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World War 2 In Peterborough

1939 – 1945


The Town played a vital role with industry, airfields and a major railway centre. The flat landscape meant there were many airfields including RAF Peterborough, Westwood, which was a major RAF training centre. Local people volunteered for Military Service but those in ‘reserved occupations’, (jobs important to the war effort) were not conscripted but often spent their spare time in Civil Defence e.g. Home Guard and Auxiliary Fire Service. Businesses set up their own firewatchers while first-aiders and plane spotters were essential. National Service became compulsory for unmarried women aged between 20 and 30, then up to 50 in 1943, unless they had children under 14. Many joined the various women’s forces and nurses were attached to all the Services. Women worked in factories making war machines, ammunition, clothing or parachutes. Engineering industries such as Perkins Engines and Baker Perkins switched to wartime production supplying engines, guns, torpedoes and manufacturing machinery. Amidst this, dancing at local hotels and cinema-going were popular and there were several cinemas, showing films three times a day.  Foreign servicemen became familiar sights on the street. They included including Americans, French and Poles, many of the latter remaining in the city at the end of the war. Peterborough was not a prime target for bombs, so the city received 1496 London evacuees. Brick air raid shelters were built in the city centre. There were 644 Air Raid Alert warnings and bombs were hitting Bridge Street and the Lido. Raids of high explosive and incendiary bombs continued to 1942. Peterborough Cathedral was hit by incendiary bombs but damage was limited by the quick reaction of the fire-watchers.

Outbreak of the Second World War



The Second World War (WWII) was a war that lasted from 1st September 1939 to 2nd September 1945 ( though there were related conflicts which began earlier and some that went on later). The vast majority of the world's countries were involved and eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 50 to 85 million fatalities. It included the genocide of the Holocaust, bombing that destroyed towns and cities, massacres of soldiers and civilians, starvation and disease for millions and ultimately the first use of nuclear weapons. The Allies:                                                                                                                                                                                                                      In 1939 the Allies consisted of Poland, France, the United Kingdom and dependent states, for example British India, and the independent Dominions of the British Commonwealth: Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. In 1940 they were joined by the Netherlands, Belgium, Greece and Yugoslavia (after the German invasion of North Europe). In June 1941 the Soviet Union joined after being invaded and in December 1941 the United States joined after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour (though they had been providing materials before this). The Chinese had been in a prolonged war with Japan since 1937 but officially joined the allies in 1941. In 1945, the Allied nations became the basis of the United Nations. The Axis:                                                                                                                                                                                                                  The Axis consisted of Germany, Italy and Japan. The Axis members agreed on their opposition to the Allies but cooperation and coordination of their activity was not great.

Airbases in World War 2



As the East of England is very flat and because of its relative closeness to mainland Europe, many airfields were established or enlarged during the Second World War, roughly one every seven miles. Several of these were around Peterborough, amongst them were: RAF Peterborough (now the Westwood area of the city) was used as a training base for pilots. American servicemen were stationed there during the war and post-war French airmen were also trained there. It was not used for operational missions but was bombed several times. RAF Wittering, established in 1916 as a fighter station for the Royal Flying Corps. In 1938 it became a fighter base, with Spitfires and Hurricanes based there taking part in the Battle of Britain. It was bombed at least 5 times, one attack in March 1941 resulting in the deaths of 17 servicemen. Post war it was a home for the British nuclear deterrent and a base for Harrier jump jets. The American Air Force also had bases in this area, including at the villages of King's Cliffe, Polebrook and Glatton from which they launched daylight bombing raids over Germany in their B-17 Flying Fortress bombers. Clark Gable, the Hollywood star did his military service from Polebrook in 1943, flying combat missions as Major Clark Gable. In his time off duty he was very popular with the female population of Peterborough!  Peterscourt in Midgate was the base for the American servicemen when off duty, being known as, 'The American Red Cross Club'.  


Opening of the Lido



The Lido open air swimming pool first opened in 1936. A striking building with Art-Deco elements, it was designated a Grade II listed building in 1992. It was instantly popular when it opened and remained so throughout the 1950s and 1960s. However it hasn't always been plain sailing for the Lido, on the 8th of June 1940 it was hit by a bomb during an air raid and one corner was destroyed, though showing true wartime spirit it reopened on the same day! In 1989 it was threatened with closure to save money, but it survived and still opens from May to September.  

Air Raid Causes Loss of Life



On the night of the 10th of May 1941 Britain experienced the heaviest night of bombing of the entire Blitz. Peterborough got off lightly compared to other cities, but bombs did fall. Some hit close to the Museum in Cross Street causing severe damage to buildings, though the museum escaped with just shattered windows. After the 'All Clear' two fire officers entered a severely damaged building to see if anyone was trapped but unfortunately an unexploded incendiary device went off while they were inside killing them both. They were killed trying to help others.

