Research - The Blitz

Britain declared war on 3rd September 1939. For the first few months of the war very little happened in Britain. In fact those months were so quiet people called this time the ‘phoney war’. All of this changed in April 1940 when Germany invaded Denmark and Norway. The British prime minster, Neville Chamberlain resigned and was replaced by Winston Churchill who formed a coalition government of all political parties. On the same day that Winston Churchill came to power (10th May 1940), the German army invaded Holland, Belgium and France. Because of their experience in the First World War, France made a sort of peace with Germany and this left Britain alone to fight Germany.

Hitler planned to invade Britain. His first plan was to get rid of the Royal Air Force (RAF). The first attacks from the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, targeted the Channel ports and then the airfields of the south of Britain. This was called the Battle of Britain and it lasted for three months.

British pilots eventually won the Battle of Britain and Hitler’s plans to invade had to wait. The Germans employed a different tactic and they started to bomb British cities, thinking that this would make the British people surrender.

Manchester endured several months of German air raids, which became more and more severe. In December 1940 there were two nights of continuous bombing. The city had never experienced anything like this before. It was to become known as ‘The Blitz’. The ‘Blitz’ comes from Blitzkrieg and means lightning war.

On Sunday 22nd December, the people of Manchester were warned that an air raid was about to take place by air raid sirens. British cities were blacked out so that they couldn’t be identified from the sky. This meant there were no streetlights, and windows had to be blacked out so there was no light from houses. The first air raid siren sounded at 6.37 pm, and it was over twelve hours before the ‘all clear’ signal was heard. During the first raid the Luftwaffe dropped thousands of incendiary bombs to start small fires so they could see the blacked out cities from the sky when they came back to bomb the cities again.

There were so many fires that within an hour and a half every fire appliance was in use. Reinforcements were called in to help. There were so many fires that many ordinary firemen found themselves in charge of what would, in normal circumstances, have been classed as major incidents.

Regular and auxiliary firemen fought side by side to put out the fires as more bombs were falling. The fire fighters had an enormous task on their hands as the bombs caused more and more damage, blocking communications channels and breaking water mains.

Fire women working in the canteen vans and messenger boys, on motorcycles, provided vital support to keep the operations going.

By 11.30 on Monday, all the fires were under control but as there were no relief crews available, the firemen had to stay on site to damp down the smouldering rubble throughout the afternoon.

That evening the Luftwaffe returned and bombed the city. Many of the fire fighters and support staff were on the point of exhaustion but they had to face an even worse fire situation than the night before. The most serious fires were around the busy commercial area near Piccadilly. Fire fighters had to use dynamite to stop the fires from spreading further.

By the afternoon of Tuesday 24th December, the fires were finally under control, but they continued to burn for several days. A total of seven conflagrations (large uncontrollable fires), 51 major fires and over 1,000 lesser fire incidents were recorded in Manchester and Salford alone.

Thirty firemen lost their lives on those two nights, almost all the men that died were auxiliary firemen and some were men drafted in to help from as far away as Nottinghamshire. Many more were injured.

Because fire-fighting resources in cities like Manchester were put under enormous strain during the Blitz, all fire brigades were reorganised on a national basis. The National Fire Service was formed on 18th August 1941.

The tableau in the Museum shows one small corner of what the inner city might have been like on 24th December 1940. It shows a conflagration still burning and a trailer pump operator transporting water from a distant supply to the main fire zone.

The Dennis pump is typical of thousands used by the Auxiliary Fire Service and which, in the absence of larger appliances, played a major part in saving Greater Manchester from complete destruction.

Click here to view information on the Blitz as a PDF

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