Birmingham: Industrial City
As an important industrial centre and Britain’s largest city outside of London, Birmingham was an obvious target for enemy air attacks.
Planes, tanks and army vehicles rolled off the production lines of the city’s factories during the war. Many smaller workshops were involved in making items such as ammunition cases and grenades, as well as stirrup pumps for defence on the Home Front.
The Birmingham Blitz
Between August 1940 and July 1942, Birmingham suffered a series of raids.
There was heavy bombing each month from August to December 1940, and further significant raids in March, April and May 1941. The last large raid on Birmingham was not until July 1942, making it one of the most heavily bombed cities outside of London.
With so many successive raids, buildings that were saved in one month could be destroyed the next. Despite this, the civilian population did what they could to keep their city functioning. There were many local acts of heroism.
Hospitals under threat
City hospitals were particularly vulnerable to air raids. On 23 November 1940, Sister A Galloway and Sister F Daniels had just finished their shift at the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital when bombs fell on the building, killing them instantly ('Birmingham Mail', 23 November 2015).
Other staff did what they could to stop fires from spreading. One incendiary bomb that landed close to the Nurses’ Home was extinguished by another nurse, Sister Hyden ('Birmingham Mail', 23 November 2015).
Civilian volunteers did their best to keep vulnerable hospitals safe, often at great personal risk.
During a fierce raid on 18 November 1940, the Queen’s Hospital was hit by incendiary bombs. Leslie Raymond Phillips, a 26-six-year-old assistant in the hospital’s bio-chemical laboratory, was dealing with an incendiary bomb in the hospital grounds when he saw another one hit the roof of the medical block.
Phillips climbed the roof with two firemen and then descended the sloping roof on his own. Using buckets of sand that were passed to him by the firemen, he put out the fire. He then used a stirrup pump to dampen down roof timbers to stop the fire from spreading.
Phillips received a civilian gallantry award on the recommendation of the hospital’s House Governor who commented that his action had "saved the hospital from very severe damage" (TNA HO 250/9/340).
Saving empty buildings took just as much courage. Alfred Jervis, a 17-year-old porter at the Heathfield Hotel, Moseley, saw a number of incendiary bombs drop onto the headquarters of the National Union of General and Municipal Workers in Forest Road.
Realising the danger to that and surrounding buildings, Jervis climbed a ladder, forced his way into the upstairs offices and put out the fires that were starting to burn all around.
Acting alone and with bombers continuing to attack the streets around him, Jervis then managed to stop fires in neighbouring buildings which all survived.
Birmingham Town Clerk recommended Jervis for a civilian gallantry award for his bravery.
A saucy tale evades the censors
At the height of the Blitz, press censorship made it difficult for those outside Birmingham to understand the scale of the damage that the city was suffering. Often newspaper reports would only mention a ‘West Midland City’, and not describe the impact on particular buildings.
Some details did get past the censors, however. On 23 November 1940, the Evening Despatch was able to give its readers news of an unexpected hero of the Birmingham Blitz.
A local restaurant in Birmingham (described as a ‘West Midland City’) had been hit by incendiary bombs. The licensee told reporters that:
[The bomb had] smashed through the roof, and dropping on a table, burnt its way through to cartons of sauce. When the cartons became alight the heat smashed the bottles and the flowing sauce put out the fire.
When larger public buildings were attacked, volunteer Air Raid Precautions wardens were often joined by workers who knew the layout and contents of the site.
Captain Charles Waterhouse, the Assistant Postmaster-General, came to Birmingham in November 1940 to see the damage of recent raids first hand. He was quick to pay tribute to the city’s Post Office workers. He told the Birmingham Mail that he had been "glad to find that the Post Office Home Guard, firewatchers and first-aid workers were not content merely to safeguard the Post Office personnel and property" but had worked hard to keep adjacent buildings safe.
One account of their activities told how during one raid, Post Office staff on the roof of the city’s Telephone House in Newhall Street could be seen kicking incendiary bombs off the roof as they landed.
Their actions kept Telephone House safe but were not appreciated by the owner of a nearby factory who wrote to the Post Office authorities to complain about the damage that deflected bombs were causing to his building (Staffordshire Home Guard website).
Employees managed to deflect incendiary bombs at the Town Hall and the Art Gallery in raids in October 1940. Sadly the Art Gallery and Museum were hit again the following month, when the damage was more severe. Most of the contents were saved, as staff had emptied the buildings some months before.
Counting the cost
Despite the best efforts of its population, Birmingham was seriously damaged by the Blitz. A total of 77 air raids destroyed many buildings and damaged thousands more.
Over 2,000 local inhabitants lost their lives and many more were injured. They are commemorated on the ‘Tree of Life’ memorial which was unveiled in Edgbaston Street in 2005, more than 60 years after the end of the raids.