Sunday 7 August 2011

It wasn't just London

Since this blog started some 18 months ago, we make no apologies for the majority of the writing being somewhat biased towards events in London. After all, the Blitzwalkers do concentrate on walks around various areas of our capital that were affected by the events of 70 years and longer ago. However, although London was the place that the Luftwaffe always returned to, we are the first to recognise that there were plenty of other places outside the capital that drew the attention of Hitler's finest.

Liverpool, Manchester, Belfast, Glasgow, Coventry, Portsmouth, Southampton, Belfast, Birmingham, Sheffield, Hull, Plymouth and Exeter amongst other places all suffered at the hands of the Luftwaffe and having just returned from a short holiday in Devon, it is this county upon which we shall concentrate today.

The county of Devon, with its rich agricultural traditions, at first choice seems an odd choice of target for Goering's bombers but with a little thought, the logic of this choice of target becomes apparent. The City of Plymouth is the home to Devonport Dockyard, the largest naval base in Western Europe and then as now, one of the homes of the Royal Navy. Hitler and his cronies were quick to recognise that if Devonport could be crippled, then the capabilities of the Royal Navy could be similarly hampered. The photograph shows the city centre the morning after a heavy raid in March 1941.

The first bombs fell on the city as early as 6th July 1940, when the suburb of Swilly was attacked with the death of three people. Much worse was to follow in early to mid 1941, when five heavy raids reduced large parts of the city to rubble. As elsewhere, the Plymouth Blitz brought tales of tragedy, heroism and defiance. Amongst the former, March 21st 1941 saw the Childrens' Ward at the City Hospital take a direct hit, when four nurses and nineteen children, the youngest barely a week old, were killed. Tragedy came again on 22nd April 1941, when a public air raid shelter located in Portland Square received a direct hit which resulted in the deaths of 72 shelterers. As always, the heroes were the firefighters, rescue workers and wardens, who toiled without a thought for their own safety. The defiance came in many simple ways; people continued to go to work, the Western Morning News, the local newspaper continued to appear every day despite the damage to their own offices and perhaps most poignantly of all was a wooden sign fixed over the door of the ruined parish church of St Andrew by a local headmistress, which read simply "Resurgam" which translated means "I shall rise again."

Neither was Plymouth the only part of Devon to be bombed; in 1940 and later during the so called Baedecker Raids of early to mid 1942 saw Exeter bombed with much of the historic City Centre being flattened. Newton Abbot railway station was bombed on 20th August 1940 when three enemy aircraft deliberately attacked the large railway station and yards resulting in the deaths of fourteen people and extensive damage and disruption to the main line to and from London.

Even seemingly sleepy backwaters such as the Regency seaside town of Sidmouth were not immune; in November 1941 a German bomber, probably on it's way back from a raid on Exeter shed it's load over the town, fortunately without loss of life but causing some material damage to properties and also causing the attention of a large number of curious locals who came to see the bomb craters the next day!

Devon, of course was the destination of large numbers of evacuees from the big cities, particulary from London. This writer knows of one friend who was evacuated from Greenford in Middlesex to Newton Abbot as a small boy. The reaction of his parents when they heard of the bombing of this part of Devon must have been one of extreme consternation, although for the most part, the evacuees sent to this part of the world must have found rural Devon a world apart from London and the other big cities.

Devon, in common with pretty well the whole of the south of England, was the home to many thousands of Allied servicemen in the build up to D-Day and many friendships were forged between American servicemen in particular and the local populace, whom they grew to like and to admire. In 1944, these servicemen were to leave for what General Eisenhower described as "The Great Crusade" to rid Europe and the World of Nazi tyranny. Many of these young men would never return, but they left behind a Devon, which like the remainder of the country, would never be quite the same again, so deep were the scars left behind.

Published Sources:

The Newton Abbot Blitz - AR Kingdom, Oxford Publishing Company 1979
Sidmouth, The War Years 1939-45 - John Ankins, privately published 2001
The Blitz of Plymouth - Arthur C Clamp - PDS Printers 1981

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