Death and destruction but Lowestoft just keeps on fighting
AN event is being held at the Marina Theatre in Lowestoft today (Friday, January 13) to mark the 70th anniversary of the so-called Waller's raid – the most devastating suffered by the town in the second world war. Buildings were flattened, 70 lives lost and the lives of many other people changed forever. Local historian BOB COLLIS takes up the story...
IN the final weeks of 1941, the war news reaching the people of Lowestoft was far from good. In the Far East, Japanese forces were sweeping all before them as they invaded Malaya, Thailand and the Philippines. Only three days after the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor, the British capital ships Prince of Wales and Repulse were sunk by Japanese aircraft. Then, on Christmas Day 1941, the British Crown Colony with its garrison of 12,000 men at Hong Kong surrendered. On the Eastern Front, the battle for the beleaguered Russian city of Stalingrad was reaching a climax. Only in the Atlantic, where organised Allied escort forces were finally starting to beat down the U-Boat menace and dramatically reduce merchant shipping losses, was there any cause for optimism.
Against this background, Lowestoft people went about their business as normal as – or as near as was possible to normal under wartime conditions. By January 1942, the town was still a bustling mass of military personnel, principally from the Naval training depot of HMS Europa at Sparrow's Nest. And yet there were many more uniforms now. Those in reserved occupations or either too old or too young to join the armed forces also served in a multitude of part-time roles which made it seem like the whole town was on a war footing; the Home Guard, the Royal Observer Corps, the ARP wardens and Civil Defence staff, First Aid and Rescue Parties, the AFS (later NFS), and many women became involved with the WVS (Women's Volunteer Service).
The Americans had yet to arrive in England in numbers, but 1942 would turn out to be a turning point in the course of the war. It would also see its most disastrous day for Britain's most easterly town.
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Even now, those people who lived through the second world war and recall the events of Tuesday, January 13, 1942, known as simply the Waller's raid, speak of it in hushed tones. 'It was dreadful' is the most common phrase. The bare facts are that from a cold, snow-laden sky, on that fateful afternoon 70 years ago, a single German bomber swooped across the town to drop four 500 kg HE (high explosive) bombs on the main shopping area in London Road North, demolishing a restaurant and several shops and leaving a death-toll never exceeded in a single wartime incident in East Anglia.
The raid that day came at a time when few could have expected it. The drain in aircraft from the Luftwaffe, forced upon it by fighting on several fronts, meant fewer than 15 aircraft from its one dedicated bomber unit in the west, KG.2, were available for attacks on Britain at the start of 1942. German aircraft had attacked a convoy in the North Sea that afternoon, and the RAF radar network including the Chain Home Low (CHL) site at Hopton plotted 11 hostile aircraft offshore, their presence warranting an 'Alert' to be sounded between 2.17 and 2.33pm.
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There had been intermittent air raid warnings on five previous occasions already that month, but nothing had occurred by way of enemy action since the raid on November 18, 1941, and many chose to ignore the warnings, preferring the warmth of their homes to the chill, dank conditions of the garden Anderson shelters.
And so it was in these war-induced conditions of apathy that a second 'Alert' from 'Wailing Willie,' as the sirens became known, sounded at 4.21pm. To the British defences, the intruder which caused the warning was plotted as simply 'Raid 643'. However, the track on the plotting table suddenly materialised into deadly reality when at 4.27pm, a Dornier 217 appeared from the south, flying low and fast through a snowstorm and within a few seconds had passed into infamy. Two 40mm Bofors AA gun crews were alert enough to engage the raider, but in the poor visibility they were unable to see the results of the eight rounds fired.
