The history and commemoration of the Second World War air raids on Sheffield
By John Unsworth
I was born in 1930, and throughout World War II, I lived in a rented terrace house at 162 Blair Athol Road, Banner Gross, Ecclesall, Sheffield.
These houses were built when cars were a rarity, so there was no garage space. This was a time when owning your own house was also unusual, at least for working class people. The houses were all attached and ran from Glenalmond Road to Huntingtower Road. Each group of four houses had a ‘passage’ running up the middle, that divided into two ‘yards’. Our ‘front door’ was actually in the middle of the passage, which had a bathroom for each of the middle houses over it (but originally, no indoor toilet).
The Government decided that, as we were very vulnerable, as a city making vital munitions, we should be given the opportunity to have a means of shelter from bombs, and were given a choice of protection.
We were told that we could have a corrugated iron ‘Anderson’ air raid shelter in the tiny back garden, a ‘Morrison’ shelter (a reinforced metal table) inside or an escape route from our cellar. We chose the last and men arrived to knock holes through the cellar walls into 164 and 160 and thereon down the road. The idea was that should we be bombed, it would be possible to move through these square openings, each about 2 feet square, from one end of the road to the other. They had doors and bolts on them but during an air raid, they were all opened. Mrs. Stanney at No. 164, made a poor decision because she was never able to use the outside ‘Anderson’ shelter that had been sunk into her garden, as it became water logged because of a stream running underground down the hill. She would, however, have been able to benefit from the ‘escape route’ had it been necessary.
Act One of the Blitz took place on the night of 12/13 December 1940. A full moon in a clear sky aided the estimated 300 German bombers who aimed at mostly the central and residential areas. In the city centre, much of the shopping area was demolished and tramcars littered the streets. Many people died because they had relied on air raid shelters under buildings that received direct hits. Many who were ‘bombed out’ of their homes and were unable to stay with relatives or friends, were taken to reception centres, usually schools, where they were given blankets and food. In at least one reception centre, food was cooked on a field Kitchen.
The Germans returned on the night of Sunday the 15 December, this time concentrating on the east end of the city where the major armament firms were located. Over the two nights 668 people were killed and 513 injured.
While the authorities were condemned for not making enough preparations, I do not think anyone expected bombing on the scale of the blitz in the centre of England. Some preparations were made, such as static water tanks to give emergency supplies of water for fire fighters, and large balloons called a ‘balloon barrage’ were sited strategically but I think these were more for morale, because from the damage that was caused in Sheffield, they did not seem to have much effect on the enemy bombers.
All around Sheffield there are reminders of the war; newer houses standing within a row of old houses where a bomb demolished several, and also scarring on buildings from bomb fragments. The wailing sound of the air-raid warning brought fear to many with the corresponding relief of the steady ‘all clear’.
During the blitz and other air raids, we settled down in the cellar on wooden bunks reading and playing board games while my father went to his Air Raid Precaution post in Tullibardine Road. The wardens patrolled the area looking for incendiary bombs with buckets of sand, shovels and stirrup pumps ready in strategic places, and were ready to aid people who may have been trapped or were in difficulty. After the blitz, I went out collecting shrapnel from the bombs. We were very lucky in that we did not receive any damage. All our windows had been overlaid with a heavy mesh to prevent injury should they be blown in, making us live in a perpetual twilight.
The windows of our living rooms were also fitted with frames covered in black paper, that came between the window and the curtain to block out all light from inside the house. It was my job to put these up every evening. I had a ‘Daily Express’ war map on the living room wall where I plotted the movement of our troops around the world from news reports.
But it was not all gloom during the war. There were concerts at the ARP post (I remember cringing as any 12 year old would when my Father sang The Floral Dance) and celebrity concerts at the Highcliffe Hotel when classical musicians played.
Dad was not called up, as he was just too old, having served in the first world war, and the nearest he got to action was taking a van commandeered from his employer, the Ecclesall Laundry, to the South Coast. I remembered my Mother, always a nervous person, being desperately frightened until he returned.
Air raid wardens have been immortalised in television comedy but they played an important part in protecting us. I have heard stories of false trails being laid on the moors to induce enemy bombers to drop their bombs there instead of over populated areas. Wardens were known for their cry, “Put that light out,” but they also formed a contact for people who were probably very frightened and a figure walking the streets even after an air raid warning sounded was reassuring.
At one time teaching at Greystones Council School was suspended (after the Sheffield Blitz), because it was decided that it was too dangerous to allow many children to be together in a large group. A class was held in our front room on two half days a week, and about 10 of us local children gathered there for basic teaching.
When normal schooling was resumed, I was made a ‘lamp monitor’ until leaving in July 1942. Greystones Council School had a purpose-built brick air-raid shelter with protective inner walls to negate blast. Jimmy Angel and I (probably because we were tall for our age) had to go into the shelter before school and place battery lamps (rather like large cycle lamps) in wooden holders in each section of the shelter. We removed them each evening. If we had an air raid or a drill, we shot out of school and switched on all the lamps.
The end of the war brought normality. At that time it was acknowledged that Armistice Day was a very important occasion in everyone’s lives. It is virtually ignored now but during my early lifetime, two minutes silence was held at 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month. This was marked regardless of what day the 11th fell on. All traffic stopped and there was silence. The two minute’s silence was later moved to an adjacent Sunday, and the whole Remembrance Day started to be disregarded.
Taken from ‘WW2 People’s War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar‘