‘Someone screamed “Down! Down!”‘ – the Bourne Valley bombing
Stephen Roberts charts the catastrophic effect a single Luftwaffe bomber had on Branksome 73 years ago
Published in August ’14
Published in memory of Cliff Selby (15 October 1923-16 September 2014), Tony King (1 January 1921-12 March 2014) and of all those who died in the Bourne Valley Bombing raid of 27 March, 1941.
Poole’s worst air raid of World War 2 occurred on 27 March 1941. It is believed that a lone German bomber was targeting the railway viaducts that cross the Bourne Valley in Branksome, but instead scored a direct hit on the adjacent staff canteen at the Bourne Valley Gas Works, killing 33 gas workers. Being lunchtime, the canteen was understandably busy resulting in increased casualties. This was the largest single loss of life in Poole during the whole of the Second World War.
Bronze plaques commemorating the gas workers who died in both World Wars can be seen inside St Aldhelm’s Church, in Branksome. The left-hand plaque is for the Second World War and the 33 employees who were killed that fateful lunchtime are all marked with an asterisk, which confirms that they were, ‘Killed at Bourne Valley Works during air raid March 27th 1941’.
Branksome had heard the air raid siren on virtually every day in the month preceding the attack and sometimes more than once a day. On that fateful day there was no siren, at least not until it was too late. It was noon on 27 March when a single enemy aircraft dived out of the clouds towards the two railway viaducts in the Bourne Valley. It appears to have come over Wallisdown and the Alder Road Drill Hall before swinging over the viaducts. Two bombs fell short of the railway and landed on the Gas Works with tragic consequences. The first to hit blew up the store. The second bomb smashed the upper storey above the canteen and wedged itself precariously, protruding through the ceiling above the diners’ heads like the Sword of Damocles.
Tony King, a 20-year-old apprentice at the time and when we spoke to him one of only two survivors* of the tragedy, usually went home for his lunch, but on this particular day, he had gone to the staff canteen with his mates. It was to be his last day at the Works before joining the Army. Tony recalls hearing the first bomb hit the store, some thirty yards away at the end of the foundry. A rumbling noise followed and the ceiling began to collapse. Someone screamed, ‘Down! Down!’ and they threw themselves under the canteen tables.
There were literally only seconds to either take cover or evacuate, as the delay on the fuse was negligible. Snap, instinctive decisions were made as to where to dive and almost immediately the bomb detonated. The hall was devastated. There were around a hundred men in there at the time.
Of the eight men who had been sat around Tony’s table, six were killed. He was blinded by the blast, had a broken leg and ankle, a fractured skull and a hand that had almost been severed by shrapnel. But he had survived. Tony King was admitted to the then Westbourne Hospital and then to Treloar Hospital (Alton) where his recovery took a year.
Arthur Henson also recalled diving under a table, then believing that the raid was over, getting up and walking away. As he did so, the building collapsed and the others who were still under that table were killed. Although Arthur suffered a leg injury, he was one of the lucky ones.
Home Guard members Leonard Bartlett, Herbert Williams and Ray Cherrett’s uncle, Archibald (Archie) Cherrett were among the 33 killed. Ray’s father, Albert Cherrett, worked at Pitwine’s Gas Works and would help take the bodies out. 23 were injured, some of them seriously. Men of the Royal Artillery helped the survivors to drag out the dead and wounded.
Charles (Reg) Badcock was amongst the dead. Alan Walker, Reg’s nephew and godson, who was ten at the time, told me that he saw the bombs fall out, but it wasn’t until that evening that he learnt that his uncle had been killed. Alan recalled that his uncle didn’t usually use the canteen, but had chosen to on that particular day.
Brian Marshall, who lived with his family in Guest Avenue, running alongside the western boundary of the Gas Works, remembers the raid well. He described the lone bomber coming over. Brian’s father, who was a manager at the Works, had come home for lunch as usual and the family was sitting down to eat in the front room, when they saw the plane, heard the explosion and dived under the stairs for cover. It was only some time later that they learned how devastating the attack had been.
