79 years on - have we forgotten the Plymouth Blitz?

American soldiers man an ack ack gun in Plymouth part of defence against air raids on the city and naval base WW2 1944

The Plymouth Blitz was a series of bombing raids carried out by the Nazi German Luftwaffe on the English city of Plymouth in the Second World War. The bombings launched on numerous British cities were known as the Blitz.

A sailor and his girlfriend walk through the ruins of Plymouth.

The Blitz on cities such as London and Coventry was directed at the destruction of civilian and industrial centres, but the Germans also sought to neutralise the Royal Navy by attacking its home bases. In the spring of 1941, the Luftwaffe turned its attention to attacking the Devonport dockyard at Plymouth. It was, however, the city itself which was hit.

The royal dockyards at HMNB Devonport were the main target in order to facilitate Nazi German efforts during the Battle of the Atlantic. Portsmouth, some 170 miles away in Hampshire, was also targeted by the Luftwaffe due to the presence of a royal dockyard there.

Despite this, civilian casualties were very high and the dockyards continued in operation. Plymouth had seen raids before. The first visit by the Luftwaffe was a daylight raid on 6 July 1940. At around midday a single aircraft, flying high, dropped its bombs on a block of eight houses at the Corporation Housing Estate in Swilly Road, Devonport. Three were killed.The next attack took place on the following day and further raids occurred throughout that summer and the autumn of 1940. In one instance on 11 September, a single bomb killed 13 people and injured 15 others, when it exploded at the junction of Chapel Street and Emma Place in the Stonehouse district of the city. A fortnight later, a heavy raid targeting Keynsham Dockyard and ships in Plymouth Sound, resulted in many houses being damaged in Goschen Street.The people of Plymouth became accustomed to the sound of the air raid sirens as winter came with repeated attacks in November and December. The New Year saw the Luftwaffe’s attacks increase in intensity and on the evening of 13 January, 151 people were killed or wounded. This was Plymouth’s 256th ‘alert’.

It was in March 1941, however, that Plymouth suffered its heaviest attack to date. The city’s shopping centre became the target of a mass raid which began at 20:30 on the 20th. The attack started with incendiaries followed by wave after wave of bombers dropping high explosives. It was easily the most terrifying raid that Plymouth had experienced to date.

Attacks continued as late as May 1944 with two minor air raids in that month. During the 59 bombing attacks, 1,172 civilians were killed and 4,448 injured.

This map shows the location of all the known bombs dropped over Plymouth.

The resident population fell from 220,000 at the outbreak of war to, at one point, only 127,000. In 1941 most of the children were evacuated and on any night that a raid was expected thousands of people were taken by lorry into the countryside, usually to the fringes of Dartmoor.

In March 1941, St Andrew's Parish Church was bombed and badly damaged. Amidst the smoking ruins a headmistress nailed over the door a wooden sign saying simply Resurgam (Latin for I shall rise again), indicating the wartime spirit, a gesture repeated at other devastated European churches. That entrance to St Andrew's is still referred to as the "Resurgam" door and a carved granite plaque is now permanently fixed there.

St. Andrew's Church, Plymouth, in March 1941.

Charles Church, destroyed by incendiaries on the nights of 20–21 March 1941, has been preserved in its ruined state as a memorial to civilian victims of the Blitz.

Charles Church, in Plymouth's City Centre, has not been reconstructed, and now serves as a war memorial.

On the evening of 22 April 1941 during an attack on the central area, the communal air-raid shelter at Portland Square took a direct hit which killed 76 people. Almost 70 years later, this was commemorated by the University of Plymouth, which named a new building on the site after the incident, and also commissioned a local artist to create a commemorative piece. Just three people in the shelter survived.

Two boys looking at the bomb damage at Turnchapel, Plymouth 1941.

During the Blitz the two main shopping centres and nearly every civic building were destroyed, along with 26 schools, eight cinemas and 41 churches. In total, 3,754 houses were destroyed with a further 18,398 seriously damaged.

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