This month marks the 75th anniversary of the start of the Blitz in Wanstead and Woodford. Over a period of eight months around 450 bombs were dropped on the two boroughs, killing 129 people and injuring 194.
The summer of 1940 had been varied; a warm and dry June was followed by a cool and wet July. The weather turned much warmer and dryer in August, just 2mm of rain fell during the whole month. Only one August has been drier since and parts of London went 46 days without any measurable rain.
As people got on with their summer and the Phoney War (Britain had been in conflict with Germany for nearly a year) events in Europe must have seemed a world away. This all changed just after 11pm on Wednesday, August 28th when two high explosive bombs and one incendiary were dropped at two addresses in Woodford Green. Damage was light and only one minor injury was reported but the event brought home to citizens that the war was starting to happen on their doorsteps.
The days that followed were fraught with uncertainty; sirens sounded at any time of the day or night – the rapping of machine guns could be heard faintly in the skies as British fighters and enemy spotters fought invisible battles; the anti-aircraft guns pounding away on outlying sites including Wanstead Flats.
On the afternoon of Saturday, August 31st, a British fighter plane crashed in Hereford Road, taking out the front of a house and landing in the road – the pilot having earlier bailed out.
The opening week of September saw the hottest spell of the season. But summer, and the relative peace that Britain had enjoyed since the announcement of hostilities a year earlier, came to an abrupt end on September 7th.
It had been a beautiful day on the 7th with wall-to-wall sunshine and warm temperatures – the eighth day running the thermometer had reached the mid to late 70s fahrenheit. Many people were outside taking advantage of the weather when at 5pm the drone of the first Luftwaffe bombers could be heard passing to the south of the borough. By 6pm the skies were empty but all Thameside blazed.
The bombers struck again soon after 8pm, guided to their earlier smoking targets of the docks and the East End. As the sun began to set a red glow in the sky to the west and south-west gave the impression that all London was burning.
Wanstead and Woodford, so far unscathed, sent rescue parties to East Ham to help. Within a few hours, however, the area itself became the target of bombing when, at 1.25am, the first of three high explosive bombs fell in the Grove Park area behind the High Street. Two houses (Nos. 7 and 9) in Grove Park and the central block of the Shrubbery flats collapsed. A row of shops in the High Street, what is now Boots, was badly damaged by the third bomb which was dropped along with about 500 incendiaries.
A fire gutted the roof of 30 High Street, a house overlooking Christchurch Green, which is now a large block of flats on the corner of Wanstead Place, opposite the pie and mash shop.
The explosions left eight dead in the immediate vicinity while another blast in Highfield Road, Woodford Green, claimed the lives of three others. Some 50 people were injured across the two boroughs during the raid which was over by 2.30am. Rescue teams worked through the night to combat fires and tend to the injured. Wanstead and Woodford had suffered far less damage than other parts of London and a decision had already been taken to accept 2,000 evacuees from the East End. By Sunday lunchtime the first of these began to arrive in buses and lorries.
It was a dull day, ten degrees cooler than Saturday and probably reflected the public mood at the time. The bombings went on nightly through September – in the next two months there was little falling off. The manner of peoples’ lives is summed up in this entry from the diary of a local man:
“Night of September 11-12: Terrific AA barrage ended about 5am. To bed at 5.40. At 6.20 phone call saying office hit and we were to work at – . Left home at 7am. Settled down in strange building with difficulty, and grew so overwhelmingly sleepy that (having been awake for 5 nights) fell asleep standing up.”
But, two days later:
“Saturday 14th – left office 2 o’clock and spent two hours gardening. Beautiful autumn afternoon.”
As the boroughs learnt to cope with high explosive bombs, each weighing between 250-2,000lbs, the horror of the first parachute mine emerged within a couple of weeks. On September 23, a paramine fell in the Stanley Road area of South Woodford, killing 17 people – the highest number of deaths recorded in any single incident in the borough.
The borough was the first district to experience an explosive incendiary. A fire watcher of over 70 lost the sight of an eye from this type of bomb but continued on duty until the end of the war.
A warden called “Will” wrote this letter to his parents on September 29th 1940. It is intriguing for me because in the letter he mentions a house that I lived in in Cavendish Drive, Leytonstone. He says that an incendiary bomb lodged in the loft before burning through to the floor. While decorating one year I uncovered scorch marks in the landing well as well as charred damaged on the bannister and scorch marks on the floorboards – evidence of bomb damage.
As Wanstead, Woodford and the rest of suburban London got over the initial shock of the start of the Blitz people acted to keep life going as normally as possible. Many people who weren’t appointed as wardens learnt, through local authority training, to deal with incendiary bombs – airborne missiles dropped by the Luftwaffe that could easily pierce slate roofs and set fires below. Stirrup pumps could be bought and, through a family effort, fires could be extinguished or controlled until the arrival of the fire brigade.
Bad weather at the start of November coincided with a 6-day pause in bombing incidents. It was a very cyclonic month that probably hampered German air operations. Indeed, on November 3rd, 40.8mm of rain was recorded at Greenwich – a daily record for November that remains to this day.
The final raid of the year, on the evening of December 8th, saw yet more tragedy befall the boroughs. Just after 7pm a high explosive bomb fell in St Albans Road, killing three people. And at 10.25pm a paramine was dropped on Wordsworth Avenue, South Woodford, killing 14 people and injuring 41.
