Wakefield’s War: Wakefield in The Second World War

In 1939, Wakefield prepared to defend itself against air attack on its people in their homes. How did Wakefield prepare for war, and what were the attacks like? Join us in our trail illustrating Wakefield at War, in photographs selected by Phil Judkins.
  • Heritage Trail item 1

    Target – Wakefield: 1

    The Second World War began in September 1939 when the German Leader, Adolf Hitler, invaded Poland. Britain and France went to war to help Poland, but by July 1940 German armies had overrun most of Europe, forcing the British Army to evacuate from Dunkirk to England. Hitler’s powerful air force could now bomb cities in Britain from airfields in France, Denmark and Norway. The most important targets in Yorkshire were Sheffield, because it made steel, guns and bombs, and Hull, because it was an important port. The targets in Wakefield included the industrial areas along the River Calder and the canal. Even the sports manufacturer Sykes of Horbury was a target, because it had changed over to war work, shown by the women in this photograph making rifle parts.

  • Heritage Trail item 2

    Target – Wakefield: 2

    Among the German targets in Wakefield were the railways, because a huge amount of war material and troops were moved around by railway. One railway target was Charles Roberts’s railway wagon works at Horbury Junction - the type of wagon shown in this photograph was made there to haul ‘Quarrite’, tarred limestone used to build British airfields during the Second World War. Even before the War, the Germans had gathered maps and photos of their targets. There are copies of the German target maps for Wakefield, and some of the target photographs, in Wakefield’s Local Studies Library.

  • Heritage Trail item 3

    Defending The People: 1

    Britain had feared air attack even before the war, and from 1938 had begun to set up a voluntary defence organisation called Air Raid Precautions (ARP, later called Civil Defence). This was designed to give help to the people during and after air attacks by high-explosive bombs, incendiaries (fire-bombs) and poison gas. Over 2,500 Wakefield people served in the City’s ARP as rescue, ambulance or first aid workers, emergency feeding teams, and air raid wardens (who helped the people in each street to find shelter). Very important also were the Auxiliary Fire Service (helping the Fire Brigade) and the special constables (helping the Police). Many ARP workers did this work on top of their normal jobs. Pictured here are some of the Civil Defence workers in Ossett.

  • Heritage Trail item 4

    Defending The People: 2

    Because everyone took shelter when there was an air raid, incendiary bombs (fire-bombs) could start a large fire without anyone seeing it. So volunteer ‘fire watchers’ were stationed on the top of tall buildings at nights (when most air raids came). They kept a lookout for fires and put them out if possible, or called the Fire Services. The work was often cold, uncomfortable, and could be dangerous - the Germans made some of their incendiary bombs explosive deliberately to kill fire-fighters. The fire watchers did this work in addition to their daytime jobs: this picture shows a fire watcher in a look-out tower at Sykes of Horbury.

  • Heritage Trail item 5

    Defending The People: 3

    More than 1 in 10 of the bombs that fell did not explode - they were either delayed-action and exploded later when a timer inside them operated, or were faulty (‘duds’). It was the job of bomb disposal teams to dig out unexploded bombs and defuse them to make them safe - especially dangerous work because the bomb fuses were often booby-trapped. Wakefield’s bomb disposal team was a unit of the Royal Engineers based here at Alverthorpe Hall. This unit defused two huge bombs dropped in December 1940 but only discovered weeks later- one in the yard of Wakefield Prison and one at Chantry Lane, Lupset.

  • Heritage Trail item 6

    The First Attacks: 1

    The first air attack on Wakefield was by a single German bomber on 28 August 1940. At 1.45 a.m. it dropped a high explosive bomb which destroyed four houses in Norton Street, Belle Vue, and damaged many more. The Police Report of the raid, in Wakefield’s Local Studies Library, lists one woman and three men injured, from 17 to 83 years old; they were taken to Clayton Hospital, while many others were given first aid on the spot. Although the damage we see in the photograph is to a civilian area, this house is only 400 metres from important railway and industrial targets, including Wakefield’s main petrol stores just across the canal. If the bombs had been released only five seconds later, the result would have been a major disaster.

