Bombing attacks on Italian targets

On the night of the 12th/13th, five Wellingtons, also operating from this country, attacked the oil refineries at Venice. One large building was seen to collapse and another was hit by a heavy bomb. The last aircraft reported the target area to be a mass of flames. During these operations a large liner in the vicinity of Venice and hangars and workshops at Padua were machine-gunned.

An early image of Wellington bombers in flight, the only RAF bomber to remain in service throughout the war.

Italy.

On the night of the 11th/12th January seven Wellingtons operating from this country located and bombed the Royal Arsenal at Turin; all bombs fell in the target area causing large fires and heavy explosions. One other aircraft attacked a ball-bearing factory at Turin with similar results.

On the night of the 12th/13th, five Wellingtons, also operating from this country, attacked the oil refineries at Venice. One large building was seen to collapse and another was hit by a heavy bomb. The last aircraft reported the target area to be a mass of flames. During these operations a large liner in the vicinity of Venice and hangars and workshops at Padua were machine-gunned.

On the night of the 9th/10th January seven Wellingtons, operating from Malta, attacked the harbour and marshalling yards at Messina. A Naval oil storage depot was bombed, together with the marshalling yards and oil tanks nearby. Bombs also straddled cruisers and ships in the harbour.

With the object of destroying German aircraft operating from air bases in Sicily against our naval forces, ten Wellingtons were despatched from Malta to attack the aerodrome at Catania. The attacks appear to have been most successful. Photographic reconnaissance disclosed that thirty or forty aircraft on the ground were burned out or severely damaged. In addition, one hangar was destroyed, another severely damaged, and administrative buildings hit.

From the Air Situation report for the week see TNA CAB 66/14/33.

Pilot Officer William Lidstone "Willie" McKnight, a fighter pilot from Calgary, Canada, photographed during the Battle of Britain, when serving with No. 242 (Canadian) Squadron RAF. Between May and November 1940, McKnight achieved 16.5 victories in combats over France and England. He was shot down and killed during a low level intruder sortie ('Rhubarb') over France, on 12 January 1941.
Pilot Officer William Lidstone “Willie” McKnight, a fighter pilot from Calgary, Canada, photographed during the Battle of Britain, when serving with No. 242 (Canadian) Squadron RAF. Between May and November 1940, McKnight achieved 16.5 victories in combats over France and England. He was shot down and killed during a low level intruder sortie (‘Rhubarb’) over France, on 12 January 1941.

51 killed in direct hit on Bank Station

It was initially thought that 35 people had died, mainly those in the booking hall immediately under the impact of the bomb. As the rescue and recovery work continued it became apparent that the blast had travelled down the escalators and stairs, killing people in its path as well as people on the platforms deep underground.

Bomb crater in the middle of the City of London
The enormous crater created when a bomb fell on Bank underground station on the 11th January 1941.

The City of London, the commercial centre at the heart of London continued to be a target, long after the notable raid of 29th December had devastated so much of it.

The London Underground station ‘Bank’ lies under the intersection of roads in the heart of the City of London, close to the Bank of England. When it was hit by a bomb at a minute to 8pm on the 11th January it was initially thought that 35 people had died, mainly those in the booking hall immediately under the impact of the bomb. As the rescue and recovery work continued it became apparent that the blast had travelled down the escalators and stairs, killing people in its path as well as people on the platforms deep underground.

The final death toll was believed to be 51. The damage was so extensive that it was necessary for the Army to build a temporary ‘Bailey bridge’ across the crater.

Mr T Sergeant gave evidence to the subsequent enquiry

I actually escaped obliteration myself by about one minute, since, in company with a Hungarian doctor whom I had met in the train on the way up from Sevenoaks, I had just got into the Bank station and down on the Central Line platform before the bomb fell into the booking hall. What happened there I only know of second-hand. We were amongst those caught on the Central Line platform. The explosion was pretty fierce, the lights went out and the air was so thick with dust that torches were of little use. Most of those sleeping at the bottom of the escalator seemed to have been killed outright as well as one or two on the platform.

Just outside a few yards from where we were standing a large number were hurt by falling debris and tiles, or so it appeared in the dark. The main trouble was that in the darkness no one knew what to do, and here is my first comment – that some emergency lighting is required in the stations which cannot be classed as deep.

There appeared to be no first-aid post at all on the Central Line, unless it was wiped out and no-one to take charge. A P.C. did good work in finding the exit to the Northern line and showing some of the people where it was. A porter tried for a long time to get a message through to another station.

