In just seven nights of just one year the centres of Plymouth and Devonport were laid to ruin. The devastating German air raids of the nights of March 20th and 21st and April 21st, 22nd, 23rd, 28th and 29th have become termed the Plymouth Blitz.
Thursday March 20th/Friday March 21st 1941
Then, as now, a visit from Royalty can attract the wrong sort of attention and so it was on Thursday March 20th 1941. HRH King George VI and Queen Elizabeth arrived by Royal Train at 10.30am that morning at Millbay Station, where they were greeted by Lady Astor, deputising for her husband, and other high ranking service officers. They visited the Royal Marine Barracks, the Royal Naval Barracks, the Royal Dockyard and Her Majesty even called in on the patients and staff of the Royal Naval Hospital, before taking tea with Lady Astor at No. 3 Elliot Terrace on the Hoe. During this there was an air raid alert but it came to nothing. After tea, the party visited the YMCA in Union Street before embarking on the Royal Train again, ready for departure at 5.45pm.
It had been a good day but rumours were apparently circulating around the Royal Air Force operational room at St Eval in Cornwall that 'Plymouth was due to catch a packet tonight'. In preparation, according to Gerald Wasley in his book "Blitz", they made ready four Gloster Gladiator biplanes for the defence of Plymouth.
At just after 8.30pm the alert was sounded and at 8.39pm the attack started. First came a group of Heinkel III bombers flying at between 9,900 and 11,500 feet. Included in the load of bombs that they dropped were 34 delayed action high-explosive ones. The pathfinder force, who should have arrived first and dropped flares to light the target, arrived at 8.41pm, flying at an altitude of 19,000 feet. Their shower of flares was followed by 12,500 incendiaries and other high-explosive bombs.
Once they had turned away to go back home to their airfields in France, two further squadrons dropped their bomb loads, which included 17 blockbusters, each weighing a ton. As well as this, a squadron that had been sent to bomb the Westland Aircraft factory at Yeovil, diverted to direct their bombs on Plymouth when bad weather prevented them from finding their original target.
To quote Gerald Wasley: 'There was no running away for those caught in this air raid, there was no escape, perhaps worst of all there was no way of retaliating'.
During this raid the premises of Messrs Spooners, directly across from Saint Andrew's Church, was the first to suffer. It so quickly spread that it became obvious within a very short space of time that Plymouth's own Fire Brigade could not cope. At 8.55pm the first and second stages of a Regional Reinforcement Scheme was put into operation and additional water pumps from Plympton, Saltash, Torpoint, Kingsbridge, Taviostock, Launcedston, Bodmin, Wadebridge, Fowey, Liskeard, Lostwithiel, Yelverton, Looe, Torquay, Exeter, Bridgewater, Barnstaple and Yeovil had arrived in the City by 11pm. Between 9.20pm and 11.47pm 21 pumps from the various naval and military establishments in the area were also at the Fie Service's disposal.
Soon numbers 1 to 13 Bedford Street were engulfed in flames, which then spread to the Municipal Offices, the Guildhall, and the General Post Office in Westwell Street. Properties in Union Street, The Octagon, Stonehouse and Millbay also suffered.
The raid lasted until 12.20am in the early hours of March 21st. The centre of Plymouth was aflame. When the other fire brigades did arrive in Plymouth - their sole navigational aid being the bright orange glow in the night sky which indicated where Plymouth was - they found they could not assist in putting out the fires because their equipment was not compatible with that used in the City. Many of the fires were left to simply burn themselves out.
At 4.35am on the Friday morning the fires were declared to be under control. A total of 796 firemen, using 158 appliances, were then on duty.
During this air raid, when the Synagogue was threatened with destruction like the rest of the City Centre, the sacred Torah scrolls were removed by the minister, the Reverend Wilfred Wolfson, and with the aid of a Mr Widdicombe, placed in an adjacent cellar for safety.
The worst casualties were at the City Hospital Maternity Ward, which received a direct hit. Four nurses were killed during the raid: Emily Hellen Kelly, aged 37 years; Winifred May McGuirk, aged 19 years; Lydia Rebecca Walters, aged 16 years; and Probationary Nurse Monica White, aged 17 years.
Nineteen children died in the Maternity Ward that night: Michael John Birdman, aged 21 months; Derek Blatchford, aged 2 years; John Blatchford, aged 3 years; Angela Earle, aged 4 months; Philip Eve, aged 2 years; Terence Michael Fox, aged 23 months; Peter Hamlyn, aged 4 months; Leslie Frank Hogg, aged 10 days; Alan John Jones-Burnell, aged 2 years; twins Maureen and Nicholas John Lowndes-Millward, aged 10 months; Albert Michael McManus, aged 21 months; Charles Burnard Matthews, aged 18 months; Susan Peacock, aged 3 months; Pauline May Sharland, aged 1 month; Winifred Valerie Shears, aged 23 months; Shirley Short, aged 2 years; and Phyllis Taylor, aged 11 months. However, the saddest loss was that of one-week-old Harold Santilla, who died with his mother, 24-years-old Mrs Dorothy May Santilla.
