The air-raid sirens started wailing and there was a moment of stunned silence before Mr. Wyndham, the senior partner, emerged from his office and ordered, “Proceed to the air-raid shelter immediately.”
Everyone started talking at once. The younger girls grabbed their handbags, while the older women chastised them for “vanity” and the men speculated openly whether this was the start of the invasion. Mr. Cassidy and Mr. Harper, the other two partners, took up positions flanking the door, and urged their employees to remain calm and orderly. “No need for panic now. Just move along briskly. For all we know this is just a drill. There you go, Mrs. Beedle.” The senior partner gave the elderly secretary a hand as she stumbled. “Hurry along now, Miss Cutlip. Is that everyone, now?”
“I’ll just go and check.”
Emily was at the tail of the group. She saw Mr. Cassidy return into the offices to make a final check, while Mr. Wyndham prepared to lock the door. From the other companies in the office building, the employees were likewise evacuating in an excited but orderly manner. No panic was evident, but there was a heightened nervousness, Emily thought.
For weeks now, the papers had been reporting on the vast number of barges collected on the far side of the Channel. Furthermore, after a spell of rain, fog and storms, this was the first good day for flying in almost a week. “Bomber weather,” the radio commentators had called it unabashedly.
Outside in the brilliant August sunlight, the sirens wailed furiously. Some people hesitated, looking up at the sky; others barked, “Move along! Don’t block the pavement!” A number of people started walking much faster, almost breaking into a run. The entrance to the shelter was around the corner in Albert Road. People converged on it from offices and shops in Victoria and Albert roads in a steady stream. Emily thought it would be much too small for so many people, and she hung back.
Above the sound of the sirens and the jabber of the people came the first gruff barks of ack-ack and the higher-pitched, more frantic yakking of the naval AA-guns from the ships behind them off Spithead. Like a pack of hounds including Great Danes and Terriers, Emily thought. And then – like a subconscious drone that only slowly forced its way into her consciousness came a heavy, throbbing rumble that got steadily louder and nearer.
With amazement Emily registered that it must be aircraft engines – scores of them.
Someone called out, “Look! There they are!”
She looked up and a chill went through her. You really could see them: masses and masses of bombers flying wing-tip to wing-tip in neat rows: a vic of three followed by sections of five by four aircraft, a break, another “box” of 23 and above them, staggered upwards in steps, were other similar formations. They were flying directly overhead, and they seemed to darken the entire sky.
The thought of the Greeks at Thermopylae flashed through Emily’s head: the Persians gathered against them had been so numerous that it was said their javelins would darken the sun. But the Spartan defenders had laughed and answered: “all the better, then we shall fight in the shade.” The thought heartened her for a moment – until she remembered the Spartans had lost the battle and died to a man at Thermopylae.
“They’re diving!” Someone shouted.
While the bombers overhead continued to fly straight and level, the lead bomber group – which was now a good three miles further – started diving at a steep angle. Emily was surprised, because by now she had spent a lot of time staring at the aircraft identification charts at Hawarden and knew these were not Stukas. They must be Ju 88s, she decided, which could fly both high-altitude and dive- bomb attacks. Meanwhile, the ack-ack barked furiously. Smoke hung over the entire northern part of the city, thickening with each crack of the anti-aircraft guns. Finally, Emily heard the first dull thuds as the earth jumped under-foot, and new blossoms of grey smoke erupted upwards as the first bombs exploded.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish