- Contributed by
- Tom Arksey
- People in story:
- Tom Arksey
- Location of story:
- Hull, East Yorkshire
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 24 January 2004
BANKING ON THE FRONT LINE - 1941
At 5.30 on the evening of Wednesday, 8th May, 1941, at the end of an ordinary day's business, my work colleagues and I put away the books and machines in the strong room, the ledger trays and cash and, leaving the Yorkshire Penny Bank (now the Yorkshire Bank) in its dominating position to the south of City Square, Hull, we all made our way to our respective homes through the busy, wide, clean streets.
I was temporarily living on my own, because my wife and young daughter had left Hull for the comparative safety of my in-law’s farm in a very remote village near Huddersfield. When I retired to bed, nothing out of the ordinary had yet happened but just before midnight came the wailing of the sirens and, almost simultaneously, the bang of the anti-aircraft (AA) guns as from all parts of the city they gave tongue. Mingled with it was the scream of bombs as they came hurtling down and the dull crump as they made contact with the earth. Long before I was dressed and had joined my fellow wardens at the Post, it became evident this was no ordinary raid.
As the night wore on, the battle increased in violence—the roar of planes overhead, the thump of bombs as they fell and the ceaseless firing of the AA guns. By 2 a.m. the whole horizon was a brilliant red glare as fires raged unchecked throughout the city.
About 3.30 a.m. the fury began to diminish and shortly after 4.00 I was able to take stock of our house. Not too bad. A lot of glass gone but I used blackout material and covered the open spaces. Not long after, the Manager and Chief Cashier arrived in the latter's car and the three of us set course to see what we should see in City Square.
After a never-to-be-forgotten ride, turning back several times because of craters, fires or streams of now homeless people, we left the car half a mile away from the Bank and made our way on foot. As we got nearer we abandoned all hope for the building. The whole Prudential building in City Square, with its five storeys and a frontage of 150 ft., had nothing but its tower left. The Price's Tailors building across the road was a tangled mass of steelwork and stone, with "Shorty" grotesquely arranged in his 50/- suit lying in the street like a dead man. But—yes—the Bank was still there. Battered, perhaps. All windows and frames throughout the building gone. But still standing.
We were welcomed by the Porter who lived in the top flat. He could get anything in those days. Was a thing in short supply? Well, he had some. His pièce de resistance that night was to convince a cynical Admiralty Signals Officer that it was a matter of urgent national importance that he should use the only lines still working to make a long distance telephone call to Mr. Binns, Head Office Manager in Leeds, at 4 a.m. and let him know the situation in Hull. This he did in a city that had no trunk calls or telegrams for a week afterwards! He told us how an incendiary bomb had come in through the shattered window and how he had, with his bare hands, thrown it back into the Square! When Mr. Binns heard his story, he promptly, and characteristically, gave him a £5 note.
Our first job was to see if the strong room would still open—it would—and the next hours were spent pitching wreckage, glass, masonry and paving blocks through the empty window spaces out into the streets and in plying sweeping brushes and dusters to make the place something like tidy.
About 9 a.m. came the rest of the staff, and Mr. Binns from Leeds, with the news that Nicholsons (the firm contracted to do all the Bank’s repair work) were on the way with two lorry loads of equipment.
At 10 a.m. we opened the door (the only thing in the Bank the Luftwaffe had not opened for us) and were ready to do business in a city "bloody but unbowed".
By lunchtime Nicholsons—an army of whose men arrived on the lorries—had boarded up all the windows leaving an insert of artificial glass to admit the light, and making the Bank, though somewhat gloomy, less of a great wide open space than before.
On Thursday afternoons it was half day closing in Hull so when we went home we left all secure to try to make up some much needed sleep, but with a conviction—fatalistic or intuitive—that we should have a repeat performance that same night.
Sure enough, about midnight, the sirens went and almost immediately the same devil's orchestra was in full swing again. At home, we lost the remainder of our glass and, having made good the damage as well as I could, I made my way to City Square once more. This time the fires were not so extensively lurid, perhaps because there was less to burn, but again there were the pitiable streams of homeless and the rubble heaps. As dawn was breaking we saw the magnificent City Hall, dominating the Square, with its roof well alight, but our eyes were mainly for the Bank. Amazingly the building still stood. True, the temporary windows and all the boarding erected by Nicholsons a few hours earlier had been blown in by blast, but beyond this there was little damage.
We were told by the Porter that he had again done the impossible—contacted Mr. Binns in Leeds—this time by representing himself to the GPO (who alone had a trunk line still functioning) as being from the Officer Commanding all military forces in Hull and charged with getting an important message through to Leeds! The tale worked, and once more Mr. Binns and Nicholsons took the road to Hull. (Incidentally the Porter also told us that he had left his wallet containing the aforementioned £5 note at the GPO in the phone booth and that it was not to be found when he want back— a loss somewhat unsympathetically received by officialdom.)
And so we set to work, again shifting temporary woodwork, sweeping up glass, plaster, credit notes and blotting paper, and generally getting shipshape.
What Harry, Nicholson's foreman, said when he saw his temporary windows is nobody's business but they had more wood, fresh artificial glass, and the benefit of a night's sleep and they set to work with a will to reinstate the windows.
Just before noon, the most welcome visitors of the whole nightmarish two days arrived: the Bank's cream Rolls Royce mobile canteen, maintained by Head Office against just the situation in which we found ourselves, complete with a crew of willing waitresses and cooks, with vegetable soup and later, at lunchtime, an appetising three course meal cooked on the Primus stoves in the canteen.
As the day wore on it became evident that, come what may, a good night's sleep was imperative and a colleague who lived in a village outside Hull was good enough to offer me the hospitality of his home for the night. About 1 a.m. the sirens went again, but who cared! There was gunfire in the distance about 3 a.m. and all too soon it was time to think about work. Slowly the fires went out, the grit settled, the battered city got its second wind and licked its wounds.
And what hideous wounds—70,000 people homeless, 80 per cent of the houses and buildings damaged and one-fifth of the rateable value of the city totally destroyed. The Bank had been fortunate: its own properties little damaged, the staff likewise fortunate.
Early the next week we had word that the General Manager was coming to Hull to see for himself what had happened. The Porter and office cleaner mobilised three other helpers and made the office shine—woodwork, brasswork, marble all gleamed and glowed as if they knew of the distinguished visitor who was coming. They scored a remarkable victory over the grime, soot and splintered and scratched woodwork. Nicholsons were over again making the temporary windows more stable and secure and by 8.45 a.m., when we were ordered to evacuate the office, it looked, except for the windows, better than it had done for years. The reason we had to evacuate was because the Royal Engineers were to demolish the tower of the Prudential building across the Square which was unsafe.
At 9 a.m. the detonators were fired and the great tower fell as neat as could be across the Square in the direction of the Bank. At 9.05 a.m. when we got back inside, words failed us. The windows, boarding and all, were on the floor and a quarter inch coating of rich red brick dust covered everything in the office! Silently we took off our coats, got out the brushes and the dusters, buckets and shovels. Harry and his men got busy on the windows and by the time the General Manager and the other officials arrived they were able to congratulate us on the clean, neat and tidy appearance we presented.
So ended a memorable week, one that changed the face of Hull, and that left an indelible impression on the minds of all who lived through it. There had been raids before, and others were to come, but none reached the horror and ferocity of those two nights.
At the end of the year, I joined the RAF and by the irony of fate, two-and-a-half years were to pass before I again heard a shot fired in anger!
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