Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Memories of the Manchester Blitz, Christmas 1940

“Another airman and I left Hawarden for Wilmslow (Just outside Stockport) via Chester, Crewe and Stockport, we were going to Manchester for a last fling, but, as it turned out, Manchester had its own private blitz that night –and boy – was it a beauty?”*  

It is almost a throwaway line, written my Uncle to my grandmother in 1941 and began a long 24 page hand written letter which for good measure was written in pencil detailing his journey from Liverpool in a troop transport to South Africa, Greece, Egypt and Iraq.

Along the way he was shown great kindness in Cape Town witnessed the confusion during the Fall of Greece, and saw more action in Basra.

It is a remarkable document, not least because we have the original, along with photographs of the places he wrote about and because it had been brought back to the UK by a fellow serviceman returning on leave.

But for today it is that reference to the Manchester Blitz that has drawn me back to his testimony.

There had been air raids on the city from the August of 1940 but it was the two nights just before Christmas which were to be the worst.

On the nights of December the 22nd through to the 23rd and again the following night the raids killed an estimated 644 people and injured over 2,000, damaged or destroyed many properties including the Cathedral, the Royal Exchange and the Free Trade Hall.

There was also extensive damage to buildings in Salford and Stretford and an equally awful tally of dead and wounded.

It is a story I have visited already** and will return to in the future.

There will be those I guess who will be surprised at the phrase in the letter, “and boy – was it a beauty,” which is to miss the point that language and particularly words can alter their meaning in just under a century.

These were awful raids in which over 400 enemy aircraft dropped a total of 441 tons of high explosive bombs and 1,920 incendiary devices over the two nights an no one at the time underestimated the impact on the city.

All of which allows me to reflect on the power of oral testimony and memory as a powerful resource in the telling of history.

And so I am indebted to my old chum David who regularly contribute to the stories I post and who sent me this vivid account remembered by his mother.

The war time bomb blog reminded me of a recent anecdote about my Mum's wartime experience -

The family home was 183 Oswald Rd facing up Scott Avenue towards the allotments and Manchester Road bridge.

My mum was at Whalley Range Girls grammar school. (She is talking about the Thirlmere Aquaduct that crosses the railway line behind Chorlton Baths, and served Trafford Park with water – a valuable target)

"I moved into lower 5X in September 1940. It was around the 20th December that Manchester had the worst air raids similar to those experienced in London, Coventry, Liverpool and Birmingham.

Two nights were particularly bad. All the windows at the front of the house were broken and the front door blown open by the blast from a land mine that landed on the allotments at the top of Scott Avenue.  Father reckoned they were aiming for the huge water pipe that crossed Manchester Road.

Houses came down at the top of Scott Avenue and Cheltenham Road, two people were killed and a girl I knew had her face badly scarred by shrapnel as she was standing outside the air raid shelter in her back garden.

Father had urged mother and me to stay in the cellar but although there was a sofa of sorts down there it was very cold. I remember the occasion vividly. 

Mother and I were sitting by the kitchen range when there was an almighty CRUMP. Soot fell down the chimney blackening our faces. When the noise settled, and only then, I dived under the kitchen table!

There were other air raids but that was the closest bomb to our home. Mother’s reaction was to cook the chicken, our special treat for Christmas before the 25th so we had our Christmas dinner early that year."'***

*Letter from Roger Hall to Emily Hall, 1941
*** courtesy of Mrs Reilly and David Reilly

Pictures; Blitz bomb damage, 1941,  courtesy of Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives, Manchester City Council, m8608,8609,Anti-aircrat guns in action, m08558

Further reading; Luftwaffe over Manchester, Smith, Peter, J, 2003

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