Up until this fifth raid on York, all earlier raids had been conducted late in the evening or the early hours of the morning. For most people, the experience of war from the air for them was one of being awoken and then having to decide if it was another false alarm or a real raid and if so quickly leaving their beds to seek an air-raid shelter.
The fifth raid occurred on a Thursday in the early evening. Being only a day after New Year’s Day, people in the city had only just returned to work or were still enjoying the festivities and school holidays. The approaching Junkers-88 bombers led to air raid sirens going off in the city at 5:54pm, no doubt when workers were arriving home and family meals were being had. As such, the experience of direct threat coming during daytime routines would likely have brought about more confusion and disarray than the earlier, night raids.
This was a small raid by the standards of the war (and for the city). Cardiff was to receive considerable bombing on the same night; as was London; Dublin, despite Ireland being ‘neutral’ during the War, also suffered a bombing raid.
But this fifth, York raid introduced a new threat that had not previously been used on such a scale in the city: the incendiary bomb.
The raid saw the enemy attack in three waves, the first two involving numerous incendiary bombs being dropped.
The first wave occurred at 6:30pm, with incendiaries falling in a line from Walmgate, Peaseholme Green, and Hungate – then an industrial area – and out along the Hull Road area. It caused fires at St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate (now the National Centre for Early Music); a home apiece in Landesdown Terrace and Nicholas Terrace; Bellerby’s sawmills, Hungate; Lazenby’s Garage and a joiners shop – both on Hull Road. The ARP Report records that ‘in no case was the fire serious’.
The second wave was only 45 minutes after the first – indicating that the bombers were circling around the city. More than 20 incendiaries were dropped ‘in various localities on the East side of the City but no fires were reported’. It included the Fishergate, Castlegate, Walmgate, Monk, Guildhall and the Heworth Wards. Off the latter, particular reference is given in the Report to incendiaries near a dwelling in East Parade, near the York Gas Works at Monk Bridge, and Heworth [village].
The A.R.P. Report also refers to other incidents, but is vague on these. They includes mention of reports ‘received of machine gunning at points where I.B’s [Incendiary Bombs] were burning and that flares had been dropped, but these were not confirmed’. The report concludes by saying that ‘no fires were reported’ from these additional bombs, and in any case all the incendiary bombs were ‘speedily dealt with, and when enemy aircraft again passed over the City [in a third wave] at approximately 19.40 hours no fires were burning’.
The references of fires burning and flares being dropped offer an insight into fears of an incendiary-bomb raid. The damage wrought from incendiary attacks on British cities must still have been very much in the minds of British public when this raid occurred – the near complete destruction of Coventry’s medieval timber city had only been nine weeks prior. York also had many medieval properties, similar to Coventry, as well as timber yards and sawmills along the Rivers Ouse and Foss that were at immediate risk should one of the incendiaries go undetected until it had ‘caught’ and caused a fire.
Unless they were extinguished immediately, incendiary bombs would quickly start fierce fires. Unlike high explosive bombs, which have left tangible evidence of their impact in the form of craters (since infilled in fields, gardens and on common ground) or as shrapnel damage to buildings and other structures, there is little evidence today in York of the damage incendiaries could do. This is likely to be the case for this raid, where the addresses of many of the properties in Heworth, Hungate, and Hull Road at threat from the incendiaries were not even mentioned in the A.R.P. Warden’s report, assumingly because the fires had been prevented by the time these were written. We shall see the true impact an incendiary bomb could have in the case of the destruction of the Guildhall and the Church of St. Michael Le Grande on Coney Street when the history of the 29 April 1942 ‘Baedeker Raid’ on the city is explored in detail in 2022.
During the War, British civilians were encouraged to volunteer as fire-watchers to combat the threat of incendiaries. By the time of the fifth raid on York – the first to use incendiaries on such a scale, fire-watching duty by civilians had only recently been made compulsory. Air raid wardens issued such fire-watchers with a stirrup pump and trained them how to use it. There was expected to be one pump per 30 houses or 150 yards of street.
Indeed, the York A.R.P. Report accounts that while all of the fires in the first wave and the incendiaries in East Parade, Heworth and at the Gas Works in the second wave were dealt with by the Auxiliary Fire Service, many of the other 20 or so incendiary bombs and flares in the second wave were dealt with by A.R.P. Wardens, the police and members of the public.
Despite such preparation, for many civilians, having to deal with an incendiary bomb, and quickly, before it would ignite and threaten to do such damage as had been seen at Coventry, must have been a very scary prospect.
The everydayness of the threat from incendiaries is evident in a series of ‘Ogden’s’ cigarette cards from the war. They depict an ordinary civilian – in this case a woman, presumably in her home – dealing with an incendiary bomb in four stages. The message is very much: you need to know of this military training, as you may well be expected to carry this procedure out in order to protect your home and family.
Indeed, it was only the day after this raid on York that The Yorkshire Post featured an article titled ‘How to Safeguard Your Home’. In it, Herbert Morrison, the well-known and regarded Minister of Home Security, addressed the British public:
This is an urgent call to national service. Under any heavy air attack your home, business premises, and city or towns are seriously threatened by fire. The enemy generally begins his raids by dropping great number of incendiary bombs. The fire brigades want your help to deal with them. … The incendiaries must be watched for, ‘spotted’ as soon as they land, and dealt with before they can start a fire that takes hold. In this work, every household, every shop, store, office, institution and factory must play its part. … If you are the head of the household, call your family together and make up your minds which of you will volunteer for membership of the fire party, and will take training. One at least should serve.
This public campaign for a nation of fire-watchers was reinforced by stories of such people saving lives and buildings in the press in the following days after Morrison’s call to arms; propaganda in any other word.
Towns and cities were rarely identified by name in press articles during the War so as not to provide vital information to the Luftwaffe on the success or not of its raid targets. But one Yorkshire Post article on an incendiary attack on ‘A North-East Town’ on the 2 or 3 January 1941 might well be referring to York. The stories in the article of public-spirited locals – including youths – aiding the army and A.R.P. in the extinguishing of incendiary bombs and putting out fires use a full range of techniques. They act as much as public information for others to do likewise in the future as much as factual reporting of past events.
The A.R.P.’s fear of having incendiaries alight and flares flaring was connected with returning bombers in successive waves, and using the fires and flares as identified targets to drop explosives on or strafe those attempting to put the fires and flares out. As Herbert Morrison states in The Yorkshire Post article: “Every one of those [incendiary] bombs, if it starts a fire that takes hold, not only destroys a houser buildings, but makes a target for high explosives”. Such a situation greatly enhanced the risk to the Civil Defence personnel, including fire-watchers, as they were dealing with incendiaries and flares of earlier waves of bombing. It made an already dangerous job even more so.
The reports of the Nachtjagdgeschwader 2 wing of the Luftwaffe account for 40 incendiary bombs falling in the city during the three waves of the raid, which tallies near enough with the British A.R.P. records. The Luftwaffe Reports also refer to good fires being seen over the city. This is perhaps more optimistic than the case was, and at odds with the A.R.P. Report.
All the same, a show of military presence in York for the next day after the raid was deemed as a good idea. As 250 marching soldiers were paraded around the city – including Parliament Street, The Mount, and most likely also the barracks on Fulford Road, it was a show of command and reassurance for the York public.
Thanks to Wing-Commander Newbould for making available his detailed archive research to the Raids Over York project team.