Monday, May 9, 2016

Exploring the Archives: Alternative views of the Sheffield Blitz

James Throup, a student from the School of English at the University of Sheffield, is currently spending time in the archives uncovering some of the fascinating documents which tell the history of Sheffield.  His fourth blog post takes us back to the Second World War...

Five minutes after the sirens had died down, the drone of many planes was heard, and the heavy guns began to roar and the lighter ones to bark with a volume and urgency which startled many who had prided themselves on being indifferent to raid warnings.
(Lamb and Walton, 1980).

Thus begins one recollection of the first night of the Sheffield Blitz during the Second World War. Due to Sheffield’s industrial capabilities, an air raid on the city had long been anticipated. However, given previous false alarms, when the warning siren screamed into life most people failed to respond with any urgency. As Lamb and Walton (1980) note: 
Few people were disturbed by the now familiar sound. As usual, not more than a score of persons left the places of entertainment when it was announced that the alert had been given.

The raids on Sheffield took place on Thursday 12th December and Sunday 15th December 1940, in each case lasting through to the early hours of the following day. The first raid targeted the city centre, as well as areas such as Abbeydale, Walkley, and Crookesmoore.  The second raid targeted the industrial east end, hitting Attercliffe , Grimesthorpe and Burngreave; Brown Bayleys steel works was hit in the process.

Almost 700 civilians and service men were killed, whilst 1,586 people were injured and 40,000 were made homeless. Sheffield was targeted due to its steel and munitions manufacture, which played a vital role in Britain’s war effort, and it is doubtful whether the Allies would have won the war if the steel works had been completely destroyed.

Sheffield Archives holds a most curious item: a German map with accompanying instructions for an air raid on Sheffield during the Second World War. These documents were obtained from offices in Germany by a soldier from Sheffield. In the top left corner they are marked ‘Geheim!’ [Secret!], and are dated from October 1939, showing that an attack by the Luftwaffe had been planned a year in advance to the actual Blitz. On the map, the intended strike area of the steel works is marked out by a red line. Translated, these documents reveal the sophistication of German intelligence and reconnaissance:

Section 4:
Active and passive air raid protection, local observation (watch): nearest anti aircraft garrisons: Rotherham (5km to the NE) Chesterfield (18km in the S) Bomb proof air raid rooms

Section 5:
Orientation points for target identification: railway bridge over River Don (south loop) in the middle of Sheffield by Victoria Station. 1.7km in the SW River Don snakes itself in S form through the works group (installation) in the middle a dam (75km long) which has an offshoot for the mill dam canal.

I found it extremely intriguing to see the Second World War presented in such a manner, to see Sheffield reduced to a set of strategic targets in the eyes of the enemy. I felt this intensely technical reading of the city offered an arresting counterpoint to received narratives of the war, and to the more personal oral histories through which the local community remembers the period.

Digging deeper into the vast wealth of local material revealed further unexpected ways of viewing the Blitz. Sheffield resident Joe Ashton recalls how the Foundry Working Men’s Club offered free ale to anyone brave enough to stay out of the shelters, rather than let the stock be destroyed and wasted - a move which attracted no shortage of takers, and initiated a night of debauchery whilst the bombs rained down:

I certainly do not recall anybody saying any prayers. Or starting off singing ‘Abide with Me’, like they did in the war pictures. Most of the street seemed determined to go right through every single one of the seven deadly sins before the roof fell in. Including some very respectable neighbours.
(License 2000: 1)

In a later raid on 9th January 1941, Kay Mastin recalls the destruction of her neighbours’, the Hartleys, bungalow:

The only person who was injured was the maid. It [the bomb] dropped in the dining room and that was near her kitchen, and it moved the fireplace right across the kitchen. And they [the Hartleys] didn’t know what to do with this maid…they went to live with his mother and father in Ecclesall Road South. So they asked me if I’d have this maid, and she was here for six weeks…Everybody in Dore said she’d shown a light because she was a foreigner. It wasn’t so.


The Hartley’s maid was Hungarian, and there was much government propaganda disseminated at the time advocating circumspection towards possible spies. It’s easy to forget how suspicious people were towards foreigners at the time, but heart-warming to see that Kay was quick to refute such xenophobic scaremongering.

Through writing this piece I became very aware of how important the archiving of material is for how we relate to the past. It offers the chance for people to rediscover history in new and unexpected ways, showing how history is a dynamic process of interpretation and re-inscription. Though the period of the Second World War was one of great suffering and tumult in Sheffield, as for the rest of the country, different perspectives on the past reveal a sense of solidarity and community in the face of the destructive forces of war.  

James Throup
University of Sheffield


‘Raiders over Sheffield’ Mary Walton and J.P Lamb (Sheffield: Sheffield City Libraries, 1980) Local Studies Library: 940.5442 S

‘Second World War German Map of Sheffield and Associated papers’ Sheffield Archives: X196

‘Sheffield Blitz: In words, pictures and memories’ Paul License (Sheffield: Sheffield Newspapers 2000) Local Studies Library: 940.5442 SQ

‘The Time of Our Lives – Dore at War: Memories from The Dore Oral History Collection’ ed. by Helen Ross, Barbara Jackson & Maureen Cope (Oxford, Dore Oral History Group, 2005) Local Studies Library: 940.5342 S