Today, 75 years ago, saw the heaviest casualties of the Blitz in South Woodford – a parachute mine in the Stanley Road area killed 17 people and injured dozens more.
The day, a Monday, dawned bright and sunny and revealed yet more destruction from the previous night’s raid as shopkeepers in George Lane cleared away shattered glass caused by a high explosive bomb.
Some 10 hours of sunshine lifted the temperature to above 18C, conditions brought thanks to high pressure building in from the west. But the fair weather was in complete contrast to what lay in store as night fell.
At 9.19pm two high explosive bombs fell on 62 and 74 Gordon Road, South Woodford, demolishing four houses. Over the next 15 minutes three similar missiles fell in Broad Walk, Cheyne Avenue and Chelmsford Road, leaving people trapped and bursting a water main.
However, a couple of minutes later, a parachute mine landed on Stanley and Chelmsford Roads, killing 17 and injuring dozens. Some 36 people needed hospital treatment. Further bombs damaged a nursing home in Grove Hill.
The air raid brought the highest number of fatalities in any single incident of the Blitz in Wanstead and Woodford. The extent of the damage to property was considered the first affair of real magnitude that the local Civil Defence services had faced.
* The first paramine fell early on the morning of September 21st. A plane carried two mines, one under each wing, and released them simultaneously. Controlled by its parachute, 20 feet in diameter, the mine, containing an explosive charge of one tonne, drifted slowly down. If the first explosion was not followed quickly by another, it was fairly certain that not too far away was an unexploded mine. Discovery, as of all unexploded bombs, was the job of the warden who was working in the blackout.
** The area of damage cased by the blast effect of the paramine could extend 650 yards from the landing point
This month marks the 75th anniversary of the start of the Blitz in Wanstead and Woodford. Over a period of eight months around 450 bombs were dropped on the two boroughs, killing 129 people and injuring 194.
The summer of 1940 had been varied; a warm and dry June was followed by a cool and wet July. The weather turned much warmer and dryer in August, just 2mm of rain fell during the whole month. Only one August has been drier since and parts of London went 46 days without any measurable rain.
As people got on with their summer and the Phoney War (Britain had been in conflict with Germany for nearly a year) events in Europe must have seemed a world away. This all changed just after 11pm on Wednesday, August 28th when two high explosive bombs and one incendiary were dropped at two addresses in Woodford Green. Damage was light and only one minor injury was reported but the event brought home to citizens that the war was starting to happen on their doorsteps.
The days that followed were fraught with uncertainty; sirens sounded at any time of the day or night – the rapping of machine guns could be heard faintly in the skies as British fighters and enemy spotters fought invisible battles; the anti-aircraft guns pounding away on outlying sites including Wanstead Flats.
On the afternoon of Saturday, August 31st, a British fighter plane crashed in Hereford Road, taking out the front of a house and landing in the road – the pilot having earlier bailed out.
The opening week of September saw the hottest spell of the season. But summer, and the relative peace that Britain had enjoyed since the announcement of hostilities a year earlier, came to an abrupt end on September 7th.
It had been a beautiful day on the 7th with wall-to-wall sunshine and warm temperatures – the eighth day running the thermometer had reached the mid to late 70s fahrenheit. Many people were outside taking advantage of the weather when at 5pm the drone of the first Luftwaffe bombers could be heard passing to the south of the borough. By 6pm the skies were empty but all Thameside blazed.
The bombers struck again soon after 8pm, guided to their earlier smoking targets of the docks and the East End. As the sun began to set a red glow in the sky to the west and south-west gave the impression that all London was burning.
Wanstead and Woodford, so far unscathed, sent rescue parties to East Ham to help. Within a few hours, however, the area itself became the target of bombing when, at 1.25am, the first of three high explosive bombs fell in the Grove Park area behind the High Street. Two houses (Nos. 7 and 9) in Grove Park and the central block of the Shrubbery flats collapsed. A row of shops in the High Street, what is now Boots, was badly damaged by the third bomb which was dropped along with about 500 incendiaries.
