Sep 231940

H. Gregson (Seaman), HMT Dalmatia, c/o GPO London
My Dear Stella,
This is your pen I’m using and believe me it behaves itself quite well… It has grown out of the awkward age – it has shed the mantle of adolescence. No longer is it a badly behaved infant, an undisciplined, “do as I please” child; now it has become my very good friend and I do not know how I should live without this small, black creature with the blue blood and the tongue of gold.
I know all his moods, but I must confess that I have little or no authority over this mighty prodigy.
Thus do I sit myself, fully intending to pen a sane, matter of fact letter to my sister. I have it all planned that I shall ask after her health, I shall send my love to her children, for they are often in my thoughts, and I shall ask to be remembered to Arthur. I shall make mention of a few of my experiences and I shall enquire about the Liverpool raids also. I shall tell the story about the new skipper… and so on and on ad infinitum…
But, once started, my pen takes command. There is a secret intimacy between my pen and some dark mysterious part of me which hardly exists at all. So if I write what appears to be a rather selfish letter, please don’t blame me.
Ours is a strange family. We are embarrassed by too much affection, too much “gush”. In our family a sister never says to a brother, or a brother to a sister, “How are you – I am glad to see you looking so well.” Or “Can I help you at all?” You see, we always take so much for granted. We are an honest family and that’s a great thing.
And we have the greatest mother in the world, haven’t we? The most unselfish lady in the universe. Yet, for a thousand pounds, I can’t imagine telling mother that she’s all that.
Here is thoughtfulness. I know damned well from letters received and from tales heard that the hometown is “getting it bad”, yet mother makes but little reference to the raids. She even says, thinking of my safety all the time, that it would be better if I didn’t come home just now if I got leave. I asked to be sent an ‘Echo’ or a ‘Post’ but mother won’t send one “because”, she says, “there is so little in the ‘Echo’ these days.”
I know the real reason. I would still love to see an ‘Echo’ again. Could you send me one, Stella? There is one other Liverpudlian on board, he too has asked for a local paper but, so far, nothing has materialized.
Incidentally, this other fellow is a real “Scouse”, a real “Eh, Wack, warreryousedoin’” lad. But it’s great to hear the accent – a little corner of Liverpool right here in the Channel. Yesterday he said “Eh, Greg, did yuh ever go ter the labour club in Wavertree Road?” I said that I had not. He continues “Oh, it’s de gear, that’s where I learnt the Rhumba.”
Other observations of his include the following – “Mossley Hill, eh? All Jews there aren’t thee?” “Brodie Avenue? Blimey, those people livin there spend all day on their backs.”
A good crew this. At least the lads. We really enjoy going into action now. That is, so long as there is only one plane to fire at. When it’s a big raid (I’ve been in two) – well, then it’s not so good. On that first raid on Portsmouth dockyard when dozens of Junkers dive-bombed on the ships and docks I nearly died of fright, but I’ve grown out of that feeling now, thank God.
This is an unsatisfactory, half started sort of letter. I hope you’ll forgive me. I’ll have to finish now if I wish to get this posted here.
Listen, let me know how things are all round, will you? How are Wendy and Michael? Is Arthur due for calling up yet? Tell him I think I can get some cig tobacco to him and ask him if he wants any shirts or hankies. The latter are a penny each and the shirts are only a couple of bob. I can buy socks also at a low price.
Let’s be hearing from you. And don’t worry about the noise – we’re a tough lot!
Lots of love to you and the family,
P.S. Any fresh literary triumphs?
What do you read these days? Have you read any Steinbeck novels? I myself have just started the Rachel Field ‘All This And Heaven Too’ classic and should soon have Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes Of Wrath’ (the picture is terrific.) I recently finished a very fine book – John Hilton’s ‘Knight Without Armour’. Listen. If you like, I’ll send on my copies from the World Book Club. I think you’ll like ‘All This And Heaven Too’.
I feel the urge to learn. Have you an old book of shorthand you don’t require? I’m going to have a go at learning shorthand – it can be most useful.