The doctor and I organised a few people as best we could to collect the casualties and prevent them being trampled on in the dark. I got hold of some soldiers to help carry some I of them down to the Northern Line lift entrance where the doctor started to work on them.

NB: I have updated this entry following further research, some sources give the number killed at 111 but this may be a reference to all casualties killed or seriously injured.

In 2016 (see comments) I was sent the following link to Nick Cooper’s ANALYSIS OF CASUALTY & FATALITY FIGURES, it is well worth checking out the rest of his site and his book London Underground at War.

The Bank of England and Royal Exhange after the raid during the night of 11 January 1941. The bomb exploded in the booking-hall of the Bank Underground Station. The crater, 1,800 sq ft in area, was the largest in London.
The Bank of England and Royal Exhange after the raid during the night of 11 January 1941. The bomb exploded in the booking-hall of the Bank Underground Station. The crater, 1,800 sq ft in area, was the largest in London.

Sometime after writing this post I was sent the following image by Scott Rinehart:

From a dryawing made from a window in the National Provincial Bank, January 13-18 1941. Signed "RG Mathews, 1948".
From a dryawing made from a window in the National Provincial Bank, January 13-18 1941. Signed “RG Mathews, 1948”.

Daylight raids around Britain

On the 7th January, during the most extensive daylight raiding that we have known for some weeks, London was raided intermittently for three and a half hours, and bombs were dropped in fifteen districts. On the same day many incidents were reported from East Anglia and the Home Counties, and one from Coventry.

A Heinkel He III navigator locates the target site during a daylight raid, early 1941.

On the 7th January, during the most extensive daylight raiding that we have known for some weeks, London was raided intermittently for three and a half hours, and bombs were dropped in fifteen districts. On the same day many incidents were reported from East Anglia and the Home Counties, and one from Coventry. No important damage and few casualties were caused by these daylight raids.

From the weekly Home Security report see TNA CAB 66/14/29.

Anti-aircraft fire attempts to deter a flight of Heinkel He III bombers.

The Cardiff Blitz

We were in the Anderson Shelter which my father had built half submerged in the back garden, with several feet of soil over the top. He had also built bunks in the shelter and fitted a sand-bag shielded door to the front of the shelter. It was a bitterly cold January night that my mother, father, brother and I huddled together in the shelter. Just thinking of that night brings back the whistle of the bombs falling and the terrible explosions that followed.

A rescue party at work in the aftermath of the Cardiff Blitz
cardiff blitz
Nurses leaving the wrecked nurses home of the Royal Infirmary, Cardiff, with their salvaged possessions, following German air attack.

The Luftwaffe were gradually working their way through the major towns and cities of the United Kingdom. London, Coventry, Birmingham, Merseyside and Southampton were just some amongst many that had already been badly hit. Now it was the turn of the Welsh capital, Cardiff. As a major port and industrial centre it was high on the list of strategic targets. It had already been raided in July and August but now came a series of more intensive attacks.

Leonard Attwell was a schoolboy in Cardiff when the city was bombed on the night of 2nd/3rd January 1941:

I remember vividly the night in January 1941 when Cardiff was bombed. I lived in Jubilee Street, Grangetown, which was adjacent to the Canton Loco Sheds the target sought by the bombers. It was the early hours of January 3rd (my brother’s birthday) that bombs and Landmines rained down on us. I was eight years old.

We were in the Anderson Shelter which my father had built half submerged in the back garden, with several feet of soil over the top. He had also built bunks in the shelter and fitted a sand-bag shielded door to the front of the shelter. It was a bitterly cold January night that my mother, father, brother and I huddled together in the shelter. Just thinking of that night brings back the whistle of the bombs falling and the terrible explosions that followed. It was in the midst of this that my father went back into the house to get some blankets despite the screams from my mother for him to return. He did return with an armful of blankets just in time, for a nearby bomb blew off the sand-bag shielded door of the shelter, and the blast lifted the shelter a few inches, then it dropped back into place.

My father spread-eagled himself over us, to protect us and I could hardly breathe.

Until that night my mother had been afraid of thunder and lightening, but that night cured her.

The following morning after the all-clear siren had sounded we emerged into the street to discover half of it had disappeared as the result of a land-mine. I had lost most of my little friends that night, some I was later told had sought refuge under the stairs in the misbelief that they would be safe. They possibly thought that it would be warmer there than the freezing cold Anderson Shelter. I doubt that they would have survived if they had used the shelter because of the close vicinity of the land-mine.

