Thursday 3rd April 1941 was a chilly, overcast day in York, with flooding caused by the River Ouse.
The leading discussion topic for many people that Thursday was probably the recently revealed identity of “Lord Haw-Haw“, a radio personality who broadcast regular Nazi-propaganda to Britain from Nazi Germany through a wireless radio programme called ‘Germany Calling’. In his trademark affected upper-class English accent, during his 2nd April broadcast, “Lord Haw-Haw” confirmed his identity as William Joyce, an American-born British Nazi sympathiser. (Listening to “Lord Haw-Haw’s” propaganda was frowned upon by the British Government, but countless people listened anyway as entertainment or for snippets of truthful information – such as the fate of downed British aircrews and captured troops – amongst the propaganda.)
York’s civilian life on Thursday on the 3rd April was punctured at 1.40pm when the air-raid warning sirens began, and civilians took to public and private shelters, or hid under their stairs or in the sturdy, caged Morrison Shelters in their homes. Like the vast majority of air-raid sirens in York, this siren proved to be another false alarm. However, come the evening and the next siren, this time the Luftwaffe were overhead and dropping bombs once more on the city below…
At 9.35pm the air-raid siren sounded. Then, fifteen minutes later, a flare was sighted in the Boroughbridge Road and Clifton Ings areas, on the north-western side of the city, and with it, as the A.R.P. report tells us, ‘the light of many Incendiaries’.
Sixteen incendiaries were reported to have fallen in the Sugar Beet Factory near Poppleton, just north of Boroughbridge Road. Three of the bombs had crashed through roofs and entered buildings. Two units of the Auxiliary Fire Service were dispatched from the LNER Carriage Works on Holgate Rd, and most likely also from the Acomb-division based at West Garth (today’s Carlton Tavern public house) on Acomb Road. However, all the fires ‘were dealt with by the Home Guard on duty’ at the Sugar Beet factory, and a couple of fires on the ‘Ainsty Building Estate’ near Beckfield Lane were extinguished.
Considerable more incendiaries ‘fell in a line extended from the Sugar Beet Factory, across the river [to the north-west] and Clifton Ings (which was under water owing to floods) to the North Riding Mental Hospital’. At the latter, the incendiaries were similarly ‘dealt with by the Hospital A.R.P. Staff’, according the A.R.P. report – although The Yorkshire Post in its write-up of the raid the next day was more circumspect: ‘Watch tower lookouts saved [the hospital] …. from a serious fire’, with three firewatchers contacting fire-fighters with the exact location of the bombs, one of which ‘narrowly missed the nurses’ homes’. However, there was no casualties or damage resulting from these incendiary bombs.
Several incendiary bomb containers were also dropped on the airfield at R.A.F. Clifton, but, again, with no damage or casualties reported.
Despite the lack of destruction from the bombing, both the Sugar Beet Factory and North Riding Mental Hospital were of interest to the Luftwaffe, as shown on an annotated British OS map that they used in planning their actions.
All the same, the Luftwaffe’s reports of this raid claimed that their aircraft had dropped 5 x 1,000kg and 12 x 250kg high explosive bombs, and 3,672 incendiary bombs, on Hull between 9.20pm and 10.30pm on the 3rd April (Luftwaffe Situation Report No 573). Hull had come in for a series of heavy ‘blitz’ bombing action on weeks before, on the nights of 13th, 14th, 18th and 31st March. This had resulted in the loss of 200 lives. So, a fifth raid on Hull would not have been unexpected.
The York bombs were probably, therefore, strays from an intended Hull raid. Perhaps one or more German bombers had overshot that city but either: did not realise this and dropped their bombs thinking they were hitting Hull, not York; realised they had missed Hull and identified targets in York instead, or knew they had overshot Hull and simply dumped their bombs on the next recognisable urban centre of note, which happened to be York.
Sugar Beet Factory
York’s Sugar Beet Factory stood in a 100-acre site north of Boroughbridge Road, near Poppleton. The factory opened in 1926 to serve the farming community around Poppleton, drawing sugar from locally-grown beets.
