"Oh God, oh Jesus, oh Sacred Heart! Boy, there’s two gentlemen to see you”—these the words that the Brendan Behan of Borstal Boy had his landlady screech up the stairs when the hard men of Special Branch showed up on the doorstep of his North Liverpool lodgings to take him into custody. In so doing, they moved quickly enough to pre-empt his frantic attempt to rid himself of a suitcase crammed with gelignite, detonators, and other incriminating paraphernalia associated with the Irish Republican Army’s 1939 bombing campaign in England, launching him at the age of sixteen on the trail that was to lead—via time in Walton Jail, arraignment in court, trial, sentencing to several years in Borstal (juvenile reform school), eventual expulsion from England—to a successful literary career. Overshadowed by the outbreak of the Second World War in September of that same year, and by the subsequent ravages wrought by the onset of the Blitz, that terrorist campaign is well-nigh forgotten today. And yet, as I now realize, it was a remarkably extensive one, generating apprehension and alarm in a whole series of English cities, from London to Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, and Coventry, and inevitably stirring up, so far as English attitudes toward the Irish were concerned, a renewed wave of anger, fear, and loathing. Tear-gas bombs precipitated panic in cinemas; in London, railway and Tube stations were damaged by explosions; in Manchester and Liverpool, power lines, bridges, jails, and other public buildings were targeted.  Among the worst incidents were a bombing in Coventry that went awry, injuring some sixty bystanders and killing another five, and a massive explosion in Liverpool that totally destroyed the Central Post Office on Mount Pleasant.

In 1939, at the time the sixteen-year-old Behan was apprehended, my family was living across town in the South Liverpool suburbs, and the Post Office incident is firmly embedded in my early memories—less, I think, because of the event itself, however dramatic it must have been, than because of the sotto voce anxiety my parents unwittingly conveyed to their offspring, worried as they were about the degree to which such unhappy goings on could stir up once more rancid anti-Irish sentiment. And their anxiety, as I was later to discover at elementary school, was wholly warranted. For we were an Irish family, perhaps the more self-consciously so because my father was of Anglo-Irish descent (he hailed from Athlone in County Westmeath); we bore an English surname. My siblings and I had been fated to grow up in England rather than Ireland, however, simply because, at a time of high unemployment in both Britain and the Irish Free State, he had been fortunate enough to be offered the job of assistant foreman in the packing and shipping department of a bobbin and shuttle factory that served the needs of the Lancashire and Indian cotton mills. It was situated in Garston, at the most southerly end of the complex of docks stretching along the tidal waters of the Mersey estuary, which was navigable by ocean-going vessels. Of his four children, one girl and three boys—Molly, Vincent, Noel, and I—I was the youngest. And while I had been born in Allerton, a place that was later to emerge as Beatles or, at least, Lennon-McCartney territory, my parents had subsequently moved into another council house (that is, a municipally funded rental) in the neighboring borough of Garston. It was a somewhat more gritty area than Allerton and, in the infinitely subtle social gradations embedded in the working- and lower-middle-class pecking order of the day, the address was (socially speaking) a less desirable one. In effect, it suffered from what my urban sociologist daughter now tells me is known in her business as “territorial stigma.” But the house was slightly bigger than the Allerton one and it had the further advantage of being within reasonable walking distance of our Catholic parish church and its affiliated elementary school, on which our lives were very much centered. Moreover, territorial stigma notwithstanding, on clear days the front garden afforded us coastal flatlanders a faraway and beckoning glimpse of the mountainous ramparts of the Clwydian Range in Flintshire, rising up beyond the River Dee in North Wales, with the summit of Moel Famau looming, remote and mysterious, in the center.

“Immigrant,” I suspect, was a term that my mother and father would have found offensive had it been applied to them. For years, they had continued to think of themselves as “just being here for a while” and as destined, sooner or later, to “go home.” It was only, I sense, the shared deprivations and dangers of the war years, inducing in them feelings of warm solidarity with their English friends and neighbors, that led them to begin to think of Liverpool itself as “home.” And it is upon that city and its wartime fate that I will dwell here.


