SELSDON  1938 – 1945 Part Eleven

By the end of August 1944,  the defences were proving  to be effective in dealing with the flying bomb menace.  On one day when 101 missiles were launched, only four got through to the London area. The blast damage, however, was extensive. Travelling to both the London termini of Victoria or London Bridge daily, I  undertook some detailed observation. On each side of the railway lines, every single house showed  signs of some damage.  Post-war, this observation was to be borne out by official statistics. By June, it was estimated that some 24,000 homes were being damaged every 24 hours (some more than once) and the backlog was increasing by 12,000 a day. To combat this, an army of civilian, service men and volunteers  was drafted in from other parts of the country.  They gathered at special assembly points for the allocation of food and accommodation and their immediate task was to patch up houses and make them weatherproof before winter set in. The work was punishing and relentless, often twelve hours a day, seven days a week. By the end of August, some 21,000 men and 7,000 servicemen were at work repairing more than a million homes.

They were supported by, among others,  the splendid organisation of the Women’s Voluntary Service which provided catering for the volunteers and also helped with the re-homing scheme.

Although there was no widespread panic, the Government organised a voluntary evacuation scheme for mothers and children. By the beginning of August, 225,000 had taken advantage of the scheme and gone to the safety of a world that did not know the sound of a doodlebug. Nearly one million people had left London altogether. But there were still some tragic events involving children, one not too far from Selsdon. At Crockham Hill, near Westerham, an isolated building was being used as a nursery for evacuated London children. In the early hours of June 30th, the building was struck by a flying bomb. Twenty-two of the 30 children, all aged under five, were killed. Eight out of the 11 nurses and domestic staff also died.

A popular belief, still held today, was that the engine of the flying bomb cut out and then plunged to earth. This was not so. The weapon had been designed so that the propeller driven distance log automatically deflected the elevators to dive the bomb. This would have ensured that the missile went into the ground under power at  speed. The fuel supply was not cut off, as many thought but it was the sudden application of the negative ‘G’ force which caused fuel starvation, resulting in the engine cutting out. The silent dive to death was not intentional.

There was some quirky incidents. As one  flew over  my uncle’s factory in Elmwood Road towards Thornton Heath, all the staff  breathed  sighs of relief. This happy state was short-lived. My father said that for some obscure reason  the weapon  turned sharply as its engine cut out and  it returned back from whence it had come  before exploding a short distance away down the road.

Residents of Selsdon were greatly cheered early one evening. The deep throated rattle of an approaching V1 was heard but this time was  also joined by the sound of a Merlin (or perhaps Griffin) engine at full stretch. A Spitfire had followed the weapon from the coast and, somehow eluding the balloon barrage, managed to hit the flying bomb with cannon and machine gun fire. As it plunged to earth, the Spitfire immediately zoomed upwards  to the cheers of all below and performed a victory roll before returning south. The warhead of the downed doodlebug fortunately landed in the middle of Lloyds Park causing no significant damage or casualties. On 28th August, one landed on a patch of vacant land in Ingham Road. Blast damage was widespread but luckily there were no serious casualties. A house owner nearby to that incident tells me that it is still possible to find splinters of the  flying bomb in the roof rafters today.

By early September, as the Allied troops overran the V1 launching sites, the attacks became spasmodic in the Croydon area. Our spirits rose and there was even a strong rumour that the German army was preparing to surrender. The Defence Minister, Duncan Sandys, held a press conference on 7th September to announce that the ‘..Battle of London is over.’ He reported that during the 80 days of the bombardment the Germans had sent over some 8,000 flying bombs of which 2,300 had got through to London.  Our relief was tangible.  It was to be short-lived. The very next day…

It is a pleasant summer evening on Friday, 8th September. I have just returned from the office and am strolling in the garden. I have read the report of Mr. Sandys speech the day before and share the general optimism. At about 6.45 p.m. I hear the sound of a distant, rumbling explosion which seems to reverberate like a clap of thunder. This seems odd as there have been no air raid alerts. We tune in to the evening radio news but there is no mention of anything untoward.

The following day, it is reported that a gas main has blown-up in west London. Throughout the next week or two, other mysterious explosions are heard all attributed to gas mains. This gives rise to some wry humour. ‘Another gas main!’ is the comment whenever such an explosion is heard.  Unlike the onset of the V1 flying bomb which was acknowledged publicly the day after the first main assault, no such announcement was made of the V2 rocket weapon until two months later on 10th November, when Winston Churchill gave details to the House of Commons. There was good reason for the suppression of this information  It was important that the Germans did not have confirmation that their new weaponry was on target or having any effect.

