SELSDON 1938-1945 The Final Chapter


So after six long years, but for two weeks, the world-wide war came to an abrupt and devastating end with the atomic bombing of Japanese cities. There was immense relief by us, of course coupled with celebrations. Any exultation was, however, offset by some  feelings of sadness and pain by the loss of loved ones or the aftershock of various traumatic incidents. As Churchill said: ‘If there is one worse thing in losing a war; it is in winning it.’

The little buff envelope eventually arrived for me, of course. It was not lost in the post. This came in the form of an invitation to attend a somewhat humiliating medical strip-search at the old Embassy Hall in West Croydon.  My contemporaries and I shared the understandable belief that because the war was over, the danger of conflict was past. This was not the case. Some of my colleagues found themselves embroiled in the early stages of communist insurrection in Malaya. One school friend, Derek (Del) Smith who lived in Farnborough Crescent, found himself on an Army posting to Palestine. Del was a very personable young man, popular in particular with the girls of the neighbourhood. His duties in Palestine (later to become Israel)  were to help keep the peace between the indigenous Arabs and the influx of many thousands of (then illegal) Jewish refugees from Europe. Whilst on guard duty one night, he was brutally slain by the Jewish Stern Gang. He was only nineteen years of age.

On a bitterly cold and damp day in June 1946, I took time out to witness the Victory Parade in the Mall where the march past of every Commonwealth and Allied contingents took some two hours to complete. My young lady companion and I later joined the frightening crush of some tens of thousands to witness what was then London’s biggest firework display.

It was time to move on.


At the sixtieth anniversary of the war end last year, I offered the editor some personal recollections of life in Selsdon at that time. They would, I then thought, be enough for three or perhaps four articles.  It is with complete surprise that this is No.13!  (I can only apologise for it going on a bit!)

I was aware that some of these recollections were still crystal clear  The analogy was like going through old photographs which then prompts more scenes from the past.

The experience of writing these down was exactly that. It was not only the events themselves but also the sounds and smells which were recalled. The dripping smell of condensation and the sweet oily odour of the oil lamps in the shelter; the quiet and still mornings on arising from the shelter where the acrid smell of anti-aircraft battery smoke hung around. One such Sunday morning after a very heavy raid on the East End of London and with the wind in the north, it rained burnt paper on Selsdon for much of the day. That particular smell was reluctant to leave. 

Some impressions will always remain indelible. The apprehension followed by the fall of France in the summer of 1940; the daily expectation of jackboots tramping along the Addington Road; the reassurance by the arrival of the Canadian Army 1st Division at Addington; the sudden and unexpected raid on Croydon airfield out of a clear blue evening sky on the 15th August;  German flight leader Hauptmann Joachim Roth’s Dornier nearly taking off our chimney pots after the Kenley raid a few days later and having the temerity of flying under the pylon wires in Ashen Vale before crashing near Lodge Lane; Oberleutnant Busch baling out of his stricken Messerschmitt 109 fighter bomber and nearly being lynched by irate residents from New Addington; the long and successive nights of sheltering from the blitz; Sid Kennet’s bungalow ablaze in York Road following a massive incendiary raid; school friend Peter Stillwell ruefully surveying the ruins of his house in Sundale Avenue and concluding he had to stop his chemical experiments; coming across the convoy of American Army  Sherman tanks along Limpsfield Common a few weeks before D-Day; the elation of D-Day followed quickly by the horror of the flying bombs; the black day of carnage in Aldwych and on returning home narrowly missing the V1 which devastated houses at the top end of Farley Road; the stoicism of the population when travelling to and from work every day;  the surprise of being attacked by supersonic rockets. And so on.

What was perhaps a more astonishing reaction to all this stress was the ability of people to enjoy themselves.  It is difficult today to convey the intensity of community spirit and support  which then existed and the ability of almost everyone to help others in times of distress or pain, be it physical or emotional.

So called luxuries were small and rare. Rationing was tight but we made do. Obesity was not then a problem for the population!  Nutritional advice was excellent and it is a pity that much of that was to be unheeded for many decades after the war.  We were probably better fed during that time what with home grown vegetables and fruit prevailing. Selsdonians were also lucky to have a local bread-basket facility, the smallholdings in Addington and Selsdon Vale. In today’s ‘must-have’ society, the so-called luxuries then would be considered run-of-the-mill today.  A home-raised chicken then would be a real luxury with succulent flavour, perhaps superior to today’s mass produced eight week old broilers?  It was a shock after the war for rationing to  be even more stringent and severe.  Recently in turning out a drawer, I came across my last ration book – 1953!  It seems unbelievable that rationing would continue for eight years after the war ended.

