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Memories of the Baedeker air raid on York
Next weekend is the 70th anniversary of the Baedeker air raid on York. Readers have been contacting us with their memories of that terrible night. STEPHEN LEWIS introduces a week of coverage.
THE leader column in the Yorkshire Evening Press of Tuesday, April 28, 1942, was eerily prescient. 'Reprisals’, read the headline.
Underneath, the newspaper expressed fears that York could soon become the latest in a long line of English cathedral cities to be targeted by Hitler’s Luftwaffe.
“The air raids on Bath followed by the raid on Norwich remind us of the need to ‘keep our powder dry’ on the ARP ‘Front’,” the newspaper warned.
“Any night, any place may expect to face a strenuous test of its preparedness and the stamina of its citizens who, if they are wise, will not lay too much stress on their hitherto surprisingly consistent ‘run of luck’.”
That luck was to run out much sooner than the long-ago leader-writer could possibly have imagined. In the early hours of the following morning, April 29, about 40 German bombers crossed the coast of England between Flamborough Head and Hornsea, heading for York.
They quickly reached the city – and over the following two hours or so, more than 84 tonnes of high explosives and incendiary bombs rained down on York.
By the time the all clear sounded, 94 men, women and children in the city and its suburbs had been killed, or left so badly injured they were later to die. Hundreds more were less seriously injured.
The damage to the fabric of the city was also immense.
According to Ian Reed, of the Yorkshire air Museum at Elvington, who has been researching the events of that night for an exhibition that will be held in St Sampson’s Square from May 1 to 6, an estimated 9,500 buildings were destroyed or damaged that night.
They included the oldest medieval Guildhall in Britain, St Martin-le-Grand church in Coney Street, and a number of schools - including Poppleton Road, St Peter’s, Queen Anne’s, Nunthorpe, the Bar Convent and Bootham.
York Railway Station was badly damaged - as was the King’s Cross to Edinburgh train, which was struck and set alight at 2.53am as it arrived at Platform 9, packed with soldiers and other service personnel.
The Rowntrees factory in North Street burned to the ground, and Clifton aerodrome (now Clifton moor shopping centre) was badly damaged.
York acquitted itself well in its darkest hour, however, says Mr Reed.
“During the attack... more than 1,000 Air-Raid Precaution (ARP), civil defence, national fire service, WRVS, St john’s Ambulance and Royal Observer Corps volunteers took up their stations alongside the city’s police, fire and ambulance services. Many were killed or injured at their posts that night. Many more local residents and off-duty Army, Navy and RAF personnel helped to stamp out the fires and dig people out of the ruins.”
Local and national newspaper headlines the following morning sought to strike a defiant note.
“The spirit of blitzed York stands very high,” declared one. A staff reporter for the Yorkshire Observer wrote of “the beautiful spires of the undamaged Minster against a blue sky” and of a “tired-looking girl serving buns and bread over a confectionery counter – bombed out of her home six hours before”.
It had been York’s darkest hour, but also perhaps its finest. Seventy years on, many people living in the city still remember the events of that night as though they happened yesterday.
• Today and throughout next week, in the run-up to the 70th anniversary next weekend, we will be bringing you some of their stories...
MARY Rothery, born Mary Heppell, was seven years old at the time of the raid, and living with her family in the Leeman Road area of York: My maternal grandparents lived in Albany Street for many years – at the top of the street was Albany Methodist Church, a large edifice with a Sunday school building attached to it.
My grandfather, a railway signalman, was a lay preacher.
During the war my father served in the Army for the whole of the five years. My mother did a man’s job at the Railway Goods Yard, wheeling a barrow with goods and working full-time shifts. To make life easier we closed our house in Salisbury Road and moved in with my grandmother and aunt in Albany Street (my grandfather died when I was only two years of age).
At night we would watch the aeroplanes leaving local airfields, counting them out, to bomb Germany. Early next morning we would watch them return – some with bits missing, limping along hoping to make the airfield safely. We counted them on return but often some were missing.
There were air raid shelters on Salisbury Road and after the siren we had to run from Albany Street to get there, sometimes with enemy planes overhead. It was therefore, often more convenient to stay in the house, under the stairs, and this we usually did. Upon checking records recently, we had 36 air raid warnings.
Mrs Hardisty, my grandmother’s neighbour, used to knock on the wall when the air raid warnings came as her son was chief air raid warden for the district and they had prior knowledge of impending raids. Two knocks for a yellow warning - get the table out and clear the entrance to the under stairs. Three knocks for an imminent raid - a purple warning. Mrs Hardisty’s budgerigar would put his bell on his head and shout “Wicked Old Hitler”.
