Selsdon 1938 - 1945  Part Two

As May 1940 drew to a close, the situation in France became more serious and it was possible on some days to hear the rumble of gunfire from across the English Channel. Prime Minister Chamberlain had been replaced by Winston Churchill on May 10th and fortified flagging spirits with some inspiring speeches. The evacuation of some 330,000 Allied troops from Dunkirk, which Churchill called a 'miracle of deliverance' lifted our spirits somewhat. On June 10th, Italy declared war (Prince Philip attained his 19th birthday that very day). In mid June France capitulated. A neighbour eventually received good news about her missing Army husband who turned up as a prisoner of war in Germany. 

In a strange way, although we were now alone in facing the threat of Hitler, there was a feeling of relief, despite the anxieties about an imminent invasion. The fact that the English Channel provided a significant obstacle was reassuring. In mid June, a rumour quickly spread that bombs had fallen in the night on Addington Village. This turned out to be true. Farmer Still 's strawberry fields were pockmarked with small craters. These happened to be the first to fall on the London area. Olga Kennedy's home in Addington Village Road suffered from a broken window and· cracked ceilings. The bomb site quickly became a tourist attraction and folk came from miles around ( there was still sufficient petrol available for short car excursions) Many would not have foreseen that, in a few weeks, they would not have to travel far to see much worse.

It was shortly after that incident that early one morning some troop carrying trucks trundled eastwards through Selsdon, starting what was a continuous stream all day until evening. It was the Canadian Army 1st Division and their destination was the newly built and still empty houses in Featherbed Lane and Palace Green at Addington, which were immediately requisitioned. How we all cheered at this morale booster. We were clearly not alone after all. 

Selsdon hosted some notable refugees at that time. General de Gaulle fled France to organise and lead the Free French Army and he first lodged at the Selsdon Park Hotel , later with the family of a school friend in Arundel Avenue ( these were the Boissiers, the father being a military attache with the French embassy). King Haakon of Norway also stayed at the Hotel for a time. 

Active preparations were made to defend the invasion, expected at any day. The Local Defence Force (LDV) was formed nationally and later became the Home Guard. The Selsdon Park Farmhouse became the local HQ. Defensive pill boxes were erected in key positions ( many of which can still be seen across the country). Outside Selsdon school, large concrete dragon's teeth were sunk into the road. In the event of an invasion, these would have been raised as an anti-tank barrier. Signposts and location boards were all removed to make it difficult for any invasion force to pinpoint their location. My father took clandestine possession of a .38 revolver complete with several rounds of ammunition. I have often fantasised about what he would have done should the Panzers have arrived along Addington Road. 

We boys swotted up on aircraft recognition, anticipating that this skill could soon be put to practical use. We scanned the skies for parachutists, but all seemed quiet and relatively uneventful. The first evacuees arrived from Normandy and were billeted in the Selsdon area. The children had little or no English and our own studies in French were only just starting. Bi-lingual progress was quick. Within two months we could swear competently in the other language. 

As July came and went my debonair cousin dropped in to bid his farewell, being on embarkation leave and ending up in North Africa. There were radio reports of air attacks on convoys and airfields, but things in Selsdon were quiet and settled. My friends and I were busy making friends with the Canadians at Addington, cadging sweets and learning more about that faraway Dominion. This turned out to be the calm before the storm. Selsdon happened to be situated in the middle of a triangle formed by three vital airfields: Kenley, Croydon and Biggin Hill. The significance of this geographical fact would later become obvious.

It is Thursday August 15th. A group of us have met for an evening cricket match at the rec. It has been a glorious summer day, the evening dew is just starting to form and the smell of newly cut grass pervades the air with a heavy scent. I am fielding at mid-off and not enjoying it. One of the Matthews brothers is batting and unleashing a string of cover drives in my direction. I feel like an Aunt Sally and my hands are raw in trying, rather vainly, to stop these missiles. I am offered a respite as our collective attention is drawn to increasingly loud aircraft noise. We stop play and squint skywards. Very high above are about seven flights of three aircraft in a line ahead travelling due north, their silver underwlngs glinting in the lowering sun. They are too high to identify without field glasses. "I wonder if they are Jerries," asks one. This cannot surely be - there has been no warning given. At about 3000 feet are a number of Hurricanes cruising around, somewhat aimlessly. Cricket is forgotten and we continue, fascinated, to watch the planes on their steady track northwards.

