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Bombed out by moonlight
11:06am Friday 27th April 2012 in History articles
Harold Wood speaks after receiving his Volunteer of the Year award at the York Community Pride Awards
All week, we have been bringing you eyewitness accounts of the York Blitz. Today, we hear from Harold Wood, David Lockwood, Joan Flower and George Tatterton.
HAROLD WOOD was 18 the night the bombs fell on York. He had applied to be aircrew, and in the meantime had volunteered for local defence duties, becoming a member of the Home Guard.
The 17 West Riding Home Guard Company had their headquarters at the Leeman Road sorting office. One of the earliest duties was to provide a guard at the head post office in Lendal every night.
In 1942, the York Telephone Exchange was situated in buildings behind the Post Office overlooking the river.
“Over the wall at the bottom yard were two wooden huts housing the No.19 and No 20 Observer Corps control units constantly monitoring enemy aircraft movements across northern England,” writes Mr Wood, now 88 and living in Copmanthorpe.
“Between these buildings and the river was a small hut containing four wooden bunks as accommodation and shelter for the Home Guard during off-duty periods. The defence of these important buildings was in the hands of one elderly War Reserve Constable with truncheon and the Home Guards with rifle and five rounds of ammunition.”
Through chinks in the blackout blinds the men could see the Observer Corps plotting the position of approaching aircraft.
“Memory seems to remind me the orange alert turned to red and at the same time the first bombs exploded. The time was 2.38am. Twin-engined German bombers which turned out to be a mixture of Heinkels, Dorniers and JU 88s seemed to be taking it in turns to roar across the city centre, at relatively low level, dropping incendiary and high explosive bombs.
“The city was bathed in moonlight and the attackers were able to pinpoint their targets without difficulty. The incendiaries rained down with a terrific clatter as they ricocheted off roof tops and buildings, spitting fire as they came to rest. All five of us were quickly into action grabbing the nearest sandbag and dropping it on top of the flames.
“I remember someone shouting there was a fire starting in the Ready-Cut wool shop opposite the front door of the Head Post Office. Two of us set off with buckets of water and a stirrup pump and arrived to find the fire was burning on the first floor above the recessed entrance doorway. Early attention enabled us to extinguish the blaze very quickly.
“As the next attack approached the city we dashed down the stone steps which led down to the cellars where the coke fuelled boilers were situated. It was while we were sheltering there we noticed a bright white light slowly advancing down the steps.
“It was caused by chandeliers of lights suspended from parachutes slowing drifting above the roof tops. This was followed by the thunderous noise of high explosive bombs arriving, the nearest one falling in Blake Street, near the Half Moon Hotel.
“Reports arrived to say incendiaries had set fire to the top of the telephone exchange and once again stirrup pumps and buckets of water were rushed upstairs where the ceiling above the equipment were burning steadily. Once again we were able to prevent the fire getting out of control.
“By this time many large fires were burning fiercely. The Guildhall roof was well alight and across the river the Rowntree Warehouse, stacked with sugar and similar commodities, burned like a gigantic Roman candle.
“In the midst of all this activity, Charles Bartle, the regular night cleaner, appeared asking for help on the roof. Armed to the teeth with two stirrup pumps and as many buckets of water as we could carry, we followed him to the top of the building.
“We seemed to be scrambling up short ladders, down wooden steps and dashing from one rooftop to another dealing with each problem in turn. Charles Bartle’s rooftop knowledge combined with our efforts must have prevented serious fires breaking out. From this high vantage point we could see dozens of fires burning at the Railway Station, then those on Leeman Road and further in the distance at Clifton Airfield.
“During one short lull in the raid, we did briefly discuss the idea of our team of five armed with our rifles, and the obligatory five rounds of ammunition, should take up a position on the roof and, with our combined fire-power, endeavour to shoot down one of the low-flying attackers.
“Almost as quickly we agreed bringing down a fully laden German bomber into the city centre was not such a good idea, especially as the frequent line of approach was from Micklegate towards the Minster”
By 4am the raid was over, although the All Clear didn’t sound until 4.30am.
David Lockwood spent the night of the York Blitz with his mother in an Anderson shelter in the garden of their home at 191 Fifth Avenue. He was ten.
“I remember the sound of an approaching aircraft quite low and knew it was German, they had quite a different sound,” writes Mr Lockwood, now 80 and living in Heworth.
“As it passed over there was a whoosh! and a heavy thud nearby, but no explosion. Dad shouted, “It’s a dud” and he and Harold [neighbour Harold Richardson] ran up the avenue to find a hole in the garden of a nearby house and building then used as a RC church.
“Immediately they took sandbags from a protective pile outside the church windows and threw them down the hole! One shudders to think what would have happened if it was only a delayed explosion. They then ran around warning nearby householders.
