Laurence Rees: Stacey Simkins was a volunteer auxiliary fireman in London during the Blitz. And one day, in the autumn of 1940, he narrowly escaped death.
Words of Stacey Simkins: I can tell you the exact date, the 30th of September 1940, and somebody up in headquarters had come up with what they thought was a brilliant idea, that there might be sabotage, so that when you weren’t on call out, in other words when the appliances were in the station, that somebody should be on duty outside the station. So on this particular night my turn was ten o’clock til midnight. So at ten o’clock I went out, and there was a raid on but as far as I can remember the actual raid that night took place in Oxford, but, of course, as they were crossing, we were still under air raid warning. But, anyway, I had my steel helmet and my gas mask on, and we were at that time living in the basement there, and like everybody else I’d come up and it had been all fuggy down there, and I hadn’t been out two or three minutes, and I just had to go to the toilet, you know, so I thought, blow this, so I went back inside and stopped off at the recreation room, toilets behind there.
So I’ve stopped off in the recreation room, took off the tin hat, gas mask, put them on the snooker table. Strangely enough there was somebody else up there at the time, got fed up being downstairs, and he was just sort of rolling a ball so it bounces off the cushion – wasting his time. And so I went round, did what I had to do, came back and I was just bending over to pick up my steel helmet and my gas mask and I heard this little, tiny whistle, more or less like… [whistles] and that, and the next thing I knew, I was under the table together with, what was his name, Hawkins, that’s right. The table had moved. It was a full sized snooker table that had moved about six foot or so that way. This glass wall had more or less disintegrated, and there was, and in front of it in the appliance room was what they called a hose rack which was a great big thing where they stored hoses when they weren’t being used, and that had just gone straight back through and was laying at an angle across the snooker table. And, so anyway, you know, ‘Jesus,’ and words to that effect, and we came out and went out to have a look.
All I remember from that is the whistle and then more or less sort of coming to and thinking, ‘Where the hell am I?’ And realising I was under the table crawling out again. So I must have done everything else by instinct, in other words, started to go down or something and then got under the table. And, of course, a lot of the people downstairs had come up to see what had, you know, what was going on. And as I came out of there one of the chaps said, ‘Christ, thought you were dead,’ you know, ‘cause they didn’t know I’d gone inside. And then there was no signs of me outside.
It landed on the pavement just outside. And as it was a light case bomb which, as distinct from the ones which are designed to penetrate, light case were only like small oil drums and they send a blast outwards. And this, this must have been a light case bomb because it made a very, very, very small crater in the pavement, but the blast... I don’t, you may still be able to see it on the Wren Church opposite, if you look closely, unless they’ve done a repair job on it in the last sixty odd years. You may see little, you know, pock marks like you see bullet holes on these buildings where, where some of the blast went.
Laurence Rees: During the Blitz, Stacey saw many instances where people were not as lucky as he had been.
Words of Stacey Simkins: I saw this pump, and a bomb landed on one of the buildings and I saw the pump operator sort of standing there suddenly go up in the air, straight across. He went straight across and head first into a wall the other side, and of course he just lay there, that was it, finished, he’d broken his neck.
Laurence Rees: And, on another occasion, he saw what happened when a policeman tried to deal with an unexploded bomb.
Words of Stacey Simkins: An incendiary bomb had landed and was just starting to smoulder, and I saw a policeman come up with a bucket of sand, the idea being you dumped the sand on, that cuts the air out, and it doesn’t go. But what he didn’t know, obviously, was that they’d just started using these exploded ones. So just as he bent over to put the bucket on it blew up, and that didn’t make him a great deal of good, just back on the road, you know. You can tell, you can tell, you know, you see them and you can tell whether they’re injured or dead, and he was dead. If anybody’s a hundred per cent truthful I think they’d all tell you the same thing, that if you did notice it that, I think the first thing that would come into your mind was thank god it’s not me. Shocking really isn’t it when you think of it, but that’s how it works.
Laurence Rees: There was even danger during daylight patrols, after the ‘all clear’ had sounded.
Words of Stacey Simkins: During the autumn, the first lot of raids, when the all clear went the ones who were still in the station had to patrol their little districts. Well, on this particular occasion I was going down Lombard Street. I was going down there and I fell down this hole. It wasn’t a big, deep hole but it was a hole, and I fell down the hole and I put my hand out to get myself up again and I felt something cold, round and hard. So I thought, ‘God, I know what that is,’ so I got out quicker than I went in. So I got out there and so I went down Birchin Lane, just around the corner, where in the office that Cornhill Insurance inhabited at the time there was an air raid warden’s post in the basement, so I went in there down in the basement and I said, ‘Did you know that there’s an unexploded bomb round the corner?’ And they said, ‘No. How do you know?’ And I said, ‘I just bloody well fell down it.’
Laurence Rees: And Stacey certainly thinks that during this testing time there was a definite ‘Blitz spirit’.
Words of Stacey Simkins: I think, like a lot of people, we just sort of took it as, ‘Oh, this was happening,’ you know, and that was it. And I decided that one of the things that kept everybody going was jokes, or sense of humour. In my opinion one of the main things that was different between them and us was that things could happen and we’d make a joke out of it and they didn’t. We used to laugh about anything. If you, like, lost your electric or gas, you know, people would give you cups of tea without any problems every time. And don’t forget at that time tea was rationed, but that didn’t matter, you had a cup of tea, everybody had cups of tea. That was another thing that kept us going, apart from a sense of humour. Never felt frightened. Right from ’39 to ’45. Apprehensive at times, but I can quite honestly say never frightened. Don’t ask me why. Probably too dim to realise.