With Southampton playing a pivotal role in the war effort, it really was no surprise that when Hitler and Goering decided to bomb industrial and civilian targets, Southampton would be set firmly in their sights. An important port and manufacturing centre, ‘The Gateway to the World’ had gifted the world the Spitfire, an iconic and important weapon in the fight against the Luftwaffe. Southampton faced perhaps its darkest hour during November and December 1940, when the Germans ferociously rained their military might down upon the town. Whilst I cannot write about every single incident, there are a few events I’d like to write about, starting in August 1940.
I have previously written about Southampton and the Spitfire, and in late September 1940 the Germans turned their attention to the Supermarine factory in Woolston that famously first produced the Spitfire. In two daylight raids on the riverside works on the 24th and the 26th of September, the Luftwaffe destroyed much of the building and claimed the lives of around 110 employees. Also on the 26th of September, 11 men were killed at the Northam gasworks during the same raid. There is now a memorial on the wall of St Mary’s Stadium, which was built on the site, to remember these men.
From August, through September, October and in to November, the Germans targeted the docks, strategic targets and factories, as well as residential areas.
On the 6th of November, a daylight raid on the town produced one of the most tragic events of Southampton’s war. The Commander of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goering, had remarked that Southampton’s Civic Centre looked like a piece of cake from the air, and that he was going to cut himself a slice. On that sad day in November, twelve bombs were dropped on Southampton, including a 500lb high explosive which was a direct hit on the Civic Centre. It fell through the roof of the art gallery and through the floor below, exploding in the basement. With this one bomb, 35 people died, including 14 children who were having an art lesson. In a class of fifteen, there was only one survivor, thirteen year old Audrey Hunt, who later recalled (in the book Southampton’s Children of the Blitz by Andrew Bissell):
I was in the corner of the room and barely had time to sit down. I recall that a teacher was standing in front of me when suddenly there was a big thud. I looked up and saw the sky above. There was noise and screaming all around me. Just total chaos and confusion. Next, soldiers (I later learnt they were Canadians) appeared and formed a barrier to hold back a wall that was about to collapse.
There is now a memorial to those who died here in the Civic Centre’s art gallery.
Towards the end of November, the attacks became even more brutal, culminating in the worst raids on the nights of the 23rd and the 30th of November, and the 1st of December, which destroyed much of the town centre.
The 23rd saw the heaviest raid yet, one which devastated the city. High explosives and incendiary bombs destroyed buildings and set alight the ruins. Brave firefighters worked tirelessly to put out the flames, which rose so high and burned so bright it was said you could see the red glow from as far away as Cherbourg, in France. The Nazis claimed they had scored a massive victory over the innocent people of Southampton, stating triumphantly that they had left Southampton “a smoking ruin”. This was reported as far away as St Petersburg in Florida, USA, who ran the following article on their front page on the 25th November:
Many pubs were lost to the Blitz, the Garibaldi Arms on the corner of Dock Street and Cross House Road took a direct hit that night, killing twelve people inside as well as the landlord and landlady who had only been running the pub for two weeks. The only survivors were their four children who had hid under the bar when the air-raid siren called out. One of the victims was a Mr Edgar Perry, who 28 years earlier had survived the sinking of the Titanic.
Southampton had it bad on the 23rd, but got it worse on the 30th. The Luftwaffe once again targeted the town centre, causing widespread devastation and chaos. The town’s medieval vaults were used as air-raid shelters, even the Bargate was transformed in to one. St Michael’s church, Southampton’s oldest building still in use, avoided serious damage as Luftwaffe pilots allegedly used its spire for navigation. Unfortunately, other churches were not so lucky. In all, seven churches were lost. The grand All Saints church on the corner of the High Street and East Street was bombed heavily and had to be pulled down. St Mary’s church too was mostly destroyed. Holyrood church on the High Street was completely gutted by bombing, although its ruins remain today as a memorial to the Merchant Navy.
The town was still burning when the Germans returned the following evening on December the 1st to deliver another blow upon the people of Southampton, who, throughout the whole harrowing ordeal, never once gave up.
In a book called Forgotten Voices of the Second World War by Max Arthur, there is a story told by a chap named Eric Hill, who was eight years old and living in Southampton at the time of the Blitz:
One evening we were in Southampton when the air-raid sirens blew and we had to dive for cover. I remember we were in the air-raid shelter for three, four hours until we got the all-clear to come out. When we came out the high street was running with melted margarine and butter because they’d hit the cold storage. My mother and most of the women just grabbed handfuls of this butter and were ramming it in to their bags.
This is ‘Blitz spirit’ to me, in the face of such adversity and tragedy people carried on, made do, and attempted to make the best out of an incomprehensibly bad situation.
After the night of December the 1st, the bombing raids tailed off somewhat, and even though only sporadic attacks happened thereafter, the death toll did continue to rise as the war wore on. In December 1944 a flying bomb launching site was captured in Northern France. It was aimed at Southampton.
In all, it is estimated that over 2300 bombs were dropped, totalling 470 tonnes of high explosives. In addition to this, over 30,000 incendiary devices were dropped on the town. This caused unprecedented damage, with nearly 45,000 buildings being damaged or destroyed. The High Street was hit hard, with Above Bar being almost completely wiped out.
During the Southampton Blitz, 631 people lost their lives. 898 people were seriously hurt and 979 more were injured.