In what later became known as the Christmas Blitz, Manchester was raided by hundreds of bombers on the nights of December 22nd and 23rd, 1940.
Within minutes of the sirens sounding on the first night, Luftflotte 3 pathfinder unit KGr 100 was dropping nearly 10,000 incendiaries on and around Albert Square.
The 1kg incendiary bomb, the weapon that did most damage, weighed less than a bag of sugar. A Heinkel 111 bomber could carry 32 canisters, each containing 36 incendiaries capable of creating a ribbon of fire nearly a mile in length.
Less than two hours into the raid, part of the massive Victoria Building collapsed into Deansgate. Air Raid Precaution reinforcements from Salford were stopped dead when a stricken building at the corner of Bridge Street and Gartside Street fell into the road.
Fires rampaged through warehouses along Portland Street, Sackville Street and Watson Street and a stick of high explosive bombs ripped Gray Street, Stafford Street and Cooke Street apart.
There were lucky escapes. Around 450 people were trapped by debris in Gibson’s shelter in Erskine Street but thankfully all were saved.
Forty minutes after the last of Luftflotte 3’s 149 bombers had turned for home, the first of 121 aircraft of Luftflotte 2 began their bombing runs. In all, 272 tonnes of high explosive and 37,152 incendiaries were dropped.
The destruction was on an unprecedented scale, the likes of which Manchester had never experienced. Main roads into the city were impassable due to debris, craters, and unexploded bombs.
To make matters worse, many of the city’s firefighters and their equipment were still at Liverpool where they had been sent as reinforcements the previous evening.
As daylight broke, the fires at Manchester Exchange railway station were out of control. The station itself was severely damaged, and part of the main roof had collapsed.
All lines through the station were blocked. Limited operations were restored by New Year’s Day though only one platform in either direction was available for use.
The following evening, Luftflotte 3 paid a return visit. The attack was again led by pathfinder unit KGr100 who dropped more than 9,000 incendiaries in a little over 50 minutes.
At around 11.45pm, a stick of bombs landed close to Victoria railway station, destroying or extensively damaging all the buildings on platforms 14, 15, 16 and 17.
The Divisional Control Centre was also destroyed and the underground Emergency Control Office flooded out.
By 11.00am the next day, two lines were open through the station for goods trains only. It was not until April 12th 1941, that all platforms were reopened.
However, it was the 18 aircraft of 1/KG28 that packed the surprise punch. Each plane carried two LM1000 parachute mines, the Luftwaffe’s heaviest bombs.
Having a high explosive to weight ratio, the mines caused considerable damage in built-up areas. The skin of the 8ft 8inch (2.64metres) long device was too thin to allow it to free fall, hence the parachute.
On release from the bomber, the rear cone housing the parachute was pulled clear by a wire attached to the fuselage of the aircraft, thereby allowing the parachute to deploy.
The weapon was fitted with a clockwork fuse activated on impact and timed to detonate twenty-five seconds after arming.
Several of the mines dropped during the raid failed to detonate, including one that crashed through the roof of 32 Dulcie Street, Chorlton-cum-Medlock. It went right through every floor in the house, ending up in the cellar.
Other mines, however, did what they were intended to do. On 28 February 1998, the M.E.N. Family Memories’ page carried Irene Pope’s eyewitness account of a descending parachute mine.
‘We lived in Trafford Street, Salford, and our yard backed on to St Bartholomew’s School, and we had brick air raid shelters built round the outside toilets.
‘Suddenly this mine came floating over the school yard. It was losing height, but we realised it was heading for the houses next to ours which had attics, so were a storey higher.
‘Suddenly a gust of wind came. It seemed to twist the parachute and took the mine over our house, missing the next one literally by inches.
‘But the tragic result was that it lost height when it reached Ordsall Lane and landed on an ARP post, killing all the wardens, who were colleagues of my father. He himself was an air raid warden, but at the time was at another post.’
At about 3.00am on Christmas Eve, the fires were contained even if many were burning furiously. Additional firefighting reinforcements had arrived from Liverpool.
It was then that fate played its hand. A strong wind blew up carrying sparks and embers far and wide over the badly mauled Piccadilly area, reigniting some fires and starting fresh ones.
Soon a wall of fire, that had to be seen to be believed, extended from Moseley Street across the length of Piccadilly to Portland Street and beyond.
The fire brigade was forced to make on-the-spot decisions as which fires to fight and which to leave. Some decisions were made for them as collapsing buildings made roads impassable to fire appliances. The Royal Engineers had to be called in to blast fire breaks.
On December 21st 1940, the Metrovick factory at Trafford Park, Manchester, test assembled the first (R5768) of 100 Avro Manchester twin-engine heavy bombers scheduled to be built by the company.
As Trafford Park lacked a runway, aircraft were to be sent to the to the Avro plant at Woodford in sections for final assembly prior to delivery to the RAF.
Ironically, even before R5768 was put together, the decision had been taken to abandon the Manchester in favour of the four-engine Lancaster. Even more ironic is that, two nights later, R5768 and components for the next 12 Manchesters were destroyed in the Christmas Blitz.
The damage put aircraft production back by nearly six months, though by March 1942 the company had completed 43 Manchesters before switching to Lancasters.
Casualties for the two raids were officially put at 684 killed and 2,000 injured.
*Clive Hardy’s latest book, The Home Front – Britain 1939-45, published by iNostalgia Ltd, is now on the sale at the special pre-order price of £14.99 including UK postage and packing.
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