Entire buildings – including the seven-storey Marple’s pub – were razed to the ground. Yet Sheffield’s suffering has often been called “the Forgotten Blitz”. As in many things, even in the collective memory of the Second World War, this proud South Yorkshire city has been left out.
Bomb craters still scarred the city centre when I was a child in the early 1970s. Just as these holes and gaps formed Sheffield as we know it today, they helped to form my own mind. I filled them in with my imagination.
I grew up in Barnsley, but Sheffield has always been my big city. It was the destination to see Christmas lights and for important shopping. It was the first place I rode an escalator, holding my Dad’s hand as a innocent three-year-old.
Later, it became ice-skating at Silver Blades, gigs at the City Hall, clubbing at the Limit and the Leadmill. And it was always the place where my Dad worked, at Stocksbridge steelworks, formerly Samuel Fox’s. He told me that the traitorous Lord Haw Haw used to come on the radio in the war and warn: “We haven’t forgotten the Fox in the valley.”
We had no car, so we went on the bus for 2p thanks to South Yorkshire County Council’s subsidised public transport. I can still recite every stop on the 265 route which went from the top of our street straight to Sheffield bus station.
From being able to sit up, I would gaze out of the bus window in fascination. There would be a row of Victorian shops, then suddenly a big gap and a hole so deep it went right down to what had been the cellars. I would look at the walls with their tattered wallpaper, and the fireplaces hanging there in mid-air, and wonder whether I was having some kind of psychedelic daydream. I wasn’t. It was all too real. My mother would nod sadly and say, “Yes, that was from the bombing of Sheffield.”
I learnt that the “bombing of Sheffield” was something quite mystical to us, 10 miles or so away in our village on the southern edge of Barnsley. It was said that if you stood in a certain place that December you could see the fires caused by the incendiaries burning for days.
Locals spoke of the deafening noise of the planes going over, and the retaliatory rat-a-tat of the anti-aircraft guns. I knew I was a child of the era of peace and love. That much was obvious from my orange and brown crimplene pinafore dress. Seeing those bomb craters though, and hearing people talk, made a connection in my head between our bright, shiny present and a dark and scary past. It gave me, even at the age of four or five, a strong sense of historical perspective.
I think that is why I have always had such respect for Sheffield. It is a city of survivors – and survival.
The bombs which rained down were aimed at the steelworks and armaments factories – at the time local firm Hadfields was the only place in the UK which made armour-piercing shells. Tragically though, many, many bombs missed the factories and foundries and hit residential targets. Thousands of Sheffielders lost their homes.
What I witnessed as a child was the rebuilding of this city. The Park Hill flats which still dominate the skyline stood proud behind the railway station – streets in the sky designed for a new way of living.
The “hole in the road” roundabout, officially called Castle Square, was known for the exotic tropical fish tank emulated in many a council house across South Yorkshire. The Fiesta nightclub stood out when you got off the bus. It seemed impossibly glamorous to my childish eyes, but it closed for good in 1980, when the steel strikes wreaked economic strife across the city just as Hitler’s bombs had wreaked terror 40 years before.
What I witness as an adult on my regular trips to Sheffield now is a city which has undergone yet another rebirth. Many of the buildings which seemed so futuristic proved to have no longevity at all. The concrete streaked and crumbled. The steel began to rust. The city realised that it had to rebuild itself once again. You only have to look at the renovated railway station to see how the physical environment of Sheffield has been lately transformed.
There is also a renewed confidence in industry and higher education, in the leading teaching hospitals and law firms. A new Sheffield City Region is underway, putting this South Yorkshire city at the heart of bringing investment and employment to the region.
For too long now, though, Sheffield has been regarded as the poor relation of Leeds, compared unfavourably time after time on everything from shops and schools to football and fancy restaurants. The 75th anniversary of a terrible event which shaped this fantastic city should give us all the opportunity to pause and reflect. We must never forget Sheffield again.