Postcards from the Blitz

Ronald Sidney Hunt was born in Witham, Essex, on 22 November 1902. By 1911, he was living with his parents, Sidney Frank and Florence Emily, at 5 Queen Street in Godalming, Surrey, where his father was a cabinet maker. His parents would later operate a newsagent’s and picture framing service from the family home and shop at 5 Queen Street and Ron would also grow up to become a picture framer by trade.

A national register was taken in September 1939 after the nation was once more plunged into war with Germany, and at this time Ron was working in the picture framing business. He lived in Godalming, at 36 Queen Street, a stone’s throw from his parents who still lived and worked at 5 Queen Street.

One year later, in 1940, Ron found himself in Southampton. It is not known exactly what he was up to on the south coast. It could have been that he had been plying his trade in the town, but he does not appear in that year’s street directory. As we will see, Ron still considered Godalming his home.

Southampton was not only the country’s premier passenger port at this time but it was also a vital manufacturing centre, important to both the maritime and aviation industries. The Germans would remember that Southampton had been the country’s number one embarkation port during the First World War and with that knowledge, they marked it out as a major target for an aerial bombing campaign. The Luftwaffe took a reconnaissance photo of the area around the River Itchen, upon which they then marked out their prime targets. These targets included a number of the individual docks, the Supermarine factory where the Spitfire was designed and first built, the Thornycroft shipyard where vessels were built for the Royal Navy, the ‘Kühlhaus’ (the cold storage warehouse at the docks), and the ‘Hauptgaswerk’ (the gas works at Northam).

The first bombs fell on Southampton in June 1940. The ‘Kühlhaus’ was hit in August and the butter and animal fat inside burned for two weeks. With at least one of their targets knocked out, the following month would see the Luftwaffe turn their gaze – and their bomb sights – to other places in Southampton.

On 11 September 1940, the Cunliffe-Owen aircraft factory at Swaythling was targeted and destroyed, resulting in the deaths of fifty-two people. Four days later, on 15 September, the Luftwaffe attacked Supermarine on the banks of the River Itchen at Woolston but they failed to hit the factory. The bombs did, however, succeed in destroying some of the residential area around it, leaving huge craters on Bridge Road and ruined houses on Wharncliffe Road.

Four days later, on 19 September 1940, a Thursday evening, Ron Hunt sat down in Southampton with a postcard and wrote home to his mother. The postcard he picked was a wonderful view of Above Bar Street, taken from the top of the ancient Bargate.

Above Bar Street is alive with activity as a tram trundles along its tracks towards the Halifax Building Society on the right, which can be seen standing tall on the corner of Hanover Buildings. This is the Southampton Ron knew in September 1940.

On the back, Ron wrote:

My dear Mother

Just a line to let you know that I have decided to come home this week-end to see you all. Shall arrive Sat afternoon. Hope you are all OK.

See you on Sat. Love Ron.

Ron would have arrived back home in Godalming on Saturday, 21 September 1940, but by the Monday evening he was back in Southampton.

The following day, on 24 September, a Tuesday, Ron again sat down and wrote home to his mother and father. The postcard he chose on this occasion again showed Above Bar Street, but this time the view was from ground level. On the left is the Regal Cinema, and next to that, Above Bar Church can be seen. This was on the corner of Ogle Road, down which the Hippodrome theatre was located. A sign for the ‘HIPPO’ can be seen on the opposite side of the street, with a little hand pointing towards its location.

Dear Folks

Just a line to let you know I arrived quite safely about 9.P.M. I enjoyed my week-end very much & am looking forward to the next. Hope you are all OK. Will write later in the week.

Love to all, Ron.

On the very day that Ron wrote and sent this postcard, the Luftwaffe returned to Southampton. Again, they had their sights set firmly upon the Supermarine factory in Woolston. However, just like during their daylight raid on 15 September, they failed to destroy their target. Ron noted on his postcard that he had written it in the afternoon. That afternoon, those bombs aimed at the factory fell around it with tragic consequences. By the time his postcard was stamped at 19:30 that evening, many Supermarine workers had been killed outside the factory after direct hits landed on a railway bridge and a company shelter. Bombs had also fallen elsewhere, flattening many homes on Belvidere Terrace in Northam, and destroying the church of St Barnabas on Lodge Road.

Just two days later, the German bombers finally achieved what they had set out to do. The Supermarine factory was hit and put out of action. During the same raid, the Germans managed to bomb the ‘Hauptgaswerk’ across the river at Northam, where eleven workers were killed.

Ron may not have witnessed these events with his own eyes, but he would have been in Southampton as the bombs fell. He may well have heard their lethal explosions, and he may well have seen the wreckage they caused.

On 14 November 1940, a Thursday, Ron sat down in Southampton and wrote to his parents. This time, Ron elected to send them a picture of the Cowherds pub on Southampton Common. Perhaps Ron knew the old building, which had been constructed in 1762 to replace an even older building. Back then, this was the home of the cowherd, the person who looked after livestock on Southampton Common. The cowherd began brewing and selling beer in order to make some extra money and the venture became so profitable that, by 1789, the cowherd’s house had become a pub. At first the pub was called the Southampton Arms, but after people continued to refer to it as the cowherd’s, that eventually became the pub’s official name.