We made our way to my Uncle Fred’s house which was a couple of hundred yards away, they escaped the bombing. We were warmly received and they were glad to see us alive.

Other relatives in Ely had sent their son Hubert on his bicycle to see if we had survived. Of course he did not find us because we were at Uncle Fred’s and he assumed that we had all perished. You can imagine the joy that his parents knew when a couple of days later we turned up on their doorstep.

See BBC People’s War to read his full story. The seventieth anniversary of the raid was remembered by BBC News in 2011. For much more on the Cardiff Blitz and the history of the city see Discover the Past.

Anderson Shelters, relatively crude constructions with their base below ground level, were usually cold, damp affairs. The Ministry of Information was keen to get across the message that they were very effective in protecting against all but a direct hit.

Anderson shelter
An Anderson shelter remains intact amidst destruction and debris, after a land mine fell a few yards away. The three people that had been inside the shelter were not hurt. The effects of air raids in this area of London can be clearly seen behind the shelter. This photograph was taken on Latham Street in Poplar.
cardiff blitz
A Cardiff school building as it was after a Nazi “Blitz”

Cardiff would be hit by a succession of raids in early 1941 and would not see the last one until 1944. Nevertheless there were attempts to rebuild before the war was over. The following image shows how the British authorities supported the well established Muslim community in Cardiff with rebuilding efforts.

cardiff blitz
The Lord Mayor of Cardiff, Councillor James Griffiths address the audience at the ceremonial opening of a new mosque in Butetown. The ceremony is taking place outside the mosque, which was built with the aid of the Colonial Office and the British Council to replace the existing mosque which was destroyed in air raids in 1940 and 1941. An Islamic Cultural Centre was also built and celebrations, which included processions through the local area, continued for three days.

Back to work in the bombed out City

In a night the branch had moved back to working conditions worse than those of a century earlier. All entries were made by hand in candlelight, the branch counter with flickering wicks reflected in the pools of water scattered over the banking hall presenting a sorry spectacle.

Londoner walk through smoking rubble after the bombing
The Morning After – Londoners go back to work during the blitz. There was a general determination to try to carry on as normal, even though many people were suffering from lack of sleep and transport was massively disrupted.

Londoners woke up on the 30th December to begin to assess the damage in the bombed out City of London. Many fires were still burning and everywhere fine historic buildings lay in ruins. The scale of devastation, extending three miles from St Paul’s Cathedral, was hard to comprehend. Much of the heritage of the world’s prime mercantile centre, stretching back centuries, had been destroyed,

The image of the surviving cathedral complemented the government’s message that ‘Britain can take it’ – there was little incentive to dwell on what had been lost. The public mood does genuinely seem to have that it was necessary to try to carry on as normal. This was not easy – and there was no sign of when the misery might end.

John Wadsworth describes life in one of the branches of the Midland Bank that had been saved from the fire:

On the morning of December 30 the manager and staff arrived to find the banking hall running with water from fire hoses, basement strongrooms flooded to a depth of six inches, fire still smouldering in the upper floors and many records in indescribable confusion.

No electricity or gas was available, and, as daylight was excluded by the boarded-up windows and light dome, the interior gloom could be relieved only by candles. . . . No fires could be lighted, and the central heating was not operating, for although water swilled around floors and safes, none came through the taps.

Accounting machines were out of operation in the absence of electricity; and even had power been available, three out of a battery of five were water-damaged, and several typewriters were no longer serviceable. Just then the bank was particularly busy making up accounts for the half-yearly balance, and the loss of mechanical aids was a severe blow.

In a night the branch had moved back to working conditions worse than those of a century earlier. All entries were made by hand in candlelight, the branch counter with flickering wicks reflected in the pools of water scattered over the banking hall presenting a sorry spectacle. Letters were handwritten, and as far as possible, hand delivered; no telephones were working, essential messages being sent in the form of brief notes, while the office itself was damp and cold and wretchedly unhealthy.

