The Sheffield Blitz

The centre of Sheffield on fire
The centre of Sheffield ablaze during the first major major bombing raid to hit the city on the night of 12-13th December.

The Sheffield Blitz was probably inevitable. It was really only a question of time before before the Luftwaffe turned their attention to the steel making centre in the north of England. German planes had been seen over the city since August, most making reconnaissance flights, although there had been the occasional bomb as well.

The first of two major attacks on Sheffield took place on the night of 12th-13th December 1940. A cold, clear moonlit night provided ideal conditions for the bombers, with the roofs of many buildings white with frost.

Marian Senior’s family was one of those who had a lucky escape, much depended on the initiative of people who were able to look after themselves:

At the time of the Blitz I was 10 years old and lived with my parents at 122 Upper Hanover St.

My Dad was a very resourceful man and a highly qualified electrician, and our Anderson Shelter was well installed and comfortably fitted out with bunks, electricity and other comforts so we were well prepared when the sirens were sounded on that fateful night.

It was during the early part of the evening the bombs were dropping, thudding and exploding, when our next door neighbours, two maiden ladies who had a severely ill, bedfast mother and could not be moved, came out of their back door and called “Mr Senior your house is on fire!!!”
So Dad quickly opened the shelter door and rushed into the house to discover an incendiary bomb lodged in the house roof. He quickly climbed into the loft kicked the burning bomb through the bedroom ceiling, put out the flames in the roof and clambered down to tackle the bomb which had set the bed on fire.

He put it out with the sand we had on the landing then turned his attention to the burning bed, extinguishing this as best he could. When he was satisfied all was safe he went back into the area under the roof and made sure anything burning was put out.

Only then was he satisfied that he could return to us in the shelter, which he did with the news our home was safe but with a gaping hole in the roof, which we had for many months – it being war time there was neither the manpower nor materials to have it repaired.

The Sheffield Blitz left irremovable memories of that terrible night but the one memory I will always remember was when my Dad became one of the many unsung heroes and prevented us from being amongst the many left homeless in the wake of enemy action.

Just one of several memories recorded by the BBC on the 70th anniversary.

Many others were not so fortunate. The Luftwaffe missed the main steel making areas but hit the commercial centre of the city, as well as residential areas close to the centre.

Fate decided who lived or died. A basement in a substantial building must have seemed like a relatively safe option for those who had been out on the town when the raid started. It was not to be.

It was only in the morning that an attempt could be made to investigate the pile of rubble that had formerly been the Marples Hotel. At a quarter to midnight on the 12th a bomb had penetrated the building before exploding in the middle of the store, above the ground floor. It was known that there were many people sheltering in the basement but not thought that any could have survived.

As the digging continued throughout the 13th some seventy bodies were recovered, although the final death toll was never firmly established. Miraculously seven men were found alive, trapped in a separate compartment of the basement. It was the largest single incident in the city. This raid, and a follow up on the night of 15th/16th, killed 668 civilians and 25 servicemen, injured more than 1,500 others and left a tenth of the city’s population homeless.

See also the story of the death of local benefactor George Lawrence who died after insisting that he visit the workers at his razor blade factory. He travelled into the burning town with a supply of food but died alongside many of them when the shelter took a direct hit.


54. An attack lasting nearly nine hours was made on the night of the 12th-13th and was concentrated mainly on the centre, north-west and south-east of the City. Although over 200 incidents were reported, the main Steel Valley largely escaped, and only four cases of substantial damage have been reported. The attack on the night of the 15th-16th lasted three hours, and was mainly in the east and east centre; many factories were hit, but only nine of these suffered substantial damage.

55. The effect on war production has not been serious, except indirectly through damage to public utilities. The Neepsend Gas Works’ were severely damaged, and this, together with many broken mains, resulted in extensive failure of gas supplies. Electricity was not so badly affected, but the water distribution system in three of the city’s zones of supply suffered considerable damage, and it has been necessary to supply them from carts.

