Plymouth bombed yet again

It is natural that after five such raids the people should be somewhat shaken, but the movement of population from the city is regarded as reasonably well in hand, and the problem is being largely solved by the provision of rail tickets for would-be evacuees, and by the evacuation of children from specified areas.

A Naval bomb disposal unit deals with an unexploded bomb during the Plymouth blitz.

Plymouth was just one of the major port cities that suffered repeat visits from the Luftwaffe during March and April. Despite attempts to lure the bombers to target fires in the open country outside the city, it was hit very badly again:

On the 29th/30th April Plymouth and Devonport were again attacked, and, although the raid was on a larger scale than any of its predecessors, it began with inaccurate, bombing in open country North of the city, where wood-fires at Mount Edgcumbe were heavily bombed. It was comparatively late in the raid before the enemy found his targets, and the attack did not therefore seem so heavy as some of its predecessors.

The raid lasted nearly four hours, and, though its effects cannot yet be fully assessed, it is clear that, after all that the city and its environs have lately been through, this raid struck a heavy blow. The main weight of attack was felt at Keyham and Milehouse, between Plymouth and Devonport.

High explosives seem to have predominated over incendiary attack, and only 20 fires were reported. Fires were started in Milehouse, at a Devonport gasholder and once again at the Tor Point oil cisterns. In addition to areas of military importance, the city’s civilian life seems again to have suffered severely, and a shopping centre at Mutley, rendered more important by the destruction done elsewhere in earlier raids, was damaged in this one. Residential districts suffered severely, the worst damage of this kind being reported from the Beacon Park and Hartley areas. The fires were all brought under control during the morning. Casualties cannot yet be accurately estimated.

Plymouth has rallied with vigour from all attacks. It is natural that after five such raids the people should be somewhat shaken, but the movement of population from the city is regarded as reasonably well in hand, and the problem is being largely solved by the provision of rail tickets for would-be evacuees, and by the evacuation of children from specified areas.

From the Home Security Report for the week.

Joyse Prowse was 14 at the time:

My mother said to me after the worst night, ‘Come on, we’ll walk to town to see what damage they’ve done,’ so we walked to the end of Ebrington Street and stood at ‘Burton’s Corner’ and saw nothing but smouldering rubble, hundreds of fireman and hoses. They said, ‘You can’t go any further.’ We didn’t intend to anyway, we just stood, Mother crying her eyes out. I’d never seen mother cry before. She was heart broken.

Read the whole story at BBC People’s War

Last ditch stand at Kalamata

When order to retreat to cover was given Sergeant Hinton shouted, ‘To Hell with this who will come with me’, and ran to within several yards of the nearest guns. The guns fired, missing him, and he hurled two grenades which completely wiped out the crews. He then came on with bayonet …

Greek and British prisoners of war are marched off by the Germans, Greece, April 1941.

The short British campaign to save Greece from the German invasion was now coming to an ignominious end.

British and New Zealand troops in Greece were now making their way to the coast to seek evacuation by the Royal Navy. Many men were got away but when the Germans caught up with them a fierce fight ensued.

Sergeant John Hinton in 1941. A tough New Zealander who had run away from home aged 12 and later joined a Norwegian whaling ship working the southern ocean before he was reconciled with his family.

It was during this action that New Zealander Jack Hinton won the VC. The citation glosses over the fact that Hinton’s action were in open defiance of direct orders to prepare to surrender:

On the night of 28/29 April 1941 during fighting in Greece a column of German armoured forces entered Kalamata. This column, which contained several armoured cars, some 2-inch guns and 3-inch mortars and two 6-inch guns, rapidly converged on a large force of British and New Zealand troops awaiting embarkation on the beach.

When an order to retreat to cover was given Sergeant Hinton shouted, ‘To Hell with this, who will come with me’, and ran to within several yards of the nearest guns. The guns fired, missing him, and he hurled two grenades which completely wiped out the crews. He then came on with bayonet followed by a crowd of New Zealanders. German troops abandoned the first 6-inch gun and retreated into two houses. Sergeant Hinton smashed the window and then the door of the first house and dealt with the garrison with bayonet. He repeated the performance in the second house and, as a result until overwhelming German forces arrived, the New Zealander held the guns. Sergeant Hinton then fell with a bullet wound through the lower abdomen and was taken prisoner.

Hinton was to spend the rest of the war as a POW despite making numerous escape attempts – for which he would later receive a ‘mention in despatches’. In April 1945, as the war was ending, he was was liberated from his POW camp by US troops. He then ‘joined’ the US 44th Infantry Division by borrowing an American uniform and assisted front line units for a brief period before being discovered by senior officers, whereupon he was sent back to England. He received his VC from the King before returning to New Zealand.

