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Obliterated – The Blitz On Plymouth

Photo: A policeman pictured at the start of Tavistock Street in 1941. (All Images HMP unless otherwise stated)

 

The Blitz on cities such as London and Coventry was directed at the destruction of civilian and industrial centres, but the Germans also sought to neutralise the Royal Navy by attacking its home bases. In the spring of 1941, the Luftwaffe turned its attention to attacking the Devonport dockyard at Plymouth. It was, however, the city itself which was hit.

“We all cowed in a coal-house under the stairs for what seemed to be hours, deafened by the roar of aircraft and ack-ack guns and bombs dropping” remembered teenager Pearl Marshall. “When at last it was over I walked home and as I came to the top of Eldad Hill the whole of Plymouth centre could be seen as one great fire. No one could describe the horror of what had been done to Plymouth. There was nothing left except piles of rubble and craters and burning ashes.”

Smoke billows from a fire started in Plymouth during an earlier raid, in this case during November 1940. (NARA)

Plymouth had seen raids before. The first visit by the Luftwaffe was a daylight raid on 6 July 1940. At around midday a single aircraft, flying high, dropped its bombs on a block of eight houses at the Corporation Housing Estate in Swilly Road, Devonport. Three were killed.

The next attack took place on the following day and further raids occurred throughout that summer and the autumn of 1940. In one instance on 11 September, a single bomb killed 13 people and injured 15 others, when it exploded at the junction of Chapel Street and Emma Place in the Stonehouse district of the city. A fortnight later, a heavy raid targeting Keynsham Dockyard and ships in Plymouth Sound, resulted in many houses being damaged in Goschen Street.

The people of Plymouth became accustomed to the sound of the air raid sirens as winter came with repeated attacks in November and December. The New Year saw the Luftwaffe’s attacks increase in intensity and on the evening of 13 January, 151 people were killed or wounded. This was Plymouth’s 256th ‘alert’.

It was in March 1941, however, that Plymouth suffered its heaviest attack to date. The city’s shopping centre became the target of a mass raid which began at 20:30 on the 20th. The attack started with incendiaries followed by wave after wave of bombers dropping high explosives. It was easily the most terrifying raid that Plymouth had experienced to date.

Piles of rubble mark the passing of the Luftwaffe during the Plymouth Blitz.

Brian C. Searle was a schoolboy at the time. When the sirens sounded he went with his grandfather and mother into the communal shelter situated by the edge of Plymouth’s Central Park, just 300 or 400 yards from their home. Brian described the shelter as being reasonably spacious and those inside were able to sit quite comfortably.

 The lights went out and screams rent the air and the choking dust permeated everywhere

Then the bombs began to fall: “There was an enormous explosion. The lights went out and screams rent the air and the choking dust permeated everywhere. We appeared to be trapped. The shelter had received a direct hit on what was later established to be the entrance area where we had been sitting, probably less than an hour before.” Brian’s grandfather was killed as were others. Brian and his mother were amongst the last to be pulled out of the rubble.

One of those sent to help was a 17-year-old ambulance driver: “When I arrived soldiers with lights [were] digging people out at the sides of the crater. Some were just parts of bodies and, where it was possible, we had to attach a label to the body or parts, with my name and the name of the first aid post and whether it was male or female. We then went into the shelter, and there were all these people just sitting, some with children still on their laps, people with glasses on, and the glass still intact, and they were all dead, killed by the blast … their hair looked like wigs, sort of lifeless and dusty.”

Soon fires were raging beyond the control of the fire fighters, even though they fought desperately all night long. Eventually the water ran dry and the fires were left to burn themselves out.

A group of ARPs gather in New George Street, with Plymouth’s old Odeon cinema as a backdrop.

“TWO NIGHTS OF VERITABLE HELL”

“I recall the bombing was particularly heavy,” continued young Pearl Marshall. “When we emerged from the shelters many strange and terrible sights met our eyes when daylight arrived. Whole streets of houses collapsed like a pack of cards. ARP men digging for survivors or bodies while firemen fought alongside them trying to control the fires. Perhaps a whole front of a house might be blown away and a fragile gas mantle still hanging untouched by the blast. Direct hits were made on cemeteries and communal centres … most of the centre of Plymouth had just been destroyed. There was no power, water or gas and indeed there was very little hope.”

