Leeds bomb raids anniversary

March marks the 70th anniversary of the heaviest air raid that Leeds suffered in the Second World War.

John Lynott looks back on what became the city's longest night.

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The night of March 14-15 1941 was to be a busy one for the Luftwaffe as it stepped up its campaign to bomb Britain into submission.

It was a long battle in what would be a long war.

Starting in September 1940, the Heinkel-111s, Junkers 88s and Dorniers of Luftflottes 2 and 3, had targeted London for 57 consecutive nights.

From November Luftwaffe chief Herman Goering had switched his twin-engined bombers to England's industrial heartland of the Midlands and the North.

Hundreds died in Coventry, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool.

In the third week of December it was Yorkshire's turn. More than 660 people died when over two nights, the Germans dropped 435 tons of bombs on the steel city of Sheffield in aptly-named Operation Crucible.

But so far Leeds had escaped virtually unscathed.

Despite the tempting targets of Kirkstall Forge, the railway marshalling yards and the Royal Ordnance Factory at Barnbow, the city had been left virtually untouched.

Three people had died on August 25, 1940 when four bombs fell on Whitehall Road.

Six days later the raiders returned. A 60-year-old man died when a bomb hit York House in the Quarry Hill flats.

Incendiaries fell over Middleton on December 12 and 15 – then it went all quiet on the home front.

All quiet – that is – until 9pm on Friday, March 14, when the sirens began to wail.

In all, 451 bombers were over Britain.

Two hundred and three were heading for Glasgow/Clydeside, 117 for Sheffield and about 40 for Leeds.

The first incendiaries – one pound aluminium cases loaded with fire-raising magnesium – fell over the Water Lane and Easterly Road areas from about 11.40pm with high explosive bombs following at 12.30am.

Over the next two-and-a-half hours bombs hit civic landmarks such as the Town Hall and the City Museum.

Leeds General Infirmary's casualty department had to be moved three times during the night after a bomb fell in front of the emergency entrance.

Other buildings hit included Kirkgate Market, the central post office, Richmond Hill Council School and the Metropole Hotel.

Members of the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) tackled hundreds of incidents across the city, among them those at City Square, Wellington Bridge, the City Station, Albion Street and Leeds University.

At the height of the raid, more than 4,000 wardens and 1,845 firemen were on duty alongside 77 ambulance crews.

In all, more than 4,500 houses were damaged, 100 of them beyond repair. Gas mains were fractured and 15,000 people were left without water.

But it was the human cost that was hardest to bear.

By the time the all clear sounded at 3.12 that Saturday morning, 65 people were dead or dying, eight of them children.

The figures masked the stories of heroism and ill luck that punctuated the Blitz.

Four wardens were killed when their post near Union Street Baths

suffered a direct hit.

Dr Ernest Donaldson-Sim of Kirkstall Road helped put out several incendiaries and then was killed instantly when he pushed his housekeeper to safety s a bomb plummeted down and exploded at his feet.

Stoker and firewatcher Harry Lee became the first man in Leeds to receive the George Medal when he directed succesful efforts to save New Wortley Gas Works as incendiaries showered down.

John Wilson, a foreman and a firewatcher at a building that received a direct hit told a Yorkshire Evening Post reporter that when the bomb struck he was saved by his steel helmet and by a door which was blown on top of him, preventing him from being hit by flying debris.

The next day the German High Command reported in Berlin that "important war works" had been hit in Leeds and "the dropping of high explosive and incendiary bombs caused big fires".

Immediate British press reports told of 'heroic defence work in a north-eastern town' in a bid to mask the impact of the raid.

But the impact could not be hidden from the people of Leeds. The first funerals of the raid victims took place four days later when five casualties were buried at Harehills Cemetery, attended by the Lord Mayor, Alderman W Withey.

He told mourners: "When the war is over we have a great responsibility in trying to see that such a happening as this will never occur again."

The Germans never did return in such numbers to Leeds.

On August 8 1942, two people died when a bomb fell in the Cardigan Road district.

The last bombs to fall on Leeds, three weeks later, killed five and property in Armley, Bramley, Stanningley and Kirkstall was damaged.

The number of dead may seem small alongside the casualty lists from London, Sheffield and Coventry, but they were irreplaceable, mourned, missed lives – and this was at a period of the war when the Germans were killing more British civilians than British servicemen on the fighting fronts.

All in all, air raids killed 77 people in Leeds.

The March 1941 attack was designated a 'quarter blitz', in that the tonnage of bombs dropped was approximately 25 per cent of what constituted a 'major' raid – 100 tons.

Many theories were advanced as to why Leeds was not subject to further, heavier raids.

One was that the city was difficult to find from the air at night, lying in a saucer of land.

Another was that the Germans did not want any great harm to come to

Leeds because they wanted to use the city, after the invasion of Britain, as a regional capital with Luftwaffe chief Goering residing in Temple Newsam House.

In reality, the Luftwaffe did not have the tools or the will to totally wreck Leeds.

Their twin-engined planes could not carry the massive tonnage of bombs that the RAF's Lancasters and Halifaxes would later drop with such devastating effect on German cities.

And the Luftwaffe often failed to follow up raids, flitting from target city to target city and giving the emergency services time to recover.