The Luftwaffe covertly used their support of General Franco‘s Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) to test out the success of their latest warplanes and to fine-tune their “blitzkrieg” fast assault tactics. This was most infamously seen in the aerial bombing of the Basque Country town of Guernica on 26 April 1937, which caused the death of several hundred, possibly thousands of civilians; the horror of the destruction famously being depicted within 35 days by Picasso in his painting, “Guernica”.
The Nazi Air Ministry learnt many lessons from their involvement in the Spanish Civil War concerning the effectiveness of their aircraft, ordnance, the ability of their aircrew, and how civilians reacted to their attacks (most being absolutely terrified). However, due to there being no effective military resistance from the Spanish Republican forces during these attacks, the Luftwaffe’s experience in Spain did not truly prepare their aircrew or demonstrate the performance of their planes when meeting a committed defensive force intent on preventing them from completing their missions, largely by shooting them down from the ground or the air.
A war in transition
During the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940 and thereafter during the ‘The Blitz’ campaign, both the R.A.F. and the Luftwaffe were required to continually assess and then reassess their strategies so as to neutralise the abilities of their enemy. By January 1941, this cat-and-mouse game had already resulted in changes in the Luftwaffe’s bombing tactics over England, including those of the first five raids on York. The strategy moved from daylight raids to only attacking at night; from principally targeting what they thought were York’s military defensive attributes – namely R.A.F. Clifton and searchlight sites – to striking at the industrial capabilities of the city; to introducing new tactics in the use of ordnance, from solely dropping 50kg high explosives bombs to using incendiaries, and, as witnessed in the earlier fifth raid (2 January 1941), using incendiaries and flares first and then returning in subsequent waves of a raid with the intention to drop high explosives when and where the city was illuminated by burning incendiaries or flares. The British civil defence forces likewise adapted to this latest tactic by recruiting many thousand ‘fire watchers’ who would spend their nights looking to the skies for incendiaries falling from bombers.
The first wave – incendiaries
The sixth raid on York, which came in the early hours of Thursday, 16th January 1941, saw a similar success of the city’s civil defence force that had occurred in the fifth raid on the city, with their personnel and members of the public putting out the dropped flares and incendiary bombs in time to prevent ‘markers’ being in place by when bombers returned in subsequent waves of the raid. However, unlike the fifth raid, the sixth attack did feature the use of a second wave of high explosive bombing, all the same, and to deadly effect.
These high explosive bombs all fell in The Groves, then a traditional, working-class area of the city, with its urban grain a morass of compact terrace housing with rear and side yards. As a result and as captured in the A.R.P. Report of this raid, it is surprising so ‘few casualties casualties were caused by the H[igh] E[xplosive] bombs’ given that they fell in one of ‘the most densely populated parts of the city’.
The first wave of the raid came at 3.30am on what was a ‘clear moonlight night with snow on the ground’, when a lone Junkers Ju-88 bomber dropped approximately 250 incendiary bombs, each weighing 1kg, across many parts of the city. They fell on the Clifton, Fishergate, Guildhall, Holgate and Monk Wards.
Unlike the earlier raids over York, no public air raid alarm warning was raised in time according to a ‘Report on the Operation Civil Defence Services, 16th January 1941’. This lack of an alarm may well have been due to the bomber having been earlier plotted moving near Pickering and heading north and away from York. It subsequently turned sharply south-west and back for York, possibly following the railway tracks.
The lack of alarm, combined with the time of the attack in the middle of the night, likely accounts for why most of those civilians mentioned in the reports and newspaper articles of this raid were not in private or public shelters when the bombs began to fall, and with some caught in their beds and asleep at the time. It likely also contributes to the casualties in this raid.
The A.R.P. Report states that fires took hold at St. Maurice’s Church, Monkgate, the Presbyterian Church on Priory Street, No.13 Nunmill Street, just off Scarcroft Road, and No.16 Prospect Gardens in Bishophill.