These sentiments were shared by many that morning: “The dawn revealed the greatest tragedy in Plymouth’s history. The scene of devastation was beyond description. Gaunt buildings, piles of smouldering rubble, miles of hoses, the stench and the grime. Hollow-eyed for want of sleep, grimly silent, but still with an unconquerable spirit, the people set about the task of clearing up.”

That task was an immense one, especially as the following night the Germans came again. Much of what had not been destroyed on the 20th was brought smashing down on the night of 21/22 March. “Havoc was widespread,” wrote a reporter for the Western Morning News. “Almost whole streets of old and imposing houses in the Hoe district, many churches, schools, clubs, revered public buildings, and business premises whose firms had for years been household names, were swallowed in that welter of senseless destruction. In sad truth, it could now be said that Plymouth’s shopping centre had been wiped out in two nights of veritable hell.”

Uncontrolled fires in a number of large commercial buildings in Plymouth’s Drake Circus.

It cost of the damage caused on those two nights was estimated at not less than £100,000,000. More than 20,000 properties were destroyed or damaged. The number of people killed during these raids amounted to 336, with a further 283 seriously injured. Many hundreds were less severely injured. A number of civilians were reported missing, with no trace of them ever being found. They were simply buried under the tons of debris or blown to unidentifiable pieces.

PORTS AND HARBOURS TARGETED

It had become clear the Luftwaffe was aiming to influence the course of the Battle of the Atlantic by attacking ports and naval bases. In the 12 weeks from 19 February to 12 May, of the 61 raids involving more than 50 aircraft, 39 were directed at the western ports, compared with just seven against London.

Fire fighters battle to bring under control a fire in Old Town Street, one of the busiest routes in the city.

The attacks in April, which reached their climax in the last half of the month, also had another purpose. Besides causing economic damage and disrupting the ports at the end of the UK’s supply lines from the sea, they were intended to distract attention from German preparations to invade the Soviet Union. Heavy raids were delivered against London, Clydeside, Bristol and Belfast. On the 21st of the same month it was Plymouth’s turn, and the raiders came back day after day.

“Incendiaries literally falling like rain give background whine to the varying rhythm of bursting high explosives,” ran a Mass Observation Report on the attack. “Firewatchers seeking cover; fire fighters vainly seeking water; hurrying tin-hatted officials eyeing the tempting gutter display of tinned foods, dressed chickens, fruits and tobacco. In the middle of the road stumbling shipwards over the network of limp and sagging fire-hose, four sailors sing in drunken hilarity, waving caps in salute of descending flares.”

 The civil and domestic devastation in Plymouth… exceeds anything we have seen elsewhere

These Mass Observation reporters were experienced people, yet even they were shocked at the destruction. “The civil and domestic devastation in Plymouth,” ran their report, “exceeds anything we have seen elsewhere, both as regards concentration throughout the heart of the town, and as regards the random shattering of homes all over the town.”

Joyce Prowse was 14 at the time: “My mother said to me after the worst night, ‘Come on, we’ll walk to town to see what damage they’ve done,’ so we walked to the end of Ebrington Street and stood at ‘Burton’s Corner’ and saw nothing but smouldering rubble, hundreds of fireman and hoses. They said, ‘You can’t go any further.’ We didn’t intend to anyway, we just stood, Mother crying her eyes out. I’d never seen mother cry before. She was heartbroken.”

Of the 179 German aircraft despatched on the 21st, 169 claimed to have reached and attacked Plymouth, dropping 187 tonnes of high explosive bombs. The attack lasted from 20:43 until 23:40, and was centred on the south part of the city docks, between The Hamoaze and Sutton Pool.

The blast of at least one bomb caused this damage to the Western National Bus depot in Prince Rock.