It was also reported that the aircraft machine-gunned the town before it sped off back into the safety of the 10/10ths cloud-cover. As the German crew set course for Holland they can have had no idea of the devastation they had wrought in the heart of the town. Waller's restaurant had been filled with people at tea; despite the cold and bad weather there had also been shoppers about and those who had chosen to ignore the alert found themselves caught up in the tragedy. Rescuers found nearly a whole row of shops and other premises had been blasted into huge piles of snow-covered rubble by the four heavy bombs, falling in a tight cluster due to the low altitude of release. As one witness, Donald Hogg, put it: 'One minute a row of shops – the next a heap of bricks, wood and twisted metal'. In addition to Waller's restaurant and shop, the premises of Alderton's, Morling's music shop, Bonsall's jewellers, Fifty Shilling Taylors, Boots chemists, Hepworths, Freeman, Hardy and Willis, Coopers and Mr Davis' dental surgery were all destroyed. Blast and shrapnel from the bombs also caused severe damage to some of the buildings opposite, including the frontage of Marks and Spencer's and the fa�ade of the Odeon cinema.
Despite the enormity of the task facing them, the rescue services immediately set to work digging for survivors in the mountains of brick rubble. Incredibly, 12 people were extricated from the wreckage alive, one after being trapped in a cellar for 48 hours. Sadly, it very quickly became apparent that the death-toll would be heavy, and the Odeon became a temporary casualty centre and mortuary. The police later reported: 'The rescue services had a very hard task, working day and night for four days, at night-time by floodlighting which had to be extinguished at intervals on the approach of raiders.' The Lowestoft Rescue Service was reinforced by parties from the county council depots at Eye, Ipswich, Pakefield, Saxmundham and Woodbridge. The magnitude of the task called for a complete clearance of the site, which was carried out by forming a one-way traffic route for lorries to remove the debris to an adjacent dump. Great assistance was given by Naval and military personnel. Sixty-five bodies were recovered….'
The bravery and fortitude shown at the scene by both servicemen and civilians was later acknowledged with the award of a George Medal to a private from the Border Regiment billeted in the town, and three Lowestoft men, a police inspector and two members of a rescue party, each received a BEM for their bravery in extricating trapped casualties from the rubble under very difficult and dangerous conditions.
There were simply too many stories of tragedy and near-misses to record here. There was the sad story of the woman rooftop spotter, whose task was to sound the 'crash' warning, and who became the only fatal casualty at the store she was mounting vigil over, the girl shop assistant who was delayed from visiting Waller's by a woman customer with several ration books, and the 19-year-old waitress, Mary Cross from Flixton, who was due to be married the following weekend but instead became a victim of the worst raid in Lowestoft's wartime history.
The reaction from the locals, having already experienced 18 months of sporadic bombing from the Luftwaffe, was typically stoic. In their fortnightly situation report, the police recorded: 'Although the casualties at Lowestoft after the raid of 13th January (1942) were the heaviest yet encountered, there was no evidence of undue panic.' Recent raids on Lowestoft do not appear to have increased evacuation to any extent.'
The following month, Lowestoft's wartime mayor, Selwyn Humphrey, himself a local ARP sub controller, reported to a town council meeting, the contents of two letters from opposite ends of the social scale which showed the united spirit which prevailed at the time, and the indomitable spirit of mutual support that existed in times of despair. One was from HM The Queen, notifying despatch of a quantity of blankets and tea 'for the distressed'. The other came from a nine-year-old boy who enclosed stamps to the value of two shillings and five pence (about 12p) 'For the bombed-out people of Lowestoft'.
Much has been written about the events of January 13 ,1942, and as we mark the 70th anniversary of one of the darkest days in the history of our town, it is only right that we not only continue to chronicle such events, but more importantly, remember the people who died and also those who suffered, both physically and psychologically, scarred by the terrible scenes they witnessed in the snow that day, a date which will be forever remembered as The Waller's raid.
Copies of the The Air War Over Lowestoft 1939-19 by Bob Collis and Simon Baker will be on sale at the Marina foyer today. Copies will also be available of Waller's Raid – 60th Anniversary Publication, published in 2002 by Robert Jarvis and published by Lowestoft Heritage Workshop Centre in aid of the Lowestoft War Memorial Museum.