Woman finally accepted marriage proposal from deaf fireman during brutal Blitz raids - and daughter seeks to learn more

BETTY Drawbridge (nee Leigh) was convinced to finally accept a marriage proposal from the deaf fireman she was courting after seeing the ‘red sky’ in Portsmouth that was ablaze during the most devastating of Blitz raids.

Saturday, 9th January 2021, 12:33 pm

The brutal Nazis lightning attacks on January 10/11, 1941, during the Second World War, left much of the city in ruins as 172 people were killed and hundreds more injured or made homeless.

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Residents to be given glimpse into terror and destruction of biggest Blitz air r...

Charles Brian Drawbridge, 34 at the time, was among those battling the siege as bombs rained down on the city.

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Charles and Betty Drawbridge after getting married in 1943. Picture: Jo Cooper

The deaf fireman had nothing more than a tin hat, a pair of waterproof trousers, wellies and a hose, as he was swamped by fires caused by the enemy onslaught.

But amid the chaos and terror, Charles’ life was set to change for the better as Betty, watching the burning red skies from Binstead on the Isle of Wight, decided there and then that she would accept Charles’ hand in marriage following his previous repeated requests.

After meeting Betty through his relatives on the island the pair had struck up a relationship. But Betty had doubts over marrying Charles.

The couple’s daughter Jo Cooper, who is writing a book on her late father’s life, said: ‘My mother saw the red sky that night over the trees from her home in Arnold Road, Binstead.

‘It was at that point she changed her mind and accepted my father’s proposal. She immediately went to her writing pad and wrote, “If you were to ask me that stupid question again, I might give a different answer.”

‘He had met my mother on the Isle of Wight and had kept proposing to her. She was caring for my grandfather at the time and they had no savings or any plans as to where they could live, so she kept refusing.

‘But after seeing the intense Nazi raid that lit up the sky for miles she decided immediately to marry him.’

It was a much deserved change of fortune for Charles, who endured struggles for much of his life due to his deafness that had been caused during the First World War when a bomb exploded in his Scarborough house covering him in glass when he was just seven.

Later in life while living in Battenburg Avenue, Portsmouth, Charles was refused entry into all of the armed forces before the fire service took a chance on him at the start of the Second World War in 1939.

And it was during the terror of the Blitzkrieg attacks that saw Charles, who had worked as a labourer on the gas board before the war, become a hero.

‘The bravery of my dad and other men was incredible,’ Jo, 73, said. ‘They just stood there with a tin hat on, wellies and hose, trying to put out fires while bombs were falling down everywhere.’

Jo also believes Charles was commended for working 48 hours straight during the war.

Following her research at the Portsmouth Museum Jo, of Ryde, revealed how the ablaze Guildhall building had to be abandoned because fire crews could not find any water.

‘On arrival firefighters were greeted by a senior police officer who told them that there wasn’t a drop of water in the mains, damaged by an explosion, and so there was nothing the fire crew could do,’ Jo said. ‘They just had to let it burn down.’

She added: ‘All around the area houses and shops were ablaze.’

Despite discovering many interesting anecdotes, Jo is keen to find out more and wants to speak to anyone who may have known her father as she seeks to uncover details of his life.

‘I am hoping to find written firefighter shift details, but have been told these are state secrets for 100 years,’ she said.

‘I have one slim hope that maybe someone may have known my father, or have heard about him. Maybe there is someone who was a fireman in Portsmouth who could tell me more about the job they did?’

Charles died aged 59 in 1967 before Betty passed away in 2001 aged 89. The couple lived together on the Isle of Wight after getting married in 1943 after Charles moved from Portsmouth.

‘He was a lovely dad,’ Jo said. ‘Because of his deafness he would go to jobs and then be given his papers (dismissed) at the end of the week. I want to find out more about him.

‘My mum had to eke out money from where she could to help keep them afloat as they had no money. But they were happy together.’

Anyone with any information about Charles should contact Jo at [email protected]

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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