WWII Leeds bombing raid recalled

John Ashbee from Horsforth with his scrapbook of photographs taken during the Second World War.
John Ashbee from Horsforth with his scrapbook of photographs taken during the Second World War.
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Today marks the 70th anniversary of the night the German Luftwaffe brought death and terror to Leeds in the most devastating bombing raid suffered by the city during the Second World War.

Those who lived through the attack tell Grant Woodward their memories of some of the darkest hours in the city’s history.

BY the dawn of 1941, several British cities had already suffered horrific damage and huge loss of life in the bombing raids that had come to play such a major role in hostilities during the Second World War.

In Leeds, however, life pretty much carried on as normal.

Its only real experience of the Luftwaffe had come on August 25 the previous year, when three people had been killed by four bombs which fell on Whitehall Road, and six days later when a 60-year-old man had died after a bomb hit York House in the Quarry Hill flats.

All that was to change, however, on the night of Friday, March 14.

It was around 9pm when the sirens began to wail. In all, 451 German bombers were over Britain. Hundreds were heading for Glasgow and Sheffield, 40 were bound for Leeds.

The first incendiaries – one-pound aluminium cases loaded with fire-raising magnesium – began falling over the Water Lane and Easterly Road areas of the city 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 tackled hundreds of incidents across the city, among them those at City Square, Wellington Bridge, the City Station, Albion Street and Leeds University.

The Luftwaffe’s targets were the city’s factories, works and transport infrastructure. But many of their bombs were off target, falling on residential areas with often devastating effect.

Eric Drummond still vividly recalls the night when the German bombers appeared over the dark skies of Leeds.

Then a 14-year-old working at J Mays and Son’s clothing factory in Holbeck, he spent the night sheltering in the coal cellar at his home in Oban Street, Upper Armley.

“When we heard the ack-ack guns at Post Hill (a local beauty spot between Pudsey and Farnley) open fire, and then the searchlights joined in, we guessed there was going to be a raid,” he says.

“German intelligence had clearly done their work very well and had briefed the crews to hit the strategic targets. The first incendiaries started dropping and the ARP (air raid) wardens and fire watchers at the factories were kept busy putting them out by dropping a sandbag on them. Then the bombing raids followed on in about three sessions.”

Now 84 and living in Scarcroft, Mr Drummond remembers a schoolmate’s father having a close shave when a bomb dropped on the local corner shop in Wortley.

“He was on fire-watching duty and when it hit the shop he was standing directly opposite. It blew him off his feet and shredded his trousers.”

He admits his teenage self was quite excited when the raid began but quickly realised the seriousness of what was unfolding.

“When the anti-aircraft guns started up I thought that was exciting and shouted ‘Go on, give ‘em a go!’ But my mother quickly told me to shut up.

“The first thing a lot of the lads did when they got up the next morning was to go on the streets to look for shrapnel and any souvenirs. It was the spirit of adventure, I suppose.”

Other Loiners’ memories of that night are just as sharp.

Local historian John Ashbee was 17 and shortly afterwards joined the RAF. On the night of the raid he, his parents and younger sister sought refuge in the converted coal cellar at their terrace in Ash Road in Headingley.

“We had put garden chairs, a table and a gas fire down there so it was quite cosy,” he recalls. “When the air raid sirens went off we all went down there.

“I wouldn’t say we were frightened but there was a certain amount of apprehension. We got used to it in the end.

“We always suspected Leeds would be a target but it was said at the time that the industrial haze over the city made it a difficult target from the air. The smogs were unbelievable, you literally couldn’t see your hand in front of you.

“There was a yellow tinge to them and the taste was awful. You couldn’t get away from it. But then again perhaps it kept us safer than other cities.”

Now living in Horsforth, John, who at the time was working as a window dresser at ladies’ clothes shop J Jones, remembers there being a funereal air in the city the morning after the attack.

“There was glass and rubble around and there was a lot of grief in the city. There was a very subdued atmosphere everywhere and people were very conscious that people had lost their lives.

“It made everyone apprehensive that there would be more to come.”


Marlene Mann, then Marlene Osborne, was five and a pupil at Ellerby Lane Primary School in Cross Green when the raid took place.

“I remember going into the air raid shelters,” recalls the 76-year-old, who lives in Gipton. “We had one at the bottom of the street, the fish shop had one in the basement and there were some down Ellerby Lane, near the Bellow Machine Company.

“I was meant to be going on to Richmond Hill School but of course that was cancelled after it was hit by a bomb.

“I don’t remember being frightened. If anything it was an exciting time, we all took it in our stride. I don’t think any of us realised how enormous it was until we started growing up.”

Harry Thrush, 87, of Jarvis Square, Leeds, was living in Bridgefield Place at the time of the raid. After the all-clear he went down towards York Road and saw flames coming out of the Woodpecker pub that had been hit.

He recalls: “A man nearby shouted at me: ‘Get home you silly b***er!’ He must have been an ARP man.”

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 homes 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 first funerals took place four days later when five casualties were buried at Harehills Cemetery.

The ceremonies were attended by the Lord Mayor, Alderman Willie Withey, who told the assembled 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.”

There were further scattered raids on Leeds before the war was out, but nothing on the scale of the bombing that occurred on the night of March 14 and early hours of the next day.

Leeds had endured the worst of it, but it had paid a high price.