SELSDON  1938-1945  Part Four

Following the crucial day of 15th September, 1940, the daily raids on the airfields became more sporadic and the nightly blitz more intensive. As the gold of autumn spread in the attractive woodlands of Selsdon, well known landmarks in nearby Croydon were also being damaged or destroyed.

It is Monday afternoon, 30th September 1940. Taking a short-cut through Littleheath Woods, I am on my way to the Selsdon Library in Langley Oaks. Pausing by the Queenhill Road recreation ground, I look down the hill towards the vista of Croydon. I am caught by surprise at an enormous mushroom cloud of smoke which appears with unexpected suddenness. A few seconds later, my ears are hit by a loud and rumbling explosion which echoes across the hillside. I then remember that the traffic has been re-routed through Croydon for the past two days, due to an unexploded landmine at the corner of Friends Road and Park Lane. Clearly, something has gone wrong.

It had indeed. The previous Saturday evening, two of these cumbersome parachute mines were dropped. One fell in the Park Hill recreation ground blasting the roofs and windows of nearby houses. The other had drifted and settled without exploding. Hundreds of people were evacuated from their homes. On the Monday, a sandbag barrier was built around the mine, a special davit was erected over it and a long rope slung round the mine.  A company of soldiers pulled on the rope to get the mine into a position for its fuse to be drawn. It was then that the mine slipped and slumped over on its side. Everybody in the vicinity ate grass. Eight seconds later it exploded. Fortunately, nobody was hurt but the devastation was immense. A week later, I surveyed the scene. About a quarter of a mile square had been flattened and  many who had left their homes two days before found nothing but rubble on their return. The lovely old Wren building, St. Anselm’s school, had been demolished and the Friends’ Meeting House severely damaged.

By the end of October, daylight raids were intermittent. One such was on Sunday, 27th October when the human face of the enemy was unexpectedly seen at close quarters.

At about 10.00 a.m. Oberleutnant Busch of Jagdgeschwader 3 took off in his Messerschmitt 109 from his base near Calais. He was to be part of a fighter and fighter bomber sweep over southern England and his aircraft had been adapted to carry a bomb. Busch was actually an American, born of German parentage and had chosen to join the Luftwaffe unlike some of his fellow countrymen who had sought service with the R.A.F. As he sought to penetrate the cloud cover to seek a suitable target, he was suddenly attacked. He jettisoned his bomb immediately but it was too late. Fatal damage had been done and he baled out of his stricken aircraft.

It is mid-morning and my friend, ‘Dusty’ Miller and I are chatting-up the Canadians in Featherbed Lane. Since June, we have made friends with many of them and learn much about their lives and families in that faraway Dominion. A group of French Canadians are playing  lacrosse in the street, a much more hectic version than that played by our schoolgirls. The sirens wail but we pay little attention. There is a solid nimbus cloud cover at about five thousand feet so we cannot observe any aerial activity. Suddenly, a furious dogfight develops overhead and there is the shriek of a descending bomb which detonates nearby.  We all hit the deck as the game of lacrosse is quickly forgotten Then a cry goes up as a  stricken Messerschmitt spirals out the sky  to crash towards the north-east.  Expletives are then hollered by the Canadians as the parachute of the pilot descends into sight from the cloud. We then undertake a most hectic cross country run, past the Lewis gun post opposite the Green in Featherbed Lane and clamber through hedges and over gates towards the rapidly descending pilot The autumn rains have made the ground heavy and damp and we are soon panting, breathless.  We are overtaken by some of  the mature and fit Canadians as Oberleutnant Busch lands heavily this side of Lodge Lane about two hundred yards ahead. When we arrive he is guarded, somewhat apprehensively, by two of the Home Guard who do their best to keep back a hostile crowd from New Addington.  A lady, somewhat large in girth, replete with hair curlers, arrives in her dressing gown. She is wielding a large carving knife and demands, in colourful language to: ‘Let me get at ‘im!’ Likewise, a burly man brandishing an axe and is threatening to: ‘..chop his b… head off!’ The pilot is young, teutonic in appearance with blonde hair and clad in the Luftwaffe issue of a  lightweight canvas summer flying suit.. He has clearly injured himself after falling heavily. The Canadians soon take charge and fend off the angry crowd. Shortly after an ambulance and stretcher bearers arrive and he is taken away. The hostile crowd disperses and we trudge back heavily in muddy footwear to Featherbed Lane and await outside  the Canadian H.Q at No. 5. as word has it that the pilot has been taken there  for interrogation. Eventually, he reappears on a stretcher to be taken away in the waiting ambulance. Someone has given him a cigarette. The waiting small group of people is quiet. As the stretcher passes,  someone says, in a small but firm voice; ‘Drop him!’ Oberleutnant Bosch’s eyes give a momentary flicker and we assume he understands the message and feeling behind it.

