May 9, 2016, by Kathryn Steenson
Seventy-five years ago today, Nottingham residents emerged from their shelters into daylight to survey the devastation caused by an air raid and anxiously find out whether their friends and family were safe. For some, their worst fears were realised. Over 150 people were killed in the ‘Nottingham Blitz’, with several hundred more injured and over a thousand people left homeless.
The attack by the German Luftwaffe began shortly after midnight on the night of the 8th-9th May 1941. By the time the all-clear siren sounded at about 4.30am, eleven separate raids by bombers had targeted the city’s factories and industrial sites, including Raleigh and Boots.
Terrible as it was, the damage could have been considerably worse without the Starfish decoy system at Cropwell Butler. Starfish sites were areas of countryside designed to divert night-time enemy incendiary attacks from the real target. After the first wave of bombers, the decoy sites would be set on fire to mimic a burning town, which the subsequent aeroplanes would, hopefully, hone in on.
The decoys worked, and many of the 400 or so bombs dropped that night fell in the Vale of Belvoir. Since 1940, staff and students from University College Nottingham (the forerunner to the University of Nottingham) had volunteered for regular fire-watching duties at both their city centre and University Park campuses, keeping an all-night vigil in readiness for any incendiary and explosives bomb attacks. That attack came in the early hours of the 9th, when the buildings on Shakespeare Street took a direct hit. Two of the fire-watchers on duty suffered minor injuries but carried on their duties with ‘steadiness and coolness’, according to UCN’s Annual Report. They were incredibly fortunate to have escaped lightly: a direct hit to the Co-Op bakery on Meadow Lane killed 48 employees and 1 member of the Home Guard, and injured 20 others who had sought refuge in the air raid shelter in the basement.
The photographs here were taken by the University College to record the damage caused. Parts of the Gothic Revival building were in rubble; the windows were shattered and roof tiles blown off from the force of the blast; and the walls still standing were covered in cracks and craters where shrapnel had hit. The west wing bore the brunt of the bombing and the Mining and Textiles Departments, including the laboratories, were destroyed. The rest of the building was, in the words of the University Council ‘scarred and heavily shaken’. Looking at the extent and severity of the damage it is remarkable that within a week the building had been repaired and restocked enough that classes could resume.
Despite this disruption, the only student in the Mining Department scheduled to sit his final exams in summer 1941, 23-year old Frederick Boam, passed and was awarded his BSc (Engineering) Mining.
These and other records from the University Archives are held at Manuscripts & Special Collections at King’s Meadow Campus. To make an appointment to view the archives and rare books, please contact us. For more information about our collections please visit our website, read our newsletter Discover, or follow us @mssUniNott.