Clydebank Blitz 70th Anniversary

– in the Scottish Parliament on 17 March 2011.

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Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

The final item of business today is a members’ business debate on motion S3M-7738, in the name of Des McNulty, on the 70th anniversary of the Clydebank blitz. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes that this year marks the 70th anniversary of the Clydebank Blitz; recognises that the destruction inflicted by aerial bombardment on 13 and 14 March 1941 in Clydebank was proportionately the worst suffered in any part of the United Kingdom, leaving only seven houses undamaged in the town and over 48,000 people homeless; mourns the hundreds of people who lost their lives, along with those who were seriously injured; praises the heroism of service personnel, health and local authority workers and volunteers in Clydebank at the time of the Blitz; welcomes the efforts of West Dunbartonshire Council, local church congregations and other local groups to ensure that the anniversary is recognised in an appropriate fashion; acknowledges the terrible price paid by Clydebank, and considers there to be a need to invest in the regeneration of the town that was affected not only by the Blitz but also by the collapse of the shipbuilding and engineering industries on which the economy of the town was so dependent.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

In the past couple of weeks, we have seen some horrendous images of death and devastation from Japan on our television screens. There is no doubt that the scale of the natural disaster in Japan has been truly ferocious. We would not in any sense want to make a comparison between the Clydebank blitz and the scale of that destruction, but it is notable that such images of what happened in Clydebank are not available. There was substantial destruction and devastation in Clydebank—only seven houses remained undamaged after the events of 13 and 14 March 1941. The estimates of the number of people who were killed vary, but we certainly know that 500 or more people were identified as having died in the bombing and, of course, many thousands of people lost their homes and were obliged either to move elsewhere or to stay in the rubble of Clydebank for a period until a temporary shelter could be found.

The fact that all that happened in one town at one time makes it the biggest catastrophe of the second world war in Scotland. The second world war led to many millions of people being killed, of course, but that incident was the single most significant incident in Scotland and, arguably, the most significant incident in one place in the whole UK. In respect of the proportions of destruction and the numbers of people who were killed, what happened in Clydebank was every bit the equal of what happened in Coventry, London, Liverpool and other places, but the stories of those places were much better known at the time. The reason for that was that a lot of what happened in Clydebank was suppressed; it simply was not made known to people. Therefore, people from Clydebank have always, in a sense, felt that the story of the Clydebank blitz has been untold. It was something that happened to their town that they know about and that their friends and relatives were involved in, but it never got the publicity that it deserved at the time.

That sense of the story being untold or hidden continued after the war, to some extent. What happened in Clydebank was neglected a bit. I do not know the reason for that, as I was not around at the time, but it is only in recent years that what happened there has begun to be fully recognised. That has been the result of the stories of the people being told in books such as “Untold Stories: Remembering Clydebank in Wartime”, the book by John Hood, and the book by John Macleod that was published last year and tells the story of what happened there.

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour

I absolutely accept the point that Des McNulty is making, but on behalf of people in the east end of Glasgow, I ask him to convey to the people of Clydebank that their suffering is well noted in Glasgow and is very much respected. In my very last intervention in the Scottish Parliament, I say to him that the people of Clydebank are still held in great respect for their suffering by the people of the east end of Glasgow.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

I thank Margaret Curran very much for her intervention. I think that other Glasgow members are well aware that the Luftwaffe lightened its load as it escaped home and was under orders to wait until it was over a heavily populated area before it dropped its spare bombs, which destroyed Glasgow tenements in various places, from the west end of the city to the east. It was not just Clydebank that was affected. However, Clydebank was the target, and Clydebank went up in flames, not just from the bombing but from the incendiary devices that lit up the town so that the bombs could subsequently fall. As well as the death and destruction that the bombs caused, there were horrendous fires, in Singer’s wood yard for example.

For many people in Clydebank, the memory of the blitz and the evacuations and what happened to them and their relatives is present. At the 70th anniversary service in Kilbowie St Andrew’s church at the weekend, I talked to people who, as young children, experienced being bombed or their relatives being injured and, in a couple of cases, being killed in the bombing. This is probably the last big anniversary at which we will have people alive who lived through the blitz, so it is important that their memories and records are not lost.

I pay tribute to West Dunbartonshire Council, which has done a terrific job over the years, particularly on the 60th and 70th anniversaries, to ensure that appropriate and dignified ceremonies have been held to commemorate what happened in the blitz and, to some extent, to ensure that the events were not just for Clydebank but for Scotland.

