He who had been born in a mud-walled, wattle-roofed hut, in his old age sat on golden thrones, and gnawed joints of beef presented to him on golden dishes by naked slave-girls who were the daughters of kings. Conquest and the acquiring of wealth altered not the Pict; out of the ruins of the crushed civilization no new culture arose phoenix-like. The dark hands which shattered the artistic glories of the conquered never tried to copy them. Though he sat among the glittering ruins of shattered palaces and clad his hard body in the silks of vanquished kings, the Pict remained the eternal barbarian, ferocious, elemental, interested only in the naked primal principles of life, unchanging, unerring in his instincts which were all for war and plunder, and in which arts and the cultured progress of humanity had no place.
– Robert E. Howard, “The Hyborian Age
And then it started, the first glow of red in the sky which built up until it was practically like a full sunset, just a complete blaze of light. That was it. That was Greenock being bombed.
– Bill Murray. That tower in the lower right is Greenock Town Hall.
While I was born in Greenock and lived there in my early years, it is the nearby town of Gourock which I consider my home. I suppose one could consider Greenock & Gourock to be two sides of the same basic settlement, possibly named for the twin hills from which they took their names: Guireag, “round hill,” and Grianaig, “sunny/gravelly bay.”
Today is the 75th anniversary of the second day of the Greenock Blitz.
Angus Taylor’s painting of the Greenock Blitz.
ACROSS the river from Greenock, the darkly wooded Hullaghmore peninsula blots out the flat farmland that was once an ack-ack gunsite—the place where so many of us had our baptism of fire.
It was from here, beyond the black horizon of the trees, that we saw the bomb-kindled fires suddenly illuminate the sky above Greenock on the fateful night of 7 May.
And it was from the Nissen huts surrounding the long-barrelled four-inch guns that we “scrambled” in various stages of .undress to answer the alarm.
There was a mad rush to the ammunition dug-outs to uncan the yard-long shells, and feverish fumblings in our Dockets for the vital “horseshoe nails” with which to set the time fuses on the shell-caps.
Luftwaffe map of Greenock & Port Glasgow.
Above us, from away back beyond the Kilpatrick Hills in our rear, enemy planes were droning in to their bomb range, with that curious but unmistakable booming roar which always brought a dread feeling.
Across the river our families— for the 83rd Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment had a good sprinkling of Greenock and district men in its ranks—would be excitedly rushing to the shelters.
We could picture our families huddled in their propped-up dungeons, crowding into Anderson shelters, perhaps drawing comfort from one another in closes protected from blast by baffle walls.
They were less than three miles away from us across the Clyde. Were they safe? Was anyone safe as those bombs and incendiaries rained from the sky?
MOST WELCOME SOUND
To us, standing behind these guns at Hullaghmore, there was at least the consoling thought (for what it was worth.) that we had something to retaliate with. The folk across the water had nothing. They just had to hide in their shelters and hope for the best.
It was just approaching midnight on 6 May when the “Alert” came to our gunsite. Every man in the camp — standing by as they had been ever since the token raid the night before—rushed to his station.
All that day the guns had been traversed and retraversed in readiness. The question on every man’s lips as he sipped his supper tea, had been—Would the raiders come back?
Had that sally the night before been just a preliminary canter, a look-see to find out the vulnerability of the Clydeside area?
Then came the Purple Warning, the shrilling notes of the alarm bells in the huts, the shrieking whistles, the soldier’s battle-cry – ‘Stand-to, Stand-to’.
In the corner of the great field was our gunsite, the radar aeriels (we called it radio location then) were searching the night sky. The greenish pictures on the cathode ray tubes were crowded with the blips of planes in the vicinity. No sooner was one wave plotted in the control room than another would break into the picture.
NOT THE QUESTION
On reflection, it was not so much a question of how many planes we brought down—or didn’t but how many our gunfire scared away, or caused to waver in their course as they came in to launch their cargoes of death and destruction.
The unforgettable smell of cordite surrounded the concrete-walled gun-pits. We tasted it; we smelled it. Our throats were parched, our ears deafened with the crash of the guns.
Over Greenock the sky was like an orange blanket, illumined first by the earliest bomb on the Ardgowan Distillery. It darkened. Then for a moment the town glittered with silvery spangles as thousands of incendiaries were dropped, Fire after fire broke out.
Quiet-spoken soldiers—young men married and single who, a few months earlier, had been leading peaceful lives in their civilian jobs-swore and fumed.
Everything was done at the double. Even the army cooks, boiling huge urns of tea and jamming “pieces” for the men at the guns, had thrown off their accustomed calm, and were running from gunpit to gunpit with mugs of steaming tea and sandwiches.
The tea was needed to restore our jangled nerves, the sandwiches were munched or forgotten, thrown aside as we brought out the ammunition, or handed up the shells to the men at the guns.
