THE CITY OF PORTSMOUTH on Britain’s south coast has a long and proud maritime tradition stretching back to 1194 when King Richard 1 ordered the construction of a dockyard. When Charles II created the Royal Navy in 1670, Portsmouth because home to a Royal Dockyard. (1)
Since then the Dockyard and the various Royal Navy establishments that have been situated nearby have played a significant part in supporting Royal Navy warships in peace and in war.
It is of course no surprise that given its importance the city and the naval facilities it housed would be target of real and potential enemies.
Throughout the Second World War Portsmouth was the target of a number of Luftwaffe attacks from almost the start of the conflict – indeed between July 1940 and May 1944 the city was attacked 67 times.
But the city wasn’t just the Royal Navy Dockyard and the ships that were based or serviced there or the many military establishments that ringed it. It was a city with shops and homes, churches and hospitals and schools were families worked and went to school, went to the theatre and relaxed in pubs and bars.
Indeed it has been said that at one point the city had 365 pubs within its boundaries,
During the four years of aerial attack 930 people were killed, 2837 were injured – including 1216 individuals who were treated in hospital.
Damage to residential property and other buildings was substantial, leaving a legacy of unplanned vistas and an eclectic mix of pre- and post-war buildings that is visible today. (2)
The largest raid occurred on the night of Friday 10 and the early hours of Saturday 11 January 1941 when some 300 German bombers dropped 140 tons of high explosives and as many as 40,000 incendiary bombs on the city, causing fires in the Dockyard and the surrounding area. (3) (4)
It was also the 31st occasion that it had been singled out by the Luftwaffe.
The raid came in two parts, the first from 6pm – when typically shifts would change in factories and the working day would be ending in shops and offices – until 10,30pm. The second began at 11.30 and ended at 02.30 the next morning. In all some 28 major and 2,314 other fires were started as a result.(5)
The city’s Guildhall and the Royal Garrison Church were just two of the buildings set alight during the raid.
THE IMAGES ABOVE show (left) a Matelot Breveté Élementaire and other members of the Free French Navy sifting through rubble in Portsmouth on 14 January 1941. Image Copyright: © IWM.IWM catalogue reference HU 55590. Original Source http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205028575.
Centre and right: Two contemporary images of the Royal Garrison Church. Images Copyright © R. Maddox 2021 and used with permission.
The roof and interior of the Guildhall – originally built as Portsmouth Town Hall before Portsmouth became a city in 1926 – were totally destroyed leaving an open shell and the badly damaged tower.(6)
It would eventually be rebuilt – but without a number of its artefacts that were destroyed in the fire, although some had the good fortune to be locked away in the cellar. (7)
The still roofless Royal Garrison Church remains a striking memorial to that night and the many servicemen and residents who battled to minimise the damage to the historic church. (8)
In addition five other churches, a hospital and three cinemas well as large parts of Portsea and Landport – areas of the city near to the Dockyard – were left in ruins. Neighbouring Southsea was also hit. (9)
Those that died were young and old, men and women, children and babies. They were police officers and firemen and telephone operators.
They did so in a variety of situations – at the Roman Catholic Cathedral in the north of the city, at the Hippodrome Theatre, at ARP posts and air raid shelters.
And they died in shops and homes or in streets. They died without their loved ones or sheltering with neighbours or with their children.
In all 171 people died and some 430 were injured in the raid.
Number 101 High Street, Old Portsmouth – a confectioner’s shop that was part of a row of buildings that stood in front of the Protestant Cathedral – was destroyed by a direct hit.(10)
In the cellar twelve people from six different families were sheltering. The oldest was 71 and the youngest 11 months.
Nearby others two others who lived in the house were killed.
