A CITY THAT REFUSED TO DIE
National Geographic Magazine`s* Harvey Klemmer wrote this study of Blitzed and Fire Bombed Plymouth in 1941, ably illustrated by Staff Photographer B. Anthony Stewart
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...Cities like nations, have stories to tell. Few cities can boast a more inspiring record than that of Britain's Plymouth. The history of Plymouth goes back many centuries and it is filled with the bold deeds of valorous men. Few deeds of the past can surpass the achievement of this community in staying alive - in refusing to die - during the war.
The German enemy decided to obliterate certain British cities. Plymouth was one of them. But Plymouth refused to be obliterated. The citizens rose up in their collective might. Notwithstanding some of the ghastliest punishment of the war, they did not fail or falter. They stood fast. They made of their city a citadel which the enemy, try as he might, was not able to destroy. The story of Plymouth in World War II is not a pleasant one. Yet it is a story which should be told. It should be told because it shows what urban civilisation will be up against if we fail to remove the menace of modern, scientific warfare from the affairs of men. It should be told also as an example of the courage and ingenuity with which common people are able to act in the face of danger, and of the sacrifices which they are willing to make on behalf of freedom.
Much of the Plymouth epic could not be told while the war was on. Victory in Europe cancelled the necessity for security restrictions. This article - based on personal observation, conversations with many persons, and a sojourn in the ruins - is an attempt to tell the full story of the travail and the triumph of the "city that refused to die." The story of Plymouth is of particular interest to Americans. No city in Britain, few cities anywhere, are more intimately concerned with our own development than this interesting old town. Generations of Americans have landed at Plymouth or have sailed from there. As every American school child knows, the Pilgrims set sail from Plymouth. In the old harbour, on a quay known as the Barbican, there is a stone bearing the simple inscription, "Mayflower, 1620." It was fitting that the Rock upon which these Founding Fathers landed should have been named for the city which bade them god speed.
A few miles northeast of Plymouth, at Princetown, is the Church of St. Michael, begun by French prisoners and completed by Americans taken prisoner in the War of 1812. Two Americans, killed in the War of 1812, are buried in the churchyard of historic St. Andrew's in Plymouth. The Daughters of 1812 have restored a doorway leading to the churchyard from the Prysten (Priests) House. The door, known as the "Door of Unity," is the scene of an annual ceremony in which people from both countries join. The NC-4, first airplane to span the Atlantic, landed in Plymouth Sound, after flying via Newfoundland, the Azores, and Portugal.
St. Andrew's was burned out in the early days of the blitz. An American sailor came to Plymouth and asked to see the ruins. He looked at the devastated shell a long time, then said slowly: ' I saw a movie of this back home. I decided to join the Navy and help punish the people who did it." Then, more slowly still, "Here I am."
American troops were stationed in and around Plymouth during most of the European war. We also maintained a sizeable naval establishment there. The war began early for the people of Plymouth . Survivors of bombed and torpedoed ships started to arrive in the Sound soon after the outbreak of hostilities. Thousands of Allied troops - tired, wounded, beaten- came into Plymouth at the time of the fall of France. These men, like the survivors of sunken vessels, were given the best that the people had to offer. This included not only food and drink and cigarettes; one group, sorely tried, was taken to a local club where members removed the men's boots and socks and washed their feet.
The first stick of bombs was dropped on Plymouth in June, 1940. There were intermittent raids through the rest of the year and into 1941. The concentrated attack, which was to give Plymouth one of the hardest poundings of the war and subject her people to one of the most terrible ordeals ever endured by a civilian population, began on March 20, 1941 - two hours after the King and Queen had left town following an inspection of Civil Defence services.
From then on, life in Plymouth took on the characteristics of a battlefield.
Sirens were going most of the time. The bombers came by night; and in the daytime, when the harassed city was catching it`s breath, reconnaissance planes would shoot over the Channel to gloat over the handiwork of the night before and to plot new terror for the night to come.
