World War 2 in Nottinghamshire by Dr Denise Amos

Friar Lane was bombed on the night of 8/9 May 1941.

Friar Lane was bombed on the night of 8/9 May 1941.

Nazi Germany’s occupation of the Rhineland, Austria and Czeckoslovakia cast a cloud over what was otherwise a good summer in 1939; many people still did not really expect another war. It wasn’t until Germany invaded Poland in September, 1939 that war was finally declared. The war affected all strands of life in the county – from raising money for investment in the country, to women being once more employed in what were normally men only jobs, the defence of the homeland to rationing, evacuees to pinning up black out.

As war drew closer preparations were made to evacuate children from areas which were potential bomb targets. Essentially there were three evacuation waves; the start of the war around 1939, with the expectation of bombings of cities; March 1941 with the expected invasion and actual bombings of cities; during 1944 and 1945 with the use of flying bombs. In the first wave children from inner Nottingham were evacuated out of the city to villages within Nottinghamshire. In the second wave children arrived into Nottingham from the south east of the country to avoid the anticipated invasion. The third wave saw children from London and the south east arriving in Nottingham. A great many Nottinghamshire villages took in evacuees, including Plumtree, Keyworth, Kimberley, Lambley and Lowdham. Newark received evacuees from Sheffield, Worthing and Great Yarmouth. A young mother and her daughter came up to Sutton-in-Ashfield to escape the blitz on the East End of London. Retford received over 6000 children some from West Leeds High School and others from The West Midlands and Great Yarmouth. An entire school of deaf children were evacuated from Sheffield to Southwell by bus and Worksop received evacuees arriving from Nottingham by bus and train.

Children stayed with their host family for varying periods of time, some only a few weeks and others throughout the war years. Their experiences also varied widely, some enjoying their country life; others could not wait to return home.

Within a few hours of Anthony Eden’s broadcast on 14 May 1940, asking for volunteers for the Local Defence Volunteer force (LDV – later to acquire the nick-name Look, duck and vanish brigade!),  over 100 men had enrolled at Nottingham’s Guildhall and by the beginning of the Dunkirk evacuation over 9,000 volunteers had been recruited throughout the county. The army later became known as the Home Guard, ever immortalised in ‘Dad’s Army’. With the standing army decimated at Dunkirk, it was up to the Home Guard to defend Britain. Initially, providing you could walk ensured a position in the Guard but by 1943 the average age of the men was 30 years. Weapons, particularly rifles and ammunition were in short supply, so any source of weaponry was used for a while including spears, truncheons and broom handles! Gradually the strength of the Nottinghamshire Home Guard rose and they were issued with a uniform, not dissimilar to that worn by the regular forces. The Lord Lieutenant of Nottinghamshire was given the task of establishing a local structure and organisation. Strict discipline was enforced.

There were three main types of unit in the county, those based at factories like Boots, Beeston and Ransome and Marles at Newark; at collieries such as Radford and Bentinck and units based in the community. There were other smaller units which were based in rural areas and a Trent River Patrol based at Gunthorpe which covered an area from Sawley to the Humber.  They were trained in the use of Beetle broadcast system when other forms off communication had failed. They manned road blocks and assisted the Air Raid Precaution (ARP) men rescuing and clearing up after a bomb had exploded. Some were trained in bomb disposal and others manned the anti-aircraft units.

The Police and Fire Services had to quickly adapt and take on the responsibility of safety on the Home Front. Colonel A Popkess, Chief Constable of Nottingham had visited pre-war Germany and had the foresight of devising a plan should the city be attacked. His force organised the ARP who were considered one of the best units in the country. They were responsible for maintaining the near-normal –as- possible life within communities and report any incidents and what help was needed.  One of their duties was when the air raid siren sounded was to direct people went into air raid shelters. The most famous one of these was the Anderson shelter. Constructed from corrugated steel bolted together and sunk into the ground to a depth of one metre, they became a familiar site around Nottingham with over 24,000 situated throughout the city. Sir John Anderson, the Minister for Civil Defence visited the city on 26 January 1939 and inspected the preparations which the city had carried out in case of war.  He congratulated Nottingham on having reached a very advanced stage in preparation. However, by March 1940, steel supplies were dwindling and Anderson shelters were overtaken by public shelters which were dispersed around the areas; some above ground such as Baldertongate, Newark and others made use of underground cellars and Caves eg. Hole’s Brewery Cellars, Newark and the caves behind the Brewhouse Yard Museum, Nottingham.

