Accounts have tended to stress the positive aspect of the Second World War in Lancashire, pointing to the remarkable growth of the aircraft industry, and the apparent lack of enemy action.
In fact, the centre of the story was in the Far East, where a significant number of Lancashire men had been taken prisoner (and though it was not clear at the time) enslaved after the Fall of Singapore. But the Home Front had its disasters, a mutiny among American forces at Bamber Bridge in 1943, and the tragic Freckleton Air Disaster in which an America ‘Liberator’ aircraft fell on to the village school killing 60 people in August 1944.
But as to bombing we had been lucky, and though more than 100 incidents were reported in late 1940 alone nobody was killed. One of the largest bombs of the war – a ‘Herman Goering’ – fell into fields off School Lane in Bamber Bridge but failed to detonate, and when Hitler’s Luftwaffe unleashed a major V1 rocket attack on to the North West on Christmas Eve 1944, our visitor exploded in fields at Gregson Lane. Down the road in Oldham the raid proved far worse, as 28 party-goers were killed.
Last week, however, a friend of Leyland’s museum produced a remarkable image of the incident in which the bomber found its mark with tragic consequences,the bombing of Ward Street, in Lostock Hall. Shortly after teatime on Sunday, October 27, 1940 the air raid HQ at Bamber Bridge council offices received a report of an enemy plane circling over Lostock Hall, followed at 6.24pm by news bombs had fallen in the Ward Street area. At 6.27pm the sirens were operated and the rescue teams despatched.
They were joined by teams from Farington and Leyland. The delay had proved fatal. There was a shelter close at hand, it was not damaged in the attack, but the people had neither a warning nor the time to reach it. Though the rescue arrangements worked well and desperate efforts made to get people out of the wreckage, the last survivor could only be got out at 1.30am – seven hours after the attack.
Twenty-five people had been killed in seven houses in Ward Street, including Cyril Watson, his wife Helen and six of their family at number 56. The subsequent investigation found two high explosive bombs had been dropped, ‘totally destroying’ nine houses in Ward Street and damaging 33. A further 14 houses were damaged in the adjacent streets.
Accounts vary, but the bombs seem to have fallen at 6.15pm and the intended target was probably the Farington Works of Leyland Motors. In 2005 reader William Bland write to the Post describing his memories of that evening when he was working as a local defence volunteer. “It was late summer in 1940, a sunny Sunday afternoon. I was 16 and visiting my sister Elsie in her fairly new house in St Gerards Avenue.
“Coming from the Leyland direction was a twin engined plane. It went into a shallow dive that seemed to be aimed straight for us. Two high explosive bombs landed on Ward Street and demolished at least two rows of terraced houses. I remember running home and donning my boots, greatcoat and tin hat.
“I then hurried over to Ward Street. The houses had been transformed into a great bank of dark grey dust. Gas was leaking and every now and then it would catch fire and sweep over the mountainous bank of dust and rubble like St Elmo’s fire. My lungs remained sensitive to the smell of gas for years. Later, I was near the top of the ridge of rubble when I thought I heard a faint cry. I was on my hands and knees, the dusty rubble rising in front of me. As I scrabbled in the dust I found a hair on my finger.
“I dug on with my hands and I uncovered the head of a woman. Her body was arched forwards with her head thrown back, looking upwards. In her arms was a baby, still alive. The baby was taken away, but the woman’s head was left protruding above the rubble for most of the night. It was like a wax image or sculpture. It is still very clear to me.
“There was a lighter moment at the end of the street nearer the railway. The Air Raid Patrol men were stood over a large crater. At the bottom was a kitchen table under which they had found an elderly lady. She was put on a stretcher and was being hauled up by rope. Someone said ‘She’s gone’. Immediately the lady opened her eyes and snapped ‘Nay I’m not!’.”