Why was Portsmouth targeted and bombed in WWII?
Portsmouth has long been a strategically important port, so when war broke out its naval base and dockyards were considered a prime target for the Luftwaffe.
The first bombs fell on the city on 11 July 1940 with the heaviest period of bombing occurring between August 1940 and March 19411. Not only did unrestricted heavy bombing cause severe damage to swathes of the dockyards, but also to the city’s heart and residential suburbs.
HMNB Portsmouth had been supporting the Royal Navy since the Tudor period and the vast site covered approximately 300 acres, with numerous dry docks, tidal berths and basins.
Initially the Luftwaffe heavily targeted HMNB Portsmouth due to its important role in the war effort. Not only significant as a repair and refit facility for naval vessels, it housed destroyer flotillas that would act as the first line of defence against any German invasion following the fall of France in June 1940.
The Royal Naval Armament Depot at Priddy’s Hard in neighbouring Gosport was also targeted due to its large supplies of torpedoes and sea mines. Many of the old Palmerston Forts which had been regarrisoned at the outbreak of war were also targeted – Fort Cumberland for example was hit in August 19402.
Home Office Bombing Statistics for Portsmouth
Details obtained from the official Home Office bombing statistics, indicates the quantity and type of bombs that fell on the County Borough of Portsmouth during WWII (excluding incendiary bombs).
A total of 1,297 bombs fell on Portsmouth, equating to an average of 140.6 items of ordnance recorded per 1,000 acres.
Major bombing raids on Portsmouth
In total, there were 67 attacks on Portsmouth over the course of four years with three major raids occurring on:
- 24 August 1940 – 125 casualties.
- 10 January 1941 – 171 casualties.
- 27 April 1941 – 102 casualties3.
Portsmouth sustained a high density of bombing, and German air raids on Portsmouth between 1940 and 1944 killed 930 people – while an estimated 1,216 were left hospitalised4. The close proximity of military installations to civilian areas of Portsmouth increased the risk of casualties.
Approximately 10 per cent of the city’s 63,000 homes were destroyed, 6,000 properties received significant bomb damage and an additional 69,000 suffered some form of damage5. The raid of 24 August 1940, where the Luftwaffe dropped 60 high explosive (HE) bombs, led to 117 deaths alone6. The Princes Theatre on Lake Road took a direct hit and was demolished during the raid.
Further destruction was caused by the raid of 10 January 1941. Prior to dropping their HE bombs, German aircraft dropped hundreds of incendiary bombs (IBs), causing widespread fires across the city.
The shopping centres at Kings Road, Palmerston Road, and Commercial Road were all destroyed. Clarence Pier was severely damaged by fire, while the George Hotel in Old Portsmouth was completely lost. Other important structures severely damaged during this raid included part of the Royal Hospital, Connaught Drill Hall, Dockyard School and the Hippodrome7.
April 1941 saw numerous attacks on Portsmouth, the raid of the 27 April had the greatest impact. Notwithstanding the Dockyard and Colewort Barracks, the Royal Portsmouth Hospital on Commercial Road was hit badly. Its Casualty Block – already full of casualties from elsewhere – was struck killing nine people. Fires then subsequently spread across the administration block.
Residential areas of the city were also hit, particularly in those areas surrounding the docks and city centre. Moreover, transport infrastructure suffered. Portsmouth Town Station – now Portsmouth & Southsea – sustained some damage8.
After 1941, the raids on Portsmouth became more infrequent, and they were never as severe as those of 1940 and 1941. The raid of 15 August 1943 was perhaps one exception where at least 22 HE bombs caused a fair degree of damage across central parts of the city.
Furthermore, the city saw two V-1 pilotless aircraft bombs fall at Locksway Road and Newcomen Road. The latter incident killed 15 and hospitalised 829.