Tomorrow marks the 75th anniversary of the Sheffield Blitz which left hundreds of people dead. Chris Bond looks back at what happened and talks to some of those who lived through it.
IF Ann Brown had been taken to the air raid shelter at the top of her street she probably wouldn’t be alive today.
It was the evening of December 12, 1940, and when the shrill, dread sound of the air raid siren began to wail, families across Sheffield hurried to the nearest shelters.
Ann, who was just four years old at the time, lived with her mother and father in a terraced house on Alsop Lane near the city centre. “Other cities had been bombed so Sheffield knew what was coming,” she says.
“We were encouraged to go to the shelters which we did. My father was an ARP warden and he came in with us but he kept going outside to see what was happening.”
The cinema at the top of the street was hit and so was the row of houses where Ann and her parents lived.
“My dad went back into the burning house to try and grab what he could, but the only thing he managed to rescue was a photograph of me from my fourth birthday, everything else was lost.”
At least they escaped with their lives. Others weren’t so fortunate. “The shelter we were in was at the bottom of the lane, but the shelter at the top of the lane took a direct hit and 12 people were killed,” says Ann.
They were victims of the Sheffield Blitz – a savage Luftwaffe attack that killed 668 civilians and 25 servicemen, injured more than 1,500 others and left a tenth of the city’s population homeless.
Ann, now 79, remembers walking across the city following the deadly raids. “Those who lost their homes had to find alternative accommodation and I remember walking through the smouldering rubble with my parents. We had to walk six miles to Totley where my grandmother lived.”
George Gummer was seven years old when the blitz took place. His family lived on the outskirts of the city and he remembers being in the cellar with his family when the bombs rained down.
“We didn’t see much but I could hear the German aircraft coming over and the crump of the bombs as they fell, it was a bit like an earthquake,” he says. “We were three or four miles away and the next morning I remember going outside and seeing this glow in the sky from the fires in the city.”
The Sheffield Blitz brought terror into people’s homes and is woven into the fabric of Yorkshire’s home front story during the Second World War.
By December 1940, Britain had been at war with Germany for more than a year. It had been a torrid 12 months. The British Expeditionary Force had been swept aside in Belgium and France before making its fabled evacuation from Dunkirk.
A German invasion seemed inevitable and was only thwarted by the hard-fought victory of the RAF in the Battle of Britain. But if the nation was grateful there was no time for rejoicing. Hitler changed tactics and ordered a series of bombing raids on major British cities, in what would become known as the Blitz.
This began with heavy raids on London in September of that year, followed by attacks on several other cities including Birmingham and Coventry, which were hit in November. The following month it was Sheffield’s turn.
Its steelworks played a major part in Britain’s war effort and made Sheffield an obvious target for the Luftwaffe – a fact that wasn’t lost on the city itself.
Sheffield’s Vickers factory was home to a 15 ton drop hammer – the only one in the country capable of turning out Rolls-Royce Merlin crankshafts for the Spitfire and Hurricane aircraft. It also made components for tanks, as well as deck armour for warships and bomb castings.
People knew an attack was coming, they just didn’t know when. Sheffield had an early taste of what was to follow when a couple of bombs fell on the city in August, but it was nothing compared to what was unleashed on that chilly December night.
On the afternoon that day intelligence HQ detected signs of a raid similar those that had earlier struck the Midlands. The attack was carried out by three main groups of aircraft flying from bases in northern France.
The air raid sirens sounded just after 7pm, but despite having steeled itself for an attack the city wasn’t fully prepared when the first enemy aircraft, a Heinkel, appeared. It was a pathfinder, dropping flares to pinpoint targets.
Amazingly, many cinemas and pubs were full and people were still dancing at the City Hall, until the police and air raid teams told everyone to take shelter.
The first raid involved about 280 enemy aircraft including Junkers 88s, Heinkel 111s and Dornier 17s and heralded a wave of explosives and incendiaries that fell on the city.
According to reports, the main bombing period was one hour either side of midnight, with numerous areas being badly hit, including Gleadless, Moorhead, Park Hill, Sharrow, and Burngreave. The Luftwaffe dropped about 355 tonnes of high explosives and about 16,000 incendiary canisters during the course of the onslaught.
Sheffield had been bombed by zeppelins during the First World War, but although terrifying those attacks had been nowhere near as destructive. Every building in Angel Street was destroyed while The Moor, a popular shopping district, was described as a tunnel of fire during the December raid.
Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane ground was also hit as was the Central Hebrew Synagogue, along with several churches.
One of the most harrowing incidents occurred when the seven-storey Marples Hotel on High Street suffered a direct hit before midnight. A bomb detonated just above the cellars, where people were taking refuge, killing about 70 and reducing the building to a 15ft-high pile of rubble. Shortly before the explosion, customers and staff had been singing.
The next day, seven men were dug out still alive, as a small section of cellar roof had somehow withstood the impact. It was the worst single tragedy of that dreadful night.
One consolation was that a blanket of thick cloud and smog across the city’s eastern industrial hinterland meant it didn’t suffer any serious damage.
The question of whether German planes deliberately bombed the city centre, or whether navigators lost their way and confused The Moor with the industrial area of Attercliffe, has long been the subject of speculation.
The all-clear was finally given a little after 4am the following morning. But it wasn’t the end of the blitz. Three nights later, on the evening of December 15, around 100 bombers including Heinkels and Dorniers returned and this time hit the industrial heartland.
Despite the city’s pounding, there was no significant interruption to the war effort. Even so, thousands of incendiaries and around 100 high explosives fell on residential areas in raids that lasted just over three hours.
In the aftermath, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Sheffield and walked amongst the survivors to show solidarity with the city, while a short time later Winston Churchill arrived, delivering one of his trademark rousing speeches.
At the City Road cemetery, where 134 victims of the Blitz were buried in a mass grave, a memorial garden was created, and today the Blitz is still remembered by those who survived.
For people like Ann Brown, it left a lasting legacy. “I know a lot of other cities were bombed but this destroyed the heart of Sheffield. It took a long time not just to rebuild the city but for a lot of people to rebuild their lives.”
Sheffield Blitz commemoration
Tomorrow evening at 7.15pm, Second World War air raid sirens will ring out across Sheffield to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Blitz.
Before this two original 1940s searchlights will be beamed into the sky from The Moor – an area of the city centre that was virtually flattened in the attacks.
Members of the public are being encouraged to ‘black out’ their homes at the same time for two minutes, to mark the moment the bombs started to fall on the city.
The event will hail the start of a two-and-a-half year Heritage Lottery Fund supported project to commemorate, research and examine the legacy of the Sheffield Blitz.