The following night the Luftwaffe returned with a similar number of aircraft. “The heavy detonations of the bombs, following the nerve-wrecking dive of the bombers, and the shriek of the falling missile,” wrote H.P. Twyford, “the crackle of fire, the choking dust and smoke, the crash of the anti-aircraft guns, as they did their best to put a barrage against those waves of raiders, the sinister whine of shell splinters, the falling of destroyed buildings – those were the elements which dominated during those five hours of hell … Then there was the widespread destruction from the high-explosive bombs. Public buildings, business premises, private houses, were brought down to heaps of rubble and timber, twisted steel, and clouds of choking dust. Several streets were blocked by yawning craters.”

 The tremendous glow in the sky was our signpost all through the night

Hundreds of fire service personnel were rushed to Plymouth from all parts of the country to assist the city’s exhausted teams. One man remembered talking to members of one brigade which came from beyond Salisbury to help. “There was no need to ask the way,” remarked their leader. “The tremendous glow in the sky was our signpost all through the night.”

Despite the desire to help, many of these fire fighters could do little or nothing as their equipment was of a different standard to Plymouth’s. “Here was Plymouth, with all the wide ocean washing her front doorstep, two broad rivers lapping her flanks,” wrote one exasperated citizen. “Yet she burned in the most appalling fashion because there were not the means to fight the fires.”

The fire fighters had to rely on the ordinary water mains, many of which had been damaged by the previous night’s raid. It was, one person said, “like trying to put out a blazing warehouse with a stirrup-pump.”

The attacks were starting to take their toll, even on the armed forces. “There was almost a mutiny in Devonport that night [the 22nd],” wrote historian Juliet Gardiner, “when sailors aboard HMS Jackal refused to return to their stations unless they were promised shore leave to see how their families were faring. Lord Louis Mountbatten, Captain of 5th Flotilla, finally acquiesced to the men’s request. There was no subsequent court martial after it became apparent that when the men did go ashore many found they had lost homes, relatives and friends in the raids.”

A typical street scene after the air raids of spring 1941.

The sight next morning was one of utter desolation. “100 Royal Engineers were drafted in to clear the total of 85 UXBs that blocked the roads and made buildings unsafe. Hoses wielded by blackened and exhausted firemen played on still-burning buildings. Steamrollers were flattening the piles of rubble. Fourteen of Plymouth’s 46 rest centres had been damaged and had to be closed. Urgent calls went out for billets for the homeless, and though Devon, which had been designated an evacuation area, seemed to have no spare capacity, representatives from Exeter, Totnes and Dartmouth arrived to see if they could help.”

THE WORST BLITZED CITY

After these two raids, in a seemingly unrelenting barrage, further attacks followed on the 23rd, 28th and 29th. Of the attack of the 23rd H.P. Twyford wrote, “For the third night in succession the whole business of fire, blast, death, and destruction has been visited on the city. The features were much the same, but they brought only more misery, more ruin, more hatred. This time – the raid was of similar duration, worked almost to a timetable – the greatest weight of the attack was in the Devonport, Stonehouse, Saltash, and Torpoint areas … On this day, without any question, I think, Plymouth stood as the worst blitzed city in the country.”

Another photograph of the blaze at Old Town Street.

At the end of this series of raids the city’s housing casualties exceeded the number of houses in the city as some had been hit more than once. Several well-known hotels and about 150 pubs were also hit. The continuing attacks rendered whole streets into “nothing but twisted girders and rubble”. Amongst those that witnessed the devastation was the American journalist Quentin Reynolds, who wrote that, “Nothing I had seen had prepared me for the sight of Plymouth”.

AN EXODUS

30,000 people were homeless and as many as 50,000 spilled out into the surrounding countryside to sleep in barns, churches, quarry tunnels, even in ditches and under hedges – including the mayor and several councillors. Many found the rural rest centres already overcrowded.