56 Transport was badly disorganised and many roads and main-line railways were temporarily blocked. A start has been made in restoring tram routes for munition workers, but it will be some time before trams run through the centre of the city.

57. The material damage caused was extensive, particularly in the central commercial part of the city, where numerous fires were started.

As was often the case in large air raids it was not possible to identify many of the dead. Sometimes it was many months before the fate of those “missing” was discovered.

Sheffield Blitz
The Sheffield Star dated 7th July 1941.

For mor stories from the Pitsmoor area of Sheffield see Chris Hobbs.

Sheffield Blitz
Another view of the burning centre of Sheffield.

Air Raid Warden tours bombed out Moorgate

A head and shoulders portrait of an Air Raid Warden wearing his steel helmet and duty gas mask. The steel helmet has a large white 'W' painted on it, indicating that the wearer is an ARP Warden. The warden also wears a white sash, probably to make him more visible in the blackout.
A head and shoulders portrait of an Air Raid Warden wearing his steel helmet and duty gas mask. The steel helmet has a large white ‘W’ painted on it, indicating that the wearer is an ARP Warden. The warden also wears a white sash, probably to make him more visible in the blackout.
'Rip' the dog helps this Air Raid Precautions Warden to search amongst rubble and debris following an air raid in Poplar. The Warden signals for help from his colleagues to search the spot indicated by Rip.
‘Rip’ the dog helps this Air Raid Precautions Warden to search amongst rubble and debris following an air raid in Poplar. The Warden signals for help from his colleagues to search the spot indicated by Rip.

The bombing raids that had been continuously bombarding London had, for the moment, now switched to other British cities. There was a little respite and time to take stock in the capital.

Air Raid Wardens came from all walks of life. As an actress, stage manager and part time writer for the theatre, Barbara Nixon found herself unemployed when war broke out. She volunteered as a part time Air Raid Warden. In the Borough of Finsbury, north of the City of London she had seen the impact of some of the worst of the bombing since September.

By December 1940 she wanted to do more and applied for a full time role with Civil Defence organisation. Somewhat reluctantly, because she was a woman, and a married woman at that, she was accepted. Being a graduate of Cambridge University might have had some bearing on that.

Barbara Nixon as Air Raid Warden
Barbara Nixon pictured in 1943 after she had been promoted within the Civil Defence organisation. She was one of the first women to be employed as a full time Warden. She eventually became an Instructor before returning to theatre and television in1945.

She was allocated a position at Warden’s Post No.13, at the other end of her Borough. Moorgate was an area she was unfamiliar with. Here she would work with a group of other Wardens, all men. Early in December she accompanied the Post Warden, Mr Harding, on a tour of her new territory:

The next morning I went down to ‘13.’ It was raining: the smell was abominable, and it looked more desolate than ever. Harding was there and we started off on a tour of the district.

Ropemaker Street was roped off, and the barricade was covered with sixty or seventy shabby little notices written in ink or indelible pencil, saying that such-and-such a firm had moved to another address. The ink and the pencil had run in the rain, and they looked very bedraggled.

This street had been one of tall, though old-fashioned, office buildings. Not one was left; there were only heaps of charred rubble and bricks. At the far end, in solitary dinginess, a public- house was still standing. Despite the fact that it was not much damaged, it was boarded up-its roof was still there, but its cus- tomers had all gone.

The next street was only a footpath between piles of bricks and beams, and for acres on each side there was complete devastation. The area had been thickly covered with factories, and warehouses, and office buildings; now, it was a fantastic tangle of girders a foot thick, twisted and curled like a child’s hair-ribbon.

During raids this was one of the most impressive sights I have seen. Occasional jagged walls were still standing, one factory building was almost intact, but was split down the middle, each half leaning outwards at a perilous angle, and only held together by a gimcraek little iron footbridge on the. roof. One expected every burst of gunfire to bring it toppling down.

We always had a large number of fires in our area, and silhouetted against the red, and sometimes greenish or white, firelight, this chaotic tangle of ruins dwarfed Pompeii, with its Vesuvius, into insignifieance. Nothing was left. The heart of the largest city in the world was a wilderness. Here and there, desultory trails of smoke curled up; the pigeons had deserted it, no gulls circled over it, the only inhabitants were occasional, scurrying rats.

