The history and commemoration of the Second World War air raids on Sheffield
Many people don’t realise Sheffield’s Devonshire Green area used to be a thriving community of back to back housing prior to the Sheffield Blitz. The cruel twist of fate that lead to the two sisters being in the firing line on the first night of the Sheffield Blitz shows how real the threat of invasion really was.
We have to extend our gratitude to the family for sharing their story. We will be commemorating the tragic loss of life in the coming months as part of our Sheffield Blitz Memorial Trail.
Leon Leclere’s memories of the Sheffield Blitz
Written by Michael Leclere
An account of events in 1940 told by Leon to his son, Michael and grandson, Matthew.
My grandparents never spoke of the time when their daughters died in the war. I cannot remember how old I was when I first heard about the death of my father’s younger sisters and saw a photograph of two little girls who would have been my Aunts if they had lived. Over the years I have heard more details of events in Sheffield on the night of 12 December 1940 and told the story to my children. My son, Matthew and I visited Sheffield with my father, Leon, in 2006 and went to the City Cemetery to see the communal grave for those killed by enemy action and to Devonshire Green where Lily, Eileen and Doris were killed in the Sheffield Blitz. When I found out about the proposed Sheffield Blitz Memorial Trail last December I asked my father if he would like to donate to the project in memory of his grandmother and sisters and he also agreed to submit an account of his memories of events in 1940.
Leon’s story began in May 1940 when a telegram was delivered to his home in Gosport, across the harbour from the naval dockyard at Portsmouth. He was aged 13 at the time and ran to his Aunt Rose’s house to find his mother. She was at the local British Legion with his sisters and he gave them the telegram. His father was serving on a destroyer, HMS Wessex, in the English Channel and they feared bad news. The telegram had been sent by his father; he was safe and in Portsmouth and he wanted them to bring him some clothes so that he could come home. His ship had been bombarding enemy troops and equipment near Calais and came under attack by dive bombers and was hit by three bombs and sunk. Survivors were picked up by another destroyer and brought back to England. Leon’s father, Eugene, had experienced first-hand the destructive power of bombing and with the fear of invasion on the south coast during the summer of 1940 Leon and his sisters, Doris aged 12 and Eileen aged 10, were sent north to Sheffield to stay with Eugene’s cousin and his wife, Fred and Pat Ashton, in Fulwood. Leon remembers attending Greystones School and his sisters went to Nether Green School. His father was posted to HMS Queen Elizabeth, a battleship, at Portsmouth which was later sent to Rosyth in Scotland during December 1940 and his mother was serving in the Wrens in Gosport.
During December Fred’s wife Pat was admitted to hospital for a short time. Doris and Eileen went to stay with their grandmother, Lily Leclere at 174 Devonshire Street where she lived above her Baker’s shop. Leon was sent to live with Fred’s mother and father, Sarah and Jim Ashton, in Burngreave Road, Pitsmoor. Uncle Jim was a Buyer at Cockaynes in the city and Leon remembers he was a very keen Sheffield United supporter and could always be found at Bramhall Lane for home matches. Leon was with Aunty Sarah and Uncle Jim on the evening of 12 December 1940 and remembers the sound of bombs falling and exploding in the city. Pat Ashton was due come home from hospital on 13 December and Leon was expecting to go back to Fred and Pat’s home with his sisters.
The next day Leon was aware that something had happened and remembers being taken in Fred Ashton’s car to a street near his grandmother’s house and left there for a while. He found out that 174 Devonshire Street had been hit by a bomb during the night and the building was a complete wreck and his grandmother and two sisters were missing. My father believes that a photo on Picture Sheffield (S01323) shows the wreckage of the building where Lily was living and his sisters, Doris and Eileen, were staying at the time of the Sheffield blitz and is sure that 174 Devonshire Street is just below the bottom of the picture below the label for Eldon St in another photograph on Picture Sheffield (s01285). He was taken to the wrecked house and asked if he could find the entrance to the coal hole in the back yard which led to the cellar that was used as a shelter. He could not find it. Leon remembers there was an unexploded bomb nearby and it was not safe to stay near the house and search for his sisters and grandmother. The last time Leon saw his grandmother and sisters alive was a few days before the Sheffield Blitz when they all went to the cinema to see “The Wizard of Oz”.
Leon’s father was granted compassionate leave from his ship and arrived in Sheffield soon after the blitz. Leon remembers the day his father arrived in Sheffield as the saddest day in his life. Leon thinks it was his father who located the entrance to the cellar and found the bodies of his mother (Lily’s death certificate states her body was found on 18 December 1940) and his two daughters. The body of Frederick Mallam, aged 80, who was a lodger at 174 Devonshire Street was also found in the cellar. Leon’s mother arrived in Sheffield a couple of days later and he recalls there had been a difficulty contacting her in Gosport. Leon does not remember attending a burial or funeral at the communal grave at the City Cemetery. His father remained in Sheffield for a week before re-joining his ship. Leon and his mother, also called Lily, remained in Sheffield for 18 months and then returned to Gosport.
What happened next?
Eugene returned to HMS Queen Elizabeth at Rosyth and after the completion of the ships modernisation and sea trials returned to active duty and by May 1941 had joined the Mediterranean Fleet at Alexandria. In December 1941 Italian divers placed explosive charges beneath HMS Queen Elizabeth and other ships in Alexandria harbour. The charge exploded below the boiler room causing serious damage and Eugene suffered internal injuries swallowing fuel oil as he was leaving the damaged boiler room. Following emergency treatment for his stomach he recovered from his injuries. After initial repairs HMS Queen Elizabeth sailed to South Africa and later crossed the Atlantic to Norfolk, Virginia for repairs and refit. Eugene eventually returned to England with an Atlantic convoy and after the end of the war he left the Royal Navy and worked at Priddy’s Hard (naval munitions yard) at Gosport. Leon and his mother stayed in Gosport and survived the regular air raids over Portsmouth and Gosport. Leon joined the Royal Navy for national Service in 1945 and served in the Fleet Air Arm in the Far East until the surrender of Japan. He returned home to his parents in Gosport in 1947.
Links to other Sheffield families and published accounts
Leon’s grandmother, Lily Shaw, married Marcelline Leclere in 1898. Marcelline, a master baker, was the younger brother of Eugene Leclere a silversmith with the mark “E. Leclere” and the retail shop in Howard Street until the 1970’s. Leon’s cousin, Pauline Bell, has published a book about her research of the Leclere family including details of the silversmith business and the wartime story of my grandfather, Eugene, who was probably named after his uncle.
Pauline C Bell (2006). Solid Silver – Some Leclere Family Stories. ID: 493201 www.lulu.com
Lily Leclere nee Shaw and Pauline Bell’s grandmother were sisters; their father was Joseph Shaw who married Elizabeth Barnsley, a direct descendent of the founder of George Barnsley and Sons of Sheffield. This story is also published.
Pauline Bell with Colin Barnsley (2010) ‘Forging History. The Story of George Barnsley and Sons toolmakers and the family members who helped forge local and national history.’
The book can be obtained in local bookshops or through Colin Barnsley of Woodware Repetitions, 47 Mowbray St. S3 8EN.