PORTSMOUTH BOMB ALERT: A look back at the day the bombs rained down on the city

The remains of the Portsmouth Harbour train station after it was bombed in 1940
The remains of the Portsmouth Harbour train station after it was bombed in 1940
HMS Queen Elizabeth as she started her second phase of sea trials last month. Photo: LPhot Kyle Heller

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The unexploded bomb found in Portsmouth Harbour yesterday was a graphic reminder of when the city was targeted by the German Luftwaffe during World War Two.

For many the unexploded device was a sharp reminder of what life was like during the war.

Here we’ve had a look back at the events of 1940:

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In the early part of that sunny Thursday evening on July 11, 1940, 24 German planes of Hitler’s Luftwaffe brought carnage to the city.

It was an event to which the doughty residents of Portsmouth would have to steel themselves.

In the following four years the bombers knocked the stuffing, but never the heart, out of the city in 67 air raids.

The air raid sirens sounded in anger 1,581 times between 1940 and 1944. The numbers of bombs dropped were: high explosive, 1,320; incendiaries, 38,000; parachute mines, 38.

These figures excluded hundreds which fell into the sea or mudflats surrounding the city.

Of course, Portsmouth people knew that first raid was coming. They’d watched in the cinemas newsreel footage of the Germans bombing their way through towns and cities across mainland Europe.

They’d built their Anderson shelters in the garden or cleared out the cupboard under the stairs as somewhere relatively safe in which to take cover when the wailing sirens sounded.

They knew the risks associated with living in the home of the Royal Navy, with a dockyard nestling alongside thousands of homes.

But that first raid still came as an almighty shock and left people literally raging in the streets at the Germans.

On that July evening the bombs fell in the Kingston Cross and Rudmore area.

One of the first bombs dropped that evening hit a gasholder at Rudmore. Its steel plates were pierced and, not surprisingly, it caught fire.

In the space of a few minutes those bombs left 18 people dead and 80 injured.

One of those was Stan Spooner’s father – PC Stanley Spooner, the first police officer in Britain to die in the bombing.

Stan, now 69, of Halfpenny Lane, Old Portsmouth, never knew him. He was born 10 days later, one of twins.

He said: ‘We were the third set of twins my mother had given birth to. There was another, single baby, born between the first two sets and me and my brother.’

Alice Mary Spooner (nee Whiting) was known as Mollie. Before marrying Stanley and starting that family she had been a nurse in the city.

Stan said: ‘She was a remarkable woman. You can’t imagine what state she must have been in... her husband killed in that first air raid and 10 days later giving birth to more twins.’

His father was just 28 when he was killed.

The family lived a short distance away at 134, Twyford Avenue, Stamshaw. Constable 137 Stanley Spooner was stationed at the old Kingston Cross police station at 6, London Road, North End – on the eastern side of the road.

It was just a few doors away from the Blue Anchor pub when a bomb exploded demolishing the pub and the off-licence next door.

His son said: ‘Apparently he was returning to the station when the siren went off. He saw a chap in the street. He shouted at him to get under cover and he didn’t. So he went back to get him. That’s when he copped it. He was the first policeman to be killed in the city by the bombing and also the first in Britain.’

The man he tried to save was Percival Prince, of Velder Avenue, Milton. He died too.

Stan added: ‘My mother remarried in 1942, another policeman, and had more children. That’s how it was in those days. There was no time to dwell on anything. You just had to get on with life and make the best out of what was a very bad situation.’

And that situation was about to get much worse. For when Hitler lost the Battle of Britain in October 1940 he took his revenge by launching bombing raids at night.

The Blitz was about to begin.

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EIGHT CHILDREN WERE KILLED AS BOMBERS DESTROYED THEATRE

Before the Blitz started, the city had to endure more daylight raids during the Battle of Britain that summer of 1940.

On the afternoon of August 24 scores of youngsters were settling down to a matinee showing of Gate of Alcatraz.

The 80-minute drama has been long-forgotten. What happened to the Prince’s Theatre in Lake Road. Portsmouth, where it was showing, hasn’t.

In the space of five minutes the imposing building was all but reduced to rubble as the German bombers tore the heart out of the city. In the Prince’s Theatre eight children were killed. The rest of the city was hit hard.

‘In the five minutes that it took for the bombers to pass,’ said historian Paul Jenkins,

‘Portsmouth was subjected to the worst air raid to be suffered by any city, apart from London, for the whole of the Battle of Britain.’

Lt Cdr Jenkins, the leading authority on the city during the Battle of Britain, said although the Germans targeted the dockyard as usual, the bombs fell ‘quite indiscriminately on shops and houses across the southern half of the city’.

The warning of the raid that day came late because a radar station at Ventor on the Isle of Wight had been attacked.

‘Many people were caught in the open unable to reach a proper shelter as the bombs came whistling down,’ he said.

The Luftwaffe dropped 65 250kg and 500kg bombs in their raid, with a death toll of more than 100 city residents and workers.

The dockyard suffered badly. HMS Vernon, the navy’s mine and torpedo centre, was badly damaged and an air raid shelter took a direct hit, killing 65 dockyard workers.

The city’s agony did not stop there. Two days later the Germans returned but mis-aimed and dropped most of their bombs around Cosham and Farlington.

They did, however, score a direct hit on Fort Cumberland killing marines stationed there.

The last raid in August 1940 came on the night of August 27-28. It caused little damage but was a harbinger of the coming months when the city’s population would find itself spending nights in shelters rather than their homes.

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Video credit; British Pathe