The Clydebank Blitz

by Evelyn McKechnie

At 11.15 BST on 3rd September 1939, the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, announced that the British deadline for the withdrawal of German troops from Poland had expired. Britain and France were now at war with Germany.

Objectives of German Bombing

Within four weeks of war being declared, Germany had planes flying overhead in Clydebank on intelligence gathering missions. On 2nd October 1939, the Luftwaffe flew over Scotland and took photographs of John Brown & Co. Shipyard. This reconnaissance was taking place nearly 18 months before the terrible bombing which began on 13th March 1941.

Reconnaissance photograph of 2nd October 1939, annotated with target markings used by the Luftwaffe for the raid on Clydebank

On 13th and 14th March 1941, Clydebank was the target of one of the most intense Luftwaffe bombing raids of World War II. Each night, over 200 German bombers attacked, aiming to destroy naval, shipbuilding and munitions targets.

Clydebank, Scotland

Incendiary bombs were dropped, starting marker fires to assist further waves of the bombing. Fires at Singer’s timber yards, Yoker Distillery and Old Kilpatrick’s oil depot resulted in the greatest damage to industry.

On the 1st night, 1630 containers of incendiary bombs were dropped, on the 2nd night, 782 containers of incendiary bombs were dropped by the Heinkel He-111 pathfinder aeroplanes.

The Germans knew from the very outset of the war with Britain that they would have to bomb its factories, munitions and shipyards to disrupt its war machinery and reduce its capability to fight. John Brown Shipyards on the River Clyde were world-famous, within a month of war being declared on Germany by Britain and France, the Germans had intentions to bomb Clydebank.

The glow from the fires could be seen as far as Aberdeenshire

They used Pathfinders and Heavy Bombers to deliver death and destruction. There were terrible consequences to the people on the ground, the shipyards, Singer Factory, the oil tanks at Dalnottar and the surrounding areas. The glow from the fires could be seen from as far away as Aberdeenshire and Northern Ireland. Firefighters reported it was brighter than daylight within the town. However, John Brown’s shipyards were working at almost pre-attack level in just a few days after the raids.

Damage

It was Clydebank’s housing that bore the brunt of the raids. In total only 7 houses out of a stock of 12,000 remained undamaged. Approximately 4,000 destroyed, 4,500 severely damaged and 3,500 in the serious to minor damage category. Official death toll records 528 casualties. Many argue the figure should be far higher.

Only seven houses out of 12,000 were undamaged

In total 400+ high explosive bombs and mines fell in an area of less than two square miles, not including the 96 high explosive bombs that fell on the primary target, the oil tanks at Dalnottar to the north-west of the town, or the 190 bombs that fell in the boundaries of the nearby villages of Duntocher, Hardgate, Bowling and Old Kilpatrick. 132 bombs fell in the Kilpatrick hills, aimed at decoy fires west of Cochno. 

The greatest damage was caused by incendiaries. 

A Luftwaffe 1kg incendiary bomb (Brandbombe) presumed to be of the B1 type dated 1936. Photo – Ian Dunster CC BY 2.5

According to German sources, a total of 503 metric tons of high explosive bombs and 2,412 containers of incendiaries were dropped, and a total of 439 aircraft took part in the raids. Only two planes were shot down, possibly by the crew of the Polish warship berthed at John Brown’s. The RAF failed to field any sort of meaningful defence.

The Polish warship ORP Piorin

The ORP Piorin (Thunderbolt in Polish) had been built on the Clyde for the Royal Navy and given to the Polish Navy in 1940. At the time of the Blitz, it was being repaired at John Brown’s shipyard. The Polish sailors fired its guns at the bombers to try and defend the town. A memorial plaque to them was unveiled in 1994 and rededicated in Solidarity Plaza on 29 April 2005.

Memorial to the crew of the Polish Ship, ORP Piorun

Casualties

The list of civilian war dead was compiled by the War Graves Commission and is to be found in the Roll of Honour placed in Westminster Abbey. The number of casualties attributed to the Clydebank Blitz is 528. 617 were severely injured and many hundreds more injured by blast debris. It took some time to establish a final tally, many bodies were lost in the rubble.

Many wounded and seriously injured were taken from the town and were registered dead on arrival or died elsewhere at a later date. These people have been extracted from the registers of civilian war dead outside the Burgh of Clydebank. 

