EVEN though Britain was at war, the days leading up to Christmas should have been a time of excitement for the people of Manchester.
Instead, people were left homeless, children orphaned and buildings destroyed because of the bombing blitz that took place between the 22nd and 24th December 1940.
An unforgettable Christmas for one little girl
Eight-year-old Audrey Potter from Burnage never forgot the Manchester Christmas blitz. Audrey herself passed away in October 2014, but told her story to the Imperial War Museum North.
Clare Lawlor from the museum explains: “Her father John was taking her to the air raid shelter when a bomb dropped on a neighbour’s house.
“The blast killed her mother, sister and brother and only Audrey and her father survived.”
But not only were Audrey’s family killed and her house destroyed but many Christmas presents that the family were to share were destroyed as well.
An act of kindness from one person would have had a lasting impact on the young girl.
On Christmas Day, 1940, a neighbour gave a doll to Audrey as a Christmas present and Audrey kept that on her bedside table for nearly 70 years after the blitz.
Clare says: “The fact that Audrey kept that doll by her side for all those years shows how devastating the blitz was. Not only on her life but many other people in Manchester as well.”
That first raid on the 22nd December lasted for 12 straight hours.
It’s estimated that around 272 tonnes of explosives were dropped on Manchester alone and over 650 people were killed during these raids and thousands of homes were destroyed.
“The blitz really brought the war to the doorsteps of the people of Britain,” Clare says. “Homes were destroyed and also, particularly occurring at Christmas time, morale was incredibly low.”
Building a city back up
There were around 400 sites alight over the two nights in December that year. There are reports that you could see Manchester alight from 200 miles away, the fires were that huge.
Many iconic buildings were destroyed during the events of the blitz. The Royal exchange where lots of trade was done is now a theatre and the Free Trade Hall is now a luxury hotel.
Manchester Cathedral was one building which was hit badly when a landmine landed at the east side of the church destroying the Ely Chapel and most of the Regiment Chapel sections.
“After the devastation people really did question whether or not the cathedral could survive it or whether or not it could be rebuilt,” says Dympna Gould, Visitor Services Manager at the Cathedral.
“The Dean of the day,” she continues, “actually said in an editorial which went out to the people of Manchester, ‘you have to tell me that you want your old church back’ and thankfully the response was yes.”
With this a £100,000 appeal was set up. Some may recall the poster that accompanied the call for this appeal.
Sir Humphrey Cheetham, who founded Cheetham’s library in Manchester and is the oldest free public library in the world is had a statue dedicated to him in the cathedral.
During the war he became the ‘poster boy’ because after the Christmas Blitz the whole of the building was demolished behind him and the image that the public saw in the press of the day was of Humphrey resilient and proud.
The bombing only managed to take a chip out of Sir Humphrey’s knee, and the foot of the little boy at his feet.
The cathedral took a total of 18 years to be fully restored after the explosion. Many people contributed to this restoration including James Brown and the Browns of Wilmslow workers.
Also Sir Hubert Worthington had a personal interest in the rebuild. He had fought in the First World War and lost his best friend at the Battle of the Somme.
Dypmna says of Worthington: “This was probably the pinnacle of his life’s work to restore this church.”
Much of the rebuilding of Manchester went on well into the 1960s.
The importance of volunteers
Volunteers played a vital role in the Manchester Christmas blitz. Air Raid Precaution (ARP) wardens were responsible for first aid – treating wounds and injuries. Ordinary people also joined the Auxiliary Fire Service to assist the National Fire Service.
But volunteers were also ‘fire watchers’ so they would have been stationed on major building rooftops and would have been responsible for spotting incoming air raids.
Clare says: “In some cases fire watchers could be a young as 15 years old. They were incredibly brave people. These were normal everyday citizens doing these incredibly brave roles. Volunteers were paramount to Britain’s safety during the Christmas blitz.”
Manchester Cathedral’s Dympna Gould concurs: “Thousands were made homeless and 684 lost their lives in this city. People from the local co-operative made hotpots and stews and apple and mince pies, even puddings, to take to the people who were living in the shelters.”
All of the windows in the church were blown out during the blitz. One particular restored window in the Regiment’s Chapel is now named the ‘fire window’ and was installed on the 1st July in 1966 – fifty years after the Battle of the Somme. But it was also to remember those from the Christmas blitz.
“It was to commemorate the fantastic work done by the fire service including volunteers over that period, and throughout the war,” says Dypmna. “Many firemen lost their lives and there was a huge amount of courage and bravery shown in tackling the blitz.”
Even though there were many casualties during this time, without that courage and bravery of people coming together and re-building the city again, Manchester could be a very different place today.
Here’s to remembering all the people who lost their lives and helped those in need during that difficult time in December, 1940.
Here is a look back at some of the buildings and stories about the events from the Christmas Blitz:
By Siobhan Maguire