“Swansea’s Three Night Blitz”, which will be staged in the Grand Theatre on the (almost) exact 75th anniversary of the Luftwaffe’s attacks on Swansea in February 1941, will be the realisation of an idea which has been simmering away in my head for some time. It is such a unique story.
Way back in 1991, I was an actress with Theatr West Glamorgan, and one of the productions we wrote and toured throughout South Wales was called “Smiling Through” and commemorated the 50th anniversary of those three nights. It was in researching material for that play, all those years ago, that I became personally so particularly hooked on the history. Consequently, a while ago, realising that the 75th anniversary was looming, I felt Swansea deserved, and needed, to mark the occasion again, to learn about it, and honour it, even.
It’s almost unimaginable to us, in Swansea, today. By the end of those three nights, during which 1273 high-explosive bombs and 56,000 incendiaries were dropped, 41 acres of the centre of town lay devastated. On the snowy freezing Saturday morning of the fourth day, fires were still raging, gas, electric and water supplies had been destroyed, 857 properties had been flattened and 11,000 damaged, almost 7,000 shocked people were homeless and hungry. There were 230 dead and 409 injured. And there was little food : during those three days 171 food shops had disappeared : grocers, butchers, bakers, hotels, cafes and restaurants, not including the flattened market. The hospitals were bomb-damaged, the morgue was full, council-owned buildings had been requisitioned to contain the dead, and coffins had to be brought in from far afield. It was a town laid waste, in three short days.
But it wasn’t because this was the only consecutive-night air-raid suffered by Wales during the war, and caused the greatest damage, that I became so interested. It was because there was something special about the experience – it seemed so devastatingly “personal”. Working through the excellent material collected in the Archive in Swansea, I encountered so many stories and details of so many ordinary lives, and was inspired by so many loose ends of information, that I became intrigued and fascinated.
Imagine the vulnerability of that great open crescent of a bay, dusted with snow, lying defenceless under a brilliant full moon; think about the closeness of the people and their homes, to each other, and to the docks, and to the beating heart of their town; try to understand the common, intense and concentrated experience they must have shared, of that persistent unexpected and sustained bombing, over a relatively small area, and over such a short horrifying space of time. The personal accounts and stories which have accumulated over the years, and to which I have gained access, paint a devastating, tragic, heroic, moving – sometimes even funny – account of what must have been completely terrifying.
That’s what drew me in – tiny details, tiny lives, all dragged into the enormity of War. It’s a huge and really special story, and I very much hope that the play we have put together to mark the occasion will do justice to all the people who survived the experience, those who lost their lives, and those who lost loved ones too, 75 years ago this week.
Swansea Grand Theatre, February 17-20, 7.30pm