Skip to content

Lest We Forget… The Clydebank Blitz

March 13, 2016

March 13-15, 1941

It is 9pm in Scotland as I write this. Seventy five years ago the air raid sirens were beginning to sound in Clydebank. Now, we’ve all become used to the succession of war anniversaries over the last couple of years. There have been 100th anniversaries from the First World War as well as 70th and 75th anniversaries from the Second. We have seen parades, solemn ceremonies, fields of tin poppies around the Tower of London, etc. I’m betting you won’t be seeing much about this one on BBC1 though. In fact, unless you come from the town, or have some connection to it you could be forgiven for never having heard of it. But there are good reasons why we should all be aware of it, why we should not forget.

For this reason I’ve decided to do something I’ve been thinking about doing since I started blogging, but haven’t found the occasion to do until now – a live blog. You can follow it as I write it. You see, when those sirens started to sound on the night of the 13th March, 1941 they heralded the start of nine hours of continuous bombing. The first of two such nights the town would endure. So I hit enter on the title at 9 o’clock, and it has been visible since then. Over the next nine hours I will keep vigil with those Bankies of 75 years ago, tell their story, and add to it a little story of my own that may shed some light on the events of those two awful nights.

By this time the first bombs had begun to fall. Now, this wasn’t any great surprise in itself. The war was in its second year, there had been other raids on Clydeside, and interminable false alarms. Clydebank contained numerous potential targets, significant to the war effort, but two in particular stood out – the shipyard, John Brown’s, whose workforce considered it the greatest in the world, and the Singer factory. Occupying the largest single factory site in the world, this massive industrial complex had been rapidly and efficiently converted to the production of munitions at the outset of war. By this time its workforce had expanded to a peak of 17,500. My paternal grandmother was one of them.

The town looked very different back then. If you are familiar with today’s layout, let me paint the picture for you. If you take a good look at Kilbowie Road, you’ll notice that part of the hill is artificial. Between the canal and the now anachronistic Singer Station, it’s a ramp. There is flat ground to either side. On the West there’s the business park, on the East is the shopping centre. It looked very different when I was growing up there in the late 60s and 70s. The factory was still there, albeit with a much-reduced workforce and without its iconic clock. My father even worked there for a few years in the late 70s. Where the shopping centre now stands, there was a very strange thing, to my young eyes anyway. There was a dead railway station.

That wasn’t strange in itself, there were quite a few in the town at that time, as Beeching had been through with his axe, but this one was odd. It was a terminus, an end-of-line station, and it was at least a dozen platforms. But that was it. The rails had been taken up, and there was no infrastructure, just overgrown, long-abandoned platforms. I was mystified by it. This is where my grandmother comes in. She told me that when she was working there, that’s how she used to arrive each day. She lived in Auchinairn, but in order for the workforce to be expanded at a time when many men were in the armed forces, women were recruited from across the Glasgow area to work there. Rather than accommodate them in the town, they moved them in and out by train daily, a massive logistical operation which required the construction of ‘Singer’s Lie,’ the ghost station I’d discovered. The trains brought them in every morning, waited there for them all day (hence the ‘Lie’ bit), and took them away again at night. No doubt saving many of their lives 75 years ago tonight.

I allowed myself a little break then, for some fish and chips. The sort of thing some people would have had the chance to grab before the sirens started to sound. When that happened many would go to their Anderson shelters. Quite a lot of people had them, but they were of dubious efficacy. They were quite good at absorbing, or rather deflecting, the energy of a shock wave from a nearby detonation, but offered no protection at all in case of a direct hit, so many also chose to remain in their homes. There were no deep shelters in Clydebank, no tube network or anything like that. They must have guessed that a raid was coming, as on previous nights German surveillance aircraft had been observed over the town. They could have had little idea, however, of the scale of the devastation that was about to be visited upon them.

There has, ever since I can remember, been a bit of a mystery surrounding the Clydebank Blitz. That’s the way we learned about it in school anyway, and that’s the way I heard it from some of those who had lived through it. I knew several octogenarians in my street and I was always keen to hear their stories. It was always presumed, you see, that the two main targets were the shipyard and the Singer factory. That would make sense. But although both were hit, as were other industrial targets further from the town centre, neither was badly affected. Both were reported as being back in full production the next day. Now that might have been a bit of propaganda, but if so it’s only a slight exaggeration. They were not substantially damaged. The town, however, was all but entirely destroyed. Of around 12,000 dwellings in the town, either seven or eight (depending who you talk to) remained undamaged after the two nights. Around 9,500 were destroyed or seriously damaged. Why?

