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The Manchester Blitz


2020 marked the 80th anniversary of the World War II Luftwaffe raids on Manchester, Salford, and Trafford Park. The attacks reached a climax just before Christmas 1940, when on two consecutive nights thousands of incendiary bombs and hundreds of high-explosive devices were unleashed on the conurbation.

Throughout the raids, which continued into 1941, over 800 people were killed, and major buildings wholly or partially destroyed included the Free Trade Hall, the Royal Exchange, the cathedral, the Victoria Buildings, Salford Royal Infirmary, Manchester United’s ground at Old Trafford, Cross Street chapel, and Victoria Station.

There was an uncontainable inferno across the clothing and cotton goods warehouse district of Portland Street, George Street and Piccadilly, with the inflammable textiles helping to spread the flames. Eventually the military had to be called in to dynamite some buildings so as to create fire breaks. Parts of the area were still smouldering over a week later.

What made conditions worse was the fact that during the 22 December attack many regular firefighters were still in Liverpool, helping to deal with the Merseyside Blitz. An army of volunteers and part-timers did a fine job in Manchester until reinforcements – some arriving from as far away as Middlesbrough and Wolverhampton – came to the city the following day.

Preparation for protection from the air raids had been thorough. Many households had a back garden Anderson shelter, or an indoor Morrison design. There were other, more expensive indoor shelters available, and for those unable to afford a domestic version, there were hundreds of communal places of safety, usually underground in converted cellars and disused canal tunnels. The largest of these was a former subterranean canal which ran for over half a mile passing under Deansgate, roughly following the line of Peter Street and Quay Street. Although some anti-social behaviour was noted in a few communal shelters, in general people were well behaved and morale remained high. Some of the better-equipped refuges had organised entertainment such as sing-songs and lectures, and there were even religious services, sale of cups of tea, and small libraries. Originally designed for a short-lived raid of two or three hours, the communal shelters underwent radical enhancement once the length and intensity of the Luftwaffe attacks became apparent.

Amidst the mayhem of the bombing tales of heroism were legion. Workers who at great risk to themselves climbed to the top of gasholders to kick live incendiaries to the ground before the fires could ignite the highly explosive gas; ARP Wardens and Special Constables who led groups of people to safety whilst the bombs were falling; drivers and motorcyclists who conveyed petrol through the blazing city streets; the women of the WVS who tirelessly ministered to the increasing number of homeless in the Rest Centres – the list is long, and it is small wonder that the leader of the Emergency Committee expressed this view of the Manchester response to the raids:

‘An epic of fine heroism worthy to rank high in the annals of the city of Manchester’.

To borrow Churchill’s phrase: Hitler did his worst, and Mancunians did their best.

Whilst the bombing took a matter of hours, the rebuilding of the city was to take many years to complete. The Free Trade Hall was restored in time for the 1951 festival of Britain, but it would be seven years later before the cathedral was at last free from the sound of hammers and saws. The destroyed north-east corner of the cathedral was completely rebuilt, and now the centre-piece is the Fire Window, a stained glass addition made in 1963. It offers a striking memento of the Blitz. Red, yellow and orange flames appear to climb the glass, and when the sun shines through the effect is stunning. On the altar cloth below the window is the design of a phoenix: an apt symbol of the new Manchester which has risen – which continues to rise – from the ashes of Hitler’s Blitz. 

By Graham Phythian

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