Sep 241940

My dear Jane and Jack,
I’m tempting fate. We have not had an air raid so far tonight and it is now midnight, so I’m taking a chance on at least getting this letter well under way. If there are any interruptions, you will have to forgive me if the letter seems a little disjointed. Actually we have been very lucky so far in Liverpool. There have been “alerts” – dozens of ’em. In fact we consider ourselves lucky if we only get one air raid warning during daylight hours and two at night. For all that, there has been very little material damage done and, considering the number of bombs dropped, the number of planes he must have had engaged in visits to Liverpool, and the amount of money and time he must have spent on our “Education” in Nazi methods, the number of lives lost is remarkably small. It all seems in the lap of the gods. If he hits a public surface shelter and it is crowded, then the casualties are high. If, as has happened on a few occasions, he hits a shelter which is empty, then we have a good night. I don’t know whether you ever listen to, or see in the papers, the German communiqués about the damage which has been done in different parts of the country. If you do, then take it from me that, at least so far as Liverpool is concerned, and probably so far as the whole of the country is concerned, he talks a lot of poppy-cock. He has said on several occasions that the harbour of Liverpool has been burned to the ground. He is crazy. On two occasions only – one of them was last Saturday – has he caused fires of any size at all. One of them destroyed only one building, the old Customs House, and the other day (which was this weekend) was his best day ever here and then he only got four decent fires going. Really it is a poor effort considering the number of planes he has had here. These are two of the very few days when he has been able to reach dockland, and although this weekend things looked pretty good for him, when it is all boiled down it means this – he hit a timber yard, a cotton warehouse and a general warehouse in Bootle. To do that he probably dropped the best part of a thousand incendiaries over the north end. Not very good shooting, is it?
We have had a bit of stuff round us. In all I should say about a dozen or fifteen high explosive bombs within half a mile. It may be more than that, but we have felt very little, except on one occasion when I was at home and, in full innocence, opened the front door during what I thought was a quiet spell. Just then he dropped a couple in some fields which are two or three roads away from us and we felt the full benefit of the blast. That is as near as he has got to us yet and we are not over-worried about it. My experience is that, even if you have no real shelter, you are safe enough if you stay in the house. To do any damage to you he has to drop one right on your doorstep, or at least within a couple of houses. Even then you are not likely to be hurt, but you may be shaken up. So far as I can see, there has got to be a more or less direct hit on a house before any really serious damage is done to the occupants. Property and furniture may be knocked about, but what does that matter as compared with life?
I’m writing all this, not for the sake of scaring you, but because I feel you should know what we think of it, and to write and tell you that nothing has happened here would be an insult to your intelligence. I will tell you quite frankly that apart from one occasion when a “Molotov breadbasket”, which is one of those arrangements in which he releases a big number of incendiary bombs at once, burst over my head soon after I had left the house to go to the office, I have not been really scared. Yet, on the other hand, once it is nearly time to leave for the office, which is, just now, the time at which he is likely to come over, I get all worked up and cannot settle in the house. Once I am outside and on my way down I feel much better, even if the sirens go and I have to walk part of the way during the raid. I think it must be a sort of claustrophobia complex I have as zero hour approaches. I’m all right once I’m on the move. Stella, on the other hand, heaves a sigh of relief when the sirens go and she has to go up and fetch the kids downstairs. Then she settles down into the routine of keeping an eye on them while reading or knitting.

