Tag Archives: blitz

Bomb Sight – mapping the blitz in London

This fantastic website was launched yesterday. It maps every bomb – high explosive, incendiary, parachute – that landed on Greater London during the Blitz, from 7 October 1940 until 6 June 1941. Produced by the University of Portsmouth (my alma mater), the National Archives and JISC, it’s a great example of geography and history working together.

Researchers used the WW2 Bomb Census in the National Archives, and painstakingly plotted the site of every bomb onto a map of London. From this we can see obviously the hardest hit areas. Whilst an overall look at the map shows an overall spread, when you zoom in closer, the Docklands – in particular the area around the Royal Victoria and Royal Albert Docks – were hard hit. Whilst the Luftwaffe were bombing London in general to attempt to subdue the civilian populations morale, and for this indiscriminate bombing across the whole city would suffice – bombing the important docks also seems to have been a priority. There are two reasons for these dual approaches – firstly, they probably lacked the accuracy to actually pinpoint small targets inland, however the docks were relatively easy to find as all the bombers had to do was fly up the Thames Estuary.

I’ve always been fascinated with the use of geographical plotting to give context to historical events. Data that sits in a chart or a spreadsheet comes alive when interpreted onto a map. I’m very interested in the thought of using similar techniques to plot war dead from Portsmouth. It could really help us to understand not just the impact of losses in Portsmouth’s communities, but also the nature of Portsmouth Society in general – for example, blue dots for sailors and red dots for soldiers.

11 Comments

Filed under social history, World War Two

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.

25 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

The blitz re-examined

Burned-out buildings in Hamburg - picture poss...

Burned-out buildings in Hamburg (Image via Wikipedia)

As its recently passed the 70th anniversary of the start of the Blitz, there has been plenty in the news recently about people’s memories of the start of the bombing.

We hear about victors justice – about how the victors in any war are able to pronounce on rights and wrongs, and to dispense justice accordingly. It could be argued too that victors also have a near monopoly on the judgement of history. The outcome of any long process is bound to frame people’s perceptions when looking back. This can increase over time, especially when concerning something so emotive as a war, and even more so with a war where so much was at stake.

We hear plenty about ‘Blitz spirit’, in a similar fashion to ‘Dunkirk spirit‘. And indeed there is a certain stoicism in the British psyche. Look at Wellington’s thin red line at Waterloo, or the South Wales Borderers at Rorke’s Drift. Gandalf’s ‘you shall not pass’ could have been inspired by British military history. And, indeed, the British people did show a remarkable fortitude in some very testing circumstances in 1940 and 1941, when the Bombing was at its height. But one cannot help but feel that over the years the Blitz has been built up into part of the national spirit, out of all proportion to the actual historical events that took place 70 years ago. Britain is by no means the only country to build an event up out of all recognition (ie, the Alamo). But I feel that by embellising something as remarkable as the Blitz, you are taking away from what was already quite some story in its own right. The average person with a passing interest in the social history of wartime Britain is more than likely to buy into the myths than the reality, which is a pity.

I’m also baffled as to why the Blitz is remembered almost solely as a London event. Other parts of the country were hit too. London did receive a large number of raids and a high tonnage of bombs, but as the country’s capital and an important port in its own right, it was always going to be a target. But in 1940 it was still a huge city, and the attacks were concentrated largely in the centre. London was the home of the Government, and the high commands of the armed forces. Yet although it was an important port and a centre of large population, its importance was more symbolic than anything else. Whereas if we look at other cities, the danger was more stark – Coventry with its motor works and Sheffield and her steel works, for example.

The example of Portsmouth during the Blitz is useful to consider. Geographically a very small island city, being on the coast it was much easier for the Luftwaffe to locate and target. Population density was also very high, which no doubt reflected in casualty rates. A Bomb dropped over Portsmouth was almost certainly more likely to cause heavy casualties, as it had more chance of hitting a built up area than in a more spread-out city. Of course the Naval Dockyard was a prime target, and large housing areas such as Portsea, Buckland and Landport were virtually next door to the Dockyard’s walls. If the Luftwaffe had been targetting the Dockyard they were seriously at risk. According to Andrew Whitmarsh’s ‘Portsmouth At War’, however, the Knickebein radar beams intersected over Southsea Common, which would suggest, with the low level of accuracy that the Luftwaffe was capable of early in the war, that they were content to area bomb the city with a mix of high explosive and incendiary bombs.