A fire gutted the roof of 30 High Street, a house overlooking Christchurch Green, which is now a large block of flats on the corner of Wanstead Place, opposite the pie and mash shop.
The explosions left eight dead in the immediate vicinity while another blast in Highfield Road, Woodford Green, claimed the lives of three others. Some 50 people were injured across the two boroughs during the raid which was over by 2.30am. Rescue teams worked through the night to combat fires and tend to the injured. Wanstead and Woodford had suffered far less damage than other parts of London and a decision had already been taken to accept 2,000 evacuees from the East End. By Sunday lunchtime the first of these began to arrive in buses and lorries.
It was a dull day, ten degrees cooler than Saturday and probably reflected the public mood at the time. The bombings went on nightly through September – in the next two months there was little falling off. The manner of peoples’ lives is summed up in this entry from the diary of a local man:
“Night of September 11-12: Terrific AA barrage ended about 5am. To bed at 5.40. At 6.20 phone call saying office hit and we were to work at – . Left home at 7am. Settled down in strange building with difficulty, and grew so overwhelmingly sleepy that (having been awake for 5 nights) fell asleep standing up.”
But, two days later:
“Saturday 14th – left office 2 o’clock and spent two hours gardening. Beautiful autumn afternoon.”
As the boroughs learnt to cope with high explosive bombs, each weighing between 250-2,000lbs, the horror of the first parachute mine emerged within a couple of weeks. On September 23, a paramine fell in the Stanley Road area of South Woodford, killing 17 people – the highest number of deaths recorded in any single incident in the borough.
The borough was the first district to experience an explosive incendiary. A fire watcher of over 70 lost the sight of an eye from this type of bomb but continued on duty until the end of the war.
A warden called “Will” wrote this letter to his parents on September 29th 1940. It is intriguing for me because in the letter he mentions a house that I lived in in Cavendish Drive, Leytonstone. He says that an incendiary bomb lodged in the loft before burning through to the floor. While decorating one year I uncovered scorch marks in the landing well as well as charred damaged on the bannister and scorch marks on the floorboards – evidence of bomb damage.
As Wanstead, Woodford and the rest of suburban London got over the initial shock of the start of the Blitz people acted to keep life going as normally as possible.Many people who weren’t appointed as wardens learnt, through local authority training, to deal with incendiary bombs – airborne missiles dropped by the Luftwaffe that could easily pierce slate roofs and set fires below. Stirrup pumps could be bought and, through a family effort, fires could be extinguished or controlled until the arrival of the fire brigade.
The intensity of the night raids that brought so much destruction in September continued through October. The neighbouring borough of Woodford bore the brunt of the bombing but Wanstead, being so close to anti-aircraft guns sited on Wanstead Flats, continued to be hit. On the 11th six high explosive bombs fell on Wanstead Park, one damaging the Temple. Two days later high explosive bombs fell on land close to the City of London Cemetery on Aldersbrook Road, leaving six craters.
On the 14th three people were killed when a high explosive bomb landed in Woodlands Avenue on the Aldersbrook estate while incediaries caused many small fires in properties on Elmcroft Avenue.By the end of October the attacks started to be scaled back.
Bad weather at the start of November coincided with a 6-day pause in bombing incidents. It was a very cyclonic month that probably hampered German air operations. Indeed, on November 3rd, 40.8mm of rain was recorded at Greenwich – a daily record for November that remains to this day.
Another 6-day pause in the bombing happened after November 16th. When the Luftwaffe returned on Saturday, November 23rd, it was Wanstead that bore the brunt. At 4.12pm, as light was fading on a dull, dreary afternoon, high explosive bombs caused fires at and partly demolished nos 78 and 89 New Wanstead. A minute later another bomb ruptured water and gas mains in Spratt Hall Road. At 4.30pm a further high explosive bomb fell in the High Street, killing 4 people. The raid ended at 5.16pm as a bomb fell in Fitzgerald Road though this time there were no injuries.
