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BLITZKRIEG!

 

This is the story of "fire from the sky" and the indomitable spirit of Woolworth colleagues and customers in the face of great hardship and peril. It was a story that saw one in eight British stores closed temporarily and one in twenty utterly destroyed. But the sister-company in Germany suffered far worse, losing 66 of its 82 stores to allied bombardment by 1945.

The uneasy calm of the phoney war was broken after the fall of France and the Low Countries, as Hitler turned his attention to a possible invasion of Britain. The German High Command hoped that the collapse in Contental Europe and the allied evacuation from Dunquerque would persuaded the British Government to negotiate a peace settlement, but misread public opinion. Instead the Luftwaffe was instructed to establish air superiority, eliminating the threat that the RAF posed to any invasion of the British Isles. In the late summer bombardment was concentrated on London's East End, before a change of tactics brought attacks on other major cities and seaports. As the country's largest retailer, with large, flat-roofed stores in every major city and town, it was inevitable that some Woolworth stores would be hit.

'An unnamed Woolworth store in the Blitz' according to the American media of World War II, actually the branch in London's High Holborn WC1 in the shadow of St Paul's Cathedral

Some branches, like High Holborn, WC1 (left), which stood near St Paul's Cathedral and opposite London's famous Old Houses and the Staple Inn, got away with superficial damage. The Luftwaffe had targeted Paternoster Square in the City's financial district. Damage like this was quickly cleared to allow trading to continue. The American media made extensive use of this picture of Holborn to illustrate the impacts of "the European War". The image was captioned "a London Woolworth store in the Blitz" to avoid giving specific information to the enemy.

Some people mistook the quaint appearance as leaded lights. In fact the windows had been taped across to prevent injuries if it broke into large pieces. The damage shown was caused when vibration damaged a parapet wall above the doors at roof level. The tapes did their job; no-one was hurt when the left-hand window broke.

 

The Elephant and Castle will never forget 10 May 1941 when fire rained from the sky. Its Woolworth store was razed to the ground in under five minutes once the fire took hold.

A mile or so down the road, Woolworth store '313' in Newington Butts, Elephant and Castle, wasn't so lucky. Sustained bombing on the night of 10 May 1941 set the whole area ablaze. Firefighters fought valiantly to prevent the inferno from destroying all in its path, but were unable to save the store. By morning only its flank wall and a few steel girders were still standing.

The staff were re-assigned to neighbouring stores, with half moving to Lower Marsh, SE1 and half to Walworth Road, SE17, each within half a mile. At HQ an executive updated the Elephant and Castle's entry in the master list of stores with "EA 10/5/41", indicating that it had been completely destroyed by enemy action. It did not re-open until 1965.

 

Cine film of the big Woolworths in High Street Hounslow on fire during World War II

 

In the early months of the war the enemy attacked mainly by night, when most of the stores and neighbouring streets were quiet. Most damage resulted from the fires started by incendiary bombs rather than directly from an explosion.

 

As losses increased, particularly in the East End of London with its busy docks and factories, company bosses looked for ways to reduce the losses and damage to property, and for ways to get back up and running quickly after any incident. They called for volunteers to work as fire watchers. This involved spending the night in-store so that there was someone on hand if an incendiary bomb was dropped, both to attempt to extinguish the fire and to speed access for the Fire Brigade and ARP. Each volunteer received training and was paid danger money. The heroes went on to save countless stores. They had just the store cat to keep them company. Many branches affectionately called their Ginger Tom "Mr Woolworth"!

 

Mr Clifford Quartermaine who had served his Country with distinction in the First World War, before joining Woolworth in 1924 and a career of over thirty years. In 1940 he was manager at Sparkhill, Birmingham by day, before making his way from the suburbs into the City centre to firewatch at the flagship Bullring Store in Spiceal Street.Mr Reg Gallanders - who gave fine service to Woolworth from 1932 until 1970 - used to swap his suit for a policeman's tunic to act as a Special Constable throughout the Blitz

The sons of two Woolworth Managers recall how, at the end of hard day's work in-store, their fathers would travel across town to do fire-watching in another, higher risk branch. Clifford Quartermaine (left) managed Sparkhill, Birmingham and later Rugby, Warwickshire, before travelling to Bull Ring (Spiceal Street) to stand guard at the Birmingham flagship. Reg Gallanders (right), one of the great benefactors of our Museum, used to swap his Manager's suit for the tunic of a Special Constable.

 

As the weeks went by, in preparation for the planned invasion of England, the Luftwaffe launched more daring raids.  Not only London but the South Coast ports and major industrial and manufacturing cities around the country were bombed. It is said the Luftwaffe command chose their targets from a 1930s travelogue guide book - meaning if the author hadn't liked the town it didn't get bombed! Among others, the Woolworth stores in Plymouth, Portsmouth, Above Bar Southampton, Southsea and Dover were destroyed in the South. Further North the branches in Hull's Whitefriargate, Norwich, Coventry and Sheffield faced a similar fate.

 

Obliterated like most of central Coventry - Woolworths in Smithford Street

Coventry

Totally destroyed by enemy action, Woolworths in London Road, Lowestoft during World War II

Lowestoft

Blitzed during World War II - Sheffield City Centre.  The fireball destroyed Woolworths and melted the marble frontage of the Cole Brothers Department Store. (Image: courtesy COI)

Sheffield

The last day of the original Woolworths in Old Town Street, Plymouth, Devon.  After an incendiary bomb one night, the following night German bombers returned to finish the job.

Plymouth

All that remained of the elegant Woolworths in Rampant Horse Street, Norwich after off-target enemy action destroyed the whole block during World War II

Norwich

 

F.W. Woolworth in Smithford Street, Coventry in happier times before the warIn happer times - Norfolk's finest pre-war Woolworths in Rampant Horse Street, Norwich The pictures bear witness to the destruction in the blitzed cities. When the buildings were replaced after the war much of the old character of the streets was lost. But many stores survived intact. Remarkably the huge flagship store in Liverpool remained unscathed while other buildings closer to the Pier Head, including the District Office, were razed to the ground. The Piccadilly, Manchester store at the junction of Oldham Street also escaped the severe bombardment of that City. Survival was a lottery. In Croydon the large Edwardian store in North End survived intact, while the smaller branch half a mile away in Church Street was hit five times during the War.

 

In the final reckoning 26 out of 767 Woolworth stores were destroyed during the long conflict, but a further 326 were patched up by their staff and quickly re-opened after suffering damage. The worse the attack, the more determined the workers became to ensure that the enemy did not prevail. You can find out more about their bravery and bulldog spirit in another feature in this gallery of the Woolworths Museum.

 

Fast links to related content in the Woolworths Museum

1940s War, Austerity and Recovery Gallery

UK and USA a world apart   Blitz hits major cities   Spitfires for the RAF   Channel Islands Occupation   

Prices over sixpence   Home front defiance    A little piece of home   Woolworths' darkest hour  Reconstruction and post-war austerity  

Wartime history pages with HTML5 media content averaging 1.5mb

Woolworths Staff War Memorial    New Cross Memorial   Finest hour picture gallery   

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