Manchester - A City In World War Two

By Helen Orrell | 06 June 2005
shows a black and white picture of buildings crashing to the ground

Air raid damage Manchester. Buildings crashing to ground on the corner of Deansgate and St Mary's Gate, 8 January 1941. © Imperial War Musem.

Since the IRA bomb in 1996, the face of Manchester has changed rapidly as the city has undergone major redevelopment. But it was between 1939 and 1945 that the city’s landscape altered more dramatically than at any other time in its history.

In August 1939 war was imminent so the Government made plans for the evacuation of schoolchildren and others from areas most likely to be bombed. From September 1 1939, 172,000 children and 23,000 adults were evacuated from Manchester over three days making it one of the largest evacuations of a single area.

Crime did not stop because the nation was at war, so police had to cope with the extra demands of wartime while still carrying out their usual duties. They made preparations for attack, warned of air raids, tackled black market smuggling and performed rescue work.

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A bomb is removed from a back garden in Whalley Range. © Greater Manchester Police Museum.

Housed in a former Victorian police station, Greater Manchester Police Museum gives a good impression of the scope of duties performed by the force during the Second World War.

It contains examples of the gas masks police issued to civilians, including a child’s Mickey Mouse gas mask and masks for people with asthma, as well as gas rattles and flashlights carried by air raid wardens.

Also on display are exhibits detailing wartime offences featuring a mock studio with the tools of the infamous Manchester forger, Herbert Winstanley, who made £20,000 in counterfeit notes between 1939 and 1945. All visitors to the museum are asked to view by appointment.

shows a photograph of a policeman stood inside a bomb crater in a park.

A policeman in a bomb crater on Heaton Moor. © Greater Manchester Police Museum.

Manchester already had a large Jewish community, many of whom had settled in the city in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but as the Nazis took control of Germany many Jewish refugees came to Manchester to escape persecution.

They were initially housed in hostels and supported by local refugee committees. In the ladies’ gallery at Manchester’s Jewish Museum are records from Manchester’s child refugee committee, personal documents such as passports and travel permits along with photos of child refugees.

Particularly moving are diary entries which tell the story of female Jewish refugees who stayed at the Southport hostel, Harris House. The museum also has booklets given to Jewish immigrants instructing them how fit-in in Britain along with documents from internment camps on the Isle of Man where Jewish refugees, believed to be enemy aliens, were sent in 1941.

shows a black and white photograph of a group of landgirls posing for a photograph in a field.

Jewish women in the Women's Land Army © Manchester Jewish Museum.

Manchester’s Jewish community played an important role in the war effort with Jewish recruits on the Home Front, industries and rescue work. Photographs of the Women’s Land Army, prayer books for Jewish soldiers and sailors and photographs of men and women in the forces reflect the community’s contribution.

Before the war Manchester was a thriving industrial city and a financial centre for the cotton industry. When war broke out firms changed their production to make munitions and armaments.

Trafford Park became a powerhouse for the manufacture of electronics, aeroplanes, tank and gun parts. Smoke producing plants were set up to screen the area from enemy aircraft. Leading engineering companies Metropolitan Vickers (Metrovicks) and AV Roe joined forces to produce the Manchester bomber, which was later modified and called the Lancaster after Metrovicks was hit in an air raid in 1941.

shows a production line of Lancaster bombers in a factory

Lancaster bombers nearing completion at the A V Roe & Co factory, Woodford Airfield, Manchester. Second World War. © Imperial War Museum.

In 1940 the old Ford Factory in Trafford Park re-opened to manufacture Rolls Royce aero-engines for fighter planes, producing over 900 a month. Its initial workforce was 2,300 but by 1944 this had increased to 17,307 with more than a third of its employees female.

Women were called to work for the first time in history in December 1941 to help with the war effort. They took posts in the forces, the Women’s Land Army, nursing services and munitions factories like those at Trafford Park.

Women in Wartime in the Forshaw Gallery at The Museum of the Manchester Regiment in Ashton-Under-Lyne pays tribute to these female workers.

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The barracks of the Manchester Regiment at Ashton-Under-Lyne. © Tameside Local Studies Collection.

The Museum also houses a collection of memorabilia from those who served in the 1st and 2nd Manchester Regiment, based at Ashton-Under-Lyne barracks until 1958.

World War Two highlights include an Anderson shelter with wartime sound effects, an extensive medal collection featuring Manchester Regiment Victoria Crosses, a timeline of the Regiment’s activities throughout the two World Wars and other items from the Home Front.

A new wartime exhibition entitled Keep Smiling Through will open in the Setantii Visitor Centre on July 2 2005 when the Forshaw Gallery closes for refurbishment. It will feature photographs, artefacts and memories of local people from the war and the celebrations that followed.

shows a black and white panoramic photograph of a cityscape ablaze.

Piccadilly ablaze December 22, 1940 during the Manchester Blitz on the night of December 22 and 23 1940. © Imperial War Museum.

In the late 1930s there was a growing uncertainty about what shape the war would take. As aircraft had been used increasingly to drop bombs in the Spanish Civil War, and by the Italians in Ethiopia, protecting civilians from air raids became a primary concern.

Air Raid Shelters in Stockport were completed in 1938 and were adapted from already existing tunnels that were discovered during building work in the town and extended to hold 6,500 people.

The Government at first refused to pay for the shelters as they feared there would be a catastrophic number of casualties if this cavernous shelter was bombed. Now open to the public, guides dressed in air raid wardens’ costume take visitors round the labyrinth of tunnels. Key sites on the tour include the lock-up used to hold drunks, the first aid room and sanitary arrangements.