John Stedman’s Portsmouth Paper ‘Destruction and Reconstruction’ charts Portsmouth’s experience during the bombing of the war years, and in particular its effect on the people and the fabric of the city. Between July 1940 (the first raid) and July 1944 (the last V1rocket) 1,320 high explosive bombs, 38 parachute mines and 38,000 incendiaries were dropped on Portsmouth. Two V1’s also fell on Pompey. 930 civilians were killed, 1,216 were injured enough to be admitted to hospital, and 1,621 were injured less seriously. 6,625 properties were destroyed, and 80,000 damaged. This in a city of 200,000 people and 70,000 properties. Therefore some properties must have been damaged more than once. The damage was therefore more against property than person, although morale seems to have held up reasonably well. The most destructive individual raid came on 10 January 1941, when 300 planes dropped 25,000 incendiaries.  172 people were killed, and 430 injured.

No doubt these experiences were harrowing for the people of Portsmouth – in particular in a close-knit city. Yet to put these into perspective, when the Allied Air Forces began bombing Germany in earnest later in the war, Bomber Harris launched a number of 1,000 bomber raids. And Allied four-engine bombers, much larger than any planes the Luftwaffe had, could drop a much higher payload. With developments in navigation, and the use of pathfinders, raids generally hit the cities they were targetting. Lets take the example of Duisburg, Portsmouth’s twin city in Germany. The Duisburgers suffered 229 bombing raids. The first serious raid came on 12 May when 577 RAF bombers dropped 1,559 tons of bombs. The old town was destoyed and 96,000 people were made homeless. The during Operation Hurricane in 19 October 1944 967 bombers dropped 3,574 tons of high explosive and 820 tons of incendiaries. Then in a raid later the same night a further 4,040 tons of HE were dropped, and 500 tons of incendiaries. Although there are no statistics for Duisburg Casualties, it is estimated that up to 80% of the city was destroyed.

And it wasn’t just Duisburg. The Battle of Berlin between November 1943 and March 1944 killed 4,000 Berliners, injured 10,000 and made 450,000 homeless. The operation Gomorrah raids on Hamburg in July 1943 used successive waves of over 700 heavy Bombers, dropping over 9,000 tons of Bombs. In the huge firestorm an estimated 50,000 people were killed. And the most infamous raid on Germany, that on Dresden in February 1945, saw 1,300 bombers drop 3,900 tons. The casualty rate is disputed, but it is estimated that somewhere between 22,000 and 25,000 people perished.

The most infamous raid on Britain hit Coventry on 14 November 1940. 515 German Bombers dropped 500 tons of high explosive, and 36,000 incendiary bombs. Around 600 people were killed, and more than 1,000 injured. 4,000 homes were destroyed, and three quarters of the city’s industry. As harrowing as Coventry must have been for those who were caught up in it, the later raids on Hamburg, the Ruhr, Berlin and Dresden took on a whole new level of destruction and intensity. That is by no way to belittle the suffering of those who experience the blitz – much as hearing that someone else has lost two legs does not make you losing only one better, the knowledge that others had it worse was probably not as much comfort as hindsight would have us believe.

But in the modern day, when we have the benefit of numerous studies, statistics, and case studies looking at the various raids and cities, the popular media really should know better than to promulgate the myth of the blitz. Especially when the real picture is still pretty inspiring in its own right. While the good old-east end version of the Blitz would have us believe that everyone stood in the street defiantly shaking their fists at the Luftwaffe, the more realistic version of civilians calmly and quietly seeing the nights out in shelters and trying to go about their business is, to me, distinctly more British than the ‘knees up mother brown’ and jellied eels school of history.

Morale did not crack under sustained bombing, either in Britain or in Germany. Considering the onslaught that the Germans received, its incredible how their civilians kept on living. But then again, living under a brutal dictatorship might have had something to do with it. But for me, the key is, do German’s nowadays have their own version of the ‘blitz spirit’? I’ve never heard of it. And thats in a lot of studying of the Second World War, the bombing campaign, plenty of visits to Germany, including talking to elderly Germans who must have lived through it. The German experience of the Second World War means that their ordeal under bombing has been quietly left alone, whereas our eventual victory has shaped our history of the Blitz.

