A Night of the Portsmouth Blitz

Tomorrow is Father’s Day 2016 and my thoughts wander across the Atlantic to my Dad, now 95 years “young” and a widower since last year.  He is coping remarkably well with the help and support of some of the most loving, caring friends and daily care givers.

I am comforted to know Dad lives in a rare community where people know their neighbors, shop keepers, postal workers and so many more. And not only do they know each other by name, but they truly care … they live out God’s commandment of “love your neighbor.” They are hands on and quick to volunteer.

I am so grateful and so inspired by the spirit of love and generosity that envelops my Dad. Thank you Lord!

So as I cogitate on all this, my mind gravitates to our safe wherein lies a buff-colored folder with a selection of stories typed up by my Dad in bygone days. Stories that I’ve read and put away for safe keeping.  Last year I published one and this weekend, I share this next one in honor of my Dad and Father’s Day.

A Night of the Portsmouth Blitz ~ By J.A. Shipperlee

Approximately two and a half weeks after my 20th birthday, I reported on 3rd February, 1941 to H.M.S. St. Vincent in Gosport for the initial course in the Fleet Air Arm. This was for three months naval instruction from experienced petty officers, under a few officers. It included Morse code and semaphore, boat work, parade ground drill, sea navigation under Commander Spink, naval customs and terminology and various other types of training. 

ST_VINCENT_02Divisions in progress at HMS ST VINCENT, potential pilots and observers of the Fleet Air Arm spend their first few weeks here. Note the masthead at one side of the parade ground � IWM (A 18354).
Thanks to the Royal Navy Research Archive for the above photograph and caption

“St. Vincent” was a large and long established shore base for instructing various ratings, aircraft radio operators, potential pilots and observers, several hundreds in all; my pilots course numbered round 115. Gosport faced across the narrow entrance of the harbour to Portsmouth and thus received part of the bombing during the periods of “the Portsmouth Blitz”. **

During my service there we were subjected to night raids two or three times each week. On such evenings, when not on duty, we all had to sleep in underground cellars. Trainees were divided into four groups: 1st and 2nd Port Watches {red} and 1st and 2nd Starboard Watches {green}.  The Port Watches were on duty one night, Starboard Watches the next; there were two types of duty, so we each performed two nights in four, alternating between the “pick and shovel party” and the “station fire engine squad”. The latter consisted of three or four mobile fire pumps manned by six or eight of us per machine and hauled by us to the spot needed.

The pick and shovel party had to tramp some three-quarters of a mile to an oil dump comprised of a number of large circular oil storage tanks which rose 25 or 30 feet from the ground and could be ascended by a fixed metal ladder. Our task was to disperse among these storage tanks and watch for incendiary bombs, climbing the ladders to throw dirt on any firebombs that landed on top of the oil containers.Rain often made the surrounding ground mucky so the ‘pick and shovel party’ had become commonly called ‘the —- and shovel party’ with a vulgar four letter word replacing the first one.

There was a particularly heavy raid one evening when my group were manning a fire pump. We could hear the anti-aircraft guns firing high into the sky and see flashes from various directions caused by bombs.  Also now and again a mighty roar would rumble from the harbour … made by the 12-inch guns of an obsolete French battleship of World War One that had joined the Free French Forces in Britain after the fall of France the previous June; these guns in turrets could be angle high and shells were fired blindly into the sky in the direction of the bombers. They probably never hit an enemy plane but falling shrapnel may have caused damage somewhere; the main effect being psychological, to add to the sound of the retaliatory fire from the ground, and to boost the morale of the French sailors brooding over their inaction in an allied but foreign port.

Our mobile pump was based in a garage in the corner of a rear quadrangle and we wheeled this around to extinguish incendiaries landing in our sector, Soon there was a need to rush to the NAAFI canteen had been ignited and the flames were rapidly spreading among the stores of cigarettes, tobacco, cakes, sweets, etc. We faced a blaze and aimed a powerful jet of water onto it. Before many minutes the fire was under control.  About the time it was nearly extinguished there came the sound of a high explosive bomb hitting the ground some distance behind us and to our right. This was quickly followed by a second, then a third, each getting closer in our direction.

