IT WAS one of the darkest months in the history of Southampton.

Exactly seventy-five years ago this week Nazi bombers entered the skies over Hampshire to deliver a cargo that would bring death and destruction to the area.

• Southampton Blitz - in pictures >>

The night times raids on the 23rd and 30th of November brought to a culmination a period of torment at the hands of the Germans, who had been raining down high explosives and incendiaries onto Southampton for several weeks.

In late September, attacks on the Supermarine Spitfire factory in Woolston, St Barnabas Church in Lodge Road and several other airborne attacks targeting areas like the town’s High Street, Itchen and Woolston, which had claimed the lives of many of the town’s citizens.

More heavy casualties were recorded in early and mid-November 1940, which were much to the satisfaction of Hermann Goering. The commanderin- chief of the Luftwaffe had smugly stated that Southampton’s Civic Centre looked like a cake from the air – and he was going to “cut himself a slice”.

When his Luftwaffe duly dropped their payload on the centre’s Art Gallery and Art Block, classes were in progress.

Thirty-five people were killed, including 15 young students.

Daily Echo:

Then, the fateful last week in November arrived. It was to be the worst seven days in the history of the Southampton.

It started on the evening of November 23 with the first sustained air raid on the town. In a battering that lasted from 6.15 in the evening to nearly midnight, 77 people were killed and more than 300 injured. The fatalities included five fire-men caught by high explosives while still trying to cope with the thousands of incendiaries which had preceded the bombing.

Fires blazed across the city and the sky glowed red. The water mains were ruined which meant many fires had to be left to burn themselves out; the Civic Centre was smashed; hundreds of shops were flattened; and countless offices had simply disappeared.

But, seven days later, it was all tragically repeated again as the German bombers concentrated on finally knocking out the heart of the town.

The six-hour attack on the evening of November 30 killed 137 people as 120 aircraft sent 800 bombs raining down on Southampton. Ninety-six died as they cowered in shelters when bombs ripped through the roofs.

Some 1,169 homes were also destroyed and landmark premises like Pirelli’s, the Ordnance Survey Office, the Echo building and the General Motors factory were wrecked too.

Daily Echo:

Main churches like St Mary’s, St Luke’s, Holyrood, St James’s and All Saints were also destroyed. The fires that started on that awful Saturday night were still blazing out of control when the bombers returned on the Sunday night.

The Echo, headlined “Germans Savage Air Attack on Southampton”, reported how the most intense German airborne attack on Southampton to date had left the town a “charred and blackened” ruin.

Thousands of people were without homes and hundreds have been rendered unemployed as the business office district was again one of the main Nazi targets, but some areas in the suburbs were left in ruins. In one road not a single house managed to escape without some damage.

Seventy-five years on, these Echo reports still make profoundly uncomfortable reading. There are graphic stories of children being buried alive and several reports of whole families being lost.

Daily Echo:

Yet, unknown to the despairing citizens of Southampton at the time, the very worst of the Blitz was now over following that horrific last week of November. The subsequent six months brought sporadic attacks including at least two mounted on the same scale though neither was as effective. The rest involved single planes bombing the town at random.

On March 11 the following year what little remained of the main street, Above Bar, was destroyed. And during May 1941, families were buried alive in Albert Road when 12 bombs were dropped. Later that year the Luftwaffe also experimented with parachute mines and July saw two heavy raids.

After a third that month, the Nazi propaganda machine claimed that the town had been left a smoking ruin though all the bombs had landed in the suburbs – except one in Southampton Water. Over the next 12 months, the raids continued at intervals until the last big heavy raid involving 50 bombers in June 1942. That raid destroyed 160 homes and killed 36 people. Then nothing for two months when a single bomb fell; then another single bomb in June 1943; and finally the town suffered its last civilian casualties when a dozen Nazi bombers carried out a suburban raid in May 1944.

Apart from two flying bombs in mid- July, Southampton’s Blitz was over.

But the town, smashed beyond recognition, had paid a terrible price.

The day-to-day reports of the Southampton Blitz were later summarised to give the casualties as 631 dead, 898 seriously hurt and 979 injured. Public records revealed enemy aircraft had made a total of 57 devastating attacks on the city, though the sirens gave over 1,600 warnings of possible danger.

Daily Echo:

Records kept by the local Air Raid Precautions Department also estimated that the Luftwaffe dropped 475 tons of high explosive contained within 2,361 bombs, along with almost 31,000 incendiaries that fell from the skies too.

In four years of raids, 936 homes had been destroyed and 2,653 so badly damaged that they had to be demolished. A further 8,927 were seriously damaged and 32,000 were slightly damaged.

Yet the city slowly re-emerged from the debris. The editor of the Echo put it perfectly: “We shall build from new, not only our houses, shops and our public buildings but our social order.”

BLITZ factfile

AMONG the Southampton buildings damaged or destroyed in the Blitz were: 

  • Rank’s Flour Mills
  • Pirelli’s
  • Ordnance Survey Offices
  • Edwin Jones’ store
  • Gabriel Wade timber yard
  • General Motors, Western Docks
  • Daily Echo offices, Above Bar
  • St Mary’s, St Luke’s, Holyrood, Above Bar Congregational, Portland Street Baptist, St James, Bernard Street and All Saints Churches
  • Both old and new docks were also badly damaged by fire, and a great many shops, cinemas, business houses and homes.
  • About 30 roads were blocked to all traffic.
  • About 120 enemy planes were believed to have been used on November 30 and December 1, 1940.