Air Raids and the Aspidistra

Map showing the approximate locations of 5 high explosive bombs dropped in on the 5th September 1940 in the Foundry Street area of Horncastle.

Horncastle 1940: The First Town in Lincolnshire Targeted by The Nazis

Watching a Spitfire and a Hurricane practising their manoeuvres over Horncastle and District for the RAF’s salute to NHS Charity fundraiser Captain Tom Moore this Spring, has been a vivid reminder that the sound of aircraft overhead was something which, back in 1940, the people of the district dreaded and feared.

With the Britain of 1940 effectively on its own in Europe against the armies  of Germany and the Axis, the UK was now the main focus of Hitler’s forces. The Soviet Union was still allied to Germany; Italy and its conquests were ranged against Britain; Spain and Portugal were in the grip of Fascist regimes; the Baltic States had been forcibly incorporated into the USSR. Much of the rest of Europe  had been conquered by Germany and their Quisling régimes assured obedience to Berlin.  Even the Irish Free State (now the Irish Republic) was viewed with suspicion by many Britons.

Horncastle may still have had the appearance of a sleepy market town in which life went on much as normal, but that was superficial – increasing numbers of men and women were in the services; lives were being lost; others were already prisoners of war or assigned to duties far from their native county.

This semblance of normality was belied by the local newspapers – subject to censorship, to avoid giving away anything to the enemy. Thus, in among headlines in the Lincolnshire Echo of Friday 6th September 1940 declaring “Lincoln Billiards League to Carry On” and “Hens’ Eggs Remain Unsold at Brigg Market” the chilling report carried over from the front page states “Non-Stop Raids Today” – including a “North East Market Town” being attacked by a lone bomber. This was not Hexham, Pickering or Alnwick  – which might better fit that description – but Horncastle, although at the time it could not be identified.

In fact on the 5th September 1940 Horncastle was the first town in Lincolnshire to be bombed by the Nazis – though much worse was soon to follow for Grimsby and other larger centres.

As an eight year old, Frank Peckham lived through it. He told a BBC history project back in 2008:

“I lived at 114 Foundry Street. An aeroplane came over and dropped a couple of bombs, one about 100 yards from our house. To this day, the shrapnel marks can still be seen in the woodwork of the fence at the top of the street. It looks as if someone has cut it with a saw. Also at the same time part of our front room ceiling fell in, there was dust and muck everywhere. Then we got a portable air raid shelter with metal top and mesh sides, this stood from then on in the front room. When you looked out the window you could see the search lights in the sky”.

Jack Danby photographed outside a heavily sandbagged Horncastle Police Station on The Wong

A police report of the time, compiled by War Reservist Officer Jack Danby at Horncastle Police Station on 7th September 1940, described in detail what happened when he heard a plane at 8.55 pm on the 5th, while on duty in Boston Road, Horncastle. He couldn’t see it but had heard bombs drop about five miles away – and then:

“All at once, I heard something which seemed like the sound of wind. I realised that it would be some bombs falling. I immediately dived in the dyke and laid down flat. I just got down and the bombs exploded.

I noticed three or four explosions and small stones or earth came into the hedge where I was. The nearest bomb would be about 250 yards (from) where I was.

“Three or four minutes after the explosions, I made my way to where I thought the bombs had gone off. I found that one had exploded in Queen Street, Horncastle. I proceeded at once to the almshouses.”

Whelpton Almshouses, Queen Street

He went on to describe how all the front windows had been blown in, and the residents (all over 70) were leaning on the door frames. No one was seriously hurt, he reported and soon, a Dr. Buchanan and a minister, the Rev. Chapman, arrived to tend to people.

Something of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” spirit of the times is evident in his report that a 92 year old, a Mrs Cunningham, refused to leave the damaged house to sleep elsewhere despite the blown-out windows and shards of glass covering the bed. She insisted on having a bed made up elsewhere in the house and sleeping there. Shades of Dad’s Army’s Warden Hodges too – the officer reported:

“There were a lot of Wardens about the street, but none of them came to this row of houses to give any assistance”.

In total five high explosive bombs were dropped. The one that damaged the alms houses had landed in the walled garden opposite on the other side of Queen Street and thankfully shielded the residents from some of the blast. The next fell in the middle of the road in Foundry Street, and another near the Holmeleigh Children’s Homes blowing in their windows as well as houses in Mareham Road. Two more fell in the fields beyond where Thomas Gibson Drive and Wesley Way are today.

The worst was not yet over. The following evening the Luftwaffe returned to Horncastle. A bomber circled the town ominously for around half an hour, before dropping 50 incendiaries bombs. While it was claimed most had dropped in fields or in the river, a furniture warehouse besides the Waring was set alight, destroying the top storey and its contents “including the furnishings of a soldier on active service”. The warehouse was later used by the cine club and has since been demolished.

A shop on the High Street was also hit, but the fire was contained before it could reach the stock downstairs. The damage is still visible today as a gap where the third storey was lost to the flames. It was reported that the next day the defiant shop keeper put up a sign that read “We can take it. Hitler was our last customer. Will you be our next?”