Suffragettes Plant a ‘Bomb’



On Monday 21 April 1913 Mr William Cowling of New Fletton discovered a brown paper parcel under the Oundle Road Railway Bridge. On the parcel was a pasted label saying, 'Votes for Women. Handle With Care. Votes For Women', there was also a Sufferage Society badge pinned on it. Mr Cowling, unsurprisingly, handed it into the police! When it was opened it was found to contain a square tin box with a hole in the lid with a wick protruding. Inside the box were partially burned bits of brown paper and pieces of brick, sugar and sawdust. This was harmless (unlike some suffragette acts in other areas) but it did alarm the authorities that such an item could be placed under an important railway bridge with such ease and without exciting suspicion. The perpetrator was never caught.


The Cathedral is Bombed!



At the outbreak of World War II Peterborough Cathedral published its procedures for when an air raid siren went off during a service. The service would pause, the organist would play a hymn whilst those who needed to leave to attend to their duties could do so. Then after a few minutes, the service would resume. The Cathedral escaped major damage thanks to the vigilance of its firewatchers. For instance, on 10th August 1942 at 12 a.m, two aircraft came over the city, one dropping flares and the other about 250 incendiary bombs. Six fell on the Cathedral roof and thirty on the Town Hall. The incendiaries were all extinguished before they did any significant damage.

St Peter’s College Opens



St Peter's College in Midgate was opened as a teacher training college for men in 1864. It was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott who designed many notable buildings. These including St Pancras station and the Albert Memorial in London. He was also a restorer of many churches, one of which was Westminster Abbey, where he is buried. The Midgate building is made of red brick and is a nice example of his Gothic revival style. It was enhanced, after World War II, with the addition of  a door from the bomb damaged Guildhall in London. In 1973 it was made Grade II listed. The college closed in 1914 and reopened in 1921 as a teacher training college for women. During the Second World War it was the American Red Cross Club, a centre for American servicemen in the city. One notable visitor was actor Clark Gable! After the war it was once again a training college for men. For a brief time it was use for training men and women, before it closed in 1950. In 1952 Perkins Engines bought the building and converted it into offices, renaming it Peterscourt. In its time it has also housed the Peterborough Development Corporation and, after a refurbishment in 1984, continues to be offices today. References: Secret Peterborough by June & Vernon Bull, Amberley Publishing, 2018.  


Birth of Alex Henshaw, Spitfire Test Pilot



Before World War II: 

The son of a wealthy businessman, Alexander Adolphus Dumfries Henshaw (Alex) was born at Peterborough on November 7 1912. He was educated at Lincoln Grammar School. As a boy he was fascinated by flying and by motorcycles. With financial support from his father, who thought aircraft safer than motorcycles, he learned to fly. He began lessons in 1932, at the Skegness and East Lincolnshire Aero Club. A skilled pilot, in 1937 he won the inaugural London-to-Isle of Man air race in atrocious weather. In 1938, flying a Percival Mew Gull, he won the King's Cup Air Race. He flew at an average speed of 236.25 mph, a record that still stands. Early in 1939 Henshaw made a record-breaking solo flight from England to Cape Town and back. However this triumph, overshadowed by the imminence of war, received no public recognition. In the census of that year his occupation was given as a fertiliser manufacturer. Alex was living with his family and his bride-to-be Barbara.

World War II:

When war broke out Alex volunteered for service with the RAF but, while waiting for his application to be processed, was invited instead to join Vickers as a test pilot. Though initially testing Wellington Bombers, he soon moved on to Spitfires and was appointed chief production test pilot for Spitfires and Lancasters. Alex oversaw a team of 25 pilots, and flew more than 2,300 Spitfires, plus other planes, testing up to 20 aircraft a day. It could be dangerous work; Henshaw suffered a number of engine failures, and on one occasion, while flying over a built-up area, crash-landed between two rows of houses. The wings of his aircraft sheared off, and the engine and propeller finished up on someone's kitchen table. Henshaw was left sitting in the small cockpit section with only minor injuries.


Once he was asked to put on a show for the Lord Mayor of Birmingham's Spitfire Fund by flying at high speed above the city's main street. The civic dignitaries were furious when he inverted the aircraft, flying upside down over the town hall. On another occasion he barrel-rolled a four-engined Lancaster bomber, the only pilot ever to pull off this feat.
For his services during the war Henshaw was appointed MBE, though there were many who thought he deserved far more. After World War II: After the war Henshaw went to South Africa as a director of Miles Aircraft, but returned to England in 1948 and joined his family's farming and holiday business. He remained in great demand at aviation functions to the end of his life. To mark the 70th anniversary of the first flight of the Spitfire, in March 2006, the 93-year-old Henshaw flew over Southampton in a two-seater Spitfire. In 2005 he donated his papers, art collection, photographs and trophies to the RAF Museum. He wrote three books about his experiences: The Flight of the Mew Gull; Sigh for a Merlin; and Wings over the Great Divide. Alex Henshaw died on February 24 2007, his wife, Barbara (widow of Count de Chateaubrun) whom he married in 1940, predeceased him. He was survived by their son, Alexander Jr.