SELSDON  1938-1945 Part Eight

When the fifth Christmas of the war arrived in 1943, everyone did their best to make most of the shortages and privations. Food rationing had become even more severe though there was a small dried fruit allocation to help mother make a Christmas pudding or two. (Oh, the delight in scraping out the bowl afterwards!) One was lucky to find any brandy to supplement the mix. I recall that jam or marmalade allocation was half a pound monthly, also cheese at 2 ounces and one egg each. It was no wonder that home produce was so valued. By courtesy of the USA, however,  there were some relative luxuries to be had. Allocations of orange juice arrived for young people, also quantities of dried egg. The latter was well considered and excellent for cooking and even omelette making. Also, and not least, the arrival of  Spam! Although the tins of this processed meat were much maligned then and since, (notably by the Monty Python team) I thought it very flavoursome in view of the prevailing scarcity of decent meat.

We had adjusted to the routine of daily wartime life. As 1944 arrived, the tide of war had turned in our favour.  We had become used to the nightly blackout. The side benefit on cloudless nights was the spectacle of a crystal clear starlit heaven. No light pollution then. Most had given up the chore of carrying gas masks, it long being accepted that such attacks were unlikely. There was still entertainment to be had and cinemas did big business. But, as 1944 arrived, Croydon experienced an unexpected shock.

On Friday, 14th January, The Davis Theatre was crowded, the audience enjoying the  film ‘Wintertime’ featuring the ice skating star, Sonja Henie. Should an air raid warning be received during performances, a slide would overlay the screen giving information of the fact and folk would be invited to leave and take cover if they   wished. On that evening, no such warning had been received. An undetected and solitary German raider dropped two heavy bombs, one of which went straight through the domed roof of the cinema and landed directly in the centre of the stalls. Although it did not explode, it split into two as it penetrated the roof and members of the audience were killed by the weight of the missile and the explosion of the detonator. Six people were killed and twenty five injured. If the bomb had exploded, the number of casualties might have numbered hundreds. The other bomb went through the roof of Allders store in North End, causing widespread damage and shop windows were shattered for most of the length of the street. The Whitgift Almshouses were also damaged but fortunately there were no casualties from this incident. It was later disclosed that the raider had sneaked in with some of our returning bombers which was why no warning had been given.

This incident was unexpectedly followed between February and April by a number of pseudo-blitzes at night. These meant a renewal of acquaintance with our dugout shelter. An anti-aircraft shell fell and exploded violently on a tram rail at the Purley Terminus on Saturday, 2nd February. This killed a young man firewatching by a bank, also a young woman and a soldier. Joan Townley, daughter and sister of the well-known Selsdon family of 316 Addington Road, was injured as was Councillor Damarell   (later to become a Mayor of Croydon) and his wife. On the night of 21/22 March, thirty bombs fell from New Addington to South Norwood and there were 14 fatalities. The blitz came back to Selsdon on the night of Friday, 24 March.

My friend, Peter Stilwell was a studious lad. With his boffin manner accentuated by circular metal rimmed spectacles, today he would have been a dead ringer for Harry Potter. He later continued his education at Dover College. Peter lived with his widowed mother at 109 Sundale Avenue, his father having died suddenly and expectedly a year or two before. Peter must have been a source of constant worry to his poor mother. His hobby was making chemical experiments in a small laboratory established in his bedroom. I recall a number of occasions when muffled detonations would be heard, shaking the house. Peter would emerge at such times with blackened face and chastened look, trying desperately to assure his mother that no damage had been done, either to himself or the house structure.  His mother remained unconvinced. Then…

It is Friday, 24 March. The sirens have sounded at about 11.00 p.m. It is a heavy raid and we troop from our beds into the confines of the subterranean dank shelter, grumbling about the disturbance to our slumbers. Shortly after midnight, a penetrating whistle announces the arrival of two heavy bombs which land close by.. Everywhere shakes. During a lull, we make inquiries and are told that houses in Sundale have been hit. The raid is over just before dawn. Just as the first light of dawn appears, I get dressed and wander along  Sundale Avenue. To my horror, in the half-light, I see that Peter’s house and those adjoining are just  skeletal ruins. I come across an air raid warden and ask him for details. All he knows is that two people have been killed. He gives me permission to walk round the back. There I find an enormous bomb crater straddling the garden and that of next door. The Stilwell’s Anderson shelter is right on the lip of the crater. I feel intensely sad. I think that the blast must have finished him and his mother. Returning to the road, I walk along dejectedly ruminating on the loss of my friend..

