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Manchester burning

Jonathan Schofield on the Manchester blitz and how people still turned up for work

Written by . Published on December 27th 2010.

Manchester burning

Seventy years ago my father watched Manchester burn.

He was thirteen. With his family around him he walked out of the front door of the family home and saw the south eastern sky on fire. Twelve miles from the city centre in Rochdale and six hundred feet up on the Pennines, he saw German bombers caught in searchlights, anti-aircraft shells exploding amongst them.

As is the way with extraordinary events his memories are very exact despite all the time that has passed.

“I can still see the orange-red glow, the moving white lights, the flashes of yellow flame as fires flared or bombs fell. There was a high cloud cover and the scene seemed played out between the city and the clouds with the clouds reflecting the glow, and pierced by searchlights. And the odd thing was that it was happening in silence, the distance preventing any of the noise reaching us.”

My father would have been watching on the evening of the 23 December, when the bombs dropped the previous night had grown to a fire storm over Piccadilly. The blaze acted as a beacon for returning waves of German bombers.

The facts are these. After two nights of savage attacks on Liverpool the German airforce came after the Manchester area to spread terror, weaken morale, damage Britain’s war machine and attack a main infrastructure and industrial hub. Civilian deaths were judged useful in fostering defeatism.

On 22/23 December 121 aircraft of Luftflotte 2, and 149 aircraft of Luftflotte 3, both based in Northern France, dropped 272 tons of high explosive and 1,032 canisters of incendiary bombs on Manchester. On 23/24 December 171 aircraft of Luftflotte 3 returned and dropped another 195 tons of high explosive and 893 incendiaries.

684 people died and many more were injured. Over thirty acres of city centre Manchester were destroyed (some reports say ninety), Salford and Stretford were savaged as well. At one point there were 1300 major blazes, some combining, as at Piccadilly, to create a fire storm. Buildings were demolished to prevent the fire spreading. Some buildings tell a remarkable story: click here.

On a tour I did in late November one guest recalled how her mother had grown up in Newton Heath in a large and happy family home of five adults and children. One of the high explosive bombs on the 23rd killed the whole family apart from her mum. Merry Christmas.

On the whole, as was the case after the 1996 IRA bomb, people were stoical. After the first night of bombings which largely left unharmed the suburban transport infrastructure most people still came into the city centre to work. They knew about the terrible night, had heard the 270 bombers blasting their city and seen the fires, but they still came to work. They didn’t pull a ‘snow-sickie’.

The scene that greeted them was hellish. As Frank Walsh recalls: ‘I was sent out to deliver a parcel to a small printers situated in the warren of side streets just behind John Ryland’s Library on Deansgate. I started out making my way down Canon Street which was strewn with debris, broken glass and fire hoses, with fire tenders still spraying water on the burning and smouldering shells of buildings. Several side streets were wrecked and impassable where some of the buildings had been roped off. Large coping stones from the tops of building were lying everywhere.

Market Place at the end of the Victorian period

‘My route was often changed and I had to make many diversions as my journey progressed very slowly because of stopping to talk to firemen and other groups of pedestrians standing outside of what used to be their place of employment, now completely demolished. The smell of burning was intense. Buildings were collapsing all around and still on fire. Those that were not on fire were left as piles of smoking and smouldering rubble.’

Two of the physical losses stand out.

The first is Alfred Waterhouse’s Assize Courts which had stood on Bury New Road below Strangeways Prison. This was a key neo-Gothic building completed in 1859 by the future architect of Manchester Town Hall.

The second loss is all about charm.

The Market Square area, a reminder of the city’s small town past, was flattened. Presently occupied by Harvey Nichols, No1 Deansgate, Selfridges and Marks and Spencer, this contained a tangle of Georgian and Victorian buildings built on a low scale, which was unlike any other central area. I imagine today it would have been filled with interesting little retailers, cobbles, a York-like atmosphere, maybe a couple of cracking restaurants.

Other buildings lost or severely damaged included the Cathedral, the Free Trade Hall, Victoria Buildings, Cross Street Chapel, the Royal Exchange, and Smithfield Market.

