This is the account of the Bombing of the Old Palace School in St. Leonard’s Street, Bow during WW2 and the sad loss of 32 Firemen and 2 Fire Women who were tragically killed during this raid. This is still today, the largest loss of Fire Brigade personnel, at one incident, in the History of the service.
Tragically for me, one of those that lost their life that night, was my Great Aunt, Winifred Alexandra Peters (nee Wootton).
Prior to this bombing raid on the early hours of 20th April 1941, London was in the middle of its biggest bombing campaign of the entire war, from the German Luftwaffe, known as the Blitz. For eight months, from 7th September 1940 to May 11th 1941 London suffered almost continual nightly bombing, over a period of almost 37 weeks, the British capital was attacked 71 times.
The Old Palace School in Poplar in 1941 was an LCC Board School consisting of four stories, much like many of a similar design that remain today. During the Second World War, after the evacuation of London’s children, on the day that the Fire Service was mobilised, it became a sub-fire station, 24U under 24 Brunswick Road. In addition to providing dormitories and living space for the AFS, it was used to accommodate garages, stores, offices and the headquarters of local rescue squads. Being at the centre of much of the industry and dockland in the East End of London, the men who were based there would have been out every night, dealing with massive incendiary fires caused by enemy raids. The night of April 19th/20th was a Saturday and Hitler’s birthday. In celebration, Reichsmarschall Goering had launched an attack on London intended to be the heaviest so far. One thousand and twenty-six tons of high-explosives and a hundred and fifty-three thousand and ninety-six incendiaries are estimated to have been dropped on the capital that night. The sky was overcast and low cloud and drizzling rain made targets difficult to identify so that heavy bombing was scattered over a wide area. One thousand four-hundred fires were started.
By midnight the situation was bad enough in the area around Poplar and further east in West Ham and Walthamstow, for calls for assistance to be sent south of the river. Four crews from Beckenham were standing-by at Woodside Fire Station, just outside Croydon. They were ordered to Station 24 Brunswick Road. Stopping briefly at West Norwood Fire Station on the way, they arrived at Brunswick Road, just after 1am and were given tea and biscuits before being directed to the Old Palace School to wait for further instruction. There, along with crews from Hackney and Homerton, the men from Beckenham were mustering in the playground, when at 1.53 am the school received a direct hit from a parachute-mine. The bomb penetrated the roof of the school building and fell down the stair-well, at the bottom of which, was the watch-room, where two auxiliary firewoman, Winifred Peters and Hilda Dupree, were on duty. They were killed instantly. My Great Aunt, Winifred Peters was thirty-nine years old and married with three children, who had been evacuated at the time to Oxfordshire. Hilda Dupree was twenty-one years old and, as so often happened, would have been on leave that night had she not swapped duties with a friend who wanted to go to a dance.
Parachute-mines were originally developed from mines used at sea and later adapted for urban bombing. When released by the Luftwaffe over targets on land they drifted down to ground level detonating either by contact or detonation. Because they exploded above ground the blast from parachute-mines caused particularly extensive damage, sometimes demolishing whole streets of houses and breaking windows as far as a mile away. The effect of the blast was also responsible for the deaths of many caught in its after effect, which sucked the air from the lungs causing suffocation. Most of the men waiting in the playground were caught in the blast from the bomb and already dead when, almost simultaneously, they were buried by the part of the school closest to where they were standing, that collapsed on top of them, and fire broke out in what was left of the building.
(Searching for the bodies begins)
By the morning the fire was out and the business of digging for the injured and dead had begun. First to be recovered were the women from the watch-room, including my Great Aunt, and their bodies were laid on stretchers on the pavement. David Carson, who served under Bow, being off duty and having heard rumour of the incident, went along as it was getting light, to see if he could help and there he saw them covered by blankets. Later that morning Hilda Dupree’s sister, Joyce, hoping to avoid the distress for her parents, was sent by her family to find out what she could about Hilda. Little more than a girl herself, in her mid teens, she was confronted by what she described as complete devastation and confusion. Some of the men had also been recovered by the time she arrived and they were laid in a line in a space that had been cleared in the playground, ready to be identified. She remembered thinking that they looked “at peace”. She also noted that they ‘were smiling” which further emphasises the fact that most of them had died from the effects of blast, a grimace not unlike a smile, being an attempt to draw in breath. Hilda had been knitting a little blue child’s vest that she took to the station with her to work on when things were quiet. When Joyce finally found someone to ask about her sister, she was shown what was left of the blue vest and she was able to confirm that one of the women was almost certainly been Hilda.
Later, still on the morning of the 20th, officers and men from Penge and Beckenham Fire Brigades arrived and began to identify the bodies of the Beckenham men, as the rubble was cleared. It was a slow and difficult process. Some of the Beckenham firemen described how they were told that some had still been alive, in the early hours of the morning and could be heard under the debris, but had died by the time that rescuers were able to reach them. A number of men were found that day. The dispatch rider, Ernest Henley, was discovered on the 21st and Leonard Roots on the 22nd. Digging carried on with rescuers working in shifts, among them members of the AFS and regular fire service with officers at their side throughout. Until a body was found and identified, a casualty could not be pronounced dead and so while families waited, recovery went on for almost a week. The last body, that of Patrick Campbell, was found on the 26th and taken with all the others to a temporary mortuary in Devons Road. From there the Beckenham men were finally returned home for burial. There were twenty-one of them, the rest being from Hackney and Homerton. Of thirty-two men and two women who died there, all but one, Station Officer Sinstadt, were auxiliaries.
(The Funeral of the Beckenhan Fireman)
Thirty-two firemen and two firewomen died at The Old Palace School, the largest number of Fire Brigade lives lost in a single incident, in peacetime or war.
