Wareham’s air raid
In an edited extract from his book, Wareham’s War Terence Davis tells the story of the day that the town was bombed
Published in June ’09
Wareham received only one air raid during World War 2. Compared with the regular hammering of Coventry, Southampton and Plymouth, even this incident can hardly be described as major, but for the townsfolk at the time it did seem very serious indeed, with several houses destroyed and a number of casualties.
It all happened on 16 December 1942, which was a Wednesday, when a German Dornier 217 flew low over the town – 500 feet up, according to the Dorset County Chronicle – and dropped several bombs. It would appear that it was not part of some big sortie on the town, nor the aftermath of one when the enemy planes were trying to dump their remaining bombs to lighten their passage across the Channel. Rather, it was a lone flier.
The raid on the town happened suddenly. The plane just slipped in under the radar at Worth Matravers, so there was no siren and no warning. People were just getting on with their work. David Grant was at the post office in North Street, working as a messenger boy. His job was to deliver telegrams and anything else around the town, and between jobs he lent a hand anywhere it was needed. Just before noon on that Wednesday he was helping George Ballard, the general factotum of the post office, to move some extra pigeon-holes across the yard from the garage behind the post office.
Further up North Street, Miss Bussell’s sweet shop had just closed for its lunch hour and Dan’l Coombes, the errand boy there, was on his way home, while his employer turned to get her own meal. At the bottom of the hill by St Martin’s Church, Mrs Inie Ash was out at the back of the Lord Nelson pub, which she ran with her husband, Maurie. She was just about to dish up the nice rabbit stew that she had made earlier. It would not be long before her youngest daughter, Peggy, came in. It was her half-day, and at this moment she was probably on the train that was heading towards the station.
St Martin’s Church and, to the right, the cottages that were damaged in the raid. The sharp-eyed may just be able to make out the sign of the Lord Nelson on the right at the bottom of the hill.
In Bennett’s the bakers in East Street, Ray Watkins was busy just finishing a little job that he wanted to get done before he scooted off home for his lunch. The rest of the workers had gone and the shop was now empty and quiet as he made his way through the deserted premises and out of the back door. As he had to pass the bakehouse on his way into the lane he paused to exchange a few words with Mr Lee, the confectioner. That done, he turned to step into the lane.
Suddenly, Dan’l, David and Ray were each aware of a low-flying aeroplane. They assumed it was an English one, although Ray was puzzled as to why it was so low. It seemed to be following South Street. David stopped halfway across the post office yard, Dan’l was halfway home, and Ray was in the bakehouse garden. Then came the sound of machine gun fire. ‘I looked round, but I couldn’t see it,’ Ray later recalled. ‘The next thing, it opened fire!’
The noise of the plane spurred Dan’l into action. He raced home, knowing his mother was alone in the house. ‘We’re going to get bombed!’ she yelled in fear when she saw her son. Thinking that they could not possibly reach the safety of the garden shelter in time, Dan’l yanked open the toilet door and pushed his mother inside and then squeezed in himself. There they remained until it grew quiet again.
Once they had got over their shock, David and old George made a bolt for the post office as fast as they could. Likewise, after a moment of sheer terror, Ray Watkins turned and fled back to the bakehouse. ‘Mr Lee,’ he yelled, ‘I’ve just seen a plane dropping bombs! It can’t be far away!’
‘The station?’ came the reply.
‘No, nearer than that!’
Gingerly, Ray crept into the lane and a few minutes later out into North Street. It was a mass of glass, tiles and bits of wood, strewn haphazardly about. ‘The further up North Street I went, I was convinced the bombs were in the street.’ When he got closer to St Martin’s, he could see Bussell’s shop. Its windows were all blown out. ‘God!’ he thought, ‘It must have dropped there!’ All over the street he could see the contents of its once well-stocked shelves that had filled the windows: sweets, flour, treacle, jars and boxes all littering the street. Inside, absolutely everything had been blown off its crowded shelves.
But Ray Watkins’ original diagnosis was wrong. None of the bombs had fallen on Bussell’s shop. On the contrary, one had come down across the road in a garden on Mount Pleasant, at the back of the Lord Nelson, and had ricocheted off some wire netting that was buried in the earth there. Then the aircraft had flown past the Nelson, where Mrs Ash was just about to dish up. Looking up, she was utterly amazed by what she then saw. Not only was a German plane flying past her windows but inside she had a clear view of the pilot. Then the machine disappeared from her sight, leaving its bomb to come down on the gasworks where it started a fire, fortunately a small one. A second bomb had pitched on the riverbank, carving out a huge hole as it fell and breaking the legs of a goat that was on the riverside, while a third one landed in the water meadows and, as far as anyone knows, is still there today! Because of where they fell, Maurie Ash was convinced that it was the station that was the intended target, but the pilot had misjudged the distance and had released his bombs too early.
The train which had been approaching the station came to a sudden halt some distance away. On board, Maurie’s daughter had heard the noise of the plane and the bombs falling and she was now very alarmed, fearing for the safety of her parents.
Unfortunately, there was a fourth bomb. This was the one that had landed across the road from Miss Bussell’s at the back of three cottages there and had demolished the drill hall. It was the one that had done the most damage, and had seriously injured both Harry Bradford, the collector for the Liverpool Victoria Insurance Company, and his next-door neighbour, E. Fry, the painter and decorator. Both were rushed off to hospital.
When Ray Watkins eventually got home, he found that the windows had all been blown out and the door wouldn’t shut. A lot of other houses in the town had been similarly affected. Ray Herridge, a schoolboy at the time, remembered, ‘The reed ceiling of the back room (where he lived) had fallen down. It fell into the stew. We still had to eat it, but we hooked the lumps of plaster out with a spoon!’
By this time Dan’l felt it was safe enough for him to return to the chaos of Bussell’s, where he found his elderly employer very much alive. Seeing him, she resolutely declared, ‘Come on! We’ve got work to do!’ and without more words she and her errand boy set to with brushes and brooms sweeping up all the mess from the floor and from the street.
The blast had blown away the skylight from the back of the Lord Nelson. It had travelled right over the roof and landed on the forecourt of Ford’s garage, right up against North Bridge. One of the soldiers helping with the clear-up asked Inie, ‘Got an umbrella, ma’am?’
‘Course I’ve got an umbrella,’ she replied.
‘Well,’ the young soldier answered, ‘Push the umbrella up through the hole where the skylight was, then open it out and we’ll tie it down.’
It did the trick. That umbrella stayed up there a long time, keeping the rain out.
However, Maurie was very doubtful whether they would be able to open that evening. ‘What can we do? We can’t open tonight,’ he moaned.
‘Yes, we can!’ answered his wife – and they did. ‘Business as usual’ became theirs and the town’s slogan, just as it was all over the country at this time.
Fortunately for Wareham, that was the only serious raid the town had. It was minimal by standards elsewhere, but it was never forgotten by those who witnessed it.