How Blackpool helped Britain win the war

Blackpool at War - by John Ellis

Blackpool at War - by John Ellis

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John Ellis can’t think of any other area which played such a pivotal role in the making and redefining of our nation during and after the Second World War.

From training the RAF, to providing a relatively safe haven for evacuees, people at play and civil servants, to the reshaping of the welfare state, Blackpool helped Britain win the war.

John, born and raised in Blackpool, and now living in South Shore near his beloved Blackpool FC, shares that pride in Blackpool At War, newly published by The History Press (£12.99).

“Few towns can claim to have been as important to the greater war effort as Blackpool,” he explains.

“The Fylde had no fewer than four operational airfields and was a key factor for training new recruits for the RAF. It also played a more traditional role in the conflict, such as maintaining tourism, which allowed people to forget about the horrors of war, even if only for a short period, and heavy industry, with the Vickers factory churning out spectacular numbers of large medium range twin engined Wellington bomber aircraft which turned out mostly for night time raids, including the carpet bombing of key German cities, and played a major role in anti-submarine warfare.

“The area had its fair share of ups and downs, including the tragedies of the Freckleton and Central Station air disasters, which brought untold misery to those affected. “There is also an element of mystery surrounding the fascinating People’s Playground story, in which Hitler had apparently earmarked the resort as a future National Socialist centre.”

John heard many of the stories from his father. He went on a journey of discovery to find remnants of the resort’s (and broader area’s) wartime past still standing in the pillboxes and structures and to learn more about their past.

He also explored the legacy of some of the area’s major employers who owe their existence in the area to the war.

These include the Department of Work and Pensions, the department of pensions when it moved here.

It was war which brought the civil servants here. With London at risk government departments relocated out of range of large bombers and sustained German raids.

John goes so far as to suggest the welfare state, born of the privations of war, was shaped here - in our bedsits and big hotels.

“In total nearly 50 hotels were handed over to the civil servants - and some 300 b&b’s.”

The Dept of Pensions took over the Norbreck Hotel and stayed in the resort long after the war. “Along with the Ministry of Health they also commandeered the historic and sizeable Rossall School - which moved pupils to the Lake District - and briefly used Cleveleys Hydro before relocating to green space in Norcross where they would remain for many years.

“The modern DWP sites of Norcross, Warbreck Hill and Moorland Road in St Annes all began life in the war period. Some have recently closed for staff to be moved to modern offices at Peel Park near the M55 but the legacy stands.”

Blackpool had a “good” war in contrast with towns and cities which took a hammering but the Second World War changed the landscape forever, says John. Many of us are familiar with Blackpool’s role as an RAF training - and recreation - ground. But it’s the more mundane revelations, particularly with regard to the town’s build-up to war, the so-called phoney war period, which make John such a good social historian although the book is, sadly, light on pictures which is why we have turned to our own Gazette archives to highlight the areas featured.

He points out that cardboard coffins were stockpiled at Raikes Garage as pre-war tensions rose. Two thousand air raid shelters sprang up, the promenade housing some of the biggest, capable of sheltering more than 85,000 in total. They cost nearly £300,000 to build.

When war was finally declared John says locals went on the offensive, volunteers filling sandbags on the beaches to protect key civilian buildings. The Home Guard was formed along with teams of ARP - Air Raid Precautions - volunteers, the latter building a fire station on Red Bank Road, Bispham. Our own Lost Archives picture shows one of the ARP teams.

Precautionary measures included the blacking out of road signs to disorientate the Germans although John wryly muses: “With a 500ft Tower it wouldn’t have taken even the most navigationally inept location finders long to realise they were in Blackpool.”

Construction resources were diverted to war projects. “Water tanks sprang up as the Government feared the nation’s water supplies would be cut off if reservoir walls were cracked by Luftwaffe bombs.”

Evacuees flooded in from the big cities. John reckons the Fylde hosted some 35,000 children as well as single mothers as evacuees. Our own Lost Archives pictures shows some arriving. Most came by train and went to a “processing” centre at Whitegate Drive. A young Barbara Windsor, evacuated out of East London to avoid the blitz, attended Norbreck Primary School. John says celebrated scouser Ricky Tomlinson was born in Cleveleys - his mother’s family moving from Merseyside to avoid the conflict. Jack Rosenthal’s TV drama The Evacuees drew on his own experiences as a Jewish evacuee here.