Nazi airmen seemed to press the attack on Plymouth with special venom. When they ran out of bombs, they threw from the planes whatever they could get their hands on - boxes, bottles, wrenches, pieces of pipe. They dropped spikes to puncture the tyres of ambulances, fire trucks, and other defence vehicles. They filled the sky with flares which turned night into day and exposed the city`s vitals to a relentless downpour of devastation.
The enemy played with the city like a cat with a mouse. Planes would cruise around for perhaps half an hour while the bombardiers got their bearings. Sometimes they would come so low that victims could hear the squeak of the bomb levers.
The attackers destroyed by zones, taking up one night where they had left off the night before.
Three thousand bombs bombs were dropped altogether.* Most of them were of the instantaneous or short delay type, but there was a generous sprinkling of delayed action bombs (D.A.)........
The city meanwhile was subjected to other assaults. Mines were dropped in the river and in the Sound. Enemy pilots would also strafe the town..........
....A body found in the wreckage of a hotel, after a lapse of two years, was identified as a sailor long believed to be a deserter. Survivors of Plymouth` s ordeal can tell you stories by the hour about their narrow escapes. Practically everybody has had some contact with bombs, and their experiences - some gruesome, some pathetic, some amusing - will be recounted by generations of Plymothians yet unborn. More than 4,500 houses were completely destroyed and an additional 2,000 were seriously damaged. Fifty thousand houses suffered minor damage. When this latter figure was given to me by a city official, I thought he had made a mistake and hastened to remind him that there were only 42,000 houses in Plymouth before the war. "Everybody challenges us on that one," he replied. "The explanation is that many houses were damaged more than once." Some people were in fact bombed out three times. Altogether, 30,000 people were deprived of shelter as a result of enemy action. Property damage is estimated at $100,000,000 about a third of the city's rateable value. 'The centre of Plymouth was completely destroyed. Every big store had gone. 'The main shopping streets were wiped out, the city centre demolished, the post office removed.. Some forty churches were put out of action along with a good share of the city`s schools, libraries, and theatres..............
.....the walls has been planted to grass and flowers, and a small sign informs you that "This is none other than the house of God " It is very quiet and very impressive and very sad. Yogge's Tower, which stands at the west end of the church, fortunately has been spared, along with its famous bells. The Guildhall is a total loss. The library has lost most of its books, but the museum and art gallery, which are also housed in the same building with it, are intact. The City Council, having nowhere else to go, now meets in the museum.
Sir Francis Drake, whose name is synonymous with the history of Plymouth, suffered along with the rest . A portion of Drake`s leat (water trench) - dug in the 16th century to bring water into Plymouth-was laid bare by a type by a type of war that Drake could not have possibly comprehended........
A stone figure of Drake which was dislodged from the Guildhall has been ignominiously consigned to a box. It was originally prepared for shipment to Chicago, but the people who wanted to display it apparently changed their minds. Anyone who would like to borrow a life-size statue of Sir Francis Drake can probably procure same by communicating with the Plymouth town clerk. The Drake portrait which for many years graced the Guildhall was saved through the intervention of an American correspondent, the late Ben Robertson, Jr. Ben urged that the painting be taken to a place of safety. It was, and consequently was not destroyed when the building burned.
One of the most surprising things about bombing is the capriciousness of blast. Plymouth abounds with examples of this sort. People will tell you of mirrors that were found, undamaged, in the rubble of houses; of attic furnishings discovered in the basement; of metal objects twisted and torn alongside some delicate ornament without a scratch. There were instances of people being stripped naked, and one man told me that he had seen coins which had been fused in the pocket of a victim. The power of blast is not diminished by the fact that it is capricious. That part of Plymouth which was not destroyed in the blitz was pretty well blown about.
A man came to Civil Defence headquarters one day to report that there was a strange lawnmower in his house. He later found a stepladder in an upstairs room. No owners were ever found for either the lawnmower or the ladder. Several cars were taken off the roofs of houses and in one instance a double-deck bus was deposited on top of a garage. Such is the fruit of man's dominion over the forces of Nature. People who had no reason for remaining were, as far as possible, induced to leave town. The population which had been 220,800 before the war, dropped to 110,000. It was back to 140,000 when I left. Remaining evacuees will probably have to stay where they are for a while because of the lack of housing.