The Fire Service in Nottingham came under the direct control of the Chief Constable and had stations at Triumph Road, Shakespeare Street and Bulwell. With the worsening situation in Europe an Auxiliary Fire Service was introduced to assist the full time firemen. A measure of their competence can be seen shortly after a training session in 4 May 1940, when they were required to assist in the Nottingham Blitz four days afterwards with 12 serious fires, 40 major fires, collapsing buildings fractured gas mains and delayed bombs. In Newark they had 20 full-time staff and were stationed at Pelham Street, Sherwood Avenue and the Friary. Being so close to many airfields they were required to deal with crashed and burning aircraft. Women were employed to drive staff cars, man watch rooms and control rooms as well as maintaining the fire vehicles. The Fire crews not only had to defend their own towns and cities but would be expected to travel to other centres when there was a severe bombing raid.

On the night of 8/9 May 1941 the Luftwaffe attacked Sheffield, Hull, Nottingham and Derby. Compared to other large towns in the surrounding area, Nottingham avoided much of the damage inflicted on the other towns. There were eleven attacks on Nottingham during this night but the use of the “Starfish” fire decoy system, located in the Vale of Belvoir and jamming of the radar most of the bombs fell north of the city. Apparently the only casualties were two cows and several chickens!

Nevertheless the Germans did find some targets and an area around Mapperley Park, Sneinton and the Meadows took direct hits. In the city itself part of the University College was destroyed, the Moot Hall on Friar Lane was badly damaged as were several railway coaches at the Midland Station. However, the worst casualty was the Co-op bakery on Meadow Lane, where 49 employees and members of the Home Guard were killed and another 20 injured. In all 424 bombs landed on the city causing numerous fires and 1,286 people were left homeless.

Mansfield was spared the horrors of air raids, apart from the occasional sound of stray enemy aircraft but the sound of exploding bombs on Nottingham could be heard and the red glow as Sheffield was blitzed could be seen from Mansfield.

Newark was attacked regularly because of its significance to airfields and war work carried out within the area. The most significant attack was on 7 March 1941 when two German planes dropped a series of bombs on and around Ransom and Marles who made ball bearings for naval gun turrets. A total of 40 people were killed with a further 165 being injured.

Other areas of the county suffered some bombing, including, Gringley Gorse and Newton Cliffs in the far north of the county were bombed from planes going over to Sheffield in May 1942. West Bridgford was hit by 62 bombs and in the Bingham area 92 bombs fell around Langar and Granby.

Britain’s production increased during the war and consequently the number of jobs also increased but because of rationing there was little to spend the extra money on and so national savings committees were set up to redirect surplus funds. These funds were re-directed into providing for the war machine and one of the most successful campaigns was the Spitfire fund. Mansfield raised £5,000, the cost of one Spitfire, and it was duly named “Sherwood Forester”. The Metal Box Company at Mansfield raised money for a Spitfire which was named “Metabox”. Similarly Retford also raised over £5000 and had a spitfire named after it, the “Retford and District”

Not to be outdone Nottingham supported a “Warship week” opened by Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Chatfield in November 1941. The money was raised through a variety of efforts – dances, exhibitions, parades and luncheons. The naval cruiser HMS Orion was adopted with the proceeds. Through the national savings movement Retford raised over £350,000 and adopted a destroyer, HMS Grove. Newark’s contribution was towards the cost of 20 tanks and £250,000 towards the warship HMS Newark.

Life in the county changed during the war years for everyone especially where work was concerned. There was a long history of engineering manufacturing in the county and so production of weaponry and associated materials were produced for the war effort.  Many factories such as Boots and Raleigh in Nottingham, the Royal Ordnance factory at Ranskill, Retford and the Metal Box Company, Mansfield were all turned over to war production. The area around Ranskill was transformed because of the siting of the Royal Ordnance Factory, which produced solventless cordite and had to be situated away from populated and industrial areas but it had to be accessible to a labour force.  Bungalows were built for married workers and single personnel were provided with lodgings. The existing rail and road links had to be improved to be able to cope with movement of the cordite.

Raleigh produced 20mm cartridge cases, which was the main armament for the Spitfire planes. Barrels for Bren guns were made in Mansfield and Boneham and Turners made parts for the Lancaster bombers at their Nottingham Road factory. Factories in Newark, such as Blagg and Johnson Ltd made structural parts for the Bailey and Pontoon bridges so important in the D.Day landings. Farrar Boiler works made tank turrets and Ransome and Marles made the bearings for naval gun turrets and landing craft gear and pumps.

