Today (March 14) marks the 71st anniversary of German bombers ending their assault on Clydebank. Over two nights the full wrath of the Nazi war machine was unleashed on the burgh as Hitler’s air force attempted to destroy key allied shipbuilding, munitions production and fuel stores on the Clyde.
On March 13 and 14, 1941, waves of Luftwaffe bombers inflicted Scotland’s highest civilian death toll of the Second World War, with the town very nearly wiped off the map by the aerial bombardment.
Of approximately 12,000 houses a third were completely destroyed and more than the same again were left severely damaged. Only seven houses escaped undamaged. The bombing claimed 528 lives, caused 617 serious injuries and made more than 35,000 people homeless.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill described the Nazi Blitzkrieg campaign as “terrorism” and Clydebank survivor Isa McKenzie has carried vivid memories of the events her entire life.
She said: “You remember it all – The sirens going as we were getting ready for bed, putting my clothes back on and rushing down to shelter at the bottom of the tenement with my dad and brother. My mum was out visiting in another area of Clydebank.
“We were five hours in there before we were told to get out because the building was on fire, so we went to shelter in a billiard (snooker) hall. It was terrifying but at the time we didn’t realise it was so devastating – it just seemed like another air raid and we were wondering if the school had been hit, so we could have a holiday.
“When we came out in the morning, what had been our top floor flat was now on the bottom of the building. The whole close, all the houses, were gone. People like my mum (who also survived) and dad lost everything, all you had was what you were standing in.”
Wartime reporting restrictions prevented the press from naming the town and detailing the true levels of devastation. Many theories have been put forward to explain the censorship, including a desire to boost moral among the population at home and their relatives serving abroad, and to deny the Nazis a propaganda tool.
Historian John McLeod, who grew up in Clydebank and wrote a book about the Blitz, believes the government was also worried news of the devastation on Red Clydeside could lead to political instability across Glasgow and the UK’s other major cities.
He said: “If the scale of its devastation became widely known it might trigger wholesale Bolshevik sedition. They took a long time to release official casualty figures and only did so after great pressure from the area’s MPs in the House of Commons.”
Anti-aircraft guns failed to bring down any of the German bombers or their fighter escorts, though Royal Air Force interceptors did shoot down two enemy aircraft. Clydebank was also defended by the Free Polish ship ORP Piorun (Thunderbolt), which was docked at the John Brown’s yard for repairs when the raids began.
Instead of ordering his men to move the vessel its captain, Commander Eugeniusz Pławski, directed the firing of her guns in defence of the town. A memorial to the crew, listed as the Defenders of Clydebank, now stands opposite the Town Hall.
While Clydebank suffered catastrophic damage to its homes and communities, somehow its industrial capacity – vital to the allied war effort – managed to survive. The objective of the raids was to destroy the town’s ability to contribute to the British forces, but the only industrial target actually put beyond use was a hosiery company: The John Brown’s shipyards, Beardmore diesel works, the Singer munitions factory and Dalmuir fuel depot all continued their roles throughout the war.
If news of this military failure had reached Berlin, bombers may have been sent back to hit Clydebank again. News of the damage – to “a town in western Scotland” – was therefore tightly controlled.
Mrs McKenzie feels strongly the Clydebank Blitz should be remembered. She added: “We should never forget the sacrifices people made. Soldiers and airmen expect to go into battle, but we didn’t expect to be bombed the way we were. Clydebank suffered more devastation in two nights than many places got over the entire war.”
That the town survived and was rebuilt is undoubtedly a story of resilience, but it was inevitable such carnage would have irreparable effects. Over 40,000 residents are thought to have left in the days after the blitz and while many traveled back to work, few returned to live. Those who did found their town alive, but their old communities gone.
Mr McLeod said: “With hundreds of folk dead, hundreds more maimed and only a half-dozen homes or so undamaged, it was never going to be the same town again.”
West Dunbartonshire Council held a wreath laying ceremony at Clydebank Town Hall yesterday. A documentary, The Clydebank Blitz, has been made available on Youtube and readers can view it below.
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