During the war, sugar production was classified as an ‘essential element’ of Britain’s wartime food production programme, meaning skilled sugar workers were accorded ‘reserved occupation’ status. (The last sugar was produced at the factory in July 2007 and demolition of the site followed shortly afterwards.)
So whilst the factory was not transformed into wartime military manufacture, like many others were, it remained a target of interest to the Luftwaffe as part of its food-blockade tactic to starve Britain into surrender.
North Riding Mental Hospital
Clifton Hospital – or North Riding Mental Hospital as it was known at the time of the war – open in 1847 as a psychiatric hospital. By the end of the C19, the hospital came to use farming enterprises in land around the hospital for therapeutic purposes of patients, explaining its large grounds into which the incendiary bombs fell. (The hospital closed in 1994, after 150 years as a psychiatric hospital. It has been redeveloped since as ‘Clifton Park’ – mostly a business park with a few of the original buildings retained, including the former chapel for the hospital, and some of the mature grounds.)
During the war, the hospital was repurposed as the Emergency Medical Service, which was to provide hospital facilities for anticipated civilian casualties. It is unknown if the German military were aware of this new focus of the hospital, or if it was even a target, or simply detailed on the annotated OS map as a marker point for navigation?
The York A.R.P. report tells us that, of those that fell, only ‘[a] small percentage of explosive incendiaries were detected’. We might naturally wonder what happened to the many incendiary bombs that were not found? Seemingly it was members of the public who stumbled across them in the days after the raid (and possibly some of them are still out there!)
Sure enough, the City Archives at York Explore have a series of police reports of people finding incendiary bombs and – amazingly – taking them to the nearest police station.
One of these magnesium incendiary bombs was found near a signal cabin close to the Skelton Junction, where the Harrogate-York railway line meets the main East Coast line near Poppleton. It was retrieved by an unnamed railway goods engine driver at 6.30am – eight hours after the raid had passed. He passed it to Yard Inspector Germaine, who then passed it on to the Yard Master’s Office, from ‘where it was collected by Sergeant Longstaff’ of the local police force.
Another incendiary bomb retrieved from a similar area – this time by Cyril Walker of No.4 Queen Victoria St, South Bank – is detailed as having ‘adhesive tape wrapped round covering some holes at one end’, or so Detective Sergeant H. Jackson relays in his report – adding, that it had been ‘put in a bucket of water’ and ‘awaiting further instructions’.
One more incendiary bomb was handed in to the police on the 4th April, this time by Donald Bell of No.8 Rosedale Avenue, Acomb. Donald had found it in a field behind the Sugar Beet Factory. It had ‘been buried in soft earth and burnt slightly but almost intact’, reported Detective Sergeant H. Jackson.
The lack of apparent health and safety concern – beyond the use of a bucket of water and some adhesive tape – might strike us today as foolhardy and needlessly risky. Bit it shows a ready public appetite – at least by some – to actively assist the Civil Defence forces.
What is unclear is whether these men acted out of ignorance or if they were well informed of how to handle unexploded bombs, perhaps by the dissemination of ‘what to do’ type Home Front literature?
Over 500,000 bombs were dropped on Britain by the Luftwaffe during the war. Nearly one in ten did not explode and needed to be dealt with by armed forces bomb disposal units. In September 1940 alone, there were 2,000 unexploded bombs (UXBs).
Unexploded bombs were categorised in order of priority:
- A1: Immediate disposal essential. Detonation of the bomb in situ cannot be accepted on any terms.
- A2: Immediate disposal essential. Bomb may, if the situation demands it, be detonated in situ.
- B: Rapid disposal urgent, but less urgent than A.
- C: Not necessarily calling for immediate action.
- D: May be dealt with as convenient.
We might assume that the incendiary bombs collected behind the Sugar Beat Factory after the 3rd April 1941 raid would have been categorised as categories C or D. It would still have been for the Army to deal with, not civilians or police officers.
But the Army would have possibly been pleased for publicly-minded citizens to pitch-in with the removal of supposed safe munitions, especially given the scale of UXBs the Army faced and, in the case of York, a bomb disposal would have had to come across from Leeds. Indeed, sites with UXB were prioritised depending on their use and function in the war effort; factories, gas and oil supplies, and communications were prioritised, UXBs in residential areas were not. Residential UXBs could be left for 72 hours for the electric charge in the detonator to dissipate before being collected by the bomb disposal unit – leading to terrible and, in the case of large bombs, wide-reaching, disruption for residents needing to be rehoused for several days.
