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.
Over the years significant weather events have, at least in my subconscience, at times signalled that something ‘big’ is about to happen – just one example being the Great Storm in October 1987 that was followed days later by the Black Monday stock market crash.
So an event that happened 100 years ago this month, to some, probably also brought a feeling of impending doom as the political situation in Europe became ever more fraught.
A series of severe thunderstorms that broke out just after midday over south-west London on June 14, 1914, left people dead and a trail of destruction across areas south of the Thames. Fierce lightning, torrential rain, severe flooding and hail ‘the size of walnuts’ accompanied the storms. Seven people were killed by lightning on Wandsworth Common and four others were injured. As with many thunderstorms the heaviest rain, 94mm in 3 hours at Richmond Park, was focused over a small area. South Kensington, just over 5 miles away, recorded just 6mm! I don’t have the figures for Wanstead but judging by the map published in the 1914 edition of British Rainfall it probable recorded even less than South Kensington.
Some reports by observers.
Dulwich: Violent hailstorms. Many hailstones were like acid tablets about one inch long, half an inch broad and over a quarter of an inch thick. A minute or two after these had fallen, a mist rose to a height of about 4ft above the ground.
Lewisham: A storm began at 12.24pm and came right overhead from the east with terrific flashes of lightning and loud thunder. At 12.31pm, rain fell with extraordinary fury; within 9 minutes 0.5 inches had fallen. The second storm came up just after 1pm, the lightning being even more severe. At 1.30pm, St Mark’s Church, and the Holy Cross were struck. A tree in Hither Green cemetery over 30ft high was splintered and two houses were struck at Catford. Another thunderstorm came up at 2.25pm with torrents of rain and hail as large as haricot beans fell for 5 minutes.
Richmond Park: Very severe storm passed over the house; an oak fence was struck by lightning in two places. Rainfall measurements were as follows: 1.80 inches in 45 minutes, 2.70 inches in 90 minutes, 3.2 inches in 2 hours, 3.60 inches in 2.5 hours, 3.70 inches in 2.75 hours.
Wimbledon Downs: There was a curious scene close to Kingston station, where the water was about 4ft feet deep at five o’clock and motor cars and omnibuses had to make a wide detour. The storm was especially severe in Wimbledon district, where, owing to the bursting of an overtaxed sewer, the District Railway line was submerged. At Tooting Junction station was a foot deep on the platform.
Judging by the 1881-1910 average 1914 was a warm year: the mean temperature of 10.7C was a full degree warmer than average. It was also 15 per cent wetter than average and the sun hours were nearly 108% of average. Of course by today’s standards (the 1981-2010 average) 1914 looks relatively cool as the average annual temperature has risen 1C in the past hundred years.
The weather on this day must have been synonimous with the deteriorating political situation in Europe: two weeks later Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria, and his wife Sophie were assassinated in Sarajevo by a young Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip , the casus belli of the First World War.
What is fascinating is that a similar thunderstorm that left seven dead in Valentines Park, Ilford, 75 years ago this August, also happened about two weeks before Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced on September 3, 1939, that Britain was at war with Germany.
One of the worst weather-related tragedies ever to hit the London area happened 75 years ago this month.
What started as a bright and sunny day in Valentines Park, Ilford, turned into disaster at ten minutes to five on Monday, 21 August 1939, when lightning struck a corrugated iron shelter where about 30 people, many of them children, had taken cover from a thunderstorm.
Seven people, including five adults and two children, were killed and 21 injured in the incident near an open air swimming pool where earlier families had been enjoying picnics.
The event was recorded in The Times the following day: “About 5 o’clock there was one final flash, followed by a deafening crash. Everyone in the shelter was thrown to the ground and rescuers who had heard the cries of the injured found them piled in a heap. One of the two women killed had most of her clothing torn off. A man was lying dead on the cross-bar of a cycle. A woman at the back of the shelter was lying unconcious with her arms round two screaming children.”
A survivor of the tragedy, Mrs H. Treves, of Barkingside, told how she had gone to the park that day with her two daughters, June, three, and Shirley, seven, for a picnic. She told The Times: “Suddenly the storm broke, and we ran for the shelter. Inside there were about 30 people, and we were all huddled at the back away from the rain. I sat on a bench at the back of the shed with June in my arms and Shirley by my side. Suddenly I was flung from the bench. I must have been stunned for some minutes, because when I came to I found Shirley lying beside me and the ground heaped with people who seemed unconscious. I heard June whimpering, and eventually found her beneath three or four people. One of the men lying across her was dead. I escaped with only burns on my side. June had burns to her foot and Shirley burns on her shoulder and foot.”
One woman told how she had a lucky escape. Mrs A. Galey, of Ilford, said: “I stood in the shelter for about 20 minutes, and then something inside me urged me to leave. I had got about 50 yards when there was a flash and I felt numb. I turned around to go back to the shelter, and then saw all the people huddled on the ground. It looked like a battlefield”
Among the injured were a number of electrical workers who had been repairing a cable which ran through the 150-acre park. Neither the hut, which measured about 20ft by 12ft and had a sloping galvanised iron roof, or the two trees immediately behind it, were damaged.
