A monument to the horrors of war

Geraint Talfan Davies introduces his father’s first hand account of the Swansea Blitz that cost so many lives.

It was exactly 75 years ago that the centre of Swansea was destroyed in the blitz. At the time my father, Aneirin Talfan Davies, was both a pharmacist and a writer, running his chemist shop in Heathfield Street (now Kingsway), a shop that had also become a gathering place for writers and poets and preachers. He was 31.

Having lost his livelihood in that raid, his career changed dramatically – he became a part-time newsreader for the BBC, reading the Welsh news from a basement studio in the BBC’s headquarters in Portland Place for the duration of the war. After the war he produced Dylan Thomas’s poetry readings for radio from the BBC’s studios in Swansea, and edited Thomas’s collection of prose stories, Quite Early One Morning, eventually becoming Head of Programmes for BBC Wales. He died in 1980.

What follows is my translation of his account of the blitz, published in Welsh (under his nom de plume, Aneirin ap Talfan) under the title ‘Dyddiau’r Ceiliog Rhedyn’ (Grasshopper Days) – a reference to the Book of Job: “Canst thou make him afraid as a grasshopper’. The translation first appeared in an anthology of wartime diaries, We Shall Never Surrender, Wartime Diaries 1939-45, published by Macmillan.  

Geraint Talfan Davies

Night falls. I head home. Halfway there the siren wails – a long painful whine, rising and falling as if some great beast is writhing in pain – the sound of all mankind’s woes. Will the blitz come tonight? I’ve been asking the question every night since Coventry, Bristol and Cardiff – knowing it will come, but hoping against hope…I quicken my pace. The moon slides out from behind the clouds. On the hill I turn and look across the town and the sea and the darkened docks, before heading on up, cursing the steepness. There is an ominous hum in the air, like a swarm of bees. My heart races, and it’s not just the hill: Mari will be worried….Owen is sure to wake….he’s not three yet, but he is beginning to be aware of things. Ever since he saw the damage to his father’s shop after last September’s raid, I think bombs are real to him.

I reach the house. Owen is still awake. His mother, Mari, has moved him from the small bed in the front room to one in the corner of the kitchen – we’ve been sleeping downstairs for months. Mari speaks first. “Blitz?” We decide to move to the middle room, it will be safer there. For just a moment we sit near the fire, deciding what’s best. The noise of aircraft grows. At the very same instant we both realise that the blitz is under way. There is no refuge, only a cold, brick shelter outside. We would rather stay put…besides Owen has a heavy cold.

The first bombs start to fall, and our guns thunder. “Quick, under the table, Mari”. I go outside to check whether firebombs have fallen. Some way away. Back in the  house I knock on the wall and ask our neighbours if we can shelter in their cellar. “Of course.” We wait for the next wave to come over – I’ve read somewhere that there is no danger when they’re right overhead – and make a mad dash out through the yard to our neighbour’s back door. The husband hurries us in – no wasted words. We hurry Mari and Owen into the cellar before returning to watch for the incendiaries.

From the top floor my neighbour and I survey the town – our home on the hill, war’s belvedere. An unforgettable sight. It is all as light as day, but not the light of the sun; instead an artificial, blue, unearthly glow as balls of light drift lightly down from the planes, followed by bomb after bomb.  Together with our guns they make a satanic chorus, as fire erupts everywhere. We hear the bells of fire engines as they rush through the streets. Soon their hoses are hissing like serpents, while in the air above there is still that insistent menacing hum. The incendiaries continue to explode until the town below is a cauldron of fire. Somewhere down there is my chemist’s shop, but I’m strangely unworried. I’ve already decided in my mind that it’s gone, and I fancy there’s a big fire quite close by. I don’t have time to dwell on it.

Down the stairs to the backyard to see if anything has landed there. Nothing. Back to the house and just as I reach the passage, in the dark, and uncertain in a strange house, I hear the whistle of a bomb descending. My neighbour yells. “In here. Quick.” But I don’t know where ‘in here’ is, and all I’m aware of is an unearthly noise and the front door hurtling towards me. My chest and lungs are squeezed as if by a giant’s hug, just as I’m grabbed by the collar and bundled behind a nearby wall. A shower of glass and stone sweeps by.

Within seconds the pressure on my chest eases and I make towards the clouds of dust billowing from the cellar. I’m thinking, that’s it, they’re done for, until I hear a small voice, “Dada, Dada”. Into the cellar. Everyone is safe. A miracle. Back up the stairs and into – chaos. Every stick of furniture shredded, every window shattered, every door flat on the floor.

