Two and half months after the shock of the first bombing raid on York, and with near nightly “false alarms” thereafter, the Luftwaffe returned to bomb the city on 28 October 1940. The bombing of the city on this occasion was part of a sustained raid campaign that night in the North-East of England – causing the Air Ministry to impose its then longest “alert” in the region – more than eight hours.
The raid that was to bomb the city on the night of the 28 October, when the the weather forecast was for a slight haze, no wind and cloud at 4,000ft, had left an path of what seems like random destruction en-route to York. After dropping four high explosives to the west of Easingwold, and incendiary bombs and flares near Huby Park, a further four high-explosive bombs were dropped near Haxby Moor (with the CO-OP in the village rumoured to have been machine-gunned by a low flying enemy aircraft).
The city’s A.R.P. record states that under the cover of darkness, at 22:27, a “stick” of four, high-explosive bombs were dropped in the Malton Road area of York. The first bomb fell in the farm yard of “Thorn Nook” – now demolished and incorporated by modern housing – but then just off Elmfield Avenue – and ‘did some small damage to a Cow Byre’ (a ‘cow and two claves in the byre were unhurt’!)
The second bomb was more destructive, striking a barn and wrecking one end of it and creating more damage to surrounding farm buildings.
The third bomb fell in the front garden of No.11 Sefton Avenue, creating a ten foot wide crater and doing ‘superficial damage to house property’ for the length of 100 yards on either side of the street and affecting 30 “semis” (later considered ‘extensive damage’ in the Police report). ‘Not a single pane of glass was left intact, and in many instances the window frames also were smashed’, according to The Yorkshire Post. Tragically two men were killed here: John Thomas March and Henry Coles. John was 34 years old, lived at No.9 Sefton Avenue, and was on duty then as a part-time Air-Raid Warden. He was killed instantly, taking the full force of the explosion. Henry, who lived at No.22 Sefton Avenue, and was 59 years old, received a fatal wound to the upper chest area and was also killed instantly. John March and Henry Coles are buried at York City and County Borough Cemetery.
The widespread damage from this bomb was captured in a press reporting The Yorkshire Post the following morning: ‘In addition to the two fatal cases, people who were sitting in their houses at the time suffered cuts from falling glass, most of which had been forced inwards’. Of the wounded, the newspaper reported that a ‘soldier on leave was in one house talking to his fiancée the the explosion occurred, and he received sever cuts’.
The fourth bomb fell at the rear of No.20 Sefton Avenue on soft ground and did little material damage.
The bodies of the two dead men were taken to the City Mortuary at the Cattle Market on Fawcett Street. The unpleasant task of identifying the body of John fell to his father, who was able to identify his son ‘by means of clothing’. Such a description in the ARP report hints at the grizzly disfigurement that such bombs could have on the human body.
Also included in the A.R.P. report of this raid are mentions of fine conduct – a first in the city’s WW2 ARP reports. Part-time air-raid wardens, William J. Middlemiss of No.30 Elmfield Avenue, and Miss Joan Maw of No.41 Elmfield Avenue were commended for ‘special comment’: William for reporting the raid, and Joan for ‘assisting the evacuation of people in the locality’. William was able to notify Control H.Q. within eight minutes of the first bomb falling, requesting first aid, a demolition team (to clear rubble), and ambulance. Census records of 1939 show that Joan Maw was only 19 years old at the time of this raid. She was living with her parents, William and Hannah, a building contractor and ‘unpaid domestic duties’ (a housewife in any other words!), respectively. At the time of the census, Joan was a clerk at one of the city’s chocolate manufacturers (more than likely Rowntree’s).
There was a further accolade for such war war immediately after the raid. The city’s mortuary superintendent, Mr. E. Sykes, wrote a letter to Mr Cooke at the A.R.P. Offices to express his “warm appreciation of the help and assistance received from the personnel of the A.R.P. who helped with the two fatal cases”. Sykes was particularly singled out a number of unnamed women for praise: “to the lady driver of the Ambulance” and “lady attendant” (who was, presumably, Joan Maw).
Joan’s role as a part-time A.R.P. warden is worthy of special note. Being a young female, she contradicts a popular myth – perhaps constructed through popular TV programmes and films after the War, such as Dad’s Army – that A.R.P. wardens were male and older members of the community, with female roles on the Home Front during the war centred around traditional realms of nursing, childcare, and secretarial work. Joan’s activities as an A.R.P. warden – as well as her commendation for her action in this raid, which illustrate her abilities in the role – help challenge such assumptions.
It is not clear what the intention of this raid was. Sefton Avenue and Elmfield Avenue were such new, interwar housing development that they did not even feature on the Luftwaffe’s target maps. Instead, this raid is likely to have been targeted at anti-aircraft and searchlight sites. All the same, the shock and fear created in the Elmfield Avenue, Sefton Avenue and Malton Road communities, and by the following morning of the raid, in wider York no doubt, would have been a welcome result from the raiders’s point of view, even if no anti-aircraft or searchlight sites were hit.
Even though this was a small raid in terms of damage and casualties, its impact should not be downplayed. It is hard not to feel the shock and surprise amongst this community, which at this time was on the absolute periphery of the city. As The Yorkshire Post mentions, many homes had not protected their windows. They could not have envisaged they would be a target, and understandably many were caught in their homes relaxing as opposed to taking refuge in shelters when the bombs landed. (Perhaps this shock raid explains why a number of air-raid shelters are still evident today in the area – a quick response to this second raid?)
The raid illustrates what must have felt like sheer randomness and bad luck should a “stick of bombs” fall in your neighbourhood, rather than the enemy aircraft passing over and those bombs falling in the next neighbourhood along. The addresses of the two men killed in this raid, as well as the two part-time A.R.P. wardens – all living on Sefton Avenue or adjoining Elmfield Avenue – brings home that public defence during the War was often provided at a very local level by those who lived in the immediate streets and knew that locality exceptionally well. Given the grizzly nature of the two fatalities in this raid, and the commendable role played by William and Joan, it is likely that the four individuals knew each other, and had done so for many years prior to the War. This would have been the case with the wider community who Joan was commended for evacuating. By the morning of the 29 October 1940, the realities of war would have very much hit home for this community, in the damage done to property by a 50lb high explosive bomb and, no doubt with word getting out, the horrific damage such a bomb could cause to the human body.
UPDATE: Raids Over York has subsequently been contacted by a direct relative of the Collins family, who lived at Thorn Nook Farm at the time of this raid. Althea Collins, then aged 7, was very fortunate to escape the raid unharmed, and the danger posed to human life by that bomb was far more than expressed in the A.R.P. report. Althea was in bed when the second bomb fell. She said that she used to sleep “curled up in a ball” and that this saved her life. Her pillow was shredded by the bomb but she received only a minor cut on her forehead, which she told her son, Frank, may years later, that she picked at for weeks, so proud she was of her war wound. (With an elder brother and sister both serving in the R.A.F. and A.T.S., respectively, Althea was the only member of the family wounded during WW2!)
Thanks to Wing-Commander Newbould for making available his detailed archive research to the Raids Over York project team, and to Frank Bridgeman-Sutton for information regarding the Thorn Nook Farm bomb and the burial locations of John March and Henry Coles.