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The Manchester Christmas Blitz - December 1940

by FrankWalsh

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Frank Walsh
Location of story: 
Manchester UK.
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
25 November 2003


When I finished School in Catforth in July of 1940, I returned home to Manchester to live with my Mother in the newspaper shop in Hulme. No more home baked bread, or pigeon (and even sometimes sparrow) pie to savour. More like the regular Mancunion menu of fish and chips from Thurell’s, the chip shop on the corner of Scott Street, next to Grandma’s toffee shop. As they used to say - Chips with everything - everything with chips - along with copious amounts of jam butties and beans on toast. This wide(?) choice of food was, invariably, the staple diet that most of the Hulme residents ate during the war.
Although school children had been evacuated from Manchester from just before the commencement of War; except for practices, no air raid sirens had sounded warnings until the 20th June 1940. The first time sirens were sounded in anger was at a quarter-past three in the early hours of that morning. Not a single plane was heard, there was no gunfire, but nevertheless, a nerve wracking experience for the populace.
The alert lasted thirty-three minutes and was a prelude to what was to come later. The dull ache in the pit of the stomach, the feeling of apprehension and some fear as the high and low pitch warbling note of the ‘alert’ sirens were heard. In contrast, the complete and utter relief that people felt once the steady one note sound of the ‘all clear’ indicating that an air raid was over. At least until the next ‘alert’ siren.
The first real air attack commenced on the 8th August 1940. The enemy bombers dropped a few high explosive bombs along with some incendiary bombs. During this raid they also dropped a bundle of leaflets entitled “Hitler’s last appeal to reason”. Unfortunately these leaflets were not at all effective as they were meant to be - the bundle failed to open and fell on to the head of a police officer guarding the entrance to the Civil Defence Report and Control Centre in Salford. No record exists as to whether he read one or not.
Because I had been involved in producing the School newspaper while attending City Road School, my ambition when I started looking for a career after leaving school was to enter the printing industry. I applied for an apprenticeship at Abel Heywood situated in Lever Street, near to the centre of Manchester. This company had a printing section housed in one of the two large warehouse
buildings they owned. There was the wholesale office supplies and book department in one building fronting Lever street and the newspaper distribution and printing sections in the other building in Little Lever street, a block away from Oldham street. The two buildings were separated by a very narrow street, just one car width wide. The buildings were connected by a bridge on the first floor.

Although there was no immediate vacancy for an apprentice at that particular time, I was offered a job in the packing department, with a promise that the next apprenticeship vacancy would be mine. Entry into the printing trade was strictly controlled by the Typographical Association, a trades union that only allowed apprentice intake based on the number of qualified craft journeymen employed at any one company. The indentured period for Compositors and Machine Managers was a seven years apprenticeship.
My wage on starting in the packing department of Abel Heywood was the princely sum of five shilling a week, (25 pence) rising to ten shillings a week (fifty pence) on completion of a three month trial period. Besides packing parcels, there were parcels to be delivered locally, as well as some to be taken to the railway parcels department in Piccadilly, the post to be collected from Newton Street Post Office and various other duties to be undertaken, Monday to Friday and Saturday until mid-day.
The Composing and packing departments were on the first floor and the machine room, where the heavy printing presses were installed, was in the basement. There was one particular apprentice in the machine room who used to scare everyone to death. He used to put on rubber wellington boots, place a metal bar inside the electric motor and charge himself up like a human battery. Woe betide anyone caught unawares as you passed by him. A sudden hand grabbing you left you feeling slightly bemused as the electricity was transferred into your body. He certainly kept everyone on tenterhooks while he worked there. Luckily he was with Abel Heywoods but a short while, as he was sacked for some other misdemeanour, much to the relief of all the rest of the staff.
When I finished work each day, I used to board the 47 bus in Piccadilly. This ran along City Road, dropping me off nearly at the front door of our shop. Marjorie (my Sister) had returned to Manchester at Easter time and attended City Road School until Grandma and Granddad retired to Cleveleys in late August 1940. Marjorie and my cousin Brian went with Grandma and Granddad to live at Cleveleys; both staying there until the war ended.
The next air attack was on the night of the 28th August when bombs fell on Baguley and Brooklands. There were no casualties because the bombs dropped mostly in fields or gardens. However there were some casualties at Worsley and in Altrincham. Some houses were hit as well as an oil and petrol store which set on fire.