There have been various suggested explanations for this (and I’ll be offering my own later). One is that they somehow mistook the Forth and Clyde Canal for the River Clyde, but this seems unlikely. The first aircraft over the town were from an elite, low-flying ‘Pathfinder’ squadron, which had flown all the way across Scotland, ignoring many other viable targets en route. Would they really make such a basic error? A fellow blogger, in ‘Strandsky Tales,’ has made a persuasive case that the true target was not the infrastructure at all, but the town’s highly skilled workforce. Clydebank was the industrial town par excellence, the first of the ‘New Towns’ (although it has since been written out of their history, and we’ll see why), it was built around the shipyard. Some of what are now its outer suburbs were villages, but the town which grew at their centre wasn’t there before the 1870s, when the J & G Thomson shipyard was set up there, taking advantage of a key piece of local geography. It was the place where a major tributary, the River Cart, joined the Clyde from the South. This was the highest place up the Clyde where you could launch really big ships, by using the mouth of the Cart to launch them into. They could then do a three point turn. From roughly where the main slipway used to be, it looks like this today:

Photo0113

I just wanted to put that in. You may recognise it from the image at the top of this blog, but that version is just a slice from the centre. It doesn’t quite have the atmosphere of the full picture. And it was one of my favourite places to go as a kid, when I wanted to be alone, when I wanted to think. Usually about whatever girl I was madly in love with at the time. The point is, most people don’t really think of Clydebank as a beautiful place. But it’s there, if you look for it. Anyway, due to this geographical feature, a town was born. At first the shipyard brought workers down river from Glasgow by paddle steamer, but they soon began to build the first dwellings in the town. Known as ‘Tamson’s Buildings,’ these tenements are gone now, along with most of the former main street, but their next two projects, a row of ‘cottages’ in Whitecrook Street and a row of terraced houses in Barns Street (one of which I grew up in) still survive. By 1880, the population was around 2,000. Then Singer arrived. They built a factory which was enormous, but also state of the art. They had the ability to carry out any industrial process. The factory had everything it needed on site, its own foundry producing iron and steel, its own power station and even its own gasworks. In the Blitz its massive lumber yard was hit, burning for days. But back in the 1880s it attracted even more people to the new town, which was granted its Burgh Charter in 1886. By the turn of the century its population was nearing 40,000. It became known as ‘the risingest burgh on the Clyde.’ The 30s hadn’t been easy, but even so the population was closer to 60,000 by that fateful night 75 years ago. At about this time, the bombing finally ceased, for the first night anyway, and the survivors were starting to emerge blinking into the early morning light to see what remained of their lives, and if maybe somewhere amongst the carnage there was a packet of cigarettes for sale. It’s time for me to do the same, and when I return I’ll tell you what they found.

images (25)

 

Clydebank-Blitz-street with tram

March 14th, 1941

The first night of bombing is over. Day is breaking. It’s a Friday. People are starting to emerge from bomb shelters and buildings. Emergency services are desperately trying to gain control of the situation and begin to dig people from the rubble, having experienced a night almost impossible to imagine. They had lost water, communications and of course lighting early in the raid, although this last became academic as the town began to burn. In addition to the high explosive bombs, ranging from 50kg devices up to ‘parachute mines’ of almost 1,000kg, 105,300 1kg incendiary devices (according to the Luftwaffe) were also dropped, causing devastation on a massive scale. The glow from the fires could be seen from as far away as Aberdeenshire and Northern Ireland. Firefighters reported it was brighter than daylight within the town.

images (23)

The number of casualties has never been universally accepted, and it was certainly not acknowledged in any detail at the time, but 48,000 people were declared homeless that night, although some estimates put the total closer to 60,000. The town was pretty much gone, its inhabitants made into refugees overnight. This was not your modern sort of war, with blanket media coverage. Information was strictly controlled. There were no newsreel cameras to record the devastation, and only a limited number of still photographs survive, mainly by amateur photographers. The shock and trauma is clear, however, in the faces of survivors as they wait, with whatever possessions they could salvage, to be evacuated during the day.

