City that could not speak its name

Victoria Oxberry, project archivist at Hull History Centre.
Victoria Oxberry, project archivist at Hull History Centre.
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IT bore its scars in silence amid fears that the real scale of the punishment being meted out on the city would weaken the country’s resolve to stand up to Nazi tyranny.

But now the stoicism and courage of the citizens of Hull during the Second World War is finally being recognised in a new archive project.

Although its suffering received scant attention at the time – it was referred to as a “North-East town” during contemporary reports of bombing raids – it was the most bombed UK city outside London, and accounts of what happened are now being revealed at Hull History Centre.

Hull’s wartime archives – which, excluding photographs, would cover more than 350ft if laid out in a straight line – are being catalogued and prepared for public viewing for the first time.

The project is still ongoing, but documents already unveiled include civil defence and war damage records from the City Engineers’ department, which cover details on the erection of air raid shelters, repairs of roads and utilities, and information on the salvaging of personal belongings and furniture.

On a more uplifting note, there are also the records of the Victory Celebrations (Special) Committee, which details the events and activities being held to celebrate the winning of the war.

And records likely to be of particular interest to family historians include civil defence personnel cards.

So far, there are 7,414 surnames beginning with A in the Warden Service, about 1,630 names between A and F from the Control and Report section, and a further 2,250 between these letters in the Cyclists’ Messenger Corps, who performed a vital service and were often as young as 15. Similarly, a total of 1,815 surnames between A and G have been found registered in official rescue parties.

From these it is possible to build up a picture of the terror falling from the skies, and what confronted the rescuers.

They include the records of a 38-year-old bricklayer called Thomas Gale, who was the foreman of a rescue party sent 
to Carden Avenue on June 24, 1943, where several houses had been destroyed and many damaged in a particularly heavy raid.

He arrived to find survivors who said they could hear a voice beneath the rubble. Digging with his bare hands and with no thought for his own safety, Mr Gale tunnelled into the wreckage and in the darkness found a mother and her child who had been trapped together but were mercifully unharmed.

He repeated the feat a short time later when he rescued, also unharmed, a small girl. This time the tunnel was so tight that he wriggled out feet first with the girl in his arms.

Mr Gale was later awarded the British Empire Medal for gallantry for his work in the rescue service.

Project archivist Victoria Oxberry said she hoped it would lead to greater appreciation of what Hull went through in those dark days.

“It just shows how many citizens of Hull were involved in protecting the city,” she said. “It shows they were everyday people and it really does give you the big picture of what happened. Hopefully it will give people pride in their city.”

Most of the records survived the war in a vault at the Guildhall, which was relatively unscathed apart from a hit on the ballroom.

A total of 86,715 homes were damaged during the war – 94 per cent of the entire housing stock – and 152,000 people were made homeless, more than half the population.

The city also suffered what is known locally as the Hull Blitz, during two nights of terror in May 1941. A total of 420 people were killed and 350 were seriously injured – a grim toll that would eventually account for about a third of the more than 1,200 killed and more than 3,000 injured in the 82 bombing raids on Hull during the war.

Hull had been the subject of a “D Notice” – a voluntary request to news media not to disclose certain information for reasons of national security – until the 1970s, as the Cabinet was concerned the city’s suffering would lower national morale, the historian Alan Brigham has said.

Speaking earlier this year at the launch of a campaign to raise £250,000 for a memorial to Hull’s civilian dead in both world wars, including 54 killed in Zeppelin attacks, Mr Brigham explained: “The official story was that they were calling it a North-East town so the Germans wouldn’t know what they were bombing. The real reason was that if the rest of the country found out about its horrific suffering it could cause civil unrest.”