Bill Flint, who was with the 18th Battalion of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force, was involved with this fighting. He describes how the final surrender came about the following morning:

They were a sandbag sort of wall – a low wall, and they were sheltering behind them, but they were made of filled sandbags. I saw one bloke – I think he was ASC [Army Service Corps] or something – he’d had no training in bayonet, and he stuck his bayonet at a – obviously German who was behind a sanger – but he didn’t know how to pull it out. There’s a knack in it – you’ve got to jerk it and put your foot in. It was desperate. We realised we had to beat these Germans before we could get away. It ended up we all sorted – we had about 70 German prisoners right at the wharf edge, and we fully expected to still go – get out – and then a destroyer just zoomed past. It sort of semi-circled and turned and went away and loud-hailed us: ‘Sorry boys, it’s late. We’ve got to go.’

Not long after that we got – word circulated- word of mouth – that the brigadier, whoever he was, a Pommie, I think, had unconditionally surrendered to the Germans, who had offered him annihilation bombing if he didn’t – didn’t surrender immediately and that was something like 7:30 in the morning. We were to consider ourselves prisoners at 7:30 and in no time flat, the German tanks came in and went right round us in a circle and put swastika flags on top of their tanks and their bombers flew in at just that time and when they saw the flags, they veered off and went away but they were just going to start bombing.

NZ History has his full story.

Himmler visits Mauthausen

The 12 hour days of hard physical labour on a meagre diet were lethal for many of the inmates. But there were other more direct methods of killing. The Stairs of death involved long lines of prisoners carrying 50kg granite blocks up the stairs. Those who stumbled would fall on the prisoners following them, creating a domino effect that killed or injured dozens.

Himmler talking to SS Guards in Mauthausen concentration camp, 27th April 1941

In the Spring of 1941 Heinrich Himmler was busy planning the expansion of the concentration camp system in preparation for the invasion of Russia. On 27th April he visited Mauthausen, one of the first of the labour camps to be established in Austria. Mauthausen had originally been a labour camp for opponents of the Nazi regime but became one of the first ‘no return’ camps after the invasion of Poland.

At this time it was being used for the ‘extermination through labour’ of Polish intelligentsia – a broad term for the Nazi’s that included included almost anyone reasonably well educated, including teachers, but also members of organisations like the boy scouts.

Himmler ascends the 'Stairs of Death' during his visit.

The 12 hour days of hard physical labour on a meagre diet were lethal for many of the inmates. But there were other more direct methods of killing. The ‘Stairs of Death’ involved long lines of prisoners carrying 50kg granite blocks up the stairs. Those who stumbled would fall on the prisoners following them, creating a domino effect that killed or injured dozens.

A later photograph of prisoners ascending the 'Stairs of Death' whilst carrying large stone blocks.

The last defence line in Greece

Then the Germans started dropping the parachutists, and it was quite evident that nothing was going to stop them. Eventually there were left only the Sergeant, Alan Ponsford, and myself (bombardier), and deciding the only course of action was to spike the gun, we threw the breech block as far as we could into a corn field.

German parachute troops relax after the assault on the Corinth Canal.

The Germans had established air superiority early in the short Greek campaign, as Captain Oliphant had experienced. As they consolidated their positions German fighters and dive bombers dominated even more.

Percy Parrymore was with the 122/13th Light Anti Aircraft unit in Greece. As the British made their withdrawal from Greece his troop was selected to remain as a rearguard on the last bridge over the Corinth canal. The eight men on his gun were reduced down to six and they were told to watch out for parachutists:

Came the dawn on Saturday, 26th April, along with scores of German fighters with machine guns blazing. The man taking cover alongside me was killed outright and I was wounded in the right hand and arm.

Then the Germans started dropping the parachutists, and it was quite evident that nothing was going to stop them. Eventually there were left only the Sergeant, Alan Ponsford, and myself (bombardier), and deciding the only course of action was to spike the gun, we threw the breech block as far as we could into a corn field.

My right arm was useless, so I told Alan I would crawl through the adjacent corn field to see if I could see any other British troops. On my return after only a few minutes Alan was dead. I had not, of course, seen any British, but found four Germans advancing towards us, at whom Alan had apparently been firing with a Greek rifle; he was just keeled over in a kneeling position. I took his rifle with my remaining hand and took one shot at the advancing Germans. This stopped them, but they started throwing grenades.