The following night, 29th August, a bomb dropped in the middle of the road at the corner of Scott and Henry street, just round the corner from our paper shop. The bomb hit and ignited a gas main which burned for quite a long time and became quite an attraction for people who came from miles around to see ‘the first bomb to fall on Hulme’. There were other bombs that night, one landing on the roof of Paulden’s store and incendiaries in Moss Side, Alexandra Park, Rusholm and Platt Fields.
As the result of this incident my Mother and I went to live with an Uncle in Droylsden - not really a relative but a very close family friend who had a joinery business on the corner of Barrack Street and City Road. He had moved to the new estate being built in Droylsden during 1936 and had since travelled down to his place of business each day by car. My wife, Teresa, and I still live in this very same detached house in Droylsden, to this day.
My mother travelled to the shop each day, Monday to Saturday, but only till midday on Sundays. Each evening I went to the shop in Hulme from work, had my tea and then we both travelled back to Droylsden each evening. As a concession to the air raids the shop was closed at seven pm. Ever since my Father had died a few years earlier, the shop became the only source of income for my Mother in order to provide for herself, Marjorie and myself.
While the shop was being used as a ‘lock-up’ and because there was always a supply of cigarettes in stock, which were in very short supply during the war, the shop was broken into many times during these war years. The thieves entered through the doors, windows, ceiling and walls using some ingenious methods. of entry to achieve their ‘ciggies’. Umbrella inserted closed through one slate and opened to catch the rest.
The air raids became more prolific with a plethora of bombs on different districts: August 30th - Swinton and Pendlebury; August 31st - Knott Mill, Ardwick and the roof of the College of Technology, which wrecked the College common room; September 3rd - Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Hough End Avenue, Nell Lane and Mauldeth Road; September 4th, Weaste, old People’s Homes, Hope Hospital Pendleton and Worsley; September 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, Didsbury, Northenden, Withington, Irlam, Heaton Park, again Worsley Swinton and Stretford.
No one area escaped as the planes incessantly dropped their load of HE and incendiary bombs. Many buildings had the aptly named “Fire Watchers” patrolling nightly. Equipped with ‘stirrup pumps’ ready to place in the strategically placed buckets of water dotted round the premises. There were also buckets of sand alongside the water buckets. Fire watchers slept on the premises nightly and began duty once the sirens had sounded. Fire watchers were recruited mainly from the regular staff employed by the firm, sometimes supplemented by a full time night watchmen to do the job. Following the two day ‘Blitz” the “Fire Watchers’ Order” was strengthened to ensure that every building was covered each and every night.

Although strictly not of age, I volunteered to fire watch, tempted by the small remuneration each volunteer received for the nights work. Abel Heywoods was a five story building with a flat roof. It had a huge wooden sign on top, approximately eight feet high. The large gold letters spelled out “A H & SONS”. By standing on the middle of the letter H you had an uninterrupted clear view all over the centre of Manchester.

