The Cardiff Blitz: How the City Rebuilt Itself After the War

Bomb damage cardiff blitz

As Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday approach, we take a look back at the Cardiff Blitz and how the city rebuilt itself in the years following the war.

Cardiff was one of the worst hit cities during the blitz in World War Two, losing countless buildings, homes and lives.

To honour those that sacrificed their lives for the cause, we take a look back at how this affected the city and how far the people of Cardiff have come since.

Cardiff Before the War

In the early 1830s, Cardiff was the main port for exports of coal from the Cynon, Rhondda, and Rhymney valleys.

Cardiff Blitz
Butetown from the south, 1930s
Source: dicmortimer.com

Between 1840 and 1870, this grew at a staggering rate of nearly 80% per decade.

Much of the growth was due to migration from within and outside Wales, in 1851, a quarter of Cardiff’s population were English-born and more than 10% had been born in Ireland.

By the 1881 census, Cardiff had overtaken both Merthyr and Swansea to become the largest town in Wales.

Cardiff’s new status as the premier town in South Wales was confirmed when it was chosen as the site of the University College South Wales and Monmouthshire in 1893.

In the following years, Cardiff continued to grow and expand, until war broke out.

The Cardiff Blitz

Seen as a key industrial centre for the British war effort, Cardiff was to suffer the first and worst of the bombing.

During 1940 the Luftwaffe targeted Cardiff on the 3rd, 10th and 12th July and the 7th August, subjecting Llandaff Cathedral, industrial and civic buildings and hundreds of civilians to a bombardment.

Cardiff Blitz
Rescue party 2nd Jan 1941
Source: WWII Today

This was followed in 1941 with raids on the 2nd, 3rd and 10th January, the deadliest of these was on the night of the 2nd January 1941.

Over 100 German bombers attacked the city over a 10-hour period, beginning at 6.37 pm.

Dropping high explosive bombs, incendiary bombs and parachute mines, the Riverside area was the first to be bombed, as the Germans attempted to destroy the Canton rail yard.

The greatest tragedy of the night was in Hollymans, the local bakers situated on the corner of Stockland Street, in Grangetown.

Open for business since the 1870s, owners of family bakers Alfred and Bill Hollyman had offered shelter to more than 30 members of the local community in their large cellar, alongside their family of five.

But disaster struck when the property was levelled by a direct strike from an enemy land mine, killing all inside.

The scale of the tragedy was only discovered the next morning, when 14-year-old delivery boy for the bakery, John Williams, arrived for this round to find his employer’s shop in ruins.

De Burgh Street, Riverside
De Burgh Street, Riverside
Source: warhistoryonline

During this deadly night, the bombing lasted just 35 minutes, but 165 locals lost their lives, 427 were injured and around 3,000 were made homeless.

Chapels and the nave of Llandaff Cathedral were badly damaged, with Canton and Riverside being the worst area hit. It has been estimated that around 50 people were tragically killed on De Burgh Street alone.

Cardiff was again targeted during the raid on 29th April 1941, as the German’s attempted to bomb the Civic Centre using four land mines.

One landed harmlessly in the Castle grounds, narrowly missing the Civic shelter, but the other three had tragic consequences.

Ten died on Lewis Street in Riverside from one mine and the other two fell in Cathays on Llanbleddian Gardens and Wyverne Road, killing 23 people.

Bomb damage cardiff blitz
Bute Street, 1941
Source: BBC News

This included ten members of the Palmer family who had taken cover in the Anderson Shelter in their back garden.

The adjoining parish hall on Wyverne Road was destroyed, but remarkably the 4th Cardiff Scout flag, carried to the Antarctic on Scott’s fateful expedition, was recovered from the rubble undamaged.

Between 1940 and the final raid on the city in March 1944 approximately 2,100 bombs fell, killing 355 people.

Cardiff Castle

One of the greatest saviours during this difficult time was Cardiff Castle.

Inside the walls were tunnels which were used as air-raid shelters throughout the war.

It was estimated that more than 1800 people could take shelter within the walls and when the sirens sounded, people who lived and worked in the city would rush to the shelters.

Special ramps were built so that people could gain access into the walls quickly. Further research has revealed there were dormitories with bunks, kitchens, toilets and first aid posts concealed within the bunkers.

cardiff castle

During the war they also installed a “Barrage Balloon”, to be flown from inside the Castle Grounds.

These effective balloons would float high above the castle, attached to the ground by big metal cables. If any enemy aircraft were flying low, they would become tangled up in the wires, making it an effective deterrent.

Cardiff is Rebuilt

Cardiff suffered its last air strike in March 1944 and less than a year later Germany surrendered on the 7th May 1945.

With thousands of people left homeless following the blitz, Winston Churchill announced the ‘Temporary Housing Programme’ in 1944, which aimed to provide large numbers of houses quickly and economically.

They were primarily for families whose homes had been destroyed by enemy bombing, or to provide houses for key workers who would be needed to help the country recover after the war.

They were mass-produced and prefabricated, hence the nickname ‘prefabs’, in the factories that had once manufactured aircraft and armaments.

Production of these ‘prefab’ houses started in 1946 and by 1949 more than 156,600 had been built.

cardiff blitz
Source: National Museum Wales

The legacy of the war years were to change the way houses were designed and built for decades to come, with many more new homes being built by local authorities and councils after 1946.

Between 1948 and 1955 public housing exceeded private housing by more than 6:1, and it was not until 1970 that the ratio of privately built houses exceeded council built housing once more.

For some years after the war, the construction industry was kept fully occupied in repairing the ravages of the conflict.

Cardiff had escaped lightly compared with many cities, but over 600 buildings had been completely destroyed and nearly 30,000 needed repairs.

cardiff
Llandaff Cathedral Source: Visit Wales

Nearly fifteen years were to pass before Llandaff Cathedral was raised to its former glory after it was damaged in the 1941 blitz.

In 1960 the Cathedral was fully restored by George Pace, who added a concrete parabolic arch in the nave to support a new sculpture by Jacob Epstein, Majestas.

The reconstruction was largely based on Prichard’s work in the nineteenth century but, outside the North Door, the opportunity was taken to build a processional way and a Memorial Chapel, dedicated to the Welsh Regiment.

The City Today

Today, Cardiff is the capital and largest city in Wales and the eleventh-largest city in the United Kingdom.

The city is the country’s chief commercial centre, the base for most national cultural and sporting institutions, the Welsh national media, and the seat of the National Assembly for Wales.

Following the war and the decline of the coal industry, Cardiff Bay suffered and the major steel-producing plants at Shotton, Ebbw Vale and Cardiff were forced to close.

cardiff pierhead

However, today Cardiff Bay is a hive of activity again following a massive regeneration project leading to the Barrage and Mermaid Quay.

It’s safe to say, the city of Cardiff is thriving with tourism, employment and investment.

Remembrance Day in Cardiff

A day for the nation to remember and honour those who sacrificed themselves to secure and protect our freedom, this year Remembrance Sunday falls on 12th November, with Armistice Day the day before.

The Welsh National Field of Remembrance at Cardiff Castle has officially opened.

remembrance day

The field has more than 10,000 crosses and tributes from all other faiths and is one of six across the UK.

The Fields of Remembrance are created by The Royal British Legion every November as a tribute to those who have died serving in the UK’s armed forces.

On Remembrance Day, November 11, the two-minute silence will be held in all civic buildings. In City Hall, wreaths will be laid by council staff.

Cardiff also hosts the National Service of Remembrance for Wales at Cathays Park War Memorial and the National Museum of Wales is providing poppy-making crafts and story-telling from actors.