BY GARRETT BURCHETT
Norman Lawson and his family lived through terrifying times during the Second World War. Living in Glasgow, Scotland, he recalls the September of 1939, when Britain declared war on Germany.
He remembers the immediate effect it had on people. He recalls the government issuing gas masks to men, women and children, because it feared that Nazi Germany would release poison gas bombs over cities. He remembers the evacuation drills where children would flee to the countryside.
Lawson shared his story as part of a new program started by the Cambridge Idea Exchange called My Story, which focuses on educational, inspiring and interesting stories by people in the community.
Speaking to about 30 people at the Cambridge Public Library on Feb. 23, Lawson talked about why he believed it was important for him to share his story.
Lawson was eight years old when the war began. While he spent some time at a country estate in Yorkshire with his sister in order to get out of the city, he was never truly comfortable there. Within a couple of years, Lawson moved back home to Glasgow.
There things were very different than living out in the country. Lawson spent a lot of time with the other kids in what was known as the “close,” a narrow enclosed alleyway that ran between houses, reinforced with steel beams and lined with benches and sandbags, where the children would go in the event of an air raid.
“We called it a ‘dunney,’ short for dungeon,” he recalled.
Lawson spent some of his free time filling sandbags for some extra money, which he and his friends would use to buy large bottles of pop called Ironbrew, one of his favourite things as a child.
Many homes, including Lawson’s, had what were called Anderson Shelters, given out by the government, that were placed in the backyard, half above ground and half below, where people could hide during an air raid.
Lawson recalls his family’s Anderson shelter being fairly well constructed, even having a heater inside. Still, needing to use it was hardly enjoyable.
“We really only had to go out there two or three times, but to wake up in the night and get something on and go outside, it was not exactly the most pleasant experience,” he said.
On March 13, 1941, the war got very real for Lawson. Air sirens sounded as German bombers soared over the skies of Glasgow, heading for the town of Clydebank and the munitions factories that were located there, just seven miles to the west.
The German planes dropped two explosive bombs and one landmine on Glasgow while on their way to Clydesbank.
Lawson’s father was the captain of a team of fire watchers during the raid. He was also a skilled writer, who often contributed freelance stories to the local paper. This is some of what he wrote about the night the German bombers came to Clydesbank:
“Moonlight illuminated the room. The moonlight seemed to be a safeguard against night raids. But not tonight … We already heard the guns. But then came something different. The noise seemed to spread in waves. We heard the drone of planes in the distance, and the reverberations of heavy explosions. As we huddled in the dark, just the occasional flashlight being turned on to check what was happening, we became aware of the smell of heaving smoke seeping in the door. It was choking, acrid, filthy.”
Lawson’s memories of that night are jumbled, appearing in his mind as flashes of images. He remembers being in the kitchen with the girl he had a crush on, making tea for his grandmother, thinking the girl was very pretty when a blast blew out the kitchen window.
“Thousands of pieces of glass cut her hair and face. She was wrapped in a blanket to keep warm,” Lawson said.
He recalls Stanley, a 14-year-old who was found in the rubble two days later. He was still alive, but his legs had been pinned by a cupboard that had fallen. He managed to reach his fingers in the cupboard to some sugar, which kept him alive until rescuers found him.
The attack on Clydesbank became known as Scotland’s most terrifying night, as 1,200 men, women and children were killed. It amazes Lawson now the things young children and teenagers were able to go through during the war.
Lawson currently lives in Cambridge, is an active member of the PROBUS Club of Cambridge and holds a very important position for them.
“He has a very, very important job with the PROBUS club,” said Miles Lauzon, a former PROBUS club president. “He’s the resident jokester.”