By Tom Bowden
I was ten years old when the war started on 3rd September 1939 and I was a schoolboy living in Torpoint on the Cornish side of the River Tamar and across the river from Plymouth. The 70th anniversary of the Plymouth Blitz is approaching and, since I lived through it, I felt it appropriate that I write about the subject from first-hand experience.
In total I think there were fifty-nine air raids on the city of Plymouth between June 1940 and April 1944. In these attacks 1,172 civilians were killed and over 3,000 injured. The most devastating raids were in March and April 1941 when both Plymouth and Devonport shopping centres were virtually destroyed. This has been termed “The Plymouth Blitz” and it was the worst period of my life.
Plymouth City Centre
On the nights of Thursday 20th March and Friday 21st March 1941 the bombers attacked Plymouth city centre with high explosive and incendiary bombs and lay waste to the city. Nearly every building was destroyed or damaged and my first five pictures show one area and the resulting devastation:
In the first view St Andrews Church is on the left with St Andrews Cross, and Plymouth Guildhall is behind, with Plymouth Municipal Buildings on the right. They were all badly damaged. The Municipal Buildings were later demolished but St Andrews Church and Plymouth Guildhall have been saved.
In the second view we have moved to the right to show Bateman’s Corner and look down Bedford Street with the Prudential Building in the distance. Basket Street is to the left of the Bateman building and you see again the garden around St Andrews Cross. On the right is a glimpse of Spooner’s Corner where the road turns into Old Town Street.
In the third picture we have turned the corner and look up Old Town Street towards Drakes Circus at the end. Spooner’s large departmental store is on the left.
The fourth and fifth pictures show this area after the air raids. The Bateman corner block has disappeared together with the buildings in Bedford Street and Old Town Street. Some people sit and talk in the little park with utter devastation all around them. Many other streets in the city centre also ended in this condition.
Devonport Shopping Centre
Devonport received similar attacks on the nights of 21st, 22nd and 23rd April and Fore Street, Devonport was destroyed together with further damage in the surrounding streets. There are four views of this area: The first shows a sombre view of the Dockyard Gates at the west end of Fore Street with the Dockyard Chapel and Tower behind the walls.
The second picture provides a fine view of the Royal Sailors Rest (Agnes Weston’s) from the Chapel and we look up Fore Street. Before the war I sometimes went to Fore Street with sixpence to spend. I bought some sweets in Woolworths and went to the pictures at the Forum, the Electric or the Tivoli, and saw Hopalong Cassidy, Captain Marvel, or the Dead-end Kids. The third view shows a part of the shattered Fore Street.
The last picture shows “The Terrace” inside the Dockyard Gates, which provided accommodation for officers working in the dockyard.
After the air raids the Royal Sailors Rest was left an empty shell, and inside the dockyard the Dockyard Chapel and The Terrace were also destroyed together with other buildings in South Yard.
This picture shows Mount Edgcumbe House which was completed in 1553 and stood in Mount Edgcumbe Estate and was the home of the famous Cornish Edgcumbe family. The house is situated on the Cornish side of the river and opposite the dockyard. On 22nd April 1941 a stick of incendiary bombs missed the dockyard and fell on Mount Edgcumbe House and burnt it down! Many important Joshua Reynolds paintings of the family were lost and only the shell of the building was left standing. When Kenelm Edgcumbe became the 6th Earl he started the rebuilding of the house and it was completed in 1958.
Living through the Blitz
So as a boy of 11 living in Torpoint during this period I spent many nights in our Anderson air-raid shelter at the bottom of the garden. The anti-aircraft guns in the field across the road made a terrible noise but did not appear to have much success. In fact I think the bombers met very little resistance. But I particularly remember the “tinkling” sound as the shell shrapnel fell and hit the road.
The Thankes Oil Depot in Torpoint which provided oil for the navy was a target for the bombers and soon the depot was a mass of flames. During one raid a school friend and his family were all killed when their shelter had a direct hit. We survived the bombs and land-mines with blown-out windows and some shattered nerves. For a short period we (my mother and her two children) got a lift on a coal lorry to Polbathic every evening and slept in a chapel on the floor and I remember women sobbing in the night.
At the height of the bombing many Torpoint boys got up early in the morning after a raid to go down to the riverside to look for bomb fragments or shrapnel in the mud. One morning I was busily looking and finding nothing so I decided to climb up the ladder onto the Ballast Pond for a better view. I walked a few paces to the left and found it: A lovely shiny, silver incendiary bomb without a tail-fin. Presumably it had been broken off during impact? I remember picking it up and listening for a ticking noise and having heard nothing I tried unscrewing the cap. It unscrewed quite easily with a squeaking noise and I looked inside – and then bashed it on the wall! Some “powder” flew off on the breeze, and I screwed the cap on again and took my bomb home to show my Mum. I was very lucky to escape injury on that day!
Those are some of my memories of the Plymouth Blitz in 1941. As you know Plymouth City Centre rose again after the war. The Navy took a part of Devonport after the raids to enlarge the dockyard, and Fore Street has never recovered its original importance. I hope one day it will be rebuilt to suit present-day requirements.