Between the Blitz (the nightly bombing of London and major cities during 1940-41) and the flying bombs and rockets of 1944-45 there were few air raids. In London, in 1942, bombs were dropped on 13 August and there was an air raid alert but no bombs on 31 October. As a result of this comparative lull in enemy air attacks many evacuees returned to London. My family was one of these.
My father was a schoolmaster and had obtained a post in East Meon in Hampshire and had evacuated to there in 1940. Our home, to which we returned in 1942 was 43 Playfield Crescent, a road behind Alleyn’s School playing fields in East Dulwich. Our family composed Father, Mother, Peter (10), Margaret (7), Olivia (1_ ), Gilbert (16) and myself (17) Gilbert and I were both employed in London at the time; Philip was away training in the Royal Artillery, another brother, Owen, was still evacuated with his school in Lancashire.
On Saturday night 16 January 1943 British bombers raided Berlin in force and Hitler immediately ordered two revenge attacks on London. Twenty-five to thirty bombers came over between 8-10pm on Sunday 17 January and the same number between 4.30-6.00am on Monday 18 January. At 8pm the air raid warning sounded, followed immediately by the noise of continuous, furious, deafening anti-aircraft fire. We did not have time to hurry down the garden in the blackout and climb into our Anderson shelter. In any case, as will be seen, it would have been risky to do so. The traditionally safest place in a house was in a cupboard under the stairs, but there wasn’t room for the seven of us. Five managed to crowd inside. Gilbert was in the front room and I was in the back room. The only bombs the German planes managed to drop on London that night came down on us – all seven of them – four in front of the house and three at the back.
Gilbert managed to get down in time as the blast from the front blew in the windows and hurled a wireless set on to the floor, the acid from its battery burning a hole in the carpet. I crouched down against the dining room wall near the cupboard as the blast from the back blew in the window, tore down the blackout curtain which wrapped up all the glass and carried it across the room, avoiding our canary in its cage suspended from the ceiling and hitting the wall just above my head. When the All Clear sounded we inspected the damage. The front door had been blown along the hall. In the upstairs front bedroom all the window glass was shattered and rows of jagged shards were sticking out of the wall on the opposite side of the room. Large lumps of plaster had fallen off the ceiling onto the bed. Father went to have a look round outside and reported seeing several bodies, obviously dead.
The family couldn’t stay the night so Mother and the three younger children went to stay at her father’s house in Crystal Palace Road, and took the canary with them. Father, Gilbert and I spent the night moving all the furniture into the room downstairs ready for storing it elsewhere. Then, at 4.30am the air raid warning sounded again. This time we managed to get into the Anderson shelter. The guns from local batteries were again making a deafening noise and for an hour and a half as we shivered in the cold.
Later that morning the street was a hive of activity. With the entire area uninhabitable, neighbours were lowering their furniture from upstairs windows by ropes into the street. The whole of Lytcott Grove, a stone’s throw away, was utterly devastated. A few doors along from our home, the complete side wall of a house leant at an angle across an alleyway against the next house. That same day Mother, Father, Peter, Margaret and Olivia moved to friends at Guildford where, in 1939, I had been evacuated with Strand School. Gilbert and I went to stay with our grandparents in Norbury.
There is quite a discrepancy in the reports about the actual explosives dropped in this raid. At the time it was ‘common knowledge’ that a landmine was responsible for the colossal damage caused within the small triangle of roads; Lytcott Grove, Melbourne Grove, Playfield Crescent and part of Glengarry Road. In total sixty homes were destroyed. Newspaper reporters writing within hours of the raid understandably mentioned bombs. It is certain that three bombs were dropped in Alleyn’s School’s playing field since I saw the craters when I looked over our garden fence the next morning. These were the cause of the blast to the back of our house.
Sixty-seven years later, I went to the British Library’s collection of newspapers in Colindale and tracked down the reports of that night in eleven national newspapers. They provided much more information than I was aware of at the time. It had been a very significant few hours in the air war between Britain and Germany as the following accounts show, and we had been right at the centre of it.
All the eleven newspapers carried reports of the raids on their front pages.
Daily Telegraph: Monday 18 January 1943: Nazi raiders over London. Fiercest Anti-Aircraft barrage on record. Raid retaliated for the plastering of Berlin on Saturday 17 January.
Daily Express: 18 January: The capital put up its most spectacular barrage of the war. The noise was shattering. Never before have London’s defences thrown such weight of metal into the skies along with a massive display of searchlights. A block of small houses was wrecked. People living 30 miles away said they felt the ground tremble with the reverberations of the guns, probably the most intensive screen of fire that has ever been unleashed in the protection of a city. Wing Commander Wight-Boycott shot down four of the raiders. More than a dozen people were killed and more than a score of people were injured by falling shells and splinters. The Mayor (of Camberwell) was one of the first on the scene, and (with) the mayoress helped to tend to the injured.
Daily Mail : There can be no shadow of doubt that the magnificent canopy of whistling white-hot steel put up by London’s gunners took the Luftwaffe by surprise.
Daily Sketch: Two bombs wrecked a row of houses. London’s most spectacular barrage. Some raiders turned before reaching the capital and jettisoned their bombs. The simultaneous firing of the many batteries made a tornado of sound. German reports of Sunday night’s raid on London admit the flak was terrific. The enemy chiefs have told their people that London was seriously damaged. This is a ludicrously untrue account.
Daily Herald: “I stood yesterday on the edge of the biggest bomb crater that I have ever seen. It measured sixty feet across and the whole roadway was gone. This Street of Devastation (Lytcott Grove) echoed to the picks of the rescue squad still feverishly digging for a seventy year old woman known to have been in the back kitchen of one of the houses. The most memorable escape of the night was of a nineteen year old Mr P. Garrett. He was in a first floor room when the bomb fell. When the dust cleared he found himself in a ground floor kitchen at the back of the house with a kitchen cooker on his chest. He was unharmed! One of the crew of a German bomber shot down parachuted to safety, stole a car, and was stopped by the police and arrested near Maidstone.”