A tablet in their memory was laid in 2011. It reads
101 HIGH STREET STOOD HERE AND WAS BOMBED
IN THE BLITZ OF 10 JANUARY 1941
THE FAMILIES SHELTERING IN THE CELLAR DIED
ISAAC BARKER 67 AND HIS WIFE GERTRUDE 61
RICHARD CLEMENS 67 AND HIS WIFE MARY 67
GEORGE BARNES 71 – PETER HALSON 11 MONTHS
JOHN ALBERT MORRIS 38 – HIS WIFE ELSIE 24 AND SON JOHN 2
CHARLES RIDGE 58 – HIS WIFE ANNIE 50 AND DAUGHTER RUBY 14
WINIFRED ANDREWS 44 AND SON GEORGE 15 LIVED HERE
BUT DIED THAT NIGHT OUTSIDE IN LOMBARD STREET
MAY THEY REST IN PEACE
Many other homes and properties in the area – some dating from the Georgian period – were destroyed or damaged.
In some cases these buildings would not be demolished until the 1950s, those damaged on the High Street in front of the Cathedral Church of St Thomas of Canterbury – to give the Cathedral its formal name – are examples of this.
Today the empty space where No, 101 stood allows an uninterrupted view of the church.
Later on 11 January 1941, the Lord Mayor of Portsmouth, Sir Denis Daley, told the city. (11)
“We are bruised, but we are not daunted, and we are still as determined as ever to stand side by side with other cities who have felt the blast of the enemy, and we shall, with them, persevere with an unflagging spirit towards a conclusive and decisive victory.”
The University of Portsmouth published a fascinating blog post on the raid five years ago to mark the 75th anniversary. It can be found at http://www.liblog.port.ac.uk/blog/2016/01/14639/
An interactive map showing the numbers and location of bombs from 1940 to 1944 can accessed at from the link at https://www.portsmouth.gov.uk/2021/01/06/80th-anniversary-of-portsmouth-blitz-air-raid/
Details and information about those commemorated on two memorials to those killed in the wartime bombing of Portsmouth can be found at http://www.memorialsinportsmouth.co.uk/cemeteries/kingston-westside.htm.
The second can be seen at http://www.memorialsinportsmouth.co.uk/cemeteries/kingston-eastside.htm and https://www.iwm.org.uk/memorials/item/memorial/21446
Corporal John Welch of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC) was based at Hilsea Barracks, Portsmouth kept a diary during his wartime service. Excerpts for the week commencing 5 January 1941 can be seen at https://www.welcometoportsmouth.co.uk/1941-portsmouth-blitz-diaries.html
Additional information concerning the Dockyard can be seen at https://www.welcometoportsmouth.co.uk/portsmouth-dockyard.html
The Historic England entry for the Guildhall Portsmouth is at https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1104316 and information on the Royal Garrison Church can be found at https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/royal-garrison-church-portsmouth/history/
Another Guildhall was located in High Street Old Portsmouth until it was destroyed in 1941. Details can be seen at http://historyinportsmouth.co.uk/opp/high-street-east/hs42-43-guildhall.htm and http://historyinportsmouth.co.uk/places/town-hall.htm
More about the plaque marking the spot where 101 High Street Old Portsmouth stood and the history of the property prior to 1941 can be found at the following links:
(1) http://www.portsmouth-guide.co.uk/local/royalnvy.htm – 8 January 2021
(2) https://www.welcometoportsmouth.co.uk/the%20blitz.html – 8 January 2021
(3) https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/the-blitz-around-britain – 8 January 2021
(4) https://www.welcometoportsmouth.co.uk/1941-portsmouth-blitz-diaries.html – 8 January 2021
(5) https://portsmouthdockyard.org.uk/timeline/details/1941-major-air-raid-on-portsmouth – 8 January 2021
(6) https://portsmouthguildhall.org.uk/about-guildhall/about-us/guildhall-history/ – 8 January 2021
(7) https://dalyhistory.wordpress.com/2009/09/12/portsmouth-guildhall/ – 8 January 2021
(11) https://www.portsmouth.gov.uk/2021/01/06/80th-anniversary-of-portsmouth-blitz-air-raid/ – 8 January 2021
IWM is the world’s leading authority on conflict and its impact on people’s lives from
1914 through to the present day and beyond.
You can learn more about volunteering at IWM here.