“Morning came and Bomb Disposal arrived to investigate. People were moved and the road cordoned off. Work on retrieval commenced and after almost two weeks the bomb disposal were still there.
“Hearsay, no doubt gleamed from the lads who were digging, was that the bomb had penetrated the clay layer that lies under Tang Hall estate and had entered a layer of soft unstable sand. It was quite a heavy bomb and the more the men dug the more it slipped away. The army eventually left the scene without removing the bomb. Life returned to normal and the episode faded away.”
There was a sequel to this tale of the missing unexploded bomb, however.
“Sometime just after the war finished our family were at the tea table when the house and our neighbours’ houses shuddered. There was no noise but a crack appeared across our concrete kitchen floor, floors in those days were often just painted as linoleum and carpet were still unavailable. We and the neighbours immediately said it must be that unrecovered bomb.”
APRIL 29 was Joan Barker’s mum’s birthday. Joan, 13, had been to Woolworths to buy her present: a brooch which cost the then-considerable sum (for a 13-year-old) of 6d.
The air raids on other cathedral cities such as Bath had led to a certain expectation that York might one day become a target, Joan – now Mrs Joan Flower – recalls. But when she went to bed on April 28, 1942, looking forward to her mum’s birthday next day, she never dreamed it would be that very night.
The family was woken by the air raid sirens. They knew straight away what was happening. There was a shelter in the garden at the back of their house in Lavender Grove.
“So we threw something on quickly and went to the shelter,” Joan recalls. Apart from a few clothes, the only thing she took with her was her mum’s birthday present, the sixpenny brooch.
In the shelter, they heard the whistling of bombs coming down.
“I was imagining there would be craters all around us when we came out,” Joan recalls. There was one particularly big explosion. “We heard the whistle coming down, then a great crash, and we knew it was close. We were terrified.”
Her mother, in fact, had a fit of the ague, and Joan recalls her father trying to hold her legs still as they drummed on the wooden floor of the shelter.
When they finally emerged once the air raid was over, they found that all the windows of their house had been blown out, and that soot had burst from the chimneys and covered everything.
They were more shocked the by state of the street, however. Further up Lavender Grove, some houses had been hit by the bomb they had heard falling, and had been demolished. On the opposite side of the street, the front of several terraced houses had been blown off.
Had the bomb fallen on that side of the street, many more people would probably have been killed, Joan believes. “People were hiding under the stairs.”
At the other end of the street, meanwhile, two houses had been hit by incendiary bombs. “It was like a blazing inferno.”
As far as she knows, however, only one person in Lavender Grove died that night – 49-year-old Florence Ada Maddison, from No 38.
She lived next door but two to the Barkers themselves. “She was ill in bed,” Joan says. “She was hit by shrapnel and bled to death.”
GEORGE Tatterton has one abiding memory above all others of the night the bombs fell on York: that of being carried away from the home he had grown up in in Pickering Street, next to Shipton Street School, and looking back to see the house in flames.
“I can see it now,” says the 77-year-old, who now lives in Strensall.
“My brother was carrying me out of the shelter to the rest centre, and as I looked back I could see our house just totally in flames and things falling out.” He pauses. “I never saw that house again.”
He never saw the street again, either: because after that night, Pickering Street ceased to exist. A bomb fell in the playground of Shipton Street School, flattering the little terrace and all the houses in it.
Three people died in the street that night: Mrs Katherine Cooper, from 6 Pickering Terrace; and Doris Leeming and her seven-year-old daughter June, from No 4. For some reason, they hadn’t gone into the communal shelter like other people from the street, says Mr Tatterton. “I believe they were found under the dining room table.”
All George’s family – dad Arthur, brothers Arthur, Ben and Jim and sisters Mary and Kathleen – survived that night, however.
George was the youngest at seven. It was his dad, who had fought in the First World War, who roused the family as the sirens went and the bombs started to fall. George’s oldest brother, Arthur, who was in the Army himself, dashed upstairs to get George and Jim.
“He picked me up, and ran downstairs, across the rubble in the street, to the local communal shelter. We could hear all the planes coming over, and the bombs going off, the planes dive-bombing. Eventually there was one almighty bang. The shelter shook, and we were covered in dust.”
When the all-clear sounded, Arthur carried George to a rest centre at the corner of Glencoe and Pembroke Street which is when George looked back and saw his home for the last time.
The family was left with nothing but the clothes they stood up in – the only thing salvaged from the house was a tin box containing silver coins belonging to George’s sister, Mary, which she had been saving towards her marriage.
George’s mother had died in 1939.
“I can only imagine how my father felt,” he says. “He had lost his wife, and been left with six children, and then three years later he lost the house and everything he owned.”