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Miracle escape from Birmingham Pub Bombings - a survivor’s story when terror struck the Tavern in the Town

The second bomb ripped through the Tavern in the Town at 8:27pm. Les and his ex-girlfriend Ros were inside. Photo: ITV News Central

It's November 21st 1974, 7. 40pm. As usual, me and Steve Cox were standing in Steve Grater's house waiting for him to come downstairs.

Steve Grater was a nightmare, if even a single hair was out of place, he would re-wash it, dry it with a hair dryer and start all over again - sometimes we were kept waiting for an hour.

The scene outside the Tavern in the Town after the bomb blast Credit: ITV News Central

Hallelujah! Steve G comes downstairs, dressed and ready to go. Steve lives about 50 yards from the bus stop near Revesby Walk and as bus arrives just a few minutes later, by 7.50pm, we're on our way to town.

It's a cold November night, but being young, we didn't feel the cold, at least I didn't.

Steve Cox is wearing a long black trenchcoat, Steve Grater is wearing what he always wears, my brown leather jacket. At 8pm the 55 bus pulls up outside the Cabin Pub, Steve Cox suggests having a quick beer in the Costermongers, he's desperate to have a go on the Shuffle board recently fitted in there, me and Steve Grater can't be bothered and carry on down to our pub.

The Tavern in the Town was about a third full when the bomb went off Credit: ITV News Central

It's now 8.10pm and I'm standing at the bar, I order and pay for three pints of Lager, it's 25p a pint and there is nothing better than your first beer of night sliding easily down. I carry the beers over to where the two Steves are.

Steve Cox has put some money in the Bat and ball or ''Pong'' machine, the game was two white paddles controlled by seperate joysticks and you hit a small white dot backwards and forwards. By today's standards, boring and rubbish, back then? Wow!

All my life I'd been a bad loser... and tonight I'm losing badly. Steve Cox is already up 11- 4 and the winner only needs 14. I punch the machine in temper and walk away into the centre of the pub.

Steve calls out for me to come back - for the first time in my life I listen to him and walk back to our game.

As I touch the left hand control, my world exploded into darkness.

Les was playing on a Pong video game, which could well have saved his life Credit: ITV News Central

With a noise like I've never heard before, I'm lifted up and half somersaulting, I'm thrown into the wall.

My eardrums are burst, I've lost all my hair, my eyebrows and lashes are burned off and my sweater has melted to my body. I'm lying in the rubble, that was seconds before...The Tavern in the Town.

There are no lights left working and I put my hand on the wall, what's left of the phone is hanging down and I know where I am - I've been blown to the bottom of the stairs.

I remember with my eyes wide open that I couldn't see a single thing… my first thought was “I'm blind, I can't live like this.”

Trying to gain my senses, I'm thinking it's the game that I was playing has somehow exploded. I rise to my feet and fall over, my balance has gone along with my eardrums.

There is a roar going through my head like a 100 thunderstorms… the noise is sickening… the odours are even worse, I thought - I need to get out of here.

All of a sudden as I grope around on my hands and knees in the dark, I'm kicked in the face, it splits my top lip, the person who did it never meant it, he or she wouldn't even know I was there.

I can smell bacon cooking. I didn't know it then but that was the smell of burnt and dying people.

I was 10ft away from the Bomb as it went off, and in the smoke and dust filled darkness, there are dead and dying people all around me. Later the body count is to total 11, the injured in there number 100%

I know I can't stay in there, although I'm still not sure what happened, I know that to stay down there is really not a good idea. I start crawling up the stairs, all of a sudden my arm vanishes through a hole in the stairs where the bomb has punched through. I cut all under my arm on ragged concrete. I can't feel it though, I'm in shock, the real pain was a little gift still to come.

A fireman and rescue workers working at the scene of one of the Birmingham pub bombings. Credit: PA

My Dad had always said 'Les, if you're in trouble, tell me'. Dad...I was in trouble.

In my whole life, I've never been one for giving up, I decided to make my way home… looking back it was just like learning to ride a bike - I'd go a few yards and just slowly, fall over. Burst eardrums and stolen balance reduced me to a toddler learning to walk again.

Town was in uproar, I remember people running everywhere, no one stopped to help me, they probably thought, two bombs had already gone off, there were bound to be more.

Now I'd gotten out into the cold November air, the pain was moving me to a whole new level, blood was running from my right armpit, my lip was split and bleeding, I'd taken shrapnel to my side, through my knee, my arm, my hair had all gone and I felt like I'd been hit with a giant hammer.

My eardrums were killing me with earache on a level I had never known and I had blister sacs of fluid on each finger of my left hand and another one running from wrist to elbow.

My trousers hung in tatters, the blast wave had gone up both trouser legs and unable to get out of the waistband and literally blew my trousers apart.

