Steel For Ships, Planes & Tanks - Sheffield Industry In World War Two

By James Murphy | 20 June 2005
shows a colour photograph of a museum display with a large bomb in the centre and a neon sign saying 'made in sheffield' on the wall.

Kelham Island Industrial Museum has a mass of information about steel working and its contribution to the war. Photo © James Murphy/24 Hour Museum.

"Steel for ships, planes, tanks and craftsmen to shape it. That was the Empire’s call to Sheffield in the hour of peril. She did not call in vain." - The Sheffield Star, 1941.

Throughout the 1930s Sheffield’s world famous steel industry was struggling. In the grip of a recession, jobs and pay were in decline. The country’s rearmament in the build up to war and the constant demand for reinforcements meant the ‘Steel City’ could stoke the furnaces once more.

Steelworks began running at full capacity making all imaginable tools of war and Sheffield’s contribution to the armament of the British forces was massive.

For the first 18 months of war the only drop hammer in the country capable of forging crankshafts for the deadly Spitfire was at Vickers Works in the city. At Hadfield’s Steelworks 18 inch armour piercing shells were built, the only place in the UK. These were just some of the companies in Sheffield churning out world-class artillery and armour.

Shows a black and white photo of a tram that has been bombed with its top half completely blown away and with a badly bomb damaged building behind it

Trams destroyed during an air raid on Sheffield. © Imperial War Museum

Kelham Island Industrial Museum is a testament to Sheffield’s industrial past and its invaluable contribution to the Allied war effort. Nestled in the heart of the city’s old industrial quarter a walk in the surrounding area throws up remnants of this legacy - visible even now.

The museum, situated by the River Don, is bustling with sights and sounds. There is a mass of information about steel working and its contribution to the war. Working machinery and dioramas produce a realistic image of what life in these dangerous factories would have been like.

A Barnes Wallis designed earthquake bomb, the Grand Slam, can also be seen at the museum. Built at Vickers and Company, the bomb is the heaviest in the world, standing almost eight metres high and weighing a massive 10 tonnes.

Shows a photo of a large black bomb standing upright in a museum display

The Grand Slam bomb, designed by Barnes Wallis who invented the famous 'bouncing bomb' used in the Dambusters raid. This one weighed about 10 tonnes. © James Murphy.

Staring up at the tip one wonders how it was ever lifted and the tremendous damage it must have caused is frightening. Running numerous activities for children like gas mask training and mock evacuations the museum offers hands-on fun and an accessible way of learning about life during the war.

The ‘Steel City’ was a vital cog in the Allied war effort and the city’s vast industrial sector teemed with factories. The immense steel industry, churning out everything from bayonets to tank armour, with the surrounding coal mines feeding the factories, made Sheffield an obvious target for enemy air raids.

Expectations were for sustained and heavy bombing. This never materialised but the German Luftwaffe did hit the city hard in December 1940. The Sheffield Blitz took place over three nights - the 12th, 13th and 15th. More than 660 people lost their lives in the attacks and nearly 80,000 buildings were destroyed.

shows a pile of rusty projectiles and bombs in museum display

Displays about the Sheffield Blitz together with unexploded Luftwaffe bombs can be seen at Kelham Island © James Murphy/24 Hour Museum.

However, through fault or design, the Luftwaffe emptied most of their bombs over the city centre. Fires raged for hours. To get an idea of this destruction, the Sheffield Library Service searchable photograpic archive Picture Sheffield is the best place to explore the Sheffield Blitz and to find other images of the city during the war.

The archive, which is fully searchable is the Internet version of the Sheffield Local Studies Library computerised image system and includes dramatic scenes of the firefighting, bomb damage, ARP actions and even the VE Day celebrations

When the fires were finally extinguished there were scenes of devastation everywhere. Many department stores were destroyed together with cinemas and concert halls - even Sheffield United's Bramall Lane football stadium was badly damaged.

shows a group of women posing for a group photograph wearing steel helmets.

Library Staff on the roof of the Central Library for ARP training. Today the Central Library is home to the Local Studies Library and the Picture Sheffield Archive. © Picture Sheffield/Sheffield Local Studies Library.

The steelworks were however largely untouched. Bombing on the last night hit some targets on the Industrial East Side but Sheffield’s industry escaped relatively unscathed.

The city’s Home Guard, Fire Service and Police Force were invaluable at this time, supervising the evacuation of damaged areas, extinguishing fires and preventing large-scale panic.

At one of Sheffield’s most individual museums you can learn more about their work at the time. The Fire and Police Museum, 500 yards from Kelham Island, is the largest museum of its type in the country. An independent museum, it opened in 1982 and has won a number of national awards.

Shows a black and white photograph of a bomb damaged residential street.

Many residential areas were hit during the Sheffield Blitz. Here bomb damage is shown on Sandford Road. © Picture Sheffield/Sheffield Local Studies.

The museum features a section dedicated to Sheffield during World War Two and it is a great place to learn more about the work of the emergency services at this time of crisis. There are examples of the types of engine and equipment used by the city's fire fighters to tackle the enormous blazes raging after the Sheffield Blitz.

The museum is also home to the only known example of a certain type of Morrison Shelter. The shelter made out of a bell once stood on top of Dome Tools Ltd. and was used to watch for attack. There is also an extensive collection of images and stories from the Blitz.

Another air raid shelter can be seen at the , on Ecclesall Road just outside the city centre. Owned by Sheffield University it is run by a team of knowledgeable and dedicated volunteers.

As you stroll past the meticulously recreated scenes from Sheffield’s history ask any of them about the city during the war and they will regale you with tales of days gone by.

Shows a photo of a musuem display including three gas masks, two helmets, some old booklets and a brass hand bell

The collections at Sheffieild Traditional Heritage Museum include extensive home front materials. © James Murphy/24 Hour Museum.

Housing a modest collection of artefacts from Sheffield’s experience of the war, the museum offers another valuable insight into the history of the ‘Steel City’ and boasts some startling images of the life of a Sheffielder at the time.

There is a vast array of helmets and other equipment used by the Sheffield Home Guard. One of the most interesting pieces in the museum is an enormous gas mask big enough to hold a baby. The collection and archives also include information about evacuated local schools.

On the way out of the city on Abbeydale Road South stands the Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet. This unique industrial works closed in 1933 but reopened to cope with the added demand for steel from the war office. The site’s many unused buildings also housed people who had lost their homes during the Sheffield Blitz.

Shows a photo of a dank looking underground arched room made of bricks

Furnaces, like these at Abbeydale fueled the war effort from the steel mills of Sheffield. © 24 Hour Museum.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries Abbeydale was one of the largest water-powered sites on the River Sheaf. The crucible furnace, which reopened to supply other sites in the city with high-grade steel, is the only intact example in the world today. Here you can see waterwheels, tilt hammers and grinding hulls.

An audio tour will take you step by step on an illuminating tour through this difficult and dangerous trade that proved invaluable to the Allied victory In Europe and is another example of the vital role Sheffield played in the fuelling the war effort from its furnaces and factories.

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. The Imperial War Museum North in Manchester is also hosting the North at War exhibition until January 2006, which includes photographs covering Sheffield's experience of the war.

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

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