Dear Folks

Just a line to let you know I am OK and hope to see you all on Sat, hope to be home early afternoon.

Heaps of love, from Ron.

Ron’s latest postcard came just eight days after one of the most tragic events of Southampton’s Blitz. On 6 November 1940, the Civic Centre’s art gallery took a direct hit. The air raid siren was sounded and fifteen children from the Central District Girls’ School, who had been taking an art class, went down to the basement. The bomb crashed through the roof of the art gallery and exploded, killing fourteen out of the fifteen children who had been taking cover. In addition to the fourteen children who tragically lost their lives, a further twenty-one people around the Civic Centre were killed in this raid. Back in Godalming, Ron’s parents must have been consumed by worry, knowing that their son was staying in one of the most heavily bombed towns in the country. Every postcard they received must have brought immense relief. However, the worst of Southampton’s Blitz was yet to come.

Ron may have been home on 16 November as promised, but it is not known if he returned to Southampton. Later that month, the Luftwaffe tried their best to completely wipe Southampton from the map. It is not known whether Ron was in Southampton or Godalming on the night of 23 November 1940. That night, the German bombers unleashed their deadly cargo of high explosives and incendiary bombs upon the town, destroying buildings and setting alight the ruins. Brave firefighters fought tirelessly that Saturday night to extinguish the violent flames which threatened to consume the town. The fire climbed so high and burned so brightly, it was said that one could see the ominous red glow from Cherbourg in France. The Nazis reportedly boasted of their victory over the innocent people of Southampton. One American newspaper reported that the Nazis had triumphantly claimed that Southampton had been reduced to ‘a smoking ruin’. One of the many tragic tales from the 23 November raid was the destruction of the Garibaldi Arms on the corner of Dock Street and Cross House Road. The pub took a direct hit and twenty-six people, including its new landlords, Bert and Very Reynolds, were killed. The only survivors were the Reynolds’ four children who had been sat under the bar. Among the dead was Edgar Perry, who had survived the sinking of the Titanic some twenty-eight years earlier.

If Ron was in Southampton during this raid, then he managed to survive it. But what he would have witnessed the following day would have been a scene of apocalyptic destruction. And yet, exactly one week later, the Luftwaffe returned.

On 30 November 1940, the quiet winter night would have been pierced by the sound of the air raid siren, followed by the roar of engines, and then a cacophony of deafening explosions. The town centre was once again hit badly, with Holyrood Church on the High Street taking a direct hit along with a number of other buildings. The picturesque and interesting Above Bar Street, which Ron had clearly been fond of by his choice of postcards, was pummelled and smashed by German bombs. When the Luftwaffe returned for their third major raid in eight days the following night, many parts of the town were still on fire.

During the course of the war, the Luftwaffe raids on Southampton claimed the lives of over six hundred people. Thousands of people were left injured and thousands more were left homeless. Nearly forty-five thousand buildings were damaged or destroyed during the Blitz and some of the character of the old Southampton was killed with it.

The below image shows Above Bar Street sometime after the Blitz. The wreckage has been cleared but the scars are still evident. This photo was taken from the roof of the Bargate, the same place the photo on Ron’s postcard was taken from, yet the view is almost unrecognisable when the two are compared. The Halifax Building Society building on the right was hit, as was the Hippodrome theatre down Ogle Road. The Daily Echo offices were bombed, and much of the street was reduced to a twisted mess of metal and rubble.

Above Bar Street after the destruction of the Blitz. Compare this to how it looked in Ron's postcard. Image source unknown, please contact me if you own this image.

Above Bar Street after the destruction of the Blitz. Compare this to how it looked in Ron’s postcard. Image source unknown, please contact me if you own this image.

Ron survived the war, but the Southampton he knew when he sent his postcards had since been the victim of a vicious assassination. It would never quite be the same again.

Above Bar Street.

Above Bar Street, before and after the war.

Sadly, Ron’s father, whom he had written to back in 1940, did not live to see the end of the war. He died on 27 February 1945. Ron’s mother was still living at 5 Queen Street in Godalming when she died on 22 June 1957, and at that time Ron was still working as a picture framer.

Ron himself passed away in 1979, at the age of seventy-seven. It is not known exactly how much of Southampton’s Blitz he witnessed some thirty-nine years earlier, but his postcards provide an insight into a period of time which changed the face of Southampton forever. The lasting effects of the Blitz can still be seen today, and the scenes of destruction that Ron may have seen, along with the terrifying sound of bombers and sirens and explosions, must have stayed with him for the rest of his life.

 

 

Sources:

Census records, various, Findmypast.co.uk

Birth, Marriage, Death & Parish Records, Findmypast.co.uk

England & Wales Government Probate Death Index 1858-2019

‘Southampton’s Children of the Blitz’ by Andrew Bissell

‘Southampton’s Inns and Taverns’ by Tony Gallaher

‘Nazis Claim Port Heavily Damaged’ from the St. Petersburg Times, Saint Petersburg, Florida, 25 November 1940 – [Link]

Luftwaffe reconnaissance photo from 1940 – [Link]

Ordnance Survey map showing where the bombs fell on 30 November and 1 December 1940 – [Link]