Many teachers cut short summer holidays to help with the administration of the evacuation. Local schools, some paired with others in bombing hot spots, made room for a large influx of new pupils. “The teachers deserve to be recognised for the effort they put in, most were appointed assistant billeting officers and lists of potential movements were completed long before Hitler’s tanks rolled over the Polish borders.” Again as our Lost Archives shot shows women starting taking over jobs traditionally taken by men, driving buses and trams, or working as clippies. It all helped free men up for the Forces.

As locals were urged to give to the war effort scrap metal began to pile up at Revoe Park. And as rationing kicked in the black market beloved by many Blackpool landladies began to thrive although many played it straight and honoured their coupons - or visitors who brought basic provisions for the landlady to serve them in the hotel.

Squires Gate, already home to a flying club, was targeted by RAF planners, both for location and recruitment. “Buildings were erected to bring the site up to operational standards, initially run by the RAF Volunteer Reserve. These included numerous hangars, a control tower (still in use today although it has gone through some modernisation) and accommodation. Four large metal Bellman hangars were built to house the planes.”

John, unstinting in praise for the resort’s war effort in general, remains astonished at the speed at which Blackpool reacted to the threat, and later onset, of war.

The site was used for training. Night fighters protecting much of the region were based there. It was also a satellite site for squadrons from other airfields. “In late 1940 96 Squadron sent a detachment of aircraft to the field and German aircraft were shot down by planes based at Blackpool.” One of our archive pictures shows a German Messerschmitt, shot down by a British fighter plane, mobbed by locals and visitors in Church Street, en route to the old St John’s Market site to raise money for the Spitfire Fund in 1940.

RAF Squires Gate was briefly used by larger transport planes as part of an air convoy route with North America - Lockheed Liberator aircraft flying regularly to Montreal to bring back vital supplies. A Polish squadron was also established and based there. And it became a refuge for aircraft in trouble.

“One of the most notable landings was when the sole surviving bomber touched down after a daring raid at the MAN U-boat engine diesel engine factory in Germany for which some of the crew were rewarded for their bravery.”

Blackpool may not have endured the endless bombardments of bigger cities but John reports that nearly 100 bombs were dropped at the site.

“One bombing raid happened when a lone German bomber tailed a night fighter back as it landed and then let its bomb loose over the central runways.”

The neighbouring Vickers Armstrong factory produced over 100 bombers a month at its operational peak. “It is said that over 20 per cent of all the Wellington bombers made were at Squires Gate.” Local women worked alongside school leavers and youngsters. “The minimum age being 16 years old to work on the floor.”

John says satellite sites across town including the Pleasure Beach where maintenance sheds were converted to factory space and helped produce gunning turrets. Another base was Talbot Road bus station.

The influx of civil servants and military personnel kept the resort busy. Some landladies despaired of cashing in on the visitor boom as rooms were taken by civil servants and service folk - on lower Government rates. In 1943 civil servants blocked the tram tracks as they wanted priority on the transport system over visitors.

There was another crucial outcome of Blackpool becoming a very civil servant to the state - the welfare state itself.

John concludes: “What’s not so well known is that the hard working economists and civil servants tasked with organising this great welfare system did so in the town’s many holiday rooms. In total 4000 civil servants were moved to the resort during the early stages of the war in a variety of roles.

“Arguably the most important Government paper of modern Britain was written in the bedsits of the resort. The Beveridge Report which would outline a new fairer Britain with provisions of care from the cradle to the grave was possible thanks to the room capacity of the resort and the town’s ability to accommodate. The brainchild of the social economist William Beveridge, the finer details were hammered out in hotels and rooms up and down the resort.”

* All of the pictures, bar the front cover of the book Blackpool at War, are from The Gazette’s own archives, including several from our Lost Archives. To buy a copy call Photo Sales on (01253) 361867 or go to www.blackpoolgazette.co.uk and click on ‘Buy a Photo’.