Gordon Smith (2nd from left- back row) sailing under the white ensign (Royal Navy) just returning from mine sweeping in the North Sea in 1945.Gordon Henry Smith
Gordon Smith, aged 15 in 1942, as volunteer bicycle messenger with civil defence in London, England.Gordon Henry Smith
"I would go down to the first-aid post and an ambulance on its way to any bombing incident would pick up any volunteer stretcher-bearers and take us on to the incident wherever the bomb had exploded or land mines. "
I did go down to an ARP warden’s post, ARP at that time meant Air Raid Precautions. So later on, it was called Civil Defense and recognized as civil defense but we called it ARP. At nighttime, I had to take my turn at fire-watching and that meant at five o’clock at night, I would go up to the penthouse, which was on the, equal to Canadian seventh storey, sixth storey in England, on a flat roof. The owners of the building had rather sensibly evacuated and gone into the country and left this penthouse empty. It was a nice apartment but we would go up there when we were fire-watching. The government had allowed us a little ration of tea and sugar, which was a big, big treat because we were really severely rationed. And generally, during the night, it would ring round about eleven o’clock and a female voice would come on the line and say, Heavy, a large force of enemy planes is crossing the Channel; apparent target: southeast England. Then of course, we’d put our tin hats on and we’d go out on the flat roof.
Shortly afterwards, the phone would ring again and one of us would go back and generally the message would be, The enemy force of bombers and fighters have crossed the coast and apparent target: London. Then since we were, London is only about 70 miles from the coast anyway, it wasn’t long before we would see in the distance south of us searchlights groping in the air and then the crump, crump of anti-aircraft fire. We would hear the planes coming and then suddenly, you would hear the bombs coming down.
So we would stay up there and then our job was to report the number of fires that started and their location. That message would go to Civil Defense headquarters and from there it would go to the London Fire Brigade. So sometimes we would be up there and I would be able to say, it looks like there’s two fires in Piccadilly and ten minutes later, because the Fire Brigade hadn’t responded, it might be, there is now one larger fire in Piccadilly.
When I got to be sixteen, I was considered to be strong enough to be a stretcher-bearer. So that again now during air raids, I would go down to the first-aid post and an ambulance on its way to any bombing incident would pick up any volunteer stretcher-bearers and take us on to the incident wherever the bomb had exploded or land mines. Then unfortunately, it would be necessary to carry bits and pieces, alive and dead, to waiting ambulances. Generally, they were the old army ambulance, they weren’t the white ones, well, we did have some white ambulances belonging to the London County Council and to specific hospitals, but there would have been nowhere near enough for the casualties. We were suffering thousands of casualties so there’d be nowhere near, no way enough ambulances. So that would have been the white orthodox ambulance.
So we had the Bedford 4x4 ambulances, army ones, which carried four stretchers each. And I can always remember the ladies, they were Women’s Volunteer Services, WVS, who would be driving these ambulance, who had a certain knowledge of first aid and they would be saying, We’ve got three onboard, please hurry, we’ve got to get to a hospital, there’s a tourniquet on one or two of them and you’d like to be able to fill in and get the fourth one in there before the ambulance left. So it was quite stressful and for a sixteen-year old, I think it was pretty shocking sometimes what we had to pick up and what we had to carry.
I then volunteered for the Royal Navy. They wouldn’t call me though until I was seventeen-and-a-half. So I carried on stretcher-bearing and fire-watching. In 1944 - I beg your pardon, early 1945 - they called me up to the Royal Navy and we would go out into the Cardigan Bay and the Atlantic and we would tow in and sometimes sink debris that had come from ships that had been sunk or damaged. There were two times when we hauled in mines that were floating that the Navy was very interested in, so we would put out a long rope, secure the mine at least 100 feet behind us and tow it and very, very gently put it on a sandbar for the Navy experts to come down and analyze it and determine if it had some characteristics that might be useful in the future for the British Navy in the future wars.
And we used to patrol the North Sea and the English Channel; again, at this time, we were sinking mines that had floated up. Many minesweepers would go out and generally they towed devices we called paravanes, which would then cut lines free behind the minesweeper and then they would be sunk by gunfire. Sometimes though, one came free and they carried on their sweep but they hadn’t sunk it or exploded it. So it was our job then to sink or explode any mines that were floating. It was very necessary, although the war was over, to maintain clear shipping lanes so that supplies could still be shipped to continental Europe.
A lot of things were going on during the war that weren’t really recognized because they were done through civilian effort.