteens which had been set up to provide cheap food for workers in London, including men like my father. He talks about lunches for 1/6d, the equivalent of 7½p in decimal currency. Fried spam and potatoes was a favourite, but according to my father, he and his brother lived mainly on beans and toast most days of the week. Occasionally, the brothers would take a trip to the theatre on Saturday nights. Tommy Trinder was very popular at the time, and in the cinema, films such as Laurel and Hardy were shown frequently … all designed to keep the population cheery as the war began to drag on for longer then predicted. London, towards the end of WW2, had lost much of its spirit. The bombing had taken its toll, with a second evacuation as the V1s and V2s began to arrive. My father rarely saw a child and speaks of the problems he and his mates sometimes had in finding their way around in the blackout, with the air permanently filled with dust, and rubble and glass strewn about the streets.
In general, my father describes his experience in war-torn London as an exciting one. To come from a small market town in Ulster, aged fifteen, to work in a large city, would still be a daunting experience. But to arrive in a city being bombed on a daily basis, where large swathes of the population had been evacuated, to most people would seem terrifying. But, my father seems to have treated it all as an adventure. However, the incident that left an indelible mark on him was a rocket attack in nearby Lewisham, which left behind three miles of bomb damage. A V2 had hit a large store directly, killing most of the shop girls and other staff working there. There were few survivors and my father arrived on the scene to help pull bodies from the smoking wreckage. How traumatic this must have been for a teenager who’d never seen a body before can only be imagined and the effect it had on him is even now obvious when he speaks of it. After some hours of digging in the wreckage he was told he’d done enough and was given whisky by an Air Raid Warden.
Many of the Irish from north and south of the border remained in London, working there and all over the UK, after the war, many in the construction industry, employed by firms such as McAlpine's. However, my father was eventually forced to leave London and the Blitz Repair Squads, having contracted dermatitis from a cut at work. He returned to Ulster in 1944, no longer a boy, but a man, and one who’d grown so much in his time away that his mother barely recognised him. Clearly a diet of spam, beans and toast … and American cigarettes … had done him little harm. Despite his low salary, he’d also somehow managed to save, regularly sending money home to his mother in Northern Ireland. She had lodged it for him in a savings account, and my father used this money to go to Belfast after the war, where he studied for his City and Guilds exam.
And what might have happened after that is a whole other story …
The Inspiration for Billy Blitz …
Coming soon: Billy Blitz, the second novel in The Callaghan Trilogy, one family’s experience of violence across a century. The first novel in the series, Ghost of Gallipoli, is available as an ebook and in paperback from Amazon, Feed A Read, and online bookstores. Both novels are inspired by the experiences of my family members. Discover more on other pages of Dark Mourne Press ...
Addendum: My father will be ninety years old in July, 2016. Thus it’s hardly surprising that some of his recollections are a little hazy. If anyone can correct or add to any of the above, please let me know. In addition, there is so little written about the Blitz Repair Squads that I’d be delighted to hear from anyone else who had a relative working with these men, or who knows of any literature, online info or stories related to them.