After what seems like hours, I finally get to the long wall that runs down Curzon Street, half a mile gone, half a mile to go.

The Birmingham Accident Hospital was overwhelmed with casualties on the night Credit: ITV News Central

I begin to cry, not because of the ever growing pain, I start to cry because finally, I can stop myself falling over as I cling along the wall down to the White towers.

My friend Jimmy Kennedy and his girfriend Lucy come running past me...he doesn't know who I am...the blast has half closed my eyes, it's altered all my features and with my hair gone, he can't recognise me.

I call out his name and he slows, he's on his way to Town as his girlfriend's sister was in there too, he doesn't stop long though, later on, he describes me as 'Looking like a monster'.

I don't remember the last 500 yards, I was dragging myself along on adrenaline... and it's starting to run out.

Finally I get to my door, it opens and I fall into the arms of our lodger Arthur.

Next thing I know, I'm at Bath Row Accident Hospital, being treated by Doctors.

Arthur had knocked on the door of a lovely neighbour, his name was Mr Quinn, and he rushed me up to the hospital in his little Mini.

They are triaging the wounded, I'm quickly checked over and I'm given a needle for my pain. It's been a living thing for a few hours now, it slowly begins to fade.

A burned and dusty hand comes on to my leg. Arthur later tells me he hears a voice saying 'Help me Arthur'

It's my friend Steve Cox, I couldn't recognise him.

Steve Grater's Mom and Stepdad come up to the hospital, They are told that Steve is dead... in the confusion they have been given the wrong name... the person killed was a Mr Chaytor...both the Graters begin to cry.

A few people over the years have said 'You must hate the Irish'.

No..how can I? my older brother is married to a wonderful Irish girl....my much loved Nephew and niece are both half Irish...tell me, which part of them should I hate?

Life after the Birmingham Pub Bombings

I came out of the Birmingham Accident Hospital the next day on November 22nd. I remember lying on the couch staring up at the ceiling unable to sleep, My Dad not wanting to leave me alone must have lay there awake listening to my moans.

People never told me that even with your eardrums burst there was still a roar going through my head that seemed like it would never end.

I remember the smell of my hair that had been reduced to a small frizzled stubble. I had taken several pieces of glass under my right armpit, one through my knee, my left eye (thankfully missing the eyeball itself) a few more in my leg and one to my hip.

I remember my family coming to see me over the next few days. My Uncle Les, a huge man being reduced to tears as he hugged me.

My Uncle Tommy Brennan, unable to face me because he was Irish...silly, silly man, I loved him very much.

Four or 5 days later, I made my way up to the Bathroom to try to get myself cleaned up, when I looked in the mirror at my peeling and burned face, I felt like crying.

Les a year after the bombings when his hair had grown back Credit: Les Robinson

I was a 22 year old man with no hair and a scabby face...not really a helpful look for attracting the fairer sex.

Various friends came down to see me, my closest friend Alan told me how much his Mom was worried about me..his Mom? She had been like one to me too. I knew as soon as I could I had to pay her a visit just so she knew I was alright, I caught the 55 and 14 bus to Cole Hall lane to see her. I remember people looking at me then when I met their eye...they turned away.

.

My friend Steve Cox had taken worse injuries than me, thankfully like mine though, only minor...he came out of Hospital, two weeks later.

Steve G fared a little worse. He had been out in the open and taken half a beer glass into his back. Obviously, the further away if you survive the blast...the more shrapnel came at you.

I remember meeting up, the 3 of us, collectively the worst hair styles in history.

I was off work 3 months while I recovered, I wrote earlier I have never once dwelled upon it...that was a fib..my first drink in a Pub post Tavern was late spring when my friend Steve Cox's brother in law took us up to the Skylark on Castle Vale.

I remember sitting down all calm and collected as we waited for our drinks. As he bought them over and I lifted it to my lips, I began to shake like a man holding a Pneumatic drill. It took me another 3 months to get over it.

For me and my friends, it's not all bad though. With the money from The Lord Mayor’s fund, from Criminal Injuries, from collections at the CO-OP dairy where I worked, plus local pubs, the Erdington round table, we were paid thousands - the equivalent easily of 2/3 years wages by todays standards.

There were 7 of us with such riches. Now, think of our other friends who had arrived late and missed it...they never saw the pain...only our money.

It’s Burns day at the Accident hospital in Bath Row. There I am, feeling all sorry for myself, scabby face, no hair (growing back mind), really poorly fingers that had been directly burned in the blast.

When a young girl sat down beside me. I couldn't tell her age, it could have been anything from 13 to 23. She told me that when she was 10, she picked up a can of petrol that her dad had used to light a bonfire.

You want to know what she wanted more than anything else? She wanted a nose again.

I was so ashamed I never spoke of my story for another 35 years.

Watch Les Robinson’s interview about surviving the Birmingham Pub Bombings, on ITV News Central at 6.

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