In April 1942, the worst Baedeker Air Raid on York occurred. There were seven of us under my grandmother’s stairs – my mother was at work at the Goods Warehouse on night shift. It was said that the enemy planes followed a train into York – my mother worked very near the station. She was in a shelter under the seats. When the bombing started all hell broke loose. Her friend fainted with shock. Sailors from the train came to see if they could help in any way. The stables where the railway horses were kept caught fire and two men went to release the horses. This was very dangerous work - the huge work horses were terrified and ran from one side of the goods yard to the other. When things quietened down mother decided to try to get home. She carried her bicycle and set off. Wires were down across the roads, everything seemed to be burning but she wanted to see if we were all right.
When mother turned the corner of Hanover Street which led to Albany Street she could not believe her eyes. The church which should have been standing proud at the top of Albany Street had disappeared. It had received a direct hit from a bomb. Fearing the worst, mother hardly dared turn into Albany Street. Miracles do happen, the houses were all standing. Our house was only four doors away from the church.
Ted Hardisty, Chief Warden, had called to see if we were all right under the stairs. His mother, two other neighbours, (another Mrs Hardisty and a Mrs Wright), granny, Jane Hannah Kay, auntie, Edith Kay, my brother Raymond Heppell and I were squashed together, terrified. The blast when the church was hit was terrific. Ted was flung onto the stairs and the back door came in trapping the door to us, but we were unhurt.
We were taken to the church all along with many others. Mother ventured into Albany Street and shouted our names, receiving no answer, she passed out. Eventually she found us but could hardly recognise us, everyone was covered with soot!
The district children were taken to St Barnabas’ School which has opened as a rest centre. We had to sleep on mattresses on the floor. There were many incendiary bombs burning in the streets, my brother put one out and I was very proud of him.
Sadly, I cannot find anyone with a photograph of the original Methodist Church in Albany Street. I doubt if many local residents even know that a church once stood there, regularly attended by many people.
At the time of the blitz my father was in hospital in the Army. On hearing of the blitz in York he was, naturally, terribly worried and asked the sister of his ward to see if she could obtain any information. Back she came to tell him “You needn’t worry, the Minster hasn’t been touched”. My father replied, “Unfortunately, sister, my family do not live in the Minster!”
Mrs Nancy Megginson
THE bombs falling on York in those dark hours after midnight on April 29, 1942, could be heard from miles away. Nancy Coverdale was ten.
She lived with her family in Main Street, Sheriff Hutton, ten miles or so from the city.
They could all hear the bombs clearly. “It was a crashing noise – a crump, and a thud, and it went on and on and on, one after another,” says Nancy, now Nancy Megginson but still living in Sheriff Hutton.
They had an elderly relative staying with them, and she was in the room next to Nancy. She must have been woken by the sound of the bombs, Nancy says. “I remember her walking backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, singing hymns. I think it was Abide With Me, although my sister remembered it as Lead, Kindly Light.”
At one point, Nancy and her sister went out into the garden. “York was just a blaze of light; just lit up with all the burning.”
Nancy’s father, Alan, was a builder by trade. His army papers came through in April, but he didn’t join up until December.
Nancy believes that must have been because he was doing war work – specifically, repairing homes in Clifton that had been damaged by the bombs.
“They were trying to make them habitable. He cycled from Sheriff Hutton every day. I remember he left home at 7am and he often wouldn’t get home until 10pm.”
Do you have memories of the Blitz or of other events in York’s recent history? If so, the York Stories project would like to hear from you.
The project – supported by The Press – is looking for stories, memories and experiences of the city, as part of York 800, which commemorates eight centuries since York received its charter.
The stories can be told through letters, poems, blogs, tweets, videos, audio recordings and even music. Contributions will go towards a social media archive to be stored in the city archives. To submit a story, or for more details, visit yorkstories2012.com or email email@example.com
Fictional take on the raids...
PRESS journalist Julian Cole has written a third novel in his series about the Rounder Brothers; it is partly devoted to the Baedeker Raids.
The Baedeker Murders is a time-slip story set in York during the war and in modern times. An old German pilot who once bombed the city returns to make amends and during his pilgrimage is murdered in Guildhall. Chief Inspector Sam Rounder investigates, while his private eye brother Rick falls for a woman he has been hired to shadow and finds himself accused of murder.
• The Baedeker Murders is available on Amazon for Kindle and other similar devices and costs £2.07.