22 unclaimed and unidentified victims are buried in a mass grave in Dalnotter Cemetery Clydebank. Some of these victims may be named and for reasons could not be identified. The remains of others were never found.

The dead were buried at the town’s Dalnottar Cemetery – unclaimed victims were laid to rest in a communal grave
Clydebank Blitz Memorial in Dalnotter Cemetery Clydebank

The people killed in the raids worked in the shipyards, factories and munitions, and some were not from Clydebank. They came Glasgow and beyond, so many people directly affected did not even live in Clydebank. The tragedy went beyond the bombed out areas.

Firewatchers like George Anderson from Glasgow and Walter Bisland who lived in Dumbarton but was killed in Old Kilpatrick. James Coutts from Rigby Street in Glasgow who was killed in the shipyard. Whole families were wiped out like the McKechnie’s who lived at 12 Pattison Street.

An eyewitness account from a 17-year-old:

“I came into town to look for my family. Oh, what a nightmare! The place was smashed to bits, everything was burning. I had to climb over mountains of rubble to get to the street where my family lived. Our street was demolished and on fire, some houses were smouldering empty shells. I was sobbing uncontrollably, I couldn’t find anybody, it was the most terrible feeling I have ever had. I was only 17 and I felt like the only person left in the world”.

The blitz on Clydebank created 48,000 refugees, who needed to be rehoused
Distribution of people made homeless by the raids who were evacuated from Clydebank, 17 March 1941.
National Records of Scotland, ED31/528 https://www.nrscotland.gov.uk

Excerpt from Casualty List:

COMMISKIE JONINA age 62.

 At 4 Napier Street, 13 March 1941; of Ardmore House, Cardross

DICK, IAN PRENTICE, age 34

 A.R.P. Ambulance Driver; of 2A The Crescent, Dalmuir

DENNIS, SAMUEL, age 19

 78 Jellicoe Street, Home Guard.

ANDERSON, GEORGE, age 51

 Firewatcher; of 20 Kelvingrove Street, Glasgow

BARCLAY JOHN, age 60

 56 Dumbarton Road Old Kilpatrick, Air Raid Warden. 14 March 1941 at Old Kilpatrick

BILSLAND WALTER, age 31

 AFS fireman of 12 Park Crescent, Dumbarton. 14th March 1941, at Old Kilpatrick

BOWMAN, ALBERT, age unknown 

 10 Church Street Air Raid Warden. 14 March 1941, at Royal Infirmary

COUTTS, JAMES SMITH, age 37

 256 Rigby Street, Glasgow. Son of lsabella Coutts, of 46 Planet Street, Glasgow, and of the late Alexander Coutts. 13 March 1941, at Beardmore’s Works, Dalmuir.

McKECHNIE, AGNES, age 34

 12 Pattison Street, Dalmuir. Wife of Michael John Sidney McKechnie. 13 March 1941, at 12 Pattison Street.

McKECHNIE, ALLAN 46

 11 Bruce Street at Blawarthill Hospital 14 March 1941 Injured 13 March 1941

McKECHNIE, EMMA SHEILA, age 9

 12 Pattison Street, Dalmuir. Daughter of Michael John Sidney and Agnes McKechnie. 13 March 1941 at 12 Pattison Street.

McKECHNIE, MICHAEL JOHN SIDNEY, age 34

12 Pattison Street Dalmuir. Son of Michael and Sarah McKechnie, of 65 West Clyde Street, Helensburgh; husband of Agnes McKechnie, 13 March, at 12 Pattison Street.

McKECHNIE, WILLIAM, age 39

 1 Elm Road, Dalmuir. 13 March 1941, at 425 Glasgow Road.

Police and Army bomb disposal officers with a defused German 1000kg ‘Luftmine’ (parachute mine) in Glasgow, 18 March 1941

The final death toll may never be known but 528 people lost their lives, some whose bodies were never found. Whole families were killed, workers, air raid wardens, and firefighters – it was the sheer devastation of Clydebank that stunned the whole of Scotland.

Clydebank Blitz Memorial Garden, Graham Avenue Photo by Ian Sweeney, CC BY SA
Plaque of Clydebank Memorial Garden Photo by Graham Phanco, CC BY SA
The woman second from right is my grandmother

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