At the Society’s September meeting, John Penny spoke to a packed hall about the Luftwaffe’s attacks on the aircraft industry in South Gloucestershire during World War II.
During the 1930s and 40s the South Gloucestershire area was, as it remains today, a nexus of the British aircraft industry. The Bristol Aeroplane Company’s vast plant at Filton and Patchway was the largest aircraft production facility in the world, whilst smaller factories owned by Aero Engines Ltd in Kingswood and Parnall Aircraft Ltd in Yate produced aircraft parts.
In the first few months of the War, the factories escaped any serious damage. However, a change of tactics in August 1940 led to damage to important facilities for the first time. On 25th September 1940 the largest attack of the War on the Filton works occurred, comprising 58 bombers escorted by 50 Messerschmitt long-range fighters. The anti-aircraft guns opened fire at 11.45am, with some success, but three minutes later the bombers reached their target and succeeded in dropping 168 bombs on the site in the space of 45 seconds. Eight newly completed aircraft were destroyed, as was an important prototype for the new Beaufighter. Six semi-underground air-raid shelters took direct hits: including casualties from local residents, the death toll on the ground eventually reached 131.
Although the attack had been detected by south coast radar installations, the planes’ flight path suggested that they were heading for Yeovil. In consequence, the Luftwaffe aircraft were already homeward bound before they were engaged by the RAF in any numbers. Although one Spitfire and its pilot were lost, the German planes were completely outclassed by the RAF; the Messerschmitt escort had to effectively abandon the bombers in order to protect themselves.
The raid led to the permanent stationing of 504 Squadron at Filton the following day, with the result that when a further raid was made on 27th September, the Messerschmitt fighter-bombers were engaged by 504 Squadron’s Hurricanes in the only dogfight of the war to take place over Bristol. Ten German aeroplanes were shot down; their crews were buried with full military honours in Greenbank Cemetery in Bristol. Civilians in the streets removed their hats at the cortege passed: as one resident put it: “they were somebody’s sons”.
On 27th February 1941 an especially audacious attack by a single Luftwaffe plane from a height of just 30 metres on Parnall’s Yate factory resulted in significant damage and the deaths of 53 workers, with a further 153 sustaining injuries. Many of these had returned to the damaged buildings in an attempt to retrieve files, at which point bombs on long-delay fuses had exploded.
The raids on South Gloucestershire’s aircraft production facilities came to an end in the summer of 1941 as Luftwaffe resources were diverted elsewhere. The attacks had had no lasting impact on production.
In Greenbank Cemetery friend and foe lie side by side. A plaque to the workers of the Bristol Aeroplane Company who lost their lives is in St Peter’s church, Filton, and memorials to the Parnall workers were placed in the company’s offices and in St Mary’s church, Yate, tributes to the sacrifice made by South Gloucestershire’s industrial workers.
The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.