When hundreds of German bombers took off from their bases in northern France on the night of January 10, 1941, they had a new target for their intensive bombing strategy – Portsmouth.
Two months earlier Coventry had felt the full fury of the Luftwaffe’s wrath in a raid of such sustained intensity that huge areas of the city were reduced to rubble and nearly 600 people killed.
A new word had passed into the language – to ‘coventrate’, meaning to raze or destroy completely. Now it was Portsmouth’s turn for coventration as Hitler’s aerial legions turned their attention to the country’s premier naval port.
Throughout history the city had been no stranger to attack, nor to the horrors of modern warefare. German bombing raids in the summer of 1940 killed 150 of its citizens, injured hundreds more and caused widespread damage.
There followed a deceptive lull. The second Christmas of the war was quiet enough, if freezing cold, and the new year of 1941 started equally peacefully. It was the calm before the storm.
It is the glow people invariably mention first when they talk about that night. The picture is seared on the memory of anyone in Portsmouth during that first major fire blitz of the war – a city in flames from end to end, a blood-red, molten glow lighting the entire sky.
The impression was that nothing could live through that holocaustEddie Wallace
It was seen as far away as the French coast and by servicemen whose trains were stopped at Eastleigh to the west and Chichester in the east.
It seemed to illuminate the entire Isle of Wight across the darkened Solent. And it indelibly printed itself in the minds of those who watched from the top of Portsdown Hill wondering how the close-packed terraced streets of the city could possibly survive such an onslaught.
Eddie Wallace was a 17-year-old Portsmouth City Police Fireman – a cadet or apprentice fireman as the teenagers among them were called.
Now 92 and living at Moorings Way, Milton, Portsmouth, his memory of that night is still pin sharp.
He went on to take part in the D-Day landings and fight his way across Europe and he maintains what he saw that night fighting fires in Portsmouth prepared him well. ‘I’d seen enough bodies and bits of them in the wreckage of countless bombed homes to have become almost numbed by it,’ he says.
‘So when it came to D-Day with chaps dying all around, it was all part of life. I’d grown up with death and destruction in Portsmouth. It just seemed normal.’
January 10, 1941, was the night Hitler’s bombers changed the face of Portsmouth in a sustained rain of fury from the skies.
The statistics are bewilderingly huge to modern eyes: hundreds of tons of high explosives and an estimated 25,000 incendiary bombs dropped in a few terrible hours.
As the black shapes of the Luftwaffe’s bombers droned overhead by the hundred, the winter evening became a nightmare of whistling death and destruction.
Eddie recalls a clear, moonlit night. ‘From memory it was about 7pm when a wave of bombers flew over guided by the shining waters of the harbour and the whiteness of the large chalk pit at its head.’
Indeed records show the raids did begin shortly before 7pm with streams of bombers approaching the city from France. The first crews were delighted by their success, reporting two large explosions in the first 38 minutes. One of these was undoubtedly from the main electricity generating station where the impact was so severe the foundations of the 30,000-kilowatt alternator were shaken five inches out of line as the city was plunged into darkness.
It was the first of two particularly cruel blows. Other bombs had knocked out the water supply and throughout the city firemen, like Eddie, were frantically coupling up their hoses to the mains only to find a bare trickle emerged to tackle the growing number of incendiary-fed blazes.
He says: ‘Our efforts were centred on Commercial Road where the top floor of Landport Drapery Bazaar, on the corner of Arundel Street and Commercial Road, had been set on fire by incendiary bombs, as had other shops in the area.
‘We put out that fire then crossed the road where Timothy White’s and Taylors’ warehouse in Buckingham Street was well alight. Having put out that fire, we stood on the roof of the building, which was about four or five storeys high, and gazed around us.
‘It seemed as though we were in the centre of a sea of flame and the whole of Landport was on fire.’
For two hours the onslaught continued, then came to a lull. Emerging from shelters, cellars and temporary boltholes throughout the city, the dazed inhabitants tried to take in what many later described as a scene from hell.
Whole streets were ablaze, huge craters pitted roads, bodies lay everywhere. From some piles of rubble came the cries and moans of the trapped and injured: from others there was an ominous silence.
There were two immediate thoughts: to rescue and treat the injured, and to stop fires spreading.
Faced with chaos, the city responded with a vigour and discipline which later won high praise.
But the respite was brief. Shortly ater 11.30pm the bombers returned and this time, with the city glowing like a gigantic torch, their deadly task was much easier.
Eddie continues: ‘When Jerry came over for a second time, high explosive bombs had already shattered the large 12-inch water mains coming into that area and also Old Portsmouth, with the result we had no water for our hoses and were left helpless. The raid had been timed to occur when the tide was at its lowest, so a relay of water trailers was formed to bring water from Canoe Lake and the slipway at the bottom of Broad Street in Old Portsmouth.’
Later he remembers walking down the west side of Commercial Road having put out a small fire in a tailor’s shop using a brass Ajax fire extinguisher. ‘As I walked past the burning Woolworth’s store holding the empty extinguisher in front of me, so a high explosive bomb fell in the centre of that shop.
‘The blast tore the extinguisher from my grasp and hurled it across Commercial Road where it was flattened against the wall of Lyons restaurant. Had I been a couple or so inches further on, that extinguisher could have been me.’
For a further two deafening hours high explosives rained down until, at 1.30am on January 11, the magic note of the ‘all clear’ siren sounded.
Eddie remembers what happened early that day when he and a constable colleague were taken to the top of Portsdown Hill to meet ‘a large convoy’ of London firemen sent to help.
‘On seeing the state of Portsmouth from that position, with bombs going off all over the place, their transport had dropped them and returned to London. The impression was that nothing could live through that holocaust,’ he says.
It was days before the full extent of the night’s fury became known, but with the evidence of blazing streets and collapsing homes all around them, Portsmouth’s citizens knew they had lived through one of the most momentous chapters in their city’s long and highly-coloured history.
Huge areas were in ruins; 171 people dead; hundreds injured, and an estimated 3,000 homeless.
Three entire shopping centres – at King’s Road and Palmerston Road, Southsea, and Commercial Road – were virtually rubble.
Among other buildings destroyed were six churches, three cinemas, a hospital and a theatre.
Symbolically, the city’s 51-year-old Guildhall was a smoking shell, its interior literally eaten by fire. It was six days before it was cool enough for salvage parties to enter.
The punishment was cruel and touched the lives of thousands. But even as the raiders turned triumphantly for home, the work of salvaging a new day and a new Portsmouth had begun.
Hitler’s pilots had torn out Pompey’s physical heart, but its real heart beat as strongly as ever.