VE Day 60 Years: Birmingham - Bombed But Not Beaten

By Roslyn Tappenden | 06 June 2005
Shows a World War Two booklet with a picture of burning buildings with a bomber plane flying over with spotlights on it, with the words Prepared - Birmingham ARP journal, 3d, Air Raid Precautions

The people of Birmingham proved resilient in the face of the Blitz. Courtesy Local Studies and History Collection, Birmingham Central Library.

Birmingham and nearby Coventry were integral to the British war effort, producing a vast share of the arms, machinery and military supplies for the allied forces.

Hundreds of companies, many of which survive today, were enlisted to make everything from jerry cans to depth charges.

As a result the two cities bore the brunt of a Lufwaffe bombing campaign that saw Birmingham become the most heavily bombed city outside of London, with the loss of more than 2,200 citizens in the raids. The German air force hoped it could shatter the morale of Birmingham’s workforce but to no avail.

Shows a black and white photo of a street with a large bomb crater in it, and several onlookers

Birmingham was the most heavily bombed city outside of London. Courtesy Local Studies and History Collection, Birmingham Central Library.

Throughout World War Two more than 6,000 Birmingham homes were destroyed along with many of the city’s grandiose Victorian public buildings.

The worst of the bombing raids occurred between August 1940 and May 1941 and on August 25 1940 Birmingham’s city centre was bombed, gutting the market hall which once occupied the site where the Bull Ring now stands. The aftermath of that night was recorded by war artist Roland Pitchforth whose paintings are currently displayed at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.

A special exhibition of war art, entitled ‘Lest We Forget’ is on display in gallery 16 until August 21 2005, which includes a selection of Pitchforth’s paintings that clearly depict the carnage wreaked by the Luftwaffe on Birmingham city centre.

Shows a photos of a glass-walled hall with a Spitfire fighter plane suspended from its roof

Some 1,200 Spitfires were built at the Castle Bromwich Aerodrome Factory. An example of this famous fighter place can be found at Thinktank. Courtesy Think Tank

Many Brummies still remember the Blitz and the ritual wearing of tin hats and the carrying of gas masks. Many can recall emerging from their shelters in the morning to survey the destruction wreaked the night before. An audio visual display of survivors recounting such memories can be seen in the ‘City Stories’ gallery at Birmingham’s Thinktank museum.

The damage caused by the Luftwaffe was recorded in photographs by the City’s Public Works Department and many of the wartime images are on display in the Local Studies and History department on the sixth floor of Birmingham Central Library.

Many images relating specifically to Handsworth, Perry Barr, Kingstanding and Oscott have also been digitised and can be accessed via the Digital Handsworth website.

As well as the loss of life, many people were made homeless during the war. Courtesy Local Studies and History Collection, Birmingham Central Library.

Handsworth was heavily bombed during the blitz due to the number of factories supplying munitions and on the website you can also view air raid maps of the city, Air Raid Patrol log books and national registration cards.

All of these documents along with copies of the Air Raid Patrol journal, ‘Prepared’, can be accessed at the Birmingham City Archives, located on the floor seven of the Central Library.

Also in the city archive collections are documents relating to Birmingham’s importance as a manufacturing centre during the war. The Longbridge Car Plant, which would have celebrated its 100th year of car manufacturing this year, was one of the main suppliers of manufactured goods for the war effort.

Shows a map of Birmingham with the words Composite Raid Map and details of all the bomb hits on the city

During the Blitz the bombs had no guarantee of hitting their target and no part of the city was safe. Courtesy Local Studies and History Collection, Birmingham Central Library.

The Austin Factory, which went on to become MG Rover, produced almost 500 army vehicles a week while a neighbouring factory producing aeroplanes turned out everything from Lancaster Bombers to Fairey Battles.

But the most prolific and well known of all the wartime aircraft manufacturers was the Spitfire Factory at Castle Bromwich. The roundabout at the entrance to the site is marked with a 16.5 metre, 62 tonne steel memorial to the fighter planes. The three Spitfires that top the sculpture are half the size of the original aircraft.

The Castle Bromwich Aerodrome Factory, built in 1940, is now occupied by the Jaguar car plant. Some 1,200 spitfires were built there between 1940 and 1945 and more than 37,000 test flights were made from the nearby airstrip.

Shows a painting of a man in military uniform in a room with two other men in the background

'The Rifleman (Portrait of Horace Day)', by Norman Neasom, currently on display as part of the Lest We Forget exhibition at Birmingham Gallery. © The Artist

Many Spitfires are still in the air but a static one can be seen at Birmingham’s Thinktank museum. Suspended in the giant ‘Move It’ gallery are original Spitfire and Hurricane fighter planes.

One well known Spitfire test pilot was Alex Henshaw, who is now 92 years old. Prior to the war Henshaw set the record for a solo single-engined return flight to South Africa in 1937 in the prestigious King’s Cup. He completed the outward journey in just 39 hours and 36 minutes – a record that stands to this day.

In 1940 he moved to Streetly near Sutton Coldfield and took up his job as chief test pilot at the Castle Bromwich Aerodrome. Although he was best known for flying Spitfires, Henshaw also carried out test flights for the Hurricanes, Wellingtons and Lancasters that were also built at the factory.

Shows a painting of a seaplane either taking off or landing at the coast next to a jetty with a signalman on it

Lest we forget. 'Night Operations', by Eric Ravilious. © The Artist

Alex Henshaw now lives in Newmarket and recently donated his collection of trophies, paintings and other artefacts to the Royal Air Force Museum in Hendon, North London.

He is often remembered for causing chaos after low-flying a Spitfire upside down along Broad Street in the city centre and he was the only pilot known to perform a victory roll in a Lancaster Bomber, a feat that was considered reckless and impossible due to the aircraft’s size and relatively low speed.

Henshaw flew more than 3,000 planes including the first ever test flight of a Castle-Bromwich-built Spitfire in 1940, and led a team of 25 pilots, who between them flew more than 37,000 test flights out of Castle Bromwich Aerodrome.

Visit the main 24 Hour Museum VE Day index page to find out about Their Past Your Future Events and to explore World War Two-related resources - including trails, features, news and reviews.

Don Owen used Storymaker to share some of his reminiscences about wartime Birmingham. You can read what he has to say here.

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This commemorative trail section was funded by the Big Lottery Fund through MLA.

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