Tragic tales of the Hull Blitz

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Hull is featured in a new TV documentary series examining the legacy of the Blitz during the Second World War. Chris Bond reports on one woman’s moving family story.

On a map charting the devastating impact of the Blitz on Hull during the Second World War, the bomb that obliterated the home of Janet Gill’s parents is recorded simply as Bomb 31.

Janet Gill talks about her family's wartime story. (Picture: BBC/Wall to Wall/Richard Ranken).

Janet Gill talks about her family's wartime story. (Picture: BBC/Wall to Wall/Richard Ranken).

It sounds strangely nondescript yet it shattered the lives of two families and its reverberations are still being felt by relatives today.

The bomb hit the semi-detached house on the North Hull estate as the Luftwaffe unleashed its deadly wrath on the city in the spring of 1941.

During the Blitz more than 450,000 bombs were dropped on towns and cities across Britain leaving behind an indelible mark on those that had to live through these attacks.

Now a new four-part BBC series – Blitz: The Bombs That Changed Britain – examines the specific effect of four bombs, from their initial impact on lives and families, to the wider consequences of the Blitz and its enduring legacy.

Bomb damage to Victoria Square in Hull. (YPN).

Bomb damage to Victoria Square in Hull. (YPN).

Each episode begins with a single bomb in a single street and this week’s programme focuses on 6th Avenue in Hull and the bomb that flattened two houses and changed in an instant the lives of its occupants forever.

The Taylors lost baby Peter while 14 year-old Vera was badly burned. Her sisters Doreen and Tina survived and are still alive. They remember that dreadful night and talk in the TV programme about the trauma the family suffered.

In the house next door Mrs Owens had put three of her children under the stairs for safety but none survived when the bomb hit.

Their sister Janet, who was born five years after the war ended, only found out they existed when she was in her late 20s after both her parents had died.

Her father was so traumatised that he and her mother never mentioned the Blitz or that Janet had lost three siblings. It was only when her surviving sister Margaret, who was four at the time of the attack and had been evacuated with her brother Donald, told her that she discovered the tragic truth.

Janet has been trying to find out more about the siblings she never knew and hopes the BBC programme may jog people’s memories.

Speaking to The Yorkshire Post, she recalled the moment her sister told her the shattering news. “We were talking one day and she said how sad it was about the three other children who were who killed during the war. And I just said, ‘what three children?’ She thought I already knew and I just remember being speechless. I didn’t know what to say.”

Despite having so many unanswered questions Janet kept quiet about the story for more than 25 years until she saw the names of her dead brothers and sisters published in a commemorative list of all those killed in Hull during the war. This prompted her to get in touch with Untold Hull, a Hull Library Service project that collects the stories of local residents. “I put it to the back of my mind and I almost doubted it was true and then I read the list of all those who’d died in Hull and saw their names,” she says.

Harry was 11, Doreen, two, and David just 11 weeks when their young lives were snuffed out and taking part in the documentary has helped Janet shed light on what happened to them before their lives were so cruelly cut short.

She discovered they had a funeral and were buried in a local cemetery at Chanterlands Avenue and there was a tearful meeting with Doreen and Tina, who lived in the house next door and survived the bombing raid.

“That was very emotional because these women would have talked to these three children and played with them. I thought they had been forgotten about but they said ‘we never forgot them,’ and that meant so much to me.”

Janet also found out that the house she grew up in on 6th Avenue was rebuilt on the same spot as the one destroyed in the bombing raid. “When the air raid siren went off my mum put the children in the cupboard under the stairs because that was meant to be one of the safest places and that’s where they were when the bomb hit. But it’s also where I used to play as a child. I don’t know how they could have moved back in after what happened, but perhaps they didn’t have any choice.”

The full extent of Hull’s wartime story took years to emerge and some of the physical scars can still be seen today.

Though it suffered sporadic bombing from the summer of 1940 onwards, the Luftwaffe attacks intensified in March and April the following year when the city was pummelled in a series of particularly heavy raids.

This was a prelude to what became known locally as the Hull Blitz when two nights of terror in May left 420 people dead and a further 350 
seriously injured. Overnight between May 7 and May 8, more than 70 German aircraft dropped 110 tonnes of high explosives, as well as 9,648 incendiary bombs.

As so often happened, the bombs were dropped on Hull as the planes flew home over the East Coast because they had been unable to reach their primary target, which in this case was Liverpool.

But worse was to come. Between midnight on May 8 and 3.40am on May 9, a total of 120 bombers dropped 157 tonnes of high explosives and 19,467 incendiaries. The intended target on this occasion had been Sheffield.

As well as being bombed because other targets could not be found or were too well protected, Hull’s docks, industry and railways were key targets themselves.

Reports at the time didn’t mention Hull by name in order to divert attention and play down its significance, and instead it was referred to obliquely as a “north-east town”.

Hull had been the subject of a “D Notice” – a voluntary request to the Press not to disclose certain information for reasons of national security, as the Cabinet was concerned the city’s suffering would lower national morale.

But while the rest of the country could only guess at the identity of the Luftwaffe’s latest victims the people of Hull knew to their cost that it was they who bore the brunt of the nightly raids of death and destruction.

For people like Janet, now 67, the repercussions of the Blitz are still being felt today.

The pensioner, who lives in Sproatley, near Hull, says it’s a chapter of her life she’s struggled to come to terms with.

“I’ve had a feeling of suppressed grief for so long. My dad couldn’t talk about what happened and even after he died my mother didn’t tell me and I feel like I’ve carried their grief around with me all these years.

“That’s why it’s important that people tell their stories and talk about what happened so that way we don’t forget.”

Blitz: The Bombs That Changed Britain, BBC Two, November 30, at 9pm.

Wartime story of ‘north-east town’

While the suffering of cities like London, Coventry and Bristol was widely acknowledged, it’s only in recent years that the plight of Hull during the Second World War has been recognised.

It is now believed to have been the second most heavily bombed British city other than London.

By the time the war was over at least 1,200 people had been killed in the 82 bombing raids on Hull during the war. Not only that, but of 86,715 homes were damaged – 94 per cent of the entire housing stock – and 152,000 people were made homeless – more than half the city’s population.

Hull spent more than 1,000 hours under alert during raids stretching from June 1940 to 1945, with the most concentrated attacks coming between May 3 and 9, 1941.