Hull: A Northern Coastal Town
As a key port within easy flying distance from occupied Europe, Hull was an obvious target for air raids.
The city was one of a small number to have been bombed in Zeppelin raids during the First World War, and citizens were expecting to be targeted again.
Over 6,000 local men and women joined in fire watches to help keep their city safe. They were kept very busy. Hull suffered more than 80 separate air raids during the course of the war.
The worst of these were in May and July 1941. Because of Hull’s strategic importance, press reports at the time often referred to it as ‘a Northern coastal town’ rather than use its name. So while Hull suffered, the rest of the country knew little about the level of destruction there.
The Hull Blitz
Hull suffered severe destruction through bombing. As many as 95% of its buildings were damaged or destroyed.
There were also some remarkable stories of survival. Overnight on Wednesday 7 and Thursday 8 May 1941, over 70 German planes dropped tonnes of high explosives and over 9,000 incendiary bombs on Hull.
120 planes returned on the night of Thursday 8 May when almost 20,000 incendiaries rained down on Hull. By the early hours of Friday morning fires were raging all over the city.
Saving Wilberforce House
When leading Fireman Wilfred Charles Clark arrived at the scene, he found "severe fires raging in five warehouses" on either side of the narrow High Street (TNA HO 250/43). In the middle, surrounded by burning buildings, stood Wilberforce House.
This 17th century town house was the birthplace of William Wilberforce, a leading figure in the fight to abolish the slave trade. The building was bought by Hull City Corporation in 1903 and had been a museum since 1906. Now it was completely encircled by flames.
One man, 30-year-old John Colletta, a local milkman volunteering with the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS), is credited with saving the building.
Colletta was sent to the High Street shortly after half past midnight with a heavy pump unit, but no water supply was available. He then took another hose and sprayed water over the walls of Wilberforce House to prevent them from catching fire.
Air Raid Precautions warden Eric Lockwood later said that he had "no doubt that Wilberforce House was saved as a result of" Colletta’s actions which showed "complete disregard for his own safety" (TNA HO 250/43/1671).
Colletta was awarded the George Medal for his bravery. After the war he donated the medal to Wilberforce House where it's still on display.
Hull Royal Infirmary
Hull Royal Infirmary on Prospect Street had been damaged in earlier raids. In the bombing of May 1941, it was hit again, but this time mainly by fire bombs.
Staff worked quickly to move patients to the lower floors, then turned their attention to the bombs. The 'Yorkshire Post' described a scene of chaos:
A continuous crash of bombs, the unceasing roar of the barrage and the loud smashing of glass. The noise was deafening.
Staff worked through the night with stirrup pumps and buckets to save the building from burning. Mr Bernard Sylvester, an official at the hospital, later praised the "splendid efforts" of the men and women involved, saying:
The bedraggled appearance of the staff after fighting the fires was some indication of the work they had done. They were covered with dust and grime, with wet towels covering their faces to save their eyes from the blinding smoke and choking fumes.
Hull Paragon Railway Station and the Station Hotel
Hull’s main railway station was heavily bombed during the night of 7 May 1941. A team from the AFS worked throughout the night to save the station and the adjacent Royal Station Hotel.
Launcelot Ballan, a superintendent with the London North Eastern Railway, came to the station at the height of the raid to see the damage for himself. He found the station roof on fire, with AFS and railway workers co-operating to stop the fire from spreading.
Walter Finlayson, an AFS Divisional Officer, described how "enemy aircraft appeared to be continually diving over" the station throughout the raid (TNA HO 250/43/1670).
Railway workers and the AFS carried on in these difficult conditions. Using water tanks near to the station they managed to put out a fire in the Third Class Buffet. Finlayson was "firmly convinced" that the station and the Royal Station Hotel would have perished had they given up.
Inspector Thomas Rumsey, an AFS Staff Officer, received the British Empire Medal for his work at the station that night. In his statement to the awarding committee, Rumsey praised his "excellent crew". "They all worked like Trojans," he said, and "it would be totally unfair to name any officer individually" (TNA HO 250/43/1670).
Counting the cost
More than 1,200 people were killed and 3,000 injured by the bombing in Hull. Over 152,000 people became homeless at some point. The raids destroyed 3 million square feet of factory space and 27 churches. From 92,000 houses in the city, fewer than 6,000 remained undamaged by the end of the war.