Aside from a few bombs in York’s very first raid that fell in the Cemetery and the River Foss behind the Castle Museum, the city centre had escaped damage in the Luftwaffe’s first three raids. It was the outlying areas of the city, such as Malton Road, Haxby, Osbaldwick, or RAF Clifton (today’s Clifton Moor) that had taken the brunt of the bombing.
The fourth raid of the city, on a clear, still, moonlit night of the 14th into the 15th November brought a number of incendiary bombs to the city centre and inner suburbs, but it was again the outskirts, this time Acomb on the south-western edge of the city, that was to suffer the most in this raid.
‘Incident 1’ – Incendiaries
The first report of the raid was telephoned by Air Raid Warden Gertie Crouch at 01:35 from her post at Alma Grove. The news was a 1kg incendiary bomb had come down in front of No.41 Hartoff Street, in the Fishergate area. It ‘burnt itself out on the pavement’, having been covered over by Warden Edna Sykes and C. Bannister of the Auxiliary Fire Service. (The role and action of Gertie and Edna illustrates the dangerous, front-line roles that women played inYork on the home front – as previously seen in the actions of Joan Maw in the second York raid.)
Further incendiary bombs were falling across the city centre as part of what the A.R.P. report of the night later considered ‘Incident 1’ (of three). An incendiary bomb fell on “spare ground opposite” No.36 Swann Street, Nunnery Lane. For this one, ‘Mr Hick of 40 Swann Street covered the bomb with sand … [and it] burned itself out’ – showing the role that ordinary, vigilant civilians played when there was a threat to their immediate vicinity.
Two hours later, it was reported that another incendiary bomb had come down through the roof of the L.N.E.R. Power Station on Leeman Road. It had set fire to ladders and timber stored on the premises. A fire engine from the City Fire Station nearby on Leeman Road was required at 03:30. When it arrived, it was found that the ‘fire had got a good hold but was quickly [brought] under control and finally extinguished by members of the Regular Fire Brigade’.
No substantial damage was reported in these incendiary incidents. That only three incendiary bombs were reported to the A.R.P. is at odds with the Luftwaffe’s Situation Report (No. 437) – a debrief of what was thought to have been hit in the raid by the German airmen. The Report claimed that 30 incendiary bombs were dropped over York, and that the target was the aerodrome at R.A.F. Clifton and a factory to its south (when in fact the bombs fell across the city centre – many miles away). Given that the other 27 incendiary bombs went unaccounted for, it is assumed that they failed to ignite or, if they did, were dealt with by the A.R.P. or civilians before they took hold and warranted reporting. As such, it gives an insight to the (in)effectiveness of incendiary bombs, especially when used it such a small scale raid as this.
‘Incident 2’ – Askham Lane
But the raids of the 14/15th November 1940 also included more destructive types of bombs: high-explosive bombs. At 06:43 – with the daylight just breaking along the late-Autumn skyline, and more than five hours after the first incendiary bomb was reported in the Fishergate Area, by when most of the city’s civilians might well have returned from the safety of their dank and cold shelters to the comfort of their beds – ten, 50kg, high-explosive bombs fell on the edge of Acomb.
Eight of the bombs fell across fields in a line running from west to east at Penty’s Farm to the rear of No.17 Askham Lane. Seven of these exploded, creating craters dotted across the grassland, each about 6ft wide and 3ft deep. The other bomb fell in soft ground on Batchelor Hill field and failed to explode. This unexploded bomb was inspected the following day by an Army Bomb Disposal Squad called from Leeds.
The A.R.P. report states that ‘[v]ery little material damage was done, only damage to glass and slates of nearby houses being reported’. [That ‘only’ would surely have grated with local residents affected by the raid had they known of it being used so casually in this citation!]
Being on the fringe of the city, there was an agricultural cost in this raid. A ‘pony and three beasts in a paddock were killed outright’, another shortly afterwards, and three cattle were injured by flying splinters. The A.R.P. Report for this incident concludes with a very British observation on the concern for the welfare of the animals involved: ‘No A.R.P. Services were required for this incident but, being advised by Air Raid Warden, Mr. Arnott, Butcher, of Front Street [Acomb], slaughtered the injured animals’.
Incident 3 – Beckfield Lane
The two remaining bombs to fall in Acomb landed on Beckfield Lane, opposite the junction with Newlands Drive. The A.R.P. report states that the first bomb fell between two semi-detached houses, Nos. 204 and 206, ‘demolishing a large part of the end of each house’. The occupier of No. 206, Mr. Keith Fenney, ‘received slight cuts to the face and sustained shock. Mrs. Fenney suffered a compound fracture of the arm, burns to the face, and shock’, which was judged a ‘serious’ casualty and both required hospital treatment. The Ministry of Home Security’s ‘Bomb Census’ was more refined in its research. It registers the bomb hitting the gable end of No.206, about 18 inches above the path level, causing a hole in the wall measuring 9ft by 12ft. The Fenneys’, of whom The Yorkshire Evening Post reported were in bed when the bomb struck, were remarkably lucky to not have suffered more serious injuries – or worse.
