The rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party in Germany was viewed with concern by the British Government. A lone voice had been warning of the danger of Nazi militarisation for years but Winston Churchill’s voice had been ignored. Some steps had been taken to improve the nation’s defences but few seriously believed that the horrors of the Great War which had cost more than 1 million British lives would ever be repeated. The war to end all wars it had been called. Germany had lost 2.5 million in the conflict. Surely they didn’t want a repeat of the carnage.
If however there was a war, planners knew that Swansea would play a key role. The port provided a supply route from munitions factories in the valleys. Troops and supplies would pass through the harbour and the Landarcy Oil Refinery, completed in 1921, was a vital asset to any war effort. From the start, it was clear that Swansea was liable to be a prime target for enemy attack. The 1937, Air Raid Precaution act obliged local authorities to start planning in case of war and Swansea Council, half heartedly, began to prepare the defences. A limited number of Anderson Shelters were ordered and extra firemen trained.
Anderson Shelters were a curved corrugated shed designed to be buried in peoples back gardens under a mound earth. The Shelters protected up to six people from flying debris but not from a direct hit by a bomb. They cost £7 but were issued free to households whose income was less than £250 a year.
In March 1939, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, flew to Germany to negotiate with Hitler. He returned with a signed peace treaty but conceded to a number of unpleasant demands from the Germans who where more bellicose than ever. War, it seemed, was becoming a real possibility. According to some accounts, Chamberlain believed Hitler was trustworthy. Other more informed commentators suggested that Chamberlain knew Britain was ill prepared for war and had negotiated with Hitler to buy time knowing the a war with Germany was inevitable. What ever the truth was, the authorities in Swansea did little in the way of preparation for the next few months.
On the 1st September 1939, Hitler broke the terms of the agreement he had signed with Chamberlain when the German army invaded Poland. Britain’s treaty obligations with Poland obliged her to react. On the 3rd September Chamberlain broadcast to the nation announcing that Britain had declared war on Germany.
With the outbreak of war, the committee organising air defences in Swansea stepped up a gear. Less than 7,000 Anderson Shelters had been distributed to the population instead of the 30,000 needed. Urgent orders were placed for more. Cellars in large buildings were requisitioned for use as public shelters. Air raid exercises were carried out and the public instructed what to do in the event of an attack. Everyone waited for the bombers but they didn’t come. The Luftwaffe was elsewhere, supporting the German invasion of France. By June 1940 most of France was overrun and, for the first time, German aircraft were able to operate from airfields near the English Channel. Swansea was now within the range of Luftwaffe bombers.
The Luftwaffe developed a devastating means of attack. Air raids began with bombers dropping hundreds of small incendiary bombs to start multiple fires followed by other aircraft loaded with high explosive bombs whose blast spread the fires, creating a firestorm. The RAF was criticized for using the same technique to destroy German cities including Cologne and Dresden killing thousands.
The first air raid was at 3.30am on the 27th June 1940. A pathfinder plane dropped flares which lit up the target. Others planes followed, dropping ten high explosive bombs on Danygraig Road and Kilvey Hill. Four of them failed to explode and there was little damage to property. The Germans returned almost every night to repeat the attacks. On the 10th August, 31 bombs were dropped, damaging the railway viaduct at Landore, houses in Manselton, Cwbwria and Brynhyfryd killing 13 and injuring many more. Five of the deaths were one family in an Anderson Shelter which suffered a direct hit. It was the biggest raid so far but worse was to follow.
Elaine Kidwell, a librarian who lived through the bombing, told the BBC that during one raid, the caretaker of Lloyds Bank, on Wind Street, spent the night sweeping incendiary bombs off the roof of the bank with a broom before they burned down into the timber rafters. Another man tried to stamp on one to extinguish it. The incendiary bomb exploded and blew his foot off.
Bombing steadily increased until the 17th January 1941. It was a Friday and Swansea was covered in snow. That evening’s bombing began just like any other. Families huddled together in their freezing cold shelters. The ground shook with each bomb. The ‘crump’ of high explosive charges echoed across the valley. Dust, disturbed by the blasts, clogged throats. Smoke from burning timber filled the air. Everyone wanted the raid to end, to hear the all clear siren but the end was a long way off. Before the last German bomber had departed, the raiders had dropped 7000 incendiaries and 178 high explosive bombs. The worst damage was at St. Thomas, an area just east of the city centre. Remarkably there were only 55 dead.
Some bombs were believed to have failed to explode because of poor workmanship or sabotage in German munitions factories where slave labour was being used.
The Germans did not come the following night, or the next or the one after that. Apart from the odd lone raider, the Luftwaffe seemed to have lost interest in Swansea but it was a false hope. They returned on the 19th February. The attackers continued bombing Swansea for three nights forcing the people to shelter for more than 13 hours. Over the three nights the Germans dropped 896 high explosive bombs and obliterated the Centre of Swansea in an inferno of fire. The glow from the blaze could be seen 75 miles away in Fishguard. Whole streets had vanished. More than 7000 were homeless and 230 had been killed. Hundreds more were injured.
German bombers continued to attack Swansea for another two years until they were forced, by the allied invasion of France, to withdraw from their French airfields. The last raid was on the 16th February 1943 when bombs were dropped on Neath Road, Hafod, Brynmill and St. Thomas. 34 died that night and there were 110 casualties.
One significant casualty of the bombing was the 17th Century Grammar School on Mount Pleasant Hill where Dylan Thomas went to school.
By the time they had finished, the Germans had dropped 56,000 incendiaries and 1273 high explosive bombs, flattening over 41 acres of Swansea and damaging much more. It was the highest concentration of German bombing experienced outside London during the war. Although the German campaign destroyed a large part of Swansea it failed to achieve its primary objective. The docks continued to operate throughout the war. As with other cities blitzed by the Germans, the population of Swansea had reacted with fortitude and great courage. The shelters, which had arrived late had done their job and saved thousands of lives. Even when considering the devastation, the outcome was a victory for Swansea. The town had withstood the terror of sustained bombing and survived. The next challenge would be to build a new modern Swansea, fit for the future.