History: When the Nazis set their sights on Weston-super-Mare - the blitz of 1942
PUBLISHED: 18:00 28 June 2017
Weston-super-Mare was a very different place 75 years ago; devastation and death rained down from skies which only last week were filled with the stunts and wonder of the town's air festival...
This week marks the 75th anniversary of Weston’s worst blitz, two nights of ‘horror’ which saw more than 100 people killed, hundreds more injured and many landmarks levelled by German bombs.
On the nights of June 28 and 29, 1942 Weston endured ‘hell on earth’ as 52 high-explosive bombs and more than 10,000 savage incendiary devices fell upon the town.
The flames emanating from the crumbling ruins could be seen from Wales, as Weston suffered its worst days at war.
But through the inferno, thousands of Westonians emerged to play vital roles in saving hundreds of lives.
One Weston man has this week told of his experiences of the raid, and shed a light on the heroic efforts of his grandfather which led to many lives being saved.
Colin Charsley, aged 85 and of Brendon Avenue, spoke to reporter Sam Frost about the two-night attack on the town, and how his grandfather laid foundations which helped the town deal with the Nazis’ destruction of Weston.
On the evening of June 28, in clear and warm conditions, German planes soared above Weston, and at just after 1am they began their assault on the town.
Chaos ensued as a mix of high-explosive bombs and incendiary weapons were dropped on the town.
The incendiary devices, which were made from magnesium, were designed to penetrate through roofs before exploding and starting a raging fire.
As day broke Colin Charsley, then aged 12, emerged from his home in South Road to find the buildings burning or levelled.
He said: “I can remember getting up at 6am and cycling around the town. Buildings were burning all over the place. Down on the Drove Road there were 13 people there covered in blankets, dead.
“There were fire pumps going all day, but the fires were still going by the time the next raid began the following night.”
On the 29th, the bombers returned at around 2am, and once again the town suffered a battering – with Orchard Street in particular being devastated by high-explosive bombs.
In his book Weston At War: 1939-45, historian John Crockford-Hawley wrote of the damage wrought upon the town.
He said: “After two nights’ continuous bombing, the full brunt of destruction was everywhere to be seen.
“Buildings lay smouldering amidst dust and smoke. Walls tottered on the brink of collapse and a weary population wandered around bewildered or exhausted.”
In total 102 people were killed in the raid, while 400 were injured.
The rescue operation was particularly difficult as it was tourism season and the town’s population had significantly swelled for the summer – meaning it was hard to ascertain how many people were in each building and who was not accounted for.
Town centre buildings suffered immense damage, with many of the main streets lined with rubble, broken glass and bodies.
The Tivoli Cinema, in the Boulevard, and Lances department store, where Argos currently stands, were flattened by the explosions.
The Bournville estate also suffered significant damage during the raids.
Why did the Nazis target Weston?
The blitz was one of the Baedeker raids, which were targeting tourist destinations well-known to people on the continent who followed the famous Baedeker guide books.
The other targets were Bath, Exeter, Norwich, Canterbury and York.
“Why Weston was included in such august company is unknown,” said a Civil Defence book which recorded the chronology of the raids.
Mr Charsley believes Weston had been a target for ‘several reasons’.
He added: “These raids were called the Baedeker raids because the Baedeker guidebook listed all the places of holiday value in Britain.
“Britain bombed a city in Northern Germany called Lübeck and burned it down. In retribution, Hitler decreed that he would bomb Canterbury, York, Bath, Exeter and Weston among others.
“There were aircraft factories, and secret weaponry was being developed at the old pier.
“The main cable office between England and the United States was in Richmond Street, so there were numerous reasons why the town was targeted.”
Charles Christopher Charsley – ‘A good and valiant man’
The death toll in Weston would have undoubtedly been greater had it not been for the valiant efforts of volunteers who had been well prepared for the grim reality of war to hit.
In 1936, the Weston Urban District Council and Axbridge Rural District Council formed a Civil Defence air raid protection scheme (ARP), which boasted 4,000 members, following pressure from Mr Charsley’s grandfather Charles Christopher Charsley.
Weston was ‘solely’ reliant on the efforts of volunteers to cope with the ramifications of any German attack which would target the area.
The ARP formed teams to protect Weston’s residents during the war – ranging from first aid to gas decontamination.
The ARP’s hundreds of volunteers played a pivotal role in tackling the aftermath of German attacks, and saved many lives throughout the war – particularly in the wake of Weston’s worst blitz.
MORE: War veterans remember VJ Day.
Charles Christopher Charsley, described as the ‘father’ of the Civil Defence in Weston, was the figurehead of its formation.
He served as the sub-controller of the ARP, and was widely lauded for the foundations he laid which ultimately saved many lives when the Germans set their sights on Weston.
Born in Leicester in 1864, he enjoyed a successful career as a footballer, playing for the likes of Small Heath, which later became Birmingham City, and West Bromwich Albion.
He went on to represent his country as a goalkeeper and earned a cap for the Three Lions in 1893 before becoming a police chief constable in Coventry.
He moved to the seaside after the conclusion of World War One, and his work in Weston might be his greatest and most impactful achievement.
He served on the town council and as deputy mayor, but with tensions growing across Europe, CC Charsley fought for an ARP to be formed to protect the people of Weston if war was to reach the town.
His grandson said: “He was sure that war was going to come and he fought tooth and nail with the council for Civil Defence to be brought in.
“The ARP had hundreds of members, divided into rescue teams and emergency services. He created all of that against stiff opposition.”
A book on the history of Weston’s Civil Defence said CC Charsley oversaw ‘the birth of the ARP’.
It added: “With tact and understanding and a great love of the work, he nursed the organisation during the early days, defending it against the sarcastic comments passed during those optimistic months of 1938 and early 1939.
“He always insisted upon shouldering his full share of duties and he was in attendance on every night alert.
“During the raids of 1942, when Weston experienced aerial attacks which, probably, no other area depending solely on volunteers was called upon to endure, the Civil Defence emerged with flying colours.
“The splendid work of the men and women who had been inspired by his leadership was a source of great pride to CC Charsley.”
It is certain the team of volunteers, which were commanded by CC Charsley, saved many lives and helped the town rebuild after the raids.
The Civil Defence paid tribute to the ARP’s sub-commander.
It said: “With full knowledge of the magnitude of the task he had accomplished, all members of the Civil Defence pay tribute to this good and valiant man whose name will live long in the memory of all who were privileged to serve under him.”