Then a very Lancashire accent voice called out ‘Nah then, daft bugger, gie thissen up’. I thought this must be a German who had lived in England, so still dodged a few more grenades. Finally, deciding ‘This is the end’, I stood up, still holding the rifle, and the Germans and I simply stared at each other. They indicated strongly that I should drop the rifle, which I did, and then walked over towards them.

They could not have been kinder, and used their own field dressings to mop up my hand and arm, and I was taken to a field dressing station, which had been dropped by parachute, and where a German doctor showed no discrimintion between German and British wounded.

See Kenneth Rankin, Editor Lest We Forget : Fifty Years On

Kiel targeted by Bomber Command

Kiel was heavily attacked on three nights and over 150 tons of H.E. and 20,000 incendiaries were dropped. On two of these occasions the weather was good, but exact observation was difficult, due to ground haze and to intense antiaircraft and searchlight activity, but many fires were seen to break out, some of them in the vicinity of Krupp’s works.

A Photographic Reconnaissance Unit composite image of Kiel, April 1941. Locating German capital ships, particularly the latest battleship, the Bismarck, was a high priority.

Kiel, Mannheim and Hamburg have been the principal targets of the week.

Kiel was heavily attacked on three nights and over 150 tons of H.E. and 20,000 incendiaries were dropped. On two of these occasions the weather was good, but exact observation was difficult, due to ground haze and to intense antiaircraft and searchlight activity, but many fires were seen to break out, some of them in the vicinity of Krupp’s works. On the third occasion the weather was cloudy, but forty-eight aircraft reached their target and bombed the industrial districts of the town, without being able to observe results.

Fifty tons of H.E. and about 10,000 incendiaries were dropped in the industrial area Mannheim, where the burst of a 4,000-lb. bomb was followed by a large lire and an explosion ten minutes later. Hamburg was attacked by forty-four aircraft, whose bombs included one of 4,000 lbs. and three of 1,900 lbs. Berlin was twice attacked by Sterlings, on one occasion by a single aircraft and on the other by three, but the results of the 14 tons of H.E. dropped could not be observed.

From the Air Situation Report for the week, TNA CAB 66/16/18

Life in the Warsaw ghetto

Which is why your heart pounds whenever you go outside and why it’s considered an amazing success if you manage to get where you’re going without incident. People are so wound up that the sight of a German truck is enough to set off a panic and send everyone scurrying.

Jews mount a truck in the Warsaw ghetto before being taken off for forced labour, May 1941

Chaim Hasenfus was an accountant in a bank in Warsaw before the war. In April 1941 he was in the Warsaw ghetto:

24 April 1941

Something happened to me today that has become rather common: I was going down Walicowa Street when a German soldier struck me on the head with his rubber nightstick and ordered me, along with several other Jews, to load gravel onto a truck. The work lasted half an hour.

I frequently walk through the ghetto from Sienna down Zelazna to Leszno, Solna, Karmelicka, and Pawia — hardly a cheerful or relaxing stroll; on the contrary, the whole thing is quite nerve-racking. Until recently you had to doff your cap to the guards; now you no longer have to do that, but there’s a good chance you’ll get caught in a roundup and sent to work.

Which is why your heart pounds whenever you go outside and why it’s considered an amazing success if you manage to get where you’re going without incident. People are so wound up that the sight of a German truck is enough to set off a panic and send everyone scurrying. The streets are full of people bustling about, vendors selling candy, cigarettes, and cake. A regular market has sprung up on the corner of Ciepla and Grzybowska.

This was one of the last diary entries made by Chaim Hasenfus, it is not known what became of him.

See Words to Outlive Us: Eyewitness Accounts from the Warsaw Ghetto

Plymouth hit again

It was a stick of bombs – we heard the first one land a little distance away, then the second one dropped nearer, then we heard the third one coming like the roar of an express train and we knew that one was for us. It landed about ten yards away, just behind the large brick wall which divided our garden from the bus depot, burying our shelter in debris.

The burnt out bus garage in Plymouth during the 1941 blitz.

Freda Thompson was 10 years old when she lived through the Plymouth blitz:

Living next door to the Plymouth Corporation bus depot at Milehouse, we often seemed to be at the centre of the Luffwaffe’s attention, with ceilings down and windows blown in; often no gas or electricity. After the ‘all clear’, mother would make a stew on the little primus stove, over the open fire, or pack us off to the W.V.S. canteen set up in the nearby car park to provide hot meals.

The night of the blitz was the worst I can remember with the sky lit up by the fires burning the city centre.

