Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Historical Perspective: The Manchester Blitz

It was my grandfather, Les Parkinson, who started off my interest in history - an interest that eventually culminated in a piece of paper that says I have a degree in it, and which I really should get framed so that it stops collecting dust. When I was around 8 or 9 or so, I think, he gave me one of those starter books on the Second World War, an overview of the conflict from its origins to its end, and it fascinated me - to the extent that I have clear memories being greatly worried when the 1991 Gulf War started, because I thought all wars would have to be like the Second World War.

Now, though, I suppose that one of the reasons that he gave me the book was so I could get some understanding of what he'd been through. In turn, I suppose that I should try to spread that sense of understanding. My grandfather was in his mid-twenties for the bulk of the war, and while he finished it out as the motor mechanic of the Royal Navy motor launch RML 497, when it began he was a constable in the Manchester City Police. The war didn't make his job any easier - and neither did the Manchester Blitz, and though it may be overshadowed by the more popularly-known London Blitz, it was heavy enough that - if Wikipedia is anything to go by - the Nazi propaganda mills were spinning the complete destruction of the city.

The following is an extract from his memoirs, Me By Me: Memoirs of a Nobody, written in 1994. The dates aren't particularly specific, but I believe the raid he refers to at the end of this section was one of the ones that occurred between December 22 and 24, 1940.


The situation in Europe was bad. Hitler's army was camped on the Polish border, and we had unconfirmed reports that the Poles had attacked the German soldiers and killed quite a few. Hitler published photos of dead soldiers which he said had been killed by the belligerent Polish Army. On September 1st, 1939, Hitler informed the world that a state of war existed between Germany and Poland because of the unprovoked aggression by the Poles.

Because England had a pact with Poland, she was called upon to help the Poles. On that fateful day in September 1939, Neville Chamberlain announced that England was going to honour her pact and that a state of war existed between England and Germany. Because of a pact between England and France, she too was drawn into the war - so now we had a repeat of the First World War, that war that was supposed to end all wars.

It was expected to be a cruel and inhuman conflict, because of the weapons that were at the disposal of the two warring factions. All these weapons had been tried and tested in Spain a few years earlier when that civil war was in progress. One thing we did know was that this war would not be confined to the soldiers in the battlefield, but to those at home and all this was due to the development of air power. We knew that cities would be bombed from the air. This fact was so obvious for the preparations that had been and were being made on the home front.

The gas masks that I had helped assemble were issued to the public, and the police were issued with army-type steel helmets and gas masks. These we had to carry at all times, and we had to wear the helmets when on duty.

All persons had to have an identification card. Without one, you couldn't get food ration books and without them no food, so people were able to go to any police station or town hall and get the ID card. Me and my pal Jack Blackwood, a dour Scot, were assigned to this task, and with the aid of the Salvation Army officials and their hostels, we were able to get to most to the homeless.

Christmas, 1939 style was on us and we feared the worst, but the full effects of food rationing had yet to be felt, although it was in force.

When the first air raid on the city occurred, I was working the night shift - I was kept on nights for about six months. Each inspector that did the roll call told me that it was for my own good to stay on nights as I would get to know the city, but most of all would learn more about the job as all or most of the action took place during the hours of darkness.

On the first air raid we had, the warning went off at about eleven thirty and stayed on until morning. Just before dawn I saw a plane caught in the searchlight, then this awful noise like a banshee screaming and then a dull thud about two hundred yards away. I met up with other policemen and searched around. We later found an unexploded bomb behind the Palace Theatre. It had fallen in a space between two buildings and had not gone off. It was not big, about two hundred pounds. We reported the fact and the Bomb Disposal Unit came and removed their first UXB.

To save having too many men on the streets and to have a number of men available to be moved anywhere at a moment's notice, it was decided to have twenty men on standby during the night shift. We had to remain in the basement of Albert Hall, which was across the street from Bootle Street Station. So we alternated. We worked a beat one night, and the next went on standby. This was a blessing in disguise for on the nights there were no air raids, we were able to catch up on our sleep.

One night, though, we had to turn out and were sent to help the D Division, which had had some houses bombed and civilian casualties. In this incident a bomb, a powerful parachute mine, had landed in an entry that ran at the rear of two rows of terraced houses. The ensuing blast had blown down the entry walls and the rear walls of houses facing each other, and blew a car into the bedroom of one of the houses. The houses in direct line of the blast were flattened, and from these houses the remains of the occupants had to be recovered.

The inspector on the job used our men to look after the site while his men went about their business, as they were more familiar with the area. I was posted at the site where the remains of the dead people were located, and was instructed to take them to the mortuary when the van arrived. I had to see what I was looking after and it was a very grisly sight. Fortunately there was no fire to worry about, as the rescue teams were able to get on the job of making the area safe and searching for casualties.

This was not a full-scale raid. It was just the one bomb that was dropped. Perhaps it was a sort of joke from the Luftwaffe, to give us a sample of what was to come.

Shortly after this incident we in the city got hit real hard, first with firebombs and then the explosives. The incendiaries were dropped to illuminate the target for the following heavy bombers, and they did a good job. There were so many buildings on fire in the Piccadilly area of the back of the Gardens and small fires in the general area that it was pitiful to see the firemen just standing around, unable to do anything because there was no water pressure.

This was where the one and only policeman was killed in the whole of the war, although a few were injured. He died a horrible death, for the next day during daylight a complete search was made of the whole area for any casualties and we found bits of his uniform and body. We were able to identify him by the numbers on his uniform remains. It was a sad loss.

A system was set up that enabled towns hit with raids to get help from other towns. Those towns that needed help got it from the nearest towns, and then like a game of draughts everybody moved to fill in the vacant gaps. The system worked well.

During our rest from the first raid, lots of hose pipe was laid so that water could be pumped from the River Irwell. During the day most of the fires were put out, but when darkness came we expected the worst and we got it, another raid. This time with the high explosives, for the fires that were still burning served as markers for the planes. That was the biggest raid we had, oh, we had many others but not like this one.

A couple of nights later, Liverpool was hit hard and we had to send men and machines to help out, and while our firemen were helping out there we got hit again. This time it was in the area near to the cathedral. Exchange Railway Station was badly damaged and the Victoria Hotel was reduced to a pile of rubble. This raid upset me, for a week before I had ordered from the gramophone shop a hard-to-get record of Chaliapin, a Russian singer, singing "The Death of Boris" from the opera Boris Godunov. I had been notified that it was in, but Hitler didn't want me to have it for he bombed the shop.


  1. this is a good website

  2. Andy Mackmurdo3/30/2010 5:38 AM

    Hi Andrew. Is your Grandfather, Les, still alive? My father, 'Mac' Mackmurdo died in December and often spoke of Les, with whom he served (as Coxswain) on RML 497.
    Is there a chapter about Les' time on this vessel in his memoirs?

    Andy Mackmurdo

  3. Regrettably, no - he died in January 1999. Thankfully, he did write the memoirs in time, and there's a considerable amount devoted to his time aboard 497 - he mentions two coxswains, but never last names. I'd be happy to send you a copy of it if you'd like.

  4. My grandfather served as a Police Officer in the Manchester Blitz too! Strange to think that all these years later their Grandsons are 'conversing' via technology they couldn't have imagined! Thanks for this article. Do you know about the Manchester Police Museum?

  5. No, I'd never heard of it - it's coming up on twenty years since the last time I was in Manchester, actually. Looks interesting though!

    Did your grandfather leave any stories behind?