THE BASIC HISTORICAL record of the Liverpool Blitz is clear enough, though little attention was paid to it until several decades after the war. Liverpool—or, more accurately, Merseyside—was, after London, the most heavily bombed urban area in the United Kingdom. And not surprisingly so. The commander-in-chief of the United Kingdom’s Western Approaches Command had his headquarters there in an extensive underground-bunker complex from which was directed the Battle of the Atlantic, the longest continuous military campaign in World War II and one that reached its peak of frenzy from mid-1940 to the end of 1943. The Port of Liverpool was the home port and terminal point of an endless succession of trans-Atlantic convoys that alone kept Britain functioning during the darkest days of the war. And its Gladstone Dock complex afforded safe anchorage to the multinational naval force that escorted so many of those convoys. During those years the Mersey estuary was frequently crowded with merchant ships riding at anchor while they waited their turn to get into dock to unload their precious cargoes, protected in the meanwhile by a veritable canopy of barrage balloons intended to deter attack by dive-bombers or low-flying aircraft. An extraordinary sight and vivid testimony to the fact that Merseyside’s eleven miles of docks and wharves were then handling more than 90 percent of all war-related supplies entering Britain from abroad.

France capitulated to the German invaders in June 1940. In July, the Battle of Britain began. At the end of August the Luftwaffe turned its attention from RAF airfields to London itself in the fruitless hope of destroying British morale and inducing the nation to respond positively to Hitler’s peace feelers. Around the same time it became Liverpool’s turn. The first substantial raid took place on the night of August 28 and, though varying in size and intensity, air raids—over three hundred in all—were destined to continue for almost a year and a half. The last truly damaging incursion occurred late in January 1942, when Hitler’s military preoccupations had already begun to shift eastward. Ironically enough, one of the houses destroyed in that last heavy raid was the one on Upper Stanhope Street where Hitler’s half-brother Alois had lived before the First World War and where Hitler’s nephew, William Patrick Hitler, had been born.

During those grim—though for a boy, I should confess, oddly energizing—eighteen months the civilian casualty rate in Merseyside was really very high; it involved approximately four thousand fatalities with many thousands more injured. The intensity of the raids fluctuated, peaking just before the Christmas of 1940 when, as we now know, the Luftwaffe threw into action some three hundred aircraft, and, again, in May 1941.

At the beginning of that month, and over the course of a horrible seven successive nights, the city and its environs were pounded by swarms of enemy aircraft. While my memories of the whole eighteen months are uneven in nature, that awful May week (later to be memorialized in Nicholas Monsarrat’s novel The Cruel Sea) is unforgettable. The water mains having been destroyed, the great fires raging at the city center burned on, day and night, illuminating what was for us in the southern suburbs the northwest quadrant of the sky and serving as an inextinguishable beacon for returning waves of German attackers. The Anglican Cathedral was hit; an historic parish church, the municipal museum, and the Custom House were utterly destroyed; several big stores were gutted by fire; the whole city-center was torn apart; thousands of housing units were destroyed; and the damage done to the vital docking and harbor facilities was so extensive that, at the time, it was not deemed prudent to report on it fully. In the Huskisson Dock a munitions ship caught fire and finally blew up with such an appalling roar that we, three miles and more away, knew that something unusually terrible had happened. Across town, too, in the Breck Road area where our Uncle Frank lived (no blood relative but an old musician friend of my father’s from his Athlone days who played French horn with the Liverpool Symphony Orchestra), an ammunition train becalmed in a railway siding was set on fire by incendiary bombs, wagon after wagon exploding, with the waves of blast from each successive explosion shattering the windows and progressively reducing to rubble the brick dwellings clustered in a neighboring housing estate. During that week my father, who on rotation had supervisory responsibilities over the fire watchers at his workplace, did not reappear for the better part of a day and a night, and got home then only because the whole factory had had to be evacuated when it was discovered that a high-explosive bomb, which had failed to detonate, had burrowed down in the ground below his department and was lying there with its lethal fuse still intact.