The bomb disposal work was of course exceedingly dangerous. In total, 579 men and one woman died in Britain while operating in Bomb Disposal Units.
The A.R.P. report for this raid concludes by mentioning that at 9.59pm ‘a report was received … of an H[igh] E[plosive] Bomb having fallen in a field behind Sherwood Grove’. The location was later reported as the ‘Knapton End of Moor Lane’, which ‘had fallen on soft ground and no damage was caused’. (A further report by a member of the public at 7.30am the following morning identified a further bomb crater in a ploughed field on the left hand side of the road coming from Knapton village towards Boroughbridge Road, approximately 300 yards from the village. The crater was 30′ (9.1m) across and 12 ‘ (3.65m) deep – considerably bigger than craters previously left in fields during all earlier raids in York.)
This minor addition otherwise provides insight into the Civil Defence organisational structure. Despite the bomb falling meters beyond York housing and the then York unitary boundary – in a field between the then new-Beckfield Lane area estate and the village of Knapton, the A.R.P report concludes ‘[t]his incident was in the West Riding area and no action was taken by the York Wardens other than reporting the matter’. It was duly reported to Tadcaster Police and Harrogate Control at 10.35pm and left for them to take care of.
This might sound like a rather churlish attitude by York to its West Riding neighbours – and ungrateful given the need for a bomb disposal unit to come from Leeds to York each time there was an UXB. The reality was that Civil Defence control across the land was reliant on the carving up of the country into layers of bitesize chunks with each holding provision of ARP officers and wardens, fire watchers and Auxiliary fire services.
In York, there were:
- 9 auxiliary fire services located across the city supported the main fire station on Clifford St;
- 6 first aid posts across the city;
- 12 Emergency Rest Centres across the city;
- 1 Chief Warden HQ on 32 Parliament Street, with the city then subdivided into 5 Group Centres at 4 Minster Yard; 4 East Parade; 60 Heslington Rd; 41 Scarcroft Rd, and 107 Carr Lane. Below these were several individual Wards, or which were further subdivided into between 3-7 loci, each centred on a specific location – often an amenity space, like a school, library or church hall, but cafes, sub-stations and private residences were also used.
Scale of attacks
The lack of destruction by the incendiary bombs in this raid – ignoring for a moment that many of the bombs were readily defeated by the flooded River Ouse on this occasion! – provides insight into the importance of scale.
By this stage of the war, Civil Defence forces were experience, organised and alert to the threat coming from the sky. A lone bomber or two dropping incendiaries could be countered on the ground without too much trouble – even if the propensity to effectively counter the bombers in the air was modest.
The use of high explosives or a mixture of bomb types, rather than solely incendiary bombs, was more effective, especially if communications and power supplies could be damaged on explosion – undermining the ability of Civil Defence forces to coordinate their response in what was, ultimately, a cat and mouse game.
This led to new uses of larger munitions by both the Luftwaffe and R.A.F. Tellingly, only a few days before this raid on York, R.A.F. Vickers Wellington bombers had dropped the first 4000lb (1.8 tonnes) ‘blockbuster’ bombs of the war (on the German city of Emden). It was to set in motion increasingly heavy bombing by both the Luftwaffe and the R.A.F across Germany and Britain and to deadly effect, with the upper hand continuing to favour attacking forces rather than defenders. This did not bode well for many cities, including York in its next raid – which would prove to be its most deadly of the war.
Thanks to Wing-Commander Newbould for making available his detailed archive research to the Raids Over York project team.
Details relating to bomb disposal practice drawn from: ‘Defending the Home Front’, Historic England: https://historicengland.org.uk/whats-new/features/blitz-stories/defending-the-home-front/ [2/4/21]; Owen, J, Danger UXB: The Heroic Story of the WWII Bomb Disposal Teams (London: Abacus, 2011), and Jappy, M J, Danger UXB: The Remarkable Story of the Disposal of Unexploded Bombs during the Second World War (London: Channel 4 Books, 2001)