A gripping account of the first night of the Blitz written by George Hennings, a watchman at Roberts Brothers store on the Moor, has been sent in by his granddaughter, Jean McLoughlin, from Kiveton Park.
“Somehow, it seemed as if there was something ominous in the very air and I remarked to the men who assisted me: “I think we are in for a bad spell of trouble. Get you down to the air raid shelter!” I counselled the men to stay there while I went round to turn off all electric light and gas at the main. Soon after this there was a terrific noise and I was apprehensive of great danger. Time passed quickly. It had now got to 8pm and I went to the roof in search of incendiary bombs. This I had to do alone for those with me were terror-stricken. From the roof I could see many fires. Near this very spot -- at the top of Matilda Street -- Wilson’s the wholesale tobacconist’s shop was well alight. Looking up Pinstone Street I could see Campbell’s furniture stores was a blazing mass, flames leaping many feet high. About this hour I took a group of firemen some hot milk for they were nearly frozen. It was so bitterly cold. Then we were informed that water was scarce and shortly afterwards it went off altogether for the night. What a tragedy! Going on to the roof again, I could see flames all around - Heeley, Millhouses, Abbeydale -- what a position! Here was I, helpless as a child, unable to do a thing to avert disaster which I felt sure would befall the very place I was in. Down below, my men were wandering around demented with fear. I realised they could only be a hindrance to me and by no means a help, so I bade them to go home. This they ventured to do, only to find that in some instances their homes had been blasted and destroyed by bombs and fire. Going to the shop front about 9.30pm, I looked down the Moor and saw to my horror many shops and trams ablaze. Then I realised what a Blitz meant to us in Sheffield. At this time there was little wind stirring and the fires were confined to the bottom part of the Moor. I could hear bombs falling in the distance, and see fires starting in many more districts. Back I went to the roof of our own store, to remain there until midnight. Then I realised that I could feel in no way safe at such a height, with the possibility of every avenue of escape cut off. Just at this time. I was hit by a piece of shrapnel. It must have been from a shell bursting in the air near to our building. A coping stone bore marked evidence of this, for about two feet of stone was chipped out. Fortunately for me, I wore my steel helmet. The only effect the shrapnel had upon me was a dint in the helmet and the sensation of shock to the head with the sharp impact of steel upon the helmet. To say I was grateful is an altogether too mild expression. At about 10.30, a great change took place - bombs fell (both fire bombs and explosive bombs) everywhere, or so it seemed. Everybody was in a state of excitement and by this time the flames were creeping up the Moor. A strong wind rose at this hour and fanned the blaze into something like fury. Debris was falling all around and our store got its first shock as I stood in the Arcade. A great tremor caused by a bomb exploding near blasted out our great windows. Glass and woodwork was flying around us like hail in a whirling storm. Happily I escaped with just a few minor injuries which a drop of iodine relieved for the moment. The wind came up from the Moor with a great force - like a hurricane, helping the flames along; and yet it was bitterly cold. All the buildings, by midnight, were ablaze -- Atkinson’s, Darley’s, Gebhart’s, Langton’s and many others. I, along with others, could only wait in fear and trembling, wondering as to what would be our fate. ...There was a great ominous rumbling noise. Another bomb dropped near and looking round, I saw to my surprise that the back of the parcel office and all the stairs had collapsed from the effect of a bomb which crashed near the bottom of Rockingham Street. This caused much havoc in the neighbourhood. From this time onwards, bombs of every type seemed to fall continuously. Standing outside, close to our store, I saw many things happened round about me which made one feel anything but brave, and yet, like a lad in the last war, I was “afraid of being afraid”. It was all so frightful, so fiendishly indescribable. Firemen, ambulancemen, ARP wardens and workers, and all branches of civil defence were all doing their bit and doing it well. Many people were trapped in shelters under shops. Sulphur and burning material made these untenable, and still everyone stuck to the job in hand, while destruction played its fiendish part. At about 2am a very old man came to me and asked me if I was interested in any firm as he thought I might be Robert’s watchman. He had seen a man similar to me at different periods. He told me he was the watchman at Woolworth’s and that while he was sitting in the cellar, a bomb about the size of a fire extinguisher came through the shop floor into the cellar. He coolly said: “I knelt down to examine it and hear something ticking inside so thought I had better come out of their premises.” Woolworth’s blew up at 2.30am! The bomb was a time bomb! If I had not advised the man to stay out, he would have gone back. The Moor up Rockingham Street was well alight. Atkinson’s burning furiously. I stood at the top of Matilda Street and wondered what would be the outcome. Near to me, a fireman had been blown across the road. When found, he was badly wounded, his leg had been blown off. For six months he was in hospital. He is now employed in the Fire Office as a telephone operator. He has been fitted with an aluminium leg. The landlord of the Monument Tavern, situated near to our staff entrance, was talking to me at 3.30am, having just come out of the cellar. Back of Button Lane, on our side, was alright at this period. Shortly after, what a change! Fletcher’s furniture works, Bingham’s and Warmby’s, Neville and sons -- all going up in smoke at one time. And yet, there was no sign of serious damage to our store. I walked round whenever I could, hoping for the best. Fear had left me and a peculiar unafraid mentality took possession of me. News of disaster passed on from one part of the city to the other from time to time, and still there was no chance of water to extinguish the fires raging in the surrounding buildings. It was now dangerous to be in the open for debris and shrapnel was flying in all directions. The Moor was one huge mass of flames. Right and left, in most parts, gas mains and electric mains were torn up. Above our store, at 3.45am, Bray’s and Binn’s and the rest of the shops on Button Lane were well alight, starting one after the other. Redgate’s, part of Berry’s Vaults, Woolworth’s, the Devonshire and other places were going one after the other in explosion and flame. Rats and cats were fleeing in all directions, but never did I see a dog the whole night through. Then our fate gradually drew nearer. Material in flames was flying up the Moor, helped by a wind like a hurricane. This blew through every open window -- and still we were unscathed. Just before 4am, a sergeant-fireman and I were standing by Burton’s the Tailors, looking up to our roof opposite. We both saw small fires starting in the mantle and dressmaking workroom. We rushed across and for a time fought the flames with all the means at our disposal - extinguishers, sand, any water available -- and succeeded in getting the fires out in a while. Soon after 4am, we turned downstairs to see what else we could do. Looking through the mantle department, we saw the the extreme end of the store, the millinery department and all that end, was enveloped in flames. We could do no more, for the heat was so intense and the smoke was suffocating. We could only come out into the open, to watch from the other side. In 10 minutes, the whole building was one mass of flames. Fifty or more firemen were waiting to do their duty but they were helpless -- no water! Then, about this time,. the ‘all-clear’ sounded. Our building went on burning. Many people were released from shelters in and around our district in the Moor area - 130 lost their lives about here. As one moved about the neighbourhood, one would be startled by a voice from a damaged shelter, or a cellar grate, asking if the ‘all-clear’ had sounded. And oh, what strange sights greeted our eyes everywhere. Men and women, blackened with soot, smoke and powder blast. Destruction, devastation everywhere. and, by God’s grace, here we were -- spared!”