Sunday 14 November 2010

From the archives: Woolworths, New Cross

Today we're returning to last year's Remembrance Sunday post, which looks at one of London's major civilian tragedies in the Second World War. Since it was written, a further memorial plaque has been placed on the site by Lewisham Council.

At 12.44pm, Saturday 25 November 1944, Britain's worst V2 attack struck New Cross destroying the Woolworths store as well as badly damaging the neighbouring Co-op. 168 people were killed, 122 injured.

Unusually fine weather had ensured that plenty of people were out shopping that lunchtime, while workers from the neighbouring railway station and children returning from the swimming baths had gone into the store for a drink. Some accounts suggest that there had been a rare delivery of saucepans to Woolworths that day.

There was no warning before the rocket landed on the centre of Woolworths' roof. After a moment of silence the walls bowed, the building collapsed and exploded, and then caught fire. An army lorry was overturned and a double-decker bus spun round by the force of the blast. Rescuers, members of the emergency services and local people, worked to lift the rubble by hand but there was only one survivor. It took three days to clear the debris, which reached as far as Deptford town hall. Tony Rollins, then 13, has shared his recollections on the BBC website:
Sheets of corrugated steel had been placed along some of the gutters to cover what was left of people and blood was seeping out from beneath.There was debris everywhere.I saw several people dead beneath telegraph poles and there were bodies and wounded and maimed laying randomly all over the place.

Everybody who could was roped in to help clear debris and I did what I was asked to give a hand.
The site of the bombing is now occupied by Iceland and New Cross Library. A small plaque on Iceland's wall marks the disaster, while the memorial on Woolworths' own website is archived here. As well as the image above, it includes a full list of the names of those killed. Perhaps the saddest part of this is the final line: and 24 others who could not be identified.

Last year's Remembrance Sunday post is here; Colin Blythe, Deptford cricketer, was killed in World War One.

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