NEXT month marks the 75th anniversary of the Clydebank blitz. While it is well documented the town was badly hit other parts of Glasgow were also targeted. MARK SMITH reveals how an attack Govan left its mark on its residents and the area.
THEY are a stark reminder of Govan's war time past.
Two distinctive red sandstone tenements sit on Govan Road. The gap in the middle, now a petrol station, marks one of Govan’s war time tragedies.
It was March 13, 1941 when a bomb, thought to be destined for the Stephen’s shipbuilding yard, missed the engineering department and hit the tenement opposite.
For George Rountree it’s a night which still remembers, but he believes months earlier he and his pals may have spotted enemy planes on a reconnaissance mission for the March raids.
In August 1940, 10-year-old George and the gang were outside playing near their homes in Govan and the noise they heard was faint at first. As it got louder, one of George’s friends said it was different to the sound of planes they were used to.
They stopped playing and stood there, looking up into the sky. George remembers that he and his friends were worried the noise might be the first sign of an attack and they were only partly reassured that there had been no air-raid siren. But they stayed where they were anyway and kept looking up.
A short time later, someone spotted the plane. George thinks it was flying at about 15,000ft and he remembers, as he stood there in Hutton Drive near Elder Park, that it seemed to circle the area aimlessly for a few minutes before flying off. It was the next day that there were reports in the newspapers that a German reconnaissance plane had been sighted over central Scotland.
Now 85-years-old, George is convinced it was the reconnaissance plane he saw that day with his friends. Not only that, he believes the photographs it took were used for the blitz that was launched on Glasgow just a few months later, on March 13 and 14, 1941. Famously, Clydebank was badly hit on those two nights. Less famously, parts of Glasgow were hit, too.
The Clydebank Blitz killed more than 500 people over two nights and left many thousands homeless, but in the air war in Scotland a total of 2,500 were killed and some 8000 injured.
In Glasgow, there were at least 11 attacks, hitting everywhere from Tradeston to Scotstoun and Partick to Linthouse. In one attack on Tradeston on March 14, a mine landed between a tram and a tenement on Nelson Street, killing 110 people, 11 of them in the vehicle, while in another on Yarrow’s shipyard the same night 67 were killed.
The attack George witnessed happened the night before, on March 13.
On the night of the attack, George was sheltering in the house of his aunt and uncle who lived near them on Skipness Drive. His mother Agnes and his sister Nancy were with him too; his father George, who was a barber, was attending a meeting of the Independent Labour Party in a hall a mile away on Govan Road near the dry docks.
George said: “When the alert sounded instead of seeking shelter in of one of the bottom flats in our own close or simply standing in the passageway, Mum with Nancy and me had got into the habit of going along to number 16 where we would usually be comfortable in their house, and on the night in question, when the alert sounded at around 9.30pm we went there.”
A young newly married couple, Mr and Mrs Frew, who had moved into the house opposite.
George added: “When the sirens sounded, as we went out we met the Frews who were also leaving, to follow a habit they had adopted of going along Govan Road towards the Southern General Hospital, to the tenement block in Govan Road between Burghead Drive and Moss Road where a relative of theirs lived on the ground floor.”
Once George and his family were settled at number 16, it wasn’t long before the explosions and gunfire started and soon the entire building was shaking.
“The house was packed with probably 20 to 30 very frightened people, mainly women and children from the houses above in number 16,” said George. “As the din outside increased there was a violent concussion which deafened everyone and filled the room with a thick haze.”
As the noise faded, everyone worked out what had happened: a parachute landmine had landed about 400 yards from where they were and demolished three tenements and a number of shops on Govan Road. George’s father arrived within minutes, out of breath and white as a sheet, and George remembers the look of relief on his face when he realised his family were unhurt. “He said that in the moonlight he saw the mine and parachute descending, but after the explosion, in the gloom the sight of the expanding dust cloud produced by the blast made him think it was our building that had been hit.”
The morning after, George went to Govan Road to see it all for himself.
“There was still a smoking heap of rubble of what the previous day had been people’s homes,” he said.
“Members of the Civil Defence were swarming over the unstable mound, working frantically trying to find anyone buried there.” There are other jagged edges of memory that George can summon up: hanging floorboards, plaster lathing spread out like ragged fans, bald sections of apartments open to view, some with furnishings intact. “Strangely, what made the greatest impression for me was the sight of the wallpaper on the walls,” he says.
Eventually, the details of the attack emerged. Numbers 1249 to 1259 Govan Road had been completely destroyed, killing 69 people. Most shockingly for George and his family, among the dead were the Frews, the young married couple they had seen leaving their flat the night before.
George still has a powerful memory of their funeral a few days later. “I was taken out to stand with Mum and Dad in our lobby with the landing door of our house wide open.
“We watched an emotional scene as the two coffins were carried out of the house opposite followed by a stream of grieving relatives.”
George has done his bit in reviving the memory of the attack. His vocation is talking and writing about the history of Govan and the experiences of its people during the war. It may have been relatively forgotten, but George can still see the rubble, the funeral of that young married couple, and the plane doing circles in the sky. And the rest of us can still see that space where 1249 to 1259 Govan Road used to be.