Back to my thirteen-year-old father.

As he watched the battle over Manchester what were his feelings and those of his family? Rage? Fear?

“I felt excited, fascinated and - strange this I suppose - I wondered if the German pilots and crew would get shot down on the way back home, would they make it? They were the only individuals we could see, remember, the rest was just a mass of fire,” he says.

“Then again we all hated the Germans, that goes without saying,” he continues. “They were bombing Manchester, Britain, killing our own. We always expected the worst from the Germans. My father said we’d be giving it them back and more as well.”

Raw sentiments. But let’s be grateful, given the nature of the Nazi regime, that the determination to resist was so intense, and ultimately successful.

There are currently Blitz exhibitions at Manchester Cathedral and at the IWMN.

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12 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

AppreciativeDecember 23rd 2010.

Fantastic, tender summary Jonathan.

Eddy RheadDecember 23rd 2010.

I think its too easy for present generations to forget the suffering and sacrifices of previous generations during this time. Thanks Jonathan for helping to remind us.

HowardDecember 23rd 2010.

Glad you've done this piece J. My dad was a POW in Germany at the time. The news over there was that Manchester had been totally annihilated. Merry Xmas

MaggsDecember 24th 2010.

Thanks Jonathan - it was me who told you about my Mum. She would have been 100 years old on the 20th December, meaning she had celebrated her 30th bithday just days before her whole life was altered for ever with the loss of her husband and children. As usual I went to lay some flowers at the Civilian Memorial tree in Piccadilly and as usual I was so disappointed to see that it remains largely ignored - hemmed in by that horrible concrete wall and this year with a filthy truck parked almost on top of it. Still - better than nothing I suppose!!

AgricolaDecember 24th 2010.


Think AgainDecember 24th 2010.

That image of the father at thirteen watching this silent pageant of Death being played out in front of him is the best thing I've heard about in this whole marking of the seventy years of Blitz.

Jo NDecember 26th 2010.

Great piece Jonathan. I've just finished reading/poring over your Mcr Then and Now (Batsford) book which had me transfixed, and I'd highly recommend.

Andrew RevansDecember 27th 2010.

"Presently occupied by Harvey Nichols, No1 Deansgate..."

Wasn't most of the block that is now between Deansgate and New Cathedral Street occupied by Victoria Buildings? A sad loss, but hardly small-scale!

"I imagine today it would have been filled with interesting little retailers, cobbles, a York-like atmosphere, maybe a couple of cracking restaurants."

More likely it would have been swept away in the 60s!

Another great piece in any case: moving as well as fascinating.

Jonathan Schofield - editorDecember 27th 2010.

I've added a picture for you of the Market Place at the end of the 1800s. It shows the scale of the buildings in this area. True the vast Victoria Building with it's arcade was there but the area to the east up to Corporation Street remained old style with its pubs and odd nooks and crannies.

Andrew RevansDecember 30th 2010.

Thanks Jonathan. I presume the photographer is standing on St Mary's Gate with his back to the Royal Exchange. You can see the east end of the Cathedral in the background, and you can just make out the gable of the Wellington on the left behind that big laddery thing.

The building in the left foreground (? & Holmes Grocers) survived the blitz, and only disappeared in c 1970 when the vile Market Place Development was started. I can remember watching it being demolished.

Finally, what a magnificent ruin the Assize Courts made! The walls look completely undamaged.

Smyth HarperDecember 30th 2010.

I'm from Belfast, which was also hit really badly by the Blitz. I remember doing a project on it for my A level (or poss GCSE) coursework and interviewing my aunt, who was 17 during the Blitz. She told a haunting story. After a bad attack that devastated the area she lived in, she saw a woman kneeling outside the rubble of what had been her house. Lined up outside the house were the bodies of her entire family - husband and five or six children. All of them had been killed. The woman was wailing uncontrollably. My aunt said she'd never forget the sound of raw, real grief...

MaggsJanuary 1st 2011.

Thanks for the tip about Manchester Now & Then Jon - ordered it from Amazon and we are really enjoying reading it!

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