Day death fell from the skies over Stowmarket
SEVENTY years ago a lone German bomber tree-hopped in broad daylight to drop six bombs on Stowmarket. They destroyed a church and killed a widow who had just returned home. DON BLACK, one of hundreds who dived under their school desks as explosions shook the town, relives that fateful day
OUR air-raid shelters were waterlogged and, even if they had been useable, there would have been no time to reach them. Big bangs were so unexpected that a young teacher hesitated for a few moments before following the example of her class.
Mrs Rhoda Farrow, 59, had seen her airman son Ronald and his fianc�e leave from Stowmarket railway station. As she opened her front door, keys still in her hands, a direct hit destroyed her home, Rhoda lived in Kensington Road, normally quiet then, as now.
Ronald, 19, was newly engaged to Elizabeth Anne Taylor. She celebrated her 21st birthday three days earlier and had been meeting his family for the first time He was serving with RAF ground crew at Manchester and after the war became an industrial chemist with ICI in the North.
Speaking from her home high on the Lancashire side of the Pennines, Rhoda’s granddaughter Mrs Bette Nelson, tells me: “I always regretted never knowing her But had my parents delayed their departure from Kensington Road by only half-and-hour they might have died there too and I wouldn’t be here. It was a miracle no one else was killed in Stowmarket that day.”
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As it was the stout flint walls of Stowmarket Congregational (now United Reformed) Church contained the blast of five of the bombs. Ipswich Street, the town’s busiest, was filled with shoppers at the time.
Collecting his bicycle from a building between the church and Kensington Road, David Robinson, 93, remembers the sound of machine-gun fire, followed by “an almighty explosion” that knocked him to the ground.
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He saw the chestnut tree that stood in the church forecourt “festooned with pieces of material and the street carpeted with broken glass, glistening like ice, from shattered shop windows”.
His wife, then 12-year-old Poppy Steward from Needham Market and now Stowmarket’s mayor, was another of the pupils who sheltered beneath their desks.
No less vividly she recalls when, at least once, a train carrying schoolchildren from Needham, Bramford, Ipswich and Felixstowe was machine-gunned on the move.
“We did not really comprehend the dangerous times we lived through,” she says.
Needham, like Ipswich and many other East Anglian towns and villages and airfields such as Wattisham, also suffered grievously. What happened to Stowmarket at noon on Friday January 31,1941, seems to have affected more people than any other single raid.
That is not to say that all recollections agree. Some eyewitnesses identified the lone bomber as either a Junkers Ju 88A-5 or a Dornier Do217.
Mendlesham farmer Roy Colchester, however, insists it was neither. As an avid reader of Aeroplane Spotter magazine, he is certain that what he saw as a 12-year-old looking through the grammar school windows was a Heinkel 111.
“It was flying very low,” he says. I could not mistake its rounded wing tips.” All the evidence points to the pilot staying well below 1,000ft – beneath the radar beams centred on Bawdsey and Wattisham.
He was skilled to do that, but his bomb aimer clearly misjudged speed and distance by pressing the release button a few seconds too early. Their target must have been the string of war-production factories alongside the railway.
There’s been a belief for some years that the pilot was captured after a later sortie, married a Suffolk girl and settled here. I talked with the named airman’s son, who lives in Ipswich.
“The pilot concerned in the raid could not have been my father,” he states. “Though he spoke little about the war, he was certainly training to pilot troop-carrying gliders but was made a prisoner before he could qualify.”
Bronze plaques on memorial gates at Stowmarket bear long lists of men lost in two world wars, with just one civilian, one woman, Rhoda Farrow. She is was buried in the in the town’s cemetery alongside her husband Charles, who died in 1939 aged 49, six months before war broke out.
Steve Williams, chairman of Stowmarket Local History Group, collected many facts about the bombing for a booklet designed by Mike Durrant and published in 2004. Among its detailed recollections is one by Steve’s own father, Harold.
He was a 16-year-old employee of a leather works and heading to a shop in Ipswich Street to buy a lunchtime snack. “The bomber flew in very low from the Combs Ford end of the town, sweeping round in a tight curve at the western end before starting its run,” Harold recalls.
Its bomb doors were open and he saw five or six bombs fall. Harold believes that if the plane had been a few feet higher or a few feet further to the north the spread of the bombs would have been greater and destroyed most of the main street. .
Mrs Florrie Garrod (nee Francis) was a 19-year-old machinist at a glove factory. She was one of about a dozen people who carried on working after the siren sounded because there had been so many false alarms.
When the bombs dropped they sheltered as best they could under machinery. She speaks of it being “terrifying” as bullets hit the corrugated tin roof of their factory.
Mary Basham (nee Sadler) was a 12-year-old pupil at the grammar school. She remembered being told to “get down” by botany teacher “Stumpy” Davies. Mary’s own village, Wetherden, was bombed the same day and its church windows shattered. A few weeks later she saw a German plane flying so low that she could see the pilot’s face.
The Rev Kenneth Glass, a 17-year-old shift worker for the Post Office, asked his piano teacher Miss Pegg to give him an extra lesson that morning. She was organist at the Congregational church and he believes this arrangement may have saved her life. She normally practised on the church organ on Friday mornings.
As well as houses, Kensington Road was also the location of Stowmarket telephone exchange, where many young women worked shifts. Two of them, Mrs Valerie Hunt (nee Thorpe) and Mrs Mary Salmon (nee Hunt) remembered the deafening noise and sense of relief that no one in the building was hurt.
The young teacher who hesitated before diving under her desk was 25-year-old Miss Dorothy Taylor, who taught French and music at the grammar school and later married into the Baker farming family at Buxhall.
She had taken up her appointment only a few days earlier and explained that she hesitated because, as a new mistress, she was unsure as to whether it was correct for her to crawl under the desks with the children She wasn’t left long in doubt.
The house where Miss Taylor lodged was next door to the one where Rhoda Farrow died. Luckily all the other occupants were elsewhere,
Heading the town’s ARP (Air Raid Precautions) Rescue Party, my father, John Black, first searched the ruined church with Bernard Moye, who recalls that they ventured upstairs despite the floor tilting at a dangerous level.
Next they entered Rhoda Farrow’s house with council foreman Percy Kerry. They saw one of her arms projecting from rubble in what had been the passageway.
The rescue party itself came under attack the next morning while continuing the search for casualties in the church ruins. My brother Gerald, on duty as its messenger boy, recalls how they could do little when a German aircraft repeated the previous run, presumably on reconnaissance but with guns firing. There were no further casualties.
People of all denominations rallied round the Congregationalists, whose Sunday services were first moved to the parish church and, then for the next 14 years, to the Regal cinema. Puritan-minded Congregationalists complained that the plush seats there were too comfortable!
n A booklet The Bombing of Stowmarket Congregational Church, compiled by Steve Williams, is available at Stowmarket Bookshop in Bury Street.