“Poor old Pompey’s getting it tonight”: remembering the bombing of Portsmouth during the Second World War
This week, Daniel Swan (Portsmouth) examines the lives of two English women during the Second World War utilising a microhistory approach.
This article will focus on the oral narratives of two women to analyse their experiences of the bombing of Portsmouth during the Second World War. By doing so this article advocates the importance of the reimagined past, (what individuals thought and felt happened), and will explore emphasis and exaggeration within oral narratives. A microhistory approach has been adopted to illustrate the significance of selfhood, emotions, and location within interviewees’ reconstruction of their wartime lives. Concepts of space and place have emerged in recent years as an important theme within historical discourse to assess people’s daily lives and the socio-cultural environment.[i] This enables a greater understanding, and closer reading of individuals’ relationships with their past, and their former surroundings; where they lived, and with whom they associated.
Dorothy Aslett and Dorothy Callaway were both interviewed in 2011; they revealed how profoundly the Second World War interrupted their social life through the black out and bombing raids. Both were young and working-class women who lived in Portsmouth. Portsmouth, an urban industrialised area with its Royal Dockyard, (the largest employer in the city) was a significant wartime target for German air raids due to its geographically strategic position on the south coast of England and being the primary ship building and repair centre in England.[ii] When war broke out in 1939, Dorothy Aslett was a married woman working at the Portsmouth Twilfit Corset factory, and Dorothy Callaway was aged sixteen and living at home with her parents.[iii] In response to being asked about her wartime social life Dorothy Aslett said:
There wasn’t any Daniel, wasn’t any. We never went to the pictures, never went to the theatre, never went nowhere. Just stayed in, well most nights we had air raids so we couldn’t go out.[iv]
This statement is interesting because it reveals a less accurate and representative reflection of the wartime circumstances of Portsmouth, and more about the significance of the war upon Dorothy Aslett’s life.
When recalling her former emotions, Dorothy Aslett was honest regarding the severe anxiety she experienced, she said, “I was too frightened of the war. I didn’t want to go out where the bombs were and you know I didn’t want to go into the dockyard where all the bombs – they used to bomb it”.[v] She followed this statement by saying, “I was just scared”.[vi] Rather than risk going out onto the streets of Portsmouth Dorothy Aslett preferred to remain indoors in the company of friends, whilst her husband was at work. As noted by Lynn Abrams, historians are not just interested in facts, they are also looking for “emotional responses”; this is the “very subjectivity of human existence”.[vii] Factual inaccuracies according to Alessandro Portelli do not mean “false” testimonies, their validity relates to what the individual has remembered and how they have recounted the event.[viii] Portsmouth was bombed during the war and there were occasions such as 24 August 1940, 11 January 1941 and 10 March 1941 when Portsmouth endured major attacks. The bombing of Portsmouth, did not occur “most nights”, as it has been remembered by Dorothy Aslett, instead there were periods of intense bombing but also less heavy raids.[ix] This statement is significant because of the way Dorothy Aslett has remembered the bombing of Portsmouth, which in her memory caused severe disruption to her social life but was also a terrifying ordeal for her which she reconstructed in a candid manner, repeating, and emphasising her fear.
Similar to Dorothy Aslett, the war has been remembered as extensively interrupting Dorothy Callaway’s desire to go out. She has recalled the war in Portsmouth as reducing her chance for a social life. She said:
Well what you’ve got to remember is there were blackouts all through the war I mean you went out and there wasn’t a chink of light anywhere blinds were closed, you weren’t allowed to have chinks so you, one didn’t go out. I mean the cinemas were closed and things like that, you didn’t have time for social life you spent too much time doing a, your normal job whatever it may be and going down the air raid shelter and getting ready for the next day, it wasn’t really, it wasn’t really time to do anything, it’s, you just went.[x]
Similar to Dorothy Aslett’s testimony, this narrative cannot be regarded as representative. Dorothy Callaway has over emphasised the impact of the blackout and time spent at work and in air raid shelters causing people to not go out. Dorothy Callaway does not appear to have experienced the same level of anxiety as Dorothy Aslett, she said:
I’m not saying it wasn’t it was really frightening especially when you saw the fire blazing and everything like that… it was quite a frightening time but you never felt alone because there was always people about where and you know there was just somebody there, neighbours and that.[xi]
Like Dorothy Aslett, Dorothy Callaway drew comfort from the presence of other people. Dorothy Callaway also recalled that the war heralded the closure of leisure venues, some did indeed close due to bomb damage but there were in reality many leisure venues open in Portsmouth during the war.[xii] Whilst these factors might have put Dorothy Callaway off socialising, other women living in wartime Portsmouth who have been interviewed, despite the possibility of air raids and long work hours, still managed to find time to, and desired a social life.[xiii] Pamela Ross, a nurse at the Frank James Hospital, East Cowes, Isle of Wight, wanted to get a transfer to a hospital in the Portsmouth area because she wanted to be able to attend the local naval dances, she described herself as “dancing mad”.[xiv] This indicates that contrary to Dorothy Callaway and Dorothy Aslett’s recollections, a ‘good’ social life was possible in wartime Portsmouth and suggests that the desire to go out for some was not inhibited by the blackout or air raids.
