A minute of intense devastation – Bournemouth’s bloodiest air raid
Nick Churchill recounts the horror and destruction of the Bournemouth air raid of 23 May 1943
Published in April ’13
It was wartime, but that spring Sunday was bright and sunny, much like any other. By lunchtime the town centre streets and gardens of Bournemouth were teeming and the hotel dining rooms were filling up with people about to sit down to Sunday roast. In suburban back gardens across the conurbation, young children played as they waited for their mothers to call them in for dinner.
There had been incidents before, 47 of them. Bombs had been dropped, civilians killed, homes and businesses destroyed and damaged. The town’s air raid sirens had sounded 847 times since the outbreak of war, but nothing could have prepared Bournemouth for the abject horror of 23 May 1943. In little more than a minute, roughly the time it takes to read these opening paragraphs, Bournemouth fell victim to its bloodiest raid of World War 2.
In its wake, at least 131 people lay dead, although the grim total may never be known exactly. Hundreds more were injured, many of them suffering – to use the modern parlance – life-changing injuries and some 3359 buildings were damaged, 37 of which had to be demolished adding to the 22 that had been destroyed in the raid including two of the town’s landmark hotels, the Metropole at the Lansdowne and the Central at the bottom of Richmond Hill.
‘It was a carefully planned, meticulously executed strategic raid carried out by pilots experienced in high-speed attacks. The Germans knew exactly what they wanted to achieve and how to do it as efficiently as possible,’ says Angela Beleznay, whose Southbourne home is under the flight path of the 26 Focke-Wulf 190s that crossed the Channel from their base at Caen to bomb Bournemouth in the lightning raid. ‘By the time the fighters at RAF Ibsley had scrambled all they could do was follow the Germans out.’
The authorities typically expected to give Bournemouth a full 22 minutes’ warning of approaching enemy aircraft, but on 23 May 1943 the sirens sounded at 12.54pm and the first bomb was dropped as the clocks prepared to strike one. What followed was barely a minute of intense devastation in which around 25 high-explosive bombs fell on the town and, with grotesque irony, the Pleasure Gardens were strafed with machine gun fire.
By 1943 RAF Station Bournemouth was welcoming thousands of aircrew and was home to the No 3 Personnel Reception Centre for Dominion aircrew and No 11 Australian Personnel Dispatch and Receiving Centre. On 23 May, hundreds of Canadian airmen were staying at the Metropole Hotel and the Central Hotel was similarly full of Australians. The day after the raid, RAF Station Bournemouth welcomed almost 3,000 new airmen to town.
‘The RAF had bombed the Ruhr Valley the week before on the Dambuster Raids and it’s still not known how many civilians were drowned in the flooding that resulted. The Germans knew that if they destroyed aircraft those planes could be replaced, but if they killed aircrew it would take longer to train replacements,’ explains Mrs Beleznay, whose book Incident 48: Raid on a South Coast Town tells the full story of that terrible day.
‘It is chillingly obvious why Bournemouth was bombed that day. Even more so when I looked into eyewitness accounts of a significant number of men in dark blue RAF uniforms but wearing red ties. I discovered they were convalescents, so Bournemouth was clearly a major convalescent centre for injured airmen as well.’
The German planes flew in over Hengistbury Head, picked up the railway line at Southbourne and followed it into Bournemouth before fanning out across the town. Bombs were dropped along the way on roads in the Queen’s Park, Boscombe and Springbourne areas. A children’s hostel at 38 Carlton Road was hit, killing the matron Julia Hartin and a four-year-old boy, Roger Woollard. At 54 Drummond Road, Florence Hawke, her two children aged eight and ten and an elderly gentleman all perished.
The Shamrock and Rambler garage at the Lansdowne was hit, killing two employees and destroying 15 buses, but by far the greatest devastation at that end of town was wrought on the Metropole Hotel. From Christchurch Road it appeared almost untouched, but the imposing Victorian façade on Holdenhurst Road had been almost completely removed by a single bomb that entered the building about two floors up and exploded on contact with the steel and concrete staircase.