Brenda Wareham thought it was an Allied plane at first, then saw the bomb bays open and bombs spill out. She raced indoors to join her family, heard the explosion and as the blast was felt, a pane of glass shattered in the front door. All they could see was the cloud of smoke and dust rising from the beleaguered gasworks. Later they heard that their neighbour, only recently moved and therefore unable to go home for lunch, was amongst the dead in the canteen. These stories sadly confirm how fate often dealt an unkind hand.
Mike Turle-Smith told me that his dad, a Great War survivor, had cycled down to the office at Horseshoe Common, so had missed the attack. Others were equally fortunate. Graham Banks’s ‘uncle’ was a chef in the canteen, but was off duty that day. Roland Clark’s uncle had only just left the canteen when the bomb struck. Ron Jenkinson’s cousin should have been at the gas works, but had gone for a haircut five minutes previously. He later joined the RAF. Stephen Malton’s grandfather, Arthur, should have been in the canteen, but had forgotten his sandwiches.
Jim Sque, a foreman welder at the Works, sometimes ate in the canteen, but on this day he went home to Kinson Road. He heard the plane and from the vantage point of his garden saw it fly over, even exchanging a wave with the pilot, again mistaking it for ‘one of ours’. He soon realised his mistake, however, as he saw the tell-tale German cross on the fuselage, followed by machine gun fire as he believed the pilot let loose a volley at the Alder Road Drill Hall. Jim thought he saw three bombs fall in the vicinity of the Works (he was right as one landed in between the railway tracks of the Branksome Triangle, but did not explode). Driving to the scene he found a crowd already gathered at the gates. Organising portable welding equipment, Jim helped to free those trapped by girders. It took until 7pm to finally remove the last of the bodies. Heartbreakingly amongst the dead was sixteen-year-old George Horne, who worked with Jim and lived opposite him. The youngster had told Jim that he was lunching in the canteen that day as his mum had gone out.
Marjorie Jones, in Fisher Avenue (now Herbert Avenue) also thought she saw three bombs: ‘It was very low, then a great column of smoke came up and we guessed the gasworks had been hit.’ Roland Clark also saw three bombs fall and always held the view that the Germans were after the railway viaducts, having tried and failed to bomb the cordite factory at Holton Heath not many days before. Jerry Hopkins also told me about the third bomb between the railway tracks. Jerry’s dad was the signalman at Branksome Triangle and confirmed this. Jerry, a schoolboy at the time, had to dive behind a ‘blast wall’ when the bombs came down, bringing a premature end to a conversation with his mum, who was hanging out the washing.
Ron Jenkinson, seven at the time, actually saw the bombs hit the gas works from an elevated position in Playfields Drive. Ron described to me the massive sheet of flame and debris that he witnessed. As well as the calamity that had befallen those in the gas works, there were others injured in the vicinity. Joan Morris told me of her husband, Leonard Morris, who was cycling past the works when the bombs exploded. He was thrown off his bike in Yarmouth Road, taken to a first aid post and patched up.
If you lived close by it was only too obvious what calamity had befallen the works and within moments anxious wives were thronging around the gates, desperate to find out what had happened to their loved ones. Dorothy Peters recalled taking blankets and hot water bottles to the scene and offering what assistance she could: ‘It was heartbreaking as many had lost arms and legs and were maimed for life.’
Julie Trent told me that her dad was cycling back from lunch and was one of the first people on the scene. That evening she recalled that he literally turned green, his body’s reaction to the awful things he had witnessed. Carol Vatcher’s grandfather Bill, an air raid warden, lived in a cottage near the viaducts, but attended the scene after lunch. When he returned home hours later his hair was stood on end.
Betty Smith, working at the doctor’s in The Avenue, Branksome, took a phone call to say there had been a ‘major incident’ and calling all doctors to the gasworks. She saw the plane fly over, heading out to sea, its work done.
