The Bristol Blitz
Bristol had an important harbour and shipyards. The Bristol Aeroplane Company factory made Blenheim and Beaufort bombers, and the Beaufighter combat plane for the Royal Air Force. These made it an obvious target for air raids.
The city was bombed heavily between June 1940 and May 1944. The longest period of regular bombing, known as the ‘Bristol Blitz’ began in autumn 1940 and ended the following spring.
The first bombs of the Bristol Blitz fell at around 6 pm on Sunday 24 November 1940. A further six bombing raids took place until the last major attack in April 1941.
The first big raid
The raid of 24 November 1940 was particularly severe. A local journalist who saw it wrote a vivid account. Wartime censorship meant that this could only be published after the war.
The journalist described cycling down Park Street:
[The road was] covered with glass and stones and steel and hosepipes. … I carried my cycle down through an avenue of flame which seemed to be straining to join its hungry hands across the cringing thoroughfare. The heat was considerable and I veered from one side to the other, according to the intensity of the flanking fires. … When I got to the bottom of Park Street and looked back at this mighty torch flaming to the skies, I estimated that every third shop was ablaze.
Bristol had 85 firemen at the start of the war. By the time of the attacks the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) had expanded to 1,175 full-time officers and men, 40 women and 3,000 part-time workers. There was little they could do in the most intense attacks.
The raid of 24 November lasted over six hours. 148 bombers rained 1,540 tonnes of high explosives and over 12,000 incendiary bombs down on the city. Within an hour over 70 fires were raging. By 8 pm the city’s water mains had been hit and the AFS had to relay water from the river and harbour.
Many old buildings were severely damaged or completely destroyed including almshouses in Temple Street and North Street, St Nicholas Church and Clifton Parish Church, and the Dutch House - a multi-story timber-frame building dating from 1676.
Party dress heroine
Bristol citizens did what they could to save their buildings from the Blitz.
On 3 January 1941 Barbara Horn, a 12-year-old girl, was dressing for a New Year party when the air raid sirens rang out. Running downstairs in her party dress she found her way blocked by an incendiary bomb. The Sunday Mirror reported that Barbara held her dress tightly and "stamped on the bomb with her dance shoe and extinguished it."
Barbara went back to her bedroom to change into slacks and a jumper then went into the street where more incendiary bombs had fallen. She helped put out seven more of these before going on to her party. "It was grand fun" she later told reporters.
Boy Scout heroes
When war broke out the Bristol Boy Scouts’ Association offered its services to the local Air Raid Precautions.
Many young boys were recruited as messenger riders. They cycled around the city at the height of raids carrying essential messages. Because they were out in the bombing, they were often the first to see fires start.
During one raid, three Scouts saw an incendiary fall onto Broadmead Chapel. The boys tried to get into the building but the door was locked. Undaunted, they found an axe and smashed their way in. Although the bomb had set fire to the staircase, they were able to put it out and save the building.
Brave young clerks
Beverley Griffin, aged 18, and Michael Vicker, aged 16, were insurance clerks working for the Employers’ Liability Assurance Corporation in Clare Street in the centre of the city. The boys had studied together at Tewkesbury Grammar School and now shared lodgings in the Cotham Brow suburb.
On the night of 16 March 1941 another heavy raid was launched on Bristol. Although it wasn't their night for fire fighting, the boys left their lodgings for Clare Street to see if they could help. On the way they noticed an incendiary bomb hit the roof of a nearby building. The 'Gloucestershire Echo' told how Griffin "forced an entry, climbed the roof and dislodged the bomb and put out the fire."
The boys then carried on to their offices where they helped the Civil Defence workers on duty. At one point Vicker was trying to put out a fire on a roof and narrowly escaped injury when another bomb exploded showering him with glass and tiles.
At 6.30 am the boys returned to their lodgings to get ready for work. Both boys received a letter of thanks from the Lord Mayor for their "citizenship and duty in the service of others" (TNA HO 250/31/1251A, B and C).
On 11 April, during another heavy raid Griffin and Vicker returned to Clare Street and again helped to put out incendiary bombs. The boys were commended by the King.