Decoding Hitler's targets: Sheffield Blitz book uncovers hidden World War Two story - Dirty Stop Outs

Decoding Hitler's targets: Sheffield Blitz book uncovers hidden World War Two story

Thursday, December 12th, 1940, was lined up to be the night when thoughts of war were replaced by festive frivolity in the northern city of Sheffield.

‘To hell with Hitler’ was the rallying cry as tens of thousands of citizens poured into the city centre.

Entertainment opportunities were plentiful. Bernard Taylor & his band were providing the swing sounds at the City Hall ballroom; Laurel & Hardy’s ‘Saps at Sea’ film was being screened at one of the scores of cinemas and a big treat was lined for many kids as families made their way to the Central Picture House on The Moor to watch ‘Bluebird’ – the Shirley Temple film aimed at knocking ‘Wizard of Oz’ off the top spot.

The bars and theatres were packed to the rafters. If it hadn’t been for the air raid sirens going off at 7pm you’d have hardly known Britain was poised for invasion by the Nazis with the German war machine appearing virtually unstoppable.

But even then no one really batted an eyelid. False alarms had been a weekly occurrence since the very first one – the sirens rang out the day war was declared over a year earlier. The next sound hadn’t been a weekly occurrence.

As Sheffield’s anti aircraft artillery battery sprang into life and cinema managers rushed onto stages urging people to find public shelters, the drone of enemy planes could be heard overhead. The city’s day of reckoning had finally come.

Nine hours of intense bombing ensued. It started with thousands of incendiary bombs being dropped indiscriminately across the city – by 7.30pm suburbs like Woodseats, Intake and Gleadless were already well ablaze.

Great swathes of the city centre were flattened in the ensuing hours. The Moor – one of the area’s main retail thoroughfares– was turned into a blazing inferno of collapsing buildings, burnt out trams and petrified families running for their lives.

The Sheffield Blitz killed and wounded over 2,000 people and made nearly a tenth of the city homeless. The all-clear finally rang out at 4.17am the following morning.

The biggest single loss of life took place at the Marples Hotel in Fitzalan Square. It took a direct hit at 11.44pm. Scores of people were sheltering in the cellars. But the ceilings couldn’t take the weight of the collapsing building and scores perished. Bodies are still buried under Fitzalan Square to this day.

Doug Lightning was one of hundreds of firefighters battling to contain the raging infernos across the city. Decades on, the shock, horror, and disbelief he experienced remain vivid. The horrific sights he saw are still as real as ever. Driven by pure adrenaline he somehow kept going - his hands cut to ribbons by broken glass.

His lasting memory was, “We struggled to put one fire out - we were fighting a losing battle saving the city”. It took the city years to rebuild.

Many of Sheffield’s great department stores were gone in the blink of an eye – Atkinsons, Walsh’s, Cockaynes, Redgates and more. It wasn’t until 1960 until a new Atkinsons store was finally re-opened.

There’s little doubt Sheffield Blitz had a profound affect on the city and its people. Lives were shattered and the face of the city changed forever.

My year-long research project into the German bombing for research into my ‘Sheffield’s Date With Hitler’ book challenged long-held beliefs about the reason for the raids.

The book reveals new insights and evidence about the Sheffield Blitz that re-writes decades-held assumptions. I spent months delving into an extensive array of historical documents, survivor accounts, and previous analyses to construct a comprehensive account of the events leading up to, during, and following the fateful nights of the raids on December 12th and 15th, 1940.

The primary motivation for the Luftwaffe's Operation Crucible has traditionally been understood as an attempt to cripple Sheffield's armament production capabilities located in the city's East End.

However my findings introduce a significant twist to the narrative. I was always baffled by the pattern of bombing and the fact it hit suburbs like Totley, Dore and Millhouses – miles away from the East End.

There was hardly a Sheffield suburb that wasn’t hit and there was widespread damage to schools, hospitals and railways. Though the second night of bombing did hit more of the armament factories it was with nothing like the ferocity that was expected and production was only briefly curtailed at a few places.

My breakthrough came with the discovery of World War Two German bombing maps specifically detailing Sheffield. These maps, which were thought to have been smuggled out of Germany following allied victory in Europe, clearly designate schools, hospitals, railways, and urban centres as the primary targets.

The armament factories are clearly marked but they’re only down as secondary targets. These maps make more sense of the pattern of the raids and suggest the Luftwaffe were fixated on a terror raid – designed to terrorise the Sheffield population into submission.

My Sheffield blitz book has to thank the scores of people that were interviewed. 'Sheffield's Date With Hitler' contains scores of Sheffield Blitz facts; Sheffield Blitz map; Sheffield Blitz photos (many published for the first time); details of the Sheffield Blitz mass grave; full details of the Sheffield Blitz Marples Hotel tragedy and more.

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