Is it an ironic coincidence that the 70th anniversary of the start of the blitz came during the same week that Peggy Mitchell left Eastenders?

11 Comments

Filed under Bombing, Royal Air Force, social history, Uncategorized, World War Two

Myths of the Blitz

Firefighters putting out a blaze in London aft...

Image via Wikipedia

Theres an interesting piece from historian Correlli Barnett in the Independent on Sunday Today, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the start of the Blitz. I can’t say I’ve always agreed with Barnett – particularly over his opinion on Montgomery – and sadly from such a prominent Historian, I find his writing pretty disappointing.

Over the past 70 years something of a myth has grown up around the Blitz. True, we did go on to win the war, but did this fact, in retrospect, shape perceptions of the blitz? I think so. If we had lost the war, it might have been a different argument altogether. There is evidence that civilian behaviour and morale did not hold up quite as well as popular belief thinks. There were very serious concerns in national and local Government that mass panic would ensue. Initially people were banned from going into Tube stations during air raids, for fear that they would never come up again and would evolve into a race of ‘underground people’. There were also cases of looting, but these were largely hushed up at the time – Portsmouth magistrate records during the war record a large number of people who appeared in court, but with no crime entered – we strongly suspect that they were charged with looting, but that this was kept quiet so as not to harm morale. The blackout was also a great cover for crime, as Juliet Gardner has recently written in the Guardian.

The other issue is the perception of the Blitz as a distinctly London phenomenon. The Independent on Sunday‘s pullout is very much a case of ‘…and other cities’, which I feel not only does injustice to other cities which suffered heavy punishment, it is also inaccurate. True, London was the most bombed city in terms of the number of raids, and the amount of ordnance dropped. Yet, even in 1940 London was a sprawling Metropolis of millions of people. It was also the captial, so of course it was always going to be a target. Yet smaller cities such as Coventry, Birmingham, Sheffield, Plymouth, Portsmouth and Liverpool were heavily bombed too. And when we consider the size of these cities, and that in some cases most of the damage came in a handful of raids, they underwent what was in many ways a heavier ordeal. Yet the Blitz has become an overhwelmingly London phenomenon, filed somewhere between Barbara Windsor and Jellied Eels.

Barnett writes that morale did not collapse in Britain during the Blitz, and neither did it during the Allied Air Forces strategic bombing assault on Germany later in the war. This, Barnett argues, is a lesson for modern warmakers who think that shock and awe undermines the enemy’s resolve to resist. Yet this is a poor argument – societies have changed immeasurably, sense of community and togetherness is not quite what it was. And the waging of war, and the munitions that can be used, have changed too. Strategic Bombing was imprecise and indiscriminate. Yet Cruise Missile strikes send the message ‘we can target you, anywhere, anytime’ – something that can hardly make one feel like putting up a fight. Morale in the Ruhr and Berlin may have ‘held’ in 1943 and 1944, butt holding on is not the same as thriving. Albert Speer, the Nazi Armaments Minister, was quite clear in his opinion that allied bombing severely hampered the German industries. What more evidence do we need than that?

I would not think of myself as a revisionist when it comes to the Blitz, far from it. It’s amazing to think the kind of ordeal that our ancestors – including my Grandparents – went through in those dark days. But at the same time I am also very cautious about buying into myths that have more to do with drama and popular culture than with reality.

8 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Danger UXB: The Heroic Story of the WWII Bomb Disposal Teams by James Owen

I’ve written in the past about my admiration for the Bomb Disposal men who work out in Helmand Province defusing IED’s. I also had the pleasure not long ago of reviewing the excellent book about UXB’s on Malta during the war. Its impossible not to be moved by the incredible bravery shown by these men. This book by James Owen is very much in the same vein.

The cover itself tells a story. A team of sappers are hauling on a huge bomb. One of the men, in apparent disdain for the danger that would never be allowed nowadays, is puffing nonchalantly on a cigarette while only inches away from a mass of high explosive. Somehow its a very British image – danger, hard work and a fag!

The story starts, though, with the German fuze expert at Rheinmetall before the war, working on developing new types of fuzes. This, the fuze, was essentially the major concern of the bomb disposal teams – to make the bomb safe by immobilising the one thing that coud cause the explosive to detonate. Given the multitude of conventional, delayed-action and anti-handling fuzes the Germans would use – some of which were directly calculated to kill the bomb disposal men themselves – they certainly had their work cut out. And they would be deployed in conventional bombs of all sizes, along with incendiaries, Parachute mines, butterfly bombs and the V1 and V2 flying bombs. Aside from being dangerous, unexploded bombs caused disruption do the the enforced closure of roads, railways lines, factories, and making thousands of people homeless, either temporarily or permanently.