  • Heritage Trail item 7

    The First Attacks: 2

    This photograph shows air raid wardens salvaging furniture from the house in Norton Street devastated in the raid of 28 August 1940. Further small raids followed, and sadly, on 1 September 1940 at Wragby, a delayed action bomb dropped on the previous night exploded, killing 7, mainly ARP workers, and injuring a policeman. A fortnight later, in the early evening of 16 September 1940, 10 high explosive and 40 incendiary bombs fell over the area from Clarence Park through Thornes Wharf to Barnsley Road, but most landed in open ground. One house, near Busy Corner on Barnsley Road, was demolished; one fireman was injured, but otherwise only a parrot in the house was killed!

  • Heritage Trail item 8

    The Bomb in The Prison

    In December 1940, 3 high explosive and 20 incendiary bombs fell on Wakefield. Probably these were dropped by bombers that had overshot their target, Sheffield. Craters found at Chantry Lane, Lupset and in the Prison Yard were thought to be the result of small bombs that had already exploded. Weeks later the bomb disposal team from Alverthorpe Hall examined the craters more closely, and discovered unexploded bombs that had gone deep into the ground! The Royal Engineers dug out these huge bombs - each one weighed a ton and a half - and made them safe in February and March 1941 respectively. The photograph shows how close the Prison bomb fell to an important target- Westgate Station and its Goods Yard.

  • Heritage Trail item 9

    The Major Air Raid

    On the night of 14/15 March 1941, Sheffield was once again the target for a significant part of the German bomber force. However, unlike the raids in December 1940, the Sheffield attack was not this time led by the expert German ‘Pathfinder’ crews (who used radio beams to navigate accurately). As a result, many of the German aircraft lost their way and attacked Leeds, Castleford and Wakefield among other places. At 10.53p.m., two large high-explosive bombs fell on Thornes Road, killing five people - two children, a woman and two men - and injuring five more, one of whom later died of the wound. Six houses were demolished - including the one in this photograph - and over 200 damaged. The ages of the dead ranged from 2 to 80 years. Wakefield was fortunate that a large bomb dropped by parachute (a ‘land-mine’) was caught by the wind and blown away from the town centre, finally exploding at Wrenthorpe where it badly damaged a single house

  • Heritage Trail item 10

    Food rationing

    During the Second World War, many foods and other goods were unobtainable or were strictly rationed. For example, the supply of many imported foods such as bananas and oranges dried up, and almost all meat was rationed. The shopper had to produce a ‘ration book’ with coupons that allowed them to buy a small amount of meat, butter, or sugar, each week. People were encouraged to grow their own vegetables on allotments. The rationing system continued in use for certain types of foods, such as sugar and sweets, long after the war. This picture is of a ‘sugar ticket’ from a grocer on Denby Dale Road.

  • Heritage Trail item 11

    Salvage Collection

    During the Second World War, every effort was made to recycle metal, paper, and other scarce items such as rubber. Each item recycled meant that space was saved in the convoys of ships bringing supplies to Britain across the North Atlantic from America. German submarines frequently attacked them, and many merchant ships were sunk. ‘Salvage Drives’ were a regular feature of wartime life, when everything from old pots and pans to newspaper and iron railings were collected. In this picture, salvage lorries are touring the area in 1943 to collect as much as possible.

  • Heritage Trail item 12


    Wakefield’s last air raid was on the morning of Christmas Eve, 1944, when a fleet of 45 German bombers over the North Sea near Spurn Head launched ‘flying bombs’, an early type of cruise missile (called V-1 by the Germans and ‘buzz-bombs’ or ‘doodlebugs’ by the British). These were aimed at Manchester, but almost all crashed before they reached their target. One came down on farmland at Grange Moor, blasting a large crater, but causing little damage. Because of bombing attacks like those on Wakefield, there were more civilian casualties in Britain in the Second World War than in the First World War. This photograph shows Wakefield’s cenotaph, now in Castrop-Rauxel Square, Rishworth Street but previously in Wentworth Street, where memorial services are held each year in commemoration of all those who died in war.