The Portsmouth Blitz: 70 years on

70 years ago today the people of Portsmouth were coming to terms with the aftermath of the most devastating bombing raid on the city during the Second World War. The anniversary was marked yesterday by a service at the city’s Anglican Cathederal, a ceremony in the Guildhall Square, and the unveiling of a placque to victims in Old Portsmouth.

Even before the Second World War the Luftwaffe had identified Portsmouth as an important target. Luftwaffe target maps in Portsmouth Central Library show that aircrew were shown the location of the dockyard (including the various buildings and docks), the railway stations, the power station, Gosport, local barracks, Vospers Shipbuilders in the Camber, and also the Airspeed Factory at the Airport.

171 people were killed on the night of 10 and 11 January 1941. Portsmouth was chosen as a target that night as the rest of Britain was covered by thick cloud, and Portsmouth – on the coast – was the only readily identifiable target. German records show that 153 Bombers targeted Portsmouth. This compares drastically with the ’1,000 Bomber’ raids launched by Bomber Command on Germany later in the war.

Many victims were unidentified due to their terrible injuries, and im some cases virtually nothing remained of their bodies. Hundreds of victims were buried in a mass funeral in Kingston Cemetery in the city. A memorial stands near to the site of their mass grave. Over 1,000 people died in Portsmouth as a result of Bombing during the Second World War. Many records state that 930 civilians were killed, but a number of servicemen were also killed whilst on leave or while on duty in the city. Just under 10% of the cities 63,000 houses were destroyed, and a similar number seriously damaged.

German records state that 40,000 4lb incendiary bombs were dropped on the city on that one night alone, as well as 140 tons of High Explosive. Many bombs did land in the sea – the Solent, and Portsmouth and Langstone Harbours. In 1940 Bombing from the air was not an exact science. The Bombers followed radio beams that interescted over Southsea Common. The incendicaries caused over 2,314 fires – far too many for beleagured emergency services to deal with at any one time, especially given that 60 water mains had been destroyed. The tide was also low, which prevented the Fire Brigade from pumping water from the sea.

47 people were died when an air raid shelter at Arundel Street School suffered a direct hit. The power station was hit, and the main shopping centres at Commercial Road, Palmerston Road and Kings Road were all decimated. Also damaged were the Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital, the Hippodrome, Clarence Pier, three cinemas, the dockyard school, the Royal Sailors Rest Home, the Salvation Army Citadel, the Central Hotel and the Connaught Drill Hall. The FA Cup – won by Pompey in 1939 – was dug out of a Bank in Commercial Road, where it had been placed for safekeeping.

The most visible and symbolic material loss was the destruction of the Guildhall. ARP and emergency services battled fires in the building all night, but one 4lb incendiary bomb fell down a ventilation shaft and lodged itself in an inacessible place, proving impossible to extinguish. The Guildhall burnt all night and into the next day, the melting copper from the ornate dome dripping down to the ground. When the fires finally subsided only the outer walls remained. When the basement was dug out however the Lord Mayor’s chain and civic plate were found to be intact.

I’ve always found it a mystery why the Luftwaffe didn’t target Portsmouth more during the War. Situated on the coast and with the Isle of Wight to the south harbours to either side it should have been relatively easy to locate from the air, certainly easier than many of the inland cities that were targeted. Granted, most of the large naval ships didn’t use Portsmouth during the war for fear of air attack, but there was still a sizeable dockyard and a plethora of naval training establishments. Portsmouth was strongly defended by Anti-Aircraft Guns however - on Hayling Island, along the crest of Portsdown Hill, and on Southsea Common, where there were also rocket batteries. There were also many barrage balloons. Naval ships in harbour would also open up their AA guns. ARP precautions in Portsmouth were also advanced, as the authorities expected the city to be heavily targeted.

