In the early hours of 29 April 1942 York was subjected to its biggest air raid of the Second World War. 106 people were killed on the ground as well as six German air crew. A fire was started in the church by an incendiary bomb which destroyed all but the south aisle.

The raid began at 02.40. Most of the bombs were dropped in areas near the railway, destroying or damaging many homes. But places further from the railway were also hit, including Bar Covent in Blossom Street where five nuns died. Considerable damage was caused by high explosive and incendiary bombs dropped in the vicinity of the church, particularly in New Street, the Leopard Shopping Arcade opposite the church, and the Guildhall as well as the church itself. Figures for the number of casualties vary, and the names of the six German aircrew killed were not confirmed until much later, but this list is thought to be accurate. It contains 112 names.

The myth of the lone airman

York was not considered a major target, and there had been no raids since 7 April 1941. There were no fixed anti-aircraft defences for the city, and the bombers were able to reach the city unopposed. But they were attacked as they returned to base, leading to the romantic story that they had been driven off by a lone Free French airman. The reality was rather different. Thirty six aircrew from three fighter squadrons based at RAF Elvington took part including American, British and Czech. Four were French. A number of pilots claimed to have shot down an enemy aircraft, and these claims were often difficult to verify; several fighters might have attacked the same bomber, and only long after the war was it known for certain that two had crashed into the sea. But two German aircraft were brought down on land. The reason that the French pilot Yves Mahé of 253 Squadron was picked out as hero and given a civic reception may well have been political. On 5 May Allied forces attacked the French colony of Madagascar to prevent its use as a base by Japan. It was important to show that although French citizens fighting against Germany might be regarded as traitors by the French government at Vichy, Britain saw itself as fighting for the liberation of France with the support of the Free French government and many French people.

Harold Wood's story - Yesterday Once More

Harold Wood was working for the Post Office and a member of the Home Guard. This is his story and is reproduced here with his permission.

“Following the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk everyone expected the next move by the Germans would be an attempt to invade Britain.  During the period when our army was regrouping an appeal was broadcast to the civilian population to become volunteers for local defence duties.  These people eventually became known as the Home Guard with duties such as guarding important buildings and, if invasion came, to harass the German forces.

Post Office telephone engineers, Sorting Office staff and outdoor postal workers were combined to form the 17 West Riding Home Guard Company with the Headquarters at the Leeman Road sorting office.  One of the earliest duties was to provide a guard comprising a sergeant and four men at the Head Post Office in Lendal every night.

In 1942 the York Telephone Exchange was situated in buildings at the rear of the Head Post Office overlooking the river.  Over the wall at the bottom yard were two wooden huts housing the No. 9 and No. 10 Observer Corps control units constantly monitoring enemy aircraft movements across northern England (the empty huts are still on site).  Between these buildings and the river was a small hut containing four wooden bunks as accommodation and shelter for the Home Guard during off- duty periods.  Thus the defence of these important buildings was in the hands of one elderly War Reserve Constable with truncheon and the Home Guards with rifle and five rounds of ammunition.

Through the chinks in the blackout blinds one could see the Observers Corps plotting the position of approaching aircraft and memory seems to remind me the orange alert turned to red and at the same time the first bombs exploded.  The time was 2.38 A.M.  Twin-engined German bombers which turned out to be a mixture of Heinkels, Dorniers and J.U.88s seemed to be taking it in turns to roar across the city centre, at relatively low level, dropping incendiary and high explosive bombs.

The city was bathed in moonlight and the attackers were able to pin-point their targets without difficulty.  The incendiaries rained down with a terrific clatter as they ricocheted off roof- tops and buildings spitting fire as they came to rest.  All five of us were quickly into action grabbing the nearest sandbag and dropping it on top of the flames.

I remember someone shouting there was a fire starting in the Ready-Cut wool shop opposite the front door of the Head Post Office.  Two of us set off with buckets of water and a stirrup pump and arrived to find the fire was burning on the first floor above the recessed entrance doorway.  Early attention enabled us to extinguish the blaze very quickly.

As the next attack approached the city we dashed down the stone steps which led down to the cellars where the coke-fuelled boilers were situated.  It was while we were sheltering there, we noticed a bright white light slowly advancing down the steps.  Investigation showed it was caused by chandeliers of lights suspended from parachutes slowly drifting above the roof-tops.  This was followed by the thunderous noise of high- explosive bombs arriving, the nearest one falling in Blake Street, near the Half-Moon Hotel.

