Tag Archives: bombing

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.

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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.

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Bomber Harris: Butcher or Victor?

Arthur Bomber Harris

Arthur 'Bomber' Harris

Reading a recent Biography of Marshall of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris, the famous Bomber Harris of Second World War Bomber Command fame, it dawned on me just how controversial a figure he has become in recent years. Like Monty, he has suffered from History. Unfairly, in my view.

Harris took charge of Bomber Command in 1942, and oversaw its development until the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, a truly monumental task during a critical phase of the war. Harris had always been a firm believer in the power of the Bomber, and the ability of heavy Bombers to win the war on their own.

After the end of the war the contribution of Harris and his men has been consistently overlooked by Historians. He was the only major commander in chief serving in the succesful end phase of the war who did not receive a peerage in 1945. More recently, it has been argued by a number of Historians that the Bombing of Germany amounts to a war crime, that it had little or no effect on the outcome of the war, and that thanks to his close links to Churchill Harris was allowed to wage a private war of his own in the skies over Germany.

To argue that Harris was a war criminal is lacking an awareness of what pressures and conditions prevailed at the time. Whilst it was unpleasant, Britain was engaged in a total war, in which she herself had been heavily bombed, and was fighting a totalitarian regime. For a large part of the war, the only way that Britain could hit back at Nazi Germany was by Bombing. Whilst it was no doubt an unpleasant task, it was by no means as unpleasant as many crimes perpetrated by the Nazis. The alternative was doing nothing, which would have been militarily and politically unacceptable in the situation Britain was faced with. Some kind of effort had to be made to assist the Russians, and the British public had to feel that Britain was hitting back in some way. We should be careful not to judge acts of the past by modern conditions, or to discount them ebcause they dont fit in with our political motives today.

Reports during the war argued that area bombing was ineffective. One of these was written by a scientist whose prewar distinction was studying the sexuality of primates. Whilst the bombing may not have been of pinpoint accuracy, certainly it had SOME effect on the German war effort. Albert Speer, the German Minister for Armaments, certainly thought so. The disruption and effect on morale was important. Raids such as Operation Chastise, the famous Dambusters operation, had an immeasurable effect on British and German morale conversely, and forced the Germans onto the defensive over their own skies.

Harris by no means waged a private war. He was assured of his own knowledge, experience and confidence. His bosses, Churchill and Portal, largely let him get on with the task at hand, which speaks volumes of their confidence in him. But the bombing of Germany was part of a wider strategy, as agreed at political level domestically and with the Allies. At key phases Harris’s bombers were tasked to operate in support of the D-Day Invasion, something that he reluctantly but ultimately agreed to. In several cases his heavy bombers launched raids directly in support of the Army. They were unsuccesful, as he had predicted, but at least he tried. Hardly the actions of someone waging a private war.

Some accounts try to portray Harris as a coarse individual. In fact he was well read in military history and a very experienced aviator. Harris was initially critical of Barnes Wallis’s bouncing bomb, but when it worked he exclaimed to Wallis ‘now you could sell me a pink Elephant!’

Lastly, I think any leader or commander should be most suitably assesed by the regard in which they were held by their men. And most veterans of Bomber Command seem to concur that Harris was an ideal leader. It is hard to imagine another Airman trainsforming and commanding Bomber Command so well. In the states figures such as Ira Eaker, Curtis LeMay and Jimmy Doolittle are revered. Why not Harris?

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