The ‘myth of the blitz’ that I have written about previously has also pervaded over Portsmouth’s experience. There were incidents of looting, recorded in the local court records. Many people also left the city each night and ‘trekked’ out of the city, over Portsdown Hill. They were criticised for leaving their homes vulnerable to incendiary bombs. But on the whole morale held surprisingly well. The Lord Mayor of Portsmouth Denis Daley (no relation) wrote:

“We are bruised but we are not daunted, and we are still as determined as ever to stand side by side with other cities who have felt the blast of the enemy, and we shall, with them, persevere with an unflagging spirit towards a conclusive and decisive victory”

Whilst Portsmouth and many other cities in Britain were hit extremely hard during the war, it is important that we keep the impact of strategic bombing in context. More people were killed in one night in Dresden in 1945 than were killed in the whole of Britain during the war years. Cities such as Hamburg, Cologne and Berlin were also devastated. Further afield Tokyo was virtually obliterated. This is not to belittle the suffering of people in Portsmouth, but only to say that other cities in the world suffered even more. Colleagues of mine have in the past come in for a lot of criticism for stating that Portsmouth got off quite lightly compared to Hamburg and Dresden.

The Blitz also hardened the attitudes of many. Later in the war hundreds of young men from Portsmouth were killed bombing cities in the Third Reich and occupied Europe. A number of them died on missions to bomb Duisburg in the Ruhr, which would later become Portsmouth’s twin city. In the famous words of ‘Bomber’ Harris ‘The Germans entered this war with the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and that nobody was going to bomb them. They sowed the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind’. Such an attitude is probably indicative of public opinion on the home front during the war. People who had endured the blitz were unlikely to be too concerned about the fate of German cities when their turn came.

My Grandad can remember a lot from the time of the Blitz. One night he saw a Heinkel fly over so low he could see the pilots blonde hair. On another occasion, he and his sister decided to go the Park instead of the cinema. The cinema was destroyed by a bomb that afternoon. He can also remember having to cut short his paper round as the cemetery had been bombed, and also collecting shrapnel from ack-ack guns. And my favourite memory of his, has to be when a barrage balloon got tangled round the school’s belltower, pulling it down!

It was only really in the 1970′s that Portsmouth was fully reconstructed after the war. It was not even until the 1950′s that the Guildhall was rebuilt. During the war grand plans were made to redesign Portsmouth – in terms of urban planning, roads and whole neighbourhoods – but these had to be curtailed in the Austerity that marked post-war Britain. Never the less, many people were re-homed from the shattered inner-city areas to new estates at Paulsgrove and Leigh Park, or new high rise blocks in Somers Town, Buckland, Portsea and Landport.

I have been disappointed with the media coverage of the anniversary. BBC1′s Inside Out gave a measly 10 minutes to the subject (mind you if it had been about Southampton we could have expected an hour long special). Inside Out even featured a local ‘historian’ I’ve never heard of – Portsmouth isn’t a massive place, and there arent too many historians here!

For more information about the Portsmouth Blitz, have a look at John Stedman’s excellent Portsmouth Paper ‘Portsmouth Reborn: Destruction and Reconstruction 1941-1974′, Andrew Whitmarsh’s ‘Portsmouth at War’, and also ‘City at War’ by Nigel Peake. ‘Smitten City’ by the Portsmouth News is also a fantastic publication full of images of Portsmouth during the war.

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23 Comments

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23 responses to “The Portsmouth Blitz: 70 years on

  1. John Erickson

    The most likely reason for Portsmouth not being more heavily targeted was the German’s targeting strategy (and its’ gross inconsistencies). In the summer and early fall of 1940, the targets were mostly air defence related – radars, airfields, factories. Once Hitler stepped in and shifted the program to “terror bombing”, London was the primary target, and with all due respect to your hometown, Portsmouth was rather “small fish” in terms of terrorising England’s population. Too much military for wild-eyed panic, too little military to waste precious resources on. Remember, in 1940/1941, 300 bombers was a HUGE effort for the Luftwaffe, and their payloads were tiny compared to B-17s, Wellingtons, and especially Lancs and Halifaxes. (Halifaxi?) That’s the problem when you build a tactical air force, then try to use it strategically.

  2. x

    Portsmouth must be easy to find from the air what with the Solent below, Fareham Creek, and the chalk of the hills behind.

