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Hitler's Rain Of Terror Begins
Sixty years ago, on August 12 and September 2, a lone German plane flew high and seemingly harmlessly over Kingston. Did anyone wonder why it came in broad daylight, and left without incident?
Its presence was infinitely more terrifying than it seemed. For it was carrying out the Luftwaffe's systematic aerial photography of the London area in readiness for the 1940 Blitz campaign.
The first raids in August were merely a prelude. September 7 was the true beginning of the Blitz operation, in which 12,696 Londoners were killed, and 20,000 seriously injured, by some 36,000 bombs.
The Luftwaffe's aerial photography began in 1939. It aimed to pinpoint prime targets for bombing, and in the Kingston area we can be thankful they missed. Highlighted for destruction in the photos of August 12 are Kingston Sewage Works, Kingston Power Station and Kingston Gas Works, which were all in Lower Ham Road (since re-named Skerne Road); the Hawker aircraft factory in Canbury Park Road; Surbiton Sewage Works in Lower Marsh Lane and the Metropolitan Water Board works in Portsmouth Road. The reconnaissance of September 2 picked out Nash and Thompson's arms works in fields south of Long Ditton.
None of these priority targets was put out of action. But enemy attempts to do so brought much local death and destruction.
The previous year, on September 3, 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain took to the air at 11.15am to announce that war had been declared. Twelve minutes later, the first air-raid siren wailed out over Kingston, and ARP wardens were ushering families to the vast trench shelters dug on the Fairfield to accommodate 2,700 people. The siren sounded again a few hours later, but no bombs fell on either occasion.
It was nearly a year before war in all its horror reached the three boroughs of Malden and Coombe, Kingston and Surbiton.
When it did, it came with stunning suddenness. At 5pm on August 16, 1940, sirens wailed out over Malden. Seconds later, a flock of enemy raiders swooped across the town, dropping more than 150 bombs, and leaving a trail of carnage.
Of the 552 casualties suffered by Malden during the war, the highest proportion occurred in this first raid, when more than l,300 houses were bombed.
Kingston's first raid occurred at two minutes past midnight on Sunday, August 25, followed by Surbiton's initiation the following night.
Eight bombs were dropped in Kingston's first raid, starting with shops in Clarence Street and Eden Street, and ending with houses in Avenue Road and Orchard Road.
Miraculously, there were no serious casualties. The immediate challenge was to find accommodation for the 150 people evacuated from their homes; to organise rescue and salvage work in the stricken buildings; to shore up those structures in danger of collapse; to clear the tide of debris that littered roads and footpaths on every side and - a task of vital importance - to make a systematic search for unexploded bombs.
That all this was performed with swift efficiency was proof at last that Kingston's Air Raid Precautions (known as ARP) were not the gigantic waste of time and money so many imagined them to be.
The chief ARP control officer for Kingston was the town clerk, Alfred Forsdyke. For months he and his counterparts at Malden and Surbiton had been preparing for the hell that most of their townspeople thought would never happen.
In Kingston, for example, thousands of pounds were spent building public air raid shelters in Wood Street, the Garden of Remembrance, Castle Street, the Market Place and the Guildhall.
A gas chamber was opened at the Guildhall in January 1940 to give every citizen a chance to test their newly-issued respirators, and gas masks were worn in the magistrates' courts for five minute sessions.
The ARP was based at Kingston Guildhall, and from here the Royal borough was "bombed" in a series of mock raids to prepare everyone for the real thing.
Kingston's second raid came on September 9, when British and enemy aircraft fought each other in the skies over the Royal borough. Eye witnesses reported seeing nine British Hurricanes (a plane designed and made in Kingston) tackling 12 Nazi planes.
As the enemy made off, they jettisoned six high-calibre bombs over Kingston, plus countless incendiaries. Considerable damage was done to shops and houses in Cambridge Road and on Kingston Hill, but there were no casualties.
Kingston's first bomb deaths occurred at 8pm on September 25, when 16 high explosives rained down on the town centre, scoring a direct hit on Hodgson's Kingston Brewery in Brook Street.
One of the dead was a mother of seven, hurrying home along London Road after her weekly outing to the cinema. The other was a soldier sheltering in the Fairfield trenches.
Another serious raid of 1940 occurred on October 15, when five bombs fell, severely damaging Castle Street, the brand-new shopping thoroughfare completed only a few months previously. The Regal Cinema in Richmond Road was also hit.
Casualties were higher than they might have been because many people would not use their air raid shelters, and insisted on staying put in their houses.
Some had lucky escapes, including a Clifton Road resident. As the Comet reported: "The bomb left a gentleman in distress, for there he stood in the toilet, hanging on to the chain with his trousers round his feet- shouts of 'Hang on, Bill, don't let go, the Fire Brigade are coming!'"
When a bomb fell in Elm Road in December 1940, rescuers tunnelled dangerously through the debris to find survivors, and four people were awarded the British Empire Medal.
Surbiton's first raid on August 16 left a row of 14 houses damaged in Leatherhead Road, near the Fox and Hounds.
The bombers returned on September 9, causing considerable damage in Elmbridge Avenue, where a woman suffocated in the wreckage of her home. On the same night a German plane crashed into the Maori sports ground, killing the pilot and two crew members on impact.
On September 29, people were killed when Ravenscar Road and Largewood Avenue were hit. Then, on October 2, St Mark's Church was gutted by an oil bomb.
That same night, three people were killed at Chessington Zoo, when the public shelter received a direct hit.
Surbiton's public shelters soon became overcrowded because they were being used as dormitories, even though several thousand Anderson shelters had been made available.
The Surrey Comet reported that more than 150 people regularly slept in the shelter at Surbiton Lagoon, though it had only been built for 70. To cope with the demand, more brick shelters were put up at Cottage Grove, and in the grounds of Croylands on Upper Brighton Road.
On December 27, a high explosive bomb caused devastation and several deaths in Vjilliers Close, with a further fatality in Addison Avenue on New Year's Eve.
So ended 1940. But there was worse to come. During 1944 and 45, nearly 8,000 Kingston buildings were damaged or destroyed. By the end of the war, Kingston had suffered 67 dead and 336 injured; New Malden 90 dead and 462 injured and Surbiton 53 dead.