The principal menace was fire. Had it not been for the heroic efforts of fire fighters, the entire city could easily have been destroyed. Firemen were handicapped by lack of water. Drake's leat was reconditioned so that, if all else failed, water could be brought in from Dartmoor. Stonehouse Creek was dammed and 10,000,000 gallons of water impounded. This water was then carried to tanks erected all over town through mains laid on the pavement. I mentioned to a fire fighter that the water in Stonehouse Creek is salt "An unimportant detail;" he said grimly. "All we asked was something that would go through a hose." He went on to describe the frantic search for liquids when the water supply gave out. Once, in a burning store, firemen opened cans and used everything that would go through a stirrup pump. They got along fine until they came to the disinfectant department and failed to notice, in the smoke and confusion, that each can bore a sign, "Keep away from open flame."
The shortage of water was not confined to that required for fighting fires. Water for drinking, cooking, and bathing was also a problem. When the mains were destroyed, water was taken around in carts. A mobile bath unit - complete with boiler - was supplied by a soap manufacturer. It served nobly for three years and is now being used on the Continent. Gas and electrical installations were hit repeatedly. The electricity was off only for a couple of days, but the city at one time was without gas for more than a month. Transportation, as may be imagined, was kept going only with the greatest difficulty. Delayed-action bombs were a special problem. A city official told me that he had himself seen two parties of men blown to pieces while working on DA's..............
..........A time bomb fell near the Eye Infirmary. Sometime later a policeman came by to see how the bomb-disposal boys were making out. He found three youths lying on the ground. They were watching a fourth youth who was down in the crater with his arms around the bomb, gently cuddling it out of its hole! He looked for all the world, said the policeman, like some young father dealing with a reluctant baby. Then there was the huge bomb - one of the largest dropped in Plymouth - which fell into the basement of a house. The occupants were away at the time. Repair squads inspected the place and found a hole down through the building as far as the ground floor, which was covered with debris. They repaired all the holes from the ground floor to the roof and went on their way. A few days later the tenants returned and, on going to the basement, found a cigar-shaped tube seven or eight feet long sticking out of the floor. Police wasted no time in clearing the district of its inhabitants. The bomb-disposal people came with a large vacuum cleaner, sucked the explosive out and all was well. The repair of houses was a prodigious undertaking.. As has been stated, there were 3 more repair jobs than houses because some buildings were hit more than once.
Rest centres were set up in various parts of the city. People opened their homes to one another. A billeting officer whom I tried to compliment didn` t seem to think his job called for any particular notice. " People under fire," he explained, "have an amazing capacity for being generous." The construction of shelters was handicapped by a lack of manpower and materials. An abandoned railway tunnel was converted into a shelter capable of accommodating 1,000 persons. It was half a mile long and was equipped with canteens, recreation rooms, and bunks. Communal feeding was used on a large scale. People who had difficulty in leaving a their homes were fed from mobile canteens. Army field kitchens were also brought in. Hospitals were hit, patients and nurses as killed. Commented a doctor ruefully: "Of that which was needed most, we had least."
An asylum was hit, and the authorities had to evacuate a hundred inmates in the middle of the night. The inmates were taken to a school and then sent to the country. How did they react? 'They were remarkably calm. We had much less trouble than we anticipated."
Despite the destruction of sanitary facilities and the shortage of doctors and nurses, there were no epidemics of any consequence during the siege of Plymouth. As has no doubt become obvious by now, the British genius for improvisation played a major role in the defence of Plymouth. People didn't worry about whether or not they had training for a particular job; they did the job first and worried about qualifications afterward. The man who took charge of the mortuary had formerly handled community entertainment. Similar incongruities ran through the entire defence organisation. Buildings were employed for purposes bearing no relationship whatever to those for which they were intended. The Corn Exchange was used for community feeding by day, as a dance hall in the evening. Dances were also held in schools and churches. St. John's Church in Devonport was used - is still being used, for that matter - as a community centre. The place where the altar was is now a stage. The pews have been re moved to make room for dancing and boxing matches.The space under the gallery contains recreation rooms and a seamen's hostel.
