HAROLD WOOD was a young sorting clerk and a Home Guard soldier when, on April 29, 1942, the German bombers wrought devastation on York. Here's his story.

FOLLOWING the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk, everyone expected the next move by the Germans would be an attempt to invade Britain. During the period when our Army was regrouping, an appeal was broadcast to the civilian population to become volunteers for local defence duties.

These people eventually became known as the Home Guard with duties such as guarding important buildings and, if invasion came, harassing the German forces.

Post Office telephone engineers, sorting office staff and outdoor postal workers were combined to form the 17 West Riding Home Guard Company with the headquarters at the Leeman Road sorting office.

One of our earliest duties was to provide a guard comprising a sergeant and four men at the head post office in Lendal every night.

In 1942, the York Telephone Exchange was situated in buildings at the rear of the head 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 (the empty huts are still on site).

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.

Thus 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 the chinks in the blackout blinds one could see the Observer Corps plotting the position of approaching aircraft and 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 Junkers 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, we dashed down the stone steps which led to the cellars where the coke-fuelled boilers were situated. While sheltering there, we noticed a bright white light slowly advancing down the steps. Investigation showed it was caused by chandeliers of lights suspended from parachutes slowly 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 was 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. Every few minutes as the flames reached the floor below there was a terrific explosion as the fire was stoked by yet another layer of highly-combustible material.

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 roof-top to another dealing with each problem in turn. Charles Bartle's roof-top 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 the Clifton Airfield.

During one short lull in the raid, we did briefly discuss whether 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 firepower endeavour to shoot down one of the low-flying attackers.

But we quickly agreed bringing down a fully-laden German bomber into the city centre was not such a good idea, especially because the frequent line of approach was from Micklegate towards the Minster.

By 4am the raid was over, although the All-Clear did not sound until 4.30am. One of our number resumed guard duty with the police constable and the other four moved into St Helen's Square to help the firemen with their hoses as they endeavoured to quell the fires burning on the Guildhall, St Martin's-Le-Grand Church, the Leopard Arcade and other buildings in Coney Street.

The roads were covered in broken slates, tiles and glass from shattered windows.

My lasting memory of the night is how well everyone reacted. There was no panic, the adrenaline was racing, but we seemed to be surrounded by people calmly dealing with the job in hand.

As the months past, we learned Charles Bartle had been awarded the MBE for his courageous actions.

In November 1942, the 17 West Riding (Home Guard) Company paraded, as usual, at the sorting office in Leeman Road, but on this occasion we marched to St Peter's School playing fields.

The five members on guard duty on April 29 had been awarded certificates for good conduct and devotion to duty by the Commander-in-Chief Home Forces. These were presented by Alderman Shaw.

The guard comprised Sergeant R Ken Walker, Huntington Road, telephone engineer; Corporal Harry Jackson, Millfield Road, head office clerk; Private Ernest Peacock, assistant superintendent at the sorting office; myself, Private Harold J Wood, Somerset Road, sorting clerk; and Private D Eastwood, postman driver.

By the time these certificates were presented Private Eastwood had become Gunner Eastwood in an anti-tank regiment and I had been accepted for aircrew training.

Our Home Guard Company was probably the smartest and most proficient in this area, chiefly because many of its personnel were time-expired service regulars.

We paraded every Sunday and the three platoons were variously learning the intricacies of the Northover Projector, Molotov cocktails and other anti-tank weapons.

Visits to the army rifle ranges at Strensall provided us with hands-on experiences. Weekend camps at Heslington gave us training in surviving and operating in the countryside both in daylight and on night exercises.

Following the annual November Remembrance Parade I met up with a city councillor I have known for 55 years and learned for the first time that he was patrolling a Beaufighter from RAF Church Fenton and operating over Leeds on the night of the York raid.

Apparently the thinking that night was the York raid was a diversionary raid and he and his colleagues were further west ready for the main bomber force. Flight testing his aircraft the following morning and flying over York he was shattered to see the smoking devastation rising from the city.

As a further coincidence I attended the Leo Kessler lecture at the Tempest Anderson Hall last year and proffered the information on the direction of the approach by the attacking aircraft and the bomb which fell near the Half Moon hotel was probably the last one on a bombing run.

The lady in front of me turned around and said her father, Harry Moor, the landlord, had been on night war work and she, as a three year old, had been sheltering with her mother under the bar shelving.

Updated: 09:44 Monday, May 03, 2004