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15 October 2014
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The Bombing of My School.

by Bryan Boniface

Contributed by 
Bryan Boniface
People in story: 
Mrs Lydia Coxhead nee Blackmore.
Location of story: 
Catford, SE London.
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A3692450
Contributed on: 
20 February 2005

This anecdote was written by Mrs Lydia Coxhead, (nee Blackmore) and refers to the tragic day in January 1943, when the school she attended in Catford, was bombed by a German raider.
Mrs Coxhead currently lives in Crawley, West Sussex.
Should any one reading this wish to contact Mrs Coxhead, please do so through me at boxer.bryan@tesco.net
“Auld Lang Syne” is a song often sung at the beginning of a new year — January — as it was then, in 1943. I was playing it on the piano in the recreation room of the part of Himley Hall, Dudley, Worcester, which had been generously loaned to the British Red Cross as a convalescent home by the Earl of Dudley. Having learned the song just a few months previously in time for Christmas and as the new year was just begun, it seemed a fitting song for myself and those who were in the room. But suddenly, one girl walked quietly out of the room, tears running down her cheeks, and another told me — “Please don’t play that any more, her little brother who was killed used to sing that song……..”
Now I rarely fail to hear or join in the singing of that song without I remember those words and that little boy, who was five years old and who had not long started school.
Remember, remember — yes, I remember how it happened. That day, January 20th, 1943, though now far away, will never be forgotten. To me, as child of twelve, it was the most terrible day of my life. Yet I think I learned a lot on that day about how brave and self-sacrificing people can be.
The bell at Sandhurst Road School, Catford, South East London, had just gone for home time. It was the dinner break, and as it was a cold wintry day, I had taken sandwiches which I was eagerly ‘tucking into’ around the classroom fire in the company of about half a dozen classmates. Suddenly, one of the girls said “Ssh! — isn’t that the siren?” We didn’t take any notice at first, as we thought she was joking, then there was silence. It was the siren after all — but a distant one. Our first thought was to go to the shelter, as we had been instructed to do. We went out of the room quite calmly, but not too slowly as we were told we were not to linger about after the siren had gone. I remembered that I had left my sandwiches in the classroom, so I told the others I would catch them up whilst I went back for them. I soon caught them up on their way down to the shelter, munching away at my sandwiches.
The shelter was a bricked up classroom on the second floor of the building. We soon settled ourselves, thinking more of our tummies than any danger which might be at hand! Then - - the whirr and screech of a diving aeroplane right above us. My friend, Edna, and myself clung together, our hearts thumping very rapidly. “It’s alright,” we tried to console ourselves. “It’s only one of our fighters.” Then two girls rushed into the shelter — “The plane,” they said, “it’s got black crosses on it!” We all looked at each other, the silence being shattered by a tremendous thud which shook everything and everyone in that shelter.
There was a split second’s silence — the moment between life and death. It was all over. Our school, which I loved, and where I had attended since I was four years old, had been laid to ruin by one man, in one plane, by one evil bomb, during an evil World War.
One man, whose leader afterwards broadcast to the German people of his remarkable day’s achievements. With pride in his voice, he said — “It was a most interesting raid — you might call it a special treat….” One Nazi — did he have children at home, who loved their school and their teachers and chums?
Now, many years later, if he is still alive, perhaps he is enjoying the comfort of a home and family, as I am, as it should be. There is so much that is good in life, in peace. He perhaps knew no better. Perhaps Nazism made him that way Perhaps he was to be pitied.
But those children who died knew no better — no better than to enjoy their fun in the playground, their lessons, the friendship of their schoolmates. Everything was natural to them except the awful news that came over the wireless and the things their Mums and Dads talked about — the houses down the road which were no more. The sweets which were rationed. The being wakened up in the middle of the night — “Come on love, wrap yourself up, we’ve all got to go down the shelter, the siren’s gone. War is not a child’s game, not in reality.