The-Clydebank-Blitz_Refugees

Some, in the eastern end of the town, were able to leave on trams which were still operational, but most had to wait for buses to be brought in, even as the dead were removed in lorries. There had been no attempt to evacuate anyone prior to the raid, nor to warn the population, although the reconnaissance missions on previous nights had indicated that an attack was coming. Nor did the evacuation of the 14th have the appearance of planning, as an unknown number of people were not able to be moved, and had to endure a second night of hell. At morning parades on military bases all over the UK, servicemen from Clydebank were ordered to fall out and report to their commanding officers, who informed them they were on compassionate leave, effective immediately, and that they should go home. There was no big story on the evening news however. The raid was acknowledged, but the scale of death and destruction was either played down, or simply not mentioned. Clydebank was referred to only as ‘a town in Western Scotland.’

So how can we imagine this? How can we describe and quantify what happened to Clydebank on the night of the 13/14th of March, the first night of the blitz? Was it the worst in the UK? The second worst? Well, let’s not compete with Coventry here, but to give you some idea of proportionality, let’s compare it to later RAF raids on Germany. It took the RAF a bit longer to get going, and in particular to get large numbers of Lancaster bombers operational. 236 bombers are thought to have participated in the first raid on Clydebank (population 60,000). That compares to about 764 in the biggest raid on Berlin (population 4 million) in 1943, 722 on the first night of the raids that destroyed Hamburg (population 2 million) and caused the first recognised man-made firestorm, also in 1943, and 1325 in two waves in what has been widely judged to be the most destructive raid of the war, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on the first night of the attack on Dresden (population 350,000, plus an unknown number of refugees) in 1945. Now the Lancaster had the largest bomb capacity of any WWII bomber, but even so it’s not hard to see that only Dresden comes close for intensity.

In accounts of the night an expression keeps cropping up – that in some areas ‘the oxygen was bombed out of the air.’ This is supported by reports that significant numbers of people, some in larger bomb shelters, actually died of suffocation. Now, I stand to be corrected by any specialists in the field, but my knowledge of science says that’s not actually a thing. Certainly, the gases produced by a large explosion could temporarily displace the air from the surrounding area, but not for long enough for people to suffocate. The pressure differentials caused by a firestorm could, however, produce the effect of sucking the air out of a confined space for long enough to kill. When you look at photographs of the ‘Holy City’ or Radnor Park, an entire densely packed suburb destroyed, burned to the ground, it is hard not to wonder if Clydebank did not experience the first artificial firestorms that night.

BlitzPhoneBox

Blitz2ndAve

These are views of Second Avenue, which despite its name is the first street of ascending rows of streets on the hill. Just about everything behind that is gone. This is a view from the other side of Kilbowie Road some time later, showing the surviving La Scala (later ABC) cinema standing alone in a debris field which once housed thousands of people:

clydebank_lascala_cm_t

This is an aerial view taken some twenty-plus years later, partly showing the terraces where the streets of the Holy City used to be. The area was not rebuilt until the late 60s.

60sTerraces

March 15th, 1941

The bombing is over. Those unable to escape the town the previous day have endured another night of terror, arguably made all the worse because this time they knew what was coming. In two nine hour raids on consecutive nights, 439 aircraft had dropped 503,000kg (half a kiloton, a greater yeild than many battlefield nuclear devices) of high explosives and 2412 containers of incendiary bombs (weighing between 70kg and 250kg), so roughly 150,000 devices. Only two planes were shot down, possibly by the crew of the Polish warship berthed at John Brown’s. The RAF failed to field any sort of meaningful defence. For a detailed discussion of the censorship and the reasons for it, see this article by John Macleod. This is a contemporary  map of Clydebank, overlaid with a map of the damage done, courtesy of Tom McKendrick:

bombmap

The red dots represent bombs, with the circles around them showing severe damage blast radius (although those of the largest, 1,000kg parachute mines have been drawn to half scale). This is a theoretical measure of course, as in practice some of the shock wave is absorbed by neighbouring buildings. The yellow dots represent incendiary damage. Not the 150,000 individual devices of course, no, each dot represents an entire building destroyed by them. The shading shows damage to buildings. Buildings are colour coded (for some reason known only to Tom) in a range from pink, totally destroyed – to black. minor damage.

