While I was researching my latest post on Sheffield during the Second World War, I came across some articles about the Sheffield Blitz Trail app. The app is an interactive map that guides users through the key events of the first night of the Blitz, incorporating photographs and audio documents into a walking tour of the city. Since museums are closed due to Covid, I was eager to try an alternative means of accessible public education. Last week, I set out to follow the Sheffield Blitz Trail; here are my experiences.
I was very intrigued by the concept of a self-guided historic tour, and was excited to give it a try. The app (simply titled “Sheffield Blitz”) is available for free on iTunes and the Play Store. The user interface is neat and easy to navigate. From the Homepage is a How To section to ensure ease of use, which give the user a rundown on using the app as well as the walking map that takes you around the city. Give that a quick read before you start the tour, as well as the Introduction page, which provides a quick contextual rundown of the Blitz before diving into the location specifics. The homepage also has a link to a Timeline of the Blitz, which I think is worth giving a read after you finish the tour, because then you’ll have a mental map of the locations it talks about.
The tour itself is navigated from the Sheffield Blitz Trail section, where you can select the map to situate yourself at the beginning. From there, the location detection will buzz and jump to the page with information about where you are on the trail. Each page contains information on what stood at the spot before the Blitz, what happened to it on that night, and the aftermath of the bombing. There is text, before and after photos, quotes from eyewitnesses, and audio from interviews with Doug Lightning. Doug was the last surviving firefighter who worked the night of the Blitz, and his involvement is the highlight of the app.
If you just want to know my further thoughts on the app and don’t want any content of the trail spoiled, scroll down to the bottom of the post for my final verdict.
Walking the Trail
As per the app’s introduction to the trail, the Sheffield Blitz was a large-scale bombing raid on December 12th and 15th, 1940. It had the codename Operation Schmelztiegel – in English, Operation Crucible. Sheffield is a city known for its industrial output, which becomes an enemy target during wartime. Surprisingly, the Blitz was the only major campaign against the city, and Sheffield remained a key industrial centre for wartime production for the duration of the war.
The app explores the events of the night of December 12th, when the bombs fell over the city centre.
The Trail starts at The Moor, a pedestrian shopping street at the edge of city centre. As described in the app, The Moor was one of the most damaged areas in the city, destroyed by the incendiary bombs dropped by the Germans. It is speculated that the lights of The Moor were mistaken for Attercliffe Road, which is the main road connecting industrial plants to the north-east of the city. This could be why the city centre was targeted instead of the factories and steelworks.
The Blitz Tour has two stops at The Moor: first is Atkinsons, a department store whose original structure was destroyed, along with the rest of the street. It shows the elaborate entrance hall of the store, including a stunning chandelier, which is immediately contrasted by pictures of the rubble left behind. Atkinsons is the last independent store from the pre-war period that still operates on The Moor. At the top of the street is a second stop that talks about the shops that had stood where the High Street shops are now, and how the entirety of the street was destroyed in fire and rebuilt from scratch. At this location is a bronze plaque commemorating Doug Lightning and the time capsule he helped create in 2012.
The app guides you from the Moor to Devonshire Green along Division Street. Take the lefthand side of the road, as you’ll come back this way and the next spot is on the opposite side. Along this street are a bunch of great independent coffee shops and bubble tea cafés, so my recommendation is to grab a coffee and a bite to eat to enjoy at Devonshire Green. I recommend Cawa Coffee, 200degs Coffee, or Happy Lemon Bubble Tea. When you arrive at the Green, there is a sign about the Blitz that shows you you’re in the right place.
The Devonshire Green used to be a high-density residential area, packed full of terrace houses. Now it’s a public greenspace, because the Blitz flattened the entire area. While many other spots have new buildings to replace those destroyed, Devonshire Green stands empty. It is one of the most jarring stops on the tour, because the park is such a large space to have been demolished overnight.
