SELSDON 1938-1945 Part Twelve

It was the sixth wartime Christmas in 1944.  Following the optimism the previous September, it had then seemed possible that the war in Europe would have been over  by now. Everyone was now very war weary.  Although now untroubled in Selsdon by the V1 flying bombs (which were now being launched from aircraft and falling mainly in East Anglia and Essex) there was still the continued threat from the supersonic V2 rockets. It was over the Christmas holiday period that one landed in Croham Valley Road killing a well-known Croydon solicitor, his wife and maid.

Throughout the summer months before the launching sites had been overrun, our area had been in the direct line of what became known as ‘Doodlebug Alley’ and it later transpired that Croydon was the most heavily bombed London borough, receiving no less than 141 of these somewhat diabolical  missiles. (This figure did not include those in Coulsdon & Purley district which  was then not included in the Croydon borough.)  Penge had the highest density of V1s.  The stressful effect of the flying bombs was very great with their  noisy approach, sudden silence and subsequent plunge to wreak death and destruction.  

On 8th March a V2 dived directly on to Smithfield Market at a time when the market was packed with traders and customers. Penetrating the floor, the buildings collapsed into the crater. 110 people were killed.

As the harsh winter of 1944/5 slowly and reluctantly gave way to more clement weather, the news became more hopeful for us. On March 22/23, American troops under General Patton crossed the Rhine, followed by forces under Montgomery at three other points the following night. The last natural obstacle to the German hinterland had been breached. Bomber Command continued its nightly heavy raids over Germany and the Americans in daylight. The previous month, we had received with some surprise news of the heavy bombing of Dresden. Surely, that was an ancient and historic town?  At that time I do not recall that many of us  were over- concerned with the moral rights or wrongs of such events. There was a simple and plain response. We had had our own suffering to bear over the years and, anyway, who had started it all ?

By the end of March, the end of the European conflict was in sight. The Russians were at the outskirts of Berlin, the American armies had encircled the Ruhr and the German Field Marshal Walter Model committed suicide. Time was running out for the German rocket troops and SS Gruppenfuhrer Klammer had time for a few parting shots before moving his men out of Holland, placing Britain beyond the range of the V2. On the afternoon of Monday, March 27, they launched two final rockets – one to Antwerp, which killed 27 people – and one to England.

It landed in Orpington, between Court Road and Kynaston Road. On that spring afternoon 23 people were seriously injured and one woman killed. Mrs. Ivy Millichamp, aged 34 of 88 Kynaston Road was in her kitchen when the rocket fell. She was pulled clear of the wreckage by her husband but she had caught the full force of the blast and was already dead. Ivy suffered the cruel fate of being the last civilian to die in Britain due to enemy action. Her grave and memorial stone can be seen today in All Saints churchyard at Orpington.

In April, the Belsen concentration camp was overrun by the British troops. We listened to the  harrowing description broadcast by BBC radio war correspondent Richard Dimbleby  as he revealed the unbelievable horrors of that hellish conclave. Later, the newsreel pictures were even harder to take in. The camp contained some 10,000 unburied dead and mass graves containing 40,000 bodies. Many of the 60,000 survivors died soon after liberation. Soon after, such horrors were further confirmed by the liberation of the Dachau concentraton camp. If there had been a general belief that we were facing a great evil during the long years of  war and privation, then these revelations  of man’s inhumanities to man seemed to confirm it.

At the end of April, reports confirmed that Hitler had committed suicide in his Berlin bunker. Mussolini had also been caught and shot by Italian partisans after the war in Italy ended. Russians and Americans had linked up near Torgau and the British also on the Baltic. On May 4th on Luneberg Heath, Montgomery accepted the surrender of Doenitz’s plenipotentiaries.  We were all impatient to receive confirmation that the war in Europe was well and truly over.

It is Monday, 7th May 1945. Everyone has been waiting over the weekend for the formal announcement that the war in Europe is finally over. No such message has been forthcoming. Someone in the office has a wireless on throughout the day  expecting the announcement.

At about midday, the sound of cheering comes from the road below. We rush to the windows overlooking Kingsway. There, processing northwards is a large convoy of British army troops and, from their appearance, they are fresh from the field of battle. The crowds quickly throng and cheer and are joined by the hundreds of office workers from the windows. I do not know how it started.  I guess someone, in an effort to mimic the New York ticker-tape parade custom, tore up a piece of paper and threw it out the window. Within minutes, the entire length of Kingsway and Southampton Row is a snowstorm of paper fluttering down on to the army convoy below. It becomes  a hunt for appropriate paper to tear up and hurl out of the windows. I see some of my colleagues tipping out the complete  contents of wastepaper baskets. The convoy is long and takes  more than an hour to pass through. Eventually, it ends and we are all hoarse but happy.  We are let off work early (we haven’t done anything much anyway!). Outside, Kingsway is two to three feet deep in waste paper and it is difficult to find a pathway through. The clear-up gangs from Westminster City Council are already at work and the only effective way of creating space through the  paper mountains is to apply high pressure water hoses. Bless them.

At last the official announcement is made the next day, 8th May, that the war in Europe is over. Everyone is ecstatic with a mixture of joy and relief. Prime Minister Winston Churchill addresses the crowds and the nation.  There is dancing in the streets. All over the country, church bell ringers are once again able to flex their muscles. Our office bosses announce an immediate  concession. We are to be allowed one Saturday morning off in three! Also, at the times we do have to report for Saturday duty, we can dress!

This joy  is tempered by those who have relatives still fighting in the Far East, notably in Burma with the Fourteenth ‘Forgotten’ Army.  There are also those who have men languishing in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. 

Back home in Selsdon, we make a bonfire of the blackout blinds and do a war dance around the flames. Then my father disappears for a while. He has plunged into the recesses of the attic. He eventually reappears with a large Union Flag which has seen better days. My mother and I are somewhat embarrassed when he insists on displaying this somewhat dusty and threadbare relic from their bedroom window. It belonged to his father, he explains, who hung it from his home on Armistice Day in November 1918.  By the look of it, I suggest that my grandfather also displayed it at the relief of Mafeking.

The focus now turned to the Far East battlefields. General Slim’s 14th Army had taken Mandalay and the road to Rangoon was open. The Burmese capital fell on 3rd May. The capture of Okinawa emphasised how costly an assault on the Japanese home islands was likely to be. Then, in early August came the news of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  This news we found astonishing as we could not imagine at that time what this meant. Again, we did not dwell too much on the moral rights and wrongs. All we knew and welcomed was the abrupt end to the world wide war which had affected so many lives and families.

As the loved ones who had survived were slowly repatriated back to awkwardly adjust in their return to civilian jobs, we all hoped that life would revert back to a pre-war normality. We were not to know then that we would have to undergo years of increasing shortages and austerity. But that is another story.

As for me, my personal relief was tangible in August 1945.  I was yet to receive the little buff envelope inviting me to fight for King and country. I hoped that it was lost in the post.