Those that sadly lost their lives are as follows:
AFS Firewoman (Telephonist) Hilda Dupree – AFS London Died 20th April 1941 aged 21, of Warwick Road, Walthamstow, Essex.
Firewoman Winifred Alexandra Peters – London Fire Brigade Died 20th April 1941 aged 39, of Canton Street
AFS Fireman Percy Charles Aitchison – AFS Beckenham Died 20th April 1941 aged 27, of Copse Avenue, West Wickham, Kent.
AFS Fireman Ronald Mark Bailey – AFS Beckenham Died 20th April 1941 aged 25, of Links Road, Tooting.
AFS Fireman Alan Charles Barber – AFS Beckenham Died 20th April 1941 aged 26, of Fairford Close, Shirley, Croydon, Surrey.
AFS Fireman Earnest Reginald Beadle – AFS Beckenham Died 20th April 1941 aged 32, of Birkbeck Road, Beckenham.
AFS Fireman Kenneth John Bowles – AFS Beckenham Died 20th April 1941 aged 30, of Beckenham Road, West Wickham, Kent.
AFS Fireman John Coleman Burrell – AFS London Died 20th April 1941 aged 35, of North Street, Leigh-on-Sea, Essex.
AFS Fireman Patrick Joseph Campbell – AFS London Died 20th April 1941 aged 24, of Bannister House, Homerton
AFS Fireman Harry John Carden – AFS Beckenham Died 20th April 1941 aged 29, of Mounthurst Road, Hayes, Bromley, Kent.
AFS Fireman Robert John Deans – AFS Beckenham Died 20th April 1941 aged 28, of The Grove, West Wickham, Kent.
AFS Fireman Frank James Endean – AFS Beckenham Died 20th April 1941 aged 36, of Aviemore Way, Beckenham, Kent.
AFS Fireman Cecil Farley – AFS Beckenham Died 20th April 1941 aged 43, of Linden Leas, West Wickham, Kent.
AFS Fireman George John Joseph Hall – AFS Beckenham Died 20th April 1941 aged 43, of Warwick Road, Anerley, Kent.
AFS Messenger Bertie James Frederick Harris – AFS London Died 20th April 1941 aged 17, of Brabazon Street,
AFS Fireman Leslie Thomas Healey– AFS Beckenham Died 20th April 1941 aged 32, of Greenview Avenue, Shirley, Surrey.
AFS Despatch Rider Ernest Herbert Henly _ AFS London Died 20th April 1941 aged 19, of Grange Cottage, Silver Street, Kinton Langley, Chippenham, Wiltshire.
AFS Fireman Sydney Bartholomew Jones – AFS London Died 20th April 1941 aged 31, of Harrogate Road, Hackney.
AFS Fireman Albert Victor Kite – AFS Beckenham Died 20th April 1941 aged 36, of Village Way, Beckenham, Kent.
AFS Fireman John Francis Mead– AFS Died 20th April 1941 aged 29, of Christie Road, Hackney.
AFS Fireman Vernon Joseph Middleditch – AFS Died 20th April 1941 aged 31, of Hunders Lane, Darlington, Co. Durham.
AFS Fireman Alfred Edward Minter – AFS Beckenham Died 20th April 1941 aged 46, of Aylesford Avenue, Beckenham, Kent.
AFS Fireman Norman Richard Charles Mountjoy – AFS Beckenham Died 20th April 1941 aged 30, of Ash Grove, West Wickham, Kent
AFS Fireman Frederick George Parcell – AFS Beckenham Died 20th April 1941 aged 32, of Love Lane, South Norwood, Surrey.
AFS Fireman Martin Charles Parfett – AFS Beckenham Died 20th April 1941 aged 31, of Pickhurst Rise, West Wickham, Kent.
AFS Fireman William Charles Plant – AFS Beckenham Died 20th April 1941 aged 26, of Sultan Street, Beckenham, Kent.
AFS Fireman Cyril Bertram Porter – AFS London Died 20th April 1941 aged 31, of Clinton Road, Forest Gate, Essex.
AFS Fireman William Thomas Rashbrook – AFS London Died 20th April 1941 aged 31, of Chatsworth Road, Clapton.
AFS Leading Fireman Leonard Roots – AFS Beckenham Died 20th April 1941 aged 31, of Avenue Court, Avenue Road, Anerley, Kent.
AFS Fireman Albert Alfred Saville – AFS London Died 20th April 1941 aged 35, of Harrowgate Road, Hackney.
Station Officer Richard William Sinstadt – London Fire Brigade Died 20th April 1941 aged 46, of Beccles Drive, Barking, Essex.
AFS Fireman Edgar William Vick – AFS London Died 20th April 1941 aged 38, of Eden Way, Beckenham, Kent.
AFS Leading Fireman Walter John Woodland – AFS Beckenham Died 20th April 1941 aged 41, of Links Way, Eden Park, Beckenham, Kent.
AFS Leading Fireman Herbert Charles Wotton – AFS Beckenham Died 20th April 1941 aged 30, of Upper Elmers End Road, Beckenham, Kent.
This story remained unpublished because of emergency Defense Regulations.
The full details were finally uncovered six decades later by the Firemen Remembered charity which unveiled a memorial in April, 1997, at Lansbury Lawrence Primary School, on the site of the old school destroyed 56 years before.
“In memory of the 13 London firemen and women and 21 Beckenham firemen killed on the night of 19th April 1941 when a bomb destroyed the old school being used as a sub-fire station.”
Many thanks to the following websites which have contributed in the production of this blog.
A very special mention to my friend, Stephanie Maltman for providing the additional information and the extra photographs, its very much appreciated.