The response of the British Government and Armed Forces to the multitude of new problems during wartime was twofold – Ministries and Departments would argue and squabble over whose responsibility it was, and then, at least one committee would be formed, possibly more. Somewhere along the lines several stereotypical English eccentrics would become involved. Bomb Disposal was no exception. The Ministries of Home Security and Supply both had a hand in the research and policy behind disposal of unexploded bombs, but eventually it fell to the armed forces to provide the men to deal with the problem. Particularly during the height of the blitz the men had to learn very quickly indeed.

The men on the ground may have been focussed on the task in hand, but mandarins and whitehall warriors were arguing over petty squabbles, as so often in British history. The RAF refused to give details to the other services of the workings of British bombs. Bomb Disposal duties were strictly parochial too – the RAF handled bombs on airfields, the Royal Navy took care of bombs in water and Dockyards, and the Army everywhere else. Yet the Navy were called in to deal with parachute mines that fell on land, due to their expertise with mines. Its not mentioned in this book, but Chief Petty Officer Reginald Ellingworth GC from Portsmouth was killed in 1940 defusing a parachute mine in Dagenham.

One important aspect that Owen does very well to stress is the relationship between the sharp end and the scientists working in the background. Each new fuse that the German’s deployed – of which there were many, in increasing complexity – required a solution to make it safe. The various contraptions and techniques that were developed are testament to the ingenuity of British science and technology at war. For me, the unsung hero in the book is John Hudson. Drafted into a Royal Engineer Bomb Disposal unit, he submitted a paper to his superiors pointing out his opinions. Having made an impression he was seconded to the UXB Headquarters in London to work as a link between the scientists and the bomb disposal sections. His own personal bravery is shown by how having devised a method of dealing with a new type of fuse, he insisted on being the first to trial it, so as not to endanger others if his method proved no to work.

Sadly not all involved in Bomb Disposal seem to have had the same professionalism. The Earl of Suffolk himself operated as a kind of bomb-disposer-at-large, complete with his own van. Despite his lack of experience in the field, and evidence of a cavalier attitude to safety, he was tasked with retrieving important parts from bombs for experts to study. Eventually the Earl was killed by an explosion, along with a number of Sappers who were assisting. It is hard to escape the conclusion that he should not have been allowed to work defusing bombs – surely its no field for a maverick amateur. Its possible, maybe, that in a Britain still very much deferential to class, no-one wanted or felt able to stop him?

For me, the most poignant episode in the book is the story surrounding the famous bomb that almost destroyed St Pauls Cathedral during the Blitz. The man concerned – Robert Davies – undoubtedly performed a brave deed, but it transpired afterwards that he had been accepting money from civilians and pocketing it for himself, stealing from dead men’s possessions and bouncing cheques. He was eventually awarded the first ever George Cross, but even then, according to James Owen, controversy reigns. It seems that members of his section had over-egged their accounts, which followed through into the press and Davies’ citation for the George Cross. A lesson, if any is needed, that brave men are not always completely scrupulous, and by the same token, crooks can be brave.

This is a compelling story, well told and immensely readable. And like all good books, its inspiring – its impossible not to feel the ice-cool bravery of the bomb disposal men. And on a personal level, it makes me feel inspired to take a closer look at what bomb disposal efforts must have taken place during the wartime bombing of Portsmouth.

Danger UXB: The Heroic Story of the WWII Bomb Disposal Teams is published by Little, Brown Book Group

9 Comments

Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Uncategorized, World War Two

Blitz Street – Episode 2

This weeks episode of Blitz Street on Channel 4 carried on with the theme set down in the first instalment – detonating mock-up bombs in a replica 1940’s street, with eyewitness accounts and expert analysis.

This week the team explode an SC 1000 ‘Hermann’ Bomb, weighing in at 1,000 kilograms. Containing Amatol explosive, it produces more of a ‘heave’ effect than smaller bombs, which was effective at demolishing buildings. The slow-motion playback of the explosion, showing the blast wave, is incredible stuff.