    Bombing here in North Staffordshire was virtually unknown. In fact off the top of my head I can’t think of any major incidents at all.

    • James Daly

      My Grandad seems to think that the Luftwaffe used the chalkface of Portsdown Hill as a nav point – it must have been pretty visible approaching across the channel from France.

      • Eddy Amey

        My father was a fireman and he and a fire crew sprayed the Wymering chalkpit black in an effort to hide it at night.

  3. John Erickson

    Don’t forget the short range of German aircraft, either. The far forward bases were saved for the extremely short-range Me-109s, and the next closest ring were saved for the Me-110s, so the bombers were taking off and having to travel some distance before getting to England. Some of the bombers came from bases in north-west Germany! And just like the US and British heavies, there was the annoying fuel/bomb-load trade-off (especially when carrying the naval mines in the later stages). The Luftwaffe was solidly a Continental tactical air force, regardless of Goering’s bluster and Hitler’s stupidity!

    • John Erickson

      Oh, good grief. James, X, WEBF, please accept my most humble apologies. I didn’t mean to lecture or talk down to you guys. Please accept, as partial explanation, the fact I’ve been chatting to several people FAR less knowledgeable than you gents on WW2 military matters. I should know better – you fellows know at least as much, if not FAR more, than I do. Sorry to be such an insensitive git.

      • James Daly

        no worries John, the thought didn’t even occur to me!

      • x

        John not everybody who reads this blog is a military “expert.” So all you did was round out what JD said, add some context, texture, etc.

        I always find it interesting that the debates on the lack of a German heavy bomber never seem to get connected with the opposing track that the RAF had too much emphasis on heavy bombing (I am going off using the term strategic for that level of bombing technology) and neglect of CAS. The never seem to get mentioned together. Then again I don’t have many books on aeroplanes….

      • John Erickson

        X- I’m no expert on British military planning, but here’s my informed guess about the lack of air support. The later 1930s plans seemed to revolve around a VERY limited ground role for the British army – the BEF in France was, at best, a token force. France would hold the ground, and Britain would bomb Germany into submission. And with all due respect to both country’s militaries, neither succeeded. Britain didn’t want more WW1-style casualties, so they took to the air. France didn’t want WW1-style casualties, so the dug into the ground. Fortunately, the British had two great designers in DeHaviland (Mosquito) and Hawker (first the Hurribomber, then the Typhoon/Tempest twins). Meanwhile, the US tried to build attack planes and failed, until the British started buying Lockheed planes converted to bombers, whereupon we discovered the medium bomber as CAS, then our typically insane field mechanics started hanging 50cals onto anything that moved, giving rise to the terrifying A-26 and B-25J. (Though for true insanity, visit the B-25H with a 75mm cannon! It did come in handy for our M-24 light tank, though!)

        • x

          As good a theory as any I have read. You are right the RAF was rather taken with bombing to the near exclusion of everything else. It isn’t hard to imagine early 20th century society being caught up with the idea of a navy of the air. You should also consider that apart from observation and a bit of bombing air power mostly fought air power in WW1. Also consider the poor showing of the Fleet at Jutland which dented the public’s affection for the RN. (Who knows if Jutland had been another Trafalgar the RAF may haven’t come about as a victorious RN would have held on to its assets? There’s a thought.) So it easy to see why the RAF didn’t have much time for CAS, Coastal Command, the FAA etc. It was going to bomb GB to victory. (Also it should be remember that Liddell Hart had actually pioneered the style of all arms armoured warfare so successfully used by the Germans.) HM Forces weren’t in a good place in 1939.

          • James Daly

            I’ve read a lot of contemporary opinions – top brass, politicians and general public – that the Strategic Bombing Offensive was a more palatable alternative to the costly land battles of 1914-18. I’m sure the Somme and Passchendaele cast a very long shadow when it came ton influencing policy in WW2.

            • x

              Yes of course!!! I never thought about that. Of course, yes.

              When it comes WW1 I have such a blind spot.

