Plymouth Theatre Royal

SECOND WORLD WAR | 1941 – THE PLYMOUTH BLITZ

The March Raids

In just seven nights of just one year the centres of Plymouth and Devonport were laid to ruin. The devastating German air raids of the nights of March 20th and 21st and April 21st, 22nd, 23rd, 28th and 29th have become termed the Plymouth Blitz.

Thursday March 20th/Friday March 21st 1941

Then, as now, a visit from Royalty can attract the wrong sort of attention and so it was on Thursday March 20th 1941. HRH King George VI and Queen Elizabeth arrived by Royal Train at 10.30am that morning at Millbay Station, where they were greeted by Lady Astor, deputising for her husband, and other high ranking service officers. They visited the Royal Marine Barracks, the Royal Naval Barracks, the Royal Dockyard and Her Majesty even called in on the patients and staff of the Royal Naval Hospital, before taking tea with Lady Astor at No. 3 Elliot Terrace on the Hoe. During this there was an air raid alert but it came to nothing. After tea, the party visited the YMCA in Union Street before embarking on the Royal Train again, ready for departure at 5.45pm. [1]

It had been a good day but rumours were apparently circulating around the Royal Air Force operational room at St Eval in Cornwall that ‘Plymouth was due to catch a packet tonight’. In preparation, according to Gerald Wasley in his book “Blitz”, they made ready four Gloster Gladiator biplanes for the defence of Plymouth. [1]

At just after 8.30pm the alert was sounded and at 8.39 the attack started. First came a group of Heinkel III bombers flying at between 9,900 and 11,500 feet. Included in the load of bombs that they dropped were 34 delayed action high-explosive ones. The pathfinder force, who should have arrived first and dropped flares to light the target, arrived at 8.41pm, flying at an altitude of 19,000 feet. Their shower of flares was followed by 12,500 incendiaries and other high-explosive bombs. [1]

Once they had turned away to go back home to their airfields in France, two further squadrons dropped their bomb loads, which included 17 blockbusters, each weighing a ton. To add further hell to that which was raining down on the City, a squadron that had been sent to bomb the Westland Aircraft factory at Yeovil, diverted to direct their bombs on Plymouth when bad weather prevented them from finding their original target. [1]

To quote Gerald Wasley: ‘There was no running away for those caught in this air raid, there was no escape, perhaps worst of all there was no way of retaliating’. [1]

The scene as firemen try to put out the fires in Old Town Street, just up from Spooner's Corner

During this raid the premises of Messrs Spooners, directly across from St Andrew’s Church, was the first to suffer. It so quickly spread that it became obvious within a very short space of time that Plymouth’s own Fire Brigade could not cope. At 8.55pm the first and second stages of a Regional Reinforcement Scheme was put into operation and additional water pumps from Plympton, Saltash, Torpoint, Kingsbridge, Taviostock, Launcedston, Bodmin, Wadebridge, Fowey, Liskeard, Lostwithiel, Yelverton, Looe, Torquay, Exeter, Bridgewater, Barnstaple and Yeovil had arrived in the City by 11pm. Between 9.20pm and 11.47pm 21 pumps from the various naval and military establishments in the area were also at the Fire Service’s disposal. [2]

Soon numbers 1 to 13 Bedford Street were engulfed in flames, which then spread to the Municipal Offices, the Guildhall, and the General Post Office in Westwell Street. Properties in Union Street, The Octagon, Stonehouse and Millbay also suffered. [2]

The raid lasted until 12.20am in the early hours of March 21st. The centre of Plymouth was aflame. When the other fire brigades did arrive in Plymouth – their sole navigational aid being the bright orange glow in the night sky which indicated where Plymouth was – they found they could not assist in putting out the fires because their equipment was not compatible with that used in the City. Many of the fires were left to simply burn themselves out. [1]

With the top of St Andrew's Cross in the foreground, this was the scene at Spooner's Corner the following morning. Spooner's is on the left, Old Town Street in the centre and Whimple Street on the right.

