On this day, January 20th 1943, Focke-Wulf 190s and escorting Messerschmitt 109s bombed and strafed virtually at will. Four RAF balloon sites in Lewisham were destroyed, a gasholder at Sydenham was set alight, the President’s House at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich was damaged and there were three direct hits on Deptford west power station.
Worse, far worse, a 500 kg bomb fell on Sandhurst road school, Catford, blowing out the whole central part of the LCC school where many children were taking their midday dinner break.
When the dust and the smoke subsided, the scene in the dining room was appalling. Twenty-four pupils and two teachers were dead. A further five died on the staircase and nine on the second floor. The blast reached the staff room where three teachers died and another was killed in the science room. The incident prompted enormous publicity from national and local newspapers who were certain the bomb had been deliberately dropped at a time when many of the pupils would be together.
The Kentish Mercury described it as the fiendish onslaught of a murderous foe.
Altogether 38 children were killed. Among them were sisters, Brenda and Lorina Allford, aged five and seven, who died with their friends Anne Biddle and her sister Judith. Nine-year-old Ronald Barnard and his brother Dennis, 10, were both killed. A police sergeant, Norman Greenstreet who had an eight-year-old at the school discovered the body of his son after searching through the rubble. The six teachers who died were Mrs Ethel Betts, Mrs Virginia Carr, Miss Mary Jukes, Miss Gladys Knowelden, Miss Harriet Langdon and Mrs Connie Taylor.
Margaret Clarke, the headmistress said later that she was in her room on the top floor when she heard a distant siren. She went into the hail outside and the next thing she remembered was a tearing, rending sound and the hail, six yards from where she was standing, fell away. I joined some children who were going down the stairs and on reaching the ground floor started to pull the injured children clear. Before the arrival of the rescue workers, soldiers on leave and civilians who were passing by came in to help us dig, among the stifling fumes of the fire, in the debris. It was not until later that I noticed my own injuries and I was taken to Farnborough Hospital.
the only question the children were asking was ‘how can i help, miss?’ they took home the younger ones, tore up their clothing to bind the injuries and even helped the rescue work — a grim job for youngsters of 14 and 15.
Many of the children were buried in a communal grave in nearby Hither Green Cemetery and the service, conducted by the Bishop of Southwark, was attended by 7,000 mourners.
The question that everyone asked after the raid was: why was there no warning? Apparently there had been confusion among the observer corps plotters, and problems with some faulty equipment helped the raiders reach their target with complete surprise. The alert did not sound until it was too late.
At an inquiry at Lewisham Town Hall, it was clear that the Civil Defence were quickly on the scene and there were congratulations for the volunteers, the Heavy Rescue Squads, the mobile units, the REME soldiers stationed at St Dunstans and the Canadians at Bromley Wood. The meeting mildly criticised police for their inability to control parents but also agreed it would have been impossible to stop the frantic efforts of relatives in digging among debris to find their little ones.
Names of those who died:
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Sandhurst School Memorials
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