Some years ago, when I was working in Sheffield city centre, we heard that an unexploded World War II bomb had been found not too far from our office. One of my colleagues seemed particularly taken aback by this news; “How did it get into the middle of Sheffield?”, she asked. I told her it must have been dropped during the bombing raids. “We were bombed?” she said. Which prompted me to give her a full rundown of the events of the Sheffield Blitz - whether she wanted to hear it or not!
My former colleague can be forgiven for not knowing the story. Compared to many places Sheffield got off relatively lightly, despite being an obvious target thanks to its steelworks and their vital role in the war effort. When the story of the bombing is told it’s places like Coventry, Bristol, Liverpool and of course London - which suffered eight months of almost continuous bombardment - that are most often talked about. But as we approach the 80th anniversary of the first night of the Sheffield Blitz this weekend it’s a good time to reflect on those events and the impact they had on the people of the city.
The bombing begins
Thursday 12 December 1940 was a busy evening in Sheffield. It was half-day closing so many people had headed into the city centre for a night out and the pubs, restaurants, cinemas, theatres and dance halls were filling up. It was only a couple of weeks to Christmas and despite the absence of decorations - the blackout made lights a no-no - there was a festive atmosphere.
When the air raid sirens sounded at around 7pm there was no panic. Their distinctive wail had been heard over the city plenty of times before but the expected large scale attack had never come. Those enjoying their evening out, or settling in for a night at home in the suburbs surrounding the city centre, continued as normal. Warnings were flashed up on cinema screens but the films continued to play. People had no reason to think that tonight was the night that ‘Operation Crucible’ would finally be unleashed.
Just five minutes after the sirens sounded the first German planes were heard, moving across a clear sky lit by a full moon - a ‘bomber’s moon’. Dropping flares and incendiary bombs that circled the city centre and surrounding suburbs, these pathfinders started a series of fires that ensured Sheffield became a glowing target for the subsequent waves of Heinkels, Dorniers and Junkers.
From 8pm the attack began in earnest. As searchlights raked the sky and Sheffield’s ack-ack guns boomed, planes carrying high explosives began to drop their deadly cargo. Thousands of incendiaries also continued to fall, starting fires that soon became out of control.
Every bomb sent showers of deadly debris, glass and shrapnel flying through the air, tossing masonry and concrete around like rags. Whole buildings were reduced to rubble in seconds. Civilians, moving from shelter to shelter as each refuge became too dangerous, were forced to run the gauntlet of flying debris.
As the night progressed some of Sheffield’s landmark buildings became casualties. On High Street, department stores Cockayne’s, Walsh’s and C&A Modes were all severely damaged or destroyed; the mannequins thrown from window displays being mistaken for bodies in the dark. At the opposite end of the city centre Atkinson’s on the Moor was destroyed, as was the famous Redgates.
The biggest tragedy of the night occurred just before midnight when the Marples Hotel received a direct hit. The explosion caused the seven-story building to collapse into a pile of rubble, burying around 80 people who had been sheltering in the cellar. Only seven people were brought out alive; a number of victims were never recovered.
The all clear was finally sounded at 4.17am after nine hours of almost continuous bombing. It was estimated as many as 450 high explosives, six parachute mines and thousands of incendiaries had been dropped. Sheffielders emerging from their shelters or trying to make their way into work the next morning found a city they barely recognised. One recalled it was ‘like being on the moon’.
The bombers returned on Sunday 15 December, this time targeting the city’s steelworks which, amazingly, had been hidden from view by a freak fog three days earlier. Although no less ferocious this raid lasted just over three hours and the damage done did not seriously affect Sheffield’s war production.
On the front line
The impossible task of fighting the onslaught of the Blitz fell to the emergency services. Alongside regular fire, police and ambulance staff were an army of volunteers who had signed up to organisations like the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS), War Reserve Police Force and the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) service. Sheffield’s Civil Defence - set up in anticipation of an attack - consisted of five divisions, each with a control room and telephone, staffed by wardens, casualty services and police.