Monday 21 October 1940
As you will see, it is quite a long time since I started this letter. In fact the night I did so he came over very late and interrupted me, which I took most unkindly. In fact we have had a number of lively nights since then. Only a couple of nights after I had written the first page of this letter, Jerry touched lucky with a whole load of incendiaries and treated us to the greatest fire I have ever seen – or expect to see. He went right along the south end docks and planted fire bombs in dozens of places. In all we had about seven or eight huge ones all going at the one time and from our roof it looked as if half of Liverpool was on fire, but actually the damage, although considerable from a financial point of view, was nothing like as great as was at first feared. The chief thing is that he was not able to affect transport at all, except passenger transport to a small extent, and once again the docks escaped serious damage. The more I go about and see the damage he has done, the more I marvel at how small it is. To back up what I said on the other page about the number of lives lost and injuries inflicted, I’ll quote what happened on two successive nights – or mornings. On the first occasion he dropped a line of high explosive among house property which, incidentally has suffered by far the most in these raids. The first bomb hit a house which had already had a time bomb in the yard in a previous raid, and consequently there was no-one in it. The second and third bombs dropped in the yards of houses in a street opposite. The fourth scored a direct hit on a small surface shelter, demolishing that one and damaging an adjoining one. The fifth dropped in the middle of the road. The only casualties were those in the two shelters. In all, about thirty killed and injured. This despite the fact that there were at least two planes which dropped a full load of H.E. and incendiary. The next night he came over and dropped even more. They all fell either in gardens, sports fields, the grounds of hospitals and places like that and there were two very slight injuries, one of them a soldier who slightly burned his hands in dealing with an incendiary. It’s like a raffle. Sometimes he is lucky, but most often we are.
You will be interested to know that the work I have put in on these air raids, sometimes working a fifteen and sixteen hour day, has made a very good impression on the office. So much so that, although I did not apply for one, I have been given a rise. In fact I am the only one in the office to receive an increase since the war began, and it is not likely that there will be any more for a long time. The news editor of the ‘Daily Post’ and the editor of the ‘Echo’ – whom I have seen about twice in my life – were so pleased with what I have been doing that each of them went on successive days, and quite unkown to each other, and told the managing director that I should be given some recognition. Result – a rise. It is very welcome just now for many reasons, not the least of which is that I will now be able to resume giving something to Mother, in which direction I have been rather lax of late, but things are so tight – or rather were, until I had this stroke of good luck. I would rather it had come through some other medium than other people’s misery, but the position being what it is, I might as well turn it to good use if I can. Anyway, it will probably mean that I shall be put on to day work as soon as possible, although I don’t think that is likely to be for some time yet, because of the difficulty in getting new staff. We cannot compete these days with the national papers who are offering excellent wages to people who are likely to be out of the army for some time to come. On the whole, I prefer night work just now from a purely selfish point of view, because I can get my sleep in as usual during the day and, at night, there is generally at least one good story to be done, which is an improvement in sitting twiddling my thumbs as I have been doing for months. I’m almost a war correspondent now, complete with steel helmet, which Stella and the family think makes me look funnier than ever. Daddy’s hat is a standing joke in the house.