By now the weather was beginning to quieten down though weeks of deep depressions with associated gales and heavy rain had taken their toll – many residents reported problems of Anderson bomb shelters being constantly flooded – but it was probably the design as much as the weather that was to blame. Some 171.6mm of rain was collected by month end in Greenwich – a record for this region that also remains to this day.
As pressure built in the last few days of November the first frosts of winter arrived but the bombs returned. High explosive devices fell in Woodford New Road and Bunces Lane on the 30th, fracturing a water main.
On December 3rd bombs fell in Nelson Road, Woodford Road and Eagle Lane, damaging road surfaces. Later the same night houses in Wellington Road and Elmcroft Avenue were badly damaged by bombs.
The final raid of the year, on the evening of December 8th, saw yet more tragedy befall the boroughs. Just after 7pm a high explosive bomb fell in St Albans Road, killing three people. And at 10.25pm a paramine was dropped on Wordsworth Avenue, South Woodford, killing 14 people and injuring 41.
The raids didn’t start up again until January 5th. Mostly dry, cloudy and cold weather allowed residents who hadn’t moved out to make what they could of Christmas.
The turn of the year saw the weather turn much colder as an anticyclone became established over Scandinavia. The opening week was dominated by bitterly cold easterly winds with temperatures barely above freezing, severe frosts at night and some snow – a near repeat of the severe January a year earlier.
On January 5th bombs were dropped on St Albans Crescent and Canfield Road. Further high explosive bombs fell in the area on the 7th and 11th as the cold continued to bite. The minimum on the night of the 15th/16th fell to minus 7.5°C, but during the third week a thaw set in as heavy snow turned to rain, it became misty, and temperatures slowly rose. On the 20th, nearly 17mm of rain (including melted snow) fell, and on the 22nd the temperature rose above 8°C.
A dull and rather wet February followed with temperatures close to normal. The early part of the month was cold with frost and some snow. After a minimum temperature below minus 6°C. on the night of the 4th/5th, outbreaks of snow occurred during the day and the maximum temperature stayed below freezing. Though it was cold in Wanstead much heavier snowfalls occurred over north-east England. A thaw set in at the end of the first week, and on the 8th the maximum was above 11°C.
Just one raid happened in February but further horror lay in wait in March – a month which continued the theme of the wet, miserable and dull winter.The early part of the month was unsettled with heavy rain at times. On the 6th, over 13mm fell. During the second week it became dry with sunny periods. There were some frosty nights and lingering fog. On the 12th, the maximum temperature was only 5°C. Temperatures slowly rose during the third week.
On the 19th four members of the Civil Defence Services gave their lives as they went about their duties at Post 41 “F” District headquarters (Aldersbrook Tennis Club), an area of South Wanstead, which, from the battering it received from the early days of bombing (and which later continued through the phases of the flying bomb and the V2 rocket) became known as “The Battle Field” or “Hell Fire Corner”.
The following impression of that night is written by one who was at the scene:
“The wail of the siren opposite the Post announced at 8.15pm the arrival of the raiders. The Post personnel saw a startling sight. The Flats were a sea of flame. Thousands of incendiaries were burning on the open space. The guns roared. It was obvious that the enemy was making a concerted and determined attack. Bomb flashes stabbed the blackout. Planes droned overhead. The batteries on the Flats joined those further away in putting up a terrific barrage.
At 8.50pm, three high explosive bombs fell in Lake House Road, damaging a number of houses and partly demolishing Nos 14 and 31. A few casualties resulted, one being a man who was trapped in the doorway of No. 14. Wardens heaved on the obstruction to release him. Gas escaping in the same house caused a fire. This was quickly dealt with and the flames smothered. A nearby barrage balloon had burst into flames, illuminating the scene with glaring brilliance and revealing the widespread damage.
