I’m stood outside St Andrew’s Church on a beautiful sunny day, but it’s not just any day. This is Sunday 24 April 2016 and I have just left a fitting service in commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the Plymouth Blitz. It was standing room only inside, and I was lucky enough to be sat amongst members of the public who were all there at the time, be it some younger than others, each with their own story to tell. A few tears were shed, and upon the sharp sound of the bugler playing The Last Post, the spine tingling notes made my hairs stand on end combined with a lump in the throat, a moment to reflect and one that will stay in my memory.
It’s seventy-five years since the heart of the Three Towns was ripped out of Plymouth by the destruction that rained down from the German Luftwaffe, killing more than 1100 civilians over 59 bombing raids, destroying thousands of homes, public buildings and places of worship. High explosives that were meant for the Dockyard instead took out heavily populated areas. Even the purpose built underground shelters suffered direct hits, resulting in the well documented Portland Square disaster where 76 people lost their lives. An impressive sculpture by Frances May Favata now stands as a permanent memorial to those people who died. A wall memorial inscribed with all those civilians identified as having lost their lives can be visited at Ford Park Cemetery, but by far the most striking memorial is that of the Charles Cross Church ruin, set amid the backdrop of the modern architecture of Drake’s Circus Shopping Mall.
More than a quarter of a million incendiary devices, ‘firebombs’, were dropped on the civilian population, causing more damage with intense fires, with firefighters from across the South West combining their forces. Much of their efforts were in vain, after it was realised their equipment did not match that of the city, leaving firemen unable to couple hoses to gain extra distance to fight the raging infernos. Thousands of people were displaced from their homes and many of the historic buildings had their fate sealed. Plymouth would never be the same again. The surrounding areas also took hits with loss of life and damage to property including villages around the Rame Peninsula and Tamar Valley. Craters from high explosives can still be found in local fields, and there are shrapnel scars around the city where once smoothly polished granite blocks have been fractured with the force of the shrapnel blasting into it.
Commemorations of the Blitz at St. Andrew’s Church
Plymouth during the Blitz
A torchlight shelter tour (image credit: Daniel Powell)
A section of the #PlymBlitz75 exhibition at Whitsand Bay Fort
The Plymouth Blitz Project came about in 2012 with the aim of gathering as many stories as possible from Blitz survivors, to document key sites in the city and to create a lasting online memorial and resource for future generations to access freely. The ultimate goal is to open one of the underground air raid shelters in Plymouth as a public attraction and educational resource.
On Saturday 23 April, we took one step closer to that goal by staging an all-day tour of the former Public School Shelter in the university grounds. Two hundred people snapped up the tickets within 24 hours of making the event public, a special one-off visit especially for the 75th Anniversary of this fateful day. I ran eight hours of tours and Wes Ashton displayed artefacts from the era including Anti-Aircraft shrapnel and occupation coins found within the area.
Our exhibition #PlymBlitz75 is now open every day until 31 December at Whitsand Bay Fort on the Rame Peninsula. Highlights include a full size sculpture of a German 500lb bomb by Charlotte Meldon from London, and our Anderson Shelter Recovery Program whereby we rescue the old family garden shelters in varied states, and restore them for our displays. Weekly walks and talks will take place throughout the city all year round too!