Exploring the Archives: Enemy attack! Sheffield’s ARP and the Blitz

MA students in the School of English are provided with the opportunity of taking a work placement as part of their degree programme. In Semester 2 this year, Mollie Littlewood worked at Sheffield Archives and Local Studies Library as a social media assistant. She wrote a series of blog posts highlighting the city’s fascinating archival treasures. This post first appeared on Sheffield Libraries’ blog on 29 March 2017.

On the 12th and 15th December 1940 Sheffield was attacked by German aircraft. On the evening of the 12th the air raid sounded at 7pm and was followed by over nine hours of bombing. It is estimated that 330 German aircraft attacked Sheffield with 355 tonnes of high explosives and over 16,000 incendiary canisters. Two nights later a further 100 planes attacked during a three hour air raid. The bombing caused devastation across the city leaving a wreckage of buildings in its wake.

In April 1937 the government had asked for Air Raid Precautions (ARP) to be set up across the country. These precautions included Air Raid Wardens, casualty services, First Aid posts and Emergency Feeding and Rest Centres, amongst other things. Initially the idea was not well received as people did not want to think of war. In the beginning there were also periods of boredom for those training for the ARP as there was nothing for them to do. However, as time went on, the ARP increased in size and by the outbreak of war there were 1.5 million people in the ARP across the country.

When Sheffield was attacked in December 1940 the ARP were well-prepared and dealt with the aftermath of the bombings as best they could with great efficiency, care and bravery. The Lord Mayor of Sheffield praised the people of the city for showing ‘gallantry, fortitude, untiring energy and great devotion to duty.’

The ARP produced a monthly magazine called All Clear! which included articles about the precautions to be taken in case of an air raid, the status of the war, stories from the air raids and poetry. In January 1941 a special Blitz Edition was produced praising the people of Sheffield for their response to the attack on their city.

The special edition contains letters from the Lord Mayor of Sheffield, the Chairman of the Emergency Committee and from Harewood House on behalf of the Princess Royal paying tribute to Sheffielders. The Princess Royal compliments the people of Sheffield highlighting the work of the women in ‘organising the relief of distress, and especially the temporary housing and feeding of those whose homes have been destroyed.’ There is a section of the magazine dedicated to praising the women’s voluntary services. The women of the ARP provided care, supported the homeless and helped children to trace missing parents. They provided comfort for people who needed it. They are also praised specifically for their efficient work and improvisation in their almost impossible working environment. The headquarters of the organising body suffered three direct hits and over 75% of the Emergency Feeding and Rest centres became unavailable.

This did not stop the women, however:

It was they who assisted in improvisation schemes; them who courageously held the fort until reinforcements arrived; they who summed up the situation in a flash and “got a move on.”

The letter from The Chairman of the Emergency Committee that appears in the magazine praises the people of Sheffield for their ‘devotion to duty and the courage you displayed under conditions which it is difficult to describe could only be equalled by soldiers in the front line of battle.’

The magazine includes numerous stories of brave members of the ARP and civilians who showed devotion and courage by risking their lives to save others who were injured or trapped in the rubble. There is a section entitled ‘Our Heroes’ which gives accounts of unbelievable acts of bravery during the Blitz. These include a member of the First Aid party who was killed whilst attending to a casualty. Bombs were dropped nearby and he threw himself over the patient’s body and was struck by falling masonry and killed whilst his patient survived. A civilian saved five people who were trapped beneath a house by crawling under the debris. He worked for three and a half hours and managed to get them all out. A warden rescued five people from a cellar by digging a tunnel with his bare hands. A nurse working at a First Aid Post was advised to shelter in a passage-way with her colleagues but instead continued to sing cheerfully and go from patient to patient giving them care. These stories highlight moments of triumph and bravery in the face of extreme adversity. They give me a feeling of pride in the people of Sheffield and highlight the importance of community at that time when the world was being torn apart, a message still relevant to the world today.

The special Blitz Edition of All Clear! is bookended by emotional pieces of prose about the Sheffield Blitz and its aftermath:

When the sirens sounded there seemed no reason for undue alarm. They had sounded many times before. To be followed in due time by more sirens signifying “All Clear.”
Why Worry?
Then it started; and it continued for many hours.
Two days later they came again.
They left us serious minded and scarred.

This reveals that although the city was well-prepared with safety precautions for an attack, there was little that could be done to mentally prepare people for the horror of their homes being bombed; no amount of training and preparation could alleviate the feelings of fear and heartbreak wrought by the attempted demolition of the city.

The piece that closes the special Blitz Edition of All Clear! is titled ‘And Then–’ and gives the message that although Sheffield had been damaged, it was not defeated by these attacks:

If the objective was our morale then the victory is ours for the battle has left us, not desperate, but defiant…
How shall we honour our dead?
That is for the future.
When the time comes we shall remember them by removing our scars and, in their place, we shall build a better and greater Sheffield.

This overwhelming sense of positivity and strength is found throughout the Blitz Edition of the magazine. Separating these two pieces of prose are pages of praise for every section of the ARP. It suggests that without the hard work of the people of Sheffield the city would not have been able to go from being ‘serious minded and scarred’ to ‘defiant’ and ready to ‘build a better and greater Sheffield.’

— Mollie Littlewood

ARP Magazine Blitz Edition 1941 (Sheffield Local Studies Library: 623.3 S)
Images © Sheffield City Archives/Picture Sheffield

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