Schools have been used for many purposes as rest centres, community centres, storehouses, offices. The big stores, all of which were destroyed, are now spread throughout the residential areas of the city . When buildings were not available, the people carried on in the open. The City Fathers were hard put to find quarters for themselves. When the Guildhall went, they met in the square to decide what to do. Since there was little likelihood that they could all get space in one building, they decided to separate. It was "every man for himself." The medical officer found a house; the Lord Mayor (at that time Viscount Astor) and a number of other officials moved into the library. The "Lord Mayor's Parlour" consisted of a small wooden table, a typewriter, some pins, and a little stationery which had to be carried about in an attaché case, as there were no drawers in the table. Money, which began to pour in from all parts of the British Isles and from overseas, was kept in a child's toy box during the day; at night it was locked in the librarian's safe.
The town clerk established himself in the museum. His desk was on the lecture platform, from which vantage point he was able to superintend operations in the rest of the room. The principal difficulty with the arrangement was that the rest of the room was used as an information headquarters and was packed with people from morning till night. However, the clerk wasn't there very long. Within a fortnight he was bombed out of the museum and then he had to conduct his office from a building in the park. The Lord Mayor eventually graduated from the library to a house on the sea front. The ferocity of the German attack on the Plymouth area is indicated by the fact that three town halls were destroyed in a single night. I asked the town clerk if the records were lost. & "Yes," he said glumly, and then added without enthusiasm, "that is, everything was destroyed but the tax records."
The town.clerk also served as Civil Defence controller. In addition to being bombed out twice as town clerk, he was bombed out twice as defence controller. And moreover, by a weird coincidence, he was bombed out of both jobs in one night.
There was one good thing about the attack on Plymouth: it gave the people an opportunity to collect plenty of scrap. Everything which could be extracted from the wreckage was salvaged and stored for future use. Sixteen thousand tons of iron were recovered from ruined buildings. Hundreds of thousands of bricks were collected, along with vast quantities of lumber, pipe, sanitary fixtures, and the like. The accumulation of wood got so great that it became a fire hazard and several thousand tons had to be dumped into Stonehouse Creek. Even the nails from blitzed buildings were saved. Bells and images were rescued from blazing churches and put away. Plymouth also has on hand (thanks to the labours of her salvage corps) an enormous collection of doors, staircases, window frames, fireplaces, and other articles for use in her post-war building program.
Household effects were by far the largest item in the salvage program. Said Stanley Prince, who had charge of this phase of the battle: "You think it's quite a job to move one houseful of furniture. How would you like to handle the effects of 12,000 homes?" Prince wasn't joking. He and his men did just that.
They stored the stuff wherever they could find room - in schools, churches, sheds, halls, warehouses. When they ran out of space in town, they went out on the moor and commandeered a clay-drying shed.. Furniture was also stored - is still being stored, no doubt - in brick kilns. At one time there was such a stream of stuff pouring out of the city that the authorities had to build a trestle over a highway used by American troops in order not to interfere with military traffic.
The morale of the people was incredible. When I mentioned this to Lady Astor, who went to the House of Commons from Plymouth as the first woman member of Parliament and who represented this district for a quarter of a century, her eyes quickly filled with tears. " They were wonderful,"she said. "You never saw such courage,such patience,such good humour, in the face of almost insurmountable difficulties." At one time there were 300 bodies in the mortuary.. Many of the dead could be identified only through clothing or other articles.
A soldier lost his wife and five children when 70 persons were killed in a shelter. He identified each one as best he could - a two months old baby by the dummy teat still in its mouth. When the bodies had been identified the soldier saluted and said: ' I suppose we shall have to bury them. Then I'll go and do my job."
Mass funerals were held, and the dead were placed in communal graves. A hundred persons were buried at one time. Pastors of all denominations took part in the services to make sure that each victim was represented by a clergyman of his own faith.
