A black and white photograph of children outside a large house with 3 women looking after them,

Like many industrial cities during the Second World War, Leeds contributed significantly to the war effort while also suffering at the hands of German bombers. Over 100,000 Leeds men and 10,000 Leeds women had joined the army by September 1945.

In addition to this substantial fighting force, the city also supplied a huge amount of manufacturing power. Leeds had been suffering a decline in manufacturing prior to the war, but demand for war supplies gave local industry a much-needed boost. Particularly important were the company Blackburn Aircraft, which used Leeds factories to build many planes for the war, and a newly established Vickers Armstrong factory, which provided 9000 pieces of ordnance to the British Army by May 1945.

Many factories actually repurposed their production lines for the war effort. John Fowler’s engineering company in Hunslet usually built agricultural equipment and locomotives, but now constructed tanks and other military vehicles, while clothing manufacturers such as Burtons now focused on making military uniforms. The people producing these war supplies were nearly all female, as across Britain thousands of women joined the workforce to compensate for reduced male numbers. Indeed, in 1941 the women of Leeds were actually conscripted into war work.

Aside from these direct contributions, Leeds was also a forerunner in fund-raising efforts, gathering money to pay for armaments. In September 1940 it was the first English city to host a War Weapons Week, supplying cash for 250 bombers. A few years later in 1943, Wings for Victory Week raised £7.2 million by encouraging people to buy government war bonds and attend aircraft exhibits in public spaces.

A black and white photograph of a spitfire plane on display in the middle of a town with lots of people all around it.

A Wings for Victory Week exhibit located at the bottom of Eastgate, Leeds, from 26 June to 3 July 1943.

A Wings for Victory Week exhibit located at the bottom of Eastgate, Leeds, from 26 June to 3 July 1943.

The damage inflicted upon Leeds by the Luftwaffe was substantial but not sustained, despite the city’s important industrial status. This was perhaps due to its inland location on the border of the Pennines, a mostly rural region not worth bombing. There were nine raids on Leeds during the war, the worst being that of March 1941 when it was hit by around 40 German bombers. In this raid nearly 200 buildings were destroyed and thousands more damaged, including over 100 homes and important civic buildings such as Leeds Town Hall, Leeds City Station and Leeds City Museum. 65 people were killed overnight, the vast majority of the 77 lives lost in Leeds throughout the war.

A black and white photograph of a bombed house.

Destruction of number 16 Ingram Road, a back-to-back house in Holbeck, during a raid on 14th April 1941. This photograph is from Leeds Libraries’ Leodis archive.

Despite such attacks being relatively sparse, the threat of raids was constant and national safety precautions were applied to protect Leeds citizens. 14,000 domestic air raid shelters were built. Blackout protocols were organised by ARP (Air Raid Precaution) wardens and on 1 September 1939, 18,250 children and 1450 teachers were evacuated out of Leeds on 51 special trains, headed for destinations like the Yorkshire Dales. Although many of these evacuees returned by Christmas the same year (during the so-called ‘Phony War’, when it seemed that the government had over-estimated the German threat), many were later re-evacuated to closer rural areas, such as Ilkley.

A black and white photograph of children outside a large house with 3 women looking after them,

Leeds evacuees at Sicklinghall Grange near Wetherby in 1940 or 1941. This photograph is from Leeds Libraries’ Leodis archive.

The war impacted heavily upon the people of Leeds, who supported the country’s military efforts with manpower, machines and money and experienced directly the fears and losses caused by raids and necessary wartime measures.

 

By Chloe Fowler, Visitor Assistant at Thwaite Watermill.

Explore the Leodis Archive, a great resource run by Leeds Libraries.