Those air raids of May 1941 stand out in the memory, then, because they were so ferocious. The norm—insofar as there was a norm, for enemy incursions varied in intensity—fell into a somewhat more predictable quasi-routine. Sometimes we would detect the throbbing drone of approaching enemy aircraft even before we heard the banshee wailing of the warning siren. At the time, rightly or wrongly, we were all convinced that we could distinguish between the steadier drone of RAF planes and the fluctuating sound of Luftwaffe engines (a mesmerizing “Where are you, where are you, where are you” sound, as the novelist Graham Greene, then fire watching in London, would later describe it). So far as sound in general went—the unseductive music of the night—when an air raid reached its moment of peak intensity, the racket was simply enormous. It involved a continuous and cacophonous crepitation of exploding anti-aircraft ordnance, punctuated by the eerie scream or whistle of high-explosive bombs as they pursued their fearful trajectories down to earth, followed by a louder and deeper crump as they exploded, if not on some intended target, then often with devastating effect at random points of misfortune. More than once in Liverpool, crowded communal air-raid shelters were hit, causing devastating casualties. Nor were the suburban residential areas immune from meaningless destruction by seemingly random sticks of bombs.

As for the visual effects, we would sometimes turn off the lights, go into the bay-windowed front room (a parlor, though we didn’t use that term), draw back the black-out curtains and peer into the night sky. The sight was a mesmerizing one. The whole arc of the sky took on the appearance of a darkened lunar landscape, pitted, pocked, and cratered by the constant succession of exploding anti-aircraft shells and lanced by moving fingers of light as searchlights, trying to pinpoint enemy aircraft, probed relentlessly into the nooks and crannies of the night. Once we saw an unfortunate German plane caught at the intersection of two such searchlight beams (being “coned” is, I believe, the term of art that fliers used for that surely terrifying experience). What the pilot did in this particular case was to crawl down one of the two beams like a silver moth seeking to reach (or to shoot out?) the source of light before somehow wriggling out of his moment of unwelcome prominence and re-entering the redemptive embrace of darkness. After becoming habituated to such sights the return of fireworks displays in the postwar years came inevitably as something of an anti-climax.


WHILE THOSE EIGHTEEN months were punctuated by some moments of great drama, they gradually fell into a predictable routine. The ululating wail of the siren sounding the warning that enemy aircraft were approaching, the throbbing sound of aircraft engines, and the steady note of the eventual “All Clear” became so familiar as to merge with the predictable routines of daily life and the fitful dreams of night. Like everyone else we went about our business, got on with things, and more or less did what we were told to do in order to improve our chances for survival. We equipped our windows with black-out curtains and crisscrossed the panes of glass with adhesive tape to reduce the danger posed by flying shards of glass if the windows were blown in by blast from a bomb. In addition, my father constructed reasonably stout shutters for the kitchen and the living room. The latter had a fireplace in which we burned coal and coke to heat both the room and the boiler that was the sole source of whatever hot water we had. It was the only heated room in the house. During the nights when it did not seem safe to go to bed, we more or less lived in those two rooms, especially after we had abandoned the practice of spending several miserable nighttime hours in the spider-infested dankness of the Anderson air-raid shelter we had embedded in the back garden (backyard in American parlance). Observation of bomb damage to houses in our  vicinity had conveyed the lesson that when semi-detached houses were badly damaged by blast, the thicker central dividing wall, buttressed by its chimney, tended to remain standing. So we fell into the practice of pushing a sturdy dining room table up against the central wall and close to the chimney and putting a pile of cushions and pillows under it so we could try to catch some sleep in warm surroundings and under whatever protection it offered. Wisely or unwisely, we ended up using that as our shelter. There we would lie, depending upon the intensity of the attack, dozing, talking, cowering, and, from time to time, reciting together a family rosary.