At St. Maurice’s Church, the incendiary penetrated the roof and fell to the floor, burning a hole approximately 2ft 6 inches (c.75cm) in diameter under pews. Sparks were seen coming for the Presbyterian Church on Priory Street, but later no fire was found.
The incendiaries at the two residential properties – No.13 Nunmill Street, off Scarcroft Road, and No.16 Prospect Gardens, Bishophill, both took hold. At No.13 Nunmill Street, the incendiary crashed through the roof but became lodged in the lath and plaster ceiling of a bedroom (possibly startling the awakening occupants barely a couple of metres below). Having then burnt through the ceiling, the A.R.P. Report tells us the incendiary ‘fell to the floor, causing a fire which was extinguished by the occupants who suffered slight burns to the feet’. The Report likely does not truly convey the sheer shock and panic of the occupants, as they worked against the clock to extinguish the bomb from spreading fire in the home as the incendiary sparked more and more into life, spurting out streams of white-hot magnesium like a malfunctioning Catherine-wheel firework.
At No.16 Prospect Gardens, the incendiary ‘lodged in the cellar, causing a small fire which was quickly extinguished’.
The second wave – high explosives
Barely had some of these incendiaries been extinguished, and that German bomber made off towards Hull, a second Junkers Ju-88 bomber passed over the city at 5:05am, approaching from the southwest, in a what became a double run. They dropped in total eight 50kg high explosive bombs in The Groves district of the City.
The bomber’s first run resulted in two high explosive bombs being dropped. The first came down on the pavement in front of No.10 St John’s Crescent, causing ‘material damage to the front of this property’ and to neighbouring houses on either side. ‘Extensive damage was also caused to windows in St. John Street and district’ – implying a wide area from where the bomb struck. At the bottom of the 6 x 3 ft (1.8 x0.9m) wide crater, the gas main and domestic water pipes were fractured, adding the sound of shooting water to the noise of smashed glass, crashing roof tiles, explosions elsewhere in the city and the bomber’s engines receding overheard; and the smell of gas to add to the stench of scattered chimney soot and cordite from the ordnance.
The second bomb fell in Martin’s Yard, Lowther Street, approximately 10 feet (3m) from the local Warden’s Post (N.3) – the other two warden’s posts for this ward being at the Grey Coat School and in Garden Terrace. ‘A very shallow crater was caused owing to the bomb striking a stack of flag stones and detonating on impact. The Wardens’ Post was badly damaged and outbuildings nearby demolished’. Destruction was also caused by this bomb to the Church of St. Thomas nearby, blowing out the windows of the transept and damaging those of the nave, as well as widespread wrecking of surrounding buildings, especially windows, including St. Thomas’ Elementary School next to the church, where the porches were badly damaged and the glass roofs smashed and areas of the school rendered uninhabitable.
The third bomb – the first to fall from the bomber on its return run – ‘scored a direct hit in the rear yard of No.6 Haxby Road’ (a couple of properties along from today’s The Punchbowl public house at the junction with Wigginton Road). It ‘demolished the rear end of the house and outbuildings nearby’. The ‘air raid shelter [was] 8ft [2.4m] from the point of impact’ and consequently was ‘slightly damaged’ – a remarkable outcome given how close the explosion was. The ‘occupants of the house were indoors at the time, but were not injured’, which was good fortune indeed.
The fourth bomb fell in soft ground in St. Hilda’s School garden, Lowther Street, causing an 8ft x 4ft (2.4 x 1.2m) crater, demolishing a garden wall, and damage to windows in surrounding properties.
There was more extensive damage from the fifth bomb which directly hit outbuildings to the rear of No.1 Dudley Street. The outbuildings were completely destroyed and the end walls of the property badly damaged. Tragically the damage was not just to the building. Three of the five occupants at No.32 Brownlow Street – which backs onto No.1 Dudley Street – were injured. As the bombs fell, the Bond family at No.32 made their way to the ground floor, but, unfortunately, Mr Harold Bond, a 53 year old grocer and head of the family, was on the bottom step of the stairs when the front door was blow in and hit him. He ‘sustained serious abdominal injuries’ and subsequently died later that day. Harold’s wife, escaped injury according to The Yorkshire Post, other than shock, but Clara and Audrey, two of the three Bond daughters, sustained cuts to their heads.