And so to us in that shelter, it somehow was not real. We were transformed from neatly dressed school girls into ghastly frightening creatures, covered all over in dust which was choking us too and some of us bleeding from cuts, one girl was particularly very badly cut. Yet somehow, there was no panic — just bewilderment. Choking, bleeding and with tears streaming down our faces, we made our way out of the shelter, over girders, plaster, bricks, wood, glass. Was this our school?
Then, through the debris we gasped as only a matter of a few yards away from where we had been in that classroom shelter, there was a huge smouldering gap, like a severed limb, where the bomb had dropped. Where below us, about ten minutes previously those that had the school dinners were assembled. Right on the target — oh God! — those cries and screams. There below us were the bodies of those children, some dead, some dying, some in terrible pain.
Stunned by the sight, we made our way down the remains of the steps to the ground floor. I shall never forget the bloody sights which were all around. One of the teachers was throw
n back onto the stairs and holding her eye, her hand covered in blood from it. I tripped over a board and fell on some glass which cut my knees and hands, but I felt no pain. Then another teacher joined us downstairs, I remember how wonderfully calm and concerned she was. She was badly cut, but soothing us with comforting words. Then I cried. Sobbed. I realised what had happened. The teacher, who herself was now crying and bleeding, wiped my eyes with her blood stained handkerchief. Then I was calm again. We started digging at the debris. I heard a soft whimper. Amidst the rubble in a corner was a friend, June, in a sitting position, one of her eyes hanging on her cheek. “June, June!” I screamed, but all she did was whimper. Then I saw a little arm and hand. Heard the screams and cries. By now, one of my classmates who was with me in the shelter, was sobbing hysterically. “We must get out.” I thought, “I must take her home, I must go home to Mummy, where’s Betty, oh Betty, where are you?” (Betty Barley was my brother’s sweetheart at the same school, she was the school captain, a lovely sweet girl of 15½).
Somehow we found our way out into the playground. There, we heard that before the bomb had been dropped, the pilot machine gunned some children were in it. I did not hear if they were killed. Now my thoughts were on getting home and telling Joe to find Betty. I do not know what my Mother felt when she saw me coming down the road, my dress spattered with blood and dust, which was also in my hair. She had only just heard that the school had been hit and was on her way. I remember she said “Oh my baby.” and fainted. Then I was at home, in my favourite chair, alive, but where was Betty, June, June? Those bodies, those screams!
By the evening, it seemed that every available man in the locality was there, digging, some with their bare hands, as was my brother, frantically searching for loved ones, hearts and hands torn. Boys in the services home on leave, digging, searching, all through the night. The Red Cross, the women in the church hall just across the road making tea, tending those brought into the hut, even the vicar in his shirt sleeves had been there since the search had begun. All with one motive, even if it meant constant danger from falling rubble — to get those little mites out.
The next morning, my father and brothers, pale and worn had many heart rendering tales to tell. My brother Joe came home only for a brief spell — he had to find Betty. She was found, as were many others — dead. She died whilst taking some smaller children down to one of the shelters. The staircase was demolished. The head mistress of the junior section of the school, our headmistress, was killed. Teachers were killed; one was never found.
A day or so afterwards I went back. I know my mother did not want me to, but I had to! I was joined by a couple of other girls, we hardly spoke, we were content to stand staring, thinking, watching the rescue work going on. Wondering why it had happened. What had we and our school done to deserve the death and destruction that was before us? Not long after we had been standing there, a kindly lady reporter came up to us and asked me to tell her all about it.
There were many newspaper stories about that fateful day, many of us had our pictures in the papers. I think a lot of other countries heard about it too. We had books and sweets and other gifts from commonwealth countries. We had three lovely weeks convalescence on that beautiful estate in Dudley, where Lord and Lady Dudley themselves, came several times to see us. We all talked about Lady Dudley. She was very beautiful and spoke so sweetly to us. We would meet her when she and her daughter were out riding. The fact that a “Lady” and a beautiful one at that, spoke to us, made a big impression on us all.
We went to tea in Birmingham Town Hall where we met the Mayor and Mayoress, and on to a pantomime, where we were treated as “guests of honour”, - yes, it did a lot to make us forget a while.
The sisters, nurses and staff at Himley Hall were all so helpful and cheerful. We enjoyed the lovely walks across the hills, picking bunches of wild daffodil. Good clean fresh air, away from war, being children once again, enjoying life as children should. Forgetting during the day, enjoying our convalescence from the recent shock, enjoying the fuss and attention, and above all, enjoying our meals at Himley Hall — those country walks certainly made us hungry!
We were alive to enjoy all this, but what of those who were dead, our friends, brothers, sisters? What of those in hospital, suffering, some of their little bodies badly maimed? During the night in our dormitory, we could hear someone crying, as I myself did. Then it would come back, the realisation of it all, and that we would not see those that we knew, again. The little boy, not long at school, who loved to sing “Auld Lang Syne”………..!
In one of my newspaper cuttings, now yellowing with age, there is a short poem which was written for the Washington Star soon after the episode. I should like to quote the last few lines:-
That God shall help men set aright
The tragic world!…..revealing light
Streams from a school at Zion’s portal.
Shining, tear-jewelled and immortal.

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