            • John Erickson

              X- Ahem. Didn’t I hear somebody mention “WW1-style casualties” in a previous post? Some idiot named… John something? Sure, give James all the respect! :p
              Seriously, the casualties from WW1 affected much of European military planning for WW2. The German Blitzkrieg, the Maginot line, Bomber Command, even the US heavy bomber programs were all outgrowths of avoiding casualties. Even the seemingly odd British tank categories of “Cruiser” and “Infantry”; one to replace cavalry who couldn’t survive MGs, and the other to cover the advancing infantry (and armoured to stop ANYTHING coming their way). Perfect example of military planners fighting the previous war. :)

        • John Erickson

          Wasn’t there an HG Wells story, made into a movie, that predicted “air fleets” some years before WW1? Strategic/heavy bombing was a darling child of many countries in the interwar years, much as all-missile armament was THE concept of the USAF in the early 60s, until hard-earned experience suggested guns still had a place. “Pet” theories have a nasty habit of haunting you – “speed is armour” mean anything to y’all? ;) Even the USAAF had it’s silly “the bomber always gets through” theory built around the B-17. And bear in mind that plane got it’s name “Flying Fortress” when the armament was only 6 .50cal and 2/4 .30cal! (As compared to the 13 .50cal on the late-war B-17G model.) And I know from readings that the RAF weren’t exactly best friends with Coastal Command – though that worked for our side, as it gave us more people to buy our airplanes! :D (Hey, we’re capitalists over here, we’re always looking for another market!)

        • James Daly

          My impression is that the RAF didn’t really ‘get’ CAS, because there was no independence in it. And, particularly in the 30′s and 40′s with Trenchard hovering like a demented possessive father, independence was everything to the RAF, above and beyond winning wars.

          I know the Desert Air Force had a lot of success, and 2TAF developed quite a fine-tuned operation in NW Europe. But you get the feeling that the ground forces could have done with a lot more ‘can-openers’ around – Arnhem, for example, when the RAF refused to attack virtually every target given to them in and around Oosterbeek. And might hundreds more Typhoons been more effective at breaking German resistance than using the Combined Bomber Force in and around Caen?

          Funny really, nothing much changes when it comes to the politics of the three British services…

  4. Edna Cahill

    The various memorial accounts and your blog bring back many memories. My father, a naval pensioner, had been recalled for land-based duties and was based up-country.
    In June 1940, after the early bombing, my mother had a mild nervous breakdown and she and I evacuated ourselves to her sister in Hartley Wintney, Hampshire. When things remained quiet, she decided to return.
    My father was due home on 10th January 1941 but had not arrived when the raid started around 6,30-7ish so my mother and I went to our neighbour’s shelter; we did not have one.
    When we eventually left the shelter, the sky was bright red from all the fires roundabout, and we were glad they had not hit Sydenham’s timber yard, close by, because of the incendiaries and fire.
    When my father still did not arrive, my mother became very stressed; when he did arrive, he was black, having been conscripted on arrival at the town station to assist with the fire-fighting. together with any other arrivals.
    My father had to phone his base to get compassionate leave to evacuate my mother and me, this time to Elvetham, Hampshire, where we stayed until August 1942, when we returned to Portsmouth.
    We stayed for the rest of the war. My father brought down a bed, so we could get under it if we did not have time to cross the road to our neighbour’s shelter. My mother seemed to gain some confidence and our home became a centre for my friends, we all formed a knitting circle, making sweaters, sea-boot stocking, gloves, mits, scarves, balaclava helmets etc. from wool suppied by the school – I don’t know where they obtained it, but I think it was part of a national scheme, “Knit for Victory”.
    We had lots of disturbed nights, one in particular when a bomb landed behind (luckily) Sydenham’s office, and the Anderson shelter rocked from side to side as if it would turn over, horrendous sound and reverberation, and all the windows blown out in the neighbouring houses.
    We spent so many nights in the shelter it becomes a blur, but it certainly built up community spirit, people boarding up windows until they could be repaired and women digging out old curtains for themselves and others, to replace the rags left by the shattering glass,
    Worst of all, the very bad winter (can’t remember the date), when my mother and I slept in our clothes on the bed and moved onto the spare mattress under the bed when the siren went, because it was too cold to go to the shelter.
    Not a time I would like to relive.
    Edna

    • x

      Thank you for sharing that with us.