The people carried on. Churchill, the fishmonger, lost his father at 2 a.m. At 9 a.m. he opened his shop, ran up a flag, and assured his customers, "We won't quit. Never. Never ! " Mrs. Rowland, another fish dealer, was blown into the back; of her tiny shop on Treville Street. A few hours later she was dispensing cockles. When neighbours remonstrated with her, she replied testily, "They 'ave to be served, don't they?" Mrs. Rowland is 75 years old. When I stopped to chat with her, her principal concern seemed to be the fact that she didn`t have any windows in the shop. "Just get me a bit o` glass," she importuned, "and I`ll be alright."..............
............Women of Plymouth stood shoulder to shoulder with their men throughout the onslaught. Women served as fire watchers; they drove ambulances - did nursing, ran canteens, conducted rest centres; they worked on anti-gas measures; they fought fires. They also did heavy work, such as moving furniture from bombed-out houses. They even tore down damaged buildings and cleaned up the sites. More than one Plymouth woman gave her life in line of duty.
Not all of Plymouth's raid experiences were sad. As may be expected, there were many amusing incidents. In Devonport an old lady who had been pressing the city engineer for bricks to build an air-raid shelter was buried in the ruins of her home. She was dug out seven hours later, black but uncowed. Surveying the bricks piled in heaps about her, she gloated, "Well, that blankety-blank engineer won't be able to say there are no bricks for a shelter now! " Another old lady, who had lost everything, refused to be downhearted. When friends tried to commiserate with her, she said: "Yes, I've lost my house; my furniture is gone; the only clothes I have are those I`m wearing. But I can do what no German dares do - I can say what I think."
An important factor in the preservation of morale was a special fund set up at the beginning of the war by the Lord Mayor for the benefit of service people and air-raid victims. One of the most spectacular results of the fund`s activities was open-air dancing on the Hoe, an imposing bluff which overlooks the harbour. Plymothians had danced on the Hoe during the Napoleonic Wars. The custom was revived during the grim days of the present war and did much to maintain the morale of the people. While the enemy boasted that Plymouth was through, as many as 6,000 people would gather on the Hoe to prove that music and laughter and rhythm are stronger than the threat of death. Religious services were also held on the Hoe, while military bands played in the parks. Plymouth`s fight aroused the admiration of the world and assistance poured in from every side Fire fighters rushed from other cities, strange policemen appeared in the streets, vans of food and clothing and medicine converged on the stricken city. The siege of Plymouth has now faded into the merciful past. The enemy came less and less frequently and finally skulked off for good Then, one day, a convoy of American trucks came in from the moor and headed for the water. Ramps had been built in the Tamar and on Mount Edgecumbe. A vast armada of landing craft had been assembled.. For months the boys had been running their boats up on - these ramps and perfecting the art of getting out of them in a hurry. There had also been extensive tank manoeuvres on the moor, while down the coast workmen had constructed a floating harbour about which there was much conjecture and no knowledge whatever.
The preliminaries were over; it was now time for the real thing. Men and equipment poured in for days. People stood on the hills and watched the convoys coming over the moor. They knew that this was no practice. They knew it by the volume of equipment, by the set faces of the men and by the fact that they were wearing Mae Wests. They knew it because the men had French money in their pockets. The men went aboard their landing boats on Wednesday. Saturday night they sailed out of the Sound. A strange tenseness made up at once of anticipation and hope. But not for long. In a little while they left again and this time they did not return...............
.......Plans for the "New Plymouth" The destruction of large sections of their city has given the people of Plymouth an opportunity for planning on a grand scale. J. Paton Watson, the city engineer and surveyor, and Prof. Sir Patrick Abercrombie, noted authority on city planning. have prepared a blueprint designed to make Plymouth one of the best laid out cities in Britain, if not in the world. The Plan (it requires no further identification in Plymouth) goes far beyond the usual job of patching and renovation. Fate has given Plymouth an opportunity to create something positive practical, and beautiful, and she is determined to take advantage of that opportunity. '- The new Plymouth,'' in the words of Lord Astor, "can he no 'half - and - half affair. It must be rebuilt as a unity on land acquired by the public for this purpose. If a Greater Plymouth is to rise from the embers, its physical reconstruction must be unhampered and complete.!'