See Counter defensive : being the story of a bank in battle by John Wadsworth

bombed out City
The western bell towers of St Paul’s Cathedral in London seen through an archway after the heavy incendiary raid of 29 December 1940.
bombed out City
Scene of desolation viewed from St Paul’s Cathedral: photograph taken after the raid of 29 December 1940 from the Golden Gallery surmounting the Dome of the Cathedral, and showing the devastated area of burnt and broken buildings. It is mainly the famous booksellers’ quarter bounded by Ave Maria Lane and Paternoster Row. The domed building is that of the Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey), the four-spired church is St Bartholomew’s

St Paul’s survives London firestorm

On the night 29th/30th December when a very large number of incendiary bombs were dropped, and serious and extensive fires—numbering in all nearly 1,500—were started in the City and the Docks area. In the City the fire at one period extended over half a square mile and in the Minories area over quarter of a square mile.

The iconic picture of St Paul's taken by Daily Mail photographer Herbert Mason from Fleet Street on the night of 29th December 1940. US National Archives 306-NT-3173V
The iconic picture of St Paul’s taken by Daily Mail photographer Herbert Mason from Fleet Street on the night of 29th December 1940. US National Archives 306-NT-3173V

The lull in the blitz over the Christmas period came to an abrupt end on the evening of the 29th. It was not an exceptionally heavy raid compared with several earlier raids, when more bombs had fallen. That so many fires took hold was largely because the raid was on a Sunday evening when the commercial area of the City of London was mostly unoccupied, without the usual fire-watchers on every building.

If incendiary bombs were tackled as soon as they fell they caused little damage. This required sufficient people to be in the immediate vicinity and able to get to the burning bomb in the first few minutes. With most of City buildings locked up and vacant, numerous fires soon started in the roof space of adjacent buildings and then merged into enormous conflagrations. The problems faced by the fire Brigade were exacerbated by a low ebb tide on the Thames, making it difficult to draw water to fight the fires.

By contrast there was a vigilant team of fire-watchers at work from the start in St Paul’s Cathedral. They were on hand to deal with the 28 incendiary bombs that fell on the building. But it was only luck that prevented the one incendiary bomb that just penetrated the dome from setting the whole building alight. The dome of St Paul’s is mainly a wooden structure covered with lead, so is highly combustible. Fortunately the bomb, having lodged in the roof, then fell outwards rather than inwards, and was swiftly dealt with.

The journalist Ernie Pyle described the evening for an American audience:

You have all seen big fires, but I doubt if you have ever seen the whole horizon of a city lined with great fires – scores of them, perhaps hundreds.

There was something inspiring just in the awful savagery of it.

The closest fires were near enough for us to hear the crackling flames and the yells of firemen. Little fires grew into big ones even as we watched. Big ones died down under the firemen’s valor, only to break out again later.

About every two minutes a new wave of planes would be over. The motors seemed to grind rather than roar, and to have an angry pulsation, like a bee buzzing in blind fury.

The guns did not make a constant overwhelming din as in those terrible days of September. They were intermittent – sometimes a few seconds apart, sometimes a minute or more. Their sound was sharp, near by; and soft and muffled, far away. They were everywhere over London.

Into the dark shadowed spaces below us, while we watched, whole batches of incendiary bombs fell. We saw two dozen go off in two seconds. They flashed terrifically, then quickly simmered down to pin points of dazzling white, burning ferociously. These white pin points would go out one by one, as the unseen heroes of the moment smothered them with sand. But also, while we watched, other pin points would burn on, and soon a yellow flame would leap up from the white center. They had done their work – another building was on fire.

The greatest of all the fires was directly in front of us. Flames seemed to whip hundreds of feet into the air. Pinkish-white smoke ballooned upward in a great cloud, and out of this cloud there gradually took shape – so faintly at first that we weren’t sure we saw correctly – the gigantic dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

St. Paul’s was surrounded by fire, but it came through. It stood there in its enormous proportions – growing slowly clearer and clearer, the way objects take shape at dawn. It was like a picture of some miraculous figure that appears before peace-hungry soldiers on a battlefield.

The streets below us were semi-illuminated from the glow. Immediately above the fires the sky was red and angry, and overhead, making a ceiling in the vast heavens, there was a cloud of smoke all in pink. Up in that pink shrouding there were tiny, brilliant specks of flashing light – anti-aircraft shells bursting. After the flash you could hear the sound.

See Ernie Pyle’s War: America’s Eyewitness to World War II

Casualties were relatively light with 163 killed including 16 firemen, with over 250 firemen needing hospital treatment. The destruction of a huge swathe of the oldest part of London and the loss off many historic buildings had to go unmourned. Instead the image of St Pauls almost immediately became emblematic of the message that “Britain can take it” and brought worldwide attention to London’s situation in the front line.

