‘I would spend whole evenings shaking with fear’
No British city suffered more from Luftwaffe bombs than Hull.
Seventy (five) years after the Blitz began, residents tell Mark Metcalf about life and death in the city
This is an article from Big Issue in the North magazine from 2010.
It may be 70 years ago but Betty Harrison is still unable to share her childhood experiences in Hull at the start of the 1940s. “It’s just too sad and painful,” she says with her body shaking and tears welling up.
Harrison, 82, however was one of the lucky ones, surviving the fearsome assault from above by Hitler’s Luftwaffe that started on 19 June 1940 and killed over 1,200 people over a four-year period, reducing much of Hull and surrounding areas to rubble. Per head of population, no British city suffered more, with over 86,000 of its housing stock of 92,000 damaged and 152,000 people forced to find temporary accommodation, some more than once.
Stan Clappison, now 85, recalls being bombed out three times. “The first time we were sheltering downstairs when the upstairs roof was blown off and we were showered with rubble. With nothing left except the clothes on our back we were given bread and sandwiches at a local church by the Women’s Voluntary Service, whose mobile canteens somehow got round the city despite obstructions and shell holes in the roads.
“The third time we had to move it was to a house down by the docks – the very spot the Luftwaffe were trying their best to put out of operation. As we walked there I couldn’t believe where we were going and when we turned the corner – amazing! We were bombed out that night, after which the family was evacuated, although with my dad working and acting as a warden he remained behind.”
In total 6,500 people served as wardens during the war, with numbers peaking at 3,900 in 1941. According to Clappison: “They did a fantastic job. They were out all night in dangerous conditions ensuring that curtains were drawn and helping
Hilary Edmunds was only six in 1941 but recalls: “We still went to school the following day. My parents, like many others, decided to initially stay in the city when evacuation took place at the start of the war.”
Only 30,000 people chose to be evacuated in 1939 – less than a third of the places available. “I think it was a case of ‘we live or die together’ but they also did their best to ensure I didn’t see any dead bodies. Yet I could work out that many people were being killed as I would walk out to Barmston Drain and watch the planes come in dropping dozens of bombs. You could see the pilots as the planes were very low and the searchlights would seek them out to make it easier for the anti-aircraft guns to shoot at them.”
With many people made homeless in 1941 the numbers evacuated from the city rose, and by the end of the war it totalled close to 93,000 – although many returned before the war ended in 1945. “I was delighted to leave as my nerves were in tatters,” says Sykes.
1942 was to be much quieter, although on 19 May the biggest bomb ever dropped on the city killed 50 people and flattened the densely populated Scarborough Street area. Over a year later, on 14 July 1943, the last heavy attack on the city by enemy planes saw 24 killed and 72 injured. From then on, rather than actively target the city, German bombers returning from raids across West Yorkshire and Lancashire offloaded remaining bombs before hitting the North Sea and flying home.
“My dad died many years ago but I am still proud of him, and those like him, for what was achieved in Hull during the war,” says Clappison.
“It was not a good time but during that period people showed some of their best qualities by working flat out to protect others, sometimes at the expense of their own lives. I think they deserve to be remembered.”
Death toll of the Blitz
Hull was bombed more than any city other than London in the Second World War but other northern cities suffered heavily as well.
Between November 1940 and February 1941 Sheffield, Liverpool and Manchester were heavily bombed.
On 12-15 December, Sheffield, with its steel and armament manufacturing factories, came under attack and 660 people were killed.
Determined to maintain morale the authorities and media played down the bombings. The Daily Mirror of 14 December reported: “Sheffield, walking to work yesterday morning, picked its way through damaged streets and smiled grimly at the Berlin claim that the German bombers ‘accurately aimed their bombs at the important armament factories of Sheffield.’” Deaths, continued the paper, “were amazingly low considering the length and ferocity of the attack”.
A week later over 300 Liverpudlians lost their lives. They included 166 who were killed when their shelter in Durning Road was directly hit. Over 700 Mancunians failed to see Christmas when the following two nights saw the city massively attacked. Hundreds of buildings were destroyed and damaged, including Old Trafford. This forced Manchester United to play their home league games at Maine Road after the war, and it was there that the club had its record home gate of 83,260 against Arsenal in January 1948.
With no indication that the attacks were to end, the Ministry of Home Security on 1 January 1941 set out plans to establish firebomb fighter parties in every street in the country. Locating unexploded bombs and putting out fires was to be everyone’s affair.
In early February 1941 German attention was switched to the seaports. Liverpool continued to be heavily hit, and by the end of the Blitz – a shortened form of the German word “Blitzkrieg”, meaning lightning war – over 4,000 Liverpudlians had been killed. But winning the war meant work had to continue. By 1945 the Mersey’s ports and its dockers had played a big part by handling over 90 per cent of all war material brought in from abroad.
Hull, Sunderland and Newcastle were pounded. Barrow-in- Furness was targeted for its shipbuilding and 83 of the town’s inhabitants were killed from above. Early May 1941 saw thousands across the north killed.
But with Germany intent on attacking the Soviet Union the Luftwaffe was now needed elsewhere. Whilst attacks were to continue throughout the rest of the war, the levels never reached anything like those suffered in 1940 and 1941.
The official figures are that 43,000 people, split evenly between Londoners and the rest of the country, were killed during the Blitz.