At 4.35am on the Friday morning the fires were declared to be under control. A total of 796 firemen, using 158 appliances, were then on duty. [2]

During this air raid, when the Synagogue was threatened with destruction like the rest of the City Centre, the sacred Torah scrolls were removed by the minister, the Reverend Wilfred Wolfson, and with the aid of a Mr Widdicombe, placed in an adjacent cellar for safety. [3]

The worst casualties were at the City Hospital Maternity Ward, which received a direct hit. Four nurses were killed during the raid: Emily Hellen Kelly, aged 37 years; Winifred May McGuirk, aged 19 years; Lydia Rebecca Walters, aged 16 years; and Probationary Nurse Monica White, aged 17 years. [4]

Nineteen children died in the Maternity Ward that night: Michael John Birdman, aged 21 months; Derek Blatchford, aged 2 years; John Blatchford, aged 3 years; Angela Earle, aged 4 months; Philip Eve, aged 2 years; Terence Michael Fox, aged 23 months; Peter Hamlyn, aged 4 months; Leslie Frank Hogg, aged 10 days; Alan John Jones-Burnell, aged 2 years; twins Maureen and Nicholas John Lowndes-Millward, aged 10 months; Albert Michael McManus, aged 21 months; Charles Burnard Matthews, aged 18 months; Susan Peacock, aged 3 months; Pauline May Sharland, aged 1 month; Winifred Valerie Shears, aged 23 months; Shirley Short, aged 2 years; and Phyllis Taylor, aged 11 months. However, the saddest loss was that of one-week-old Harold Santilla, who died with his mother, 24-years-old Mrs Dorothy May Santilla. [4]

Also destroyed was Hyde Park School [2]. On March 25th 1941 some of the boys were transferred to Montpelier School, where they attended on a split-shift basis from 1.30pm until 5.15pm, and the girls were moved to Laira School. [5]

Thanks to the research efforts of Mr D Penberthy, who is in the process of scrutinising the Operations Records of number 247 Squadron, RAF, who were based at Roborough Airfield, it can be revealed that all our protecting aircraft were safely tucked up at Roborough during this air raid. Two Hurricane aircraft were despatched at 3pm, 4pm and 5.05pm to carry out air raid patrols but the last two, 7016 piloted by Sergeant McKay and 6622 by Sergeant Doherty, had both returned to base by 6.10pm. It would appear that nothing took off to intercept the bombers engaged in that night’s raid on Plymouth. [6]

Friday March 21st/Saturday March 22nd 1941

If Plymothians thought that that was it, they were wrong. At 8.50pm the following night, Friday March 21st, it started all over again. Apparently there was no warning and the sudden appearance of the raiders coming in from the north-east caught the City by surprise. The target was the area adjoining the one hit the previous night and the pathfinder planes circled the City for some twenty minutes positioning themselves before dropping their flares on the chosen area. The bombers soon followed. They encountered no resistance from the Royal Air Force. [1]

Fires raged over a wide area, from the timber yards and tar distillery at Coxside in the east to the Royal Naval Barracks at Keyham and the Royal William Victualling Yard in the west. One man was killed and two injured on Drake’s Island. St Andrew’s Church, spared the night before, was gutted, as were the Guildhall and the Municipal Offices. The Westminster and Hacker’s Hotels in the Crescent were destroyed, as also was the fate of the Plymouth Co-operative Society’s emporium. Five servicemen were killed at Osborne Place, The Hoe, by an unexploded bomb. [7]

The fires raging at Drake Circus.

Only two buildings survived in the City Centre that night, the National Westminster Bank in Bedford Street and the the office of the Western Morning News Company in Frankfort Street. Neither received a direct hit and both were modern buildings constructed of more fire-resistant materials. Unfortunately the newspaper’s photographic department at the rear was destroyed and with it went pictures of old Plymouth. [7]

Sources:

[1] Wasley, Gerald, “Blitz: An Account of Hitler’s Aerial War Over Plymouth in March 1941, and the Events that Followed”, Devon Books, Exeter, 1991.

[2] Campbell, Colin, “City of Plymouth, Air Raid 20th/21st March 1941: ARP Controller’s Report”, typescript dated April 10th 1941 held by the Plymouth Local Studies Library.

[3] E-mail correspondence from Mr Ellis Pearlman, grandson of the Reverend Wolfson, 2009.

[4] Imperial War Graves Commission, “Civilian War Dead in the City of Plymouth”.

[5] Ministry of Education, “Report by HM Inspectors on Hyde Park County Secondary School, Plymouth”, Ministry of Education, London, 1949, held by the Plymouth & West Devon Record Office, Plymouth, accession number 2982/6.

[6] “247 Squadron Operations Record Book”, National Archives, Kew, London, accession number AIR27/1487, courtesy of Mr D Penberthy.

[7] Twyford, H P, “It Came to Our Door”, Underhill (Plymouth) Ltd, Plymouth, 1946.

[8] Mildren, James, “100 Years of the Evening Herald”, Bossiney Books, Bodmin, Cornwall, 1994, ISBN 0-948158-98-0.

Additional information provided by Mr D Penberthy

C Brian Moseley, Plymouth, UK

Page updated: 28 December 2009

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