My father's birthday was 13th November. If he'd lived to see this year, he would have been celebrating his 96th orbit around the sun at about the same time that this article was published. He didn't manage to live that long -- indeed, I've celebrated more birthdays than he ever managed to achieve. But I never had a birthday as memorable as my father's twenty-first. That one was special, for a whole host of reasons that I hope I never have to experience.
My father's name was William. This is his story...
William's twenty-first birthday was a day much like any other. He came down to breakfast and his mother gave him a mug of tea and a bowl of porridge. "Happy birthday," she said, and pecked him on the cheek. "I wanted to bake you a cake, but I couldn't get the ingredients on the ration."
"That's OK mum," said William.
"We've got sausages for tea," said his mother. "That'll be a nice treat for your birthday, won't it?"
"Yes, mum," said William. The meat ration had been reduced the previous week, so he was gloomily sure that the sausages would be mostly breadcrumbs and gristle. "Put the wireless on, mum," he said. "It's almost time for the news."
The wireless was housed in a beautifully polished walnut cabinet. William's father had bought it in 1937 after a good day at the dog track and it was his mother's pride and joy. She turned it on. The faint smell of burning filled the room as the valves warmed up and incinerated the dust that had settled on them overnight.
"Here is the news," said the silky voiced announcer, "and this is Alvar Liddell reading it. The evacuation of our troops from the beaches of Dunkirk continues to run smoothly..."
William sipped his tea and listened to the news all the way to the end. Then he put his empty mug down on the table and said, "I'm off to work now mum. See you tonight."
"Bye love," said his mother.
William caught the tram at the bottom of the street. It rattled its way through the city and dropped him off almost at the factory gate of the Butler Machine Tool Company Ltd. Butlers made hydraulic presses that were much in demand by the munitions factories where they were used to manufacture the brass casings for artillery shells. A new batch of machines was coming up for despatch and William's job for the next few days was to prepare the speed and feed tables that the machine operators would require so as to be able to use the machines most effectively.
William walked up to the drawing office. Herbert Jenkins was already there, puffing on his pipe and emitting clouds of foul smelling smoke. "Eh up, lad," he said as William walked in.
"Morning," said William. He pinned a blueprint to his working table and picked up his slide rule to begin the tedious calculations that underpinned the speed and feed tables. Faintly, in the distance, he could hear the cheerful, rhythmic music of Worker's Playtime echoing from the tannoys on the factory floor. He wondered why they didn't have speakers or a wireless in the drawing office. A nice tune would help the workers here just as much as it helped the workers in the factory.
"You reckon they'll be coming tonight?" asked Herbert.
"I'm sure of it," said William. "The weather forecast is for clear skies and there's a full moon tonight. They call that a bomber's moon. The city will be well lit up by it, despite the blackout. They'll be here tonight in force, I'll guarantee it."
Herbert nodded agreement.
The day passed slowly. William always found the repetitive calculations involved in generating tables to be very tedious. But he stuck to it, and eventually the day was over and it was time to catch the tram back home. True to her word, his mother had sausages for his tea and they were just as nasty as he had feared they would be. But he chewed his way through them without a word of complaint. "Great sausages, mum," he told her, and she smiled.
After he finished eating he said, "It's getting dark mum. I've got to go and get changed and go on duty." His mother nodded and busied herself with the washing up. "Now think on," said William. "If the sirens go tonight, you make sure to get yourself into the Anderson shelter. I don't want you staying by yourself in the house like you did last time. It's not safe."
"I hate those Anderson shelters," she said. "They're cold and dark and muddy. I bet they've got rats living in them."
"Wrap up warm in that thick wool dressing gown that Aunty Doris got you as a wedding present," said William. "And take a torch with you. Mrs Nugent from next door will probably be there. She always has a thermos of tea and some arrowroot biscuits. You'll be fine."
"Alright," she said reluctantly. "I will."
"Good for you, mum," said William and he went upstairs to change into his Air Raid Warden's uniform. Then, with his tin helmet on his head and the straps of the cardboard box that held his gas mask slung over his shoulder, he went out on patrol. "See you later mum," he called.
"Mind you don't get hit by a bomb," his mother said.
"Don't worry, mum," said William. "I've got my tin helmet to protect me from bombs dropping on my head. But if I notice one about to hit me I'll move to one side, just to make sure."
As usual, Mr Trotter at number 37 had been careless with his blackout curtains and light was shining out of his kitchen window. William banged hard on the door. "Put your light out," he yelled. Mr Trotter hurriedly adjusted his curtains and the light disappeared again.
William knew these streets intimately. He'd been born here, and he'd played in them all his life. On the darkest of nights he could find his way around just by the feel of the cobblestones through the soles of his shoes. But tonight the full moon gave enough light for him to see his way clearly. He wanted to yell at the man in the moon to put his light out, but he knew it wouldn't do any good.
He heard the sirens start to howl and, looking up, he could see the crucifix shapes of aeroplanes scudding across the sky, silhouetted blackly by the silver light of the moon. There seemed to be no end to them. He wondered how much the pilots could see of the city. Probably quite a lot. He could hear explosions now as the bombs landed, and there was a red glow on the horizon where the fires were burning. The bombers were concentrating their efforts on the factories, and not for the first time, William found himself wondering if Butlers would still be there in the morning and if he would still have a job.
What a way to spend my twenty-first birthday, he thought to himself. Watching Nazi bombers doing their best to turn the city I've lived in all my life into a pile of rubble. "Happy birthday, William," he said to himself.
In Memoriam: Ian Priestnall (1947-2016)