Memories of Second World War
PUBLISHED: 12:44 05 March 2009 | UPDATED: 13:13 03 July 2010
WITH Great Yarmouth being blitzed repeatedly, the audience in the Regal Cinema in February 1941 was enjoying a little welcome light relief to take their minds off the air raids that had put the borough in the front line of the war at home.
WITH Great Yarmouth being blitzed repeatedly, the audience in the Regal Cinema in February 1941 was enjoying a little welcome light relief to take their minds off the air raids that had put the borough in the front line of the war at home. Nearing its conclusion was The Doctor Takes a Wife, a Hollywood screwball comedy with bickering neurologist Ray Milland and authoress Loretta Young pretending they are married after being mistaken for newly-weds.
Although the picturegoers anticipated a happy ending, nonetheless they were looking forward to finding how the plot was resolved. But they never did...for a German bomb struck the Regal's roof!
In the cinema on the eve of his 16th birthday was Don Hall, then of St Mary's Lane, Southtown, with pals. An air-raid warning had been screened, persuading many to leave and head for a bomb shelter in King Street, but the youths stayed put, watching the film. “Suddenly there was a hell of a crash as a bomb hit the roof. After the cloud of yellow plaster dust had slowly settled, you could see stars through a hole in the roof,” Don recalled later!
“The film stopped and the few people still inside made their way carefully out. It wasn't a direct hit as such or nobody inside would have survived, but one corner of the roof had been struck.”
An injured woman hurt by falling masonry was escorted from the building by Don and his friends and handed over to ARP wardens who seemed totally unaware that the cinema had been hit.
Although he unaware of any pain, Don discovered as he walked home that he had a flesh wound. When his mother Edie saw it, she ordered him to go to hospital so he walked back across the Haven Bridge to the General Hospital on Deneside where examination revealed the probability that it a shrapnel wound. He was kept in hospital for a week and, when there were more air-raids, nurses gave patients metal bowls to hold over their heads like protective helmets.
The shrapnel was never found in his wound, and it was assumed that either it is still in his body or, more likely, fell out. Don, now 85 and living in Lincoln Avenue, Gorleston, bears the scar to this day.
The high-explosive bomb was one of ten that fell in a line from Palgrave Road to the Regal, the magnificent cinema whose opening 75 years ago I recalled in January. One bomb, which also failed to detonate, caught a spire on St Nicholas' Church and was deflected on to the concrete path where it broke into pieces. Another bomb exploded on the entrance to the Hospital School shelters, but those inside were soon released unharmed by a rescue squad.
In that raid four people died and 23 were injured.
Six months later Don and his younger brother Basil were asleep downstairs, fully clothed - a regular wartime precautionary habit; their mother was in the indoor Morrison shelter. In the early hours a bomb struck their house, severely damaging the front.
Despite dark and dust, the brothers groped their way safely out of the largely-intact back of the house after establishing that their mother was uninjured. The corrugated iron Anderson shelter in the garden was badly damaged and peppered with shrapnel holes, so anybody in there would probably not have survived.
The home of their elderly neighbours, Mr and Mrs Shreeve, was also badly damaged. Mr Shreeve asked Don if he would go inside and retrieve his money box from under their bed, which he did.
In pitch darkness, Don Hall felt his way carefully down a passage to Sefton Lane where the Sefton Arms pub had been hit. Then he heard the unmistakable sound of a bomb whistling down and ducked behind a wall as it struck White's shop on the opposite corner 200 yards away. The occupants were crying for help, trapped in their shelter in the garden, but he freed them by removing sandbags that had fallen across the doorway and blocked it.
Later Don recalled that as the bomb struck, he felt the road rise up beneath him, then fall back again. There was at least one fatality in the vicinity, a man who came out of his house in Sefton Lane to survey the damage and was caught by the blast of another bomb.
Don Hall's stepson, Mike King, now resident in Lowestoft, tells me: “My own immediate reaction to this dramatic story was, 'What on earth did you all do next, outside in the cold air of an early February morning?' No officials arrived, no police, fire, ambulance or ARP wardens - it was a night of heavy bombing and the emergency services were already overstretched. In those days folk literally had to fend for themselves.”
The bombed-out families spent the rest of the night in a communal shelter in St Mary's Lane, going to the Town Hall the next day to arrange alternative accommodation before retrieving personal effects from the dangerously-damaged buildings that were subsequently pulled down and never rebuilt.
Years later all the remaining houses in Bunn's, St Mary's and Sefton Lanes were demolished as the area became industrialised. Some are believed to have been occupied originally by the families of workers at the nearby R H Clark flour mill. Several older members of the Hall family worked there and lived in this district.
“These homes belonged to a Mr Bland who lived at Belton but came over by horse and cart every Saturday to collect his rents personally,” says Mike King. “The site of White's shop was cleared and after the war two houses were built there - 47 and 49 Southtown Road. “Bunn's Lane still carries a name plate but St Mary's Lane and Sefton Lane now have no identification whatsoever.”
The Halls were rehoused temporarily in Swirle's Place, then Swirle's Buildings before settling in Rodney Road where they stayed for many years.
Don Hall was educated at the Edward Worlledge Schools, leaving at 16 to work for the Post Office as a telegraph boy. Soon after being bombed out, he was admitted to hospital for an operation and, as a result, lost his job with the Post Office. He joined the Home Guard, but the unit had only one rifle and five bullets, so gun and ammunition were passed from men going off duy to those succeeding them.
To pass time until he received his call-up papers, he helped to build Flixton airfield, near Bungay. Then he joined the Army, serving in India.
Basil passed the scholarship for Yarmouth Grammar School, moving to Retford, Nottinghamshire, to where the school had been evacuated in 1940. When he left school, the war was nearly over but he joined the Royal Air Force as a regular, staying until retirement.