WW II - Battle over Britain

Portsmouth and the Blitz

July 1940 - July 1944

The air raids on Portsmouth over the years

The events of 1940

July 11th 1940 marked the day of Portsmouth's entry into one of the most legendary battles of the second world war - the Battle of Britain. At around 7am German bombers attacked the city for the first time (Jenkins, 1986). Although numerous alarms had been raised in the weeks before, this was the first one that proved not to be false (Easthope, n.d.). In this raid only 18 people were killed but a month later when the bombers returned the death toll was considerably higher (Blanchard, n.d.). However it was not until August 24th that Portsmouth became fully aware of the dangers

Bombfall GIS

GIS showing bomb patterns for July and August 1940 – Dockyard area.

ahead. That day the German Luftwaffe attacked with a massed force of over 200 planes (Jenkins, 1986) and by hitting the Dockyards and its surrounding areas managed to kill 125 and injure over 300 people (Blanchard, n.d., p. 154). On August 26th the German Luftwaffe commanders set out for what was supposed to be another devastating attack on the city. The only major damage, however, was caused by a direct hit on the Hilsea gas-works. The lucky escape was due to excellent flying by the RAF pilots of 43, 602 and 615 Squadrons who managed to intercept the German bombers and their escorting fighters and to the cloudy weather conditions over the Channel at the time of the attack (Jenkins, 1986).

Bombfall GIS

GIS showing bomb patterns for September, October, November and December
1940 – Portsea Island.

September and October passed with only few attacks and the eleven German attacks flown in November proved were relatively unsuccessful. One of the first city-wide raids took place on December 5th with over 40 fatalities and about 140 injuries reported. The next city-wide raid on the 23rd December left 20 people dead and over 160 people injured but neither raid was anything compared to what lay waiting ahead and was later to be named “Portsmouth's Coventry” (Jenkins, 1986). The Dockyards, however, got a heavy beating during those four months, but luckily only few people were reported injured or killed in these raids and the main aim of the German Luftwaffe seemed to be to weaken the Naval facilities rather than bombing the general city.

The events of 1941

Bombfall GIS

GIS showing HE bomb patterns for 1941
including the 3 Blitz raids – Dockyard area.

With well over 500 people killed, more than 1500 injured (Blanchard, n.d., pp. 183-194) and all three major raids on Portsmouth during the Second World War taking place, 1941 was a nightmare for any resident who stayed and witnessed it. Not only did Portsmouth lose it's shopping centres, churches, cinemas and theatres. The Royal Hospital was also destroyed alongside the Guildhall and the Royal Sailors' Rest (Blitz of Portsmouth, 1991a,b). By now most parts of the city had been destroyed by bombs or fires and the “great clear-up” (Blitz of Portsmouth, 1991c) was well under way. Many of the destroyed rows of houses had not been rebuilt when the Ordnance Survey carried out their first

GIS Damage Overlay

GIS damage overlay 1933/37 and 1952 - Area South of Dockyards.

National Grid survey of Portsea Island in 1952. Another critical problem arising from the power cut caused by the first Blitz was the sewage level of the City rising to only a few inches below the safety mark, as the pumps were not able to run. In the first months of peace the war-time Lord Mayor, Sir Denis Daley, revealed that by 15th January the City had been on the brink of having it's sewage flowing back into the streets (Blitz of Portsmouth, 1991c). This would have necessitated a total evacuation of the city. The last raid that year took place on 9th July and for over a year the German bombers did not return to drop their deadly cargo over the city.

The events of 1942 and beyond

The bombers stayed clear of Portsmouth for over a year until they returned on the 19th August 1942. None of the ten raids between 1942 and the end of the war, however, hit Portsmouth in the way it has been hit before. Parachute mines posed the greatest threat as they were silent and exploded with tremendous force (Blitz of Portsmouth, 1991b), but only few were dropped after

Bombfall GIS

GIS showing HE bomb patterns for 1942 and later.

1941. The city's fear of more heavy air raids could be seen in the construction of two large tunnel shelters in Portsdown Hill, accommodating up to 5000 people (Blanchard, n.d., pp. 220-221). With the war not even over the City Council met for the first time for the sole purpose of discussing the replanning and rebuilding of the town (Blanchard, n.d., p. 263). Mr Maunder, the deputy city architect, proposed the building of new major roads across town and a shopping and business district between the Hard and Lion Terrace (Stedman, 1995). The last raid to cause high numbers of casualties in Portsmouth took place on the 15th August 1943 and not quite a year later on 15th July 1944 the last bomb of WW II fell on the city. Killing 14 people this was one of only two V1 “Doodlebugs” to ever hit the city (Stedman, 1995).