Later in the programme Incendiary Bombs are tested, and also a Flammbomb. Incendiaries were used to great effect on Portsmouth in January 1941, when one lodged in th Guildhall’s ventilation shaft left to the building being burnt out. Small metal tubes packed with magnesium, they had an effect out of all proportion to their size. Flammbomb’s were much larger, but used explosives to throw burning oil over a large area – effectively an early form of Napalm. They must have been ghastly to try to put out.

The programme also focusses a lot on the devestating raid on the Coventry – the scenes of mass funerals are harrowing stuff. Yet I think it is important to remember that it is estimated that 568 people died in Coventry on that night; some suggest the toll may have been as high as 1,000. However fives years later, Historians estimate that between 24,000 and 40,000 people were killed in one night in Dresden. This is not to belittle the experiences of Coventry, London and elsewhere, but to try and give some form of context.

While the eyewitness accounts are a real insight, and its great that their experiences have been shared and recorded for posterity, I’m quite frustrated with the cotributions of the Historians – Juliet Gardner and Stephen Badsey. Their contributions feel very ‘top-down’ and conventiona. In my experience there is more to the Blitz than the ‘we can take it’ cliche and ‘roll out the barrell’. In particular, Badsey’s poor definition of ‘myth’ misleading.

Leave a comment

Filed under On TV, Uncategorized, World War Two

Blitz Street on Channel 4

Channel 4 has long had a tack record for producing first class History programming, and this is one of their best yet. Produced to mark the 70th anniversary of the Blitz, this Tony Robinson-presented series is a great look at the events of the late summer and autumn of 1940.

The centrepiece of the programme is a full reconstruction of a 1940’s style street. The first programme shows the team exploding replicas of German bombs to study the effect of blast and shrapnel. The footage and analysis is gripping stuff. Too often we hear about bomb damage in words, or see the effects in black and white photographs. But to watch a full reconstruction, in slow motion colour, really adds something to our understanding of the Blitz. What really occurs to me, is how the biggest bomb detonated in this programme was 500 kilograms -and the explosion was huge. But by the end of the war the RAF was using 20,000lb bombs!

The programme also makes excellent use of eyewitness accounts – people who lived through the blitz, such as firemen, air raid wardens and nurses. And they tell some harrowing stories, such as people who were killed by blast, without a mark on them. Some great colour footage of 1940 Britain is also incorporated in the programme. It is always good to see colour footage, as it does bring to life a period in british history that is often seen in black and white, in more ways than just its colour. The Historian’s used are perhaps not the best, however. But the production is slick, as we might expect, and as usual Tony Robinson is an enthusiastic and spot-on presenter.

It will be interesting to see how future episodes pan out. In particular I will interested to see how the programme deals with the tetchy issue of civilian morale during the Blitz.

Click here to watch on Channel 4oD

3 Comments

Filed under On TV, World War Two

Youtube picks

Portsmouth vs. Liverpool – FA Cup Semi Final 1992

Before the Taylor report, SkyTV and Bosman. When football was football, and when Pompey were Pompey and there really was an atmosphere. I was there, in the very far bottom corner of the clock end – you can almost make me out when the ball goes out at 5:31! Just look at how good the atmosphere was. What I find incredible is that my Grandad watched Pompey in a Semi-Final at Highbury in 1949, and was back there 43 years later.

Katyn – Trailer (English subtitles)

After the sad events that led to the death of the President of Poland and many others, its impossible to not realise the cruel twist of fate that they were travelling to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre. This Polish drama series deals with what was a tragic event in a country that during the twentieth century new more tragedy than most.

Oral History – the Luftwaffe Bomb Portsmouth

I’ve found this wonderful clip of a ladies memories of living in Portsmouth during the war, where she talks about a close encounter with a German bomber. My Grandad has a very similar memory, of seeing a Heinkel so low that he could see the Pilots face and the colour of his hair.

Biffy Clyro – Bubbles

1 Comment

Filed under Local History, Music, Uncategorized, videos, World War Two

70 years ago this year: Churchill, Dunkirk, the few and the blitz

We’re coming up to the time when a lot of Second World War 70th anniversaries will be taking place. As usual you can expect to read about all the anniversaries, books, and special events right here. I will also be looking at local stories, and the experiences of local people, including my own family.