High explosive bombs seemed to us to follow a slanting trajectory. Only in the last few seconds would it become clear whether the bomb in question was going to hit us, was falling short, or was destined to pass overhead and hit the ground beyond—as did the nearest miss to our house, landing some four hundred yards away in a field, making an impressive crater but dissipating in the softness of the ground much of its dangerous blast effect. Incendiary bombs or bomblets, on the other hand, clustered in a container that spewed them out at some distance above the ground, were broadcast much more widely and indiscriminately. My brother Noel told me that one such, landing outside in the road on which our house stood, ignited its tar surface so that for a few moments, until it was extinguished with sand bags, it looked as if the Woolton Road itself could become a ribbon of fire. The local fire watchers who dealt with it wore their regulation steel helmets. But our drunken next-door neighbor, feeling no doubt that he ought to do his bit, put in an impressive appearance wearing for protection one of his prized World War I souvenirs, an old-fashioned German Pickelhaube, a helmet crested with a formidable spike. Of that incident, however, I have no recollection. Despite the reported excitement of the moment, I appear to have slept soundly right through it. Some of the heavy bombs that we were accustomed to calling “screaming bombs” made a particularly unnerving sound as they descended, and that made our rough and ready assessment of their trajectories an even more fearful business.

At such moments we instinctively held our breath and our prayers would momentarily falter. But while the immediate reaction was one, of course, of breath-catching fear, we lived fervently in an enchanted Catholic sacramental universe, fraught with the outward signs of inward grace, and we still felt to the very depths of our being that no matter what happened we would endure together, if perhaps in a better place. We were instinctively attuned, it seems, to Julian of Norwich’s late-medieval mystic sense that in the end “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Ours was a kindly God and, as the Psalmist assured us, we his children could shelter under the shadow of his almighty wings. In the words of Psalm 91, sung every day in the lovely service of Compline as darkness falls across the Christian monastic world, we were adjured to fear neither “the arrow that flyeth by day” nor “the terror that stalketh by night.” God would cover us with his pinions and under his wings could we find our refuge:

                Scapulis suis obumbrabit tibi:

                                et sub pennis ejus sperabis.

                                Scuto circumdabit te veritas ejus:

                Non timebis a timore nocturno,

                                A sagitta volante in die,

                a negotio perambulante in tenebris;

                                ab incursu, et daemonio meridiano.

At some level, in the embrace of such deep-rooted beliefs, one finds one’s way almost instinctively to a certain calm and tranquility of spirit, something akin, perhaps, to Stoicism but without its persistently pessimistic undertow. That spirit certainly carried on into the daylight hours after nights when our sleep had been interrupted by air-raid warnings, the sound of bombers overhead, and the persistent racket of anti-aircraft fire. In the morning we boys, moved by a spirit cognate to that of the young boy in John Boorman’s splendid 1988 film Hope and Glory, would sally forth to pick out the interesting pieces from the litter of shrapnel blanketing paths and roadways. For we all had shrapnel collections, I’m not quite sure why, and we conducted a lively trade of swapping pieces with the object of maximizing the quality and interest of our own particular collection and in an attempt, especially, to add what we all agreed was the pièce de résistance, namely, the aluminum tail of an incendiary bomb, for those tails tended to survive the combustion of the body of the bomb.


IN ORDER TO round out the picture of what we experienced and felt during those far-off months of turmoil, several moments deserve mention. Surprisingly enough, they all stem from the daylight hours. First, the sudden appearance one evening while I was playing outside after tea, and almost simultaneously with the wail of the air-raid warning and the opening up of firing by a nearby anti-aircraft battery, of a solitary, low-flying German plane (I didn’t recognize its make but I assumed it was a reconnaissance plane). It was following the line of the river, perhaps photographing harbor installations, and was flying so low, pursued by laggard bursts of anti-aircraft fire, that one could see not only the silhouette of the pilot’s head within the cockpit canopy, but also the crosses on the side of the fuselage and even the swastika on the tail. It was an arresting sight to see a combatant going about his assigned task with such sangfroid and exhibiting so condescending a degree of indifference to the hapless enemies trying to encompass his destruction.

