The recent discovery of an unexploded Second World War bomb on a building site near Kingston University’s Penrhyn Road campus was a good reminder of how the local area suffered some considerable attention from the German Luftwaffe during the years 1939-1941.
Kingston University’s History Department has compiled five brief facts about the frightening and damaging consequences of air raids on Kingston and the surrounding district during the first three years of the War, some of which may be familiar to people but others less so.
The reason why researchers have sometimes found it difficult to put together accurate information is that newspapers were often subject to censorship during wartime, as the government naturally did not want news of casualties and damage to residential areas to have a negative impact on civilian morale. Newspapers could only report in very general ways on air raids, and not give precise details on locations.
Similarly, official files at the National Archives at Kew sometimes only offer patchy information, as central government were often very dependent on reports from local authorities, and some of this information was sometimes lost in the disruptive fog of war.
But here’s five interesting local items:
One: Kingston experienced its first serious bombing raid by the Germans on the night of August 24th, 1940, when houses in Avenue Road, Orchard Road, and Eden Street, together with various shops in Clarence Street, suffered serious damage.
Two: From 7th September, 1940, for 57 consecutive days, London and its suburbs were subjected to what became known as the ‘Blitz’, an attempt by Hitler’s air force to weaken the British population’s will to continue fighting. It has been reliably estimated that, in the period 7th October, 1940, to 6th June, 1941, alone, approximately 447 High Explosive bombs fell in the Kingston area.
Three: One building that suffered major bomb damage was the Surrey County Hall (see photo), the home of Surrey County Council (which is located just opposite Kingston University’s Penrhyn Road campus today). Many of the Council staff had been evacuated two weeks after the outbreak of war in 1939 to a disused college in Guildford, and the building had been taken over by the Ministry of Health.
Four: As the recent unexpected discovery of an unexploded bomb (UXB) near the University illustrated, we tend to forget that not all bombs dropped in wartime detonated, or sometimes they fell but exploded after a short while. In the Surbiton Borough area, for example, it is estimated that 45 bombs failed to detonate on impact, and had to be detonated or made safe by brave members of the Army bomb disposal squad. It was highly dangerous work. On 3rd November, 1940, a bomb that had smashed into No. 78 Ewell Road, Surbiton, and lay unexploded for eight hours, suddenly exploded.
Five: Key local factories, communication links and public utilities, such as railway lines and water and sewage works, were also targeted by enemy planes. It is known that the Hawkers Aircraft production factory in Canbury Park Road, Kingston, was hit by German bombs early on in the Blitz, with several people killed. Similarly, the sewage works in Lower Marsh Lane (located near the University’s current-day Clayhill student hostel) was hit by High Explosive devices at least twice during 1940, but fortunately with minimal damage.
Interestingly, later in the War, the sewage works in Lower Marsh Lane was hit by a V-1 Flying Bomb (known as a ‘doodlebug’), but there was only minor damage to the filter beds.
All in all, Kingston and the surrounding areas of Surbiton, Tolworth, Hook and Chessington suffered some considerable damage and casualties from Hitler’s bombs during the War.
Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, London
(Images: Wikimedia Commons)