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75th Anniversary of the Nottingham Bombings

Monday 9th May, 2016 @ 12:14 pm

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Service to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the air raid on Nottingham, 8th May 2016

The 8th May 1941 was one of the bleakest nights in the history of this city. We had been at war for some time, and the Germans had been increasing the severity of their bombing onslaught month by month. London had been suffering badly; Coventry and Liverpool similarly. Now it was the turn of Nottingham to be targeted. During that night, a total of 424 high explosive bombs (altogether 139 tonnes in weight) and 6,804 incendiary bombs fell on our city. The devastation caused was widespread and many cases extreme. The city area as a whole saw 160 people killed that night, with 123 people detained in hospital with injuries. These figures do not include those killed and injured in other areas of the county, or those whose injuries were less serious. Almost 50 people died as a result of bombs that hit one single air raid shelter, that of the Nottingham Co-operative Bakery on Meadow Lane.

The emergency services, especially the fire and ambulance services, were stretched to their limit. Our fire service had already been under considerable pressure in previous weeks, having been called to help their colleagues in other major cities when these had been targeted by the German bombers. This day of remembrance, then, is crucially important, as we and this city as a whole should never forget those who suffered and died that night in May 1941, as well remembering with deep thanksgiving the heroic efforts of so many in our fire service who were able to contain the effects of the bombs and prevent the consequent fire damage to this city from being far worse.

Here in St Mary’s, it is especially sobering to think that, if it had not been for the determination and bravery of a few courageous individuals, the incendiary bomb which had landed on this very church could have led to it being completely destroyed, as had been the case with Coventry cathedral. Indeed the Lace Market as a whole suffered quite badly, with a number of bombs in this area creating fires and severe damage.

We stand in deep respect and admiration, therefore, towards all those from Nottingham, especially members of the fire service, who were such stalwart and strong custodians of our city during that night of devastation. We must be grateful for all those who are keeping their story and their memory alive. I want to commend in particular, in this context, David Needham, whose book ‘Battle of the Flames’ records in graphic detail, but also with great sensitivity, the account of how Nottingham and Nottinghamshire withstood not just this attack, but also the various other bombing raids before and after that night. As we reflect upon those events, and upon all that they involved, I will draw upon David’s history of that period in order to bring out the human angle of that fateful night. For an effective chronicle of any historical event must never neglect its impact on individuals, families and communities.

David writes, ‘The people of Nottingham were tired out because they had been under air raid warning from ten minutes to midnight until 5 am that morning. For the seventh consecutive night they had sheltered in basements, under stairs and in cold, damp Anderson shelters in gardens. They had heard the bombers making their way to the north west knowing where the likely target was and at the same time thanking their lucky stars that it was not them’.

... A total of 210 aircraft were despatched with three key targets in mind: Nottingham, Hull and Barrow in Furness. Nottingham had been assigned 107 aircraft with the target area being the south east of the city .. the air raids usually commenced with large numbers of incendiary bombs to start plenty of fires and then the high-explosive bombs were poured in once the civil defence personnel and the firemen were at work. Later waves of aircraft would continue with more incendiaries, which would burn without being noticed as the high explosive bombs would have driven all the civilians into their shelters. The firemen would be pounded by the bombs being aimed where the fires burned brightest, with the intention that they would give up and seek shelter from the explosions.

The raid began just before midnight, with the night being clear and brilliantly lit by a full moon, which helped the bombers to find their targets – a bomber’s moon. Then the bombs began. The Masonic Hall on Goldsmith Street received a direct hit, whose force was felt at the fire station itself. By this time, the firemen were already in action; it would be eighteen hours before most of them got back to the fire station. The city centre was soon ablaze with a series of fires. Incendiary bombs encircled St Peter’s church; a high explosive bomb fell on Snook’s factory on Hounds Gate, causing massive damage; and the medieval timber-framed Severn’s building on the corner of Middle Pavement and Weekday Cross was also damaged by an incendiary bomb. Shire Hall, on High Pavement, was bombed; and also a bank on the corner of Fletcher Gate. The Old Moot Hall on Friar Lane was destroyed, Lloyds Bank on Beastmarket Hill was damaged, and the road was cratered on Angel Row in front of the Odeon Cinema. And so it went on. St Christopher’s church on Colwick Road was badly damaged by fire, and other bombs falling on Sneinton and Carlton caused many fires in domestic properties. Two gasometers at Eastcroft received direct hits, and provided a spectacular sight as the gas burned off like giant fireworks. Other parts of the Nottingham area all suffered; Beeston, Chilwell, Stapleford, and West Bridgford, to name but a few, with damage to domestic properties being widespread and many deaths and injuries.

David writes, ‘The firemen who were racing to the various fires, or who were making all haste to the nearest station, had no idea if their loved ones would be safe, or whether they would come back to find their own house had been burnt to the ground while they had been saving the property of others. A fireman called Harry Roe had to leave his disabled wife behind and turn in at the fire station, but he would have felt sick to the stomach if he had known that incendiary and high explosive bombs were falling all around his home in Lyndhurst Road. It is hard for us to imagine what it must have been like fighting the fires all over Nottingham. There was of course always the danger of falling masonry, difficulties of access as roads were often damaged by the blasts, the intense heat and smoke, and even the sheer power of the hoses could be dangerous. The noise was tremendous, as the roar of the fires and the constant reverberating of the enemy bombers mingled with the engine noise from the fire pumps. One fireman, an Alf Porkett, was part of a crew trying to put out a fire in a factory on Stoney Street. He said, ‘We could see fires all around us from up there. Trivett’s factory stood out in silhouette against the glow with its roof on fire. Bombs were still falling but the fire and collapsing buildings seemed to be the most imminent danger. You couldn’t spend your time worrying whether the next bomb was going to hit you’.

Indeed the fires in the Lace Market were on the verge of joining up and becoming one massive inferno. High Pavement, Stoney Street, Pilcher Gate, Broadway, Warser Gate and Fletcher Gate all had major fires, with St Mary’s Gate and Halifax Place all having been declared conflagrations, a term used for fires officially out of control.

Much more could be said about the damage to Nottingham and Nottinghamshire on that fateful night in May 1941. There will of course be those who are still mourning the loss of loved ones during that air raid. Lives cut short, families torn apart. But tonight we give special thanks for all those from our fire service who ensured that the damage to our city was not far worse, at massive risk to themselves. We can only stand in awe and admiration as we reflect upon their bravery, in the face of the devastation which they were endeavouring to keep within at least some limits. It’s been wonderful seeing the old appliances on High Pavement today, and we also thank those who have been giving us a glimpse of what it was like that night, through the artefacts and the appliance in the churchyard here at St Mary’s. It has been very moving to have been part of the wreath laying ceremony just now.

We therefore give heartfelt thanks to God for all those brave men and women who were involved in protecting Nottingham and its people that night. We pray for those who maintain the high standards of service characterised by our fire service here in Nottingham today. And we pray that the memory of that night will live on, as part of our wider efforts, as a city, and as a nation, to ensure that peace will continue to prevail on these shores.

 

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