It was a stick of bombs – we heard the first one land a little distance away, then the second one dropped nearer, then we heard the third one coming like the roar of an express train and we knew that one was for us. It landed about ten yards away, just behind the large brick wall which divided our garden from the bus depot, burying our shelter in debris. My elder brother and one of the men detailed to assist the casualties in the depot shelter dug us out; someone commandeered a bus and we jumped on with the survivors of the depot bomb, and ended up in a shelter some half a mile away, until it was safe to walk home.

In our shocked state we were so thankful to find our house still there, damaged but intact, and so glad to tumble into bed.

We had a big surprise in the morning, to look out of the bedroom window and see a bus opposite us – it had been blown up onto the depot roof.

Read her whole story on BBC People’s War. See also Ken Roberts on the same incident:

Both bus depots in Plymouth – Milehouse Corporation Depot and the Western National depot at Laira Bridge – became victims of the blitz. Although my father (bus driver) and my sister (bus conductress) were both on the staff of the Corporation buses and were off duty and at home that night, the bombing of the Laira depot caused a lot of grief locally.

Two of the men who died at Laira that night were friends of the family; they were on firewatching duties when the building was blasted to pieces. At the Milehouse Depot a whole double-decker bus was blown bodily on to the roof of a bus garage and remained there for several days; most of the fleet of buses suffered damage to their windows and were driven around on their routes with patched up, non-transparent windows for some time.

Prior to any air raids at all, each house had been visited by a Corporation lorry and a gang of workmen who deliberately smashed the cast-iron railings which adorned the outer walls and tossed the broken material into the back of the lorry. This was then taken away and deposited at Cattedown Quarry “for the war effort”.

The buckets full of shrapnel subsequently collected after each air raid were taken away and dumped elsewhere — possibly at sea — where no one was likely to discover it. Most of it originated from anti-aircraft shells although often we found bomb nose cones and, of course, dozens of incendiaries. Incendiaries which landed in the streets were harmless enough and simply burned weird shapes into the tarmac of the road surface; only the tail fins survived as recognisable souvenirs because the body of the bomb itself was highly combustible, composed of a magnesium alloy. They, too, soon ceased to be souvenirs as we piled them up; only our school friends who lived outside the city tended to show any interest in them.

Plymouth targeted again

The sight of Plymouth burning was one I will never forget. As we sped past Central Park we looked over the whole city which seemed ablaze from end to end. Searchlights moved through the sky lighting up the barrage ballons and occasional aircraft. And still the guns thundered on. In the morning Plymouth was a smoking ruin.

The Royal Navy base at Devonport made Plymouth an inevitable target for the Luftwaffe.

Apart from London the Luftwaffe were now concentrating on the port cities. Plymouth had been attacked in March but was now to see three nights successive nights of bombing that would devastate the centre of the city. Jean Baldwin was nine years old during the Plymouth Blitz:

We sheltered with our mother, as usual, in the cupboard under the stairs, hearing the planes droning overhead, the thunder of the anti-aircraft fire and the screaming of the falling bombs. My father was helping to put out many of the incendiary bombs which were falling on our home and all around. Several times he came to tell my mother about the progress of the raid and said it looked as though the whole of Plymouth was burning.

After an hour or more of incessant noise, my father said that the next-door building was on fire and we must leave before it reached our house. He took a case of clothes in one hand and me in the other and my mother and sister followed as we went into the night. Everywhere was light as day, for buildings all around us were on fire. Suddenly a bomb came whistling down and my father shielded me with his body aginst a wall as the bomb landed a short distance away. We tumbled into the car and my father drove rapidly through the back streets of the city to my grandparents house in the suburb of Hartley.

The sight of Plymouth burning was one I will never forget. As we sped past Central Park we looked over the whole city which seemed ablaze from end to end. Searchlights moved through the sky lighting up the barrage ballons and occasional aircraft. And still the guns thundered on. In the morning Plymouth was a smoking ruin.

As I went to school on the bus, the smell of charred wood and gas escaping from the fractured pipes lay over everything. Miraculously some buildings had escaped the fire but not for long. The following night, the raiders came again and finished off the total destruction of the city centre. I lost my home, my toys, my books, my pets, and I knew what it was to be totally destitute.

Read her whole account on BBC People’s War.

Dawn bombardment of Tripoli

Air spotting was rendered difficult by smoke and dust from the air attack, but three or four ships were set on fire or sunk in the naval basin and two or more others hit as well as a destroyer; the harbour facilities and shore establishments were also seriously damaged, some 530 tons of shells having been fired. No naval units were encountered and there was no reply from the shore batteries for 20 minutes.