The Messerscmitt Bf 110 twin-engined fighter-bombers of the Erpro Group 210 had taken off from their base at Calais- Marek in the late afternoon. They had already successfully attacked Martlesham Heath airfield in Suffolk earlier that day. Their target this time was the important sector control airfield at Kenley. The flight commander, Hauptmann Walter Rubensdorfer, led his men following the main London/Brighton railway line, a certain guide to their target. Edging round to come in from the north, Rubensdorfer led his men into the attack. But the sun was low and the ground visibility hazy. The airfield he attacked in error was Croydon.

We watch the line of silver aircraft wheel round. Then the first dives and two objects drop from it - then another - and another. Mayhem. Everything happens at once. Gunfire and explosions rent the air as we rush, panting, to the previously unused air raid shelter by the pine trees. The door is locked and the key is in a glass case. It seems a lifetime for someone to smash it. The door is eventually unlocked and we pile into the dark, damp depths of the shelter in unruly heap. The wailing sirens sound at last, very belatedly. In about fifteen minutes, the all-clear is sounded and we· creep out. The westerly breeze is wafting an immense pall of smoke from Croydon, turning evening into a premature dusk. We are sure that Croydon must be devastated.

Later, we learn of the carnage in the factories adjoining the airfield. The evening and night shifts had just begun. Because there was no warning, casualties are high: 63 killed and 45 seriously injured. The Hurricanes we saw flying at low level were those from 32 Squadron from Biggin Hill. They were able to engage the raiders as they pulled out of their dives and fled for home. The Erpro group lost five of their number and Rubensdorfer himself went down in Sussex. Croydon airfield was non-operational for two days. The air raid shelter in the Rec remained unlocked from hereon. After the raid Purley Way was blocked by thousands of sightseers who impeded rescue services. A mass grave at Mitcham cemetery was later used for the many unidentified victims. Tom Lumley, who owned a smallholding in Selsdon Park Road (where the Morman church now stands}, was a funeral director in Croydon. He never got over the experience of dealing with some of the victims.

The raid on Croydon on that fine summer evening, made without warning, had come as a complete shock. There was much anger locally about the lack of warning which contributed to the large number of casualties. It was many years later when it became clear that the radar and observation systems could not cope that day with the amount of raiders crossing the coast. Despite censorship, the national press reported it the following day as the first raid on the capital. Behind the scenes, this fact caused some consternation as it seemed to indicate a change of strategy. As we know now, the raid was made in error, Kenley having been the true target. The Luftwaffe were now planning to rectify that mistake.

It is Sunday August 18th. After early morning mist, it has turned out fine and sunny. Shortly after one o 'clock, we sit down to Sunday lunch. As it is very warm, the French windows have been thrown wide, open, which face south west. A neighbour has joined us., 'Chips' Finlay. He makes light of his handicap of having only one arm, the other having been left behind, somewhat carelessly, in a printing press at News Chronicle. I am intrigued at his ability to tie shoelaces or necktie, very deftly, with the use of only one hand. Our meal is suddenly interrupted by the wail of sirens ... We freeze, forks poised. All is quiet. We relax and continue our lunch.

Other Selsdon families are likewise preparing their midday meal. These include Reg Nearn, his wife and three children on their smallholding in Ashen Vale (where Southviews is today). At his home in Littleheath Road is 31 year old Leslie Stevens, well- known for his local thespian activities (some thirty years later he would edit the Selsdon Gazette). Also Tom Thorpe, local builder and decorator, who helped build much of Selsdon with Costains. From this time on, his services would be largely required in repairing bomb damage. At the same time, Ivy Rhodes is picking Victoria plums on her smallholding in Selsdon Park Road, which backs on to Ladygrove and Ashen Vale. The fine summer weather has ripened the fruit early and the crop is abundant. When the sirens sound, Reg Neam thinks it prudent for his family to adjourn to their newly built Anderson shelter. Ivy Rhodes also ceases her plum picking to seek safety.

About fifteen minutes earlier, nine, Dornier 17s of the 9th Staffel of Bomber Geschwader 76 led by their 27 year old commander, Hauptmann Joachim Roth, were nearing Beachy Head. They crossed the English Channel at wavetop height to be undetected by radar. Their target was Kenley airfield and they were to be part of a complex and audacious attack. First, twelve Junkers 88s were to approach at high altitude and carry out a precision dive-bombing on the hangars and airfield buildings. Five minutes later, twenty-seven Dornier 17s were to attack from high altitude and crater the landing ground and knock out the ground defences. Five minutes later, the 9th Staffel were to go in and finish off any buildings still standing. Each of these aircraft carried twenty 50 kilo bombs. 

