by Ken Smith
Salisbury, in 1939, was not considered a highrisk target for air raids when war came. In fact, children from Portsmouth were evacuated there in large numbers.
The city had a limited amount of air raid protection and this ranged from slit trenches on the Greencroft, through street shelters in various locations, to the public toilets in the market place! Some city businesses equipped their basements as shelters but not all areas of the city had sufficient shelter. The Devizes Road area, in particular, was poorly served.
There were slit-trench shelters for the children of St. Edmund’s, St. Martin’s and South Wilts schools and this initiated a lively correspondence in the pages of the “Salisbury Journal” over whether or not members of the public would be allowed to use them in the case of an alert.
Evacuees were housed in the city and schools worked a half-day switchover rota as quoted in the Portsmouth Southern Secondary School for Girls 1940 school magazine: “…The main school session was held at the South Wilts school from 1.15 to 5 o’clock in the afternoon, our hostess school using its building for the morning session…….” This arrangement ensured that all the pupils received at least some education. However, letters to the Journal complained that some of the poorer evacuee children suffered from impetigo and scabies and, if this were not bad enough, “rude and insolent”.
The wartime rationing of food and fuel affected most areas of life whilst, as a distraction, nearly everyone continued to visit one of the city’s three cinemas at least once a week. There they could expect to see a main feature plus a supporting film as well as a Pathe news newsreel.
Salisbury’s first air-attack was on August 31st 1940 and was recorded in the Journal of 6th September. The attack was carried out by a German bomber, which dropped thirty to forty incendiary bombs over the city. These fell in a NE to SW line, from what are now the Arts Centre grounds, over a builder’s yard in Pennyfarthing Street, the Pheasant Inn, the Salisbury Times offices, the former bus station yard, Winchester Street, New Canal and the Cathedral Close. There was considerable damage to north range of the Pheasant and to the newspaper offices where a bomb burned through a typesetting table. A couple in a flat on Winchester Street had a lucky escaper when an incendiary bomb through their roof, landing on their bed – fortunately not at that time occupied! Thinking quickly, they bundled up the blazing bedding and threw it out into the street.
This first air raid was given star billing by the Journal with a number of photographs of the damage. There were accounts of heroic Salisburians dealing with the firebombs, including a schoolboy who smothered one with soil in the Arts Centre grounds.
Salisbury escaped further raids for almost two years until a daylight ‘hit and run’ attack on August 11th 1942. This happened on a sunny weekday and took the city completely by surprise. According to Amesbury History Centre President Norman Parker, two planes initially thought to be Harvard trainers were spotted over Longford Park. Spotters on the roof of the Dunn’s Seeds building (now James Hay) soon identified them as German Focke-Wulf fighters and raised the alarm. One aircraft flew up Castle Street, banked steeply over the railway bridge and attacked the gasworks with a bomb and cannon-fire, setting the two gasholders alight.
The other aircraft targeted the railway station, firing at the area around the Fisherton Street bridge and the station. It is likely that the raider also fired at a westbound train leaving the station. An eyewitness, Mrs. Maureen Winstanley, then a toddler, recalls her mother pulling her and her sister into a ditch that ran along Churchfields Road as bullets from the plane flew around. The pilot then dropped his bomb, probably aiming to hit either the engine sheds or turntable, which lay close to Cherry Orchard Lane. Fortunately the bomb, dropped so low, bounced along the train tracks, over the bridge and exploded in allotments where Syringa Court now stands. Although casualties amongst the vegetables were heavy, no people were injured. Evidence of the raid, apart from the bomb-crater, included stripped roofs, blown-in doors, windows, cracked walls and ceilings in Gorringe Road, Nursery Road and nearby streets. There were also holes in the roof of some of the Old Manor hospital buildings and cannon-shell cases littered the grounds.
Salisbury’s final air raid came just days later, on 14th August, when a lone bomber (thought to be a Junkers 88) swooped down from the clouds onto the city. It machine-gunned the city centre including, High Street, the Infirmary and the Marketplace. An eye witness remembered being pulled to the ground by a passerby as bullets struck the Marketplace. She also claimed that, for years after the war, bullet-holes were visible on the front of Lloyd’s bank. Flying on, the bomber then dropped a ‘stick’ of bombs on an area in the north of the city, probably intending to hit the railway line and tunnel. Luckily, for the transport infrastructure, the bombs missed their target but caused extensive damage to houses in Hamilton Road, Victoria Road, Devonshire Road and the top of Moberly Road. The bomber then flew back up into the clouds and escaped.
Number 35 Moberly Road was demolished by a direct hit; whilst next-door house, number 37, was so badly damaged, it had to be re-built. The resident of number 35 had a miraculous escape. She was blown into the road, minus her clothes, but unhurt, apart from cuts and bruises. Kindly neighbours rushed out to cover the dazed woman with a blanket. Not surprisingly, she had to be treated for shock as well as for her injuries. The 1936 O.S. map shows number 35 Moberly Road in a line with other houses in the road but in the 1953 map, the house has moved to the north. This is probably because the re-builders decided to build on solid ground rather than on the filled-in bombcrater.
Human casualties were mercifully only superficial injuries and shock. However, these raids caused considerable structural damage. Norman Parker summarises the damage as: 384 damaged roofs, 15 damaged external walls, 280 cracked/fallen plaster ceilings and walls, 204 internal sanitary fittings (sinks, toilets, etc.) and 568 glass windows. There would also have been dozens of smashed locks and hinges from blown-in doors. Some of this would have been combinations of damage to the same properties. The disruption and hardship caused must have been considerable with all the available builders, plasterers, plumbers, glaziers, etc. working flat out and all competing for scarce wartime supplies. Public morale in Salisbury must have been badly shaken at this time, especially as the last two raids were both unexpected (with no air raid warning) and the raiders escaped unscathed. It is possible that the anti-aircraft rocket batteries that were later set up below Old Sarum near Stratford Sub-Castle were deployed to counter public concern over the lack of aerial protection. There were some barrage balloons too, at least one moored in Salt Lane and another in the grounds of Highbury Avenue school. In contrast to the first air raid on the city, the Journal’s response to the later raids was more muted.
There were no photos and the attacks were described, in a single inside column, as ‘nuisance raids’. It is possible that, in the wartime atmosphere of censorship, the Ministry of Information had criticized the newspaper for its reporting of the first raid and cautioned it to be more circumspect in its future reporting in the interests of public morale. It is ironic, as well as most fortunate, that a city that produced around 10% of all Spitfire aircraft, should get off so lightly in terms of aerial attacks. It is perhaps a tribute to the effectiveness of wartime censorship and the public’s willingness to keep military secrets. Maybe all those warning posters about not gossiping, (“you never know who’s listening”) worked better than anyone could have hoped.
Original Article from the Fisherton Informer – Visit their facebook page here – https://www.facebook.com/groups/834343469966904