When not on alert some volunteers slept on camp beds while others toured the building on a rota basis. However, once the sirens had sounded everyone went on to the flat roof to watch the searchlights criss cross the sky, occasionally highlighting one of the many barrage balloons floating high in the sky. These were to help deter planes from undertaking low level bombing.
Then, not long to wait before the heavy drone of the bombers engines could be heard in the distance. This noise gradually increased as the planes got nearer and nearer, then the crump of bombs falling and the noise of the anti-aircraft batteries opening up. These helped light up the night sky with the flash of exploding shells. Sometimes on a moonlit night you could see the silhouette of a bomber high in the sky. The straps on the tin hats being worn were always checked and tightened as the patrolling of the building in pairs began in earnest.
There were normally eight fire watchers on each night to cover the two buildings. One night an incendiary bomb dropped between the two buildings, bounced through the machine room window and began a fire among the paper stacks and machinery. The fire was soon brought under control with stirrup pumps and sand. Much later the machine room was checked by the regular fire appliances that had arrived to ensure the fire had been properly put out.
Colonel Heywood, the Managing Director and head of the Company, called the eight men on duty that night in to his office a few days later. He presented each man with a large crisp white five pound note, along with his personal thanks. This was an awful lot of money in those days. But compared with the possible loss of hundred of thousands of pounds worth of stock and fittings if the buildings had have been completely destroyed by fire - then not a really a lot of money, in comparison.
As a counter measure, when the alert sirens were sounding, large oil containers full of old tyres and wood soaked in oil were set alight in the fields to the west of Salford and Worsley. This was done to give the false impression that factories had been hit and hopefully to attract the next waves of bombers approaching to drop their bombs where they could see the smoke and flames coming from. Thus diverting the planes from their true targets, Trafford Park, Salford Docks, and the centre of Manchester.
Another ruse was to have a number of mobile Ack-Ack guns driving around the different neighbourhoods while the attack was in progress. They would stop the lorries towing the guns in a variety of locations, set up the Anti-aircraft gun, loose off a few rounds, load up and then move to another venue. This was to give the impression to aircraft that there were many more Ack-Ack gun emplacements than there actually were.

Invariably, Mother and I, on our trip to Droylsden after the shop had been closed, managed to get somewhere in the vicinity of Piccadilly or even Stevenson Square, before being stopped by the sirens. All ‘buses ceased to run, even the trolley buses that ran to Ashton-under-Lyne, although they normally ceased running at midnight to be replaced with all night motor buses. Everyone made for the many deep underground shelters in the basements of the high five and six story warehouse buildings dotted around Piccadilly and the surrounding streets.
We soon got to know all the best deep and comfortable shelters in that area and it was not long before we were on first name terms and became acquainted with all the ‘regulars’ that frequented these shelters. Many life histories and reminiscing bouts were held while ensconced in the bowels of those buildings to help pass the time - even a little sing-song sometimes. The spirit, intimate comradeship and friendship built up between complete strangers linked together in adversity while taking shelter is something to be long remembered in those dark days. A determined fighting spirit abound that eventually won us the war.
Early October saw another spate of air raids which caused damage to the official residence of the Judges of Assize and also Salford Town Hall. Many people were killed and lists of those who had died began to appear at Police Stations and local Government offices. The Manchester Royal Infirmary Nurses’ Home was hit. The raids continued unabated throughout October, November and December.
Luckily, Mother and I were not travelling from the Hulme paper shop to Droylsden on the fateful night of 22nd December, it being a Sunday. Otherwise we may have been caught, along with many others, inside the deep cellar shelters of the tall buildings in Piccadilly that were totally destroyed by fire on that horrendous night.
So intense were the flames that night, that in order to stop the fire spreading, some buildings had to be dynamited to form a gap between the buildings on fire and those more fortunate that were being doused with water.

There is an old saying that is perfectly true: “Fire when under control, is one of man’s best friends - when out of control, one of man’s worst enemies” That appertained on the two nights of the Blitz.
It was still only early evening and the sirens were already a familiar sound, when they began wailing again, heralding the commencement of the Luftwaffe’s most furious onslaught on the City of Manchester - the beginning of the two day and night Blitz. The twelve hours that followed were Manchester’s time of testing. The City of Liverpool had already been severely raided on the previous two nights the 20th and 21st December, with indeed even some bombing on the 22nd and 23rd, but the brunt of the attack by the German Air Force on the 22nd and 23rd December 1940 was against Manchester and the conurbation areas surrounding the City.


