Mother died of broken heart after raid claimed twins’ lives

PUBLISHED: 15:09 10 October 2008 | UPDATED: 10:10 23 August 2010

It appears that very few people who were alive in January 1943 and lived in south London have forgotten the tragedy of Sandhurst Road School, Catford, where 38 children and six teachers were killed by bombs in what was described by the Luftwaffe as the m

It appears that very few people who were alive in January 1943 and lived in south London have forgotten the tragedy of Sandhurst Road School, Catford, where 38 children and six teachers were killed by bombs in what was described by the Luftwaffe as "the most ambitious daylight raid attempted on London since 1940".

My story two weeks ago has been followed by many questions. Graham Smith, who says he was not alive at the time, wants to know how the fighter-bombers managed to avoid the balloon barrage and why there was no warning from the Observer Corps.

Apparently, the raiders - 26 Focke-Wulf FW190s, each carrying a 500kg bomb - broke off into two sections over Kent as a diversionary tactic. One headed for Maidstone while the main force headed for London, unhampered by the balloons which had been lowered to assist in the calibration of the gun-laying radars. The Luftwaffe must have known about this.

There was also confusion among Observer Corps plotters and problems with faulty equipment so the attackers reached their target with complete surprise. The air raid sirens did not sound the alert until it was too late.

Jack Treadgold writes: "I wondered if you were aware that the same raiders also dropped a bomb on Oakshade Road, on the edge of the Downham estate. I believe some houses were destroyed but, after hearing about Sandhurst School, we wondered whether the two nearby schools were the intended target. Both Downberry School and Church Down School are approx 50-100 yards away from where the bomb fell.

"At that time I was eight and attending Downberry Road School. It was lunchtime and we were outside the school gate when we heard aircraft overhead. We looked up, expecting to see our own aircraft, and then the sirens sounded so we all ran.

"I ran up Shroffold Road in the direction of my home. Halfway up the road I heard a loud explosion and gunfire and took cover in a nearby garden. After a short while I carried on up the road and an air-raid warden took me into his home. I can remember his son vividly describing seeing the bomb being dropped from the aircraft.

"On returning to school the following day the teacher (I believe her name was Miss O'Brien) told us that one of our classmates had been killed (I think his name was Gerald Day and he lived in the Whitefoot Land/Waters Road area) and there were some other children also killed. The teacher was in tears when she told us.

"I don't know the cause of death, whether it was a machine gun or bomb blast as we were told they had been machine-gunning the streets."

The strafing of people in the street also caused many casualties. Machine-gunning was reported in Tyson Road, Sydenham, and St Norbetts Road, Brockley, with 12 injured in Glenfarg Road, Catford, and five more in Penge.

Brian Robinson writes: "I was touched by your article concerning the Sandhurst Road School bombing. Our family was very much involved in this and lost Judith and Anne Biddle (five-year-old twins) in the bombing. They were my cousins. Another cousin of mine had a cold that day and did not go to school, otherwise the total could have been three.

"What heartache! Not to mention the pilot of the plane who did the bombing. I have been to the school and was very well received. The school has completed a project on this and traced the pilot and his records. 'Father forgive them for they know not what they do' seems a very applicable comment!"

Maureen Watkins writes from Bristol: "My cousin, Brian Robinson, kindly sent me a copy of your article about Sandhurst Road School and I am the girl who missed being killed thanks to a cold. However, I can still vividly see in my mind's eye the plane, with swastika on the side, flying low over where we lived in Killearn Road. I was six.

"My mother went to the school to look for her nieces in the rubble. I don't think that she ever recovered from that and who could blame her. My name then was Maureen New and the twins were Anne and Judith Biddle. Their mother, Edith, died in December 1943 and my mother said that it was 'of a broken heart'. There were no other children left. Edith was the youngest of the family so it affected her two sisters and brother greatly. It was all very sad and this has brought it very much to the fore in my mind again."

Jack Ogan writes: "I read your article with interest and sadness. I was 11 at the time and on my way to the Lewisham Hippodrome to see the play. It was not a pantomime or A Midsummer's Night's Dream. It was actually Where the Rainbow Ends.

"I was in my last few weeks at Lancelot Road School and was walking towards the tram stop in Downham Way when I heard the explosion and the plane flew very low over the houses and I could actually see the pilot quite clearly. My recollection is that he was machine-gunning the Catholic School at Durham Hill opposite the Downham Tavern; the fence was demolished.

"A little girl of nearly five, who was with her father, also saw the plane flying low from Brownhill Road. Years later that little girl became my wife, Rosemary.

"The big patriotic finish of Where the Rainbow Ends features a St George-type figure in full armour. When I was in my early twenties and mad on magic, I got a job with a trick, joke, magic store called Ellisdons in Holborn. Working with me was a chap a few years older than myself, now 84, called Larry Barnes.

"He showed me his scrapbook and there was a picture of him resplendent in full armour. He was the very actor I saw on that fateful day.

"Incidentally, one of the teachers, Mrs Betts, who died that day was the wife of my headmaster at Lancelot Road."

Den Turner, of Bexleyheath, writes: "I remember the day vividly as I was aged about 10. I was returning to school (Manor Lane) after lunch and saw a German aircraft flying very, very low over my head.

"We normally heard the siren at Bromley before we heard our local one, but none sounded that day."

Finally, Gladys Mills recalls: "I attended the funeral service at Hither Green cemetery along with some 7,000 other mourners. The Bishop of Southwark conducted the service. The flower-laden hearses seemed to stretch for miles.

"The graves of the little ones had photographs on them and for many years people flocked to the cemetery to stand there in silence and try to take it all in."

Letters and emails are still coming in about the Sandhurst Road bombing. More next week.

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