Archive photographs of York at war have been discovered in a newspaper library. The images relay the horror of war and capture the way the people of this city knuckled down and got on with life under difficult circumstances, reports STEPHEN LEWIS.

APRIL 29, 1942. Tin-hatted ARP wardens and men in military uniform inspect the damage to St Martin’s Church the morning after Hitler’s bombs rained down on York.

This stunning image, which captures the aftermath of the most traumatic night in York’s modern history, is one of almost 20 photographs, many of them never published before, which for years have been lying half-forgotten in the archives of The Press’s sister paper, The Northern Echo.

Some seem to have originally been banned from publication by wartime censors.

“Submitted for publication under the 28 days rule,” says a note attached to the back of these, supplemented by the scribbled comment “not passed”. Others have notes saying they are not be used before a certain date – or captions that are deliberately vague, so as to give nothing away to the enemy.

The images we reproduce over the next four pages were part of a much larger collection of more than 100 black-and-white wartime photographs that Chris Lloyd, The Echo’s deputy editor, uncovered in the newspaper’s archives. They had been “dumped in a war packet and forgotten”, Chris says. Until now.

Between them, the photographs add up to a stunning portrait of York at war. Flames and smoke leap from the Guildhall and from the roof of the Press building on Coney Street on the night of the German air raid, in a photograph ‘not passed’ for publication at the time by the censors.

A British Tommy in tin hat and greatcoat stands by the wreckage of a German bomber downed at Duggleby near Malton during a raid on Linton-on-Ouse in October 1940. Young women in ATS uniform parade down Coney Street in 1941, watched by Lieutenant General Sir Ronald Adam, commander in chief of Northern Command.

All human life is here: two uniformed bomb disposal experts tackling an incendiary bomb in a York street, while a crowd of enthralled onlookers watch; a military band playing in front of the Castle Museum; four women, two in military uniform, standing outside the WAAF recruiting office in Blossom Street; more women queuing at the York Employment Exchange where, the caption says, “girls of the 1920 class registered for national service”.

Wartime or not, the photographs show that ordinary life went on, as much as it could. There is destruction, and hardship, and shortages, but the pictures show resolve and, quite often, good cheer as well. That’s the wartime York Les Marsh remembers.

Now in his 80s, Les was 16 the night the bombs fell on York. His dad, Bernard, ran the Crescent Working Men’s Club, near the railway station. That night of April 29, 1942, he and his parents, together with some family friends and his Auntie Joan, who was two years older than him, were huddled in the club cellars as the explosives rained down on the railway station.

As a 16-year-old, he found it exciting rather than frightening, though he could see his parents were worried.

“We could hear the bombing. It was coming from behind us. It was very bad. There were lots of rumbles, and ‘rrhumps!’ and ‘pangs!’”

Down in their cellar, his little group felt reasonably safe. “Though not if there had been a direct hit. It was a long night!”

With the bombing over, and before the first dawn light had begun to appear, he and Joan emerged on to the streets to pick their way across to The Groves to check on their grandparents. The fire raging at the railway station was ferocious, Les recalls: so hot, you couldn’t get near. “It looked chaotic. You could see right through.”

Standing at the top of The Crescent, he struck a match to light a cigarette, only to get yelled at by a voice from the dark. “They said ‘the enemy might see you!’” Les recalls.

The city was subdued as daylight began to appear, but there was a palpable sense of relief, too, Les says. In general, he remembers the war as a time when the people of York were determined to get on with life. Yes, there were blackouts, and shortages, and long queues, and for some devastating news of the death of loved ones. “But there was an amazing spirit, too: this sense that ‘we’re not going to be beaten’.”

There was no television, so people got together to have fun. There were bands or dances every weekend, at the de Grey rooms or Assembly Rooms, or in church halls. “And you’d get the RAF guys coming into town: the ground crews and air crews, coming back from bombing Germany, relieved they were still alive.”

One of those airmen was Reginald Harman. He was posted to Rufforth from down south when he turned 18 in 1944 and volunteered to fly with the RAF. A ‘tail-end Charlie’ in Wellingtons and then Halifaxes, he met his future wife Winifred at a dance in Acomb. Despite the blackouts, the queues and the shortages – many pubs had no beer – he remembers morale in the city being good. “People were cheerful enough. You’ve got to live in the times you’re in,” he said.

Mr Harman, now 85, originally contacted The Press after reading a feature about the Royal Observer Corps – and spotting his wife’s face in one of the photos.

Camera film was hard to get hold of during the war, he says – and then there was the censorship, necessary to avoid giving the enemy vital clues such as the location of British airfields.

He still thinks it is possible there may be York households with old wartime photos sitting half-forgotten in the attic or at the back of an old cupboard.

If so, we at The Press would love to hear from you, so that we can build up an archive of unseen war photos. We would also love to hear from anyone who can give us more information about the photographs we publish today.

So if you have enjoyed looking at these pictures, why not go off and have a rummage through the attic. And then give us a call…

Picture gallery of archive pictures>>

War pictures and stories

If you have any old wartime photos you would like to share with us, or information about any of the pictures we have reproduced today, phone Stephen Lewis on 01904 653051 ext 336, or Julian Cole on 127.