Derek Savin lost his three brothers when the Luftwaffe dropped a bomb on the family home in Birmingham, nine months before he was born. He tells Richard McComb the story of how he pieced together the story of that fateful night during November 1940.
Ellen Savin kept the three documents in an old box of keepsakes, her last official record of her beloved little boys – David, Raymond and Kenneth.
The papers are signed by H Dodd, the ambulanceman who retrieved the small bodies from the bombed out remains of the family home in Broomhall Crescent, Hall Green.
Miraculously, the boys did not have a mark on them when they were carried from the wreckage and looked like they were sleeping. They had been killed by the sheer force of the high explosive bomb dropped by the Luftwaffe.
The raid happened 68 years ago this week – but due to a wartime media blackout, this is the first time the tragic story of the Savin brothers has been told.
Similarly, the fading, folded picture of the boys – David, aged seven, Raymond, four, and Kenneth, two – all decked out in their Sunday best, is published here for the first time. Kenneth, the baby of the family, is clutching a favourite soft toy.
The story has come to light following a feature in Birmingham Post that focused on the victims of war commemorated at Brandwood End cemetery, Kings Heath. Among the graves, dedicated to those who died in conflict or as a result of “enemy action,” is the Savin grave, which is overlooked by a solitary stone angel.
I later attended a Remembrance Day service held at the graveyard’s cross of sacrifice. It was a bitterly cold day and I was approached by a smartly-dressed man in a thick overcoat. He said: “Hello. I’m Derek Savin – the surviving brother of the three boys who died in the Blitz.”
He then took a fragile old postcard from his wallet and showed me the picture – a portrait of the little boys who died together.
Derek, aged 67, from Solihull, was born nine months after the bombing. His mother Ellen and her husband Thomas had been trying to rebuild their shattered lives.
“You can imagine that after losing three sons like that they wanted another child,” said Derek. “I have three brothers I never knew. It makes you think that if the house hadn’t been bombed I might never have been born. I was born on August 12, 1941 – almost nine months to the day that my brothers died.”
Outside London, Birmingham was the most heavily bombed British city during the Second World War and suffered its heaviest losses on the night of November 20, 1940. Among more than 400 killed during nine hours of raids were David, Raymond and Kenneth.
Although his traumatised parents never spoke to him about that horrific night, Derek has pieced together the story by talking to surviving relatives, including his mother’s youngest sister, Winifred Williams, who lives in Droitwich, Worcestershire.
It seems likely that Broomhall Crescent was hit by a stray bomb. Robin Hood golf course, which is nearby, had an anti-aircraft battery – probably the intended target of the bomb crew.
Kenneth was suffering from an ear complaint and a doctor, for reasons that are unclear, insisted the youngest brother did not go to the air raid shelter, perhaps for fear of spreading the infection among other children. Ellen made a fateful decision.
Derek said: “My father told my mother to get the two eldest boys into the shelter and he would look after the youngest boy. But my mother wanted them all to stay together.”
The family huddled together in the cupboard under the stairs as German bombers pulverised the city. A single bomb obliterated 20 Broomhall Crescent and the three adjoining houses. Everything was destroyed. The report by ambulanceman Dodd records that he recovered the three boys bodies at 11.30 that night. The cause of death is repeated in triplicate: “Blast from high explosive bomb.”
Derek said: “Apparently when the boys were carried out there was not a mark on their bodies. That is the absolute miracle of it. They had suffocated.”
Less than two hours later, Thomas was given permission to remove the bodies of his sons from the mortuary in South Yardley.
On the same night, the homes of Ellen’s two brothers – in Balsall Heath and Tyseley – were also hit but they were both spared. Ellen, whose father Joseph was taken prisoner by the Germans during the First World War, suffered terribly in the wake of the bombing and it is clear that she never came to terms with the loss of her boys. Back then, there were no counsellors, no psychologists, no effective drug therapies.
Derek said: “The bombing affected my mother’s health very badly. She suffered from nervous breakdowns. It didn’t help that in those days they had electric shock treatment.”
After spells in hospital, Ellen was cared for at home. Derek recalled how his mother would cry every weekend and would lay flowers on the boys’ grave each Sunday, a ritual she continued until the 1970s. Derek added: “My mother always had the bombing in her mind until the day she died.”
The block of four houses in Broomhall Crescent was re-built by the council following the war and the families were asked if they wanted to move back in. All of them did.
Each year, Ellen and Thomas attended Remembrance Day services at their local church in Hall Green, where they were married, but they did not discuss their reasons with Derek: “My dad would never talk about the war. It really was a taboo subject.”
Thomas died, aged 70, in 1978. When Ellen passed away, aged 89 in 2001, her ashes were interred with David, Raymond and Kenneth. Derek still visits the grave, in the shadow of an oak tree, on Christmas Day, Mother’s Day and Ellen’s birthday in September.
He continues to cherish the single remaining photograph of the three brothers he never knew.
And here there is a twist. The photograph is actually two pictures: the image of Kenneth has been superimposed on the portrait of his two big brothers. The back of the picture is dated December 12, but the year is not legible.
Kenneth, who was two when he died, is no longer a babe in arms so the photo must have been taken not long before he was killed. The date, December 12, could therefore refer to the date the two images were combined. Following this, the picture of the three brothers was transferred on to postcards and sent out to relatives as a memento – just like the postcard Derek carries in his wallet to this day.