There was no need for a public announcement as far as we were concerned. It was surprising how quickly we all cottoned on to the reality – that we were under attack by supersonic rockets travelling through the stratosphere. There was no warning, nor could there be. The missile only took four minutes to reach London. An echoed explosion after impact was followed by a ‘ swoosh’ sound. This strange phenomenon was due to the sound barrier being broken and noise of the missile’s travel through the air.  Because of the supersonic speed of the V2, the damage was more confined to the immediate area  of impact, unlike the widespread blast damage of the V1.  Information passed by word of mouth was surprisingly effective. We quickly learnt that the first rocket on 8th September had demolished houses in Chiswick. We soon got to hear details of other incidents by the grapevine.

It was clearly a deadly weapon  but one about which we all developed a simple philosophy. If you heard it – you were O.K!   We had a near miss early one morning at the office when one blasted Red Lion Square, just 300 yards away. On a further occasion after another large explosion, an office friend and I rushed to the rooftop to locate the tell-tale plume of smoke. There was none. Then, looking upwards and directly above our office, was a large pall of grey smoke where the V2 had exploded prematurely, perhaps due to the  friction of its supersonic travel.  Meeting friends on the train home, who worked two miles away at Victoria, I reported this near miss and pointed out how lucky they were to meet me that evening still in one piece.

‘Rubbish!’ was their retort, ‘it was directly above  our offices.’ (I thought this observation was quite unjust  but chose not to  contest what was clearly  false perception on their part.)

The arrival of the V2 rocket set me wondering as it stirred up a distant memory. I looked up my pre-war collection of cigarette cards among which  was a series on flight and aircraft. This included one on an experimental rocket being developed by Germany, the purpose of which was alleged to ‘deliver mail’ over long distances!  I recalled being astonished by this – how on earth could they salvage mail from a rocket which crashed to earth one knew not where?  The V2 supplied the answer. I concluded that this was a nice propaganda ruse to obscure the real motive.

On one clear and starlit evening, my father adjourns to the front gate. His sight is attracted by a moving speck of light which he thinks at first is a meteor.  But it seems to hover in the sky, gradually getting brighter before falling quickly to earth. There is a blinding flash, followed some seconds later by the sound of the tell-tale double explosion and  swishing noise. We hear next day that the missile has fallen harmlessly on the golf-course at Featherbed Lane.  

By October, 1944 the Allied advance had got bogged down, following the abortive airborne attack on Arnhem in September.  Flying bombs were being launched from Holland in the  east by Heinkels and Junkers 88s and these mainly affected East Anglia and  the Thames estuary.  The V2 rockets continued to arrive with their unheralded devastation. We get to hear of a  dreadful disaster at New Cross. At lunchtime on Saturday, November 25th a V2 falls at the rear of Woolworths in New Cross Road.  The store and the adjoining Co-op are full of customers and both buildings collapse. The rescue services are stretched to their very limit. The death toll is 160 with 11 missing, including two women who had gone to Woolworths for tea with  their babies in prams. They were never seen again. More than 120 are seriously injured. Our previous optimism was becoming  deflated. In early September, the strong hope had been that the war would be over by Christmas. This clearly was not now the case.

About mid-December 1944, I board the 6.04 train at Victoria meeting up with my three friends from Selsdon. It is bitterly cold and there is a pea-soup of a fog. The train is late and crowded and we are stuck in the concertina connection between two carriages. The train crawls and stops frequently when the detonator warning signals explode on the line. We are frozen to the marrow and  arrive at East Croydon after one and a half hours.  The smog is so dense, one cannot see more than a few feet ahead. There are no buses so we walk along the footpath by the railway line. On reaching the Fairfield footpath, we get lost for a time. After wandering around aimlessly awhile we eventually get our bearings again and trudge home arriving at about nine o’clock.  In Selsdon, up above the smog, it is a fine, clear and starlit night.

A few days later,  the  German army  launch their strong  counter-attack in the Ardennes under the cover of fog and snow,  catching the Americans completely by surprise.  On 29th December a Croydon solicitor, Keith Jackson, his wife and maid are killed by a V2 rocket which hits their home in Croham Valley Road.

After the optimism only three months before, it is a dreary and tragic conclusion to 1944. Would there be no end to these years of deprivation and devastation?