The raids didn’t start up again until January 5th. Mostly dry, cloudy and cold weather allowed residents who hadn’t moved out to make what they could of Christmas.
The turn of the year saw the weather turn much colder as an anticyclone became established over Scandinavia. The opening week was dominated by bitterly cold easterly winds with temperatures barely above freezing, severe frosts at night and some snow – a near repeat of the severe January a year earlier.
On January 5th bombs were dropped on St Albans Crescent and Canfield Road. Further high explosive bombs fell in the area on the 7th and 11th as the cold continued to bite. The minimum on the night of the 15th/16th fell to minus 7.5°C, but during the third week a thaw set in as heavy snow turned to rain, it became misty, and temperatures slowly rose. On the 20th, nearly 17mm of rain (including melted snow) fell, and on the 22nd the temperature rose above 8°C.
A dull and rather wet February followed with temperatures close to normal. The early part of the month was cold with frost and some snow. After a minimum temperature below minus 6°C. on the night of the 4th/5th, outbreaks of snow occurred during the day and the maximum temperature stayed below freezing. Though it was cold in Wanstead much heavier snowfalls occurred over north-east England. A thaw set in at the end of the first week, and on the 8th the maximum was above 11°C.
Just one raid happened in February but further horror lay in wait in March – a month which continued the theme of the wet, miserable and dull winter. The early part of the month was unsettled with heavy rain at times. On the 6th, over 13mm fell. During the second week it became dry with sunny periods. There were some frosty nights and lingering fog. On the 12th, the maximum temperature was only 5°C. Temperatures slowly rose during the third week.
On the 19th four members of the Civil Defence Services gave their lives as they went about their duties at Post 41 “F” District headquarters (Aldersbrook Tennis Club), an area of South Wanstead, which, from the battering it received from the early days of bombing (and which later continued through the phases of the flying bomb and the V2 rocket) became known as “The Battle Field” or “Hell Fire Corner”.
The following impression of that night is written by one who was at the scene:
“The wail of the siren opposite the Post announced at 8.15pm the arrival of the raiders. The Post personnel saw a startling sight. The Flats were a sea of flame. Thousands of incendiaries were burning on the open space. The guns roared. It was obvious that the enemy was making a concerted and determined attack. Bomb flashes stabbed the blackout. Planes droned overhead. The batteries on the Flats joined those further away in putting up a terrific barrage.
At 8.50pm, three high explosive bombs fell in Lake House Road, damaging a number of houses and partly demolishing Nos 14 and 31. A few casualties resulted, one being a man who was trapped in the doorway of No. 14. Wardens heaved on the obstruction to release him. Gas escaping in the same house caused a fire. This was quickly dealt with and the flames smothered. A nearby barrage balloon had burst into flames, illuminating the scene with glaring brilliance and revealing the widespread damage.
At 9.20pm this first incident appeared closed, and services were awaiting the result of a final search and check-up before being dismissed. Then a parachute mine landed. It exploded a few yards from Aldersbrook corner on the Leytonstone side. A house in Lake House Road, already badly damaged, tottered to destruction. Number 11 caught fire and was destroyed. Loss of life would have been heavy but for the fact that most of the inhabitants had by now taken refuge in the Aldersbrook public shelter, and those who remained were in their dugouts.
The attack died down. Wardens returned to their posts – but the number for 41 was sadly lacking. The two boys’ bicycles stood in their usual place. ‘Busy somewhere’ said the chief. But the absent ones did not return, and a search was made. They were found – in the mortuary, three of them. It was known that two others had been taken to hospital. Warden Barnett was one of these. He died next morning of his injuries.
Just before the mine exploded, the messengers had been giving assistance in one of the less badly-damaged houses. Broome, although officially not on duty, had rushed out to lend a hand. Warden Hutton was endeavouring to turn off the gas at No 14 when the mine fell.
So the four from Post 41 died doing their duty on the Home Front. The two boys, pals in the service, sleep in one grave in Old Wanstead churchyard. The two men lie close by, in Ilford Cemetery.
A few days later their comrades stood silently at attention as the funeral cortege halted outside the Post. A Union Jack covered each of the four coffins.
The four members of the Civil Defence Services who gave their lives were: Thomas Hutton, 44, a warden, of Blake Hall Crescent, Wanstead; William Barnett, 36, a warden, of Belgrave Road, Wanstead; Roy Broome, 17, a messenger, of Lake House Road, Wanstead; and Herbert Stower, 18, a messenger, of Clavering Road, Wanstead.
As spring wore on the weather remained mostly miserable though raid incidents lessened and petered out in May. Wanstead and Woodford had its last bombs of the period on May 10th. There were no more that year.
In total 129 people lost their lives and 194 were injured during the campaign. This figure would nearly double when the next phase of the bombing, using V1 flying bombs and V2 rockets, would begin three years later in June 1944.
It is hard to imagine how people coped with the constant barrage of bombs during the Blitz. What seems to get lost in articles and historical texts I’ve read is just how grim the weather was at the time – remember this was a time before central heating. Not only were bedrooms freezing cold people must have laid there wondering if they were going to see morning.
It seems to be a human condition that when we are faced with adversity we just find a way of ‘getting on with it’ as best we can.
* Much of the inspiration for this blog comes thanks to the book It Happened Here by Stanley Tiquet. The book is available for loan and can be purchased at Redbridge libraries.