A further direct hit occurred with the sixth bomb. This time it only killed livestock at piggeries behind No.57 Eldon Street. ‘7 pigs were killed outright’, most being ‘blown to pieces’ and two others injured and subsequently destroyed. According to The Yorkshire Post, a horse in a stable nearby was unharmed, even though its stable’s walls and roof were demolished by the explosion.
The final two bombs caused only material damage. The seventh bomb fell on soft ground in the garden at the rear of No.15 Penley’s Grove Street, causing a crater 8 x 4ft (2.4 x 1.2m) wide, damage to outbuildings and glass in surrounding property. The eighth and final bomb also fell in soft ground, this time close to the lavatories attached to St Thomas’ School [since demolished], Lowther Street. Several of the ‘lavatories were demolished and damage caused to glass and ceilings of the school and the Church adjoining’.
Churches, schools and other civic buildings
Despite the numerous churches and schools damaged in this raid – in The Groves mostly, but also on Monkgate and Priory Street in Bishophill – these were not the Luftwaffe’s intended targets. The A.R.P. Report suggests that there was no intended ‘target of Military or Industrial importance’ for this raid. But the then-classified military records state the gasometers in Layerthorpe and Foss Islands Road was the target: with the first two high explosives falling 400 yards ‘short of the gasworks’ and the final six bombs dropped ‘in direct line with [the] gasometers’.
The reason churches, in particular, were more prominent to be damaged by incendiaries than other properties was likely due their large size, especially their feature of having large pitched roofs, and the use of timber in roof structures and internal fittings – such as the timber pews at St Maurice Church. Should an incendiary bomb land on a church or school roof, it was more likely that a ‘fire watcher’ would miss it and be unsighted from their viewpoint until it took hold in comparison with, say, a domestic terrace property. Even if spotted early on, it would take a volunteer fire warden considerably longer to reach the igniting incendiary device on a church or school roof than a domestic property; the longer the time it would take to reach the incendiary, the far greater the risk of it ‘taking hold’ and spreading as a fire requiring a more serious response. Nor did the incendiaries need to be igniting on a roof for churches and schools to present problems of access. The Yorkshire Post reported of this raid that attempts to put out the incendiary under the pews at St Maurice’s Church were hampered by the church being locked, requiring the fire brigade to be called to break down the door.
Not all churches, schools and other civic buildings were locked up, however, during raids in York. Such buildings were frequently used, up and down the country as Emergency Rest and Feeding Centres. The Civil Defence Handbook; A Guide to Householders, which was produced by City of York Council and issued by the A.R.P. Emergency Committee throughout the war was a useful guide for civilians as it listed all public shelters, wardens’ posts, emergency rest and feeding centres, the nearest first aid posts, the addresses of local Head and Deputy Wardens and the Officer in Charge – all on a ward by ward basis.
All 12 of York’s Emergency Rest and Feeding Centres were located in chapels, halls, churches or clubs:
- St. George’s Chapel (Hull Road and district);
- The Guild Room at Salem Chapel (St. Saviourgate);
- St. Thomas’s Parish Room (Haxby Road and district – image above: left);
- St. Mary’s Hall, Bishophill (Nunnery Lane);
- Honesty Girls’ Club and St Barnabas’ Hall (Leeman Road and district);
- Heworth Parish Hall (Heworth and district – image above: right);
- St. Andrew’s Hall, Alma Terrace (Fulford and district);
- The Parish Hall, Front Street (Acomb and district);
- St. Edward the Confessor Church (Dringhouses)
- Salvation Army Citadel (Gillygate)
- St. Clement’s Church Hall, Nunthorpe Road.
