Scene of WWll bomb damage

Bombing raids in Wales

by Dr Martin Johnes, University of Wales Swansea

The invention of the long-range bomber meant that the government had estimated that 600,000 British civilians might die in bombing in the first two months of a war.

It feared that such losses might bring a collapse in civilian morale, causing the conflict to be lost regardless of what happened militarily. When war did break out on 3rd September 1939, plans to deal with the bombing of Britain were already far advanced.

In June 1940, Cardiff became the first place in Wales to be attacked.

The Phoney War

As it turned out, from the outbreak of war until the summer of 1940, there was a period of what people called 'phoney war'. Little happened on the Home Front and many found the evacuations, gasmasks, blackouts and constant public information rather pointless and irritating. Ebbw Vale MP Aneurin Bevan told Parliament, 'the impression is now universal that if the Germans do not manage to bomb us to death the Ministry of Information will bore us to death'.

After the fall of France the nature of the war changed. Suddenly Britain was standing alone and the enemy was just a few miles away across the English Channel. The bombing of British towns and cities began, concentrated on London but extending across much of the country. In June 1940, Cardiff became the first place in Wales to be attacked. The Welsh people were now on the frontline.

Swansea suffered the most intense attack in Wales when a raid that lasted three nights in February 1941 destroyed half the town's centre.

Wales's Blitz

Those with gardens often built Anderson Shelters to take refuge in but not everyone was so fortunate and others had to use crowded public shelters. In late 1940, Morrison Shelters were introduced, which were not much more than a steel table to hide under inside the house. Others made a nightly trek to nearby rural areas, sleeping in tents, cars or even on the beach.

In Wales, Cardiff and Swansea were subject to the most sustained attacks. In Cardiff over the course of the war 33,000 houses were damaged, over 500 demolished and 355 civilians killed. Swansea suffered the most intense attack in Wales when a raid that lasted three nights in February 1941 destroyed half the town's centre. The fires turned night into day and could be seen for miles, adding to the impact of the horror. Thirty-thousand bombs were dropped; 575 business premises burnt out; 282 houses demolished and 11,084 damaged. 227 people were killed, 37 of them under the age of 16. At the height of the Swansea blitz one woman, when asked where her husband was, replied, 'He is in the army, the coward'.

The docks and industrial works of Cardiff and Swansea made them obvious targets but there were attacks elsewhere too. Ordinance factories, oil installations, mining towns and even rural communities were bombed by orchestrated attacks, lost planes or those just eager to lose their cargo before flying home. Even Caernarfonshire, which was near the flightpath of bombers heading to Liverpool, saw five deaths in bombing raids over the course of the war. In April 1941, 27 people lost their lives in a raid on Cwmparc in the Rhondda; six of them were children, including four evacuees. A miner recalled of seeing the coffins: 'That's when you realised there was a war on'.

The men looked tired and bereft of hope and most of the women seemed to be on the verge of tears, their sadness and helplessness is very tangible.

Morale

The impact of these attacks on civilian morale was a key concern for the government. News was censored and photographs of damage only released in stages, all of which often made people think things were worse than they really were. There was some anger in Swansea when the BBC reported that people in the town were still smiling even if they had lost friends and relatives. More accurate was The Times reporter who noted of the town, 'The men looked tired and bereft of hope and most of the women seemed to be on the verge of tears, their sadness and helplessness is very tangible'.

People did endure the horrors of the bombing with courage but that did not make it easy and government observers noted grumbles, nerves and jitters. The bombing and the stoicism with which it was faced also created a shared sense of suffering with other towns and cities in Britain. Within communities, there was some looting of bomb sites but there was much more of bombed families, neighbours and strangers helping each other.

The People's War

After 1941, the raids on Wales became less frequent. People grew more weary and fatalistic about the war, even ignoring sirens to stay in the house, pub or cinema. There were still the effects of bombing to live with, not least the homelessness it caused. Nothing comparable to the scale and intensity of the London Blitz may have been endured in Wales but the bombing still killed 984 people and seriously injured another 1,221. Moreover, the bombing ensured that the Second World War really was the 'People's War'.


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