Looking back, it is interesting to acknowledge and identify the roots of the hostility which prevailed amongst much of the civilian population against the Germans and the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. Everyone now found themselves very much in the front line of the conflict; one which many had not sought as the misery of the Great War was still fresh in the minds of our parents and grandparents. Prevailing views against the enemy were such as: : ‘Who the hell do they think they are?’ ‘ How dare they do this to us!’ These strongly held opinions may have been made as much a form of defiance and bravado bearing in mind that the prospect of invasion was still a possibility. Whatever, as soon as a human face of the enemy was seen, as  by the unexpected appearance of young Oberleutnant Busch, the emotions spilled over in the way described.

Shortly before this incident, there was a report of a Spitfire pilot baling out to land in Frylands Wood off Featherbed Lane.. Unfortunately, his parachute was aflame and he was killed. His aircraft crashed in Hartland Way, Shirley, demolishing numbers 49 and 51.

The nightly raids continued unabated. On the 30th October, 4 days after St. John’s church and hall were hit, news filtered through of a tragic incident in Croydon. The new electricity showrooms in Wellesley Road had a reinforced basement in which scores of people sheltered every night. On that particular night, about 650 people were arranging their blankets and pillows in their regular spots. Suddenly a blinding flash and deafening explosion occurred at one end of the basement. A bomb had fallen on a narrow strip of earth between the pavement and the wall of the building, sank a few feet and blasted a hole into the shelter. Seventeen people, including children were killed and many others injured.

It is the night of 8th November 1940. I am on the top bunk of our dugout shelter, listening to the menacing and incessant  drone of enemy aircraft engines above and the continuous anti-aircraft fire. The oil heaters in the shelter give rise to condensation and there is an occasional  drip from the roof on to my bedding. This dampness only increases the pungent smell of tar from the railway sleepers above my head. Suddenly, there is the protracted shrill whistle of a descending bomb. It is loud; it is big; it is near. I bury my head into the pillow. The whistling stops and a three second gap before the crump and vibration of a big explosion is heard.

‘Some poor devil has copped it!’ exclaims my father.

Next morning, I enquired of a warden where the bomb had fallen. He directed me to Foxearth Road where I expected to see some vast damage. Instead, outside No. 108, was a notice:  ‘Admission to see the bomb crater – all donations to the Spitfire Fund.’  For a few pennies, one was admitted to the back garden in the middle of which was a most enormous bomb crater, deep enough to house a double-decker bus. The rim of the crater extended to the edge of the  Anderson shelter  where all the family were taking refuge, all of whom were unscathed apart from some deafened eardrums. Fortunately, the bomb had exploded so deeply that the blast had blown upwards  and hardly any damage could be seen.  Remarkable. 

The nightly raids continued without a break. On November 24th, only a lone raider seemed to be overhead at about 7. o’clock. Over central Croydon, it dropped two large bombs. One struck the side of the Town Hall in Fell Road penetrating to the A.R.P. centre in the basement killing three women telephonists. The other bomb penetrated to  the cellar of the Croydon Liberal Club in Scarbrook Hill, bringing down the whole building. There were 30 people in the club at that time; only three came out alive. Had the bomb fallen later, there would have been some 200 people in the club.

