SELSDON  1938-1945 Part Ten

By Thursday 15th June, nine long days after the invasion, the Allies had established a firm foothold in Normandy.  Although the news media was firmly controlled, we did understand that the Americans had had a tough time at Omaha Beach. It was proving difficult for them to break-out of the sunken lanes of the Normandy bocage and we with the Canadians were bogged down outside Caen. News overall, however, was good, Rome having fallen on 4th June and the Russians were advancing on all fronts.

We watched the daily squadrons of medium bombers on their way south-westwards and were fascinated by the black and white striped wings to enable easier identification and minimise the risk of 'friendly fire'. It was a relief  that we, the civilian population in the London area, were no longer in the front-line.

Or so we thought.

We have retired to bed as usual on the night of Thursday, 15th June. We are awoken in the early morning by the sirens and loud gunfire. This seems strange; we assume that Jerry would be pre-occupied in repelling the invasion. My father is looking out of his bedroom window. ‘Look!’ he exclaims, we’ve hit one and it’s on fire!’ Sure enough, we are able to make our the shape of a small plane with flames belching out of its tail. But – something is not right. The noise of the engine is unusual. It is coarser, louder, more blatant than the regular pulsation of an ordinary aircraft and much like the clattering harshness of a giant, two-stroke motor-bike. The shape of ‘the thing’ is without beauty; a crude black cross. It is flying low, possibly about 2000 feet and without any deviation in its flight. Another appears and almost immediately its engine shuts off and it plunges to earth. There is a blinding flash followed by a loud explosion some seconds later.

We later find out that this landed on open land of a smallholding in Selsdon Park Road. Waiting for the train at East Croydon station the next morning, we all watch fascinated as one of ‘the things' rattles along the route of the main Brighton line and we follow its path northwards until it is out of sight and hearing.  By this time, we have all worked out what this strange weapon was. The Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, announces to Parliament later that morning that it is a pilotless flying bomb.  It was known by the Germans as the 'V.1' or Victory weapon.

It has a profound psychological effect. When the first noise of the stuttering, rattling deep-throated growl is heard our ears become ultra-sensitive. If the engine suddenly stops, then suspense and foreboding follow.  There is usually anything between 5 and 20 seconds before its crashes to detonate the 1000 lbs of explosive in its nose. Because it is a surface explosion, the blast damage is very high.

What we did not know at the time was that there had been a trial run two nights previously when ten missiles were launched as a range finding exercise. Five crashed immediately, one came down in the sea. Two fell to earth in open farmland at Swanscombe in Kent and one in Cuckfield, Sussex. A third in the back garden of a large house at Platt near Borough Green. The fourth droned on and crashed on a railway bridge at Bethnal Green. The blast killed 6 and injured 30. The story put out  next day was that a German bomber had been shot down.

These 'things' quickly became known as 'buzz bombs' or 'doodlebugs'. The authorities acted quickly to counteract this terror. Within the first fortnight,  four lines of defence were created. First, the fighters would scour the sea north of  Calais where  the missiles were launched to try to intercept them before reaching the coast. This itself was a problem as the speed of the flying bomb at about 400 mph was very fast for our mainstay fighters to overtake and destroy them. Even the Spitfire had  problems in  catching  them. The most effective fighter plane was the new Tempest Mark V. which had superior speed. The next defence line was anti-aircraft guns all along the  south eastern coastline where they were able to fire at a depressed angle. These achieved a high success rate because of the unrestricted sight line. It was also a logistical miracle to position all these guns, men, equipment and ammunition in such a short time. Then, on the North Downs was placed an incredible  2000  barrage balloons. These were could see quite clearly from Selsdon as the last line was placed east and west of Farleigh common. These brought down a number of the doodlebugs but not always in the way desired. There were a few incidents when the machine hit a wire and spiralled  down it to explode and kill or maim the balloon crew. Between the anti-aircraft coastal defence and the balloon barrage, fighter aircraft would be deployed to intercept any V1 which had got through the first two lines of defence.