Then, a shape looms out of the semi-darkness – it is Peter! “You’re O.K. then?” I exclaim. “Yep! We’re still here.” he replies, then ponders awhile before adding: “ I knew I shouldn’t have continued with those chemical experiments!”

Later we find out that it was their neighbours, Edward and Edith Sarson, who were killed. They were a charming couple in their 70’s and were well-known churchgoers at St.John’s.

I trotted up to sister Elsie’s house at the top of Kingsway Avenue. With her two young children, she had taken cover in the Morrison indoor shelter. They were unharmed apart from being shaken. The blast had, however, brought down a shower of soot from the chimney.  When I met them, they gave an impression of refugees from an old black and white minstrel show. Their house suffered blast damage in common with many along the Addington Road. Selsdon school suffered extensive damage to doors, windows and window frames. For the first time, the Emergency Feeding Team was called into action to serve the workmen brought in to do all the local repair work and 600 meals were served over the weekend. The school was re-opened the following Monday  although repairs were still being done. We were saddened later to learn that Freda Woods' father had also been killed by that incident. The family lived in the old cottage (near Gardencraft today). Mr. Woods had gone out into the garden to view the situation just as the H.E. fell and was killed instantly by a bomb splinter.. A further bomb had damaged houses 2-12 Greville Avenue. The same night, eleven bombs had fallen on the Selsdon Park golf course, an unexploded AA shell at 103 Addington Road, incendiary bombs in Selsdon Vale, on Croham Hurst and in Haggler’s Dean.

During these raids, we became intrigued at the bright lights reflected upwards in the sky towards the south-east. We learnt later that this was a decoy airfield on open farmland at Farleigh which was lit once in January, three times in March and again in April. The last high-explosive bomb to land in Croydon (indeed in the London area) to be dropped from a piloted plane was at Biddulph Road, South Croydon on April 19th. On that night, Selsdon was showered with incendiary and phosphorous bombs.

I now had a personal quest which was to find a job to fill the gap year or two before receiving call-up papers.  A few of my friends were thinking of volunteering a year early at the age of seventeen.  I was not so keen. Years later I was able to attribute  this unwillingness to the post-war observation by Spike Milligan.  Although a potential hero, I definitely had  a coward’s legs. (This was later to be borne out by a later incident.)

Robert Stiby, the editor of the Croydon Advertiser, looks at me quizzically over the top of his half-glasses. He grants that my shorthand seemed up to speed, in more ways than one. Could I, perhaps, let him have an example of my deathless or purple prose?  Was not too sure about the purple bit – would more of  a bit of delicate blue do? His eyes narrow then he sighs slightly and looks up at the ceiling. (Oh, dear! I can guess what he is thinking.)

I never did find out what he thought of my pale pink prose. Despite my faux-pas he did write, however, offering me a traineeship for six months – but at no salary! I did not think this was a good idea at all. With a bit of family influence, I was offered a position in the library and information department of an offshoot of the International Tea Market Expansion Board. It always seemed to me  to be an extraordinary  enterprise to have to encourage the British to drink more tea.

This organisation had developed a very active catering sideshoot for the wartime activity running canteens for  large aircraft factories. The big cheese of the organisation was Gervas Huxley (brother of author ‘Brave New World’ Aldous and zoologist Julian, also husband to famed novelist, Elspeth.)  He had a senior job at  the Ministry of Information housed in the London University in Malet Street near the British Museum. The firm was based in the handsome boulevard of Kingsway which, with Aldwych, was last and greatest of the Victorian metropolitan improvements, although not opened until 1905. It was time to broaden my hitherto parochial vision  and explore wartime London.