April marks 70 years since Nazi Germany invaded Denmark and Norway. In May 1940 Winston Churchill became Prime Minister, and the very same day Germany invaded Belgium, France and Holland. After being outwitted the British fell back to Dunkirk and were evacuated, and France reached an armistice with the Nazis. As a prelude to the planned invasion of Britain, the Luftwaffe fought Fighter Command in the Battle of Britain. Ater the Germans failed to gain air superiority the Luftwaffe resorted to Bombing towns and cities, in what became known as the Blitz. So many momentous events in such a short space of time. How I tend to think of 1940, is that although winning the war came much later, in those dramatic days we didn’t LOSE the war. And if you lose a war, you’ve no chance of winning it in the end at all!

There are some fantastic books due to be released later this year to mark the anniversaries. As always you can expect to read reviews here on Daly History.

Leave a comment

Filed under News, site news, World War Two

69 years ago: the Portsmouth Blitz (pt 2)

Winston Churchill inspecting a devastated Guildhall

Winston Churchill inspecting a devastated Guildhall

On the night of 10 and 11 January 1941 an estimated 300 German bombers dropped 25,000 incendiaries as well as high explosives on Portsmouth, in a raid lasting seven hours. A total of 2,314 fires were recorded, and 60 water mains were fractured. 172 people were killed during the raid and 12 were still missing a month later. 47 had died when an underground shelter in a school was hit. 430 people were injured.

At daybreak on 11 January 1941 the people of Portsmouth woke up to a devastated city. The thirty-first air raid on Portsmouth, it was the heaviest and most destructive that the city suffered, and perhaps the darkest and most traumatic episode in the city’s history.

The Guildhall was still smoking, and when the fires were eventually extinguished days later only the walls remained. The civic silver and lord mayors chain were found unharmed in the safe deep in the basement. Firemen, Police and Air Raid Wardens tried to keep on top of the fires, but one incendiary bomb lodged in a ventialtion shaft and proved impossible to put out. The shopping centre in Commerical Road had also been destroyed. Kings Road also suffered, as did the Palmerston Road area of Southsea. Parts of Old Portsmouth were also heavily damaged: my great-grandparents house at 66 Broad Street was destroyed. The Power Station near the Camber was hit. Six churches and three were devastated, as well as the Clarence Pier funfair. The FA Cup, which had been won by Pompey in 1939, had to be dug out of the vaults of a Bank in Commercial Road.

Members of the emergency services performed bravely throughout the night. 29 year old Brian Biggs, a Leading Fireman, was killed in Kings Road. Frederick Marshall, a 28 year old Fireman, died in Bedford Street. The Dockyard Fire Service was also called on to assist with fighting fires. Stephen Bath was a 56 year old Dockyard Fireman when he was killed fighting fires near Colewort Barracks. Police Constable John Dunford, 34, was killed at the juncton of Pembroke Road and the High Street in Old Portsmouth. Frank Nicklinson, a 41 year old ARP Telephonist, died in the Royal Portsmouth Hospital. He was probably injured somewhere in the city and died later in the night.

The death-toll would almost certainly have been a lot higher if the majority of people hadn’t spent the night in air raid shelters. Even so, several shelters received direct hits and many were killed – including children at Bramble Road, Fratton and Arundel Street Schools. Victims aged from 9 months old to over 80. Days after the raid a mass open-air funeral was held at Kingston Cemetery for the victims of the 10-11 January raid. They were buried in a series of mass-graves, and memorials mark their location today.

The Lord Mayor, Dennis Daley (no relation, not the e) published a statement in the Evening News on 11 January 1941:

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 andf decisive victory

This was fighting talk indeed. But it was the Mayor’s job to boost the morale of the people of Portsmouth. How did morale hold up? Angus Calder has written about a ‘Myth of the Blitz’, suggesting that while the conventional view of the blitz is largely accurate, it does neglect to take account of episodes of panic and crime. Mass Observation, an independent body who specialised in observing people’s behaviour, reported that although there were indications that there had been serious emotional distress, the morale of Portsmouth held up remarkably well considering what it had suffered.

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Portsmouth in February 1941 to inspect the damage, followed later by Winston Churchill.

The destruction of large parts of Portsmouth, although tragic and traumatic, did however give an opportunity to rebuild substantial parts of the city. A blank canvas awaited the city’s post-war planners and architects.

11 Comments

Filed under Local History, portsmouth heroes, Uncategorized, World War Two