Back in the office in Kingsway, a unique system of warning had been developed. Because the route of the V1  was unerring and with little wind drift, it was possible to plot its flight path accurately. Bush House at the south end of Kingsway, housed the BBC World service and they were in close touch with the Observer Corps.  If an alert was sounded, we took no notice and carried on working. If a V1 was plotted to travel over the WC1 district, Bush House would erect a large red flag. We had an office rota to take turns as observers on our rooftops who would immediately ring the alarm bells which indicated it was time for staff to move quickly out into the corridor away from the windows, returning to the office only when the red flag was hauled down.  It was interesting to see how many V1s followed the precise line of Kingsway and vanish northwards over Southampton Row.  Until, one day …              

It is lunchtime, Friday, 30th June. It is a warm summer day but the sky is overcast. Although the sirens have sounded, there is no red flag showing on Bush House. A group of our girls have changed into their tennis gear to play on the courts in nearby Lincolns Inn Fields. I am visiting one of our managers in a top floor office. Our discussion is interrupted by a strange swishing sound followed by a deafening explosion. We both find ourselves on the floor, covered in dust  and ceiling plaster. Outside, there is a pall of foul smelling yellow acrid smoke. Its approach unheard and unseen due to the cloud cover,  a V1 has crashed into Aldwych, at the junction of Kingsway and between Bush House and Adastral House which houses the Air Ministry. One of our tennis players feels a burning pain on her leg as a hot fragment from the flying bomb hits her with some force.

As the office is a shambles and we are all shaken up, we are sent home. The office supervisor lives in Norbury and we travel together to Victoria station. As we walk down Kingsway and nearer to the detonation, we find that the implosion there has sucked window glass out on to the pavement. This has resulted in scores of passers-by  cut by the falling shards. We pause to comfort some who are awaiting medical attention and quickly run out of clean handkerchiefs. As there is nothing further we can do, we move on. Aldwych is blocked off; a gas main is alight in the road as is an office in Bush House. We see the fragments of the six or so parked buses which stop at that point. We retrace our steps to Portugal Street by the Stoll Theatre. There, on the opposite pavement, are laid victims of the blast. Although they are covered in a rudimentary way, it is still possible to see tangled limbs and body parts. ‘Don’t look!’ implores my companion but I find it difficult not to. Such carnage at close hand is a new experience and I feel distinctly queasy.

On arriving at Victoria, I board the 3.45 p.m. train to Eastbourne. My companion leaves me to take the slow train to Norbury. At 5.00 p.m. we are all still waiting for the train to leave. My erstwhile companion re-appears, thinking it best to make her way to Norbury back from East Croydon. We are told that the delay is due to a V.1 landing on Wandsworth Common station. Eventually, the train leaves and we crawl to East Croydon, inching our way past Wandsworth Common where the missile has landed near the slow down line platform. Work is still progressing in clearing the debris. At Croydon, I board a 64 bus which goes to Selsdon only. Alighting at Farley Road, I turn the corner and walk towards the Selsdon Parade. I hear the sound of another doodlebug getting nearer. It splutters and cuts out and I dive into the shelter of a nearby shop doorway. It lands with a shattering explosion towards the top of Farley Road. I take to my heels and run home with trembling legs.

At No. 29 Farley Road, Ernest Fox has just arrived home from work. The sirens have sounded but he decides his evening meal is more important. He settles down at the dining table which is next to the interior partition wall. His wife, Alice, decides it more prudent to retire to the air raid shelter.

Young Pam Walker in her garden in Byron Road, hears the doodlebug approaching in the distance. She sees it wing a balloon cable and start plunging downwards. It lands in the middle of Farley Road.

Rescue teams have to dig Ernest out of the debris. There is a slate bed snooker table in the room - all that is left of it are miniscule fragments. Ernest is resolute and insists in walking down to the doctors' surgery for first aid treatment. The next day, son Ken, who is on aircrew training in Manchester, is given compassionate leave to visit his father in hospital. He walks up and down the ward in a fruitless search. He eventually is introduced to a figure, completely bandaged, much like the Invisible Man of the eponymous films. Although no fatalities occurred in this incident, there were a number injured, including Tony Atkinson (twin brother of Teddy) who was a passer-by. 

To this day, I regret that my coward's legs prevailed and I did not return to the incident to try and help. But  that day, I had had enough. It was then, and only then, that the reality hit me. This was that all who left home for work in the morning would perhaps never return. Secondly, one might return but not  find a home or family awaiting.

The Aldwych incident accounted for 48 dead and over 200 injured, including a number of office girls who were sunbathing on the Air Ministry roof. I later heard than one lady, a resident of Rylandes Road and who worked in Bush House, went across the road to the bank at that time. She was never seen again.

Previously, on Sunday 18th June there had been an even more tragic incident. A flying bomb struck the Guards Chapel in Wellington Barracks, in the middle of a special service for both active and retired guardsmen and their guests. 121 people were killed and 141 injured. A book I read recently  alleged that the flying bombs in London and the south-east caused widespread panic. This was not my experience. There was considerable stress certainly.  And moments of extreme fear. But panic, no. As they days went on and the psychological stress became heavier, there was a remarkable stoicism and resolve among Londoners. This was often relieved by humour. Everyone became attuned to the sound of the approaching menace. Giles, the Daily Express cartoonist summed it up in a droll way. He depicted a wartime London street scene, full of men and women going about their daily business. In the foreground are two civil servant types.One is saying to the other: 'It's ridiculous to say these flying bombs have affected people in ANY way." Everyone in the picture is normal apart from the fact that each person has one enormous ear attuned upwards!