The raid on Manchester followed the plan adopted by the enemy in their massed assaults on other cities. There was a preliminary intensive incendiary attack, during which few high-explosive bombs were dropped, followed by the bombardment by increasingly heavy calibre HE bombs and land mines as the target area became illuminated by the fires caused by the shower of incendiaries previously dropped.
The first incendiaries were showered over the city within two minutes of the sirens having been sounded. One of the first incendiary bombs dropped on the building on the corner of Princess street and Clarence street and this was soon well ablaze. Two minutes later reports that the Royal Exchange and Victoria buildings were alight. The latter collapsing into Deansgate blocking the thoroughfare from Blackfriars Street to Victoria Bridge, with the overhead wires of the tramway system tangled beneath the piles of debris. The Exchange Hotel was burning fiercely as was Burton’s tailor’s shop at the corner of Corporation street and Market street.
Within the hour, warehouses at the corner of Portland street and Sackville street, in Watson street and elsewhere, were in the grip of fire and doomed to destruction. Showers of incendiaries cascaded down on to houses in Erskine street, Russell street, Lime street and St Georges Park in Hulme and not very far from our newsagent’s shop. High explosives began blasting buildings asunder all over the City and surrounding areas.
There was one shelter known as Gibsons shelter in Erskine street, off Stretford road and part of Hulme Town Hall. This received a direct hit resulting in 450 people being trapped, even though the shelter was officially intended to hold only 200. Fortunately, every one of the 450 occupants were rescued alive.
The many thousands of incendiary bombs released over Manchester on the Sunday night caused the biggest problem, which was mainly uncontrollable fires
spreading over a wide area. There were also many high explosive bombs and land mines dropped on the City spread over the two nights which also caused untold devastation.
Although the raid on Monday night the 23rd, was much shorter, lasting from 7-15 pm until 1-29 am, the cumulative effect of the two raids was extremely severe and devastating. In all there were over 1,300 fires in the centre of Manchester and surrounding areas. Some 400 additional appliances were brought in and over 3,400 additional men were drafted in from surrounding areas. But even so, fires were still showing a bright glare on the night of Christmas Eve. It was not until the afternoon of Christmas Day that all of the fires had been brought under control. The dead in Manchester numbered 363; there were 455 seriously injured hospital cases and 728 people with less serious wounds.
We had only just finished the Sunday tea. It was at 6-38 pm on that evening of the 22nd December when the sirens sounded their blood curdling wailing warning into the cold night air. Many people took to the shelters, but we decided to bed down under the large strong oak table standing against the wall in the living room of Scott Road. Almost immediately the drone of the planes engines could be heard overhead. The steady crump of the estimated 233 bombs that were said to have been dropped that first night could be heard exploding throughout the night, along with the many thousands of incendiary bombs that had been strewn across a wide area and many districts.
As the night dragged on, I ventured upstairs once or twice to look through the back bedroom window. Each visit saw the skies over Manchester getting ever redder and brighter as the flames took hold and the fires spread from building to building.
The following morning I cycled to work, arriving on time at 8-0 clock and went straight to the roof to join most of the staff who had managed to get to work, enjoying the best view of the biggest fire ever seen in Manchester. Climbing on to the letter H, you could see the whole of the centre of Piccadilly ablaze from Mosely street to Portland street.
Lever Street was blocked off with fire appliances, but making my way down Newton Street to reach the corner where it joined Piccadilly, all you could see was one mass of flames engulfing the whole row of five story warehouses on the opposite side - every window alight from end to end - top to bottom, with flames belching from where the roof had been. Like a backcloth to some giant inferno. A sight never to be forgotten by those that witnessed that giant furnace of flame and smoke. This block of buildings is where the Piccaddilly Hotel now stands. You could not bear to touch the walls of the building housing the BBC opposite because the bricks were so hot. Firemen were even spraying water on these walls opposite, causing steam to rise skywards.
That night there were 200 business houses, 165 warehouses, nearly 150 offices and five banks destroyed or seriously damaged; more than 500 additional business houses, 20 banks, 300 warehouses and 220 offices suffered in lesser degree. Within a mile radius of Albert Square 31.3 acres had been laid in ruins, with more than 100 schools and over 30,000 houses damaged or destroyed. Complete and utter devastation.
Even though all this was happening all around, people tried to carry on as best they could. Later on that morning, I was sent out to deliver a parcel to a small printers situated in the warren of side streets just behind John Rylands Library on Deansgate. I started out making my way down Canon street which was strewn with debris, broken glass and fire hoses, with fire tenders still spraying water on the burning and smouldering shells of buildings. Several side streets were wrecked and impassable where some of the buildings had been roped off. Large coping stones from the tops of building were lying everywhere.
My route was often changed and I had to make many diversions as my journey progressed very slowly because of stopping to talk to Firemen and other groups of pedestrians standing outside of what used to be their place of employment, now completely demolished. The smell of burning was intense. Buildings were collapsing all around and still on fire. Those that were not on fire left were left as piles of smoking and smouldering rubble.
Not able to go along Deansgate because of collapsed buildings and entangled overhead tram wire, I began to make my way down side streets round by Victoria station and then into Salford towards the Flat Iron Market on the corner of Chapel Street. Picking my way and still clutching my parcel, I went towards Bexley Square and Salford Town Hall, picking my way slowly through rubble strewn side streets towards the back of Deansgate, in order to make my delivery.
Alas, when I did eventually reach my destination, all that I found of the building that housed the printing firm I was looking for was one huge heap of rubble. There were huge beams of blackened wood jutting out of the pile of bricks that strtched into the road. So I began to make my way back towards Abel Heywood’s the same way that I had come.
Naturally, when I returned I was plied with questions as to the extent of the damage in other parts of the City and was told, that being away so long they thought I had either got lost or made my way home. Those that had managed to make it into work that day were allowed to go home in the early afternoon to await the next sirens and more bombing that everyone knew was inevitable.