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Stockport Underground Shelter © Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council.

Many people in Manchester had long been prepared for a German offensive on the city, but by 1940 as Britain still remained safe many Mancunians began to feel it wouldn’t happen to them.

After neighbouring Liverpool was hit on December 21 and 22 1940 it was inevitable that Manchester would not escape. On the December 22 the German Luftwaffe began their onslaught on Manchester in one of the fiercest raids of the Blitz.

Many of the city’s fine Victorian buildings were hit in a 48-hour offensive, including the Free Trade Hall - considered a symbol of the city’s greatness, the Royal Exchange, Manchester Cathedral, Piccadilly Gardens and Corporation Street.

shows a black and white photograph of an aerial view of a bombed station in the aftermath of a raid.

Bomb damage after the Manchester Blitz at the Exchange Station. © Imperial War Museum.

But some major civil landmarks escaped unscathed including the Town Hall, Central Library and the Midland Hotel.

A theory about why this area was saved came from an American Intelligence officer who claimed to have uncovered papers indicating Hitler wished to set up his headquarters in the Midland Hotel.

Fire crews worked for two days to control the flames and by 3am on Christmas Eve the fire appeared to be contained, but a sudden change in wind direction caused sparks to fly up and the fire spread quickly out of control.

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Firemen directing hoses on buildings in the centre of Manchester. © Imperial War Museum.

The Greater Manchester Fire Service Museum in Rochdale recreates the event with a blitz scene and relics from the fire. An impressive collection of appliances and fire-fighting equipment are on display outside, a number of which were produced during World War Two.

Visitors can also view uniforms, medals and insignia from the period and access archive material about fire-fighting history. Further information on the Manchester Blitz and wartime Manchester can be found on computer archives in the collection at the city’s Central Library.

The most comprehensive collection of World War Two artefacts in Greater Manchester are on show at the Imperial War Museum North in a landmark aluminium building by architect Daniel Libeskind. The observatory offers visitors an excellent panoramic view of Trafford Park, itself an industrial arsenal in World War Two.

Shows a colour photograph of the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester.

Imperial War Museum North. © Imperial War Museum.

Inside, the collection is ordered chronologically and built around five large objects including a Harrier, a T34 tank developed for Soviet forces from 1940 and a trailer-pump used in the Blitz. A central theme is the affect of war on the lives of ordinary people as the display mixes artefacts with personal accounts.

Every hour the exhibition space is used for a 360° film show, put together from audio and video archives with a programme that changes regularly. Silos explore particular aspects of 20th century conflict such as the role of women, science and technology and commonwealth and empire.

The current temporary exhibition focuses on the experience of war in the North of England. North at War examines the highs and lows of the home front and how news got from the front line to front doors.

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Making barrage balloons at the Dunlop Balloon Factory. © Imperial War Museum.

Manchester highlights include a firewatcher’s shelter, black and white film footage of the bomb damage from the Co-op Wholesale Society’s “Manchester took it too” and police war instructions.

There is also information on barrage balloons, which were reinstated in November 1938 as a way to force German aircraft to fly higher to make their raids less accurate. Photographs show the balloons in production at the Dunlop Balloon Factory and the balloon centre in Bowlee, Middleton.

The images are displayed near to LS Lowry’s iconic Going to Work, 1943, which pictures barrage balloons in the sky above the morning rush of workers. In the 1930s and 40s groups of engineers were particularly active in Manchester in promoting the war effort from a left-wing perspective.

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The Working Class Movement Library. © WCML.

They produced a host of publications to further their cause including newspapers, Trade Union Journals, newsletters and pamphlets, examples of which are spread throughout the shelves at The Working Class Movement Library in Salford. Visitors are asked to call in advance to view material.

After the devastation of war, voters wanted to ensure a better future. By 1945 there was a desperate need for new homes as the pressures of war meant few had been built. The Labour Party promised a comprehensive programme of house building and town planning along with nationalised industries and better social security through the Welfare State.

Their ideas appealed to all those who had fought in the war and in the 1945 General election the party secured a massive election victory. The People’s History Museum follows the Labour Party movement and trade unions from their origins to the 1990s.

shows a poster that features a big V sign emerging over a suburban landscape with the words 'Now Win The Peace, Vote Labour'.

The People's History Museum is a good place to learn about the post-war emergence of the Labour government. © People's History Museum.

Its archives contain Manchester based records of The Communist Party of Great Britain that campaigned for the opening of a Second Front in Europe.

At the Pumphouse a small exhibition area devoted to World War II includes pictures of Atlee’s cabinet, ration books, “demob” suits and a 1945 room set-up with a radio broadcast announcing Churchill’s resignation.

Also on display are election posters with slogans “She can’t make a home until she gets one” and “Industry must serve the People” which formed a major part of the Labour Party’s campaign.

shows a black and white photograph of a prefabricated single storey house.

A pre-fabricated house. © Imperial War Museum.

Once in power the party erected five million new prefab homes built from aluminium, iron or steel and bolted together. There is little evidence of these buildings left in Manchester although some later two-storey examples still exist in Salford and Wythenshawe.

Despite the destruction Manchester benefited from Government grants to re-build the city and for the immediate post-war years hopes were high for a better standard of living.

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 logo of the Big Lottery Fund

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

Read personal stories contributed by people from Manchester on the BBC WW2 People’s War website.

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