The famous image of St Paul's amidst the fires and smoke of the night of the 29th appeared on the cover of the Daily Mail two days later.
The famous image of St Paul’s amidst the fires and smoke of the night of the 29th appeared on the cover of the Daily Mail two days later.

Wars Greatest Picture – St Pauls stands Unharmed in the Middle of the Burning City
… a picture that all Britain will cherish – for it symbolises the steadiness of London’s stand against the enemy: the firmness of Right against Wrong.

The Cabinet Office’s Home Security Situation Report for the week recorded the damage to London, which encompassed an area much larger than the City of London itself:

By night the most important attack was that delivered against London, mainly in the City, on the night 29th/30th December when a very large number of incendiary bombs were dropped, and serious and extensive fires—numbering in all nearly 1,500—were started in the City and the Docks area. In the City the fire at one period extended over half a square mile and in the Minories area over quarter of a square mile.

Damage.

London. (29th/30th December.)

54. (a) Docks.—The actual working of the docks was interfered with in three cases—Surrey Commercial, Millwall and London Docks. The most considerable damage was, however, to warehouses and sheds, with their inflammable contents.

(b) Railways.—Services were suspended at Waterloo, Charing Cross, Fenchurch Street, Broad Street and Cannon Street and sixteen underground stations were closed. By 0800 on the 31st December 40 per cent services were restored at all termini with the exception of Fenchurch Street. Though the position has greatly improved, working is still retarded, and considerable congestion remains.

(c) Factories.—Four important food-factories in the Dock area were hit, but fortunately damage was unimportant. Buck and Hickman, Ltd. (machinetools) was burnt out; otherwise Key Point factories escaped serious damage.

(d) Public Utilities.—The South Metropolitan Gas Works and the Bankside Electricity Power Station both suffered minor damage and, generally, only local and temporary damage was done to main services.

(e) Telecommunications.—Post Office property suffered severely, the Central Telegraph Office, with three Telephone Exchanges housed in the same building, were completely gutted : fires also occurred in three other Exchanges. Considerable dislocation of communications resulted, especially between London and the South-East of England.

(f) Public Buildings and Hospitals:—the most serious loss is that of the Guildhall, which was destroyed, while eight Wren Churches in the City were more or less severely damaged. St. Stephen’s, Westminster, Westminster Cathedral and Bryanston- Square Church were also affected. Trinity House was almost entirely destroyed. Damage was also done to the Royal Courts of Justice, the Tower, the British Museum and Public Record Office, County Hall, Westminster City Hall. Guy’s Hospital had to be evacuated and other hospitals and nursing homes were damaged in Hoiborn (3), Lambeth, Waltham Cross, Bermondsey, Stepney and Camberwell.

(g) Service Property.—R.A.F. stores were damaged at the White City Stadium and three Army Huts burnt in Hyde Park. In Stepney and Southwark various A.R.P. establishments were damaged.

The attack on London on the night of the 29th/30th December produced a critical fire situation, and the fire services were fully extended; it was not until the morning of the 1st January that all fires could be reported under control

The Manchester Blitz


The following morning I cycled to work, arriving on time at 8 o’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.

A building crashes to the ground at Deansgate in the centre of Manchesteron the 22nd December 1940. Firefighters can just be discerned at the bottom right.

After two nights visiting Liverpool the Luftwaffe moved on to Manchester, for the nights of the 22nd and 23rd. 122 people were killed and 426 seriously injured. Frank Walsh had only just left school and was working for Abel Heywood, a printers in the centre of Manchester:

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 o’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.

Read his full story at BBC People’s War, see also BBC images.

The Liverpool Blitz

Liverpool was probably the most important, wartime mercantile port, the destination of many convoys from America. Furthermore it was easy to locate by air, with the lights of Dublin burning across the Irish Sea. It had already received much attention from the Luftwaffe. On the night of the 28th November one direct hit on a shelter at Durning Street had killed at least 166 people…

Liverpool Blitz
A panoramic view of the city of Liverpool, showing bomb damage received after an air raid. The Liver Building can be clearly seen just to the right of centre, and the River Mersey is just visible to the left of the photograph.

Liverpool was probably the most important wartime mercantile port, the destination of many convoys from America. It was also easy to locate by air, with the lights of Dublin burning across the Irish Sea. It had already received much attention from the Luftwaffe. On the night of the 28th November one direct hit on a shelter at Durning Street had killed at least 166 people, see Liverpool Remembrance.

