Tag Archives: Strategic bombing

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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The Coventry conspiracy

Winston Churchill visiting the ruins of Covent...

Winston Churchill visiting the ruins of Coventry Cathedral (Image via Wikipedia)

I’ve been aware for a few years of a feeling that somehow Winston Churchill ‘sacrificed’ Coventry to the death and destruction that occured during the infamous bombing raid in November 1941 – see this article on the BBC website. Sadly, I just cannot agree. Even though I understand the sentiment of anyone from Coventry who felt that their city was thrown to the wolves. But whilst the emotions are understandable, the evidence just does not bear out some kind of conspiracy.

I think we need to be careful about castigating every General or politician who made a decision that caused lives to be lost in wartime – it would be a pretty long list. People will die during war, its a sad fact of life. And very often any decision to move resources to save lives in one respect will cost lives in another. That is the balance of decision making. And by the same token, if decisions are avoided just because someone might die, then nothing would ever happen. It was clear to all in 1939 that given the growth of strategic bombing, many civilians were going to die in the coming war. People had a grim cest la vie attitude to it then, why should we impose our hindsight morals now at a distance of 70 years?

Could Churchill, or anyone else for that matter, have done anything to stop the raid on Coventry? Even if every anti-aircraft gun in Britain had been thrown around Coventry, bombers would still have got through – AA fire was more for the morale of civilians than anything else. Even then, the prospect of moving large number of guns, men and associated infrastructure at such short notice is pretty pie-in-the-sky stuff, even before we consider that such a move would have left the rest of Britain undefended. Neither could the city have been evacuated at such short notice – hundreds of thousands of people. Where would they have gone to? Evacuation of children was routine, but complete evacuating a city on the pretext of one incoming raid would have set a dangerous precedent. There were already fears about civilian morale, such as the treckers who left cities for the countryside every night.

I’m sure there are plenty of examples of the authorities getting intelligence of incoming raids in the days and hours beforehand. But at that early stage in the war, not much could be done. Advanced warning DID allow the civil authorities and emergency services to be fully prepared. But to act too pre-emptively would have prejudiced intelligence sources, in particular the breaking of secret German codes. Whilst later in the war I believe that more risks should have been taken on the basis of Enigma decrypts, earlier in the war – particularly when Britain stood alone – intelligence sources had to be closely guarded. Saving hundreds of lives in one situation might have meant the loss of thousands further down the line. Such is the cold hard balance of losses in wartime.

People like to take comfort in conspiracies – or flog books off the back of them – but for the most part they are just that – conspiracies.

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War Crimes against Airmen

As I’ve written previously, hundreds of young men from Portsmouth were killed whilst serving with Bomber Command during the Second World War. Many of them were shot down over France, Belgium and Holland, and indeed Germany, particularly during the vast Strategic Bombing Offensive from 1942 onwards.

Given the huge numbers of bombers going out almost every night, and the German defences of flak guns, night fighters and searchlights. Over time, the odds of survival were rather frightening indeed. And unsurprisingly, more than a few men found themselves parachuting out over occupied Europe, or surviving air crashes. Men who found themselves on the run faced varying treatment – hidden by patriots in the occupied countries, evading via the escape lines, captured by the Germans, or, in the worst case, murdered by German civilians or the authorities.

By rights, RAF crew in uniform should have been afforded the rights of lawful combatants under the Geneva Convention. However, as with the Kommando order and the Laconia Order, Hitler considered that international law need not apply, and ordered that ‘spies’ were to be shot, and civilians were not to be prevented from murdering downed aircrew. There are stories, sadly, of allied airmen being murdered by pitchfork wielding farmhands.

Given that several hundred men from Portsmouth died in downed Bombers, the sad likelihood is that some of them may have faced treatment that would constitute a war crime. It is hard to find out too much about which might have been murdered, as the Bomber Command loss records do not necessarily contain information about what happened.

But I have recently been contacted by a relative of Flight Lieutenant Patrick McCarthy, who was killed when his Lancaster PB148 ‘MG-C’ of 7 Squadron RAF crashed on the night of 18/19 August 1944. They were on a mission to bomb Sterkrade, the synthetic oil processing plant in Oberhausen, the Ruhr. And by coincidence, MG-C is the only aircraft lost during the war to have contained two Portsmouth men – also onboard was Pilot Officer Alan Hargrave.

The Bomber Command Loss records only record that MG-C took off from RAF Oakington at 2304. No other information is available, apart from that the men are all buried in Bergen General Cemetery, Holland. The entire crew were:

F/L P.G.McCarthy DFC KIA (Pilot)
F/O K.S.Carr KIA (Air Bomber)
P/O A.B.Hargrave KIA (Navigator)
P/O F.C.Allford KIA (Wireless Operator)
P/O B.F.Blatchford KIA (Air Gunner)
F/S M.S.Layton-Smith KIA (Air Bomber)
F/S J.C.Gay KIA (Flight Engineer)
F/S E.A.Batterbee KIA (Air Gunner)

Notice that there are eight crewmembers. Most Lancasters only had seven. The McCarthy family believe that the crew may have been murdered, as the germans suspected that the extra man was a spy. Apparently the aircraft had crashed near Alkmaar in Holland, very near Bergen. Apart from that, I have no other information. Looking at their roles onboard, the extra man seems to have been one of the air bombers, Carr or Layton-Smith, who might have been flying as an observer or ‘second-dicky’ for the experience. A look at the Squadron Operations Book should show who the regular crew members were. It looks like the Germans mistook the extra man for a spy.

After the war, however, the British Army in Germany investigated reports of War Crimes that took place in its area – including Belgium and Holland. And there are quite a few records in the National Archives in series WO309 about investigations into incidents. On my next trip to Kew I hope to have a look at 7 Squadron’s Operations Record Book, and then sift through the war crimes reports to see what I can find out, and see if I can solve the puzzle of what happened to MG-C.

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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.

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