The official death toll was 528, with around twice that number seriously wounded. Many through the years have expressed incredulity at such numbers, although it should be noted that there is another somewhat more extensive definition of ‘Clydebank’ which yields a figure of twice that. Even so, this sounds like an underestimate given the scale of the destruction and the lack of strong shelters. Due to the censorship at the time, and the chaos caused by the events of those two nights, we may never know the true figures.

March 16th, 1941

Now all that is left are the stories. And there were a lot of stories. I grew up on them, so let me add just a few of those which were shared with me. First there was my mother’s story. My parents weren’t from Clydebank, we actually moved in there when I was 1 year old, but my mother, who still lives there, would have been 6 at the time, and she recalls being taken by her parents (her mother, I must confess, had some pretty strange ideas about what constituted appropriate entertainment for a young child) on the tram from Finneston to see the ruins of Clydebank. She recalls being shocked to see the contents of people’s kitchens and their personal possessions scattered everywhere. Then there were my grandmother’s (the other one’s) stories of working at the Singer factory during the war. She had one more Clydebank story to add. In 1979, whilst cat-sitting at our house for a week, she walked down to Glasgow Road, where she was obliged to stop as one of the main tenement blocks there was being demolished. An elderly man was watching with tears in his eyes. Seeing her, someone of his own generation, he slowly shook his head and remarked, “Aye, Hitler couldn’y dae it, we hid tae dae it wirsel’s.”

Then there was the story of the old St James’s Kirk, also demolished in the late 70s, which was used as a temporary morgue during the blitz. It was said to be haunted in latter days. Now, you’ve no idea how difficult it is to find a picture of it today. I had to settle for this drawing, from earlier times. Next door to it, in the spot which is hidden in this view by the end of the row of houses known as Atlas Cottages, was a cinema. Well, in 1941 it was a cinema. When my friends and I used to play there it was a bomb site. Yes, even in the 70s, we grew up surrounded by many bomb sites. This one had not been cleared in any way, and we clambered over rubble, finding bits of rows of seats and other relics of its former purpose. Last time I visited, in 2014, the whole area was a grassy space surrounded by trees, as if the rubble of both the church and the cinema had simply been piled up towards the rear of the site, covered with earth and sown with grass. I wondered how many people who visit it today have any idea of what is buried beneath that mound.

StJamesKirk

Another story came from a friend’s father, when I was in my teens. He had been in the army, and was based at Aldershot when the news reached him, in the form of being told to fall out, and sent home on leave. He recalled the agonising wait of the journey, which took around 24 hours, taking all the slow trains going North. He arrived on the morning of the 15th, to find a scene of utter devastation. He told how he roamed the ruins for some time, unable to find his street, never mind his home. It was another returnee like him who famously, when told the death toll was around 500, responded incredulously, “Five hundred? In which street?”

However I left Clydebank when I was 18 and the stories stopped. Except for one more, and it’s that one I want to share you, because it explains a lot, and I may well be the only Bankie who knows it. Remember we talked of the mystery of the apparent failure of the Luftwaffe to seriously damage their two main targets? About ten or twelve years ago my friend and neighbour in Melbourne, who was born a Geordie, but came out to Australia as a young child, had a visit from his father. His father, in his late 80s by then, had spent his career as a whisky salesman and had been all over Scotland, so when I met him he asked where I was from. When I told him he looked slightly pale.
“Do you know it?” I asked.
“I served there during the war,” he told me.
He went on to explain that he hadn’t actually been based in Clydebank, but that Clydebank was the reason they were stationed where they were, in Renfrew, on a slight rise, just to the west of the ferry. Now at that time the Clydebank council used to put out a calender with pictures of old Clydebank, and my mum used to send them to me every year. I had about half a dozen of them in a drawer. I asked him to wait a moment and raced next door to find them. I found one shot that was pre-war and looking over Clydebank from approximately the place he described.