Also destroyed was Hyde Park School. On March 25th 1941 some of the boys were transferred to Montpelier School, where they attended on a split-shift basis from 1.30pm until 5.15pm, and the girls were moved to Laira School.
Friday March 21st/Saturday March 22nd 1941
If Plymothians thought that that was it, they were wrong. At 8.50pm the following night, Friday March 21st, it started all over again. Apparently there was no warning and the sudden appearance of the raiders coming in from the north-east caught the City by surprise. The target was the area adjoining the one hit the previous night and the pathfinder planes circled the City for some twenty minutes positioning themselves before dropping their flares on the chosen area. The bombers soon followed. They encountered no resistance from the Royal Air Force.
Fires raged over a wide area, from the timber yards and tar distillery at Coxside in the east to the Royal Naval Barracks at Keyham and the Royal William Victualling Yard in the west. One man was killed and two injured on Drake's Island. Saint Andrew's Church, spared the night before, was gutted, as were the Guildhall and the Municipal Offices. The Westminster and Hacker's Hotels in the Crescent were destroyed, as also was the fate of the Plymouth Co-operative Society's emporium. Five servicemen were killed at Osborne Place, The Hoe, by an unexploded bomb.
Only two buildings survived in the City Centre that night, the National Westminster Bank in Bedford Street and the office of the Western Morning News Company in Frankfort Street. Neither received a direct hit and both were modern buildings constructed of more fire-resistant materials. Unfortunately the newspaper's photographic department at the rear was destroyed and with it went pictures of old Plymouth.
As there was no City Centre left for its buses to serve, the Western National Omnibus Company moved its terminus from Saint Andrew's Cross to Sherwell Arcade, just north of the City Museum in Tavistock Road.
The only politician to visit the City after these two terrible nights was Mr Herbert Morrison, the Minister of Health. The rest, including the Home Secretary, stayed away. The King and Queen sent a message of sympathy to Lady Astor.
However, the Australian nation was unlikely to be left in any doubt how badly Plymouth was suffering during the War: the Australian Prime Minster, Mr Robert Gordon Menzies, was staying in the City that night.
This was the second night of the Blitz that the Hurricane's of number 247 Squadron were safely tucked up for the night when the raid came, the last two, Flight-Sergeant Makins in 7016 and Sergeant Fowler in 7020 being the last to land at Roborough at 7.10pm after completing a one-hour convoy patrol.
In the lull that followed those two nights, Plymouth buried its dead. Naval ratings from HMS Raleigh, across the water at Torpoint, were given the task of recovering bodies from the ruins. Many of the 292 civilians killed during the raids were buried in mass graves at Efford Cemetery, each wooden coffin draped with a Union Flag. Plymothians thought that their Blitz was over, that further destruction was impossible. Unfortunately, they were wrong.
The night of April 22nd/23rd 1941 saw the worst disaster of the blitz, an air raid shelter in Portland area had a direct hit, 72 people died. The city centre was completely destroyed. Shops and houses, all that was left of the guild hall and the St Andrews church were empty shells.
Children were affected in that their schooling and night time was disrupted. People heard the raid warning and went straight to a shelter until they got the all clear. Mr Roy Lidiard who lived and worked in Plymouth at the time said: "My most vivid recollections of these nightmarish times was one of the six nights between April 21st and 29th 1941 when Luftwaffe unleashed probably the most ferocious, hideous sustained attacks during the Plymouth bombardments".
Plymouth was affected so badly because most of the blitz was at night. The war came and no-one seemed to believe it had really happened and that it would not last long, but in the first few months a substantial amount of shipping was sunk and quite a few people knew someone or lost someone, this brought the reality of the situation to the surface quickly.
The first bomb to drop on Plymouth dropped on the North Prospect area. It was a shock to everyone and no-one could really believe it, crowds of people turned up outside the bombed houses, but it was a forerunner of what was to come. It was really surprising how people can cope in times of trouble.
The Anderson Shelters were earthy and damp but whether they liked it or not, people had to leave their beds and stay in the shelter for as long as it lasted. They got quite used to the gunfire and the planes above. The morning after the raid you would see a lot of people wandering around, but help was always at hand - community centres were set up with rows of beds and hot drinks and refreshments were offered.
The night that Milehouse Cemetery got bombed there was no warning; just an explosion that put a lot of people into a state of confusion. The worst time for Stoke and Devonport was 1941, this was when Fore Street was bombed, houses were left abandoned, the people who lived in them had had enough, some houses that were standing had been damaged by blast from the high explosives, but in Stoke and Devonport some families left for good. The dockyard had taken on women workers to do men’s jobs, a lot of them really enjoyed their work, you would see them with head scarves and turbans. There was something very lively about it all, even today those that are around will tell you about their stint in the dockyard, and they are very proud to have done their part.
Although many buildings were lost during the Blitz, some are still there, and these deserve a mention, so that the future generations will take more than simply a passing interest in the past history of Plymouth. To begin with Devonport Column was built in 1842 to commemorate the new name of Devonport which was formally dock, the Guildhall, and St Andrews church stand, as do many buildings on the Barbican, which can be noted as the "oldest" part of Plymouth and still the most historic.
An unexploded bomb being recovered by members of a bomb disposal team.
A downed twin-engined Heinkel III bomber.