SELSDON  1938 –1945  Part Three

The unheralded and dramatic raid on Croydon airport during the fine summer evening of Thursday 15th August would today be referred to as a ‘wake-up’ call. We knew not then that the Battle of Britain had started in earnest a week before but had been largely confined to targets nearer the coast. The raids on Kenley and Biggin Hill at lunchtime the following Sunday 18th August set the scene for the future weeks.

A routine quickly became established.  Shortly before 9.30, the sirens wailed. Within five minutes raids were in progress.  In about fifteen minutes the all-clear would sound but this would be but a brief respite when a second attack wave would appear an hour or two later.

For us youngsters it was an exciting spectator sport. We watched, fascinated,  the spiralling vapour trails in the clear summer sky.  This was a new phenomena as commercial aircraft then rarely flew high enough to create such trails. Young men were fighting and killing each other miles above our heads.  This fact did not seem to enter into our minds at the time.

It is Saturday, 31st August. I have been assigned the task of visiting one of the smallholdings to stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables and I leave home at about 9.15 on what is a bright and sunny morning. Should there be a raid, my mother exhorts me to stand in a doorway or under a tree should things ‘…get too hot up there.’ I am only a few yards past Kingsway Avenue when the moaning minnies broadcast their warning. In a matter or minutes, things are truly getting ‘ a bit hot up there’ and I take shelter under the large ash tree which stands at the corner of Ashen Vale. I watch the spiralling vapour trails miles above and listen to the distant zooming of stressed aircraft engines and the chatter of distant machine guns. Some spent shell cases clatter on the roadway and rooftops. There is a brief respite and I sprint to my destination, with some relief joining the Rhodes family in their air raid shelter.  In about ten minutes, the all-clear sounds and I have time to gather up the produce, scurrying  home just before the next wave of attacks begin.   

Looking back to that time and given today’s concerns about safety in all aspects of daily life, it never ceases to amaze me that our parents demonstrated such stoicism about us during those fraught days. I guess it was a form of defiance.

Towards the end of August, news came that the RAF had raided Berlin.  This cheered everyone – ‘that’ll teach them!’ was the general response. It was only a long time after the war when we realised the knock-on effect of what was a relatively minor incursion by our aircraft.  Adolf didn’t like it one little bit.

It is Saturday, 7th September. It has been a fine and warm sunny day. But there is a strangeness about..There have been no  raids as usual  on the airfields this morning. The quietness is somewhat ominous but at least everybody has been able to go about their daily lives normally during the day. At about 4 o’clock in the afternoon  the sirens sounded and we watch the fighters being scrambled from Croydon, Kenley and Biggin. There is a muted sound of aircraft coupled with, unusually, some anti-aircraft fire. This is followed by the sound of distant explosions. As dusk falls, a vast glow of blazing fires can be seen from the north. In the evening, the warnings again sound and continuous bombing of the London docks and the East End carries on throughout the night. From an upstairs bedroom window, the conflagration lights the sky so much that a newspaper can be easily read.

Next morning, all was quiet. Reports filtered through about the carnage in the East End whilst our neighbourhood was left unscathed. This was the start of the blitz, this phase being continued for fifty-seven consecutive nights. We arranged beds on the floor, afforded somewhat limited protection of the main stairway. It was shortly after that my father decided it was prudent to go underground. Previously, he had refused the Government aided offer of an Anderson shelter, hoping that such a precaution would not be necessary. He engaged the services of a local builder, Henry Streeter in Elmpark Gardens, who had developed an approved concept for an air-raid shelter.  He apparently took as a model some experience of dug-outs in the Western Front during the Great War. This involved digging an eight foot cubic hole lined with breeze block and cement rendered walls. This was topped by two layers of railways sleepers at right angles, covered with damproofing and topped with the excavated soil. The entrance was down steep steps protected by a concrete cover. An emergency exit was provided at the far end. Apart from the unlikelihood of a direct hit, this seemed to offer good protection. The interior was equipped with a double-tier bunk bed supplemented by a camp bed and a small table. Lighting at first was supplied by two hurricane lamps and modest heating by an oil lamp. This was to become our nightly home for many months to follow.

There was now established a double routine. Airfield raids continued throughout September, tailing off eventually in October. These were now supplemented by  nightly raids on the London area which developed its own pattern. At six o’clock, the sirens would sound and we would troop into our catacomb bearing bedding and reading matter. The almost continuous pulsating throb of the German bombers created a sense of menace. (This distinctive sound I discovered, years later, was due to the fact that the aircraft twin engines were not synchronised.) This was punctuated by continual anti-aircraft fire and the occasional whistle of falling bombs. There would be a constant clattering and shrapnel rained down on to roads and rooftops. There would be a brief respite in the early hours, time for mother to hurtle indoors to brew a reviving cup of tea. At about dawn, the nightly ordeal would be over apart from the odd single raider, sneaking in under the cover of low cloud.  The indiscriminate nightly raids now included the Greater London and many other cities also suffered.