According to the Home Office, 37 were killed there, but the exact number is impossible to know. Some poor souls were blown to pieces and the cellar was reportedly littered with body parts. Others would have died weeks, even months, later from their wounds.
One Canadian airman, a body builder named Bud Abbott was identified only because of the size of his torso. Another body was blown clear of the building and recovered from the college clock tower opposite more than a week later when someone was sent to investigate why the seagulls were gathering there. In other accounts, one airman was blown out of a window only to have his descent cushioned by the hot air generated by the blast. He landed on the pavement, dusted himself off and disappeared back into the building to help his stricken comrades.
Among many acts of bravery that day, 76-year-old David Gear, the boiler-room stoker who had worked at the Metropole for 25 years before his retirement and returned for the duration of the war, escaped from the building only to go back in to extinguish the boilers and turn off the gas to prevent fire breaking out. He was later awarded a Certificate for gallantry by the Kings Order from Winston Churchill.
As windows were machine gunned, down Old Christchurch Road direct hits were taken by Beales department store, West’s cinema and Cairns House, the offices of Bournemouth Chamber of Trade, where a 21-month-old baby Michael Geoffrey Wheeler was killed with his grandmother Dorothy Kent Candy, aged 47. Their bodies were recovered on 29 May and buried together in the same plot.
The greatest loss of life was at the Central Hotel where a single bomb was responsible for at least 54 deaths, including seven Australian airmen and six US army personnel in Bournemouth on leave. Several married couples died together as did members of the Civil Defence which had been meeting at the Central to discuss the placement of air raid shelters in schools. The explosion also toppled the spire of the Punshon Memorial Church next door, causing it to be demolished later.
Bobby’s department store (now Debenhams) in the Square was also hit in the second floor restaurant and as the bombers flew out to sea they machine gunned groups of airmen in the Pleasure Gardens, also hitting civilians including women and children.
One plane was brought down, hit by gunners on the roof of the East Cliff Court Hotel. It landed flat on the roof of the St Ives Hotel in Grove Road with its bomb intact. The pilot, 22-year-old Friedrich Schmidt was dead on impact. It was his first operational flight. The remnants of his diary were recovered from the wreckage and gave rise to an enduring local mystery.
‘Various researchers have mentioned Schmidt’s diary and speculated on what it may have contained,’ reveals Angela Beleznay, ‘but nobody knew what had happened to it. It became quite famous in its own way.’
Having once been considered Top Secret, the pages of the diary that were recovered from the wreckage of Schmidt’s plane are reproduced in translation in Angela’s book and reveal little more than basic details of his postings from January to May 1943. Schmidt’s body was buried in Bournemouth’s North Cemetery, initially as Unknown German Airman before being exhumed in February 1963 and reburied at the German Military Cemetery, Cannock Chase.
Another pilot, Eugen Streich, died of his injuries after his plane, which had been hit by fire from the roof of Beales, hit a tree on landing and lost a wing causing it to turn a cartwheel.
Though not central to German planning of the raid, 23 May 1943 was also the date on which Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra was to play two concerts at the Winter Gardens to celebrate its 50th anniversary and the evening programme was to be broadcast by the BBC. No doubt aware of the potential propaganda value to the enemy should the broadcast be cancelled, the Orchestra played on with Sir Adrian Boult and Montague Birch both conducting a programme that included Elgar’s Nimrod from the Enigma Variations in tribute to those that died that day.
The clean-up operation began immediately and within a week trolleybuses were again running on Richmond Hill and traffic had returned to normal in the Square by the end of August. A month later the roads around Beales reopened. Shocked and stunned, but mercifully spared any further wartime suffering on the scale of that Sunday lunchtime, Bournemouth appears to have adhered to what is now accepted as the mantra of that age – it kept calm and carried on.