I became acquainted with Peter Godfrey in 2006 when I mistakenly claimed that film star Victor Maddern had attended Mayfield. It was pointed out to me by Peter, and several others, that Victor had attended Beal School. During our email conversations Peter mentioned having witnessed the German attempt to destroy the Plessey factory in Ilford and had subsequently researched the incident. At my request he wrote the following article for ‘The War Years’ section that existed on Mayfield Memories at that time.
– Tony Gocke
The attack on Ilford by German Focke-Wulf 190 aircraft March 12th 1943
It would be a fine day. But visibility early this morning was poor, with misty conditions in low lying Essex along the Thames corridor. In France, at St. Omer, Focke Wulf 190 fighter bombers were fuelled and armed with cannon shells. Their 250 and 500kg high explosive bombs were loaded and primed by the ground crews of Jabostaffeins under the command of Oberstleutant Hannes Trauloft. Stafflekapitan Paul Keller was in charge of planning the operation to destroy the Plessey factory in Ilford, where electronic equipment for the war effort was being made. At around 07.15 hours the ground crews closed the cockpit covers and the aircraft taxied away, rising to begin their mission.
The East coast of England was subjected to numerous hit and run attacks at this period of the war and I recall seeing, with considerable surprise, while passing through the Temple Mills railway yards in July 1943, lines of badly damaged locomotives and rolling stock awaiting repair. These were the result of the Luftwaffe hit and run tactics, which were not reported by our press. Flying with 20f Squadron of the Air Training Corps from Fairlop airfield, a few days before the event, we had been warned to keep a look out for German fighters. None were seen – fortunately.
Ray Easterbrook was on his way to work from his home in Laindon at 07.30 on the morning of March 12th. He heard the sound of approaching aircraft coming up river from the East. To his complete astonishment he saw planes, marked with the black cross of the enemy, skimming the grey waters of the Thames. Ray saw the faces of the pilots glancing left and right as they roared above the river heading towards London. In Chadwell Heath a young woman of about eighteen, Peggy Chipperfield, was settling herself into a tin bath in one of the old wooden cottages in Chadwell Heath. The writer of this account was about to get up from bed. Geoff Berry, aged fourteen, was delivering morning papers where the Eastern Avenue crossed Ley Street. The residents of the boroughs of Ilford and Barking were beginning another day in the long war of rationing, shortages, blackout and absentee men to the armed forces.
The Focke Wulf 190s, flying below radar, were not detected. The Balloon Barrage was not flying above London that morning. A sharp turn and the enemy came inland at Barking. There were probably sixteen in the attacking force. A further twenty-four were operating over Essex.
Alf Tyler, reminiscing in 1986, recalled being about to set out for work at the Beal School by cycle. He listened and heard the roar of low aircraft. In the next road to his, Malvern Drive, Alf saw the planes almost down to chimney pot height. A bomb exploded in Capel Gardens. A seventeen year old girl had just left home for work, but she’d forgotten a letter she needed to post. Reentering her home, she was killed by this bomb. Alf noted his surprise that the guns in Barking Park were silent. He saw no balloons and there had been no siren – that ululating air raid warning so familiar to everyone during those years.
A woman hanging out the morning washing in Francis Avenue died as another bomb exploded. There were casualties on a trolley bus along Ilford High Road. In Dawlish Drive a family was wiped out in their Morrison indoor shelter. Another family – nine of them, were killed in Eton Road when a bomb struck their house horizontally.
Another group of casualties caused by the general din of explosions and gunfire were the litter of rabbits belonging to schoolboy Graham Carver, near South Park. He caught a brief glimpse of a silhouetted wing of an enemy aircraft against the misty morning sun; and it was gone. The rabbits had died of shock.
I leapt out of bed to the sudden noise. The clapping of cannon fire, the explosions of bombs and the roar of aircraft engines. I rushed to the bedroom window of 38 Dellwood Gardens. I could see brown smoke rising from the centre of Ilford. I wanted to see the planes but they’d gone! The air raid warning sounded, too late, it was all over. The Plessey electrical works beside the main railway line was the target. But the bombs were released too low and too early. None reached the factory or the railway yards. The Cop-op on the High Street was on fire.
Another eye witness, Jack Dyer, remembers that Friday morning very well. Jack was an army cadet and had just finished breakfast and was strapping on his anklets – going to school in his army uniform. The unusual engine note, explosions – he and his family dived for cover under a table. He felt the pit of his stomach knotted. Later, with his father, he walked to inspect the damage just beyond the Woodlands crossroads. The Fire Watchers HQ had gone. Several other houses were beyond repair. Jack mused how everyone was so used to aerial attacks that the women just went off shopping as usual, and the milkman continued delivering his milk to the doorsteps. He saw a cat nonchently cross the road. Life went on. Near the Regal Cinema a row of shops had been hit and fires had started. In one a butcher saved his own and the butcher-boy’s life; escaping the flames by getting inside the freezer.
Geoff Berry sheltered in a shop doorway on the Eastern Avenue, near to Whitehead’s aero modelling shop, when he heard the approaching planes and sounds of machine guns and cannon bursts. Don Drew, in Benton Street near his old school – Beal, caught a glimpse of the enemy planes. Graham Carver, who lived further along Ley Street, had a good though brief view of a pair of the FW 190’s. Peggy Chipperfield’s morning bath was postponed! Jack Dyer’s sister Hilda was on a trolley bus in Ley Street, approaching Plessey’s, when the straffing along Ley Street took place. His other sister watched shells bursting on the bridge over the railway moments before she arrived there. Both girls continued to the factory where the day’s work went on uninterrupted. Both were worried in case their lipstick had become smudged! This was war. Things like that happened. No one was bothered if they were not directly affected.
It was all over. The attackers turned and headed away over Kent. They left behind thirty-one dead, forty-three injured and one hundred and seventeen homeless. Of the Focke Wulf 190s six were brought down by fighters from Biggin Hill. How many had taken part? British records believed sixteen planes were involved but this is an estimate from the number of bombs dropped on Ilford – seven tonnes.
A year later, in December 1943, the Luftwaffe’s Operation Steinbok began. It was named the ‘Pocket Blitz’ or ‘Baby Blitz’ by Londoners, and was followed by the V1 flying bombs in June of that year, and the V2 rockets from September. The German attacks only ceased five weeks before their capitulation. London’s penultimate rocket fell on Hughes Mansions in Vallence Road, Stepney – close to the railway line into Liverpool Street Station, killing 134 residents. I was aboard a train from Ilford, just passing the flats at the time. The explosion left a ringing in my ears and passengers fell onto the compartment floor. A narrow escape! The final V2 fell a little before five in the evening on the same day killing Mrs Ivy Millichamp in Orpington. Hers was the final fatality. It was over.