At 9.20pm this first incident appeared closed, and services were awaiting the result of a final search and check-up before being dismissed. Then a parachute mine landed. It exploded a few yards from Aldersbrook corner on the Leytonstone side. A house in Lake House Road, already badly damaged, tottered to destruction. Number 11 caught fire and was destroyed. Loss of life would have been heavy but for the fact that most of the inhabitants had by now taken refuge in the Aldersbrook public shelter, and those who remained were in their dugouts.
The attack died down. Wardens returned to their posts – but the number for 41 was sadly lacking. The two boys’ bicycles stood in their usual place. ‘Busy somewhere’ said the chief. But the absent ones did not return, and a search was made. They were found – in the mortuary, three of them. It was known that two others had been taken to hospital. Warden Barnett was one of these. He died next morning of his injuries.
Just before the mine exploded, the messengers had been giving assistance in one of the less badly-damaged houses. Broome, although officially not on duty, had rushed out to lend a hand. Warden Hutton was endeavouring to turn off the gas at No 14 when the mine fell.
So the four from Post 41 died doing their duty on the Home Front. The two boys, pals in the service, sleep in one grave in Old Wanstead churchyard. The two men lie close by, in Ilford Cemetery.
A few days later their comrades stood silently at attention as the funeral cortege halted outside the Post. A Union Jack covered each of the four coffins.
The four members of the Civil Defence Services who gave their lives were: Thomas Hutton, 44, a warden, of Blake Hall Crescent, Wanstead; William Barnett, 36, a warden, of Belgrave Road, Wanstead; Roy Broome, 17, a messenger, of Lake House Road, Wanstead; and Herbert Stower, 18, a messenger, of Clavering Road, Wanstead.
As spring wore on the weather remained mostly miserable though raid incidents lessened and petered out in May. Wanstead and Woodford had its last bombs of the period on May 10th. There were no more that year.
In total 129 people lost their lives and 194 were injured during the campaign. This figure would nearly double when the next phase of the bombing, using V1 flying bombs and V2 rockets, would begin three years later in June 1944.
It is hard to imagine how people coped with the constant barrage of bombs during the Blitz. What seems to get lost in articles and historical texts I’ve read is just how grim the weather was at the time – remember this was a time before central heating. Not only were bedrooms freezing cold people must have laid there wondering if they were going to see morning.
It seems to be a human condition that when we are faced with adversity we just find a way of ‘getting on with it’ as best we can.
* Much of the inspiration for this blog comes thanks to the book It Happened Here by Stanley Tiquet. The book is available for loan and can be purchased at Redbridge libraries.
I first wrote this blog in December 2013 not realising that the following winters were going to turn so mild. Winter 2013/14 ranks the worst of any winter I’ve studied in this area back to the snowy season of 1946/47. The following three winters ranked 53rd, 62nd and 42nd – the only ‘top 10’ winter for snowfall of the past 30 years was 2009/10!
Snow is a very rare commodity in lowland Great Britain – even rarer in the Home Counties, and in our part of east London. Pulling back the curtains on a cold winter’s morning to be greeted by a fresh fall of deep, crisp and even snow is something most children experience and hold dear for life. The slush, ice and chaos that inevitably follows all too quickly is forgotten.
