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1940  1941  1942

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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'.

Fires in Old Town Street, just up from Spooner's Corner

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.  Less than thirty minutes after it all started, an urgent call went out to other fire brigades all over the Westcountry asking for their help.  This was soon extended to places as far away as Birmingham, Swindon and Salisbury.

Next to suffer was the Royal Hotel.  The General Post Office in Westwell Street was destroyed and the Municipal Offices were damaged.

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.

With St Andrew's Cross in the foreground, this was the scene at Spooner's Corner the following morning

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.

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.

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.

The fires raging at Drake Circus

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.

As there was no City Centre left for its buses to serve, the Western National Omnibus Company moved its terminus from St Andrew's Cross to Sherwell Arcade, just north of the City Museum in Tavistock Road.

Gerald Wasley points out that the only politician to visit the City after these two terrible nights was Mr Herbert Morrison, the Minister of Health. The rest, including the Home Secretary, stayed away.  The King and Queen sent a message of sympathy to Lady Astor.  However, the Australian nation was unlikely to be left in any doubt how badly Plymouth was suffering during the War: the Australian Prime Minster, Mr Robert Menzies, was staying in the City that night.

In the lull that followed those two nights, Plymouth buried its dead.  Naval ratings from HMS Raleigh, across the water at Torpoint, were given the task of recovering bodies from the ruins.  Many of the 292 civilians killed during the raids were buried in mass graves at Efford Cemetery, each wooden coffin draped with a Union Flag.  Plymothians thought that their Blitz was over, that further destruction was impossible.  They were wrong.

Next - Plymouth Blitz 2 - the April raids
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Copyright:   Brian Moseley, Plymouth, UK

Page updated:  11 August 2007

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