'I was praying to God that I was only 12 years old and did not want to die'

Paralympian medallist Lauren Steadman

City’s celebrities feature on coffee cups

It was symbolic to meet Val Fontana in the cramped garret of his second home.

His office is in a building adjacent to St John's Roman Catholic cathedral in Portsmouth where, as assistant diocesan archivist, he sits surrounded by thousands of files.

Seventy years ago on Monday three German bombs fell on the Bishop's House on the site of the block which is now his workplace.

The house, just off Edinburgh Road, was destroyed and six people killed.

It was part of the first great bombing blitz on Portsmouth – January 10, 1941, a black date which will live in the city's history forever.

Most people associate it with the destruction of the Guildhall. It took a direct hit and burned for two days.

More importantly, the Luftwaffe raid killed 171, injured 430 and left 3,000 people without a home. On Monday, Portsmouth will remember all those who died in the city at the hands of the Germans in a poignant ceremony in Guildhall Square.

Val is now 82 and lives in St David's Road, Southsea. But 70 years ago he was a terrified 12-year-old cowering under his family's shop counter with his mother lying on top of him for added protection.

Val, who rose to become head of science in a 26-year teaching career at St John's College, Southsea, was born in Lambeth, London, to his Italian-immigrant parents Valentino and Romilda.

When he was 18 months he was brought to Portsmouth by his parents who had two sweet shop/cafes, one at 2B Fratton Road, just over the north side of the bridge, and the other at 44 Commercial Road in what is now Guildhall Walk.

Romilda ran the Fratton shop, with the family living above, and Valentino was in charge of the other.

Val said: 'It might be 70 years ago but my memory of what happened to us that night and in the days that followed January 10, 1941, will live with me forever.'

He added: 'My parents had decided that I was not to be evacuated as most of the other schools in the city had been. I think my mother took the view that if we were to die we would all die together.

'When the war started in September 1939 I was due to transfer from junior to secondary school that month and it was decided that I should attend St John's College which was still open in the city. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

'That weekend was the last of the Christmas holiday and I was due back on Monday, January 13. But it was another week before we could go back because of an unexploded bomb in the tennis court at the school.'

And then, with a clarity brought about by surviving such a traumatic event, he relived the night's events.

'I was in our sitting room at Fratton drawing with one of my Christmas presents, a new set of crayons, when the sirens sounded about 7pm. My mother was downstairs just closing the shop for the evening.

'I remember that for most of that day the sky had been clear and a wintry sun shone. I had a strong premonition that something was not right.

'We had already had a number of raids on the city and I had a strong sense of fear without knowing why.

'Almost immediately after the sirens had sounded the guns opened up and I could hear the screams of the first bombs falling and the lights failing. Those first bombs cut off the electricity and water supply to Portsea Island.

'My mother called me downstairs and placed me lying down under the shop counter and then she laid on top of me as extra protection as all hell seemed to break out around us.

'I was shaking like a jelly and desperately praying to God that I was only 12 years old and did not want to die yet.'

Val recalls bombs falling all around the building and watching the Fratton Hotel opposite blazing.

'My mother was also shaking with fear and crying that my father, who was down at the Commercial Road shop, was probably dead.

'As things quietened down our neighbour, Richard Tremlett, the chemist, who was the air raid warden for the area, came to the door and shouted "Mrs Fontana, are you all right?"

'Mother and I got out from under the counter and I remember seeing Mr Tremlett's silhouette against the flames of the Fratton Hotel. He told us to get out as he feared the hotel wall was about to collapse.'

Mother and son were taken to a friend who lived close by in Selbourne Terace. They stayed there until the bombing started again, when they all moved to a shelter opposite Hewett's store, close to Fratton station.

'Meanwhile, my father had, during the lull, walked home from Commercial Road to find us with Mr Tremlett's help and join us.

'Later that night we lost the shop in Commercial Road because of a bomb.'

The Fontanas were the recipients of a great act of kindness on January 11.

Val added: 'The following day mother insisted we get out of the city and we tried to find accommodation in Drayton. We had to walk up to North End because no buses were allowed south of there that day.

'North End junction was full of people all trying to get a bus to get out of town just like us. We eventually got a bus to Drayton but unfortunately the people recommended had already taken in a Portsmouth family. So we stood in the road discussing what to do next when a complete stranger stopped.

'When she heard our predicament she offered, without hesitation, to take us in. She was Mrs Dorothy Bown, who lived further up Havant Road and from that moment on she remained a lifelong friend of my family.'

Val's father joined the Drayton platoon of the Home Guard before he was called up into the Army Catering Corps in 1943. He then joined the RAF as a radar operator.

No ill feeling

Val Fontana said there was no ill-feeling towards his Italian-born parents in Portsmouth during the war.

With the Italian dictator Mussolini siding with Hitler, many Italian immigrants were rounded up and interned in the Isle of Man or shipped to Canada.

But Valentino and Romilda were not considered to be 'aliens' as they became naturalised British subjects in the mid-1930s.

His mother arrived in London as an 11-year-old in 1908 to live with her uncle. She worked as a chambermaid in a Soho hotel.

Val's father came to England in 1915 when he was 14 to join his three sisters and his brother. He found a job as an apprentice chef at the Royal Automobile Club.

He returned to Italy to do two years' compulsory military service. When he left in 1922 he became aware of the growing threat of Mussolini's fascist views.

Ceremony

A moving ceremony to honour the hundreds of people who were killed during the air raids on Portsmouth will be held in the city on Monday.

From 1.30pm the names of all 1,013 who died as a result of German bombing throughout the Second World War will be read out from the top of the Guildhall's steps, the iconic building which itself was destroyed on January 10, 1941.

Names include those of civilians, the Home Guard, emergency services and armed service personnel who were stationed in the city.

The names will be read by survivors, relatives, residents, and children with the Big Screen showing photographs of the blitz taken from The News's book Smitten City.

That commemoration is the highlight of a week of events marking the 70th anniversary.

Also on Monday, from 11.30am, a memorial service will be held at Portsmouth's Anglican cathedral in memory of the 14 people killed in High Street, Old Portsmouth, in the same raid. A plaque will be unveiled afterwards outside the cathedral.

Events start tomorrow at 2.30pm with a talk about the blitz and its lasting impact on Portsmouth at the City Museum in Museum Road.

And at 11.15am next Sunday a special service honouring those killed will be held at the Anglican cathedral during which survivors will recall their memories of the bombing.

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