The most serious damage was on North Street. Here the impressive three-storey house belonging to the Manager of the Lincoln Co-opertative Stores was hit as a bomb fell through the roof and set it ablaze. Like the shop on the High Street, its owners decided not to rebuild the damaged top floor, leaving a staircase to nowhere inside. Other properties in the town, the paper said, had been hit by incendiaries but the damage was more limited.

A diary kept by Shirley Bell of Horncastle (a member of the auctioneering family, which is still prominent in the town today) recorded with evident humour another moment reminiscent of Dad’s Army. It seems that with fires raging across the town, every fire engine available was needed, with crews coming from far as Louth and Boston. However, Horncastle’s firemen, were nowhere to be seen and only finally arrived after the final blaze had been extinguished.

Thus behind the censored reports in the papers and the need to maintain morale, lay real human stories, showing the good humour and stoicism which helped Horncastle people cope in wartime.

Shirley Bell’s recorded the second air raid in more detail. Observing that “Horncastle is no longer quite what it was”, she wrote that the first air raid “created no end of a commotion”.

“Then last night I was down the fields about 9 pm and I heard the blighter fussing round and round like an old wasp, so I retired to the house [49 Spilsby Road] and routed out the rest of the family. Then I prowled round the fields again, as by now, he was letting go with his incendiary bombs in a nice little circle around the town.

“Every time he got near me, I lay flat and once felt rather silly because a fellow in the A.R.P. on his way to report, got off his bike and asked me if I was hurt.

“I had to get up rather stiffly and feeling soft. Then I got in with some soldiers who were letting fly out of a ditch with their rifles and I joined them, but they wouldn’t let me have a go.

“It was just like Guy Fawkes’ night. Lord! I did enjoy it, though.

“Finally a few Bren guns got going and you could see the tracer bullets near him but they didn’t get him down, though he rose quickly and (we) didn’t have much trouble with him.

“The whole town was barking like an inflated dog, and we could see incendiary bombs flaring all over, about 50 altogether.”

The Lincolnshire Standard of 14th September 1940 had a much lengthier account of the raid on this “North East Market town”. The 92 year old who refused to leave her bomb-damaged alms houses was quoted as saying:

“If that nasty man Hitler thinks he is going to turn me out of my house, he wants to think again”.

And in another moment reminiscent of a wartime comedy, the paper reported:

“a small boy successfully tackled one bomb close to a house by emptying an aspidistra plant and soil over it!”

If true, he showed remarkable quick thinking and courage, and might have saved his family and their home.

In 2004 Roy Marshall shared his memories of the raid as part of an oral history project.

Part of an oral history recording of Roy Marshall, made by HHHS.

By March 1945, with the last raid on Lincolnshire, 116, 384 bombs had been dropped on the county, killing 408 people; 1,233 people were injured and 32,000 houses were destroyed or damaged. There were no figures for German air crew killed over Lincolnshire. In Horncastle across both raids 98 houses were damaged, and there were five casualties.

And the attackers didn’t have it all their own way: the report said that in August 1940 the first Luftwaffe raider had been shot down over Skegness, followed by two more at Bilsby, near Alford. The marks caused by German aircraft bullet on the old railway near Fotherby can still be seen – I was told this by a friend who had sheltered there from the attacker). A German plane flew over Lumley Road in Skegness machine-gunning shoppers and mothers out with their prams. (I was told this by my landlady, when a student in Harlow; she had been evacuated from the East End to Skegness).

Just how the raids had affected the district was brought home to me when, as a junior reporter on the Lincolnshire Standard in 1964, I got into conversation with the booking clerk on duty at Midville railway station. Apart from the booking office, a signal-box and two platforms, facilities consisted of one short siding, where farmers loaded sugar beet, potatoes and other produce into wagons left there by the daily “pick up” goods train.

One day, a Stuka fighter-bomber had appeared over this remote outpost of the nation’s transport system; came the inevitable terrifying howl of the thing diving towards its target and the bomb was released with deadly accuracy – replacing  the one wagon parked there with a very deep crater and scattering its load of potatoes over the surrounding fields. Some days after, the German propagandist “Lord Haw-Haw” (William Joyce) was heard boasting that “this week, the victorious German air force has destroyed the marshalling yards at Midville”. The seemingly insignificant bombing of a wayside station on the line from Woodhall Junction to the East Coast had provided ammunition for the German propaganda machine.

All this and much more, no doubt, was in the minds of the people of Horncastle as they celebrated VE Day on 8th May 1945, while mourning those killed in action and worrying about those family members, friends and colleagues still fighting in the Far East, or held in prisoner-of-war camps, reported missing, or afflicted by injuries.

While Horncastle might have entered the war years as a quiet market town at the end of a branch line in the Wolds, going about life much the same as it had always done, the raids of 1940 had brought a new grim reality to the lives of everyone who lived here. The scars of which are still there to see if you know where to look.

CHRIS BATES

1 Comment

  1. I enjoyed reading this account. It is unlikely that a Stuka attacked Lincolnshire as their range was too short; it was probably a Ju88. My late father (a young farmworker in Skegness, from a Horncastle family) also recounted an attacker going down Lumley road.

    Like

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