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4th Feb 1941 - Death, destruction, heroism and hope.

On the evening of Tuesday February the 4th 1941 a Luftwaffe bomber dropped a ‘large high explosive bomb’ onto Westcliff-on-Sea. The crater the bomb made was ‘approximately 70 feet wide by 30 feet deep’. It has been speculated that the target for this bomb was the nearby Telephone Exchange or the Electricity Works which was sited where St Helen’s School is now.

Unfortunately for the residents of Campbell Road and Summercourt Road the bomb fell short and exploded between the two junctions where the roads met.

(Map of Westcliff-on-Sea - Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland)

At 2030 Westcliff Police Station started getting calls saying that a huge explosion devastated the area and that because the majority of the houses had been occupied at the time many people were trapped in the wreckage of their homes.

Fires broke out in the bomb crater and surrounding buildings and fortunately the local Fire Brigade were housed in the yard of the Blue Boar Hotel at the junction of West Street and Victoria Avenue, so they arrived quickly and bought the fires under control before they could cause any more than ‘slight additional damage’.

When the Police, Fire and Rescue services arrived they found that from no 26 to 44 on the South side and 31 to 33 on the North side had been totally demolished and at least 9 more were extensively damaged.

(Photographs of Campbell Road and surrounding housing taken by Southend Police, Feb 1941. Reproduced courtesy of Southend Police Museum and the Essex Record Office.)

What followed was a 3-day operation to rescue the injured, recover the dead, repair the damage to water, gas and electricity services to Westcliff and make sure everyone was in the area was accounted for. From the initial Incident Post as St Paul’s Vicarage and later at Westcliff Police Station,24 Rescue Parties were sent out, and a Rest Centre was opened at Avenue Baptist Church Hall in Milton Road where local people made homeless were ‘accommodated’. Over 100 locally billeted troops were offered and sent to help with the search and rescue effort, all available local police were sent to the scene and the Borough Sanatorium was asked to send Doctors to treat the injured before they were sent to hospital – or the mortuary.

Soldiers and Civilians working together in the Search and Rescue effort in Campbell Road, Westcliff, Feb 1941. (Courtesy of Southend Police Museum and the E.R.O)

The Chief Constable, various dignitaries and intelligence officers from several regiments visited the scene the following day once the area was deemed safe enough and the logs of this mainly civilian operation cover 10 full pages.

According to the Police report 8 people were killed and 9 injured.

The heroism of those civilians and soldiers who volunteered in the Search and Rescue Operation was even mentioned by the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill and summaries in newspapers of the time:

“In his broadcast, on Sunday, the Prime Minister (Mr Winston Churchill) paid tribute to the civil defence services of the country and went on, “If I mention only one of them to-night, namely the Police have been in it everywhere all the time.”

A story bearing out this praise has been revealed at a Thames Estuary town. It is the story of a young police officer, who, after crawling through a narrow opening into the ruins of a house found a young woman pinned to the floor by debris.

Realizing that in pulling at the beams crossing her legs, he might precipitate the fall of further masses of bricks and rubble down into the little space where they were, he quietly told her of her position and asked if she were willing for him to do his best.

She told him to “carry on” and bit by bit, he began removing the debris. Twice small avalanches of rubble fell but the woman’s arms were free, and she was able to help to keep the space clear until eventually she could withdraw her feet.

The rescued woman, Mrs A. Warren, told one of our representatives this story while she was nursing her baby daughter, who was buried face downwards, close to her but was rescued with only a few scratches after a dog had made frantic attempts to dig at the heap of bricks.

“My father had gone out with a friend, PC Leathers, and mother and myself and baby and two London evacuees, Herbert Cook aged12 and his sister, Nita were in a room together with our dog, Peggy, another, a black spaniel and two birds.

When the bomb fell, the noise was awful and the whole house seemed to collapse like a pack of cards. We were all trapped, and it was terrible with the clouds of dust and darkness. Nita had gone under the table and appeared all right. I was trapped by my legs and baby, who had been playing near the perambulator. I could not see or hear.

Herbert shouted that he was all right, and though he could get out of a window. The glass of this, curiously enough, was intact. It meant him standing on the remains of the perambulator, and I shrieked at him to stop him, because I knew the baby was somewhere there.

Somehow, after smashing the window, he scrambled out and I could hear him calling out to Mr Salmon, a neighbour, evidently telling him we were trapped.

A little later I heard men’s voices and shouted to guide them. A small hole opened down into the remains of the room, and PC Leathers wriggled his way in. Nita was got out, and then we saw Peggy, the wire-haired terrier, scratching away at the debris near the perambulator, and, by a torch-light, I could see baby’s feet.

Peggy was nearly frantic, and her digging made several lots of stuff fall.

PC Leathers had to almost stand on me owing to the narrow space, and the suspense was awful, being so helpless and wondering how my baby was. You can’t think how I felt to be got out and have brought to me unhurt except for some scratches and bruises.

“The officer was wonderful, and all the time there was a great risk of both of us being buried completely. He refused to leave me, and we owe our lives to him. The two dogs and birds were also got out alive, as were the children and Mrs Warren and her baby, but Mrs Warren, senior, died.

Peggy was taken to the Animals Shelter for “overhaul” but was found quite all right. She is to be awarded the medallion of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

When Mr Warren and PC Leathers reached the road, the former thought all the household must have been killed, but his companion, who was off duty at the time refused to believe it, and worked pluckily and as it turned out, successfully.

Mr A Warren was given leave from his Army unit to go home, and was prepared for the shock, but his younger brother, whose ship had docked the previous night, arrived to find his home gone and his mother killed.”

Don’t bother looking for Campbell Road on modern maps as it was never rebuilt and after the was eventually became Milton Hall School, Balmoral House and the remains of Summercourt Road house the Summercourt Children’s Centre and what is currently part of Southend University.

Photographs of Campbell Road and surrounding housing taken by Southend Police, Feb 1941.Courtesy of Southend Police Museum and the Essex Record Office.

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