Operation Blitz on Leeds

The 'Blitz on Leeds' was a series of nine German air raids on the city of Leeds (1940/42).

Leeds is a large city in the industrial heartland of the West Riding of Yorkshire. The county’s largest city, Leeds was the centre of much of the region’s economic, administrative and industrial activities, and was also an important rail hub. Many industrial manufacturers around the city, such as Avro at RAF Yeadon which produced Avro Lancaster four-engined heavy bombers, Kirkstall Forge, the Barnbow munitions works and the Royal Ordnance Factory Thorp Arch near Wetherby, adapted their pre-war output for war work and thus provided likely raid targets. Leeds had taken precautions, including the construction of many public air raid shelters and large water tanks to be used for fire-fighting in the event of incendiary devices being dropped.

Beginning just after 21.00 on Friday 14 March 1941, around 40 German bombers attacked Leeds; in all, some 451 German aircraft were over the UK on that night. Incendiary bombs were first dropped onto the city on Friday night, and high explosive bombs were dropped on Saturday. Targets hit in the city centre included the Town Hall, the city’s museum (then on Park Row), Leeds New Station, the Kirkgate Markets, the Central Post Office, the Quarry Hill flats, the Hotel Metropole and the area now occupied by the Inner Ring Road. About 100 houses were destroyed, 4,600 other houses sustained damage, and some 65 people were killed.

Nearby towns were also damaged in this raid. Huddersfield was struck by bombers seeking to destroy the David Brown factory (at the time making parts for the Supermarine Spitfire single-engined fighter) at Crosland Moor, while central Castleford was also damaged by bombers attempting to destroy the Hickson and Welch chemical works and Ferrybridge power station. In total, 25 tons of bombs fell on Leeds during the raid, a quarter of the 100 tons often used as the threshold for a 'major raid'. By comparison, that night in Glasgow 203 aircraft dropped 231 tons of high explosives, nearly 10 times the amount dropped on Leeds, and 1,650 incendiary canisters, while in nearby Sheffield 117 aircraft dropped 83 tons of high explosives and 328 incendiary canisters.

As a result of wartime censorship and secrecy, the press made no mention of Leeds by name after the raid, instead referring to it as a 'North East Inland Town'. The frequent raids on Hull were often mentioned as attacks on a 'North East Coastal Town'. German sources from the time claimed raids on Glasgow, Leeds, Sheffield, Tilbury Docks, Plymouth and Southampton.

The bombing of the Leeds City Museum resulted in the losses of historic civic possessions, and the museum’s front, dating from 1821, was also damaged and had to be taken down. Other historic buildings were superficially damaged and at certain sites, such as the town hall, shrapnel damage is still evident.

The 31st (North Midland) Anti-Aircraft Brigade was responsible for the anti-aircraft defence of West Yorkshire, and throughout the war Leeds had anti-aircraft guns positioned throughout the city. There were many RAF airfields to the east of the city in the Vale of York: most of these were home to RAF Bomber Command squadrons, but RAF Church Fenton was the base of a fighter squadron. On the night of the main raid on Leeds, Junkers Ju 88 and Dornier Do 17 twin-engined bombers were shot down over northern England, suggesting that these could have been some of the bombers used over Leeds.

After the raids, a succession of unexploded bombs has been found in the city, including one in Potternewton Park in 2012. Unexploded anti-aircraft shells have also been found to the south and east of the city.