Yet when the raids came they were beyond anything even the most experienced firefighter, police officer or ambulance driver had seen. As one regular firefighter later recalled, ‘If a man who went through it all tells you he wasn't afraid that night you can take it he's lying.’
In 1940 Sheffield Fire Brigade consisted of around 65 men and four officers based in three separate stations. AFS volunteers - approximately 1,800 by the time of the raids - were housed at 20 stations across the city. When the sirens sounded they were all quickly in the city centre but soon found themselves overwhelmed by the numerous blazes raging across Sheffield.
A request to neighbouring services for help saw firefighters from numerous towns and cities including Manchester, Nottingham, Barnsley, Bradford, York and Leeds rushing to assist, bolstering the numbers by more than 500 men and 70 engines, although many struggled to get into the city because of bomb damage.
It wasn’t just the fires these crews had to deal with. An hour into the raid high explosives began to fall and emergency services workers had to dive for cover as bombs exploded around them. Two firefighters are known to have died when their engine received a direct hit.
A lack of water also became a serious problem, as mains were fractured by explosions or water sources simply ran dry. Firefighters turned to any water they could find, including public swimming baths, in a desperate attempt to stem the flames.
Other emergency services were facing similar issues. ARP ambulance crews were fighting their way through falling bombs, shrapnel, collapsed buildings and ruined streets to get the injured to hospital. At least one ambulance was blown up during the raids. Other members of the ambulance and first aid services were killed as they tried to rescue people from a collapsed house.
ARP wardens also found themselves at the heart of the battle. On the night of 12 December one sent a message that said, ‘Am evacuating the post. The Moor is on fire. Speaking from under the table.’ Eleven others were killed when their ARP post, in Coleford Road, received a direct hit. In total it’s estimated that 39 emergency services personnel - both men and women - lost their lives during the two raids with many others injured.
Given the immense bravery shown by so many it’s no surprise that of the six Sheffielders awarded the George Medal following the attacks, two were from the emergency services. Samuel Radford, a constable with Sheffield Police Force, was recognised for saving the life of a 16 year old boy who was trapped in the cellar of a collapsed house. PC Radford worked alone for three hours as bombs and debris fell around him and fires burned. He then went to attend to casualties before later helping in another rescue and saving six horses trapped in a stable. Leslie Currie, an ARP warden, was honoured for digging through the debris of a house to save five people.
The Blitz at NESM
The impact of the Blitz on Sheffield and its people is remembered here at NESM.
A dedicated exhibition uses lights, smoke, smells and sound to tell the story of the raids and the part played by the emergency services, aiming to bring visitors as close as possible to the atmosphere of December 1940. Original objects and vehicles add to the experience, including a 1938 Leyland fire engine which belonged to Barnsley Fire Brigade and is the last surviving fire engine to have served during the raids on the city.
Another display tells the story of the ambulance service and the role of the ARP workers who risked their own lives to help save those injured by bombing.
The museum also plays a role in taking the history and experiences of the Blitz out to a wider audience. A schools’ workshop dedicated to World War II helps youngsters discover life on the home front, the effects of raids on Sheffield and how the emergency services coped with help from the civilian population.
Our building even has its own war wounds. The police garage was damaged by a German bomb and the front of the museum is littered with shrapnel damage.
A lasting legacy
Over two nights Sheffield felt the full force of Germany’s bombing power. Shops, pubs, theatres, cinemas, churches and schools were destroyed. Around 78,000 homes had been damaged and 3000 destroyed, making around 40,000 homeless. Tragically more than 600 Sheffielders lost their lives.
As someone who has always been interested in the history of my home city, and in World War II history in general, the Sheffield Blitz looms large. Around 20 years ago, as part of my University degree, I wrote a lengthy article about the raids and was able to speak to a number of people who lived through the events of December 1940. The clarity of their memories, and the obvious emotion they still felt when sharing their stories after so many decades, made a lasting impression on me. I’m very proud to be part of a NESM team that is helping to keep their experiences alive.