The other bomb fell on the concrete path immediately in front of No.210 Beckfield Lane and ‘demolished so much of the outer wall as to render the house unsafe … [but n]o casualties were reported from this incident’. In total there were three further unnamed casualties, and an ambulance and first aid were required.
The damage to these three properties on Beckfield Lane was so serious that ‘a rescue party’ was required ‘to carry out the necessary shoring’ of the buildings – a first in the air raids in York.
As with earlier raids, damage occurred to neighbouring properties, especially windows and doors being blown in. The Yorkshire Evening Post made reference to a ‘Lucky Escape’ by Mr. and Mrs. C.H. Hall, who lived only 15 yards away from the blasts on Beckfield Lane, but whom escaped uninjured. The newspaper includes a light touch of humour, despite, or perhaps because of, the serious nature of the raid: ‘Mr. Hall, who is a well-known fast bowler, looking at his damaged house today said: “I would like to have the fellow who dropped this on a rough wicket”.’
The Yorkshire Post gave a little more detail of the couple’s remarkable escape: ‘The front of their house was cracked from ground level to the roof, while the ceilings and walls were cracked and fell. The door of the bedroom in which [they] were sleeping was blown on to the bed, but both escaped without a scratch’.
Similar to ‘Incident 1’, the two later parts of this raid present a discord between the British A.R.P. and press accounts and the Luftwaffe’s Situation Report (No.437). The latter’s report mentions one of its aircraft’s machine gun being fired near the railways, and the 10 high-explosives being targeted at a factory to the south of R.A.F. Clifton which resulted in fires that were seen from the German aircrew. The reality is that the machine-gun fire was away from the railway tracks, and understood to have strafed along Carr Lane in Acomb. The ‘factory’ bombs were the ones that killed the ‘beasts’ and pony near Askham Lane, and destroyed the Kennys’ home on Beckfield Lane. The target factory was presumably the sugar beet factory that operated between Poppleton and Ouseacres, as this was an identified target on an OS Map that had been annotated by the Luftwaffe.
While the nuances of the Luftwaffe’s assessment of this raid may seem quite an esoteric concern – a specialist interest for aviation buffs, perhaps, it represents the changing nature of the ‘Blitz’ campaign being fought over Britain between the R.A.F. and Luftwaffe. By August 1940, the Luftwaffe was on the back foot in being able to defend its territories from R.A.F. night raids, which were guided by a superior form of radar than Nazi Germany possessed. The Luftwaffe’s answer was the formation in September 1940 of a night intruder/fighter wing called Nachtjagdgeschwader 2. By listening in to British communications, the Luftwaffe aimed to overcome its airborne radar inferiority that limited their ability to intercept British bombers min mid-flight when they entered mainland Europe by instead focusing their attacks on British R.A.F. stations, especially when their intelligence reports indicated that they would be stocked with bombers preparing to make bombing raids.
From late October 1940 onwards, this change in organisational tactics resulted in Luftwaffe enemy aircraft striking night raids over the eastern parts of England, including the Yorkshire region (“Raum C”). These night intruders would marauder, waiting to strike bombers as they took off or landed at R.A.F. airfields, or along their known flight routes.
The raids on York on 14/15th November are very much part of this new Luftwaffe approach. Having likely followed railway lines for orientation and to find urban centres, such as York, the Junkers Ju-88C enemy aircraft thought they were targeting R.A.F. Clifton – as shown in the Situation Report.
The Junkers airplanes that attacked York in this raid had recently been refitted with fixed, forward-firing guns in a new, solid metal nose which replacement a glass nose that was suited for bombing orientation. These improvements made the Ju-88C a surprisingly quick, heavy fighter – perfect for marauding in these night operations. But the loss of the glass nose reduced its bomber capabilities. Putting aside human error, these changes could account for the poor orienteering in these raids as to where their bombs fell – all exploding miles from their targets – as well as the use of machine guns along Carr Lane. York would come to witness more use of Ju88Cs during WW2, and tragically to more deadly effect.
This is not to say that Nachtjagdgeschwader tactics became the Luftwaffe’s go-to strategy at this point of the Blitz campaign. The bombing of Coventry, which took place on the same night and at a similar time to the fourth raid on York was occurring, proved that the Luftwaffe still had an appetite for heavy bombing. (In doing so, they were largely emulating the R.A.F’s approach to bombing towns and cities in Germany and its territories.)
The attack on Coventry involved 515 German bombers, including Heinkel He-111s, and resulted in the destruction of 4,300 homes, damage to two-thirds of the city’s buildings – including the decimation of its historic city centre and industries, and nearly 1,800 casualties; the scale of the Coventry raid was on a scale unprecedented to what York civilians would experience in its city during the war. The newspaper headlines of the 15th and 16th November 1940 were rightly full of the horror of the destruction of Coventry, reducing the attack on York to a near footnote.
Thanks to Wing-Commander Newbould for making available his detailed archive research to the Raids Over York project team.