In 1939, prior to sailing with the boys to join George in Hong Kong, and who had begun his posting to the colony six months earlier, Hilda put their furniture into storage and arranged for their home – 37, Randolph Road, Portsmouth – to be rented.
The family also left behind in Portsmouth friends, relatives, and colleagues to face the bombs that would rain down on the city during the Blitz, heavily targeted as a navy port.
And contributing to the anxiety, worry, and concern for those back home, was the delay in receiving personal news.
The city’s first air raid took place on 11 July 1940, and in all Portsmouth would suffer 67 attacks between 1940 and 1944.
George’s words, “Everybody is safe so far,” and, that No. 37 was “still going strong,” were written in a letter to Hilda in January 1941, but commenting on news received in a letter from home dated 11 November 1940. In his letter to Hilda, George also refers to Portsmouth having “just had another bad raid,” and that was the raid of 10-11 January 1941.
Portsmouth’s most devastating air raid, Portsmouth City Council has recently marked the 80th anniversary of the night of 10-11 January 1941. The raid killed 172 people, and hundreds were injured. Damage to buildings across the city was extensive, and hundreds of citizens also found themselves homeless.
In a later letter to Hilda, George writes on seeing pictures of Portsmouth following the raid. “It’s terrible – I can’t say just how it makes you feel to see pictures of places you know so well treated like this, but I tell you some of the fellows were coming in to see the pictures and then walking out without speaking.
“One picture shows the Guildhall with the tower afire – there are only four walls left now, and I believe that applies to all the buildings of any size in Commercial Road.
“There were pictures also of the mass burial.”
Due to Covid restrictions, Portsmouth City Council’s activities commemorating the raid were virtual, and included postings on social media of details taken from the Air Raid Controller’s log book, made at the same time as they were entered on the night of 10-11 January in 1941. The Council also released a video of The Lord Mayor of Portsmouth, Cllr Rob Wood, reciting the message delivered shortly after the raid in 1941 by the then mayor, Sir Denis Daley.
Also published, is an interactive map showing the extent of the bombing of the city 1940-1944, based on a map created by Air Raid Precautions staff towards the end of the war, and marking the site of where each individual bomb fell.
The death toll in Portsmouth from air raids between 1940 and 1944 was 930. A further 2,837 people were injured, and more than 6,000 properties destroyed.
In January 1941, when George writes to Hilda about the air raid of 10-11 January, he is commenting on general news. He has no idea whether letters arriving in the weeks to come will have anything more personal to report, or what the months ahead may bring.