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York’s night of fiery terror
In the early hours of April 29, 1942, the Second World War came to York in the most violent manner possible.
For two hours or more, bombs rained down on the city. By the time the final all-clear sounded at about 4.45am, 94 men, women and children in the city and its suburbs had been killed, or left so badly injured they were later to die.
All this week, in the run-up to the 70th anniversary of what has become known as the Baedeker Raid, we will be bringing readers eyewitness memories of that terrible night...
ONE of the enduring images from the night the bombs rained down on York is of the fire-gutted Guildhall the morning after the raid.
Astonishingly, David Wilson and his family lived at the Guildhall. They were there the night the bombs fell – and survived to tell their story.
David, who now lives off Acomb Road, was 11 at the time. His father, Jock, was the caretaker and sword-bearer at the Guildhall.
The family lived in the caretaker’s flat, on the second floor above the Victorian municipal offices next to the medieval Guildhall itself.
David remembers the Observer Corps’ warning bell going off, followed by the sirens. With that, all hell broke loose.
The bombs raining down on the Guildhall were only incendiaries – but explosive bombs fell on Blake Street, not far away.
David, his mum and older sister Margaret, who was in the ATS, went down to the supposedly bomb-proof ARP headquarters in the basement. But his dad was on fire watch – and stayed above, vainly trying to tackle the flames.
“He couldn’t deal with all the incendiaries,” David recalls. The roof of the Guildhall had been undergoing repairs. There was a floor of new timber just beneath the roof so that workmen could reach it, plus scaffolding and shavings.
“The whole thing was a tinderbox,” David recalls. “It caught fire and just went up.”
David’s own most vivid memory was of going out onto the balcony overlooking the river behind the Guildhall. “I remember my mother saying ‘The Guildhall is on fire, and so is everywhere else! Take that lad outside and show him what’s happening!’”
From the balcony it seemed the whole riverfront was on fire: the Guildhall, and buildings on the opposite side of the river too.
It was frightening, he admits – but a sight he wouldn’t have missed. “You’d never, ever see that again.”
Eventually, as the fires at the Guildhall burned more fiercely, the family was evacuated to the Mansion House.
Margaret was in her ATS uniform, and wearing a tin hat. It was fortunate that she was. As they walked along the passage beside the Guildhall, lead dripped off the roof and on to his sister’s head.
“If she hadn’t had that helmet on...”
ON the night of the air raids, 19-year-old Ted Lumley was on night duty at the loco sheds behind York Station. Ted had eye problems, so had not yet been called up – though he was later to serve in France and Belgium after D-Day.
The night the bombs fell, he was working in what was known as the Relief Cabin, about 50 yards from the main No 4 Shed. His job was booking engines in and out as they left the sheds or came in for servicing, coal or water.
“I remember firstly the plane, obviously the pathfinder, coming over and dropping the flares,” Mr Lumley, now 89 and living in Huntington Road, recalls.
“I don’t think anyone at that time realised what was about to follow. Then the dive bombers arrived. They concentrated on the loco sheds, one large bomb dropping directly on the Drops, a working area where wheels were detached from engines, lowered by lift to an underground tunnel and resurfaced close by to be repaired as necessary. The Drops never worked again.
“One engine I remember was the Ralph Wedgewood. We sheltered in a surface shelter adjacent to the Relief Cabin, coming out several times to see what was going on. I remember more than anything else the hundreds of incendiary bombs scattered about, burning away.”
• Don’t miss The Press tomorrow for more York Blitz memories.