The 15 inch guns of HMS WARSPITE, pictured later in the war during the bombardment of Sicily.
The Commander in Chief, Mediterranean Admiral Sir Andrew Browne Cunningham, widely known as 'ABC', responsible for several famous naval actions including Taranto and Matapan.

The Mediterranean fleet was especially busy during this period, even after the stunning success at Matapan. So vital was the task of halting the passage of munitions from Italy to Libya that Churchill had urged Cunningham to block the port of Tripoli by running a ship into the harbour entrance. He had proposed the use of HMS Barham, a dramatic use of one of the battleships in the Mediterranean. Eventually it was decided that the probability of air attack meant that getting the ship into position to block was to likely to be too difficult to be worth risking a capital ship. As an alternative a surprise bombardment was delivered:

The Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean, in H.M.S. Warspite, with H.M. Ships Barham, Valiant, and Gloucester, accompanied by destroyers, bombarded the port and shipping at Tripoli for 42 minutes at dawn on the 21st April; the Naval bombardment was preceded by bombing and flare dropping by R.A.F. and naval aircraft.

Air spotting was rendered difficult by smoke and dust from the air attack, but three or four ships were set on fire or sunk in the naval basin and two or more others hit as well as a destroyer; the harbour facilities and shore establishments were also seriously damaged, some 530 tons of shells having been fired. No naval units were encountered and there was no reply from the shore batteries for 20 minutes.

There was no damage or casualties to our ships. During the approach naval aircraft shot down four troop-carrying aircraft and one bomber, and after the bombardment destroyed one bomber and defeated an attack by dive-bombers, one of which was shot down and one probably destroyed.

From the Naval Situation Report for the week.

HMS Gloucester acquired the nickname “The Fighting G” after earning five battle honours in less than a year.
HMS VALIANT fires a broadside, pictured exactly three years later while serving with the Far East fleet.
Sponging out the 15″ guns of HMS Barham after being in action.

For images of the damage caused in Tripoli see the Italian site Storiologia and comments below.

German break through in Greece

The most decisive German effort seems to have been made on the 20th April. Those forces which had already on the day before reached the plain of Thessaly advanced on Lamia, whilst German motorised forces struck across the Pindus Mountains from Grevena and reached the Yannina area. At the same time, the roads of withdrawal of the Imperial and Greek forces were attacked by dive-bombers with fighter escort, whilst similar attacks were made on the harbour of Piraeus.

German infantry on the march in Greece, April 1941

The British forces in Greece were falling back, the Germans having achieved decisive air superiority early in the campaign. Captain Oliphant describes the retreat:

Moving back under cover of darkness – little sleep – over shocking roads and precipitious mountain passess covered with snow – vehicle and guns topple over the cliffs at night – it is too dark to see the road – the enemy shell the road with their longe range guns by day and by night, maklng it very difficult for our vehicles to get through – but we get through – a few guns and vehicles are lost but we are still a fighting unit.

It becomes a veritable nightmare, no sleep for 7 nights, frayed tempers, but the amazing endurance and spirits of the troops carry us through. At long last we get 2 days rest and then into action again to continue the rearguard role.

The countryside is lovely, waving green crops and red poppies, scarred at every few yards by terrific bomb holes. It seemed that the whole might of the German Air Force was turned loose on us. The Anzacs did a wonderful job in racing up three hundred miles into the Greek mountains to get first contact with the Hun and shelling him to blazes to delay his advance – he suffered great casualties – but his numbers were overwhelming – we could not stay the tide of his advance because it was always the flanks falling back which necessitated our withdrawal.

Captain K.M. Oliphant was with the 2/3 Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery, TNA WO 217/33.

The official description was rather more prosaic:

It was evident that the German object was to gain the plain of Thessaly and so drive a wedge between the British and Greek forces, and cut the latter off from any possible line of withdrawal.

By the evening of the 19th April, German armoured forces operating on both sides of Mount Olympus had gained the eastern half of the plain of Thessaly and had advanced southwards beyond Larissa. At the same time German armoured forces had reached Trikkala, at the extreme north-western end of the plain, whilst the rest of the German line remained unchanged.

The most decisive German effort seems to have been made on the 20th April. Those forces which had already on the day before reached the plain of Thessaly advanced on Lamia, whilst German motorised forces struck across the Pindus Mountains from Grevena and reached the Yannina area. At the same time, the roads of withdrawal of the Imperial and Greek forces were attacked by dive-bombers with fighter escort, whilst similar attacks were made on the harbour of Piraeus.

From the Military Situation Report for the week.