ANTON RIPPON, the author of a new book published to mark the 80th anniversary of the Blitz, explains how deadly bombs dropped on Croydon provided the ‘realisation that the war had finally come to London’
They called it the Phoney War.
And for almost a year it was. At least so far as the civilian population was concerned.
But then, in the late summer of 1940, the Blitz began. For the people of Croydon, the evening of August 15 was when the Second World War literally hit home.
Yet the early August raids on civilians – over the country 1,078 would be killed that month compared to 258 in July – were mostly accidental, the bombs meant for airfields and other military targets.
This was certainly the case at Croydon, where the aerodrome itself was badly damaged with a direct hit on its armoury, training aircraft destroyed and craters pockmarking the airfield’s runways.
But the intervention of nine Hurricanes from 111 Squadron meant that the majority of the Messerschmitt Bf 110 twin-engine heavy fighter-bombers dropped their bombs outside the base.
Five airmen from 11 Squadron and one from the station headquarters were killed – but it was the civilian population that bore the brunt of the raid. Several factories and houses were hit, killing 62 civilians and injuring 185. After the all-clear sounded, dozens of locals peered over the aerodrome fence to look at the damage.
For some reason, the following day’s Exeter Express and Echo seemed particularly well-informed: “Rescue work, which started in Croydon within a few minutes of the dropping of the bombs last evening, continued until after midnight and was resumed at dawn today.
“Four private houses were demolished on the Corporation housing estate adjoining the airport. The ruins are still being searched. The dead include two men who were killed when a row of six houses on a housing estate were demolished. Bombs fell in front and behind the houses, leaving a crater 25ft feet deep and 35ft across.
“One of the two men who were killed gave his life in shepherding his family to safety. He saw his wife and four children safely in the Anderson shelter and was going there himself when a high-explosive bomb dropped in the back garden. He was killed outright. The other victim was in an Anderson shelter with his wife and son on the opposite side of the crater. He died after being dragged from the damaged shelter. His wife and son were unhurt.
“When a demolition squad went to one of the houses this morning, they heard a cheerful whistling among the ruins. After lifting pieces of masonry and fallen beams, they found a budgerigar singing happily in its cage. The wires of the cage were twisted and the bottom of the cages filled by splintered glass, but the bird was none the worse.
“Many of the rescue squads have now been working continuously for over 16 hours, searching for any other victims.”
The raid was reported in Tokyo – Japan had not yet entered the war, of course – when tribute was paid to the “matter-of-fact way” in which the locals reacted: “The sirens heralded the approach of enemy planes… Most people were already at home, resting after the day’s work while their wives prepared supper. People formed into lines in an orderly manner and filed into the dugout and shelters.”
The agency correspondent added that when it was known that Croydon had been bombed “relief was suddenly replaced by the tense realisation that the war had finally come to London”.
The raid on Croydon was part of what a joint Air Ministry and Ministry of Home Security communique reported was a 1,000-bomber raid over a 500-mile front that day, from the south-east to the north-east, and across the south-west and South Wales. A total of 169 German aircraft were destroyed, and of the 34 RAF planes shot down, the pilots of 17 of these were safe.
Of the Croydon raid, the communique reported that among a number of buildings hit, a “scent factory” was damaged but fires were “soon brought under control”.
The following day’s Norwood News published a statement issued by the chairman of Croydon Council’s Air Raid Precautions Committee, Alderman S Roden, and the town clerk, Mr E Taberner, on how to deal with incendiary bombs. Chief among its recommendations was the perhaps obvious advice that it was “of the utmost importance that the situation should be tackled as quickly as possible to prevent a small fire from becoming a conflagration”.
From now on, Croydon was at war.
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