‘A play that vividly evokes both the terrors of wartime bombing and Sheffield’s capacity for survival.’ ★★★★ Michael Billington, The Guardian
On Tue 11 October, we bring the critically acclaimed Theatre production, Operation Crucible to Farnham Maltings. The show charts the events of the evening of Thu 12 December 1940, where after months of pounding the Capital and the ports of Southern England, the Luftwaffe turned its attention to the Steel City of Sheffield.
The epicentre of the bombardment was the Marples Hotel right in the City Centre and the show tells the story of 4 terrified ordinary men taking shelter in the hotel’s basement.
The show has just completed a 3 week run at the Sheffield Crucible where it has garnered huge local support and revived this important date in the city’s history.
With the help of Sheffield historian, Chris Hobbs, we have written this article about the events of that fateful night.
The Sheffield Blitz – Thursday 12th December, 1940
Sheffield was a key city in Britain’s military supply chain during World War II. Munitions, aircraft parts and armour plate were all produced in its factories, and so the bombing of Sheffield by the German airforce was tactically inevitable.
About 600 fatalities resulted from air raids on the city, very nearly all of them due to two major attacks in the December of 1940. It was during the first of these (overnight on 12th-13th) that the city centre was worst hit.
There are poignant tales and memories of the Blitz from all over Sheffield, but most locals would agree that one incident has taken on a symbolic significance. At least 70 people were killed by a single bomb that night, as they sheltered in the cellars of the Marples hotel in Fitzalan Square.
The History of the Marples
Fitzalan Square lies at the eastern end of Sheffield’s High Street, about a quarter of a mile south of the Lady’s Bridge bow of the River Don. This part of the city has been the market quarter since medieval times, and was once known as the Bullstake. The modern square took its name from the market hall that stood there in the Regency period. This hall was itself named after a minor branch of the Howard family, Dukes of Norfolk and the principal local landowners.
The corner of the square that adjoins the High Street was first occupied by a hotel in about 1870. From 1886, the premises were owned by John Marples, who kept a licence under the title of the Market Street Wine Vaults. Even after a subsequent name-change to the London Mart, the establishment was familiarly known as ‘Marples.’
It was an imposing building, standing seven stories high, with a concert hall, residential suites and a grand lounge as well as a number of bars and guestrooms. Although never officially designated as an air raid shelter (the nearest was about two hundred yards to the north in Bridge Street), the Marples was a conspicuously robust building with an extensive network of cellars below ground. After incendiary bombing started numerous fires in the surrounding streets, it’s not surprising that many people in the vicinity congregated there for refuge.
At the beginning of September 1940, German air power was redeployed on a new mission. Until then, the Luftwaffe had been assigned to air support for an imminent invasion of the United Kingdom. The Battle of Britain, however, had caused unexpectedly heavy losses of both aircraft and crew, and a deferment of invasion plans until the Spring of 1941 at the earliest had to be made.
The alternative plan became known as the Blitz, and consisted of the systematic bombing of British cities, particularly industrial centres and ports. The objectives went beyond the destruction of military assets, though. They brought an atrocious new dimension to warfare, that of the wholesale victimising and terrorising of the general public.
The devastation of Coventry in mid-November was followed by strikes against Southampton, Birmingham and Bristol in huge single-target raids at intervals of about a week. The people of Sheffield expected their fate, but couldn’t know when it would befall them.
The moon had been full when Coventry was hit, and it was full again on the night of 12 December. The attack on Sheffield was code-named Crucible by the Germans, a reference to the pioneering steelmaking technique developed there in the eighteenth century. From several airfields in occupied France, the Dritte Luftflotte sent out some 300 aeroplanes, mainly Junkers JU-88s, Dornier 17s and Heinkel 111s.
The main intention of the mission was to destroy the factories along the Don Valley, but the first wave of bombers (Heinkels carrying incendiary weapons) encountered low cloud in the target area. It’s speculated that a navigator mistook the Moor (a commercial thoroughfare south of the city centre) for Attercliffe Road (the major arterial road through the industrial belt). By the time that planes carrying high explosives came on the scene at about 9pm, the fires that marked their target were centred in the heart of the city.
Down at ground level in the vicinity of Fitzalan Square, there must have been widespread panic by this time. Newspaper accounts and radio broadcasts brought a sense of readiness for the inevitable, but they were surely scant preparation for the reality of an air raid. The sirens had first sounded at about 7pm, and fires were already raging in Fargate and in Commercial Street. Around 9.30pm, a stick of bombs flattened buildings in Campo Lane and Vicar Lane at the opposite end of the High Street, demolishing the west end of the city’s cathedral in the process. At 10.50pm, what was probably a 500kg bomb fell on the C&A department store directly opposite the Marples, completely levelling the building. The Marples itself was extensively damaged by a hail of debris, and the force of the blast shattered all of its windows.
Those within the hotel, as well as many who had been caught in the streets outside, were by now huddled in the cellars. These helpless people may have reasoned that they were safe in this location, at least as compared with the havoc at ground level. Even if the hotel above them were to collapse, the cellar roof might hold, offering a fair chance of being dug out alive. In the event, though, the Marples took a direct hit at 11.44pm. The bomb probably plunged through the upper floors of the building, only detonating on floor-level impact right above the cellars.
The first people on the scene were confronted by a total ruin. Among them was a corporation transport employee called William Reading who had been sheltering in the basement of an office on the square. He later described finding the Marples gone, leaving a fifteen-feet-high mound of rubble where it had stood.
Even when the all-clear sounded at 4am on the Friday morning, the Marples was not the scene of the first concerted rescue efforts. An initial assessment showed that the cellar roof had given way, causing tons of masonry to bear down into the space beneath. The authorities realised that the chances of survival were minimal, and turned their efforts towards more hopeful areas of the bombsite.
It was at around 10am that people familiar with the building attempted an entry down the still-accessible bottle-cellar steps, and they realised that there were survivors beneath the rubble. The Marples’ cellars consisted of several compartments, and a single chamber’s roof had withstood the collapse. Seven men inside it had miraculously escaped serious injury. By the middle of the afternoon, all were brought out. Most needed some medical attention, and for this reason five of the survivors’ names are known. The other two simply walked away, and were never subsequently traced.
Everyone else hidden beneath the Marples must have died instantly, crushed in the collapse. It took many weeks to excavate the site, and an accurate number of casualties will never be known. The bodies of sixty-four people were recovered, as well as the partial remains of six or seven others. Forty-six were identified, all but fourteen from their personal effects.
There are many stories about the bombing of the Marples, recounting lucky escapes as well as pathetic bereavements. According to several popular accounts, children were taken inside as the air raid intensified, although the youngest listed victim was a 22-year-old woman.
One person who cheated death was a celebrity – Joe Davis, who was already by then the World Billiards Champion. He was scheduled to play an exhibition match at the Marples that night, but could not make the trip from Hull because of earlier bomb damage to the railway network.