Plymouth was described as one of the worst-bombed cities in Britain during the Blitz – a series of devastating air raids carried out by the German Luftwaffe during World War II. The bombing offensive in 1940 and 1941 was aimed at industrial targets, towns, ports and cities.
The Blitz was a term coined by the press and meant “lightning war”, based on the German word “Blitzkrieg”. The first attack on civilian targets was on 7th September 1940, when it became apparent that the German air force had changed its strategy following the Battle of Britain, which had begun on 10th July 1940.
The Luftwaffe was no longer targeting just the British air force but was also concentrating on bombing civilian areas of the UK, starting with London. Almost 2,000 people were killed or wounded during the first night of the Blitz in the capital.
After continual air raids on London, the attacks spread to other cities, including Plymouth, which had escaped damage for the first nine months of the war. However, the Plymouth Blitz caused the deaths of 1,172 civilians in 59 bombing attacks, which injured a further 4,448 people.
The worst single attack on Plymouth during the Blitz occurred overnight between 22nd and 23rd April 1941, when an air raid shelter in the Portland area suffered a direct hit, killing 72 people. The city centre was destroyed, devastating shops and houses.
St Andrew’s Church and the guild hall were reduced to empty shells. Air raid control centres had been organised underneath the guild hall and Devonport market, so both had been centres of activity.
It was believed that Plymouth was being singled out for particularly ferocious attacks because it was home to Her Majesty’s Naval Base, Devonport, which was the largest Navy base in Western Europe and the Royal Navy’s repair and refuelling facility.
The dockyard was staffed by women during the war, doing what was normally considered to be men’s work, as all the men were away fighting.
Local people at first expressed disbelief that the war had come so close to home. The first bomb was dropped on the North Prospect area. Afterwards, people gathered in the street, looking in disbelief at the damage, but sadly, it became more commonplace over time.
In an interview after the war, one Plymouth resident, Roy Lidiard, described his recollections of the “nightmarish times” – in particular, six nights of bombing that occurred between April 21st and 29th 1941. Mr Lidiard said it was a “ferocious and hideous” attack.
The Blitz caused chaos and disruption to the everyday lives of Plymouth residents and because the raids took place at night, everyone’s sleep was disrupted as people would go to the air raid shelters, listening for the terrifying sounds of the aircraft overhead and dreading the sound of a bomb falling.
A substantial number of ships were sunk and many local residents lost someone, or knew someone who had lost a loved one, in the war. Mr Lidiard said it brought the reality of the war to the forefront very quickly.
Disruption and evacuation
The Anderson Shelters were cold and damp, but like it or not, the locals had to leave their beds and their homes and stay there until it was safe to go out again. The morning after a raid, a lot of people would be wandering around the streets checking what damage had been done.
Community centres were set up, providing many rows of beds, hot drinks and refreshments for those people who had lost their home and had nowhere to go.
In 1941, Fore Street was severely bombed and the terrified residents abandoned their houses. In Stoke and Devonport, many houses were damaged, and some people simply decided they’d had enough, leaving Plymouth – some of them never to return.
Children were evacuated to safer towns and cities and at one point, Plymouth’s population (normally 220,000) dropped to only 127,000 because so many people had left or been evacuated.
Following a night of bombing, on the morning of 21st March 1941, eyewitness André Savignon reported that Plymouth was “wasting away” in “reddish trails of smoke”. He described how a few people were wandering the streets, but most were hiding, or even worse, lying dead under the ruins. The French author had made numerous trips to England before the war and was in Plymouth when the Blitz began.
The night before, one of the buildings that were severely damaged was the laboratory of the Marine Biological Association, on the Hoe. Work being carried out there at the time, by Alan Lloyd Hodgkin and Andrew Fielding Huxley, was delayed and they couldn’t resume their research until June 1947.
Charles Church, the area’s second most historic parish church, founded in 1634, was also destroyed by bombs on the nights of 20th and 21st March 1941. It was never rebuilt and instead has been preserved in its damaged condition to provide a permanent reminder of the civilians who lost their lives in the Blitz. In 1958, a service was conducted by J Allen James, the vicar of the parish, to dedicate the church as a memorial.
Wartime school life
In a news article written for the BBC website, WW2 People’s War, in 2014, Derek Dawes, a Plymouth schoolboy at the time of the Blitz, described how the children had to take gas masks to school in case of an aerial poison gas attack during daylight hours. Gas mask drills were held in school.
He said the air raids were the most frightening aspect of the war. There would be a warning during the day on the radio and from the police that a raid was expected that night. He said his mother would make sandwiches and flasks of tea before bed, placing his “siren suit” on the end of the bed.
The suit was Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s idea. It could be put on easily over nightclothes to keep the children warm. When the air raid warning siren began to wail, Derek would put on his suit and shoes, help his little brother to get ready, grab a torch and go downstairs. The family had an Anderson shelter in their garden, lit by candles. Derek’s grandmother was led to safety first, followed by the rest of the family.
Derek’s father was in the Royal Navy on HMS Exeter and his mother was an air raid warden, so once the kids were safely in the shelter, she would walk the streets, wearing overalls and Wellington boots, looking for small German incendiary devices. She would douse them with water and sand. Derek recalled his mother was never scared and was “as good as any man would have been” in the dangerous situation.
All of the surviving residents of Plymouth were greatly relieved when the war finally came to an end in 1945. However, for many people, nothing was ever the same again. During the rebuilding effort, Devonport had to be totally rebuilt and was cut off. The area around Pembroke Street wasn’t preserved, which some local people felt was a great shame.
Much has changed today, as a result of the Blitz, although some old buildings have survived, including the Devonport Column, dating from 1842, in the most historic part of Plymouth. Many buildings on the Barbican, St Andrew’s Church and the guild hall are still in existence today.
During the Blitz, Plymouth’s two main shopping centres and almost every civic building were wrecked. The city also lost 26 schools, 41 churches and eight cinemas. A total of 3,754 houses were destroyed during the air raids and an additional 18,398 were seriously damaged.
The rebuilding programme was called A Plan for Plymouth and was prepared by leading town planner Sir Patrick Abercrombie and Plymouth’s City Engineer James Paton Watson. Reconstruction of the city began in April 1947 and in 1951 the first of the new buildings opened.
The face of the city centre changed forever, as it was rebuilt into precincts with different functions, including offices, retail, culture and civic government sections.
Further rebuilding programmes and redevelopments took place throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century. The strategy (which the council called “A Vision for Plymouth”) was aimed at respecting the city’s heritage and recognising its importance as the “greatest example of post-war British planning and architecture”.
We will remember them
At the 11th hour, on 11th November, the Devon SEO Co will be observing the 2 minutes silence in honour of the brave men and women who fought for our freedom.