The moderator of the Church of Scotland gave the sermon at the service. His sermon was excellent. He said that he had spoken to a person in Edinburgh who had lived in Clydebank at the time of the blitz and had helped to rescue people. That person had met a man who had lost his young daughter and had said to him, “I hope we’re not going to do this to other people’s weans.”

The sense in Clydebank of a lack of rancour towards the German people, as well as solidarity with the Polish people who were in Clydebank at the time and helped not just to minimise the effect of the bombing on naval targets but to rescue people from houses, has continued. At the service, I sat next to the German consul and behind the Polish consul, and there were representatives from the Polish navy in the audience. After the ceremony we went to the monument that is a memorial to the crew of the ship, Piorun, which was berthed in Clydebank at the time. The sailors helped greatly to deal with the consequences of the bombing.

The survival of Clydebank after the blitz is a story of a long, slow process of regeneration. Clydebank was picked as a target because it was such an industrial centre. Singer’s was there, the shipyards were there and engineering factories were there. It was an important centre of munitions production for the war effort. That is why it was a target. The destruction of factories and workplaces had a profound and long-term effect on the town’s economy and the destruction of the houses had a profound effect on its social fabric.

It probably took 20 years for Clydebank to recover and to be physically rebuilt, and after that it was affected by the Thatcher recession of the 1980s. Probably only in the past 10 years has Clydebank been in a position to begin to recover from the economic destruction that it has suffered. That is why Clydebank wants not only to remember what happened in the blitz but to look forward to a positive future. Scotland should help Clydebank to achieve that.

Photo of Gil Paterson Gil Paterson Scottish National Party

I pay tribute to Des McNulty for bringing this debate to the chamber and I congratulate him on a fine speech. I associate myself with every word in his excellent and heartfelt speech.

I attended the funeral in Clydebank a few weeks ago of my uncle, Gilbert Martin. Someone spoke to me at the funeral about my grandfather, who was also called Gilbert Martin. I am named after him. However, I did not know that my grandfather, who lived in Byron Street in Partick, had travelled to Clydebank for a week—on foot most of the time—to help during and after the blitz. I did not know anything about that and I now know that none of my family knew about it either. I suppose that if my uncle had not died I would still know nothing about it.

My grandfather was really intelligent and was the kind of person someone would go to if they had a problem or wanted to know something, because he was well read, highly intellectual and knew almost everything. He was one of the folk it was good to go and speak to. However, he never spoke about that incident in his life. Apparently, the scenes were too horrific and he wanted to forget about it.

I attended the commemorative events in Clydebank that Des McNulty spoke about. There were many moving contributions; for example, the moderator of the Church of Scotland delivered an excellent and touching sermon that gave us an insight into some of the things that happened in Clydebank. Another thing that got to me was when four schoolchildren read a poem that illustrated that they understood not only what was happening but what actually did happen.

I cannot remember where, from that weekend of different events, I picked up the story of the Germans knocking Clydebank down but never knocking the stuffing out of the people of Clydebank, as was shown by how they conducted themselves. For example, one of the first towns in the United Kingdom to twin with a German city was—believe it or not—Clydebank. Although the Germans knocked the houses down, they left the community of Clydebank standing.

One of the strongest points that Des McNulty made was that the community in Clydebank feels that the blitz is still an untold story and that their message has not been properly told. In that context, I pay tribute to the events that have taken place and the magnificent way in which all in West Dunbartonshire Council have shed light on Clydebank.

My grandfather had justifiable and good reasons not to talk about the Clydebank blitz. I support that type of sentiment, which was of its time. However, I take a different view from my grandfather because the circumstances are different. I have a good reason to speak in this debate, because I want to celebrate the spirit in the great town and community that is Clydebank. By doing that, and through Des McNulty bringing the subject to Parliament for debate, we will help to shed light on an event that should be highlighted and brought to the attention of not only Scotland but the whole world, to show the type of community that Clydebank is. I do not come from Clydebank; I come from Springburn, but Clydebank has the same sense of community and is the kind of background in which I was shaped.

This is a wonderful opportunity to do more to bring the Clydebank blitz to wider attention. The Parliament will help in doing that and will tell the Clydebank story.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

I congratulate Des McNulty on bringing the matter before the Parliament.

I speak as a member of a fairly blessed generation. Born post-war, I did not have to go and fight. My father had to, as did his father, who lost an arm in the process. Nor did I, as a child, live under the threat of being bombed. The second world war was the first war that the United Kingdom experienced in which the civilian population, in some cases, was targeted and, in many cases, suffered as a result of the bombing of strategic targets such as the shipyards in the Clydebank and upper Clyde area.