Crossing the coast at Cuckmere haven, they flew north west passing Lewes at 509 -100 feet. Unknown to them, an Observer Corps post at the top of Beachy Head has spotted them and their course, height and speed were duly plotted from thereon. At the same time, the high level attack groups were proceeding over Ashford in Kent, heading north west. But they were behind schedule 

On reaching Burgess Hill, the low-flying Domiers jinked right to follow the main London/Brighton railway line which would direct them to their target. As their progress and that of the high level groups were being monitored, the fighter groups at Kenley, Croydon and Biggin Hill were being scrambled. As Oberleutnant Lamberty in the lead Dornier gained height to clear the North Downs north of Bletchingley, Joachim Roth had achieved a remarkable feat of navigation, flying at zero height across the sea and land and having only seconds to identify landmarks. But as they cleared Caterham and approached Kenley, where was the smoke and damage caused by the previous attack? There was no time to change the plan. The Staffel group straddled the airfield with their bombs causing widespread damage. At the end of the airfield, the Domiers were suddenly confronted by a barrier of rockets trailing wires suspended on parachutes and had to jink to avoid them. Roth's aircraft was then holed by a Bofors shell in the left wing and it caught fire. Pilot Lamberty struggled to keep control as they flew across Limpsfield Road at Sanderstead with Hurricanes from 111 Squadron at Croydon closing in. Leslie Stevens is alerted by the roar of low flying aircraft. Running outside, he hears the crackle of gunfire and sees dust kicked up by bullets ricocheting off the ground. 

We stop eating. From the distance comes the noise of explosions coupled with the boom-boom rapid fire of Bolors anti- aircraft guns. Then the sound of low flying aircraft and machine guns. There is no time to duck as the enormous black shape of Roth's Dornier clips the beech trees in Old Farleigh Road, follows the line of Sundale Avenue and nearly takes off our chimney pots. It is all over in a few seconds. We continue to keep cover as raids continue for the next fifteen minutes.

Witnesses see Roth's Dornier flying under the pylon wires in Ashen Vale. Badly damaged by ground fire and attacks from two Hurricanes over Sanderstead and Selsdon, pilot Lamberty puts the aircraft down hard on the ground in a field near Leaves Green, eastwards of Lodge Lane. He manages to get out of the aircraft sustaining some burns to his hands. He is given a cigarette by an attendant Home Guard. Biggin Hill is attacked by 60 Heinkels at that moment and Lamberty and the surviving members of his crew have to take cover themselves. 

In the meantime the high level raid on Kenley has begun. The Junkers arrive last instead of first and have to abort their dive bombing attack as the target is obscured by smoke. As Lamberty's aircraft flies over our chimney pots, two bombs still left in the racks are released. After the all-clear sounds after fifteen minutes, we all take stock. Reg Neam and his family look woefully at what remains of their shattered bungalow which has received a direct hit. Tom Thorpe receives an appeal from Reg to help look for his jacket which was hanging from a chair in the dining room and which contains his wallet. With great care, Tom crawls through the debris and is able to retrieve the said jacket and wallet. On reversing, his buttocks are prodded by the bayonet of an over zealous Home Guard who arrests him for alleged looting! Ivy Rhodes returns to her plum picking. She notices one fruit, still on the tree, is black and shrivelled. Embedded in the plum is a bomb splinter. Later, a tail fin is spotted in the wreckage of Reg Nearn's bungalow- one bomb did not explode. A warden alerts us and our neighbours. Would we all sleep in the back of the house that night? At about 1.00 am it detonates with a dull thud. We turn over and go to sleep. 

From this time on, the previous quietness and calm in Selsdon was to be but a distant memory. 

Footnote from Raymond Rowsell 
Have received an interesting 'phone call from Mrs. Kath Burton (nee Pope) of 122 Benhurst Gardens. 
Whilst in the Addington Road at the time of Dunkirk (presumably late May or early June 1940), a large convoy of rescued troops passed through Selsdon from Sanderstead. She said it was a sad sight, many of whom were injured with bloodstained bandages (presumably walking wounded). Passers-by gave them a warm welcome and many threw them food and goodies including, I suspect, sweets and cigarettes. Apparently, they were bound for Addington Palace which had been requisitioned as a reception centre.