The second moment was very different in nature. I had gone off to play one afternoon with a friend, Bernard Smythe, a very independent-minded boy who was something of an explorer and intrepid wanderer by temperament and about whose possibly bad influence on me my parents, I sense, were not altogether happy. That afternoon we had made our way for about two miles to what was known locally as the “Cast Iron Shore” (one of the local names that made their way into the Beatles’ songs later on.) It is a part of the South Liverpool shoreline stretching from Dingle to Garston Docks where, in the eighteenth century apparently, the hulks of ships had been beached to be broken up for metal scrap—hence the name. One stretch of it is occupied by Cressington Park, an area filled with large Victorian- and Edwardian-era houses, many of them subdivided into several flats today, but originally large stand-alone residences for well-to-do people, clustered in what was originally a gated community equipped with its own railway station and its own promenaded beach area. Our chosen destination was not Cressington Park, but the area of shoreline stretching beyond it on the Dingle side. There, a sea wall had been built along the river to enclose reclaimed land that was slowly being leveled with rubble and fill and would eventually be transformed into municipal parkland. At the time it was still in very rough shape, a desolate, deserted, uneven landscape that was interesting to explore. That was precisely what we were doing when, in mid-afternoon, the air-raid warning sounded. We heard no German planes and the anti-aircraft batteries in the immediate vicinity did not open up. Looking down the river, however, past Dingle and close to the dock installations at the city center, we could see the tiny dot of an airplane being pursued, as usual ineffectually, by bursting anti-aircraft shells. It was, I suppose, another reconnaissance plane and, after about half an hour it disappeared, the shooting stopped and the All Clear sounded. Where we were playing, there was absolutely no place to shelter, but the action was far enough away from us that we had never been in danger. Because of that, presumably, it never occurred to us that our parents had no way of knowing that was the case, and that we had better head home straightaway in order to reassure them. So we played on and on. Even when it would have been time on a normal day to get home for tea, Bernard wanted to continue our explorations, and I was foolish enough to go along with him. In the event, it was well after tea time when I finally got home and my heart sank when I saw that my father was already back from work. On my arrival, all hell broke loose. I was not in the habit of returning home late, certainly never as late as I was that day. Unable to pinpoint the precise focus of the air-raid or which anti-aircraft batteries had opened fire (a highly pertinent point of information because, as they well knew, falling shrapnel could be lethal), my parents had begun, with the worrying passage of time, to imagine the worst—the knock on the door, the grim-faced policeman bearing terrible news, the loss of their youngest through the sort of meaningless and accidental misfortune of war that the events of the past year had made so familiar.

And then I finally showed up, to be met with a highly combustible mixture of anger and relief. As I tried to bluster my way out of the singularly unpleasant corner into which I had painted myself, I must have slipped into cheekiness toward my mother, for my father, by disposition a gentle man, exploded into terrifying rage and slapped me hard with his open hand on one of my cheeks, sending me staggering. It was the only time, I think, that he ever hit me. I responded with a mixture of angry bluster and tearful bravado, hurling myself at him with clenched fists in a futile attempt to punch away at him. But I was only nine and he a six-footer.  Sensing, I think, that I was momentarily consumed by an unhappy mixture of guilty petulance and angry humiliation, he simply held me firmly until I quieted down. The momentary Sturm und Drang dissipated as quickly as it had begun, and my mother gave me some special treat with my tea by way of signaling that what was past was, indeed, past. For both my parents, relief was the dominant emotion and, recognizing that fact, I was determined never again to be guilty of anything so stupidly inconsiderate.


