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1941: The year the bombs fell

During WW2 seventy-seven people were killed in Leeds
and thousands of buildings were damaged.

The heaviest raid was in March 1941,
the so-called “Quarter Blitz”. 

We look back at that fateful night and hear the stories
of two women who lived through the war.


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On the night of 15 March 1941, Leeds found itself under attack from a German air raid which damaged various buildings, including the Town Hall. Its Calverley Street entrance bore the brunt of the damage. Due to censorship reasons, it wasn’t until a month later, on 14 April 1941, that the story was reported in full in the Yorkshire Evening Post. 

“You got a dozen volunteers every time you wanted a man for a dangerous job. There wasn’t a single shirker or a man who considered his own safety first”, said Mr J. W. H. Tansley, City Buildings Superintendent, describing how his staff, the police and fire service tackled the situation. 

We couldn’t really

believe it! We used to

get a lot of stuff that they said were made into bombs.

Of course we just

carried on with the job

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The Yorkshire Evening Post reports that Mr Tansley had taken off his rubber boots and tin hat and had been resting on a bed in his office in Leeds Town Hall, when something compelled him to go to the side entrance on Calverley Street. The bombs had been falling nearby but Bill Hollingworth, the night watchman and former soldier was still on duty in the porch there. Calling Hollingworth inside, Tansley had just entered a room where the porter was about to make some tea, when the bomb fell. Mr Tansley was thrown across the room into the fireplace, just in time to meet a large amount of burning soot dislodged by the blast. Some of the soot went down his throat and he was half suffocated but the porter went to his aid and gave him milk to relieve the agony of his burned throat. He was incapacitated for the next ninety minutes but then spent five hours giving orders to staff, although later he said he could barely remember this time period. 


The watchman, Bill Hollingworth, had been buried in the ruins of the Calverley Street entrance along with a policeman but was rescued by police and auxiliary firemen. A dedicated employee, he refused to go to the Infirmary until he had passed on some keys to Mr Tansley. He was back at work in few days and volunteered again for night duty. 


An electrician, Mr Standaloft, was especially commended for his bravery that night. He had entered demolished buildings on the other side of the street to help those buried and also, along with a fireman, climbed to the upper floor of the Town Hall to deal with an unexploded second bomb. Unfortunately he reached the bomb just as the fireman outside the building swept the area with water from their hoses and knocked Standaloft from his feet. He received a commendation from Mr Tansley for entering several damaged buildings and turning off the lights. 


The damage to the side of the Town Hall was extensive but there were some curiosities. One glass door had been blown off its hinges but not a pane of glass had smashed. Mr Tansley’s room was wrecked but his bed was untouched and a large table covering over 30 square feet in area had mysteriously disappeared. 

The explosion also damaged the Law Library which was housed in the Town Hall. Some 1500 volumes were buried under the rubble and damaged by water from the hose pipes but Mr Trowsdale, the librarian responsible for the Law Library, risked his own safety by retrieving every volume from the damaged part of the building and not a single book was lost. 


Cleaners arrived at 6.00am, as they usually did, and together with the maintenance staff, got the building ready for the day’s Assize Court. Glass was swept up and windows were covered and it was business as usual at Leeds’ most iconic building. Some of the damage sustained that night can be seen on the exterior wall on Victoria Gardens at the junction with The Headrow and Calverley Street. 


Sylvia Hayes, 97, lived in the “Klondike” area of Leeds, which was near Wakefield Road in Hunslet. We spoke to her about her memories of the time.
"I have a clear memory of seeing a Zeppelin over Leeds. I think it was 1937, but I may be wrong. I think it was the R101 Zeppelin. We thought the Germans must be spying on us. It was so odd to see it up there, and quite frightening. 
I do remember the bombing in ‘41, it affected the whole area in Holbeck. Just where the Woodpecker pub was, on the corner of Marsh Lane and York Road. We were in a back-to-back and we had a cellar so we hid in there. We weren’t hit but we could hear them going overhead. 

Leeds wasn’t hit badly during the war. They say it’s because the planes couldn’t see us. Leeds centre is a giant hole, a dip. So the planes going overhead couldn’t spot us. But Leeds should have been a target, we had every industry in Leeds. Other places had it worse. They reckon that the bomb that hit us was on its way back from a raid up north somewhere, he had a bomb left over and he dropped it on us. 
1941 was the year I turned 18. So I went up to the labour exchange to sign up, to do what I could for the war effort. The lady, she was so rude, she took one look at me and told me not to bother, I was too young. 
Well the next day I sorted it out. I ended up working in a factory in Stourton. That was Rolls Royce! So I spent the war at Rolls Royce". 
Editor’s Note: We were unable to find any information about a Zeppelin in 1937. But the famous Hindenburg Zeppelin did fly over Yorkshire in 1936! 
Lena Ackroyd, 95, worked at Waddington’s in Stourton during WW2. She thought she was just making playing cards, but the reality was something rather different. 
"I worked at Waddington’s from around 1939. I went for a job in the playing card office. The war was just starting. I hadn’t been there long and I was really enjoying the work. One day a man took eight of us together downstairs into this room. There was a couple too, from London. We went down these steps, there were 12 steps. And there were four machines there. They taught us to make gun cartridges. All we had to do was use paper and cardboard to make them on the machines. They went elsewhere to be finished off, then were taken off to the war. 


Internal damage to the Town hall

We couldn’t really believe it! We used to get a lot of stuff that they said were made into bombs. Of course we just carried on with the job. We got a very strange visitor once, from the army. I’ll never forget it because he had a polar bear on the arm of his uniform. We also made scarves for the RAF which had codes on. 

We had to sign the Official Secrets Act. Though at the time we didn’t really think much of it. I went out with Victor Watson’s chauffeur. We went out regular. We used to go dancing in Woodlesford together. We had a good time! He went into the army eventually. It was sad when the building was pulled down. It was a beautiful building with a lovely door. A beautiful place. 


We didn’t get any bombs in Rothwell. But we got quite a few young Islanders from when the Germans invaded (the Channel Islands). They spoke French, some of them. My cousin married one of them in the end! They were absolutely riddled with bugs and whatnot. So they had to burn their clothes. We had to go over them with a paste brush to kill the bugs. 


Damage to front and side of the Town Hall

Near the back end of the war I went into the Land Army. I wanted to get away from it all. I wasn’t old enough to go in the forces. We were trained in Wetherby. I saw an elderly lady recently who I met all those years ago. We didn’t have any gas or electric. Every night I had to fill up a big pot with water. We had animals but we didn’t have any proper tools! We were working in the fields. One time I helped with an ambulance. We went to Hull.


During WW2 Lena Ackroyd worked at Waddington’s

When we got there, we opened the ambulance door and I started carrying a box out. An old ARP man was there, he just looked at me and said, “Eee lass, tha’s nobbut a bairn, get home to yer mother.” The whole place had been bombed. It was unbelievable.

I’ll never forget it; I still have nightmares about it. When I saw his face it suddenly hit me that there was a war on. I thought, “Oh God, what are we doing?” I’ve never been back to Hull since.

Another time a different ARP man said, “I’ve got a present for you.” It was an ARP whistle. He said, “When you’re walking around, keep your eyes open, look in the bushes and so on – if you see a German, blow the whistle.” For three weeks I was walking on tiptoes. But I had no idea what a German looked like! Every time I’d walk round a corner I’d expect a big man to come out with a huge helmet with a feather on it!​"

​Hopefully this article has stirred your memories of WW2. Do get in touch if you’d like to share them!


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