Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: 70 years on and a long-buried wartime tragedy can be told

Martin Newell's father

Martin Newell's father - Credit: Archant

Terry was born in March 1927 into a British Army family stationed in Cairo. After leaving the services in 1930, the family took on the tenancy of a pub in rural Kent. Aged 11, during the summer of 1938, Terry contracted polio, which crippled him, forcing him for a year or more to wear a calliper on his leg. After months of hard exercise, he recovered well, although with one leg now shorter than the other, he walked with a limp.

In 1942, aged 15, he attempted to enlist in the army but was rejected. His father, a First World War veteran, had re-enlisted at the outbreak of the Second World War and was already serving as a major quartermaster in India.

Terry’s older brother, an army medic, was by now serving with the Royal West African Frontier Force. Disappointed, Terry stayed at home studying, working part-time as a brewery drayboy and helping his hard-pressed mum to run the pub.

At 17, he volunteered again for military service. “By the time I joined, in April of 1944, they were taking anything they could get,” he said. He had initially tried to join the Royal Army Medical Corps but a wily recruiting sergeant told him that the Army needed infantry soldiers more.

He joined the Buffs, the Royal East Kent Regiment. When they discovered that he was a grammar school scholarship boy, his recruitment date was deferred for six months so that he could complete his exams. “They were short of officers,” he explained.

In November of 1944, barely six weeks into his basic training, Terry was unexpectedly issued with a seven-day pass and told to report immediately to Deptford Town Hall in south-east London, because of “an incident” in New Cross.

He identified his mother’s body only by a scrap of her coat and her wedding ring. The V2 flying bomb had hit Woolworths at about 12.25pm on Saturday, November 25. In a time of great shortages, his mother had been queueing for saucepans, Woolworths having advertised a new delivery.

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She’d travelled eight miles from Sidcup where she was staying with a friend. It being a Saturday lunchtime, only weeks before Christmas, the store was very crowded when the V2 struck. To make matters worse, the shop’s cafeteria was also packed with schoolboys drinking their hot Bovril after a Saturday morning swim at the adjacent swimming baths.

The New Cross Woolworths disaster was London’s worst V2 bombing, killing at least 168 people and injuring hundreds more. A government D-notice was quickly imposed, forbidding all reporting on the matter. As a result no details were allowed to emerge for 50 years.

New Cross, Terry explained, up until this point, had been a vibrant shopping centre, an equivalent of Lakeside or Blue Waters. “After the V2 attack, the area has never recovered.”

The shocked 17-year-old arrived early on the Monday following the incident. He walked around in a daze among a confusion of other grieving relatives, wardens and clearance workers. After signing the identification papers, Terry made his way to Kent, to arrange a funeral. His mother had also been looking after his dog.

With nobody now to care for it, Terry realised that the dog would have to be put down, rather than set free to wander starved and half-mad, among growing numbers of other such creatures in the wartime streets. Terry collected the animal from his mum’s friend and walked it back towards London in a search of a vet.

Along the way he was stopped by the Military Police, who, suspecting that he was a deserter, questioned him. Showing them his pass, Terry explained his predicament and was allowed on his way. Eventually he located a vet in Victoria who for half a crown agreed to put his dog to sleep.

The lad now travelled back to Kent to attend his mother’s hastily arranged funeral. The day after, he returned by rail to his army camp. Upon his return, a duty sergeant examining his pass at the camp gate, began reprimanding because he’d returned two days earlier than its expiry date.

“I tried to tell him that I now had nowhere else to go,” Terry said. “But he wouldn’t listen.” An officer, upon hearing the commotion in the guardroom, recognising the young soldier, took the sergeant aside and explained Terry’s plight to him. “I was then ordered to report to my own sergeant. He asked me, ‘You alright, lad?’ I said.

‘I think so, Sarn’t,’ he said. ‘Off you go then.’ And that was it. You didn’t get counselling in those days.”

Within months Terry was on a troop ship to India. Upon arrival he was granted an emergency commission from the Indian Military Academy in Dehradun and for almost two years served on the Northwest Frontier with the 7th Ghurka Rifles.

My father, second lieutenant Terence Newell, by this point was just 18 years old. He didn’t see his homeland again until the freezing winter of early 1947, when another troop ship brought him home.

“There were ice-floes in the Solent, as we sailed in,” he recalled. Of his mother, he later said: “She’d been the lynchpin of our family. When we all eventually got home – your uncle Tony from West Africa, then myself and my dad from India – the family never properly reconvened again.”

Only in 1994 when the D-notice was lifted, 50 years after the event, did my father’s story spill out. There was more...

Part 2 to follow