WHILE THE THIRD moment worthy of memorialization was different yet again, it also attests, I am afraid, to the limits of such noble determination. It concerns a landmine. Landmines were a particularly fearsome and powerful type of high-explosive ordnance deployed by the Luftwaffe and familiar to us because more than one had been dropped in our vicinity. They were adapted from the type of mine used at sea, and, because of their large size, each of them had its own parachute. The one in question had hit the ground about three-quarters of a mile away from our house but very close to where our friends the Elmslys lived. Fortunately, it had failed to explode on impact. Pending its defusing by a bomb-disposal squad (a long, drawn out affair because they were very hard-pressed), a large section of housing in South Garston was cordoned off and the residents were evacuated—among them, of course, the Elmslys. They moved in with us and stayed two nights until the land mine had been neutralized and removed. It made for a big crowd in our small house and we had to sleep all over the place. But I remember it as a jolly time, an exciting break with the dullness of routine.

By the time all of this happened, my school, not that far from the area evacuated, having simply closed for a year, was open once more and back in business. The next day, then, on our way home from school, a friend and I stopped to take a look at the proscribed and cordoned-off area in the hope of catching a glimpse of the dreaded landmine itself. There were two policemen and a knot of bored onlookers by the cordoned-off principal road running through this particular residential area. But the entrances to the side streets, though roped-off too, were unguarded. So we slipped unnoticed under the rope and started making our way by a circuitous route down toward the spot where, we had been told, the landmine had hit the ground. As we plunged furtively into the heart of the area, the total absence of human beings, and even of dogs and cats, as well as the deepening and unaccustomed silence began to play tricks on the imagination and to jangle the nerves. We were tempted, accordingly to withdraw but, boyish curiosity warring with reluctant timidity, we somehow persisted in our quest. Later on at high school, when I first read the opening sections of Wordsworth’s Prelude, I was struck by an unexpected sense of familiarity. For there, of course, the poet relates the story of a boyhood escapade of his that unpredictably went awry. Like the young Wordsworth’s purloining of a boat in order to row out into the magical darkness of a silent, moonlit lake, ours, too, was “an act of stealth and troubled pleasure.”

And, like Wordsworth’s illicit adventure, ours, too, ended disconcertingly. Rounding the corner of a side street we came suddenly within close view of the object of our quest. There it was, protruding unmistakably from the soft ground of the front garden of a house on Whitehedge Road. Its parachute had snagged on a chimney pot and was spread out across the roof, flapping and rippling in the periodic gusts of wind. And the landmine itself, looking for all the world like the end of a huge, black cigar, was halfway embedded, and incongruously so, amid the carefully tended flower beds of a typically English front garden. It lay at an angle, inclining slightly towards the nearby wall of the house, in a position that oddly combined a measure of unwelcome intimacy with the projection of bone-chilling menace. It was the latter that caught our bemused and guilty attention and shook us to the core. The young Wordsworth had been driven into flight back to the shore by the gradual emergence before his startled eyes of a mountainous “grim shape” towering between him and the stars and seeming to pursue him, “a huge shape, black and huge [which], / As if with voluntary power instinct / Upheaved its head.” It was the potential voluntary power of our own black and huge prominence, far bigger and more monstrous than we had imagined, that got to us. It was unnecessary to do any more than exchange terrified glances before turning on our heels and running headlong for safety down one of the side streets, half expecting to be hurled forward by a surge of blast from the malign device whose explosion our illicit presence might somehow have triggered. That didn’t happen, of course, but we still didn’t slow down. Ducking swiftly under the cordon and dashing by a startled passerby, we ran for a couple of hundred yards until we were well in the middle of the Long Lane recreation ground. Then, gathering our wits together, we made our way home, more or less in silence, across the park.

I cannot claim, with the young Wordsworth, that “for many days, my brain / Worked with a dim and undetermined sense / Of unknown modes of being.” Nothing so high-minded as that. But the “certain darkness” he refers to did, I suppose, hang over my thoughts. We were an oddly chastened duo and, through a combination of fear of retribution and consideration for parental worries about the safety of their children under dangerous wartime conditions, we refrained, in accordance with a more or less tacit compact, from sharing with our parents the story of that particularly stupid escapade.


This essay is drawn from a memoir in progress titled From the Cast-Iron Shore: Moments in a Mid-Atlantic Life.

Francis Oakley is president emeritus of Williams College.

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Published in the January 29, 2016 issue: View Contents
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