*Valerie Griffiths in her Northern Ireland home. (Supplied: Martyn Griffiths)
As COVID-19 restrictions ease in the UK, Baedeker Blitz survivor Valerie Griffiths believes there are important lessons to be learned from the pandemic.
Valerie Griffiths watches the late afternoon light begin to fade from her Donaghadee home in Northern Ireland.
She cannot help but remember a time when the impending darkness signalled the possibility of yet another unseen but devastating attack.
Born in Exeter, where she would spend the next fifty years of her life, the now 86-year-old was only seven when the air-raid sirens rang out across the night on April 25, 1942.
Immediately awake, she sprung out of bed and quickly joined her mother and four siblings in the home’s Morrison shelter, a steel cage commonly found in World War Two homes. It was designed to protect its occupants from any large debris that might descend upon the house during a bombing.
Once in the shelter and waiting for the inevitable arrival of the enemy, the silence was intense. The bleak fear of what was to come is something Valerie says even a seven-year-old would never forget.
She recalls the distinctive rumbling of the sky above as the German planes came overhead – a sound reportedly followed by parachute flares that were dropped in order to guide the estimated 25 dive bombers to their targets.
“Just before they dropped their bombs, that noise kind of stopped for a second, and you knew the bombs were going to fall.”
“Even when you were in the air-raid shelter you could hear them, and when one bomb dropped on the end of our road, it was as though it had dropped on our house. It was terrifying!”
This year marks the 78th anniversary of the Baedeker raids – a series of major aerial attacks upon historic English cities by Nazi Germany during WWII.
Named after the Baedeker travel guidebooks which were used by the Germans to identify areas of cultural importance, the raids were in response to the British Royal Air Forces (RAF) attacks upon the German population.
The attacks began in Exeter in late April and then moved on to the English cities of Bath, Norwich, York and Canterbury, with another major raid on Exeter on May 4.
In total, 265 people were killed in Exeter.
Throughout this pandemic, the UK has ranked among the most severely affected countries, with over 44,000 confirmed deaths as of July 4.
Just as in WWII, when the devastation of Exeter appeared never-ending, Valerie says the pandemic has caused people to rally to look after one another in a time of great challenge.
“You have to be positive and hope that it will all work itself out”, she said. “They will hopefully come up with a vaccine. But for now, people are coming together and doing their bit, just like during the war”.
The World Health Organisation declared the elderly especially at risk from the virus. Yet despite this, Valerie’s third eldest son David Griffiths argues that while physically this might be the case, individuals like his mother – who have lived through a major global crisis – may also be best prepared to deal with the current climate.
“Experience breeds resilience because you learn from these experiences”, he said. “While it is a different type of fear from WWII, it’s this resilience that has allowed my mum and I imagine a lot of older people, to believe that like the war, we can survive this”.
Dr Judith Keene, Associate Professor and historian at the University of Sydney, supports this belief.
Previously isolating on the south coast of NSW, she believes this lack of experience may explain why some younger people did not take the pandemic as seriously in its early stages. She explains that in war-time there is always an enemy, somebody that everyone focuses on which takes the responsibility away from having to work out what is going on.
“Valerie would have been feeling an appalling despair and hatred of the German bombers as they came over, and certainly in Berlin people were [also] shouting at the British bombers”, Dr Keene said.
However now that society is fighting an invisible enemy, Dr Keene says that perhaps people are unable to make sense of what is happening, which likely explains the early disregard.
During the Baedeker raids, Valerie’s father was an air-raid warden whose job was to patrol the streets of Exeter during an attack to ensure no light was visible from the air – as well as monitoring and reporting bomb damage.
On one particular night he advised his family that they would have to move to a series of shallow caves in the nearby hillside, as the bombings were heavier and inching closer to the family home. As bombs continued to fall, they and several other families grabbed whatever food and warm clothes they could find and quickly made their way uphill, away from the city.
Valerie recalls to this day, standing up on the hillside and looking back at the city of Exeter – now engulfed in flames.
But as her family and other residents nestled as far back into the caves as possible, and despite the frightened cries of children and the ceaseless thundering of exploding bombs, there was an air of comradeship between everyone present. Something she believes is evident today.
Dr Judith Keene also believes that if there is anything that we can take away from global crises such as WWII and the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s a greater appreciation for each other as human beings.
During the war there was an assumption by both the British and German bombing command that mass aerial bombings would force citizens and governments to essentially quit. In many historical recollections, this was not the case. In response to the attacks, civilians became even more committed to their communities, due to a growing sense of nationalism.
Dr Keene explains that these recollections are not completely accepted by historians today, as despite incredible resilience shown on both sides, there is still a point at which people stopped identifying as British or German and instead as human beings who had simply had enough of the conflict.
As this virus is a global pandemic, society has been reminded of the concept of humanity as one human race, as opposed to a collection of nations – as Valerie believes.
“Times of crisis bring people together, and that might sound silly in this case, because we are self-isolating”.
“When you go out, as I do for a walk every day, people seem to be very caring. They make sure they avoid you but they always speak to you and there is a sense of camaraderie.”
Valerie acknowledges there is still a long way to go but she believes this pandemic will yet again remind people for decades to come, of the important things in life – like valuing one another and not taking for granted the special people in our lives.
— William Owens @WilliamJOw3ns