We dived for cover! I lay on the ground against the bottom of a high wall that had been behind me, hoping that any more bombs in the ‘stick’  {of probably six} would land far enough on the other side of the wall for it to give shelter. A fourth high explosive burst closer still, and then a fifth.

I distinctly recall thoughts flashing through my mind of the problems experienced in the finance office before joining the navy and telling myself how petty they all seemed now, and vowing that if I survived the war I would subdue worries over all such comparatively trivial matters! Meanwhile I estimated that a sixth must explode very close to the wall and I anticipated its arrival in a state of great tension, for several seconds …. and more seconds ….but it did not come. Perhaps one bomb had failed to go off and I waited for a late detonation.

When that did not occur in the next few moments I picked myself up to join my comrades in gathering once more around the mobile pump. Finishing off the remnants of the canteen fire we began moving the engine towards its base but as we did so, another two or three high explosive bomb burst at a safe distance from ourselves but in the vicinity of the oil depot. One crashed through the metal top of a tank as it exploded, sending a great flash of light into the dark night and, as this diminished, a yellowish flame lit the sky … from the burning oil flung upwards by the blast and the oil remaining ignited within the tank.

Almost immediately we became award of numerous small spots of light descending from above; they were drops of burning oil, which like raindrops were dripping from the sky. The ‘squad” hurriedly pushed and pulled the fire pump to the garage and took shelter from this peculiar phenomenon, meanwhile flicking off those isolated blobs that settled on our outer overalls supplied for this fire duty. Our heads were protected by ‘tin’ helmets.

With the garage door open, observing the continuing fall of scattered drips of burning oil, I reflected upon the good fortune of there being just five bombs in the h.e. ‘stick’ that had descended towards my group, and wondering if two could have burst simultaneously, or if I could have miscounted during the haste to lie t the base of the wall, or if five was the number intended for that batch. The answer I knew was unlikely ever to be revealed unless a line of holes next day gave a clue; but these would be in awkward places to check and anyway I’d be otherwise occupied.

Already my thoughts were turning to the 2nd Port squad and a sinking feeling came upon me concerning those course mates whose turn it had been to do duty in the storage depot. My particular friend Grahame had been in that group and I felt sickly at the idea of him or one of the others atop the container that had received the direct hit.

Hours passed as we pondered awful possibilities and snatched what periods of sleep were possible on types of sleeping bags on the concrete floor.

Luckily the raid had passed over without further bombing in our area. It was still an hour or two before we were able to meet the returning ‘pick and shovel party’ and learn with considerable relief that no-one had been on the tank that had been ripped open by the high explosive, and despite unpleasant and dangerous experiences the party had not sustained casualties.

Having been witness to hours of blitz these facts seemed miraculous. On other nights more raids occurred but I recall that one as the worst that I remember of the Portsmouth Harbour period of training.

A note from Anthea:
So thankful that my Dad survived WWII and has taken time to write down some of his varied experiences from that era.  Also grateful that he and so many others served and gave their utmost, alongside many allied forces to crush the advancement of evil and oppression that threatened the world during the dark days of WWII.

Happy Father’s Day Dad. Thrilled that you’re still here to share the stories. OOXX


** The Blitz in Britain: It has been estimated that during the 8 month Blitz in Britain from September 1940 thru May 1941, about 40,000 civilians were killed, 46,000 injured, and more than a million homes destroyed and damaged in Britain, during this period. The word Blitz is a shortening of the German word blitzkrieg, meaning “lightning war,” the literal translation of the German word “Blitz” is “lightning”.


  1. Hi Anthea
    How lovely to find Antheas Anthology and to read the stories Tony told me when I dropped in to see him. He was a wonderful man who I so enjoyed visiting ,or fetching him to attend a function at my mums care home.
    I remember on the last occasion that I saw him, we attended a carol service at the home. He had given a talk at the air station earlier that day and instead of feeling tired, he was enthusiastically telling us all about it. I had to read a lesson at the service and I remember Tony telling me how well I had done. He was so kind and thoughtful and I feel very lucky to have known him.
    Much love

    1. Thank you so much Diana for your comments and most importantly for the loving kindness you showed my Dad. He enjoyed all the times you visited and spent time with hi. It made such a difference to him in his last year particularly OOXX

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