Fag break saved market worker when V2 struck

PUBLISHED: 14:26 05 March 2008 | UPDATED: 09:32 23 August 2010

DEVASTATION: Scene after rocket hit Smithfield Market in March, 1945.

DEVASTATION: Scene after rocket hit Smithfield Market in March, 1945.

In January I told the story of the German rocket scientist, Werner von Braun, who masterminded the V2 missile attacks on our towns and villages. . .

In January I told the story of the German rocket scientist, Werner von Braun, who masterminded the V2 missile attacks on our towns and villages, surrendered to the Americans when the "game was up" and went on to head the Apollo moon project in 1969.

This space-age genius, who brought untold death and destruction to hundreds of people, was a prize capture for the Americans. A number of people have written, including Doris Stevenson whose uncle Tom survived the rocket which hit Smithfield Market on the morning of Thursday, March 8, 1945. He was a butcher's apprentice at the market who had miraculously taken a mid-morning break, presumably for a fag. Another case of the "dreaded weed" saving a life. It was about 11am.

This, in fact, was the last rocket to cause loss of life in central London. It penetrated the floor and exploded in the underground railway beneath. The buildings collapsed into the crater and shops which had a frontage on Farringdon Road were levelled.

Many people dropped into the crater as the floor of Smithfield gave way and others, on the pavement outside the building, were buried by rubble which rained down on them several seconds later. The death toll made grim reading - 110 dead and many more seriously injured. On that same day on March 8 rockets also fell at St Mary Cray, Blackheath, Sidcup, Horton Kirby and Dunton Green.

Please write to me if you, like Doris's Uncle Tom, remember the Smithfield tragedy. I believe it is important that reminiscences, however shocking, should be recorded. Future generations should know of our experiences.

Peter Wiseman, a regular correspondent, says he knows many local people (no longer with us) who were not too happy with Werner von Braun's vengeance weapon, or the less deadly but highly effective flying bomb. "One of them was my mother, Betty Field (her maiden name), and her family who lived at number 1 Churchfields Road, Beckenham," he writes. "Their house was demolished by the V1 that landed in the doorway of the crowded café near Clock House Station.

"At the time, Betty was working for Dowsing's in Southend Road, making gun and camera muffs for the B17s and fitting the heating elements into the flying suits worn by the high-altitude B17 crews.

"On August 2, 1944, she and her colleagues were having lunch, sitting in the sunshine on the fire escape, when they first heard and then saw the V1 heading towards the centre of Beckenham before its engine cut out and it exploded in the doorway of the café killing the 44 diners. The full account of this tragedy appears in the excellent book, Beckenham: The Home Front 1939-45, by Cliff Watkins and Pat Manning.

"The second person was Phil Bates, who, with his wife Elsie, ran the grocer's shop at 3 Churchfields Road - one of 140 local shops and homes damaged by this flying bomb."

Peter says: "This was the second occasion on which Phil had had his livelihood taken away by the Germans. In the 1914-18 war he suffered a nasty 'Blighty' (injury) that eventually cut short a promising career as centre-half for Crystal Palace FC. Nevertheless, Phil played in two promotion-winning sides for the Palace after the war."


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