Martin Johnes looks back at the heavy bombing of Swansea in 1941.
On the nights of 19, 20 and 21 February 1941, Swansea endured Wales’s heaviest bombing raid of the Second World War. Fires raged, lighting up the night sky for miles around. 41 acres of the town centre were reduced to rubble: 857 building were destroyed and more than 11,000 properties damaged. The Three Night Blitz was not on the scale of the worst attacks on London, Coventry or most German cities but that does not change the bare statistics that 230 people were killed and 397 injured.
Ahead of the 75th Anniversary of the blitz on Swansea, we’re publishing a two part take on the events on the 19th, 20th and 21st February 1941.
Today Historian Martin Johnes examines what happened on those tragic nights. Tomorrow we’ll publish a first hand account of the bombings.
It was not first the attack on Swansea. There had been a series of raids in the summer and autumn of 1940 that had frayed people’s nerves and generated both official and popular concerns that Swansea was under-protected. Some began moving out the town centre each night, sleeping in tents, huts and cars in Gower and other neighbouring areas. The intensity of raids increased in early 1941 and 58 people were killed in an attack on the town on 17 January 1941.
Thus when what is now often remembered as the Swansea blitz began on 19 February 1941, it was actually the culmination of a much longer series of events that had embattled the town and its population. People were already used to the terrors of being bombed and the damage, disruption and tiredness that it inflicted.
How people reacted to bombing was a recurring source of concern to the government. After the Three Night Blitz, the centre of Swansea was cordoned off and this perhaps helped shield people from the extent of damage, even if there were rumours that the town centre’s shelters were sealed up with bodies inside them.
An investigator who visited Swansea on 23 February 1941 thought that: “Morale was undoubtedly good. There was little rumour, practically no grumbling, and a considerable amount of joking. The talk about air raids was not obsessional. The attitude seemed to be that the thing had happened, and all that could be done was to make the best of it.”
But he also noted that people were shaken and there was an underlying tension. This was evident in the anger when the BBC reported that people in the town were still smiling, and even those who had lost friends and relatives were not “really depressed”. This made residents who were shaken feel they had fallen short of some ideal standard of behaviour.
Outside Swansea, a rumour circulated that the military had had to be called out to keep order. That was not true and that there was not a complete breakdown in public services owed much to the work of council employees and the fact that its offices had survived.
Nonetheless, transport and public services such as gas, electricity and water mains were all badly disrupted. Although provision was made for supplying water, replacing destroyed ration cards and offering compensation for lost goods and homes, there was some ignorance about what was being done and how to take advantage of it. There were also shortages of tinned food and other items that could be eaten without cooking. Tobacco was said to be almost unobtainable. Facing these immediate issues complicated the shock of the actual bombing.
There were reports that a few had begun to talk of the need for peace at any cost. More were carrying their gas masks around and the nightly evacuation out of the town centre seemed to increase. Some of this was people who had been bombed out but it was also, according to the councillor in charge of billeting in Mumbles, men and women from all sections of the community. Yet there was said to be great co-operation in the village, with churches, halls, cinemas and even private homes opened to help those leaving Swansea.
Others went further to stay with friends and relatives. One report into what had happened even claimed that the Welsh were showing a greater self-reliance those in many English towns. The Ministry of Information reported that “The appearance of Swansea refugees in the more remote parts of West Wales brought the real nature of the war home to the country people for the first time.”
Over the course of the war, 985 people were killed in bombing raids on Wales. Cardiff suffered 355 causalities but nowhere else in Wales has the Blitz the position it has in Swansea’s popular memory. The Luftwaffe’s bombs changed the face of Swansea, wiping out some of the landmarks and neighbourhoods that defined the town. As one old lady, who saved her shop by putting out seven incendiary bombs but then found that her neighbours and customers had been bombed out, said, “For me, Swansea is dead.”