Monday 18 May 2015

An eyewitness account

The aftermath of the V-1 strike on Charlton Station, June 1944 (Greenwich Heritage Centre)

Back in December 2012, this blog featured a story about my own locality of Charlton in southeast London and the impact of the war, particularly the Blitz and the V weapons on what was (and is) a typical suburb of our capital city.

Some articles seem to generate more a response from the readership than others, so I have been delighted to recently receive correspondence from two people related to a victim of the V-1 strike against Charlton Railway Station on Friday, June 23rd 1944.

The first reply came from Kate Shelton, now resident in the USA but whose great grandfather was William Oliver Brown, a member of the Home Guard who perished in this incident. William was a member of the Home Guard and lived close to the station in Wolfe Crescent. Kate was interested in discovering whether her great grandfather's name was recorded anywhere in the borough as there was no monument at the station.

Much more recently, I received a communication from Joan Longley, who is William's daughter and Kate's great aunt, who is still resident in southeast London, in the Upper Norwood area and who was keen to share her memories of the fateful day. 

Joan very kindly emailed me an extract from her family memoirs, which is reprinted below with permission:

"My father, William Oliver Brown, was killed on Charlton Station whilst on Home Guard duty. It was June 23rd 1944. he was 38 years old. We don't know for sure whether he was actually on duty at the station or was on his way to somewhere else. He worked at the BBC as a radio engineer. His name is on the war memorial there. Whether he was attached to his local Home Guard or attached to a group at the BBC I do not know but he was in uniform when he was killed so was given a military funeral, I remember it well. I was eight years old at the time of his death. On that day my mother had sent me with an older sister on an errand to buy some fish for my father's tea. 

The siren had been going on and off all day and we had spent a lot of time in the Anderson shelter but then there was a lull so my mother sent us off to Charlton Village to buy the fish. We hadn't gone far when the siren went again; we looked up in the sky and saw the doodlebug, we heard its drone and saw its flaming tail. Someone shouted to us - a window cleaner I think - to lie flat on the ground. My sister opened someone's front gate and we took shelter in their front garden. By now the doodlebug was silent and it was right above our heads. I could no longer hear its droning noise or see its flaming tail. 'Its going to drop on us', I say to my sister 'We are going to be killed.' Within seconds we heard and felt the loud explosion. It had fallen somewhere else nearby and we were still alive. We were ecstatic with joy and continued our journey to the Village where everyone was agog with speculation as to where the bomb had dropped. Some said it was the UGB (United Glass Bottle Company) where my big brother Billy worked. We thought Billy might have been killed. Then some said the station had been hit and we knew our Dad had gone to the station earlier so we wondered if he too might be dead. 

We bought the fish and anxiously made our way home. My Mother was very relieved to see us back safely but anxious to know where bomb had dropped.  Families were used to these situations and of course were always anxious if there was a raid whilst loved ones were not safe at home. News travelled fast in those anxious times but was not always correct. My mother tells us we must stay calm. Billy aged 16 gets home late; my Mother bursts into tears when he arrives. The station has been hit he says. My Mother tells him to go down to the station to find out about our Dad, he hasn't come home for his tea. The fish is left uncooked; the siren goes again and we all end up in the Anderson shelter cuddling each other for comfort. 

Everyone is thinking the worse. It is some hours before we know for sure that my father was one of the people killed by the station bomb - the actual doodlebug I had seen flying in the sky earlier that day. We are all frightened and confused. That day was the first time I had seen my mother cry, before that I believed that mothers never cried. I have never forgotten that day 71 years ago."

How an 8 year old must have felt at the events going on around her which culminated in the loss of her father can only be imagined and the above extract makes very poignant reading indeed.

Bomb damage on Charlton Station still unrepaired in 1961 (Greenwich Heritage Centre)

Some further research reveals that William was a member of the 5th County of London Battalion, based at St. Marylebone, close to the BBC where he was employed as an engineer, so he was presumably either on his way to commence his duties, or to perhaps buy a ticket for his later journey to go on duty, when the missile hit the station. Somewhat unusually, he is recorded twice on the excellent Commonwealth War Graves Commission website's casualty lists, firstly as a civilian casualty of the Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich and secondly as a Private in the Home Guard. William is buried at nearby Hither Green Cemetery, still in his native southeast London.

William Brown's grave at Hither Green Cemetery (author's photo)

Charlton Station itself remained a ruin for another twenty five years. A collection of temporary shacks built onto the former Coal Yard became a semi-permanent feature of the local landscape and it was not until 1969 that the station was finally rebuilt into the style we see today.

Many thanks are due to Kate and especially to Joan for being kind enough to share her memories of what must have been a traumatic day for her and her family.