John Ellcock, who had not long left school, told me that he had been home for lunch and went the way of the gas works when he returned to work in the afternoon. He recalled seeing bodies covered in blankets, with just their boots showing.
The saga did not end with the tragic day itself. Pat Talbot can still recall the terrible smell that lingered afterwards. Her uncle worked across the road from the gas works in a carpet-beating workshop and was out of work for a while, as the premises were out of commission.
The viaducts that the Luftwaffe was almost certainly aiming for are still in existence today. They are located at the northern end of the Branksome Triangle of railway lines and are large viaducts, enabling the railway lines to cross over the deep Bourne Valley below and were clearly picked out on German reconnaissance photos.
One viaduct services the mainline between Bournemouth and Poole, the other, now overgrown with weeds, is a backwater, as it used to take the line between Bournemouth Central and Bournemouth West, until the latter station was taken out of use in 1965. One very logical reason for taking out the viaducts was that the line serviced the Holton Heath Cordite Factory, from which ammunition supply trains regularly rumbled out.
Branksome Business Park now occupies the site of the previous Gas Board premises, the site having been cleared and remediated prior to construction of the Park. The site of the former canteen, on the Bourne Valley Road boundary of the Works, has now been swallowed up as part of the Park.
Tony King, was a sprightly 92 when we interviewed him, and he spoke lucidly about that day and about his eventful life thereafter. Tony was never able to join the Army, his injuries making him unfit for war service. Instead he did his bit by entertaining the troops as a tenor in a concert troupe.
He was repaired sufficiently well to become a more than capable footballer, playing one game for Portsmouth and being offered a trial by Brighton. Tony reflected that 27 March 1941, ‘completely changed my life’. He adds: ‘I could have gone into the Army and I could have got killed. It changed me as a person. I don’t think I was quite as selfish. I just had a feeling I’m lucky to be here and I’ve had a wonderful life.’
Patricia M Wilnecker’s book, Upper Parkstone’s History confirms the ages of all but one who died that March lunchtime. In all, six teenagers died that day. Leslie Batchelor, the youngest, left school to join the gas works only a fortnight before.
Every man who died was a father, husband or son. The awful toll of the raid serves to remind us that not every casualty of war serves in the front line.
* Sadly, Tony King died before we were able to publish his account. The other survivor from that fateful day was Cliff Selby, who died six weeks after we published the piece. Cliff’s daughter, Janet, explains what happened to him following the Bourne Valley bombing: ‘In 1941 my Dad was called up and joined the Royal Navy. At one point he was due to sail to Japan but the Americans dropped the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima. He served in the Royal Navy until 1945 when he was de-mobbed.’ ◗
Roll of Honour
|Charles Edmonds||Aged 63|
|Frederick Randall||Aged 63|
|Henry Stovey||Aged 63|
|William Webb||Aged 63|
|Herbert Young||Aged 60|
|Sidney Allen||Aged 57|
|Edward Keffen||Aged 57|
|Walter Bacon||Aged 52|
|Thomas Hustings||Aged 50|
|Austin Wilcox||Aged 50|
|Arthur Brewer||Aged 46|
|Ernest Heath||Aged 46|
|Andrew Collin||Aged 45|
|Leonard Bartlett||Aged 43|
|Arthur Dennett||Aged 43|
|Leonard Derryman||Aged 43|
|Reginald Sparkes||Aged 43|
|Archibald Cherrett||Aged 38|
|William Barnes||Aged 37|
|Charles Phair||Aged 36|
|Charles Badcock||Aged 35|
|Frederick Loader||Aged 35|
|Frederick Graham||Aged 33|
|Herbert Williams||Aged 26|
|Joseph Short||Aged 23|
|William Notley||Aged 20|
|Cyril Hatch||Aged 19|
|Edgar Wilcox||Aged 19|
|Norman Shirley||Aged 17|
|Frederick Horne||Aged 16|
|William Notting||Aged 16|
|Leslie Batchelor||Aged 14|
|HP House||Age Not Known|