The fourth and final episode of Blitz: The Bombs That Changed Britain, airing on Thursday 14 December at 9.00pm on BBC Two, looks at the deadly impact of the incendiary bomb – and the one that set fire to St Peter’s Church in the historic heart of Bristol.
Before November 1940, the Castle Street area was full of shops, businesses and homes all served by St Peter’s. But on the night of Sunday 24 November the German bomber aircraft came.
That evening, when the raid began, Geoffrey Serle and his father had been attending church. Almost 80 years later he recounts the terror – and their desperate attempt to find shelter in the chaos.
Bill Hares was also a tobacconist in nearby Merchant Street. The film explores his carefully preserved account of that November night, the night when Bristol’s firefighters simply couldn’t cope.
Bev Reynolds father was a police driver who tried to help the firefighting effort – he tells his story.
Following the bomb, Castle Street’s residents and workers took in the dreadful damage the Luftwaffe had done. One local photo-journalist stepped in to take pictures of the devastation, telling a human story that many at the time would never see thanks to government censorship.
As historian Dr Lucy Noakes explains, this was recorded by mass observation agents who visited Bristol’s bombed-out streets. Residents were reeling from the loss of their historic centre, but some were determined to fight back by taking on the weapon that had destroyed St Peter’s Church.
Volunteer firefighters stepped up – including 23 year-old Eric Tyley (pictured with wife Betty) – who remembers his role as firewatcher. Stationed on the church roof during a dreadful raid in December, he and others extinguished individual incendiary bombs before they could cause significant damage.
As the raids continued Bristol became a city of firefighters. By April 1941 the city’s emergency services had learned harsh lessons and the city’s co-ordination of police, fire and rescue services was held up as a model of excellence to the rest of the country.
Today, St Peter’s stands as a reminder of what Bristol lost during the blitz, and at St Mary Redcliffe residents congregate to remember what was saved when the city fought back.
Produced in partnership with The Open University.
Blitz: The Bombs That Changed Britain Episode 4 (of 4) airs Thursday 14 December 2017 from 9.00pm-10.00pm on BBC Two.