Sunday, 15th September was overcast. As became evident later, this was the key day of  the  Battle of Britain.

Furious dogfights are taking place overhead, heard but unseen. Doug Crampton in York Road sends his wife and three young children to take cover in their Anderson shelter. Standing in the open doorway of his kitchen he comments to me over the fence: ‘It’s getting a bit hot up there!’ and makes his way to join the family. When the all-clear sounds fifteen minutes later, the family returns to the house. There, embedded  deeply in the kitchen door which led into the hallway is a spent .303 bullet.  It has passed through the open doorway where Doug was standing moments before.

On 27th September, a string of HE’s fall harmlessly on the northernmost footpath in Selsdon Wood (signs of these are still visible today). On 18th October, Selsdon suffers its first fatalities – 20/22 Littleheath Road are destroyed and two residents, Mr. & Mrs. Adamson are killed. They were waiting for their shelter to be completed. On Saturday, 26th October the raid becomes very heavy in the late evening. Teddy Atkinson and his twin brother, Tony, are sheltering at their home in Upper Selsdon Road. They have the distinction of being the first twins born in Selsdon. Their mother, Peggy, runs the highly regarded local school of dancing.

Their protection is a dining table protected by a mattress. The shriek of falling bombs induces fear and their father dives under the table to fall on top of them. The house seems to move several feet one way and then back again. All the windows  blow in and most of the tiles are ripped from their roof. They later count themselves lucky.

The bombs have fallen directly opposite demolishing St. John’s church chancel and the adjoining church hall. (Four years later, Tony Atkinson was to be badly injured by a flying bomb in Farley Road.)

By this time, the heavy daylight raids had virtually petered out. Some of us selfishly regretted this as the frequent troop to the air raid shelters at school meant that many a hated maths lesson would be lost. Everyone had their own personal adventures to relate. Pat Crooke (nee Grigg), who then lived in Kingswood Way, recalls two low-flying aircraft machine gunning the ground as she walked through Selsdon Vale. She remembers feeling quite offended! Leon Bonner was walking through the Rec during a heavy ack-ack barrage. An angry bee whirred above his head and zonked into the ground a few feet away.  It was the nose cone of a 3.7 inch shell, still hot to the touch.

Our souvenir boxes were filling up. Our enthusiasm for collecting cigarette cards was replaced as we bartered an assortment of air raid memorabilia, cartridge cases, spent (and unspent!) bullets, incendiary bomb fins, shell nose cones and fuses, shrapnel in various shapes and sizes. One day, my father discovered a wicked piece, about twelve inches long and shaped liked forked lightning. It was standing upright in the soft ground by our shelter entrance. He thought it lucky that he had not been standing there when it fell. I never had the heart to dispel his belief – it was me who had placed it there!

Our editor has some interesting notes on parochial happenings in Selsdon during this period. In the ‘phoney’ period between the invasion of Norway followed by Dunkirk and the fall of France and the Croydon raid in August, local matters were still of concern. The SRA meeting at the end of April was the last public meeting held until March 1941. The Coulsdon & Purley District Council announced an increase in the rates by 6d. to 11s.5d. due mainly to a larger Metropolitan Police precept. SRA were asked to contact London Transport and request that the 54 and 64 buses connect with  the trains when the timetables were next revised. A further request was made for a direct bus from Selsdon to Purley. It was also requested that the last bus waited for the last train from South Croydon. A letter was sent to the UDC complimenting on the excellent provision of books at Selsdon library. A later collection of post than 8.30 p.m. was to be sought from the Post Office. A major drive had taken place for salvaging aluminium saucepans (to make Spitfires!), iron railings and  chain link fencing.  SRA was thanked by the Council for their scheme to organise collections. The National ARP Animal Committee were given permission to use a garage at the rear of the shops during air raids. In early May,  damage by hooligans occurred in Littleheath Woods and the Old Farleigh Rec after the keepers had left. (I plead not guilty, my lord.)  On a lighter note, ‘The war seemed very remote from Selsdon on Saturday afternoon,' wrote the Croydon Advertiser on June 7th, ‘when the ceremony of crowning the Selsdon May Queen was carried out in the grounds of St. John’s church’. The event was a month late but a large attendance made a substantial contribution towards reducing the debt, then £950, on the new church. Before being crowned, 12 year old Pat Ford led a procession around Selsdon in a decorated carriage.

After the fall of France, there was a prospect of parents sending their children abroad to safer countries.  I was on the list to emigrate to my mother’s cousins in Australia. The enthusiasm for evacuation overseas waned, however,  when the City of Benares liner en route for Canada was torpedoed in the Atlantic on 17th September with the loss of 77 evacuees.

As the gold of autumn matured during October, there were sporadic forays during the day to complement the heavy raids each night.  The anonymity of what was going on in the sky above was one day, unexpectedly, going to produce a human face of the enemy.