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.