"A born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better." G.K. Chesterton.
This picture shows Vincent Sutherland in Our Lady of Victories Catholic church in Kensington, London. Four incendiary bombs destroyed the church on the night of 13 September 1940. Vincent was an air raid warden at that stage of the War, and later served in the Royal Air Force.
Halliday Sutherland and his wife Muriel (or “Hector” as the family called her) lived at 5 Stafford Terrace, also in Kensington. In the map below, the terraced house is just above the “a” of “Stafford”. The red dots represent the German bombs that landed around them between 7th October 1940 and 6th June 1941.
The icon in the centre of the map marks the bomb that landed in Phillimore Gardens. The reason it has been singled out is that there was a story that accompanied the bomb. It ran something like this:
The sirens wailed, alerting the family to gather under the steel-framed table in the kitchen. This was by far the safest place in the house, being below street level, but John Sutherland, the oldest boy in the family, remained in his room upstairs.
“Where’s John?”, said Hector. “In his room” replied one of John’s brothers. Hector didn’t want to know that. She wanted to know where he was…why not here?
“Go and get him!”
One of the younger boys scurried out of the kitchen. The sound of his footsteps became softer, and then disappeared altogether as he ran up the steep flights of the house. The family strained to hear the boys come down, becoming more anxious as they first heard the anti-aircraft flak, and then the distant rumbling of bombs.
The younger boy returned. “He won’t come down!”
“Go and get him — now! He’ll get himself killed.”
Another, older, messenger was despatched. Some of the explosions were more immediate, percussive and violent against the background rumbling.
At last, John, persuaded either by his brother, or by the sounds outside the house, appeared in the kitchen. He saw the strain on his mother’s face, and intending to appear nonchalant in the face of the scolding he was about to receive, he chided them: “You do all fuss, don’t you. There’s really nothing to worry about. I was just on the telephone to Herr Hitler, and he has agreed to call it off.”
As he spoke, the sound of engines drew across the night sky above the house, rattling the windows in their casements. Heavy machinery, unseen foreigners, mere hundreds of feet above them, jettisoning heavy steel bombs, their weight alone enough to smash their roof, joists and floors, full of high-explosive to rip apart bricks, wood, glass and tarmac. Such things focused the mind of even the most cocksure young man. John squashed under the table with his mother, sister and brothers. Moments later, they felt the blast of the bomb exploding in Phillimore Gardens.
And that is where the family story ended.
The fires and smoke, collapsed buildings, sirens, fire crews attending the site. The sorting through bricks and plaster and carpets and glass and splintered wood and sharp nails. The pain for those killed, and of the injured. The missing house pets, photographs and momentoes, the smell of ruptured sewer pipes and gas lines, the stinging eyes and lungs irritated by the dust – all was part of the aftermath not remembered.
All of the Sutherland children served as follows:
All survived the war, except for Vincent: As a navigator in a Halifax bomber, he was killed on his first mission, aged 21, on 19th March 1945. And while his brothers and sister survived the War, Vincent’s death meant that in a sense none of them did. R.I.P.†
© Mark Sutherland 2014
Map of Kensington courtesy of www.bombsight.org viewed on 12 June 2014.