80th anniversary of worst wartime fire service disaster during the Blitz
- Credit: Paul Chiddicks
Oil engineer Paul Chiddicks has been drilling into his family’s past for the 80th anniversary of a devastating wartime air raid on east London, in which his great aunt was killed while on duty in the fire service.
Paul was not born until the 1960s, but grew up on family stories about his mum’s aunt Winifred Peters, who died in her control room in Bromley-by-Bow during the Blitz.
Winifred, a mother of three young children who were evacuated to the countryside well away from the East End during the war, was one of two women on duty at Old Palace Primary School in St Leonard’s Street while it was being used as a temporary auxiliary fire station.
“I began researching my family tree to find out more about my father who died when I was three,” Paul told the East London Advertiser. “I came across Winifred's story and haven’t stopped searching since.”
The air raid on April 20, 1941, was the worst-ever tragedy for the fire service - with 32 firefighters killed in a single incident.
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Winifred was in the control room with her friend Hilda Dupree when the building was hit by a bomb.
Ten years ago on the 70th anniversary, the Advertiser reported the charity Firemen Remembered erected a plaque on the Old Palace school building.
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London went through the biggest nightly bombing campaign by the Luftwaffe in the entire war for eight consecutive months, which began on the London Docks at Wapping on September 9, 1940, with no let-up till May 11 the following year, some 71 air raids in 37 weeks.
Old Palace school was a four-storey London County Council building being used as a fire station while the children had been evacuated to the countryside. It had been converted with dormitories, living space, garages, stores and offices.
The air raid on London that night, Hitler’s birthday, was intended to be the heaviest so far, with an estiamted 1,026 tons of high-explosives and 153,096 incendiaries dropped, targeting mainly east London and the docks, which caused 1,400 fires.
Fire crews came from all over London and the Home Counties. Four arrived at 1am from Beckenham and were directed to Old Palace school sub-station for further instruction.
They were mustering in the playground along with crews from Hackney and Homerton when it got a direct hit from a parachute mine at 1.53am.
The mine smashed through the roof and stairwell to the watch-room, where Winifred and Hilda were on duty. They were both killed instantly.
“My great aunt Winifred was 39 and married with three children,” Paul explained. “Hilda Dupree was 29 and would have been on leave that night had she not swapped duties with a friend who wanted to go to a dance.”
Most of the firemen mustering in the playground were caught in the blast and were already dead before the school collapsed on them. The task of digging out the injured and dead could only start in the morning, when the night-time air raid was over.
“The first bodies recovered were my great aunt and her friend in the watch-room,” Paul’s research found. “They were laid on stretchers on the pavement.
“Hilda Dupree’s teenage sister Joyce turned up later that morning to find her and was confronted by devastation, but remembered thinking that the bodies looked ‘at peace and smiling’.
"Hilda had been knitting a child’s vest that she took to the fire station to work on if things ever got quiet. Joyce was shown what was left of the blue vest.”
Some firemen were still alive by the morning and could be heard under the debris, but died by the time rescuers reached them. Recovery went on for almost a week, with a temporary mortuary set up in Devons Road.
There were 21 dead from Beckenham fire station alone, another 11 from Hackney and Homerton.
Paul's mother was born two weeks after his great aunt Winifred lost her life, and was named after her in remembrance.