    • James Daly

      Hi Edna thank you for sharing your personal stories with us all. They are very important for those of us who were not around in those dark days. I’m always amazed by how resilient my 82 year-old Grandad is, and how he talks about the war as if it were yesterday.

  5. Chris

    My Grandmother and Great Uncle lived on Hayling Island throughout the war. They told me that one day they were walking along the seafront with their stepmother as young children and saw a Dornier Do17 Reconnaissance plane limping out to sea with a damaged engine. In plain view a Spitfire or Hurricane shot it into the sea. It was apparently taking photos of the damage from the Portsmouth raids.

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  7. Roy Prince

    In 1940 I was a Messenger Boy with the ARP. Attached to N1 post located beneath the Pelham Hotel (A Brickwood’s Pub) on the corner of Chichester Road and Drayton Road. At the age of 15 I must confess all the air raids etc. seemed exciting – one feels immortal at that age! March 10th. 1941 a bomb landed on the corner of Beresford Road and Laburnum Grove and several people were trapped in their Anderson shelter.
    It was in the N1 sector and one of the wardens was assisting there when a second bomb (it was reported to be a land mine) landed in just about the same spot and the warden was never seen again. A few days later the handle of a shovel he had been using was found some distance away – just the handle bearing the marking of N1.
    His name is Christopher Powell and he was only about 20, awaiting call up for the army. He had only been at N1 a short time after being ‘bombed out’ from his house in Fratton. The people in the shelter survived.
    Sometimes when I have visited Portsmouth (I live in California now) I drive past the spot and wonder how many people living there are aware of the terror of March 10th., 1941

  8. Hi, can’t advise on deep conversation why things happened, only that they did. I was nearly 8 in 1941. Dad was on Russian convoys, a minesweeper HMS Speedy. Two brothers were evacuated to Winchester. one other was on a anti aircraft battery on Southsea common. I was living with my mum in Toronto road Buckland. On 10th January we were in a brick shelter in Baliol rd about a hundred yards from home. Very nasty night. House gone when we got home in morning. Council rehoused us at Beresford Rd North end. Changed schools to Drayton Rd. Just settled in, then on 10th March, we were in Anderson shelter in back garden when a bomb dropped very close.
    Mum because of the first shake up had had my two brothers brought back from Winchester and my older brother was also not on duty so there were six of us in shelter including border collie Prince who had survived Toronto Rd.
    Things got quiet and my eldest brother, despite Mum’s veto decided to go to look what damage the bomb had done. He was just returning ,and standing in the entrance to the shelter when there was a terrific second expolsion and he flew in amongst us. We found out afterwards that lightning can strike twice. A unit we called a land mine, much bigger in explosive power had landed near site of first bomb. Our second home was badly damaged and we moved once more, this time to Chichester road. The rest of the war was pretty tame and we all got through it,even Dad who had served 33 years through both conflicts. You must forgive me for any very small errors which may have occured in this tale some72 years on.

  9. Allen Le Couteur Bisson

    I lived in portsmouth during the war, the first place I remember was just off twyford avenue, which got bombed while we were out visiting a friend. I remember thinking ” they are only 2 small holes in the roof, so why won’t they let us go home?” . So we moved into twyford avenue, and had to use an air raid shelter just inside a side road, off the avenue. It got hit, but I slept through it, and only woke up when a warden’s face appeared as he cleared some rubble to let us out. Some friends of my dad came and put a shelter in the house, it served as a table most of the time, until the house got hit, and we were dug out again! We moved in with my gran for a while, but I managed to get double pneumonia, and went to St. Mary’s Hospital. I know nothing about that period, as it seems I was sleeping again! The first thing I knew was being carried out of the hospital by two sailors, as it had been hit, and I was taken to a big house out in the country. I left hospital the day before my 6th birthday, and we went to live in Herbert terrace (not there anymore), where we stayed till the end of the war. I remember thinking, now the war is over, life will be boring, you just go to bed in the evening and stay there till morning!

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