Remembering the Sheffield Blitz

On this day in 1940, the Luftwaffe began Operation Crucible, also known as the Sheffield Blitz. On the cold, clear nights of the 12th and 15th December, thousands of high-explosive bombs and incendiaries were dropped on Sheffield, resulting in over 660 deaths, 1500 injuries and 40,000 people being made homeless.

The raids began at 19:41 on the evening of 12th December, with the first incendiaries being dropped on Gleadless and Norton Lees, before the aircrafts made their way into the city centre, destroying parts of Campo Lane, Fitzalan Square and the Cathedral, before the final bombs were dropped at 4am. The human cost of this raid was the greater of the two, with the greatest losses of life occurring following the heavy bombing of the many back to back houses which stood where Devonshire Green now is, and the direct hit to Marples Hotel on the corner of Fitzalan Square, where many people had taken shelter in the cellars. Despite the extensive underground cellars which should’ve provided reasonable protection, the people sheltering there stood little chance against a direct hit and seventy bodies were pulled from the rubble along with seven survivors; it is not known exactly how many people were in the Marples Hotel when it was hit. 

The attack of the 15th was much shorter and more direct, hitting a number of steelworks over a three-hour period, although none were damaged badly enough to affect production. Amongst those hit were Hadfield’s, Brown Bayley and Templeborough works in Rotherham which at the time, were part of United Steel Companies. The second raid also saw the Luftwaffe change tact, this time no high-explosives were dropped and instead incendiaries were used, as their main purpose was to start fires and destroy decentralised war industries such as those found in Sheffield’s East End. 

At the end of the war, documents revealed a number of key local industries were intended as targets during the raids. These included Atlas Steelworks, Meadowhall Ironworks, Brown Bayley Steelworks, Tinsley Park Collieries, Darnall Wagon Works, East Hecla Works, River Don Works, Orgreave Coke Ovens and Hadfield Steelworks which, at the time, was the only place in the country to produce 18-inch armour piercing shells. Despite clear evidence that Sheffield’s industries were the main target for the attacks, there is still some disagreement amongst historians as to the exact intentions behind the Sheffield Blitz.

Traditionally, many historians have believed that the Sheffield Blitz was a failed attack on the steel works of the city, with the aim of hindering production of armaments and other products necessary for the war effort. However, more recently, some historians have begun to feel that the first night’s attack on the city centre was a deliberate terror raid on civilians intended to terrorise and demoralise the people of Sheffield. For some time, many had believed that the city centre was hit by mistake. Some suggested that German pilots mistook The Moor for the main road at the heart of Attercliffe’s industrial district, while others claimed that the British had interfered with the radio beams that the German’s were navigating by and threw them off course, saving the steelworks but directing them to the city centre instead. However, recent a recent discovery suggests both perspectives could be correct. 

In the last few years a map has come to light in the Sheffield archives. The map has marked upon it the intended civilian and industrial targets for the two nights of the Sheffield Blitz and shows that, on the whole, most of the targets for the 12th December raid were civilian, while most places targeted on the 15th were industrial. This has given rise to the idea that the Sheffield Blitz was intended to both disrupt civilian lives through the destruction of transport, hospitals and local government buildings, as well interrupt armament production by attacking the city’s steelworks. 

The Sheffield Blitz was arguably the biggest event in the city’s history and for that reason, people are working hard to make sure it is never forgotten. In 2017, a permanent exhibition was opened in Sheffield’s Emergency Services Museum and in 2019, a memorial walk was launched to guide people around some of the main sites which were bombed during the war. Guided by ‘The Sheffield Blitz’ app, the walking tour begins at the bottom of the Moor where Atkinson’s had stood as a department store since 1890, before being razed to the ground in the Blitz and rebuilt twenty years later. You are then taken to the home of Sheffield United, Bramall Lane, which was also heavily bombed, and then it’s on to the Moor where other much-loved businesses like Redgates Toy Shop, and department stores, Cockaynes and Walsh’s, were also destroyed. 

The tour then heads towards Devonshire Green where a community of tightly-packed terraced houses was decimated, and up to Weston Park Museum where despite some artefacts being protected in metal bins under the museum, many that were left on display were destroyed, including part of the Victorian Art Gallery. From there, you head down Division Street to the Central Fire Station, which played a key role in the aftermath of the Blitz and is now home to Bungalows and Bears, and then on to the City Hall which still bares the shrapnel scars from that night. After that, you’re led to the Central Library which was key to the relief effort, followed by the high street and the site of Marples Hotel. Then follows The Old Town Hall which was secretly being used as a hub of telephone communication for South Yorkshire and Snig Hill before the tour concludes with The Sheffield Blitz Exhibition at the National Emergency Services Museum. 

Although it may be 80 years since the Sheffield Blitz, it remains a huge part of our city’s history that people are working hard to preserve. And for those families who lost someone, the events of those cold December nights will be remembered for generations to come.

Louisa Merrick-White

Image credit: Mick Walpole

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