'An inferno of fire and smoke' - a wartime Sheffield teenager's memories of the Blitz 80 years ago

Jack Hambleton, who was a teenager on the night of the Blitz, vividly recorded his memories of being in Sheffield city centre.

Saturday, 12th December 2020, 10:00 am

Sadly, Jack was one of the early victims of coronavirus this year. His family sent this piece in tribute to him.

“Thursday was the traditional half-day early closing of the shops. Thursday night being one of the busiest social nights of the week for the pubs, cinemas, theatres, and dance halls. To the hundreds of shop assistants like myself it was their weekly big night out.

I was 16 years old and was in the city centre of Sheffield with my girlfriend, Jean, in the Electra Cinema in Fitzalan Square. Being shown was a jungle film, Green Hell. When the air raid warnings had sounded outside, the management of the cinema announced that anyone wishing to leave the building could do so. The programme would continue for those wanting to stay. Not one person walked out.

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Blitz damage in Fitzalan Square, looking towards the High Street and the Marples

Smoke drifted into the building. Explosions could be heard rumbling outside. Not realising the seriousness of the situation, and not wishing to miss the film, we remained in our seats.

When the film finished, and as we made our way out, we were stopped at the doorway by an armed soldier, saying his orders were to prevent anyone leaving the building. We sat on the stone staircase.

When the soldier left his post to go for refreshment we scampered outside, and ran down nearby Commercial Street.

Only minutes later, after we had left the cinema, Marples, a public house facing the Electra, received a direct hit from a parachute mine, being completely demolished with the loss of 70 people.

Utter devastation on The Moor in Sheffield was witnessed by a 16-year-old Jack Hambleton

Only a handful of people were brought out of the blazing inferno alive. Of those who perished, when eventually brought out, they were unable to be identified.

Most of the rubble left after the explosion, and of many other destroyed buildings in Sheffield, contained the unrecognisable remains of the victims. Most of this rubble was removed and placed in the lower fields of City Road Cemetery, so-called consecrated ground.

If that soldier who had at first prevented Jean and myself from leaving the cinema had returned to his post, I fear he could have been killed, or badly injured from the blast at Marples, which was only a few yards away.

With bombs screeching down around us, in what was to be too close for comfort, we made our way to her home on the Manor Estate three miles away. We had to keep diving down on to the pavement.

Jack Hambleton and his fiancee Dorothy when they got engaged in 1945

Passing the gates of City Road Cemetery, I joked to Jean that if a bomb should get us they would only just have to chuck us over the wall.

We eventually reached her home, much to the relief of her parents. The rest of the night was spent outside, looking towards the blazing city. Some bombs did fall on to the estate but, fortunately, not nearby.

After the bombers had unleashed their cargoes of death and destruction, and departed back to their aerodromes, the stunned people of the city waited for the dawn.

Jack Hambleton later in the war in his RAF uniform

It came, Friday the 13th, freezing cold and grey. Jean and myself, along with hundreds of other shop assistants and office workers, walked to the city.

Some, like myself, to find their places of employment a pile of smouldering rubble. Jean an assistant at Boots the chemists in High Street, found her shop untouched.

When I arrived at The Moor the sight I encountered was beyond belief. It was a scene of utter devastation.

Along the full length of The Moor, a street a half a mile long with rows of shops, pubs and the Central Cinema, had either been reduced to rubble or twisted girders and blazing out of control.

The whole area was an inferno of fire and smoke. The shop where I had worked had vanished in the holocaust. The manager was already there when I arrived.

People were wandering aimlessly around looking for sons and daughters not having returned home from their night out.

The rescue services, with tired eyes and aching limbs, searching with their bare hands, frantically trying to free those still trapped amongst the rubble. They were being joined by newcomers. Every possible assistance was desperately needed.

A further problem encountered was the danger of unexploded bombs, of which there were many.

Buildings and shops on Angel Street, Snig Hill, King Street and Haymarket lay in ruins and ablaze.

In High Street which had, by a miracle, escaped the bombs, the large department store of Walsh's was completely burnt out, having caught fire after the all-clear had been sounded, due to water having frozen in the fire services’ hosepipes.

Historical buildings including hotels, some of which centuries ago had been coaching inns, were reduced to rubble.

The amazing thing was the area of High Street, along with Fargate and Barkers Pool, an area in between where the destruction was, remained virtually unscathed.

A bomb had fallen outside the City Hall, but only superficial damage to the exterior. From the air, it must have seemed as a blank spot, covered by smoke.

Transport was at a standstill. In the city centre at the top of Angel Street tramcars had been blown apart. The upper decks lying yards away from the lower decks. Many other tramcars and buses were gutted by fire.

I eventually left the rubble of The Moor to walk the five miles home, which was in the opposite direction from which I had walked that morning.

My parents, knowing I would have been in town during the Blitz, were obviously worried. Having reached almost halfway I met my father walking to town looking for me. Arriving home I received a tearful embrace from my mother and a hero's welcome from the neighbours.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​”

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