One night in November, 68 years ago…
The Nazi bombers came at night from the east, navigating their way along the Thames to their aiming points in South West London. We will probably never know what the Luftwaffe crews were actually aiming at but on Friday 29th November 1940, in a raid that lasted nearly 6½ hours, some 130 high explosive bombs and between 3,000 and 5,000 incendiary devices rained down on St Margarets, Twickenham, Richmond, Isleworth and Teddington, destroying 150 houses and damaging more than 6,000 others. It was the area’s biggest raid of the 2nd World War. A German government communique stated later that it was a ‘Reprisal Raid’ directed towards military targets.
There were many casualties. Mr and Mrs Sydney Clark and their dog were killed by the sheer concussion of a large bomb 5 feet high and 18 inches wide that crashed into their dining room. The bomb failed to explode. Mrs Dawson and her 2 children died under falling masonry. Tom Brown, an old soldier and his wife, were both blown up. They had known each other since childhood. One bomb hit an underground shelter causing the deaths of 8 wives and children of men all disabled in the 1st World War. Another bomb hit a pub and killed 16 customers… the list goes on and on.
Because of their own self-imposed censorship the local newspapers reported the raid in generalities. The ‘Thames Valley Times’ is typical. In its issue on 4th December 1940 it reported that “2 hospitals were damaged, a Baptist church was gutted, cinemas were hit and a municipal building fell under the rain of incendiary bombs”. That municipal building was Richmond Town Hall. The caretaker living on the premises first put out an incendiary in his own bedroom, then opened the door to find the entire roof of the building missing, the central staircase exposed to the sky and the Town Hall surrounded by flames 20-30 feet high. When they came to clear up the mess afterwards they found melted coins, silver cups and the Town Crier’s bell buried in the rubble.
There were many hundreds of fires. One fire station reported over 164 alone. The most spectacular was Beaumont Furniture Works in Beaumont Road, St Margarets. It was packed with soft furnishings and furniture and it went up like a firework. Mr Maugham, the manager, managed to rescue 3 horses and some domestic rabbits from the blazing stables. Then with the help of the fire services and local neighbours he was able to get the fire under control. When Mr. Maugham eventually got home he found his own bedroom on fire. One local woman found an incendiary blazing away merrily on top of her hallstand. She extinguished the fire by emptying an ancient aspidistra on top of it — the same plant that she had only agreed to keep after her husband pleaded for its life a few days earlier.
An incendiary fell into the Circle of a Richmond cinema. Their own fire team put it out so quickly that the film was hardly interrupted. The manager announced the danger was over, the audience cheered and settled back to enjoy the rest of the film. Then another incendiary fell into the Stalls. As the seats blazed and the cinema’s own coke store caught fire the audience was calmly led to safety.
One family took shelter from falling masonry under their kitchen table along with the family dog. When it was over the 6 year old daughter, still trapped in the rubble said “When I get out of this I will write that Hitler such a dirty letter!” A Public Library caught alight as well. The sign over the door, “Books make black-outs brighter,” proving only too true.
When it was all over and the outcome of the raid being considered the Richmond and Twickenham Times (7th December 1940) urged its readers to ignore exaggerated reports about the number of casualties… “accept our word for the fact that casualties in the London area are very light in view of the damage done.”1
The same ‘chin-up’ mood was echoed in the Richmond Herald (7th December 1940) “The bombed out towns come up smiling!”, it reported. “High explosive and incendiary bombs rained down with indiscriminating ferocity. The air was heavy with the odour of charred timber. Firemen’s hoses lay along the gutter and jet of water were being played upon smouldering debris – but the traffic was unimpeded and the business life in the district proceeded normally.”
None of this bothered Mr Rodgers, a 55 year old caretaker arrested in Richmond the day after the raid, drunk and incapable. He claimed that he was returning to his work at Lion House to check the boiler. In court the magistrate pointed out that it was not the wisest thing to be attending to a boiler in a drunken state. Mr Rodgers, now sober and contrite, said that he wasn’t actually intending to work on the boiler — he was only going to the boiler house to sleep!
1 November 1940 saw the borough sustain its highest casualties. 74 people were killed, the majority in a devastating attack which took place on the night of November 29.
— from Martyn Day