As outlined by Michael Roper to understand the formation of personal memory requires engagement with people’s context of narration.[xv] Therefore to assess memory composure requires researchers to understand the individuals who they interview. Alongside acknowledging the value of individual consciousness and local histories, this article does not dismiss wider social and cultural memory of war, exploring how memory and identity is shaped and framed within, and by, multiple, dominant and shifting discourses, but instead seeks to highlight as noted by Luisa Passerini that the working of individual memory is complex, political and idiosyncratic.[xvi]
This article has considered how individuals reconstruct their younger selves; recalling their former emotions, and how they have reimagined their local environment. This analysis reveals the importance of emotions within oral narratives but also offers insight into memory composure; whereby individual memory draws upon multiple facets. Interviewee narratives reveal not only what individuals felt happened but also how they engage with their past and their surroundings. Both Dorothy Aslett and Dorothy Callaway emphasised how extensively the bombing of Portsmouth affected them. They indicated with emotive clarity their fear of air raids, but also how this adversely affected their ability to leave their homes and socialise. Dorothy Aslett and Dorothy Callaway’s exaggeration of the raids on Portsmouth shows the existence of a reimagined past, thus revealing the importance of their personal reality and the impact of trauma upon them.
 Interview with Pamela Ross, 11 August 2011.
[i] Ralph Kingston, ‘Mind over Matter? History and the Spatial Turn’, Cultural and Social History, Vol. 7, No. 1, March 2010, pp. 111-121; Fiona Williamson, ‘The Spatial Turn of Social and Cultural History: A Review of the Current Field’, European History Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 4, 2014, pp. 703-714.
[ii] See Raymond Charles Riley, ‘The Industries of Portsmouth in the Nineteenth Century’, The Portsmouth Papers, No. 25, July 1976, pp. 1-22; Ken Lunn and Ann Day (eds.), Inside the Wall Recollections of Portsmouth Dockyard 1900-1950, (Portsmouth: University of Portsmouth, 1998); Raymond Charles Riley, ‘The Growth of Southsea as a Naval Satellite and Victorian Resort’, The Portsmouth Papers, No. 16, July 1972, pp. 1-25; H. J. T. Leal, The History of Air Attacks 1939-1945 Battle in the Skies over the Isle of Wight, (Newport: Isle of Wight County Press, 2006); p. 7; Adrian Searle, Isle of Wight at War 1939-1945, (Stanbridge: Dovecote, 1989).
[iii] Interview with Dorothy Aslett, 10 August 2011; Interview with Dorothy Callaway, 16 November 2011.
[iv] Interview with Dorothy Aslett, 10 August 2011.
[v] Interview with Dorothy Aslett, 10 August 2011.
[vi] Interview with Dorothy Aslett, 10 August 2011.
[vii] Lynn Abrams, Oral History Theory, (London: Routledge, 2010); p.22.
[viii] Alessandro Portelli, The Death of Luigi Trastulli and other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History, (New York, State University of New York Press, 1991); p. 51.
[ix] There were sixty seven German air raids on Portsmouth between 11 July 1940 and the end of May 1944. Smitten City The Story of Portsmouth in the Air Raids 1940-1944, (Portsmouth: Portsmouth Publishing, 2010 [first published 1945]); p. 5.
[x] Interview with Dorothy Callaway, 16 November 2011.
[xi] Interview with Dorothy Callaway, 16 November 2011.
[xii] Portsmouth WEA local history group, Memories of Old Portsmouth, (Portsmouth: WEA, 2009); pp. 3-4, p. 12, 26. Photographs show the leisure venues of Portsmouth, see: The News, Smitten City The Story of Portsmouth under the Blitz, (Portsmouth: The News Centre, 2010 [first published 1945]); p. 19, 20, 28, 29, 31, 35, 36, 42, 43, 44, 50, 54; Robert James, Popular Culture and Working-class taste in Britain, 1930-39 A round of cheap diversions?, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, Volume Four: Life on the Island 1935-1949. From the pages of the Isle of Wight County Press, (Exeter: Now and 2010), pp. 177-190.
[xiii] Interview with Margaret Chiverton, 21 November 2011; Interview with Maureen Westall, 7 December 2011; Interview with Doris Coley, 9 October 2012; Interview with Ethel Harris, 31 October 2012.
[xiv] Interview with Pamela Ross, 11 August 2011.
[xv] Michael Roper, ‘Re-remembering the Soldier Hero: the Psychic and Social Construction of Memory in Personal Narratives of the Great War’, History Workshop Journal, No. 50, autumn 2000, pp. 181-204; p. 184.
[xvi] Luisa Passerini, ‘Work Ideology and Consensus under Italian Fascism’, History Workshop Journal, No. 8, autumn 1979, pp. 82-108.
Copyright for images is owned by the author.
Daniel Swan is a PhD student at the University of Portsmouth. His PhD research investigates how women have reconstructed their lives during the Second World War in Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight. His thesis takes a case study approach to address the larger themes of wartime citizenship, gender roles and young women’s identities. He has interviewed forty four women, and is interested in the areas these women lived, worked and socialised, and how they recalled their relationships with the people in these spaces. You can follow him on twitter @danielswan38 and check out his academia.edu page.