Former music professor Bill Tamblyn, retired from Colchester Institute, is an extraordinary man. He is 67 years old, and describes events from when he was only a 3-year-old with unbelievable accuracy.
Professor Tamblyn grew up in Birmingham, which was one of the most severely bombed cities in England in the Second World War. Despite being just a few years old when the war started, he remembers that time well. He shares his story enthusiastically, and has a lot to say.
With a hint of pain in his voice he talks elaborately about what he remembers. With a peaceful look and aged confidence he tells his story of how the Second World War affected his life. His father fought in the First World War, so his experience includes both his and his father’s memories.
“My dad told me: ‘You must never go to war. You must become a pacifist.’, so I did. I am a pacifist,” he says about his emotions with the ongoing war in the Middle East today. Having witnessed the Second World War, and heard about the First World War from his parents, Prof Tamblyn finds it ridiculous how people do not learn from mistakes made in history.
His history starts with sharp mental images from Birmingham under fire. He lived right in the middle of the city when his house was hit. “Our house was bombed, a bomb came down the chimney, but didn’t explode and got stuck in there. It knocked a lot of bricks down, but it wasn’t until after the war when that bomb was diffused and removed.”
Many families lived in the big houses where rooms were rented. He recalls a Polish soldier, who lived in the same house, shouting in his sleep, because he was mentally badly damaged from the war. Seeing search lights for bombers and hearing the sky being swarmed with aeroplanes was part of the everyday routine.
Civilians who lived in war zones tried to get by and survive with their normal lives, but it was not easy with food being sparse and the city badly damaged. “I remember the Americans who used to come to the city for pubs and women. They came with food parcels, and stockings for women. The food they brought was exotic, sometimes there was even chocolate.” Right after the war Birmingham was almost destroyed.
It was not possible to use public transport at the time, so people walked a lot, Professor Tamblyn explains. Walking through the city to get food or go to school, he remembers seeing massive holes in the streets everywhere. “That’s where the bombs had fallen, I suppose.”
Prof Tamblyn seems to drift away to his youth, when he recalls his early experiences. It is clear that all of it has left a scar that is healed, but still very present. He lightens up a bit when he talks about finding broken airplanes, fragments of aluminium, ‘stuff like that being blown off the planes, when they were shot at from the ground’ from what the people used to call ‘bomb sites’ – smashed houses. “We were constantly told not to go play there on the bomb sites. A number of them were fenced in with barbed wire, and my dad said it was because there were still bodies trapped inside.”
The kids disobeyed. Prof Tamblyn explains: “Of course we played in the bomb sites, because Birmingham is a tensely packed city and there were no parks near me, and you needed somewhere to play.” They used to find bits of broken airplanes, fragments of aluminium, stuff like that being blown off the planes, when they were shot at from the ground.
Later on after the war, Birmingham was practically rebuilt from scratch. Prof Tamblyn says he does not recognise the city today, because parts of the city centre have been taken down twice and built again. The house where he lived is supposedly still there. “I think the scars of war will always remain not just on people’s memories, but because so much of Birmingham was photographed before the Second World War, they remain clearly in people’s history.”
Other things, small personal mementos of the war, like the buckle Prof Tamblyn’s father’s army belt, are the physical reminders of the noise, the horrors, and the damage. He says that the noise is still clear in his head today, so many years later.
“You don’t forget the noise, you don’t forget the bombing,” he imitates shattering sounds of houses under attack, “you don’t forget the sound of sirens… you don’t forget the steady drone of the aircrafts… you don’t forget the sirens, my word, the sirens were stuck up on telegraph poles, and they used to warn you that the bombers were coming. You don’t forget that sound.”
Just for a second Prof Tamblyn has a note of something close to alarm in his voice, but then he smiles warmly again. He is an example of how time heals wounds, even if it takes 60 years, but the scars always remain.