It was also important to most people that they did not ‘show themselves up’.

I arrive at Victoria to board the 6.04 train to East Croydon. I am crafty, taking a seat directly under the girders of Ebury Bridge above, where it is relatively secure and safe. The sirens have sounded. I hear the approaching deep throated growl and clattering until  it is very near. Then the engine stops and I count the seconds. Passengers walking down the platform prostate themselves.. There is a deafening roar as the doodlebug hits a block of flats in Pimlico, just by the engine sheds outside the station. Folk pick themselves up self-consciously, brush themselves down and carry on a little shamefacedly..

There is another incident which illustrates the stiff-upper-lip attitude which was so prevalent throughout those times.  

The train has just left East Croydon for Victoria. I have taken the last spare seat in a carriage full of somewhat sombre men. Without exception, they are immersed behind broadsheet newspapers. Some bowler hats are in evidence. The sirens have sounded their warning oscillations. After only a few minutes, the dreaded pulse-jet engine sound is heard – nearer – and nearer. I am aware that the carriage atmosphere has become tense. Although newspapers are still held high, I suspect that little reading is going on. Then I notice that the knuckles on the hands holding the papers have gone tense and white. Then, the engine cuts out. The knuckles tense even further. As we leave Selhurst station, an enormous explosion behind rocks the train. The flying bomb has demolished houses just short of the station. There is an audible sigh of relief. Someone murmurs about it being a bit close. The knuckles relax and become normal colour. Nothing more is said and pages are turned. Life carries on.

In mid-July, the strain was beginning to tell. My father suggests that we need a holiday away from the south-east corner. But, where to go? The coast is out of bounds and the beaches are mined. A friend suggested the mediaeval town of Ludlow in Shropshire. That should be quiet and peaceful. 

We leave Paddington station on the midnight train to Shrewsbury. A friendly porter (A what? You may well ask!) conveys our luggage to the carriage. Railway stations were very atmospheric in those times. The wraiths of steam from the engines, the smell of hot oil, the dim light, the tearful farewells of loved ones. As the clock chimed twelve midnight, the engine gave a toot and the carriage jolted. As we slowly gained speed, the sirens sounded their alert. We felt a feeling of intense relief  as we moved westward to relative peace, if only for ten days.

Starting at Reading, the train stopped often. There was mail to be on and off-loaded, likewise noisy milk churns. It was cat-nap time. Just as first light was appearing, we stopped at a small wooden platformed station. I just managed to make out  the sign: ‘Moreton-in-the-Marsh’. So there was such a place after all!  Shrewsbury was eventually reached just after 6.00 a.m. Changing to a local train, we travelled through the picturesque Shropshire countryside to Ludlow, arriving at the guest house in time for breakfast. The situation was perfect – adjacent to the historic Norman castle. Most of our fellow guests came from the Midlands and all were anxious to hear about the flying bombs. The locals were still talking about the one bomb which had fallen near the church in 1940 and insisted in showing us the site.

One evening, I went on a long walk by the River Teme. Finding myself on the wrong side of the river after two hours and with no sign of a bridge, I waded across to the other bank. There I came across an American army black battalion under canvas. This somewhat overt discrimination did not seen so very odd to me at the time.

Eventually, it was time to return home. The sheer peace and tranquillity had reinforced our state of mind. We had to make our way back to Euston via Crewe. As we passed Tring, we heard sirens sounding yet another alert. Again, we felt the tension.

On our return home, we receive very sad news. On 7th July my cousin, Captain Raymond Nickels of the 7th Hussars, was riding in a Jeep which overturned and killed him in Ancona, northern Italy. This is hard to take, bearing in mind he survived the ferocious tank battle at Sidi Rezegh in North Africa and Britain’s longest ever retreat through Burma. The major  accompanying him in the Jeep escapes without any injury. Raymond, who is handsome, debonair and very popular with his men and colleagues, leaves behind fond memories and unfulfilled potential. To this day, he is still sadly missed by the surviving members of his family.

By the end of August, many of the launching sites had been overrun by the Allied forces and there were fewer flying bombs arriving. The Germans had taken to launching them from Holland by specially adapted Heinkel bombers. These landed mainly in Essex and the Thames estuary and did not trouble us. Things were slowly getting less stressful and we could relax more.

How wrong we were.