When fire fell from the sky
Those lucky enough to have attended the recent 1940s weekend at Ayscoughfee Hall will know how vital to our WWII war effort was the organisation of civilian volunteers to replace those away fighting. Much as we now see some of these efforts as faintly risible (think Dad’s Army), life for the civilian population could be fraught with peril. One of the most feared forms of enemy attack was the incendiary bomb.
The term ‘bomb’ itself is a misnomer, since the purpose of the device was not to explode on impact but to catch fire (although some contained a small explosive device to spread the effect of the fire). The ancient Greeks and Byzantines developed an inflammable chemical mix, the much feared ‘Greek fire’, which could be catapulted as a projectile or delivered through a form of siphon, making it an effective weapon in naval battles. By WWI, incendiary bombs were being dropped on British cities from Zeppelins.
Aerial warfare had become much more sophisticated by WWII. The first photo shows a type of German weapon used in WWII, recovered from the roof of a Spalding shop and now in the collection of the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society). It was soon realised that incendiaries were most effective in the immediate aftermath of high explosive bombs which had already damaged the structure of buildings, as occurred in the Blitz bombing of London, Coventry and other cities in 1940.
Dropped in quick succession over large areas, they could overwhelm the efforts of fire services to bring the fires under control. The lesson was learned by Bomber Command, whose firebombing of Hamburg, Dresden and other German cities caused huge destruction and loss of life. The incendiary bomb had changed from being a weapon aimed at military targets to one aimed at civilian populations in order to cause maximum fear and demoralisation. The USAF firebombed almost every major Japanese city in the months leading up to Japan’s final surrender in August 1945.
When an incendiary bomb landed, its effect was not immediate. There would characteristically be a delay of several minutes before it ignited fully, and this gave some chance of snuffing it out first. Sand was often used, and a jet of water to soak the area surrounding the bomb could sometimes limit its effect, as could a fine spray over the bomb itself. The second photo shows an object, also from our collection, which looks rather like an old-fashioned carpet sweeper, but has a cylinder at the bottom which can be opened to contain the incendiary until it goes out of its own accord. The risks of getting close enough to be able to use it are self-evident.
After WWII, the use of incendiaries was in theory controlled by the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons. This did not prevent the US from making extensive use of napalm in Korea and Vietnam, including against civilian populations. More recently, incendiary bombs are believed to have been used in the war in Syria.
Fortunately, most of the objects held in the SGS Museum in Broad Street were used for more peaceful purposes. If you would like to visit and see more of our collection, our next open day will be on Sunday, September 22 (11am to 4pm) as part of the Heritage Week.
Other heritage sites will also be open to visitors at various times from September 13-22. More information and details of all our open days can be found on our website sgsoc.org, our Facebook page and in the pages of the Free Press and Spalding Guardian, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
More by this authorJeremy Ransome