Central Fire Station
Heading back along Division Street, the app will buzz for you to stop at Bungalows and Bears, a pub that now occupies the building that used to be Sheffield’s Central Fire Station. If pubs were open when I walked the trail, I would have stopped in for a pint before carrying on. Thanks covid. Anyway, that pub is now on my Sheffield bucket list because I’d love to go inside. Something I love about England is how many buildings that now house pubs, restaurants, and shops have so much history!
Continuing back down Division Street brings you to Barker’s Pool and City Hall. The city’s cenotaph and war memorial is here, originally built in remembrance of the soldiers who died during the First World War. It was already constructed when a bomb detonated in the square, blasting shrapnel into the pillars in front of City Hall. Inspecting the pillars, you can find scars in the stone from the explosion. This is one of the highlights of the tour for me, because it’s such tangible evidence of the events the app describes.
The plaza is also home to the Women of Steel, a statue erected in 2016 to commemorate the women who worked the steel mills during the World Wars. Barker’s Pool is just a great spot to go for wartime history and memorialization!
The Central Library
It was very disappointing that I couldn’t enter the Central Library due to covid because, like City Hall, it retains the scars of the Blitz. A large crack runs through the foyer as a result of the tremors caused by the bombs. Besides being the site of visible reminders from the Blitz, the library is a noteable site on the tour because it was used as an observation site for ARP wardens during air raids, and as a centre for relief in the days after the Blitz. Rations were distributed from the library, and it was a lifeline for people whose houses were destroyed by German bombs. Like the women who took to the steel mills during the war, many women who worked at the library got involved in the war effort – the app has some cool photos of female librarians in training as air raid wardens.
The Sheffield Central library has a long and interesting history that extends beyond its role during the Blitz, and you can read more about it here. There’s also a great picture of the cracked marble floor that hopefully I’ll be seeing myself soon.
Sheffield’s High Street was badly damaged by the bombs and ensuing fires, and it’s very interesting to see photos of the buildings that used to line the street. It’s impressive and a bit devastating to see the beautiful Victorian and Art Déco buildings that were destroyed, especially the old C&A building. It and many of the other High Street buildings, were rebuilt post-war with modern concrete structures. This spot on the trail is quite busy, near a primary tram stop and major crosswalk, and not all that interesting to look at. However, the app does have a great collection of photos to compensate for it, as well as very enjoyable audio interview segments. I don’t want to say the app knows it’s a boring spot and compensated with extra content, but if that were to be the case, it was a good choice.
I’ve written about the collapse of Marples in my Remembrance Day post, but to recap: Marples was a very fancy hotel with a posh bar and ballroom inside. It was very busy during the night of the Blitz, with a live band performing and people out dancing. It got further packed as bombs started to fall, particularly after the C&A building across the street was hit, and many of its occupants fled to the cellars to act as a bomb shelter. Fifteen minutes before midnight, a bomb fell through the damaged upper floors of the building, and detonated at ground level, collapsing the floor into the cellar and killing 70 people.
The audio recordings of Doug Lightning talking about the event are again excellent. When he talks about he hotel, you really get the understanding of how popular it was and how much it played into the city’s social scene. His sister-in-law and her mother were at Marples on the night of December 12th, but had left before the bombs dropped. This personal connection also makes the events of the Blitz hit closer to home.
It’s a huge shame that the building that was built at the site of Marples is a post-war steel-and-concrete structure, because the original Victorian building was absolutely beautiful. Like the rest of the High Street, it’s the story of what used to be there that is the interesting part of the trail, not what’s in front of you.
Old Town Hall
I didn’t know that Sheffield had an old Town Hall as well as the current City Hall and Town Hall! This one is another site that’s carried by the interview segment of the app. This building survived the fires thanks to Doug’s fire crew, and housed a secret wartime initiative, which provides some interesting insight into how much secrecy was involved in the British war effort.
Snig Hill and the NES Museum
The last stop on the Sheffield Blitz Trail is Snig Hill and the location that used to be the Black Swan pub. Though the original buildings are gone (what a surprise), the new concrete building has a large sign of a black swan. This stop’s audio segment goes into the actual strategies of the fire brigade during the Blitz, and drives home how unprecedented it was to have to fight fires to this degree. From Snig Hill, you can wrap up your tour and return to the High Street, or carry on to the National Emergency Services Museum.
Unfortunately, because of covid restrictions, the NES Museum is shut until 2021. I’m so excited for it to reopen because it’s quite high on my list of places to go when Sheffield is out of Tier 3. There is an exhibition all about the Sheffield Blitz that I imagine would be enhanced by having walked the Blitz Trail, as the self-guided tour provides geographical context for the events being presented in the exhibition. I’d love to be able to give more information than speculation, but until the museum opens again, this is the best that I’ve got!
The Final Verdict
Now that I’ve experienced the Sheffield Blitz Trail through the app, what are my thoughts on it?
Overall, I really liked using the app, and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in wartime history. I studied history in university with a particular interest in homefront history (ie. how the war and the war effort effected civilians and everyday life), so this experience was right up my alley. I don’t necessarily think that the app has a wide appeal outside of those with a particular interest in history, but they’re not the target audience for this app. Aside from history buffs, if you are Sheffield born and raised, you might enjoy this as a way to discover more of your local history.
Here’s what I didn’t love about the experience:
- Some of the locations feel disconnected from their history. Since the buildings mentioned were destroyed during the Blitz, some of the places you go are concrete buildings that don’t have much of a connection to the buildings you are learning about on the app. This is not the fault of the app at all, and this does not apply to all the sites, but it was a bit disappointing nonetheless.
- The automatic location detection could be improved. When I arrived at the locations on the map, the autoplay function wouldn’t start, so I would manually play the audio, walk around the area while listening, and then feel my phone buzz to let me know I was at a new site. A few times, the audio restarted when this happened. It wasn’t a huge deal, but maybe something that could be fixed.
- The app doesn’t mute or pause sound from other apps when it begins to play audio. I put on a playlist of wartime (1940s) music to listen to as I walked between locations, and had hoped that the Blitz Trail app would automatically pause Spotify when it needed to play its own audio. It doesn’t. Again, it’s such a minute criticism, but I would have liked not to have to switch back and forth between apps to pause and play audio.
What I loved about the Sheffield Blitz Trail:
- The Moor, Devonshire Green, and City Hall locations are the best sites. As I’ve mentioned, some of the sites don’t feel connected to the stories on the app, but these ones most certainly do. The shrapnel scars on City Hall are a particular highlight.
- The collection of historic photographs is very well curated and contextualize of the history of the sites you visit on the trail. They show the beautiful architecture of the buildings that were destroyed, as well as show the scale of destruction the Blitz had on the city.
- The audio recordings are hands down my favourite part of the app. Photographs and documentation can preserve history in an objective way, but first-hand accounts of an individual’s experience are vital to understand the human element of history. Doug Lightning was the last surviving fire fighter who worked during the Blitz, and has so many fascinating stories, thoughts, and memories tied to that night. He passed away in 2017. If he had not been interviewed for posterity, all of his personal experiences would be lost.
That’s just about it! Well, it’s actually quite a lot, but hopefully anyone who read this far found it interesting! I think this type of app has a lot of potential for public education by museums and historic societies. Maybe ghost tours? What other ways do you think this technology could be used for? Leave a comment and let me know!
[…] Remembrance Day/Armistice Day. I always go a bit “history nerd” in November, which usually entails me falling down a rabbit hole of reading about the world wars. This year in particular I spent a lot of time researching and writing about the local history surrounding the WW2. This included visiting the Mi Amigo war memorial in Endcliffe Park, and walking the Sheffield Blitz Trail. […]