The Raids Over York project is delighted, also, that Pauline W. has contacted us to tell us that during the “Baedeker Raid” in 1942, she was a young girl living in the Burton Stone area. Her mother ran the Methodist Chapel nearby and was very busy during the raid. At Pickering Terrace a baby was born during the raid, and the mother arrived at the chapel to the sound of bombs exploding in the city and with the newborn baby in her arms.
Lucky escapes and the role of fate
In total, The Yorkshire Post estimated that a hundred properties had their windows damaged and ‘smashed fronts’ in this raid. (Showing, too, the different attitudes of the day compared to our own, the newspaper proudly announced that by daybreak ‘scores of the [broken] windows had been fastened up with asbestos sheeting’!) The newspaper reflected on the ‘vagaries of the blast’, which it considered ‘peculiar’; in ‘one street a row of houses was left windowless, while adjoining them were houses in which no damage whatever had been sustained’. Such an observation captures an interest found in national and local newspaper’s write-ups of raids in Britain where they marvelled in the apparent randomness, the sheer chance of the destruction. It perhaps also captures how by this stage of the war, and in particular the bombing raids of The Blitz, civilians were beginning to reflect on the role of fate – both good and bad – drawing on the uncanny from the increasingly normalised danger that came from the skies.
Despite continuing not to name the locations of the raids for fear of providing intelligence reports to the enemy, the Press was only too ready to name the victims of bombing and those doing daring, heroic work during raids. They were increasingly interested too in the randomness and in particular the ‘lucky escapes’ during bombing, charting a narrative to make sense of ‘The Blitz’ through human stories that captured the interests of the reader.
Examples cited in The Yorkshire Post for this raid include a Mrs Walles, who was nearly 90 years old ‘and had a very lucky escape’ when sleeping in her front room downstairs when one of the bombs fell near her scullery. ‘She was unhurt, but her 12-year old dog was buried under the debris, and it was a source of great satisfaction to her when the police were subsequently able to rescue it alive’. Similarly, ‘in one case [the location being unspecified] a child was sleeping in its cot, which was covered with glass [from the explosion], but the mother, going to recover the child, found that it had escaped injury’, and ‘in another house the occupant and his wife were blown to the ceiling of their bedroom but were not seriously hurt’. None of these details are covered in the A.R.P. Report or military record. This is not to say they did not happen, just that journalists who arrived the next day had a keen ear for such stories, and civilians were keen to tell them of their lucky escapes.
Learning as we go
The A.R.P. Report concludes with a rather self-congratulatory ‘point of interest’, that ‘the protection afforded in the newly constructed Wardens’ Posts was clearly demonstrated. A 50kg bomb detonated close to the post and although a Warden was on duty in the post at the time, he escaped all injury’. (The Yorkshire Post was less congratulatory, reporting that it was occupied by two wardens at the time, ‘one of whom suffered a slight shock’). The 6″ (15cm) concrete roof of the post, which had been constructed in September 1938 on top of 14″ (35cm) thick brick walls, ‘was lifted and the walls badly cracked, but no penetration by splinters or collapse occurred’.
This observation reinforces the idea that the civil defence forces, as well as the military – of both Britain and Nazi Germany – were very much ‘learning on the job’, keen to evaluate the effectiveness (and no doubt on other occasions, the ineffectiveness) of civil defence structures, strategies, as well as the general public’s ability and willingness “to take it”, the latter being a key factor very much of concern to Churchill’s newly appointed National Government and requiring bolstering through the use of propaganda campaigns in the Press.
Such evaluation of the effectiveness and being minded towards making improvements is evident throughout the ‘Report on the Operation Civil Defence Services’ made the day after the raid. It is littered with comments such as ‘Motorcycle despatch riders were successively used in these operations’; ‘Communications worked well despite damage to telephone installations at the scene of the incident’; ‘The staff of a First Aid Post was called out on the snowball system and was in action 15 minutes after it was known to be required’; ‘Wardens’ reports were fairly satisfactory on a basis for action’; ‘The exchange system of stretchers and blankets at Hospitals worked according to plan’.