Reports arrived to say incendiaries had set fire to the top of the telephone exchange and once again stirrup pumps and buckets of water were rushed upstairs where the ceilings above the equipment were burning  steadily.  Once again we were able to prevent the fire getting out of control.

By this time many large fires were burning fiercely.  The Guildhall roof was well alight and across the river the Rowntree Warehouse, stacked with sugar and similar commodities, burned like a gigantic Roman candle.  Every few minutes as the flames reached the floor below there was a terrific explosion as the fire was stoked by yet another layer of highly combustible material.

In the midst of all this activity Charles Bartle, the regular night cleaner appeared asking for help on the roof.  Armed to the teeth with two stirrup pumps and as many buckets of water that we could carry, we followed him to the top of the building.  We seemed to be scrambling up short ladders, down wooden steps and dashing from one roof-top to another dealing with each problem in turn.  It was ‘daylight’ but Charles Bartle’s roof-top knowledge combined with our efforts must have prevented serious fires breaking out.  From this high vantage point we could see dozens of fires burning at the Railway Station, then those on Leeman Road and further in the distance at the Clifton Airfield.

During one short lull in the raid, we did briefly discuss the idea of our team of five armed with our rifles, and the obligatory five rounds of ammunition, should take up a position on the roof and  with our combined fire- ower, endeavour to shoot down one of the low-flying attackers.  Almost as quickly we agreed bringing down a fully laden German bomber into the city centre was not such a good idea, especially as the frequent line of approach was from Micklegate towards the Minster.

By 4.00am the raid was over although the All-Clear did not sound until 4.30am.  One of our number resumed guard duty with the Police Constable and the other four moved into St Helen’s Square to help the firemen with their hoses as they endeavoured to quell the fires burning on the Guildhall, St Martin-Le-Grand Church, the Leopard Arcade and other buildings in Coney Street.  The roads were covered in broken slates, tiles and glass from shattered windows.

My lasting memory of the night is how well everyone reacted.  There was no panic, the adrenalin was racing but we seemed to be surrounded by people calmly dealing with the job in hand.

As the months passed we learned that Charles Bartle had been awarded the MBE for his courageous actions.

In November 1942 the 17 West Riding (Home Guard) Company, paraded as usual at the sorting office in Leeman Road, but on this occasion they marched to St Peter’s School playing fields.  The five members on guard duty on April 29th had been awarded certificates for good conduct and devotion to duty by the Commander-in-Chief Home Forces.  These were presented by the Lord Mayor of York, Alderman Shaw.

The guard comprised Sergeant R Ken Walker 124 Huntington Road –Telephone Engineer, Corporal Harry Jackson, 20 Millfield Road- Head Office Clerk, Private Ernest Peacock – Assistant Superintendent at the Sorting Office, Private Harold J Wood, 8 Somerset Road – sorting clerk and Private D Eastwood – postman driver.   By the time these certificates were presented Private Eastwood had become Gunner Eastwood in an Anti-tank regiment and Private Wood had been accepted for aircrew training.

Our Home Guard Company was probably the smartest and most proficient in this area chiefly because many of its personnel were time-expired service regulars.  We paraded every Sunday and the three platoons were variously learning the intricacies of the Northover Projector, Molotov cocktails and other anti-tank weapons.  Visits to the Army rifle ranges at Strensall provided us with ‘hands-on’ experiences.  Weekend camps at Heslington gave us training in surviving and operating in the countryside both in daylight and on night exercises.  We were on night manoeuvres on the night of the first thousand bomber raids on Cologne.

Following the annual November Remembrance Parade I met up with a city councillor I have known for fifty-five years and learned for the first time that he was patrolling a Beaufighter from RAF Church Fenton and operating over Leeds on the night of the York raid.  Apparently the thinking that night was the York raid was a diversionary raid and he and his colleagues were further west ready for the main bomber force.  Flight testing his aircraft the following morning and flying over York he was shattered to see the smoking devastation rising from the city.

As a further coincidence I attended the Leo Kessler lecture at the Tempest Anderson Hall in 2014 and proffered the information on the direction of the approach by the attacking aircraft and bomb which fell near the Half-Moon Hotel was probably the last one on a bombing run.  The lady in front of me turned around and said her father, Harry Moor, the landlord, had been on night war work and she, as a three year old, had been sheltering with her mother under the bar shelving.”

Harold  J  Wood


For what this raid meant for the church go to this page.