Other neighbours rush in, terror on their faces. They had been in their own cellars – some choking, others crying. It’s the same story. “We’ve lost everything.” I try to comfort them. “It will look better in the morning.” “Where’s the dog? Oh, my dog, my poor dog.” “Thank God you’re alive, Mrs——–.” “She’s fainted.” “Brandy.” And so on for hours. Comfort, comfort my people!

Bit by bit, wardens come by, and we get news of damage elsewhere. “The street’s had it bad.” “You’re lucky people.” “Four or five houses down in the next terrace.”  I quiz them. I know that the Rev. Edward Jones, minister at Ebenezer chapel, lives in one of the houses opposite. The wardens have no detail.

The guns continue to spit fire, while the planes drone endlessly. The hours pass slowly. Then we start to feel it might be nearly over. “God, this winter’s cold.” “Surely, it can’t last much longer.” The planes keep coming. Thank God for the guns, though sometimes you can’t tell the difference between guns and bombs – small comfort in that.

The curate from St. Jude calls. More news. No-one killed in our terrace or in the next one down. Rev. Jones is safe. His house has come down around him, but his chapel is burnt to the floor. I hear of a woman and her four-year-old freezing in the brick shelter outside. I go out to look, but someone tells me she has been moved to the vestry at St. Jude.

At last I go back into our own home. Oh God. Ap Talfan’s room is dark. No roof, no fire. Don’t cry! Every window is in pieces. Room after room. All shattered. What about the piano? – a gift from Mari’s parents. I search. It, too, is in pieces. I look for my books and find them more or less undamaged. Back next door, Mari questions me like a barrister. I break the worst gently. There are no tears. What for? “Things will look better in the morning.”

The morning’s a long time coming. I decide to go over to the house of an uncle and aunt, a quarter of a mile away – the next terrace across. They are both fine, and unscathed. I return to fetch Mari and Owen. We all have a cup of tea together. “All clear!” We exchange stories for a few minutes, then it’s to bed. Only two and half hours sleep, before getting up to inspect the damage again. Hard to believe. The bomb that did all this damage fell some twenty yards in front of our house. We prepare immediately to move out. There will have to be a careful survey.

People and stories drift into the shop. It’s a miracle it’s still standing. I walk through the town. Fires still smouldering, but everyone – everyone? – is going to work as usual, though fatigued and red-eyed.

*   *   *   *

Swansea has suffered three nights of hell before the Sabbath breaks. Smoke straggles towards the heavens like incense from an altar. A stunned silence has descended on the desolation. The ‘blitz’ three weeks ago was but a rehearsal. Today Swansea, like Coventry, is a new monument to the horror of war.

Three elementary schools have been flattened, along with Trinity Chapel (minister, the Rev. Ieuan Phillips) St. Mary’s Church, Trinity Church, the English Methodist Chapel, Gomer Chapel (minister the Rev. R.S.Rogers), and almost every shop of any importance in the town – including my own. I heard my shop’s fate from another chemist who had watched from his own pharmacy not far away. The ‘all clear’ had sounded and he had come out onto his doorstep only to hear another bomb hurtling earthwards and bringing my shop down with it – the last bomb of the night.

Yesterday (Saturday) thousands walked about the town on fruitless journeys, crazed looks on their faces. Hundreds of pale shopgirls, eyes black and sunken, and with no shops to go to. Shopkeepers in despairing groups watching their premises smoulder.

The women from Gower and Carmarthenshire arrived, as usual, baskets on their arms, ready to sell the fruit of their gardens and smallholdings in the market. But there is no market – that, too, is a mound of rubble and steel like a bare and tangled winter’s hedge. But it didn’t stop the women doing business on street corners and in the shadow of the shops that the bombs had stripped without warning.

Most pathetic of all were the red-eyed children making their way from their now shaky homes to shelters in the centre of the town. Shelters?…graves…the poor things. Nobody to care for them. Did no-one think to move them to safety in their own country?….They have had to suffer…and die.

FRIDAY: A school in the town. A small child is sitting in the corridor watching other children come in. She greets them…a ten year old girl… “Have you seen my two sisters?… Have you seen my two sisters?… Have you seen…” and so on through the morning. The children bring her no comfort…they know the two little sisters are corpses…. “Have you seen my two sisters?”

A mother sits outside her mangled home, a strange smile on her face. Happy?  No, it is the smile of madness…She tells her story… “Everything’s fine, everything’s fine. I’m lucky I have no children…everything’s fine”. Her two sons are dead under the rubble. Out of her mind, she denies their existence. “Everything’s fine….everything’s fine”.

I listen to a tearful teacher recounting her grim journey into school when a small hand was thrown onto the pavement in front of her as men shovelled their way through a collapsed house. Each morning she calls the register to see how many are missing. There are too many gaps. It breaks her heart.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the Welsh National Opera.

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