The Forgotten Blitz

Friday, 29 July 1881 - Birmingham, England

Last Tuesday I had tweeted about the marvelous New Street Railway Station here in Birmingham with it’s huge glass and iron roof. It will be destroyed in the Birmingham Blitz of World War II and will have to be demolished. It will be replaced in the 1960s by a cramped and poorly thought out station. One of my followers @wildfeather began tweeting me the following story that was too much to retweet and which I felt compelled to share:

I was just thinking, how sad that they knocked down the Victorian terminal. I forgot about the Blitz. Birmingham was bombed even more than London, because it was the heart of the manufacturing industry, and the war effort. But the press (and people) were forbidden to talk about it as they didn't want the Nazis to know the bomb raids had any success. It's only in the 21st century that the data's been declassified and we're finally finding out how severe the blitz actually was.

I was raised in a city with barely any historic buildings. We were always told to blame the 60s planners who didn’t care for age. Now we're discovering it was the Nazis that did it! Every old building here is precious. The poor planners worked to preserve as many facades as possible even if they were gutted. And all that time the next generation were blaming them, and they had to keep quiet about it.

I'm not an expert on the period. I don't know if everything I've been told is entirely accurate, but these are the stories the locals share with each other. We have a booklet written by the city Education Department. Carl Chinn, the world expert on Birmingham history, was involved in writing the booklet.

I know the only thing the papers were permitted to say about Birmingham bombings was "a town in the midlands" not where. And we're only just discovering now what really happened, so what planners/council/bomb victims concealed or did postwar is hazy. If I recall correctly, Birmingham was the very first place bombed. The official story was always that the Allies bombed Germany first. But now it seems it was in retaliation for a raid on B'ham. And the government kept it quiet because they didn't want to let the Germans get a propaganda victory so early.

The Security D Notice which forbade mention of the Birmingham raids was lifted on every other city immediately after the war yet it took 30 years of legal action to lift it on Birmingham. Too top secret. A large number of official government reports on it from the war are only being released now. But private individuals/bomb victims were permitted to start talking about their experiences when the legal action won 30 years ago. -- ‏@wildfeather

Birmingham Blitz
I thought I would fill my readers in on the whole story.

History is not what happened, but what was recorded. Officially London was the worst, with the most casualties. Liverpool comes in second in casualties. Birmingham comes in second for bombings. She also was a target weeks before London. On the other hand, if you throw in Coventry, less than 18 miles away, then West Midlands might well win the most hits by anyone’s calculations.

Birmingham was the industrial center of Great Britain. She was a major producer of fighter planes, guns, bombs, radios, military vehicles and everything else needed to fight a war. Naturally Birmingham would be a prime target for their enemy.

Birmingham Small Arms Factory war production
However Birmingham covers a large area. Many manufacturers had moved out of the crowded city center to the outskirts of town, or nearby villages where there was more space and cheaper land. A carefully orchestrated hit like Coventry’s would take out the city center, but most factories would just keep going.

British WWII Poster
At first the British government tried to keep air raids out of the news. They felt it would demoralize the nation and spur on the Germans. Yet how do you keep secret Coventry being immobilized or bombs raining down on St. Paul’s in London? Birmingham’s devastation was more spread out, easier to keep quiet. Most locals went along with the plan and kept mum, not wanting to help the Germans in anyway.

That it was mostly shushed up is a miracle when you consider just how bad the Birmingham Blitz was. The night of 11th December 1940 Birmingham was bombarded for 13 hours, making it the longest raid of the Blitz! The Germans made 77 raids in all on the city. Official figures state that 5,129 high explosive bombs were dropped. No one counted the incendiaries, which would have been an even higher number. 2,241 people were killed and 3,010 seriously injured. 12,391 houses, 302 factories and 239 other buildings were destroyed, while many more were damaged.

British Poster from WWII
You would think everyone would have left town. They did evacuate the children, but the rest valiantly carried on. 400,000 men and women worked in the war effort in Birmingham. Everyone got involved in one way or another. The Jewelry Quarter started fabricating critical fiddly bits for aircraft. The Advertising Tablet Company Ltd quit making beer trays for pubs and started making bomb casings. Even the chocolate factory got involved. While Cadbury continued to produce chocolate (deemed an essential food item by the Government) they also produced seats for aircraft.

Not that a bombed factory meant the end of production. When the Aerodrome Factory in Castle Bromwich was bombed, it was feared they would have to close for repairs. Off duty workers came in and patched the machines up enough so others could continue making Spitfire fighter planes, just at a slower pace. The volunteer repairmen continued on with permanent repairs, while other workers clocked on for them and worked the shifts for their comrades. Many employees worked two days straight without sleep and without extra pay. And this is just one story. That’s what Brummies are made of!

The Spitfire - made in Castle Bromwich, Birmingham
The Blitz was aimed at destroying the RAF’s supply of planes, terrorizing citizens into submission, and bringing Great Britain to its knees. In the end all the Blitz did was make the Germans lose 600 bombers, made the reluctant Americans sympathetic to Britain, and made the Brits more determined than ever to beat Germany.

After the war the Government still kept the damage of Birmingham top secret. All other records on the Blitz were released, but not B’ham’s. I’m not sure if they felt it would discourage the British people trying to rebuild, or if it would make them even madder at the now defeated Germans. The Allied Powers were now trying to help Germany back on its feet. After all, Hitler came into power because Germany had been crippled by World War I and was desperate enough to follow a madman. No one wanted to see history repeat itself.

Birmingham Blitz Memorial
Still having your loved ones death swept under the rug had to hurt. It must have really rankled when future generations were taught about the London Blitz and Birmingham’s was ignored. One Brummie, named Marjorie Ashby fought for thirty years to get the ‘D’ Notice removed and the records made public, then spent the rest of her life campaigning to have a memorial to the victims of the Blitz created. With the help of the Birmingham Air Raids Remembrance Association (BARRA) that became a reality in 2005 with a twelve foot “Tree of Life” sculpture. On its base are transcribed the names of the 2,241 victims of the Birmingham Blitz.

Those that died and those who fought on should not be forgotten. They will serve as inspiration to future generations that even in the bleakest hour, one can still triumph.

Birmingham Air Raid Remembrance Association

BARRA’s database of those killed or injured in the Blitz

Eye Winess Accounts of the Birmingham Blitz

Ministry of Information Second World War Official Collection
Bomb Damage in Birmingham, c. 1940

Birmingham: Workshop of the War
Why Birmingham was a target for the Germans

German war time newsreel showing one bombing raid over Birmingham

Recreation of an Air Raid
Birmingham did not have enough air raid shelters and many had to hunker down in their homes. Here is what it must have been like sitting in the dark while bombs exploded around you.

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