Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Blitz of Britain – What Remains Today (Portsmouth, Southampton and Hull)

The Second World War was six years of every kind of story you could imagine. It would be impossible to focus on one particular area of the conflict without having to focus further. If you were fascinated by the War at Sea then which area? Atlantic? Which battle? Which ship? Which crew members? Which tactics? The list of subjects is endless.

So when I started files on the Blitz I realised very soon that they would have to be separated into areas. The bigger and more industrious the city the more that place would be hit by night time raids by German bombers. Wave after wave of aircraft from the Luftwaffe led to an unimaginable amount of explosives being dropped – from high explosive bombs to smaller incendiaries that would start fires that built up to make destruction over a wider area.

This blog entry is focusing on what remains of some of the evidence of the blitz today, starting with the city of Hull on the East Yorkshire side of the River Humber. If you head out of the city down Beverley Road you come to a derelict looking building with an advertisement billboard anchored to the side. A pub is connected which also looks like it hasn’t seen a customer in years. The truth is - it hasn’t!

On 18th March 1941 this building was a bustling cinema known as the National Picture Theatre, but this particular day it was showing the Charlie Chaplin film The Great Dictator, much to the delight of the audience of a city that was now on food and clothing rations. Any bit of morale was good enough to perk up the spirits of a community that was being pounded night after night so a comedy was just the ticket.

But when the air raids caused an evacuation of the cinema halfway through the film, it was only good luck and good planning that made sure nobody was inside when the cinema and pub took a direct hit.

What was more incredible was the fact that the destroyed cinema was kept in that exact condition through the years and today is still untouched save for the greenery that spirals up the walls. The local group National Civilian WW2 Memorial Trust started a campaign to save this historic venue and to have it as a memorial to the blitz and for anybody to come to learn about the Second World War by the use of classrooms built on the grounds. So far the funding has been successful and the group has achieved their aim.

250 miles south is the city of Southampton, a place synonymous with shipping and therefore a sure target for enemy bombers. In the road leading away from the main shopping area and heading towards the dockyard is Holy Rood Church (right).

On 30 November 1940 this church, like Hull’s National Picture Theatre, took a direct hit and was all but destroyed, the impressive spire gone but the tower still standing tall out of the wreckage like an act of defiance. As the rubble was cleared it was decided that the grounds internally would be made safe for visitors and is today a memorial yard for the Merchant Navy which has memorials within for the victims of both the Falklands and the Titanic. The tower is still there with the clock fully working and making sure that its voice is heard over 75 years after it was almost destroyed.

Not far from Southampton is the naval city of Portsmouth which has two significant buildings that were struck in the Blitz. On Southsea seafront stands the Royal Garrison Church (below), missing half of its roof in a 1941 air raid yet still functions as a church, looked after by English Heritage. It was here 200 years ago that author Jane Austen visited as well as Lord Nelson himself. The building itself dates from the 13th century and the miracle of its survival is now part of the history of the church today.  

The other side of the city lies the historic dockyard which took a variety of hits in the attempt to target the Royal Navy at the heart of its bases. In one particular night in March 1941 a bomb slammed into the roof of a building that featured an ornate clock tower that was immediately destroyed and collapsed part of the roof. After the initial repairs, the clock tower would have been completely forgotten about until enthusiasts and historians decided that, over 40 years later, they wanted to restore this part of the still-standing and still-functioning building back to its original form. 

Conducting months of research and interviewing people who remembered the clock right down to getting the noises of the chimes correct, a new clock was erected and opened in 1992, winning two awards in the process - Europa Nostra 1993 and the Portsmouth Society’s Best Restoration of the Year 1993. 

Another major Portsmouth building that was rebuilt was the Guildhall in the city centre. After taking a direct hit this building was nothing more than a shell during the war. Today you would never know anything had happened and it looks as majestic as ever (above). 

With so much to learn from the horrors of the Second World War bombing raids, it is fitting that the nations capital has a memorial to the firefighters who helped stop these fires spreading and risked life and limb in their efforts to save lives. Outside St Pauls Cathedral this black monument stands as a testament to the thousands who gave up their nights and in a lot of cases their lives in the never ending struggle. The famous photograph of London burning while the Cathedral sits untouched in the centre is iconic and made front pages headlines.

Looking around the towns and cities today you could not image this amount of destruction and death on such a scale, let alone think about having to fight to survive. But while ever we have these monuments and buildings to remind us, the memories of the people and cities which are now long gone will never fade away.

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