Stephen was born in York in 1929 and was 13 years old at the time of the air raid on York in April 1942. Also included on this site are Stephen’s memories of living in York through the war, in a walk through wartime York.
“The night of 29th April 1942 is very vivid in my mind. My brother was home on leave from the 7th Armoured Division in North Africa (a ‘Desert Rat’, and might I add, my special hero). The sirens had sounded too late, we had already heard the bombs tumbling down, my Mam had up-ended the sofa against the strongest wall, and my two sisters and Mam were under it, leaving no room for the males of the house to join in. My Stepdad disappeared into the street where there was a brick shelter built for just such an occasion. My bro’ donned his uniform, tin hat and rifle, I likewise got dressed, donned my spotters helmet (rather like the ones the Velodrome racing cyclists wear) and despite my Mam’s protests took off to get involved.
He accompanied me to Haxby Rd school, which was supposed to be my Messenger Centre, and left to carry on into town. There was not a soul at the school, so I went into the Vicarage opposite, where the vicar and helpers were getting the scout hut in the grounds ready as a temporary dresssing station. He said that all the people on emergency duty were at Rowntrees Dining Hall (the usual training place) so I joined them there.
Up until then there were no signs of the planes having a go at Rowntrees, which would have been a worthwhile target, with its manufacture of munitions etc, so the head warden decided we should be best used on ‘fire watch’ looking for incendiaries landing on the factory. So up the steel staircase we went, between the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, and the Lecture Hall, onto the roof of the dining block, where we got a superb view of the awful things being done to our city.
The bombers didn’t just fly over the city, drop their loads and turn and go home, as most people think it is done. They cruised backwards and forwards, weaved side to side, looking for good places to be nasty at! The sounds they made were awe-inspiring, engines throbbing in an out of sync way. Their gunners must have been bored by having no fighters to wrestle with, so practised their deadly skills on roof tops, and any thing they could see moving, and the guns were the efficient German type, more bullets per minute than any one else could throw, a distinctive fast burring noise, and of course dropping the presents they had come to give!
The guns on the Knavesmire were doing their stuff, adding to the cacophony, without being particularly effective, and we were just as much a ‘sitting duck’ as the Spanish had been in their air bombardments. Strangely enough, probably because of my youth, it was more exhilarating than frightening, the fear only came at a later date as a reaction.
I don’t remember seeing a single incendiary or explosive falling on Rowntrees, they must have deliberately avoided it (as they did the Minster) in order to maintain sweet production when they had beaten us! They can’t have had the right information on munition production, that’s for sure.
So after several hours of mayhem, they and I departed, all of us to cold shivery beds, and the knowledge of just what devilment folks can do to each other resounding in our heads.
I got up the usual time, to get on with my normal chores, lighting the fire, getting coal in, making toast, waking up the family, then off to catch the bus, which turned out to be non-existent. There was so much debris, hose pipes, burning gas mains, and general anarchy, that all normality had gone. So I trudged into town, Coney St was an utter mess, Smiths paper shop inaccessible, so no paper delivery that day, and Oh Boy! School closed. It took all that for it to dawn on me what devastation had been caused by that one night’s air raid.”
Photos: details from the stained glass window by Harry Stammers, at St Martin’s church, Coney St, depicting the church burning during the air raid on the city.