River of Fire is a book about before and after The Clydebank Blitz. Those who died in the aftermath of Luftwaffe bombing of Clydebank on Thursday 13th March 1941 and the following night. Those who survived the bombing and fled the town. Those who stayed. Others that came through a sense of duty and solidarity to help the victims of the bombing. John MacLeod looks at the aftermath, the thousands, who did not return to Clydebank after March 1941.
The facts are listed, the dead and injured, but juxtaposed with the way they were framed at the time.
When 528 were (with some revision) listed as dead over the two nights of bombing. The first wave of German bombers, largely unchecked, converging over Clydeside around 9pm and following Luftwaffe radio transmission beams. Around 236 Junkers 88 and Heinkel 111s that came from bases in northern France, Holland and Germany, and hugged the coast. Saturation bombing took place in a British city. Explosions could be heard at Bride of Allan in Stirlingshire.
Such was the ferocity of bombing that one worker who had been there and experienced the bombing, when told over 500 died, remarked, ‘What street?’
The town of around 42 000 people was levelled. From one geographically small community 528 people were dead; 617 seriously injured. Hundreds—perhaps thousands—more were superficially hurt and cut. Of some 12000 dwellings—including tenement blocks as well as villas and semi-detached homes—only 7 were left entirely undamaged. Four thousand homes were completely destroyed: 4500 would be uninhabitable for months.
Those that died in the Clydebank Blitz on March 1941 are listed in the back of the book alphabetically, street by street, but in a changing burgh and districts are knocked together. Further complications are that many did not die in their homes. The Rocks’ family are listed as having lived at 78 Jellicoe Street.
Ann Rocks, Age 1, At 78 Jellicoe Street, 13 March 1941.
Annie Rocks, Age 54, At 78 Jellicoe Street, 13 March 1941.
Elizabeth Rocks, Age 28, At 78 Jellicoe Street, 13 March 1941.
Francis Rocks, Age 21, At 78 Jellicoe Street, 13 March 1941.
James Rocks, Age 4, At 78 Jellicoe Street, 13 March 1941.
James Rocks, Age 32, At 78 Jellicoe Street, 13 March 1942.
John Rocks, Aged 19, At 78 Jellicoe Street, 13 March 1942.
Joseph Rocks, Age 17, At 72 Jellicoe Street, 13 March 1942.
Margaret Rocks, Age 2, At 78 Jellicoe Street, 13 March 1942.
Patrick Rocks, Age 6, At 78 Jellicoe Street, 13 March 1942.
Patrick Rocks, Age 28, At 78 Jellicoe Street, 13 March 1942.
Theresa Rocks, Age 25, At 78 Jellicoe Street, 13 March 1942.
Thomas Rocks, Age 13, At 78 Jellicoe Street, 13 March 1942.
Thomas Rocks, Age 5 months, At 78 Jellicoe Street, 13 March 1942.
Many of us are will be familiar with the story of Patrick Rocks, who swapped shifts with his son at Beardmore’s. MacLeod uses fiction to dramatize his homecoming.
‘It was still not dawn when the planes retreated and bombers faded away, he picked his way to Jellicoe Street thorough what was left of Dalmuir. Wedged between the blazes at Singers and Old Kilpatrick, this sturdy community had been pummelled through the night… Rocks meandered through wreckage with mounting alarm. When he rounded the corner, his heart lifted to see the light through the window of his flat. Then, a few steps on, he realised it was but the moon, and the glow of flame, through one tottering gable.’
This would be a thin volume charting the rise and decline of shipbuilding on the Clyde, with some questionable assumptions, you’d expect from the son of the manse, such as Thatcherism being a necessary corrective to the British and Scottish economy. (Here’s a hint, we didn’t vote for Thatcher or Johnson and we didn’t vote Brexit. We didn’t vote Scottish Independence either – not yet).
MacLeod also seems to be conducting a vendetta against a left-wing shop steward in the Daily Mail, a newspaper where he was once a reporter. (Nobody much in Scotland read the Daily Mail, not then, not now, not ever).
MacLeod is also quick to correct what he believes are the failings in Meg Henderson’s book about a fictional family set during the era of the Clydebank Blitz, The Holy City. (I just thought Henderson’s book about a matriarchal and feisty working-class family was pretty crap, whereas Henderson’s Finding Peggy was a Scottish masterpiece. I guess this is a matter of taste and I’ll tackle The Holy City again.)
MacLeod also seems to have a bugbear against nuclear disarmament.
His chapter, The Bombing of Ethics (which is a convoluted way of saying the ethics of bombing) looks at the German experience of being firebombed. Hamburg and Dresden.
In Hamburg, for example, MacLeod quotes:
‘freak air currents spread a storm of fire across a four-square mile radius. People on the streets flashed into flames, while those huddled in shelters died asleep as the fresh air was replaced by lethal gases and smoke. Others were transformed into fine ash. By the time air raids ceased, 45 000 had been killed and a further 37 000 injured. 900 000 had lost their homes- up to two-thirds of the population of Hamburg fled the city.
Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five, begins with the narrator explaining, ‘all this happened, more or less’.
MacLeod’s account of the bombing of Dresden 13 February 1945 is more of a turkey shoot, Lancaster bombers stacked on top of one another dropping 4000 pound and 8000 pound bombs. In comparison, no bomb bigger than 1000 pounds fell on Clydebank. And they dropped only four of that weight.
Air-Marshall ‘Bomber’ Harris wanted 5000 strategic bombers. 244 Lancasters flew over Dresden. They created a firestorm.
Temperatures rose to 1000 degrees Centigrade, jets of flame fifty-feet high hissed across streets…Dresden burned so bright, night became day.
Reap what you sow is MacLeod’s argument. There was a qualitative difference between what the Allies were trying to achieve by firebombing than the Nazis. What we did was right. What they did was ideologically and morally wrong. Them and us.
A quip (and perhaps apocryphal story) from Bomber Harris sums it up. Stopped in his car one night for speeding, the policeman warns the Air Marshal, he might kill someone with his driving.
‘Young man, I kill thousands of people every night.’
Perhaps it’s more instructive to look at the grandiose behaviour of General MacArthur in the Far East in 1945.
‘No Radioactivity in Hiroshima Ruin’ was a New York Times, front page, report. Most of the world remained ignorant of what radioactivity was.
The diminutive Australian reporter, Wilfred Burchett, armed with a typewriter, travelled by train through Japan after their surrender to witness what had happened after the A-bomb, Enola Gay. He called out President Truman and General MacArthur.
The Atomic Plague was his report.
‘I became very conscious of what would happen in the event of a new world war. From that moment on, I became active on the question of nuclear disarmament…It was not possible to stand by.’
Burchett was on the winning side. He was on the side of right. Them and Us. What he was saying is there is no them and us. Just common humanity. We sometimes lose that in the small print. Mass murder is mass murder. And nuclear weapons will tip the planet into permanent winter. Lest we forget in the scramble to claim the moral high ground. .