Selsdon, of course, was relatively fortunate compared with other parts of the country. After 1940, we were very much in the front line. Situated in the triangle of three vital airfields, we had a grandstand view of the spiralling vapour trails of the Battle of Britain. Selsdon had its incidents of bombing but we were not flattened as the London dock area, Plymouth, Exeter, Coventry, Liverpool, Southampton, etc.

Unlike much of Europe, we were not occupied by invaders. We did not have to endure concentration camps and widespread ethnic cleansing. The flying bombs were stressful but Selsdon had only two incidents. Nevertheless, our residents in common with many others, had to continue with their lives and daily work as best they could. That generation even today conveys a certain stoicism and resilience to tragic events.  On the 7th July last year, the day of the suicide bombing atrocities in London, an old soldier who was attending a veterans’ reunion was interviewed on television. Asked what he thought about the day’s events and what he thought about using public transport in future,  he gave a wry smile and shrugged his shoulders. ‘One just gets on with it!’ he said.  

Putting it in a wider context, the Second World war was the bloodiest conflict in history. Even now, we cannot be sure of the real human cost. The British armed forces lost 264,000 killed, about the same as the United States military.  The Merchant Navy lost some 30,000 men and more than 60,000 British  civilians were killed by bombing. German losses were higher; some two million service personnel killed and as many reported missing. Up to a million civilians perished in air attacks. Further east, numbers are not only much higher but accurate figures are hard to obtain. China lost perhaps five million dead. Japanese dead, civilian and military, exceeded two million. Perhaps some ten million Russians perished.

There is little doubt that the Second World War flared up from the ashes of the First.  In simple terms it could be said that Hitler’s territorial ambitions were defeated like Napoleon’s by the English Channel and the Russian winter.

In recording these recollections, I was reminded of the statement by the character in L.P.Hartley’s haunting book, ‘The Go-Between’:- ‘The past is a foreign country – they do things differently there.’.  They do indeed.


These recollections have led to some surprising contacts. Firstly, Joey Matthews, with whom I was playing cricket in the Rec on the evening of the Croydon airport raid, has been in touch.  He lives in Sanderstead but we have not met for some 60 years.  He reminded me that his tomboy twin sister, Edie who now lives in Horsham, and also insisted on playing with us that memorable evening.  I hope to meet up with  them both sometime.  I am also grateful to have heard from Dick Tyler of Ridge Langley who served with my cousin, Raymond Nickels in the 2nd Armoured Division in North Africa, Burma, Syria, Iraq and Italy.  He knew him well.

My thanks are due to Ted Frith, our esteemed editor, for his meticulous research which has enabled me to check dates of wartime incidents in Selsdon. I am also very grateful to Colin Lee, local aircraft archaeologist and historian who lives in South Croydon.  He has provided me with superlative information about aircraft and aircrew.

For those who may be interested, a visit to the aircrew cemetery at St. Luke’s church, Whyteleafe is recommended. There are buried many of the casualties of the raid on Kenley on 18th August 1940. Also there is the grave of the Czech Hurricane night fighter pilot,  pilot officer Frantisek Behal, who crashed in Paxton’s orchard in Selsdon Park Road on the night of 11th May 1941.  Also to be found is the headstone of Sergeant Pilot F.E.R. Shepherd who plunged to his death with his parachute in flames, at Frylands Wood, Featherbed Lane on 11th September 1940. His Spitfire crashed into houses in Hartland Way, Shirley.

The number of reference books on the Second War seems infinite. Of particular help have been the following publications:

  • The Battle of Britain by Richard Townsend Bickers. Published by Salamander
  • The Hardest Day, 18th August 1940 by Alfred Price. Macdonald & Janes, 1979.
  • Croydon Courageous.  Croydon Times c.1950.
  • Doodlebugs and Rockets.  Bob Ogley. Froglets Publications, 1992.
  • Flying Bombs Over England. H.E. Bates. Froglets Publications, 1994.
  • The Seventh and Three Enemies. 7th Queen’s Own Hussars. Brigadier G.M.O.Davey. W. Heffer & Sons Limited. (c. 1960)

Finally, my thanks to all readers who have telephoned and written and seemed to have enjoyed the recollections as much as I have writing them.

This has led to a further task needing research.  For instance, what happened to the joyous and rumbustious Canadian 1st Division after they left the district? What happened to Messerschmitt 109 pilot Oberleutnant Busch after he baled out over Addington? Or  Dornier pilot Oberleutnant Rudolf Lamberty  after he crash landed at Leaves Green?

Answers on a postcard, please!

Ray Rowsell