Everyone knew the bombers were coming again that evening ‘cos Lord Haw Haw had broadcast the news in his dulcet tones - G-e-a-rmany calling - G-e-a-rmany calling - these were always his opening words.
There was no fear spread by his words and promises of more bombing on specific targets, but he was fair game to mimic and many people could be heard mocking his overposh accent - “This is Lord Haw Haw calling”. He came from a small town on the outskirts of Oldham named ‘Shaw’. His accent was so affected he pronounced the word ‘sure’ like the name of his birthplace! When the war was over and being a British citizen, although raised in America, he later completed his studies at the London School of Economics, he was tried as a war criminal, found guilty and sentenced “to be hung by the neck until dead” for the crime of treason.
There seemed to be a certain togetherness born through adversity. The type of spirit that was abroad during those trying times will probably never again being repeated. At least I don’t think so, because you never knew, after reading the long list of casualties posted on police station doors and public buildings each day, whether you would survive or not. You lived each day as it came and there was more caring and kindness shown to each other during the war years, especially during those terrible air raids that made up, in some way, for all the suffering that everyone experienced together - a common bond. Yet throughout it all, no one lost their sense of humour and spirits were always high.
The full reality and magnitude of those night air raids that was lost at the time of the blitz, because they came to be accepted as normal everyday life - the sirens - the shelters - etched indelibly somewhere at the back of the minds of all those that underwent, what can only be explained as the most traumatic experience of a lifetime - and yet survived.
We did survive everything that Hitler and Goering could throw at us and still lived to tell the tale. Manchester, after the 1940 blitz became “one of the ruins that Adolph (not Cromwell) knocked ab’rt a bit! ”. Even his worst efforts did not ruin our Christmas that year. The human spirit is truly remarkable.
Well into 1941 and 1942 spasmodic air raid sirens continued to disrupt the sleep pattern of Mancunions. Everyone knew what the intended main target was. If the Germans could have obliterated Trafford Park, or, at least crippled its great industries, they would have seriously injured the war effort.
The prize was denied them. Relatively few high-explosive or incendiary bombs fell on Trafford Park itself throughout the war, but Hulme, the area most adjacent, felt the full brunt of the bombing. A full row of houses in Caton street, Hulme had the whole of their fronts ripped off by a bomb that fell near by, making them all uninhabitable.

