Heritage: Grandma's diary led to host of discoveries about Blitz
First permanent exhibition about Sheffield's worst wartime bombing raids is part of a project to pay tribute to city's spirit of defiance in face of attack
I often wonder what my grandmother would think of her inadvertent legacy.
She wasn’t one to dwell on the past so it came as quite a surprise to unearth a lengthy memoir tucked away in a drawer after her death in 2009.
The one thing it did dwell on was life in the city in World War Two and the Sheffield Blitz in 1940 – it was those memories that set off an amazing chain of events that culminated in the opening of a new exhibition in Sheffield a few days ago.
The Sheffield Blitz didn’t appear to have bothered her too much – it was having to spend hours at a time with the neighbours in the communal air raid shelter on Coningsby Road in Fir Vale that really wound her up.
That and the interruption of nights out at her beloved Sunbeam Cinema nearby – air raid warnings were regularly causing her to miss the second half of her favourite films (not to mention the money it was costing her).
Like the rest of Sheffield, she got quite blasé about the sirens as the actual attacks never seemed to come – until the night of December 12, 1940, that is.
Until I started researching the bombings I’d no idea of the extend of the death and destruction – nearly a tenth of the city’s population made homeless, over 2,000 killed or wounded, hardly a suburb left unscathed.
Everything I’d ever read about the attacks pointed to Hitler wanting to wipe out the city’s East End, which was the hub of armaments production.
But if that was the case, why on earth were suburbs like Dore, Totley, Millhouses and Gleadless targets of the Luftwaffe?
When I was researching my book, Sheffield’s Date With Hitler, I found some German bombing maps of Sheffield.
Although the factories were down as targets, they were marked as secondary targets.
Primary targets appeared to be hospitals, schools, railways and more – it led me to suggest the Sheffield Blitz was far more of a terror raid that was designed to bomb the population into submission.
Two nights of blanket bombing later and the opposite happened – Sheffielders became more defiant than ever.
In fact, their stoical nature was held up as an example to the whole country by Prime Minister Winson Churchill.
Interest in my book truly took me by surprise – the BBC ended up turning it into a documentary, Sheffield – The Forgotten Blitz.
Their title was the final nudge I needed to persuade me that there should be more in Sheffield to mark the attacks that had changed the face of the city – there seemed to be virtually nothing.
I’m indebted to Richard Godley and Bill Bevan who helped secure £81,000 of Heritage Lottery Funding in 2015.
I was truly humbled to help unveil the first permanent exhibition to the Sheffield Blitz which now sits inside the city’s National Emergency Services Museum at West Bar. It is the first true legacy of our Sheffield Blitz 75th project.
The new exhibition contains scores of rare and original Blitz-related objects and photos, Second World War emergency vehicles, oral history recordings from survivors, film footage, as well as the fire brigade’s original map of bomb sites across the city.
The centrepiece is the last surviving fire engine that was on duty on both nights of the Sheffield Blitz.
The Leyland vehicle was rushed into the city from Barnsley on December 12, 1940.
Hundreds of firefighters battled to save the burning city over two nights of intense German bombing.
The engine became a permanent fixture of Sheffield Fire Brigade until it was retired in the 1950s.
The exhibiton is set to be followed by a new book, the Sheffield Blitz Memorial Trail and more in the coming months.
More information on Sheffield Blitz 75th from sheffieldblitz.wordpress.com or follow @SheffieldBlitz75th on Twitter.
More on the National Emergency Services Museum from Emergency Museum
Neil’s book, Sheffield’s Date With Hitler, is available from ACM Retro