Surviving the bombings of the Second World War

As previous blogs have shown, our project partners have been adjusting to the restrictions that the pandemic has imposed on our lives and work, and on those whose stories we are committed to collecting and sharing. WE-Hope is all about connecting people through shared memories and experiences of conflict and surviving the trauma of war. The groups with whom we are working are more vulnerable than ever because of the pandemic. Some are extremely elderly now, and have endured months of isolation, without physical access to family and friends. Others are vulnerable for reasons to do with their citizen status, surviving in very harsh conditions through the European winter months.

Child toys little soldiers
A child's toys from an air raid shelter in Trieste (M. Radacich)

One of the ways in which we promote social inclusion is to work across common experiences. But we also, importantly, are working across many generations. This blogpost recounts some of the stories that project members have previously collected, which will be adapted and re-used for WE-Hope. ‘Adaptive reuse’ is a concept far more closely associated with buildings and places that have lost their former purpose, than with oral histories. Yet this approach to digital testimony can promote ideals of tolerance and hope in innovative ways. Stories of trauma and survival from many decades ago, placed alongside stories of recent and present suffering, remind us of the strength of the human spirit and its ability to sustain hope, even in the bleakest times.

In the IBCC Digital Archive in the UK, for nearly six years now we have been collecting testimonies associated with the bombing war in Europe, 1939-1945. In our collection are to be found a number of testimonies of those who, now of advanced years, recalled painful memories of being on the receiving end of Allied bombing campaigns. Some examples are presented below.

Dieter Essig lived in Pforzheim and experienced the bombing as a six year-old. He remembered long hours inside an air raid shelter, and the hardships of wartime, predominantly acute hunger and a sense of being surrounded by death.

Helmut Köhler lived in Kassel and was eleven when the war started. Like Essig, he recalled many hours spent in air raid shelters and witnessing the old town burning. Posted to the Eder Dam to operate an anti-aircraft battery, he witnessed the breaching of the dam wall and the ensuing flood wave.

An informant who wanted to remain anonymous was nine years old and living in Berlin at the start of the war. She was evacuated to the countryside but returned home because ‘nothing was happening’. As soon as she arrived back in Berlin, the bombing began. She described her feelings of terror and the disruption that the raids caused, mostly to food supplies. Hunger was her dominant memory, like Essig’s: children would collect shrapnel and other bits of metal to exchange for food, or else barter their possessions for it.

Adriano Landini portrait
Adriano Landini (© G. Bizzarri)

We also have a number of stories from Italy. For example, Adriano Landini lived as a child in Reggio Emilia. He describes extreme wartime hardships and the need to strategise to survive, including pilfering and illicit trading. He remembered two bombing raids, during which he sought refuge in an enormous public shelter. The first took out the power supply and the second hit the hospital. Both caused many casualties.



Helga Wynne portrait
Helga Wynne (© A. Pesaro)

Finally, let us return to Germany. Helga Wynne was actually buried in rubble when the hospital in which she worked, in Kiel, was bombed. Her colleagues managed to pull her free, but it was a long while before she recovered from her injuries. After the war, she met a British Royal Medical Corps paramedic serving in Kiel and came to live in the UK.


Stories like Helga’s and the others described here continue to inspire us to make their stories visible, and to promote the values of a common heritage of tolerance, solidarity, inclusion and mutual respect.



This article was written by Heather Hughes, from the University of Lincoln, coordinator of the WE-Hope project.


Toy soldiers © IBCC Digital Archive (lincoln.ac.uk)