There were intense raids on Liverpool on the nights of the 21st and 22nd December, killing an estimated 345 people. The Home Security Situation report for the week recorded:

The Liverpool area was strongly attacked on the night of the 20th-21st December, and an even more severe attack followed the next night, when a concentration appears to have been made on the Docks area. On the night 22nd-23rd, some bombs were again dropped in Liverpool, Bootle and Birkenhead.

Liverpool

(a) Docks.—Damage to warehouses and storage sheds at the Docks has been serious, with considerable losses—the latest estimate of which has not as yet been made—of tobacco, cotton and timber. Substantial damage to shipping has also been reported, two ships being sunk and ten others damaged. Although nine docks suffered various degrees of damage and seventeen berths are stated to be out of commission, it is reported that, generally speaking, the working of the Port has not been seriously affected.

(b) Industry.—Serious damage was done to food-factories, production being stopped at Spiller’s Flour Mills and Paul Bros. Flour Mills, both at Birkenhead, while Hutehinson’s Flour Mills were also damaged. Considerable damage was also done at Tate and Lyle’s sugar refinery. Seven other key points, including the Wallasey Gas Works, were hit, but no serious damage resulted.

(c) Public Services.—Damage to main services was considerable, electricity in particular suffering by a fire at the Highfield Street sub-station.

(d) Communications.—Altogether 15 hits were registered in the railway system, the cumulative effect of which reacted seriously on the working of the lines, while tranrvray services and road traffic were badly dislocated, particularly in the centre of the city.

See TNA CAB/66/14/22

Stil images recently discovered by Merseyside Police:

Liverpool Blitz
Vertical aerial view from 1,800 feet of the waterfront from the Pier Head to the Albert Dock, and of the city east to Derby Square, showing the extensive bomb damage to the commercial centre. The shell of the burnt out customs shed is visible left centre. Photograph taken in June 1941.

RAF ‘area bombing’ begins with Mannheim

‘the sole objective was the industrial centre of Mannheim on which 108 tons of highexplosive and over 13,000 incendiary bombs were dropped. Countless fires were started and aircraft which arrived late in the night reported that many blocks in the Western and South-Eastern areas were ablaze. Aircraft visited the town on the two following nights and reported many fires still burning after the previous attacks, and smoke hanging over the town.’

mannheim bombing
Operation ABIGAIL RACHEL. Annotated vertical aerial photograph taken during the first concentrated night attack on Mannheim, Germany. Incendiary fires (‘1’) can be seen burning in various places, including the Lindenhof and Schwetzingerstadt districts, and also in the vicinity of the Hauptbahnhof (‘3’) and the marshalling yards (‘4’). A large fire appears well alight in the Heinrich Lanz AG works (‘2’). The River Rhine is at lower left.

The British government had been reluctant to launch general “area bombing” of industrial targets in Germany. The accelerating pace of the Luftwaffe raids on Britain, “the Blitz”, had now hardened attitudes. After the devastating raids on Coventry and Southampton in particular, the decision was made to widen the range of acceptable targets. Operation Abigail Rachel, the bombing of Mannheim, was the first of these.

The Air Situation report for the week reported:

The outstanding event of the week was the heavy and successful attack on Mannheim on the night of the 16th-l7th December…

the sole objective was the industrial centre of Mannheim on which 108 tons of high explosive and over 13,000 incendiary bombs were dropped. Countless fires were started and aircraft which arrived late in the night reported that many blocks in the Western and South-Eastern areas were ablaze. Aircraft visited the town on the two following nights and reported many fires still burning after the previous attacks, and smoke hanging over the town.

See TNA CAB/66/14/17

In fact the bombing was widely dispersed and only 34 people were killed. There was no comparison with the large scale raids by the Luftwaffe – which were now killing hundreds each time they attacked the industrial cities of the Midlands and northern England.

RAF Bomber Command was on a steep learning curve. They, and later the USAAF, would be visiting Mannheim over 150 times during the course of the war. The 108 tons dropped on December 16th night were merely a hint of the 25,000 tons yet to be dropped on the city. By 1943 the RAF would be capable obliterating a large part of the city in just a couple of raids. The last major raid, in March 1945, would start a huge firestorm.