One strand of work which was not particularly popular but was a vital part of the war effort was the Bevin boys – named after the then Minister of Labour – who introduced the conscription of men into the pits. For many young men signing up for National Service this work was a complete anathema to what they had expected. They received some basic training before being dispersed to various pits in the Mansfield areas. Initially there was some hostility towards them as many thought they were dodging National Service but on the plus side, because they were manual workers they received greater rations. Some of them lived in a hostel in Forest Town.

Probably the biggest shift in employment was where women were concerned. Not only were they a large untapped reservoir of labour they were also dextrous and adaptable to much of the war production carried out within the county. The Royal Ordnance factory employed women working on munitions. Often dangerous work it was usually well paid for women who had been previously paid low wages in clerical jobs. They had to take over in many other trades as the men were called up for active service. They took over on the railways, the buses, delivering post and milk and working in breweries. However the Mansfield Brewery was not always able to produce beer because of a shortage of ingredients.

The most visual work that women did was as a Land Army girl. They came from every walk of life and were paid 32 shillings a week for a 48 hour week.  Despite the attractive posters the work was hard and long. For many girls who from the towns the work was very hard, long hours in all weathers. Some enjoyed their time such as Mrs Rose Howlett from Retford but others found it unglamorous, they were homesick and wanted to leave. Surpringly though the wastage rate of the WLA was lower than in industry.

Another area that women excelled at was in the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS). Their work ranged from looking after refugees, organising evacuees, running mobile canteens for emergency feeding, war savings drives and driving transport.  As the troop trains came through Victoria Station, Nottingham the WVS served tea and sandwiches to the men. Mobile canteens operated at Newark LNER station as well as at Northgate House which during its service provided five million cups of tea and four million sandwiches!

As well as the evacuees coming to the county, other foreigners appeared in the shape of German and Italian prisoners of war and American troops. In 1944 Wollaton Park was turned into a camp for the 82nd Airborne Division shortly before D. Day where over 2000 paratroopers were billeted on the Park. The American army built what is now King’s Mill hospital and took over buildings in the surrounding district. The park was later turned over to house German and Italian prisoners of war. There were also POW camps in the north of the county at Carburton Camp, Nether Headon Camp and Ranby Army camp which housed Italian and Polish PoWs and another at Mansfield not far from King’s Mill hospital. The prisoners were usually put to work on the land, whether on farms or digging trenches for the Home Guard. Although some returned to their native country, some stayed on in the Bassetlaw area.

Nottinghamshire airfields played a significant role during the war. They were mainly situated in the east of the county such as Balderton, Bottesford, Swinderby and Tollerton and Newark witnessed a lot of flying activity. Some airfields were bomber bases with aircraft such as Wellingtons and Lancasters flying from them Bombers flew from Bottesford to attack the German warships ‘Schwarnhorst’ and ‘Gneisenau’. Others housed fighter planes such as the Spitfire and Blenheims.  Tollerton was taken over by the RAF Rescue School and the National Air Services. The airfield became a satellite of RAF Newton and was used for training purposes as well as being geared up for accommodating Lancaster and Dakota aircraft if necessary. It also had an important role in the repair of damaged bombers, employing up to 750 men and women and returning hundreds of bombers to active service after they had been damaged in missions over Germany.

The alterations to life in Britain as a whole were vast and just focusing on Nottinghamshire has shown how everyday life had to change and adapt. There were other areas of life which had to alter such as agriculture, food and rationing, wartime transport, blackouts which it has been impossible to cover in this article. Further information can be gained from the extensive reading list below as well as a visit to and the Museum of Nottingham Life, Brewhouse Yard, Nottingham, the Nottinghamshire Archives Office, Nottingham, or the museums at Retford, Newark and Mansfield.

I am indebted to the following for their help in putting this entry together. Anne Insca and Suella Postles at the Museum of Nottingham Life, Brewhouse Yard, Nottingham. Denis Hill and Liz Weston at Mansfield Museum for their information on Mansfield. Jane Sumpter, Bassetlaw Museum, Retford. Melissa Hall, Newark Museum. Paul Norton, Project Officer, Rufford Country Park, Ollerton, Newark, Nottinghamshire. Bob Hammond and the many other people whose work I have consulted.

Brief chronology of World War Two in Europe

Useful material