Heritage: Night the Nazis dropped parachute bombs on Harold Wood and Romford
- Credit: Archant
Eighty years ago, two randomly aimed German bombs challenged Romford’s civil defence system, says Professor Ged Martin
After the Second World War, the Recorder’s editor was amused to recall Romford’s reaction when its first bomb fell on August 27, 1940.
Although everybody rushed to see the crater, the blast had caused little damage in the wide sweep of Jubilee Avenue.
Some were secretly sorry they’d missed hearing the whistle of the falling bomb, “and wondered if they would ever get a chance to hear another”!
Optimists insisted only a few random bombs would land locally.
READ MORE: How Romford prepared for the Blitz
By December, those stray bombs from the London Blitz had already killed 57 Havering people.
The tragedies came in clusters of deathly horror: four members of the Rycraft family in Havering Drive, Romford; Mr and Mrs Chipp and their three small children in The Drive, Collier Row; six people including a baby killed by a direct hit on a shelter in Cottons Park; three people in each of Clydesdale Road and Matlock Road in Hornchurch, five in Cecil Avenue, Ardleigh Green, five more in Cedric Road, Romford.
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But the raid of December 8, 1940 was targeted on the town, and almost broke its civil defence system.
Parachute mines were the Nazis’ killer weapon. With roughly a ton of explosives, they were harnessed in pairs to bombers, one under each wing, and released simultaneously to preserve the plane’s balance. Hence parachute mines fell in pairs.
Around 11 o’clock that December night, two aircraft attacked Havering. The first unleashed its load over Harold Wood.
One mine damaged 400 houses, killing a woman in Arundel Road. Its partner drifted harmlessly into the fields north of the A12, where Harold Hill had not yet been built.
The second pair of mines, dropped over Romford, found crucial targets.
Civil defence headquarters at the Town Hall assessed reports of “incidents” and directed rescue services decentralised around the Borough. Communications were vital, especially with the two ambulance stations.
There were special phone lines to the telephone exchange, which was located in a side turning off South Street.
At their Oldchurch Road depot, ambulance men on stand-by were playing billiards when a lookout spotted the white blur of the falling parachute mine, highlighted in the inky blackout by flashes from anti-aircraft guns. He rushed to give warning, but the direct hit trapped many of the drivers. One was killed.
The depot’s superintendent brought his five-year-old son to work, hoping to keep him safe at his side. The little boy was killed.
Exploding fuel tanks destroyed half the town’s ambulance fleet. Valuable stores were lost too.
Could Romford’s other ambulance station, at Havering Road, handle the flood of calls now coming in, from Collier Row to Rush Green?
Minutes later, the Town Hall’s phones went dead. The second mine had wrecked the telephone exchange, breaking every shop window in South Street.
Emergency messengers – mostly teenagers with bikes – filled the gap, bravely pedalling through the streets even though the air raid still in progress. Telephone contact with Chelmsford was established from a police station at Gallows Corner, and Essex civil defence mobilised reinforcements.
At Romford Gas Works, beside the station, engineer John Grayston and foreman Bert Poole worked desperately plugging holes in a gasholder that was spurting out plumes of flame ignited by a German bomb. They received the George Medal for their heroism.
In 1940, Havering was still supplied by horse-drawn carts. It’s hard to believe, but there was a blacksmith’s shop just off South Street, next to the telephone exchange. The smithy took the full force of the parachute mine. Its centrepiece, a five-hundredweight (254 kg) anvil, was blown high into the air. It sailed almost a quarter of a mile, right over Romford High Street, smashing into an air-raid shelter, whose occupants were surprised but mercifully unhurt.
The flying anvil was later used to raise money for local charities.
The death toll might have been higher, but the Luftwaffe’s two lucky hits came close to paralysing Romford’s defences that December night.