My memories of winters in the 1970s and 1980s is that they were far snowier and colder than they are today. But were they *always* cold and snowy? I decided to have a look back through the archives to find out. My first stop was the Met Office’s now defunct Snow Survey of Great Britain. This excellent compilation of reports logged by observers nationwide was printed annually as part of British Rainfall. But through lack of interest and cuts printing ceased after the 1991-92 season. Data continued to be collected though the modern version of the survey uses satellite technology to estimate daily UK snow depths – the spiel on the Met Office website tells us that this is far less subjective than an individual nipping out at 9am every morning to ‘stick in a ruler’ and, those within sight of high ground, to observe where the snow line is. Call me old fashioned but this is not very romantic and does a disservice to the hundreds of observers who down the years diligently logged all their information as objectively as possible. But on to the data…
Regional data was not included in the survey until the 1965-66 season. Though Wanstead isn’t listed I have taken an estimate from data supplied from stations at Eastcote (53m), East Barnet (70m), Charlton Park (46m), Twickenham (13m), Teddington (9m). Because this area is influenced by Thames streamer snowfall that blows in off the North Sea and is funnelled upriver I have also considered readings from Epping (107m), Rayleigh (73m) and Southend (27m). Indeed, in some years Wanstead’s snowfall is much more similar to Rayleigh and Southend than it is to Greenwich and Teddington. Though my site is only 18m it seems to catch the snow much better than surrounding areas – probably to do with the fact that Aldersbrook is surrounded by greenery. People walking down from Wanstead village often remark that Wanstead Park is far snowier than the village a couple of dozen metres or so higher. Before 1965 I have used data from Woburn, Bedfordshire, which at 89m and 40 miles away as the crow flies, is the closest station in that long running series.
The mean temperature of a winter can look cold but it doesn’t always tell the full story. You can have a winter dominated by high pressure over the near continent making things very dry. But the anticyclones that ridge from Central Europe to the Azores can leave us in the ‘warm’ part of the high – and often lead to days of anticyclonic gloom; cold grey, dank and boring weather with little sunshine. On paper a season can look cold but in reality totally unremarkable; it is the number of days with ‘snow lying’ that people remember. For snow to settle it needs to be cold! For this reason I haven’t bothered with ‘snow falling’ data as it can snow at 4C in very dry air – yet nothing settles. Most weather geeks find ‘snow falling’ the most frustrating when it doesn’t stick. So on to the results.
Once I worked out the ‘snow lying’ days I decided to devise a winter index by dividing ‘snow lying’ by seasonal mean temperature. Because the results using Celsius were problematic in that 1962/63 becomes very skewed upwards I decided to use Kelvin. The results are quite surprising. Coming out top, not surprisingly, is 1962-63 with an index of 25.2 and 69 days of snow lying. Second is 1946-47 with an index of 21.1. Third is 1981-82 with an index of 10.5 – surprisingly ahead of 1978/79, the first winter in the series that I can recall; I remember returning home from school one night in December 1978 and the snow being as deep as the twelve-inch step to our house.
The index of 25.2 for the 1962/63 winter and 21.1 for 1946/47 – over double the amount of 1981/82 – shows how ‘off the scale’ those two winters really were. My father, who doesn’t share my enthusiasm for the weather, can distinctly recall the severe conditions of 1962/63. He said the roads were so thick with snow that when the thaw finally arrived in March he’d become so used to driving on snow that he crashed through somebody’s front garden wall, after losing control of his Mini on surface water sat on the ice.
More recent winters, which pale by comparison, rank surprisingly highly. The 2009/10 winter comes in at Number 10, higher than the legendary 1986/87, where the coldest day in recent times was recorded in London, which came in at Number 12. It should be noted that January 1987, when on the 12th the temperature did not rise above -5.5C all day, was sandwiched by a mild December and February.
Somebody asked me if it would snow and by how much over the next three months. The simple fact is I don’t know. While a predicted mean can look chilly on paper it is impossible to decipher how many peaks and troughs there will be. Just by looking at winters with a mean of, say, 5C doesn’t tell you much about snowfall. When you look at 1985-86 (mean 4.1C) there were 22 days of snow lying at 9am – yet 2005/06 was colder (3.9C) and only 3 mornings saw snow lying – though that winter was particularly dry – the 13th driest in the series.
The median for ‘snow lying’ days in this series is six. The rolling median of the past 30 years, however, is only 2 so, with this in mind, if it does snow you should get out there and make the most of it.
You can view over 70 years of winters in this area, all ranked using my winter index here.
*It should be noted that a day of ‘snow lying’ only qualifies if there is more than 50% cover at the observation time of 9am. This means that it could snow 1cm at 10am – if that snow thaws by 9am the next day it won’t count. Though 8 winters appear snowless it is possible that these winters did see temporary coverings