The memories of childhood are such that I recall the way in which the Luftwaffe planes had deposited the residue of their bombs over Glasgow as they went. Des McNulty referred to that. Indeed, for many years, there was a site near where he now lives, at the corner of Queen Margaret Drive and Doune Gardens, where bombs had fallen and demolished a building with significant loss of life.

The situation in Clydebank was, of course, very much worse. A carpet-bombing approach had been employed in order that the effectiveness of the shipyards could be nullified. It was inevitable that there would be significant collateral damage to private property and commercial properties, accompanied by very significant loss of life.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the event was the difficulty in identifying the precise number of people who were killed. That was partly because in wartime the population was much more transient than it was in peacetime: nobody knew who was staying where. Many people were killed and simply not accounted for. Many others were injured to the extent that it affected them for the rest of their lives. Other people were mentally scarred—there could be no more terrifying experience, particularly for a child, than undergoing direct bombing. Indeed, I saw one gentleman on the television last week who, aged four at the time of the blitz, said that he recalled it to this day and would take the memory to the grave with him.

Man’s inhumanity to man has made countless people mourn; many mourned in Clydebank following the events about which we are talking. They will never happen again, I hope. It is all changed now. War is different but nonetheless threatening.

The way in which the Clydebank community built on a resilience that had, perhaps, arisen out of hard times was remarkable. From going as a child in the 1960s to play football in the areas that I have mentioned, I recall seeing the gap sites and dereliction that were caused by the terrible events of that night. It is correct that the local authority should remember those events. It is also correct that we in Parliament pay tribute to those who died and, at the same time, express the fervent prayer that such events never occur again.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

Like other members, I congratulate my colleague Des McNulty on securing the debate. As his motion makes clear, it is 70 years since Clydebank was bombed. As time wears on, the number who experienced that first hand diminishes, and it falls to our generation to ensure that those horrific events are not forgotten and that the memories of them are passed on to the next generation.

As Des McNulty said, Clydebank was the target because of its industrial strength and its position on the Clyde. As often happens in war, not all the Luftwaffe’s bombs fell on target. The suburb of Knightswood took a direct hit and 40 people were killed when Bankhead school, which was being used as a civil defence station, was hit.

Of course, I want to speak of the effect on my constituency. Several landmines—because landmines they were—fell in what is now Maryhill constituency. Bill Aitken mentioned one. Another fell in Crosbie Street, close to where I live, and demolished a tenement building. Another fell in what were then open fields west of Duncruin Street. Another hit a tenement building at 32 to 36 Kilmun Street and demolished it. One blast wrecked St Mary’s primary school. Properties in neighbouring streets sustained heavy damage.

Seven people from two families—the Scotts and the Simpsons—died in Kilmun Street on 14 March 1941. They included boys of six, seven and nine years old. It is thought that the death toll would have been even higher if it had not been for the practice of creating strutted closes. Props were put into the mouths of closes for people to shelter under when air-raid warnings went off. Many buildings in the area had that additional support, which for many made a difference to whether they collapsed.

It is fortunate that Glasgow City Council’s archive for the events of the evening of 14 March and the evening before it is extensive. The records show that more than 1,000 telephone calls were made to the Air Raid Precautions station on the night of 14 March, and every one of those records has been preserved, as has been the warden’s report of that night. Like many wartime records, it is surprisingly matter of fact about actions that were anything but. I will quote a short section that demonstrates that. The warden said:

“On reaching post F11 at Lennox Street and Maryhill Road, I found the people rushing from the scene. These were put into shelters in the Tramway Depot at Celtic Street. The wardens at this point were splendid attending to injured and taking the lead in the matter of rescue.

I noticed that the ‘homeless’ would be in the way to any work being done. So I ‘borrowed’ one of the trams and with one of my wardens we drove the homeless to the rest centre at Eastpark School ... We had five carloads before we put the car back to its ‘stable’. It was quite an interesting journey from Maryhill to Bilsland Drive. At some points I had to get out and remove shrapnel that clogged the rails. Our job over.”

Several years ago, as the Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport, I was asked to unveil a painting by the artist Ian Fleming that the Scottish national portrait gallery had recently acquired. The painting shows Kilmun Street after the bomb hit, when the rescue and recovery work was taking place. Ian Fleming had been stationed as a police war reserve sergeant in Maryhill at the time. What struck me most was that his painting could have been of any one of hundreds of streets in Glasgow, in Clydebank of course, in London or in Coventry at that time.