He explained that a lifetime ago he had in fact been Gunnery Sergeant Leo Birkett of the Royal Artillery, in charge in those days of an anti-aircraft unit tasked with defending John Brown’s yard and the Singer factory. He immediately recognised the view in my picture.
“Yes, that was my view, except maybe from a bit higher up,” he told me, “and that’s the Singer clock, isn’t it?”
When I confirmed this he told me that his first job each day was to sight the guns. This he did by taking a bearing from the Singer clock and going 15 degrees to the right of that.
“We only had primitive radar,” he explained, “We could see when something was coming our way, but not exactly what. Couldn’t pick out individual targets or anything, so we just put up a curtain of flak along that line, in front of the shipyard and the factory.”

As soon as I heard this, I realised I had just heard the final piece of the story of the blitz, one I’d never heard anywhere else before. The answer to the great unanswered question of that whole tragic affair – how was it that the Luftwaffe pilots had managed to leave the two biggest industrial targets relatively unscathed, but reduce the town to a smoking ruin? Because when you think about it, what he told me reveals that the tactics employed in defending those targets made the destruction of the town all but inevitable. Those pilots tasked with bombing the yard and factory would have been faced with a choice. Either fly through a potentially deadly ack ack curtain, or drop your bombs early and go home. Or possibly fly around the curtain and bomb other targets in Dalmuir and Dalnotter, which were seriously damaged. I’m not sure how else they could have done it, because moving the curtain further east wouldn’t have helped. There would still have been people in front of it pretty much all the way back to the Firth of Forth. But given that they did do it the way they did, what other outcome could there possibly have been?

So in conclusion, make no mistake, what was perpetrated against the people of Clydebank between the 13th and the 15th of March, 1941 was a war crime. It was terrorism, in that term’s original sense. But what was done afterwards, or rather what wasn’t done, by successive Westminster governments, was arguably a greater crime. Why was it that as a boy, over thirty years later, I was still playing in bomb sites? Clydebank was never rebuilt. Sure, bits were patched up, in piecemeal fashion, but the job was never done properly. Some places, like the cinema next to the church, despite its proximity to the old centre of town, have remained vacant ever since. No co-ordinated redevelopment effort was ever made. Clydebank was simply left to its own devices. Left to rot. Forgotten. The coup de grace was delivered in the late 70s and 80s, when the town finally lost the last of its industries. Even Singer and the shipyard are gone now. The population today is little more than half of what it was on the 13th of March, 1941. Which, you might think, makes the biblical quotation on this extremely belated memorial plaque into something of a sick joke:

BlitzPlaque

Advertisements
5 Comments
  1. Political Tourist permalink

    I’ve heard the bombers took off from bases in Norway.
    Your Granny was from Auchenairn, a bomb landed on a school in Bishopbriggs being used as a shelter killing a whole group in there.
    The bombers hit plenty of other places like Maryhill, Gorbals, Bridgeton, Hyndland and Paisley and the city centre.
    A bomb site i remember was still there in the 1960s facing the monument with the traffic cone on his head in Queen St.
    My father, home on leave was walking along Cook St the morning after the first raid.
    There’s a strange story of the German Consul office in Bath St, the Swiss had the keys, was damaged and the Swiss claimed bomb damage money to fix it up.
    Glasgow streets were full of dead dogs and cats killed by the shock waves or maybe heart attacks.
    A landline hit a stationary tram, the people (dead) were still sitting upright.
    The idea that everybody ran to shelters is from the movies.
    Most folks just stayed in their beds.
    A shelter would save you if it took a direct hit.

    • I’m guessing that was a typo in the last line? That a shelter would save you if it took a direct hit? Although I suppose that would depend on the shelter. If you were near one of the deep tube lines in London, like the Northern Line, you could probably ride out a nuke. But the Anderson shelters many people had in Clydebank were basically just a curved sheet of corrugated iron, which you then piled earth over. You can see how they would have been pretty good at deflecting a shock wave, even from a nearby blast, but in case of a direct hit, well, you probably would be better off in your bed. Several of these shelters did suffer direct hits in Clydebank, with no survivors.

  2. Political Tourist permalink

    Sorry B, typo.
    There must some of those back garden shelters still around.
    Btw, great article.

    • Thanks very much. Yes, I reckon there would still be quite a few of the Anderson shelters around. A lot of them got turned into tool sheds, or coal bunkers after the war.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Lest We Forget… The Clydebank Blitz – Ungagged!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: