The Plymouth Blitz: a look at the annual police reports published during the war

This article is part 2 of a series about the The Plymouth Blitz.

Plymouth City Police were right at the coal face of Plymouth’s blitz response and broader war effort on the home front. An extraordinary time to be a police officer, police reserve, personnel, or serving in the Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps, the Second World War stretched and strained Plymouth’s force. Yet it is clear from the annual Chief Constable reports produced at the time that the police rapidly adapted and carried on, their sense of duty unwavering in the face of enemy action.

The war impacted Plymouth policing in a great number of ways; not only did the city see an increase in crimes related to theft and damage to property as opportunists took advantage of bomb damage to shops, homes and buildings, but the police were also responding to air raid fatalities, injuries and irreparable damage to people’s homes and places of work. Police duties expanded as enemy attacks exposed the city and its citizens to the realities of wartime hostilities.

This increase in responsibilities is clearly demonstrated in the Chief Constable’s annual reports between 1940-1942, with each report evidencing the escalating impact air raids were having on police operations and police morale. Each report looked back on the year, which is why in January 1940’s report brief mention is made of the wartime context, except for details of police war reserve numbers, and an acknowledgement of the number of police who were called to service; ‘six members of the force with reserve obligations were recalled to the colours under the National Services (Armed Forces) Act 1939, and up to 31st December 1939, 38 members of the force had registered at the Ministry of Labour under the Military Services Act.’ By 1941, however, the impact is much clearer. For the first time, the Chief Constable’s report for the previous year – 1940 — includes a list of Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps (WAPC) positions – a total of 20 WAPC were now being employed by the force. WAPC carried out roles including that of driver, matron, canteen worker, maintenance repair person, and typist. The WAPC women provided invaluable support to police operations throughout the war, and offer one of many examples where women’s contributions to Britain’s overall war effort was significant.

The 1941 report also records an increase in road accidents that directly correlated to the war context; ‘with the diminution of vehicular traffic on the roads less care is being exercised by pedestrians when in the streets of the City.’ The report states how ‘children are already subjected to grave risks from enemy action from which no amount of training or lectures can save them and some effort must be made to save them from death or injury on the road which can in a large measure be avoided by proper instruction.’

When the 1942 report is published, Plymouth was experiencing incessant air raids – the Plymouth Blitz. For the first time, the annual report includes a list of police personnel killed by enemy action, 9 in total. Sickness is also reported as being higher than in previous years; ‘as a direct result of air raids on the City sickness shows a considerable increase. The number reporting sick was 181 as compared with 164…the figures include 30 men injured in raids, and 26 who received injuries performing normal duties.’ The number of WAPC positions had also increased that year, to 50, and an information bureau had been set up to deal with the number of missing person enquiries resulting from air raids; ‘following the heavy raids an information bureau was set up and 3,000 communications as to missing people were dealt with, in nearly every case the required information being obtained.’ In the same year, the Chief Constable sought to ensure as many police personnel qualified in First Aid, to respond to the growing human costs of enemy action across the City.

Incidents of looting had also skyrocketed at this point. The Chief Constable writes, ‘immediately following the extensive raids it is with regret that I have to report that looting became prevalent…in addition to this, there were numerous instances where property had disappeared from bombed dwellings and where the owners had suffered so much by the loss of relatives and friends that the reporting of theft of property to the Police was by comparison, of so much lesser importance that they did not trouble to complain.’ He later goes on to state that because of the geographical area and number of people looting it was impossible for the police ‘to grapple effectively with the problem’, highlighting just how much the war presented opportunities for criminal activity that exacerbated the strain on the police. Particularly interesting about this section of the report is the Chief Constable’s palpable empathy for the number of people who were experiencing loss on multiple levels – offering a window into the symbiotic relationship between the police and much of the community.

Between 1939-1945, 18 members of Plymouth City Police gave their lives to the Second World War. The Plymouth Blitz was a time of great loss and destruction for the City and its citizens, and the annual reports capture this. But what these reports are unable to provide is anything more than glimpses into the everyday realities of policing experiences at the height of the war. Behind the hard numbers and statistics hides the lived experiences of those who were on the ground, day in day out, working for Plymouth City Police, facing the fierce air raids and the trails of destruction laid in their wake.

We are lucky enough to have, with thanks to police historians Simon Dell and Mark Rothwell, the personal accounts of two individuals with firsthand experiences of working for Plymouth City Police at the height of the Blitz. Through the personal accounts of Winifred Hooper and Roy Jewell, we are able to better understand what it was like to go through the Blitz through their eyes; not only as individuals experiencing their own personal losses and suffering that war inflicted, but as people with a duty – a job to do, a responsibility to protect their city.

Words by Miranda Stevens