Sunday 3 November
Still another effort to get this into the post and I’m determined to finish it tonight. So far I have written of nothing but the war but now, with November upon us, I had better make this a Xmas letter! It seems as if we have gone back to the ice age, writing Xmas letters two months ahead of time. Despite war conditions, there are signs of the festive season being on its way. Already Woolworth’s and other stores are displaying some purely Xmas lines. I don’t know whether we will be able to get hold of a Xmas tree this year. Usually Bert gets us one from the Burton woods, as I have told you before, I think, but as he is not at Burton now, the chances do not seem so good. I would like to get one if I can, because we are ging to do everything we can to make it as normal a Xmas as possible. Stella has already made the puddings and the next job will be the cake. Even if we cannot buy any fresh ones, we still have a few crackers left from last year and these, together with the coloured paper garlands, will help to make the atmosphere something like normal. I have bought some decorations such as Santa Clause on a sleigh and that sort of thing because they may be scarce later on, and we are gradually accumulating a stock of small novelties for the stockings. I have even got some new pennies so I think that, whatever happens this year, the youngsters should have a decent day, which is the main thing. It is impossible to tell what will happen in the way of visitors, of course, but I have no doubt things will be sorted out at the last minute, as usual. Presents for the adults will be kept down to microscopic proportions, I expect. I don’t know what to make for Wendy. Last year I made her a doll’s cot and she is just a bit too young for a doll’s house yet, and so is Michael, who would probably break it in the first day if I did make one for her. It is impossible to stop them from playing with each other’s toys. Before the time comes, however, I shall probably have a brain wave. Michael has already made up his mind that he wants a train – a big wooden one which he can pull along, so I’ll have to start that very soon. I suppose it will have to be painted the traditional red. It won’t be long now before he is demanding the real thing like Hornby trains, or Meccano.
As you will see from the date, we are not far off Bonfire Night, but of course a real bonfire or out of doors fireworks are out of the question this year. We are having a few indoor ones and I expect a few of the youngsters from round about will come in to see the fun. We tried one or two of them out the other day and they were a great success. I was not as strong minded as Stella, who religiously kept her hands off them, although she actually bought them in South Road. As soon as I saw them, I had to try some of them! What’s the good of being the boss(?) of the house if you can’t do things like that? I’m quite looking forward to the time when we can have a real Bonfire Night out of doors. It’s like going to the grotto, the children are a great excuse.
I don’t know what the arrangements will be in town about grottos this year. Last year, so far as I can remember, only Lewis’s had a real grotto, the remainder of the stores having only a toy fair. It will probably be the same this year, but whatever happens, we will take them both into town some morning – Stella will probably meet me in town straight from the office, where I can have a sleep and some breakfast before I meet her. If we do that, we should be home again about lunchtime and then I can have a sleep in the afternoon if necessary. The children like the trip to town and Wendy, like a true woman, will probably insist on a glass of milk in a café. She has reached that stage already.
Today I lifted the last of my potatoes. I put in quite a lot of work on the alleged allotment at the back of the garden last year, but the results were disappointing, probably due to two reasons – lack of manure and slackness in not keeping weeds and pests down. Everything seems to have come so far and no further. Sprouts, for instance, have come to a small ball, about an inch across, but seem to have stopped growing altogether at that point. The same thing happened with beetroots. Some of them reached the size of a tennis ball, but some of them never exceeded a marble. Cauliflowers were promising well and suddenly bolted, growing about a foot in a couple of days. Dwarf beans were severely attacked by fly, two rows failing to yield a single bean, and the cabbage fly, which was a new pest to me, did a lot of havoc with my greens during the summer. Still, we have had a few meals off our own stuff and I have learned a lot, which I hope will be useful next year. Considering everything, the potatoes did well, for they had no feeding of any kind, and one cannot expect too much in those circumstances. In all I suppose we will have had about six or seven months’ supply by the time the last are eaten, for with these I have lifted today we should have about two or three months’ supply in hand now. Bert sent me quite a good stock of winter greens which are doing better than the others, and which I hope will just be right when the shop supplies are running low. That was the chief difficulty last year, that we were unable to get any fresh greens for two or three months during the winter.
Well, I must finish on this page so it’s time to say au revoir. We shall be thinking of you both as usual at Xmas, and particularly when we are eating the turkey, or whatever takes its place. In the meantime, we all send you our love and best wishes for Xmas and 1941. We hope, too, that next year will see the end of all this nonsense and that you will be able to get home for a few months’ leave. Bye for now, and see you both take care of yourselves.
Arthur XX
P.S. I’m almost certain Stella has already acknowledged them, but just in case – many thanks for the frocks for Wendy. They fit her beautifully. Not one has had to be altered. Everything you mentioned in your letters as being on the way has now arrived. Yes, your cable came and was duly passed round all the family or else they were told its exact text.

Aug 081941

Story Of Year Of Raids On Merseyside
A Story Of Grim Experiences And Great Recovery

The new raid “season” is about to open, we are warned by people in authority, and as it is a year or so ago since Merseyside was first attacked by the Luftwaffe, it is interesting to review the “season” just ended.
Though the full story of the year cannot yet be told, it is interesting and instructive to look back along the road we have travelled and to realise to what extent our outlook has changed.
Few realised, last July, what we should live through in the year that has gone. True, there had been minor excitements. Occasionally there had been gunfire, even in daylight. But can you think back to that first night raid – not a heavy one – when in the intervals between the firing of the guns you could hear the steady “drum-drum, drum-drum” of Goering’s dark angels high overhead?
That night – it was in July 1940 – the first bombs were dropped on Merseyside. Neston, Irby and Thurstaston can claim the distinction of being among the first Merseyside districts to suffer actual attack. A stick of bombs scattered over these areas fell in fields and did no damage, but dug deep craters which drew wondering crowds.