Aerial image of effects of bombing on Mannheim
One of the RAF Photographic Reconnaissance Unit images taken during daylight on the 17th with annotations of damage to individual buildings.
The Heinrich Lanz plant, bottom left was noted as being hit and \’ showing no activity\’. This tractor and agricultural engines manufacturer was to suffer 90% damage during the war. The postwar business was rebuilt and later became part of the U.S. company John Deere.
Bomber crews
Bomber crews attend a briefing by the squadron commander, 15 December 1940.

On the very same day the War Cabinet was considering a report on the effectiveness of British bombing in general. In response to the widespread devastation of British cities the press were raising the question as to whether the RAF was hitting back hard enough.

The report sought to paint a balanced picture based on different reports from air crew, reconnaissance and intelligence. However the ‘Adverse’ reports were mostly from the evidence of those who had observed the effects on the ground. The ‘Aerial Attache’ at different British Embassies in neutral countries were hard at work trying to discover what visitors to Germany had seen:

BERLIN Press Correspondents of American papers report that, up to the 16th October, the material damage caused by the R.A.F. in Berlin was negligible, but their nuisance value considerable. (A.A., Berne.)

An American journalist, who left Berlin about the 11th November, states that British bombs are still far too light and frequently do no damage when they fall on concrete roofs. (British Minister, Sofia.)

Mr. Warren, of the United States Department, who had been inspecting United States Missions in Europe, states that the damage is not so great as believed in England. He considers our aircraft too few and bombs too light. Moreover, though carefully aimed, the latter fall wide, probably owing to the height at which aircraft fly to avoid the barrage. (British Minister, Bulgaria.)

The Swedish Consul-General at Hamburg was recently taken round the docks for four hours and saw little damage. Impression in Stockholm is that material damage is not heavy. (A.A., Stockholm..)

An experienced German pilot in October states he had to spend continuous nights in the cellar of his house near the Tempelhof. He did not, however, regard the bombardment as effective in view of the small size and weight of the bombs dropped, but admitted that the parachute flares used were effective in lighting up a large area for a sufficiently long time to enable accurate bombing to take place. (Secret Service Source.)

The Air Ministry tried to put a positive gloss on this:

From a close examination of all the evidence available on the results of our raids over both Germany and Italy, the Air Staff conclude that, while exaggerated claims have been made in the Press, the effect of our bombs on Germany has been greater relatively to the size of the force at our disposal than the results of the German attacks on this country.

Air Ministry, December 16, 1940.

See TNA CAB/66/14/13

Handley Page Hampdens
Handley Page Hampdens in flight, seen from the ventral gun position of one of the aircraft, 1940.

Italian Air Force bombed in the Desert

Still heavier attacks by combined forces of Blenheims and Wellingtons from Egypt were made on Benina and El Adem aerodromes, where concentrations of enemy aircraft were known to exist. Considerable damage was caused to hangars, administrative buildings, bomb and petrol dumps and aircraft on the ground. It is believed that at Castel Beninto alone thirty-five aircraft were destroyed or damaged. Repeated daylight attacks have also been made on other enemy aerodromes and landing grounds.

Indian troops encounter the remains of the Italian Air Force as they advance,
in this case a Savoia-Marchetti SM.79

From the AIr Situation for the week ending 12th December 1940, as reported to the War Cabinet:

Egypt and Libya

66. Intensive operations have been carried out by our Air Force in the Middle East. At dusk on the 7th December Wellingtons from Malta carried out a heavy and most successful attack on the aerodrome at Castel Benito (Tripoli) which achieved complete surprise.

Still heavier attacks by combined forces of Blenheims and Wellingtons from Egypt were made on Benina and El Adem aerodromes, where concentrations of enemy aircraft were known to exist. Considerable damage was caused to hangars, administrative buildings, bomb and petrol dumps and aircraft on the ground. It is believed that at Castel Beninto alone thirty-five aircraft were destroyed or damaged. Repeated daylight attacks have also been made on other enemy aerodromes and landing grounds.

67. In addition to attacks upon the enemy Air Force our bombers and fighters have afforded direct support to the military operations by attacks upon enemy positions, troop concentrations and lines of communications. Near Sof afi heavy damage was inflicted on troops and on a large concentration of 400 M.T. vehicles. Great confusion and disorganisation has been caused among enemy columns by low-flying machine-gun attacks.

68. Our fighters have proved immeasurably superior to the enemy and have inflicted heavy losses with only slight casualties to themselves.

See TNA CAB/66/14/8