Des McNulty has done us all a service in helping us to understand events that few of us experienced. It is right that we record in the chamber the great suffering and the enormous human endeavour that took place 70 years ago.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

I, too, congratulate Des McNulty on securing the debate and on his gracious and informative speech.

Before addressing the issue, I pay tribute to Bill Aitken, who stands down on Tuesday. In his 12 years as an MSP, he has been an exemplary example of someone who can make an enormous contribution not just in the chamber but in committee, which includes being a convener. He will be sorely missed in the Parliament.

There is not a great deal to add to what, in particular, Des McNulty and Gil Paterson have said about Clydebank. However, as always, the civil service brief on the matter is very informative and it provides additional information, much of which I did not know.

Having not been born until 10 years after the Clydebank blitz, obviously I was not around at the time, but I remember my grandmother, who lived in a high mining village in Ayrshire, saying that she would never forget the night that Clydebank was bombed, because from that village in Ayrshire they could see the German aircraft—the Luftwaffe—heading for Clydebank and, even from that distance, they could see the burning, because it was so ferocious. I will never forget how she described it.

Some of the figures are devastating. As Des McNulty said, Clydebank suffered the worst destruction and civilian loss of life in all of Scotland. The figures are mind boggling. As Des McNulty said, of approximately 12,000 houses, only seven remained undamaged. That means that over the two nights, 11,993 houses were damaged or destroyed—4,000 houses were completely destroyed and another 4,500 were severely damaged. In total, 8,500 houses in Clydebank were destroyed or severely damaged.

As has been said, the munitions factories were attacked and the Singer factory was hit as well. Of course, the munitions factories and the shipyards were the primary targets. There were 260 bombers on 13 March, with waves of high-explosive bombs, incendiary bombs and landmines dropped over a nine-hour period. As has been said, streets were devastated, fires raged and people were trapped in collapsed buildings.

On the second night, 14 March, while rescue work continued from the first night, 200 bombers returned and their bombing raid lasted for over seven and a half hours. Over the two days, 528 civilians were killed, more than 617 people were seriously injured and several housing schemes were completely wiped out. Moreover, 48,000 civilians—many of them shipyard workers and their families, who were packed into Clydebank tenements—lost their homes.

The production of ships and munitions for the allies was obviously the target, and a total of 460 bombers dropped more than 1,000 bombs. Royal Air Force fighters managed to shoot down two aircraft during the raid, but none was brought down by anti-aircraft fire.

The Polish destroyer ORP Piorun under Commander Plawski was at John Brown’s shipyard undergoing repairs. She joined the defence of Clydebank, firing a tremendous barrage at the Luftwaffe. A memorial to the ship’s crew can be seen in Solidarity Plaza in Clydebank.

The Glasgow Herald of 18 March 1941 stated:

“The cool, unwavering courage of the people is evident, and when the full story of their heroism in the face of the Luftwaffe is told, they will take their place alongside the citizens of London and Coventry.”

On 14 March 2009, a monument commemorating the 528 Scots civilians who were killed during the Clydebank blitz was unveiled by the provost of West Dunbartonshire Council, Denis Agnew, at Old Dalnottar cemetery in West Dunbartonshire. The names of those who died are inscribed in a bronze plaque. My colleague Jim Mather MSP, the Minister for Enterprise, Energy and Tourism, recently represented the Scottish Government at a memorial service and delivered a reading.

I do not think that we can truly understand or imagine the ferocity of what happened on those two nights and the impact that it had for years thereafter on the people of Clydebank. As Des McNulty said, the devastation was such that probably only in the past 10 years or so has Clydebank truly started to recover from the impact of the blitz on those two nights in 1941.

Although we have had discussions and debates about issues such as the budget for Clydebank Re-built, we are all united in believing that we owe a duty and debt and have a moral responsibility to the generations of people in Clydebank who have suffered so much as a result of what happened on the two nights of the blitz. Irrespective of which party or part of Scotland we are from, we all need to dedicate and commit ourselves to doing everything that we can in the future—especially for the children and young people of Clydebank—not only to remember and commemorate what happened but to ensure that the future of Clydebank is secure industrially and commercially. We must do everything possible to ensure that the town has a prosperous future and, as Bill Aitken said, never again has to suffer the plight that it suffered on those two nights.

Meeting closed at 17:36.