In March 1941 Don Macintosh was 18 years old, working as a telephone operator in the police station in Clydebank, the ship building heart of Glasgow. So far the town had been relatively unaffected by the blitz.
The bell rang stridently as a small white light lit over the socket on the exchange board. ‘Control centre here,’ a young woman’s voice announced. ‘Air raid warning yellow. Read back, please.’ ‘Air raid warning yellow. Message received. Over and out.’ I put all the call lights on [each police phone stand had a flashing red call light to show the nearest bobby that there was a message] and shouted to the Sergeant next door.
Five minutes later, ‘Air raid warning purple,’ came through, followed almost immediately by, ‘Air raid warning RED. This is not, repeat NOT, a practice alert.’ The banshee wail of the siren started howling from the fire station across the street and the telephone switchboard lit up like a Christmas tree.
I heard the first faint drone of unsynchronized airplane engines and the bark of heavy Ack-Ack guns [Anti-Aircraft guns] and wondered how simulation had managed to slide so quickly into reality. I took the first call, and a voice shouted, ‘I’ve lost, ma cat! He ran away this mornin’, and ah huvney seen him since.’ ‘Who’s speaking, please?’ I said. ‘Missus McConnell, ahm frae Hamilton Crescent. It’s a big ginger tom,’ she replied, surprised that I didn’t know. ‘Alright, Mrs. McConnell. If it turns up, we’ll let you know,’ I said, and pulled the plug. Silly old bag. She’ll have more than her cat to worry about in a minute.
I plugged hastily into the next socket. ‘P. Campbell here,’ a badly shaken voice answered. ‘Reporting an incident opposite the Thistle Arms at Dalmuir. As far as I can make out six people are badly injured, and two more fatally. The ambulance is here, and I’m going back now to see what I can do.’ I dashed the message down on a scrap of paper.
Suddenly, there was a tremendous burst of gunfire from a naval ship in the shipyard behind, followed by the sound of diesel engines, as a plane flew overhead. Moments later, there was a muffled explosion, followed by a much louder one which shook the building and brought plaster down from the ceiling.
I plugged into the fire station extension and a breathless voice answered. ‘That was the library, it got a direct hit. I’ve sent some of my men to see what’s happened in the control centre underneath. Busy. I’ll call you back.’ [The library, which was only about 20 yards away, had a control center underneath built of concrete, which coordinated necessities and reported directly to government]
Screams like the cry of a nameless beast sounded from the bombs falling directly overhead, and as they reached a crescendo, I waited for the explosion and the end. There were several thumps nearby but no explosion, and Sgt Macleod shouted, ‘It’s incendiaries. They’ve dropped just outside the door. I’m going out to throw sand on them.’
The incendiaries never exploded, but this gave me such a jolt as to put my mind into a higher gear than I ever knew existed. I strove to keep pace with the unending calls and the board in front of me became littered with scribbled messages. In the brief intervals in the bombing when the guns fell silent, an uncanny silence pervaded the building.
There was a dreamlike quality about it, as if the thin crust of reality had given way beneath the town and its people, and we were falling into a nightmare. In one of the lulls I heard voices, and through the doorway of my room I saw four men followed by an elderly Inspector carrying a body covered in a white sheet on a broken-off door into the muster room at the back. This wasn’t the war I read about in the papers, where I was thrilled to read the daily news of the Battle of Britain and our army chasing thousands of Italians across the desert.
The Inspector came into the room, his eyes full of concern and said, in his lilting highland accent, ‘There’s another body to come; it’s a couple who were sheltering under a walkway opposite the library and were blown into the road. The blast stripped them naked, but otherwise there’s not a mark on them. I’ve put them in here for decency’s sake until the van comes for them,’ he sighed quietly, lowering his head, and said, ‘I never thocht ahd see this again. It was bad enough in France, and we never let on, but here. . .’ He shook his head, sadly. ‘Well, ah’lI see if I can dodge my way up the hill. If you contact the men, let them know I’m coming.’
The clock above the switchboard showed 3 am, and I began to think I might live through the night. The firing and bombing slackened, but the calls didn’t, and around 6 am the all clear sounded its steady note. It was finally over.
I took off my tin hat and just sat there in a daze. At the beginning of the shift I had been alone, now the office next door was filled with people in uniform – senior policemen, firemen, kilted officers, nurses and sailors, all waiting to make phone calls.
A young detective came in with a bearded Sub-Lieutenant in half boots, followed by two sailors. ‘Don, this is Lieutenant Graves and his party from the destroyer in Rothesay Dock. He’s an armaments officer. Apparently a 500 pound bomb dropped on the other side of the wall next to this room and failed to go off.’
© Don Macintosh ‘Bomber Pilot’, Browsebooks, 2006. Reproduced with permission.
The experience led Don Macintosh to apply to join the RAF as aircrew and eventually to become a Lancaster bomber pilot. In ‘Bomber Pilot’ he vividly recounts his experiences in raids over France, Holland and Germany as well as the three raids to eliminate the Tirpitz. Bomber Pilot Donald MacIntosh: A Veteran’s First-hand Account of Surviving World War Two as a RAF Bomber Pilot is available from amazon.co.uk.