It’s easy to forget, for those who weren’t there, what a pounding this country took from German bombs in the early years of the Second World War.
Easier still to assume that all of the enemy’s efforts were concentrated on London – and the capital did, of course, take the worst of it.
But it wasn’t alone in its suffering by a long way, as this week’s fascinating exhibit from the Scarborough Collections describes.
Front Line 1940-1941 was issued in 1942 by the Ministry of Information on behalf of the Ministry of Home Security. It’s a remarkable historical document, but also a paean to the British stiff upper lip.
The opening paragraph is a dramatic piece of rhetoric describing attacks on home turf during the first nine months of the conflict – a steady progression from north to south: “The first bomb fell upon Hoy in the Orkneys on 17th October, 1939. The first civilian was killed at Bridge of Waith, Orkney, on 16th March, 1940, a half-year after the outbreak. The first bomb on the mainland of Britain for 22 years fell near Wick on the night of 10th April. On 24th May, the first industrial town was attacked – Middlesbrough. The first bombs on the London area hit plough-land at Addington in Surrey on 18th June.”
What may come as a surprise to younger readers is the amount of raids on Scarborough. We hear a lot, and rightly so, about the bombardment of the First World War and its 18 victims. But the town was bombed no less than 17 times in the first two years of the second war: 30 civilians were killed and an estimated 2,250 houses damaged. Down the coast at Bridlington, similar casualties were sustained – 30 raids took place, 24 civilians lost their lives and an estimated 3,000 houses were damaged.
And all around the British coast, we see a similar story – Fraserburgh, Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft, Margate, Deal, Dover, Eastbourne, Bournemouth and Falmouth were just some of the seaside towns targeted by the Luftwaffe.
But why would the enemy take such an interest in harmless seaside towns, many of whose primary economy was fishing and/or tourism?
Front Line takes a rather gung-ho and bitter approach in its explanation, in a chapter entitled Seaside Tip-and-Run (that being a military raid executed rapidly, and departed from immediately):
“Many of the coastal towns were (and are) bombed all the time. For this there are a number of reasons, some operating at one period, some at another.
“To begin with, a knowledge of the coast and what is happening there is important to the enemy on several grounds; so that he reconnoitred it continually. Reconnaissance planes carry bombs. Secondly, minelaying is a dull and boring job, and the German crews carried a bomb or two for launching as a treat, or to relieve their feelings: the coastal towns were (and are) their victims.
“Thirdly, planes on the hunt for shipping treated the smaller seaside towns as alternative targets. Lastly, not all these places were heavily defended: any irresolute crew could bomb them in comparative safety and then go home to report Fierce Fires and Great Explosions.
“…it seemed evident [that coastal] targets were selected largely for the propaganda value of being able to report raids to the German public without risking comparatively heavy losses to the slender bomber-force left in the West.”
In the midst of that list of clear-minded military stratagem, the suggestion that civilian lives were being lost merely because the German planes carried an extra bomb ‘or two’ to launch as a ‘treat’ is a shocking and damning juxtaposition. And the dripping sarcasm of those capitals on ‘Fierce Fires and Great Explosions’ hasn’t been lost in the decades since.
Front Line 1940-1941 is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.firstname.lastname@example.org or 01723 384510.