“FIRE AT WILL”
Angle and bearing orders echoed round the gunsite. voiced by hoarse-throated gunners. Sergeants barked instructions:— “No.1 gun — Fire.” “No. 2 gun — Fire.” Then everybody forgot the numerical sequence and it was “Fire at will.”
The planes still roared overhead, their queer halting drone sounding very much like “For you; for you.”
Among them could be seen the white puffs of smoke of bursting shells, and faraway starlike twinkles. maddeningly near but mostly just not near enough. For hours on end the guns barked and the planes droned. Across in Greenock. and Gourock, and Port Glasgow, the blazing sky seemed to reflect the towns’ funeral pyre.
Shells still burst in the sky—our own shells, the shells of other guns stationed up and down the river, the navy’s shells.
Then, as dawn began to tinge the sky, the enemy was gone, the nightmare was over. – It became morning—and the same sun looked down on the quiet waters of the Clyde, and on the green fields around Hullaghmore. It seemed, for a moment, that the experiences of the night had all been a dream.
But across the river from the mud-flatted, pebble-strewn shores, the pall of smoke that was Greenock showed that it was no dream after all. The fury of the night had passed. Our thoughts were now with our ain folk, wondering if they were safe.
I could hardly believe what was in the sky. It turned a bright red and I wondered, what is that? And it was parts of Greenock burning.
– Margaret Gaffney
I’ve always found post-apocalyptic settings in science fiction strangely compelling. Perhaps it’s because Inverclyde experienced something almost apocalyptic, but went on to rebuild all the same. Sometimes you can find them: hidden in the overgrown foliage, around the dense urbanised corners of the town, under the shade of the hills.
You can still see the relics and scars of war today, 75 years later. It’s estimated that there are up to 200 unexploded bombs still spread across Inverclyde. This one, a 250lb Luftwaffe bomb, was found on Garvock Hill: it now resides in the McLean Museum & Art Gallery.
This gun emplacement on the Larkfield Road is only a few hundred yards from Inverclyde Royal Hospital, and itself only a short walk from an air-raid siren – still standing after all these years. Shrapnel damage dots the remaining wall of Greenock Central Train Station. The park on the Gourock-Greenock border is known to this day as Battery Park, for its function as a gun emplacement.
All reminders of the time my home was destroyed. Over two nights, the depths of the Clyde were lit by a blazing inferno; the silence was broken by the deafening screams of sirens and shells; the fresh smell of the water and grass overpowered by fire and cordite; the feel of the cool wind replaced by searing flame and choking smoke. I could walk along the street and be reminded of those times. 75 years later, the scars of the Blitz are still to be seen, and Inverclyde has never been the same.
But like the best post-apocalyptic settings, we rebuilt. We’re still here to remember what happened – and to commemorate those who are not.
Here are the names of all those who lost their lives over those horrendous nights.
Arlow, Jean Elizabeth Crossan
Barr, Archibald Bell
Bellingham, Ann Sharp Gallacher
Bellingham, Patrick Gibbens
Burns, Agnes Paterson
Carmichael, Flora Munn
Clark, Georgina McIntosh
Clarke, Elizabeth Carrigan
Clarke, Jean Hannah
Clarke, Madeline Josephine Marie
Clarke, Mary Burns
Clarke, William Davidson
Cochran, Robert Patrick
Copeland, Alexander Bell
Copeland, Alexander Bell Clark
Crawley, Joseph McIlhill
Currie, Hugh Mcfarlane
Darroch, Andrew Govan
Delacruz, Maria Feliciana
Falconer, Donald McNaughton
Forbes, Mary Gillespie
Gallacher, Daniel McGlynn
Hope, Marion Cross
Johnston, Thomas Rowland
Kelly, Eileen Teresa
Kelly, Elizabeth Martindale
Kelly, Mary Jane Gray
Kelly, William Gray
Kennedy, Jean Mills
Kennedy, Peter McMillan
Kershaw, Patrick Mannix
Liddell, James Aitken
MacBain, Betty Sutherland
MacBain, Jean McKinlay Sutherland
Marriott, Ronald Albert
Mathieson, Kenneth McLean
Mathieson, Kenneth McLean
Mathieson, Robert Dunlop
McCloy, Jeanie Barnett (Jean)
McCloy, Rose Davidson
McCue, Rosina Meechan Lamont
McCulloch, Annie Dallas
McCulloch, Martha Wooler
McCulloch, William Carmichael
McGill, Maggie Jane
McIntyre, Mary Stewart
McVeigh, Kathleen Emma Dwyer
Oliver, Mary Wilson Barr
Perry, Margaret Jean (Myra)
Perry, Williamina Hodge
Pollock, Mary Ellen
Scott, Kathleen Deans
Spence, George Burnie
Spence, Mary Connelly
Surgeoner, George Steel
Tennant, Alexander Gall
Tucker, George Jackson
Tucker, George Jackson
Turnbull, Margaret Elizabeth
Turner, John McCorkindale
Twigg, Matthew Steele
Watson, Agnes Millar
Weir, Christina Homer