On 11th March 1941 during a three-hours’ raid, the most serious incidents were in Victoria street and Rutland street, Hulme where six people were killed by HE bombs that destroyed several houses. Four people were rescued alive from debris in Erskine street. One of our paper boys lost both his parents when the family home was totally destroyed by a bomb. His bed was catapulted over the rubble into the street with him in it and he was very lucky to survive this terrifying ordeal, for one so young, without virtually a scratch on him.
The many raids on Coventry, Sheffield, Birmingham, Liverpool, London and other target Cities, including Manchester, did not achieve the enemy’s strategy of trying to instil fear and create panic in the general public. This ploy was unsuccessful and failed dismally.
Next to the blitz, one of the heaviest raids on the Manchester area took place just after midnight on Whit Sunday, June the 1st 1941. Destruction and loss of life was on a very heavy scale caused by the high explosive bombs dropped that night. It was during this concentrated ninety minute onslaught that fourteen nurses were killed in the tragic incident at Salford Royal Infirmary, when the hospital received a direct hit. There were many other casualties and deaths in different parts of Manchester and Salford during that particular raid.
One of the very last air raid on the Manchester area happened on the 27th July, 1942, when a sneak raider flying just above the housetops dropped a stick of bombs in Palmerston street, Hillkirk street and Russell street, Beswick, at breakfast time. Three people were killed, seven seriously injured and others received slight injuries. Five people who had been trapped in wreckage were rescued and more than fifty people evacuated from the area owing to an unexploded bomb.
There was then a lull in the bombing raids on Manchester and the conurbation areas surrounding the City until much later in the war. An ‘unmanned flying bomb’ was launched from a German plane flying in over the Pennines that exploded on a row of houses in Oldham one Sunday morning. The distinctive drone of the engine before it cut out, the short silence and then the explosion itself as it landed on an indiscriminate target gave everyone the jitters. Some friends and I travelled by bicycle to the scene that morning as it was not far from Droylsden, where I was living.
The overall cost to the nation was considerable when the count was made in the numbers of dead and injured throughout the conflict with Germany.
The following statistcs researched from Government sources gave a breakdown of the 357,116 Britains' killed in the War. These statistics also reported that seven in ten young men and one in nine young women served in the armed Forces.

"Altogether 357,116 people of Britain were killed in the war - 264,443 in the armed forces, 60,595 civilians, 30,248 in the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets, 1,206 in the Home Guard and 624 in the Women's Auxilliary Services.
"Detailed statistics given in a Government White Paper (Cmd. 6832, price 2d (old money) issued 06 June 1946) show that the number killed is about one-third of that of the 1914-18 war.
Those killed in the services were:
"Of the civilians who died from enemy action 26,923 were men, 25,399 were women, and 7,736 were children under 16. There were also 537 unidentified bodies.
"At one time 46,079 men were "missing" but so many rejoined their units that the figure is now only 6,244 and even that will be subject to later correction.
"The wounded total 369,267, comprising: Armed Forces, 277,077 (Army, 239,575; Navy, 14,663; R.A.F., 22,839); civilians, 86,182; Merchant Navy and fishing fleet 4,707; women's auxilliary services, 744; Home Guard, 557.
"Three out of five men born between 1905 and 1927, and seven out of every ten men born between 1915 and 1927 served in the armed forces. One in every nine women born between 1915 and 1927 served in the armed forces.
"The peak of mobilisation was reached in June 1944, when 8,881,000 (7,963,000 men and 918,000) were serving either full-time or part-time in the armed forces or other services.
"In the armed forces 90,332 casualties, including 29,968 killed, were suffered in the war against Japan."

On the same day that the above statistics were published, 7th June 1946, an announcement was made that television would re-open in order to show the 'London Victory Parade' on the following day. It was nearly seven years since it closed down at the outbreak of war, a much longer time than it was working up to the 1st September 1939.
One of the great events in television was the 'Coronation Procession' of 1937, which is often said to have "put television on the map". It was a happy coincidence to allow people to get out their television sets again to "see" the Victory march as the first big event of the new service. Television started where it left off seven years before, for it was admitted that war-time research had not found any great improvements that could have been made immediately.

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