The local paper, The Recorder, reported the horrific scene that unfolded moments after the strike. It describes other park users frantically trying to help the stricken people in the shelter. One of the first on the scene was Mr A.B. Rowe, an A.R.P warden, from Romford. He said: “I was coming from the pool when a boy ran up and said ‘They have been struck’. I went over and found a heap of people, some terribly injured, in the shelter. During the war I saw some terrible sights, but none more horrible than this. Many were terribly burned and others were twisted into all kinds of positions and unable to move.”
Another helper was Mr H.G.B. Goater, of Eastern Avenue, Ilford. He had also been to the pool and was attracted to the scene by the screaming. “It was like a battlefield. I have seen nothing like it. The dead and injured were in a heap in the shelter.” Mr Goater spent several hours going back and forth to King George hospital with his car, first taking the injured for treatment and then waiting to take home some of those who were allowed to leave.
Among the dead was Dorothy Cribbett, of Capel Road, Forest Gate. She had taken shelter in the hut and was waiting for her 11-year-old daughter, Peggy, to join her when the lightning struck. Her grandson, Ian Braithwaite, 44, whom I managed to track down while researching this piece, takes up the story. “As my mother was making her way from the pool to the shelter lightning struck a bicycle that was leaning against the shelter – leading to the deaths of the people.”
Ian, who now lives in Auckland, New Zealand, commenting on the original article, said: “It makes for very grim reading and was far worse than I remember my mother ever talking about. I know my mother found my grandmother dead in the park and for anyone, let alone an 11-year-old to find someone in the condition that was reported must have been absolutely horrendous.”
He added: “It is one of those stories that you think must be made up, especially as I am drawing on childhood memories from over 20 years ago. Also my own mother died when I was 14 and I have no other known relatives from her side of the family. But I remember her telling me that is what happened.”
He continued: “It seems like it was a pretty miserable time for my mum back then. She was only 11 when her mother was killed and when the war started her father took her to Devon where he came from. In 1943 her grandfather was killed in a bombing raid on Torquay by the Germans. In the same raid a bomb was dropped on a nearby church killing 20 children at a Sunday school service. And we think we have it tough today.”
Ian has been trying to piece together memories of his mother and said: “I am hoping that someone may be able to give me more information surrounding this event or if anyone knew my grandmother or my mother. My grandfather’s name was Ernest Charles Cribbett.”
The violent storm, in what up to that point had been a mostly cool and changeable summer, brought flooding to areas around the town and several properties were struck by lightning. Whole chimney stacks were brought crashing to the ground when houses in Selborne Road and Courtland Avenue were hit. Another resident in Woodlands Avenue, Ilford, described the moment before their chimney stack crashed into their living room. “There was a blinding flash and a great crash. We thought the house was going to cave in on us: it seemed as though a bomb had dropped on it.”
The storm also affected the Barkingside area. As the rain fell in torrents a chimney stack on two houses in Tomswood Hill was struck by what an occupant of the house described as a “ball of fire that crashed on to the roof and came zig-zagging though the front room and out of the scullery door”. Elsewhere in London severe flooding in Ealing is mentioned in The Times. And large hailstones were reported in Surrey.
Rainfall in thunderstorms varies greatly – and this storm was no exception. Met Office rainfall data from the day shows that Loxford Park, the closest rainfall station to Valentines Park about a mile to the south-east, recorded 30mm – almost double that of City of London Cemetery, just over 1.5 miles to the north-west of the storm’s centre, which recorded 15.7mm. In view of the rain and the lightning strikes which happened less than a mile away, across the River Roding, Wanstead had a lucky escape that day.
While researching this I found it strange that local memory of the incident is very vague. The oldest generation of my family, a few of whom lived off Ilford Lane, cannot recall the incident though I believe quite a few had already moved out of London as part of the evacuation before the Second World War. Perhaps it is also possible that while this incident by today’s standards is horrific it pales into comparison with what was to come just over a year later with the start of the Blitz in September 1940 – which would result in the loss of thousands of lives in the East End and across the UK.
The disaster in Valentines Park equalled the number of deaths of those under a tree on Wandsworth Common in 1914.
Other deaths caused by lighting in London include two women who were killed while walking in Hyde Park in September, 1999.
According to TORRO, the Tornado and Storm Research Organisation, about 30-60 people are struck by lightning each year in Britain of whom, on average, three may be killed. You can read further on lightning impacts and safety tips to avoid getting struck here. The Met Office also features a page of lightning advice.
I would like to thank Redbridge Central Library for their help in accessing the archives for this piece. And to Mike Ashworth who kindly gave permission to use the superb newspaper bills montage. You can see Mike’s work at his Flickr site. Thanks also to the Met Office.