The undertaking, of course, is beset by many difficulties. The cost may well prove to be prohibitive even though spread over many years and lightened by contributions from the National Government. The divergent interests of various groups, particularly shopkeepers, make agreement on specific details extremely difficult. Nevertheless, preliminary studies have been made and the City Council has moved to rebuild the city in a bold and comprehensive way. The most spectacular feature of the plan is a new Civic Centre. This is envisioned as a combined administrative-shopping-office-bank; amusement area, graced with modern buildings, suitably landscaped, and served by an adequate system of communications. It also includes a fine mall stretching from a combination railroad station and hotel to the Hoe. A proposal as daring as this could hardly be made - and it certainly could not be carried out - in normal times. Conditions in Plymouth, however, are far from normal. Of the 150 acres involved in the proposed Civic Centre, 100 acres have already been laid waste either by bombing or through neglect. This fortuitous juxtaposition of bombed areas and depressed areas has caused the Plymouth proposal to be called the "blitz and blight" plan.
Post-war housing is receiving a great deal of attention. Several thousand houses will have to be built merely to replace those destroyed during the war. In addition, it is estimated that half of the surviving houses will have to be replaced within the next quarter of a century. Even before the war, a survey revealed that 25 percent of the working-class families were living in overcrowded quarters. The authorities are groping for a style of architecture that will blend with the Elizabethan, Medieval and Renaissance buildings still standing.They have set themselves against "archaeological faking"; nevertheless, they do stress the necessity for a harmonious blending of the old with the new. Old Plymouth will be preserved as far as possible, as will those memorials which are worth saving. St. Andrew's Church will probably be restored. Charles Church, second oldest in the city, will be left as a "garden of memory," and an interdenomional memorial to the 40 churches that were destroyed will be created near by. City officials believe there is room for an entirely new type of house and they like to quote a passage from .Shaw's "Man and Superman": "The house he lives in has not altered as much in a thousand centuries as the fashion of a lady`s bonnet in a score of weeks." The housing program is a long-term proposition. Immediate need for shelter will be partially met by temporary structures.
The planners believe that Plymouth should be decentralised. They visualise a series of communities, each surrounded by a belt of green land, in place of the congested central city. Population is estimated at about 180,000 in 1960, compared to 220,800 pre-war. It is hoped to strengthen existing industries and perhaps attract new ones. The authorities also believe that the city's position as a port can be strengthened, that it can win a place in the air-transport field, that visitors can be attracted in larger numbers, and that the fishing industry can be expanded. The Plymouth Plan includes a radical revamping of the transportation system. ..............
photo of temporary shops - a dummy models furs next to vegetables
a sign tells shoppers were a bombed shop has been relocated to - this is Pophams
"Good - bye, Plymouth!" "Farewell, Yanks!" Plymouth based Americans cemented a friendship when the cleaned up debris after a raid. They were popular with the girls, but much less so with the young men. Lord Mayor H.G. Mason carries his seal of office from the chains. He went out of office on Nov.9 1945.
An Octogenarian wears the earrings of his youth: Robert Dick has always lived on the Barbican. He was photographed at Lady Astor`s home where she was handing out tobacco to deserving townspeople.
Blitz - proof tubs, saved by the thousands, stand ready to pour the new Plymouth`s baths. The city collected 16,000 tons of iron. Melted type woth $14,000 was salvaged from a print shop. U.S. Army trucks helped move furniture of the homeless.
In a clay quarry shed, the furniture of 800 bombed out families is dusted regularly.
* these are High Explosive (H.E.) bombs, also this figure is plus about 219,000 incendiary bombs
* all due acknowledgements
NB: owing to the state of my original it has not been possible to reproduce all illustrations or all of the text. The text as seen on this web page is in the order it was published but will have bits missing.
an unrelated photo, but of interest: The Home Guard march along Mutley Plain.
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