This line of evaluation is extended in the A.R.P. Report on the sturdiness of the ‘brick built domestic shelter (standing)’ – as opposed to a subterranean shelter – at No.6 Haxby Road, where one of the 50kg bombs exploded close by. Interest in the sturdiness is also seen in the military records of the raid, which account in detail the dimensions and composition of the shelter as well as the range of damage arising from the bomb falling just in front of it. (It measured 6’8″ x 3′ (2 x 0.9m) internally, with the wall facing the bomb being 14″ (35cm) thick and under a 6″ (15cm) reinforced concrete roof; 9″ (22cm) of brickwork at the facing corner was blown away, the timber door and frame were blown in, splinter fragments of the bomb penetrated 3″ (7.5cm) and 4.5″ (11cm) in the front brick wall, and the concrete roof was shunted back and across to the side.
The A.R.P. Report considers this shelter ‘stood up very well to a near miss (approximately 8ft [2.4m] from the point of impact). … Any person taking cover in the shelter would have been adequately protected.’ (Given the military record’s report of the violence of the bomb’s explosion, it is unlikely any sensible person would have volunteered to test this hypothesis!)
We might ponder whether or not many civilians of the day would have had such confidence in the security provided by their similar, standard ‘brick built domestic shelters’ had a bomb landed so close to the shelter as had happened at No.6 Haxby Road? But there must have been confidence, all the same, in hearing of such a story and official viewed that full protection would have been provided to the occupants of No.6 had they been in the shelter at the time of the bomb exploding. (No doubt, too, ‘Chinese Whispers’, in telling this tale from neighbour to neighbour, reduced the closeness of the bomb’s impact to being an as-good-as direct-hit!) Indeed, that civilians had become so aware and in contact with these new weapons of war – incendiaries burning through your bedroom ceiling, high explosives falling barely metres away from a Wardens’ post or a domestic air raid shelter – and yet to be able to live to tell the tale – and what a tale! – is the most remarkable aspect of this raid.
ADDENDUM: Brick and concrete roof air-raid shelters
In many ways the brick shelter with a reinforced concrete roof in the rear yard of No.6 Haxby Road is highly typical of private shelters in York during the war. Part of the ambition of the Raids Over York project is to document examples of the different types of shelters still standing today in the city.
As York’s water table is comparatively high in large parts of the city, it prevented the inclusion of basements in the city’s standard terraces, as are commonly found in, say, Leeds, Sheffield or Harrogate, forcing the authorities to opt instead for constructing external shelters for civilians.
Again, the water table frequently prevented the widespread use of the national shelter programme of Anderson Shelters in York (although some were used and continue to exist in the city), as these were most effective when semi-subterranean and dug down into the ground.
York’s standard private air-raid shelter is therefore most often a simple brick and concrete roof structure, usually in a rear yard or garden and set slightly away from the rear of the property.
These brick shelters invariably have two-skins of brick – making the walls 9″ (23cm) wide.
They had a simple entrance to one side (not central to it), and had a flat or slightly pitched 6″ (15cm) concrete roof atop.
While the Covid-19 pandemic has complicated gaining access to better record these shelters, as is the Raids Over York project’s intention, we are grateful to homeowners who have contacted us and sent details and images of their shelters so far. You can too, by contacting us via this website or our social media channels.
We are also very interested to learn what the city’s remaining private shelters are used for today – and tool shed or bin store perhaps? And we would love it if you could also send us a picture of you or your family in front of the shelter! It helps to really make that connection between life in York today and the remarkable history of York during World War Two – everything that the Raids Over York project is about.
Thanks to Wing-Commander Newbould for making available his detailed archive research to the Raids Over York project team, and homeowners on Huntington Road, Lindley Street, Glen Road, Mill Lane, Levisham Street, and Melbourne Street for details and images of their brick and concrete roof air-raid shelters.