One person came upon a group of 40 on the edge of Dartmoor: “They were walking about, and I asked them what they were going to do for sleep. ‘Oh, we will be all right. The moor soon dries off, then we will roll ourselves up and keep warm …’ Some began to cuddle their children up in rugs, others still walked about and quite a few started back to town … This group was bombed out and were getting their children away in the morning … by daylight there was a general walk back and they said they would not come again after the children had gone. Don’t know how they kept cheerful because it was frosty and I was dirty, tired and frozen.”

With the rubble pushed aside, some semblance of normality slowly begins to return to Drake Circus.

Others sought to leave Plymouth altogether and Devon’s leafy lanes were busy as whole families took to the roads to escape the bombing. With their possessions heaped into handcarts, prams, or the back of a bicycle, or just stuffed into a bundle, they were to be seen trudging away from Plymouth being overtaken by cars, lorries and taxis.

For five days, the skies remained empty of German bombers. Then, on the 29th and the 30th, the raiders returned. “Last night Plymouth was hammered again. The raid was quite characteristic of the previous heavy attacks – the opening shower of incendiaries and then the high explosives. Again the toll in life and property was heavy. Fires everywhere … The smoke and dust-laden air must have made the picking out of objectives well-nigh impossible, and all the raiders seemed to do was to pour their bombs into the fiery cauldron.”

 All the raiders seemed to do was to pour their bombs into the fiery cauldron

“NEVER SEEN THE LIKE”

On 2 May 1941, Churchill visited the city to offer his support. “Though decoy fires helped save the dockyards,” noted the Prime Minister, “this was only at the expense of the city”. Travelling with Churchill (and Mrs Churchill) was his Assistant Private Secretary, John Colville. “At 15:30 we drove round Plymouth,” Colville later wrote. “It has suffered five heavy raids in nine nights and scarcely a house seems to be habitable. It is far worse than Bristol: the whole city is wrecked except, characteristically, the important parts of the naval establishment. Mount Edgecumbe, where we used to land from the sea, is burnt out as well. In Plymouth itself I saw a bus which had been carried by the force of an explosion, on to the roof of a building some 150 yards from where it had been standing.”

A small number of the many thousands of Plymouth’s residential properties destroyed in the Blitz.

Earlier in the day Churchill had visited the Royal Naval Barracks where bombs had killed a number of sailors: “There was a gruesome sight in the gymnasium: beds in which some 40 injured men lay, separated only by a low curtain from some coffins which were being nailed down. The hammering must have been horrible to the injured men, but such was the damage that there was nowhere else it could be done.”

During the day Churchill received a telegram from President Roosevelt stating that the United States would not assist the Allies in preventing Germany seizing the Azores and Cape Verde Islands. This and the scale of the damage he had seen in Plymouth led Colville to note: “The P.M. in worse gloom than I have ever seen him.” He went to write, “I think it is largely Plymouth that has caused him such melancholy – he keeps repeating ‘I’ve never seen the like’.”

Amidst the death and destruction, there were incidents of humour. One such was during the height of one of the heavy raids. Fires were raging and buildings and bombs were crashing down, when the police saw a sailor staggering down the street, shouting and cursing, with a door handle in his hand. The police grabbed hold of the sailor and tried to calm him down, assuring him that everything would be alright. “Alright?!” the sailor exclaimed, “the f*****s blew the pub clean out of my hand!”

As life returns to normal in Plymouth, work continues to clear up the rubble and debris.

The assessment of the five heavy raids of April 1941 on Plymouth was that, collectively, the attacks lasted for 23 hours and 16 minutes of continuous bombardment. A total of 1,140 high-explosive bombs, 17 mines and thousands of incendiaries were dropped. At the time, the casualty figures given amounted to 494 identified dead and 75 unidentified. This was later amended to a total of 590. Of those injured, 427 were detained in hospital, 190 treated as outpatients, and 527 were treated at first aid posts.

It was estimated that 1,500 dwellings were demolished or damaged beyond repair, and altogether 16,500 were damaged. Though Plymouth was not to experience such fearful and concentrated bombing attacks again, the proud and historic city had been all but obliterated.

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