After fifty-seven consecutive nights of raids, there was a brief respite in early November and a chance to savour the luxury of sleeping in one’s own bed. After a few nights of peace, I was rudely awoken amidst the uproar of gunfire and reluctantly trooped off to our underground dugout. The nightly  raids became again frequent, culminating in a  large onslaught on the 28th December when the City of London underwent major destruction and during which the famous photograph was taken of St. Paul’s Cathedral standing defiantly against the surrounding flames and mayhem.

Mention should be made of those in Selsdon who trooped off to their daily workplace in the midst of destruction and disruption. Some in Selsdon worked in London and the City and left their homes each morning in an attempt to reach their place of employment.  Eyes were sometimes red-rimmed with tiredness and fatigue, a condition not improved by disruption to the public transport system.

Some would arrive at their place of work to either see wholesale destruction or spend much of the day clearing up shattered glass or rubble. The stoicism of folk where everyone helped each other is a treasured memory of those stressful times.

The nightly raids continued throughout the cold winter of 1940/41. Our local air raid wardens gave instruction of the correct use of stirrup pumps when dealing with incendiary bombs.  This was a great excuse for my friends to hose each other down during the practice sessions much to the chagrin of our instructors. Later, the received wisdom was to try and smother firebombs with sandbags as Jerry (the fiendish swine!) was now putting explosive charges which detonated after the fire had caught hold.

On 15th March, tragedy hit Selsdon as bombs demolished many homes at the junction of Byron & Queenhill Roads killing five. On the night of 16th/17th April, a very heavy raid developed locally.

I am ensconced in my top bunk in the dugout. The drone of engines is loud and menacing; the anti-aircraft gunfire loud and constant. Then there is a strange and unusual sound – not the usual high pitched whistle of an H.E. but a more gentle fluttering, much like a large flock of birds. This ends with a series of loud clatterings. Braving the falling rain of shrapnel, my father and I take a look outside. It is quickly apparent that what we have heard is a major offloading of what were known as Molotov Cocktails; large containers of incendiary bombs.  These had fallen over a large area in Selsdon, one batch following the line of Sundale Avenue. Suddenly, there is a cry for help from Margaret Cope, resident of the bungalow at the corner of Sundale Avenue and York Road.  Their garden shed is ablaze and her husband needs help. It is scary. Bombers are still unleashing their deadly loads and the rain of shrapnel is heavy. But in no time, there is a willing queue of nearby residents armed with sandbags and stirrup pumps to try out their skills. One of these volunteers is Sidney (Ken) Kennett who leaves his beautifully furnished chalet bungalow at No.12 York Road. It is only a matter of minutes when someone rushes up to him: ‘Ken! Your house is on fire!’ It is true. One incendiary has penetrated the roof and lodged in the loft, undetected. Neighbours do what they can to salvage some of his valuable antique furniture but are beaten back by the flames and the bungalow is gutted. Ken, wife Katie and daughter Valerie are homeless and have to lodge with relatives for many weeks.

At 129 Sundale Avenue, an incendiary has lodged in the eaves above Glyn Cooper’s bedroom. This is fortunately detected in time. Glyn’s father and older brother Raymond  manage to get a ladder and garden rake to dislodge the bomb before the fire catches hold.

Next day, I explore the surrounding area and fields. I find an unexploded incendiary, complete with tail fin and secrete out of sight it in the garage for my collection, fearing confiscation by a frightened parent. A school acquaintance also finds one. He has a yen for matters chemical and puts it in the vice of his father’s workshop. Carefully, he unscrews the cap.  ‘But you could have detonated it, you idiot!’ I exclaimed. ‘Perhaps,’ he replied, ‘but I wanted the magnesium!’  Such was the foolish abandon of youth.

On 10th May, there is another very heavy raid on London and bombs fall at the back of Arundel and Norfolk Avenues. A day or two later, refugees arrive at our front door. Standing there, with two large suitcases are Elsie, my elder married sister with her policeman husband Lionel and baby daughter Sandra.

They have been bombed out of their house in New Cross and are homeless. They have come to stay. It is time to move over and make room!