Birkenhead And Wallasey
Birkenhead received an early “visit” one night in August. Bombs were dropped in Prenton, and when a house in Prenton Lane was struck, a maid who was in bed was killed. She was Merseyside’s first fatal casualty.
Two days later Wallasey was struck a heavier blow. Houses and shops at Stroud’s Corner, Cliff Road and Mill Lane were damaged and demolished. Infinitely worse, a few people were killed.
Next came the first Liverpool bombs. Just about midnight on Saturday August 17, they whistled down but did little damage. With the horrors of the Continent fresh in their minds, everyone called them screaming bombs. Do you remember that, and do your realise that nobody speaks of screaming bombs these days?
Two days later Liverpool had its first incendiary bombs, several hundred of which fell. From the centre of the city one saw for the first time that leaping, flickering greenish white halo, soon to become so familiar.
In some ways these early demonstrations of frightfulness, particularly those early deaths at Wallasey, made a deeper impression on the public than the succession of heavy blitzes during the longer nights.

On Their Doorsteps
People who had never seen themselves in the light of heroes suddenly realised that this war was to be fought out, literally, on their own doorsteps. Perhaps unconsciously, but nevertheless determinedly, people settled down to the raids, and that attitude meant defeat for the German Air Force. They set out to crack the morale of the civilian population and failed. They failed in those first few nights.
More and more efforts were made to destroy the town. In September there was scarcely a night when the alert was not sounded, and bombs were dropped on 19 nights in the month. Those were the nights when the housing estates were bearing the brunt of the attack, as they did for so long. Those were the nights, too, when the Anderson shelter proved its worth.
About the end of September raiders began to make greater use of incendiaries and for several months there was the same story in the papers of an “abortive fire-raising raid on a coastal town in the North-West”. That phrase about the town in the North-West is an echo from the past, isn’t it? Throughout the weeks there was raid after raid, with serious damage on only one occasion by fire. October came and went, bringing with it the long raids which meant six, seven and eight hours in shelters for so many people.

Lull, Then Fury
There came a lull in November, but suddenly there was unleashed all the fury of the Luftwaffe, who brought their heaviest bombs to Merseyside on November 28, rendering many people homeless but failing to crush their spirit. That was the night when a big shelter was struck, causing a number of casualties.
Another lull, with occasional nuisance raids and little material damage. Then the December blitz, which lasted two nights and on the third switched over to Manchester. This very heavy raid was followed by almost two months of comparative quietness, in which there were small raids, which failed in their objective of creating big fires.
By this time the organisation of civilians in defeating the incendiaries was so successful that raiders began dropping explosive incendiary bombs in the hope of scaring the public – a hope doomed to disappointment.
Raids, though fewer, were more concentrated in the early spring. March 12 and 13, for instance, brought two nights of hell to Merseyside, where residential areas were badly damaged by some of the heaviest bombs. It was at this time, however, that we began to hear of our night fighters, who shot down at least seven.
Spasmodic raids followed in April, but May saw the outbreak of a heavy and concentrated attack. Eight nights in succession the raiders came.

National Admiration
Firemen, ambulance drivers, rescue squads, police, and all the civil defence personnel worked unceasingly, earning the admiration of the whole country. Just how well they did their jobs is shown by the speed with which vital services were restored.
Many famous and historic places in the city were hit – churches, homes, public buildings, hotels, all felt the weight of Germany’s relentless bombing, but still the city stands. Ugly wounds in the streets have been cleaned and healed by temporary dressings and, most important of all, the port carries on its vital work. People come and go much as they have always done.
The people of Merseyside can face this autumn more confidently, for they know what to expect.
There are two great differences as compared with the post-Dunkirk period: We are now hitting back at Germany, in Germany, and we have our night fighters protecting us with growing success.
Arthur Johnson

Dec 062018

I have been contacted by a TV production company for help with a three-part documentary series it is making for broadcast next year.
The subject is the Liverpool Blitz, but they are “keen to have Arthur as a character in the series”, because of his role as Blitz reporter on the local paper in the first half of the war. This has already been highlighted in print with the book Merseyside’s Secret Blitz Diary, and a radio programme presented by Peter Sissons (read about both here), but it is very exciting to think my grandfather will be on screen in the spring.
I only hope that it will also publicise their letters on this website – and help to realise my dream of turning them into a book!