Within a year, groundsel and desiccated willow-herb were growing where the hallways of world-famous firms had stood. In the middle of this annihilation a sub-surface shelter was still intact; the occupants had had to be evacuated when the fire above grew too hot, but none had been hurt.

We made a detour as there was an unexploded bomb ahead of us, and climbed over piles fifteen feet high of bricks, beams, girders, and rubble till we reached the less ruined part. This consisted, in the main, of blocks of grey, barrack-like Peabody flats—two rooms and no bath.

About one in every three was damaged, and hardly any had any windows, but the loss of life had been small. After the attack on the docks, this area had been one of the first to suffer heavy bombing, so that the population quickly developed a healthy respect for the bombs and, with few exceptions, all went to shelter.

At night it was a dead city. The few small shops were barred and shuttered, and the blocks of flats were deserted. If there was no gunfire or drone of planes, it was quieter than the countryside. Even in an open field, the soughing of a tree in the breeze, the rustle of a rat in a hedge, or the wheeze of a cow, can still be heard. But here the silence was almost tangible — a literally dead silence, in which there was no life. It was difficult to believe that this was London, whose daily uproar never sank below a steady rumble, even in the small hours. After 10.3o p.m., when the public-houses turned out the few hardy regulars, the silence was complete, only broken occasionally by the echoing footsteps of a warden, or policeman, on patrol.

All the population was underground. When the silence grew overpowering, we went down into a shelter to reassure ourselves that there still was some life in this deserted city. The shelters were much larger than those I had been used to, and would all hold three or four hundred at least. But they seemed drier, and were certainly better ventilated, and several had just had bunks installed in place ofthe benches.

We turned through an alley, and into a large courtyard enclosed on all sides by the backs of office buildings and blocks of flats. This was entirely filled with several score of surface shelters in rows. They were never used, as both the offices and the flats already had adequate sub-surface shelter accommodation, and the yard was not visible from the street. Six had been squashed by a bomb, four or five others had collapsed as a result of the attentions of the local children. Huddled together, they looked like the dwellings of some primitive tribe.

They had been built according to Government order, by a contractor who used more sand than concrete, and were a shameful monument to both local and Government officialdom. The Government had allowed certain monies for building surface shelters, so the borough, which already had almost sufficient shelters, used that money to create a white elephant in an inaccessible and unfrequented spot. Despite shortage of labour and material, it was not apparently possible for the borough to reply that it did not need the whole of the grant, or for the Government to say that some of the money could be used for improvements to existing shelters; and so they rotted in a deserted backyard.

By this time I had completely lost my sense of direction; I knew that I should not be able to remember which shelter was which, and was appalled to think that I should have to make reports of damage to a district which I did not know at all, in which what distinguishing marks there might have been had gone, where even those streets that were left had had their name-plates blown away.

After all, the first essential for a warden is to know his district thoroughly, so that reports can be accurate. And how was I ever to get any idea of the number of families in each vast block, or know whether the Harrisons and the Greenbaums went to one shelter or another? I felt that I should be of no use at all.

When Barbara Nixon’s memoir Raiders Overhead : A diary of the London blitz was first published in 1943 it sold out very quickly. There was such a shortage of paper that it could not be reprinted during the war. Fortunately a new edition was released in 1980.

Air Raid Warden
ARP wardens and nurses cover up the bodies of children killed in an air raid on a school in Ardgowan Road, Catford, London. Thirty eight children and six teachers died.
A view of the First Aid area of an air raid shelter in the basement of a London drapery store. One Air Raid Precautions (ARP) warden checks first aid supplies whilst two others bandage the ankle of an injured civilian. This photograph was taken in November 1940.
A view of the First Aid area of an air raid shelter in the basement of a London drapery store. One Air Raid Precautions (ARP) warden checks first aid supplies whilst two others bandage the ankle of an injured civilian. This photograph was taken in November 1940.