WW2 Memories

On this page are a number of articles relating to memories of WW2 in Sydenham. These have all been taken from old issues of Sydenham Life but we would welcome other memories from anyone interested in sending them to us. 

The first item is Horace Wilkinson's story of his time in the Home Guard. Scroll down and you will also find his and other accounts of the events of 2nd July 1944 - the day a bomb fell on St. Bartholomew's and its vicarage, burying our then vicar and his family in the rubble.

The Home Guard, by Horace Wilkinson

(First appeared in the May 2005 edition of Sydenham Life)

In the summer of 1939, coming up to the age of 16, I had to choose between being evacuated with my school, Sydenham Central, or leaving school to start work. 

After talking it over with my parents, I decided to stay with them in Sydenham and look for work. I had no clear idea what I wanted to do and one of the opportunities available was working in a local factory doing war work, at £1 per week. However, I opted for a five year apprenticeship as motor fitter in the Southern Railway's Road Motor Maintenance workshops at Battersea where the fleet of motor and horse drawn vehicles operated by the railway was overhauled. My wage was 10 shillings (50p) a week. I recall seeing in my first year, the last two horse heavy dray being built for brewery work.

As I worked for the railway I was in a Reserved Occupation and not called up for military service. I joined the Local Defence Volunteers which was soon renamed the Home Guard. The railway had its own section of the Home Guard and I was allocated to the platoon based at Forest Hill station, the next station up the line from Sydenham Station where we lived. At Forest Hill there was, adjacent to the station, an electricity sub-station about the size of a large house through which electricity was fed into the railway's electrified network.

The principal task for my platoon was to safeguard the sub station thought to be a likely target if enemy paratroopers were dropped or if saboteurs became active. For this purpose our platoon of 20 men had one first World War Ross rifle and two clips of 5 rounds of ammunition. We did night patrol duty; two men on duty at a time, one had to carry the rifle and 5 rounds, the second man to have the other 5 rounds. We were not told why.

After a time we progressed from armbands to full uniform with cap badges, Royal West Kent Regiment - still no rifles. Then came  surprise. A large coffin type box was awaiting us one training evening in the station waiting room. The rifles? Under the strict eye of our sergeant the heavy box was prised open and the packaging removed. No rifles but pikes - steel tubes with bayonets welded at one end. Not exactly the most sophisticated weapon for dealing with stormtroopers with sub-machine guns - but definitely better than parading with broomsticks for rifle drill.

A second surprise was the order that every platoon must have a dispatch rider, anticipating a breakdown in normal communications if an invasion started. "Wilkinson - you have some knowledge of motors, you will be our Dispatch Rider."

I enquired from my sergeant about a motor cycle. He said, "Well we have requisitioned one from the Army and it should arrive any time now. Meanwhile, if the balloon goes up, just go out and take the first one you can find." 

The war ended and still no motor bike had arrived so in someone's Awaiting Attention file in a pigeon-hole in the War Office there is a requisition marked 'Home Guard, Forest Hill - motor cycle needed.'

The Day the Bomb Fell on St. Bartholomew's

(These items all first appeared in the May and June 2005 editions of Sydenham Life)

WW2 Bomb Damage, by Horace Wilkinson

In the second World War, I lived with my parents in south east London. Our home was the Stationmaster's House at Sydenham Station on the main London to Brighton line.

One Sunday morning I had been Server at the 8am Communion Service at St. Bartholomew's Parish Church just a few hundred yards from where we lived.

On returning home for breakfast, the air raid siren sounded yet again and we took cover in our specially strengthened cellar. We had an Anderson shelter in the garden but the cellar was much drier and warmer - and, I believe, much safer.

After a short while, there was a terrific explosion and we knew that this had been close by. Many of our windows were blown out and all the ceilings were cracked. One heavy piece of paster came down smashing to pieces a prize-winning octagonal coffee table I made in my last year at school.

On coming out into the road to see what had happened, I saw a huge cloud of dust surrounding the vicarage near the church. A beautiful traditional red-brick building, it had sustained a direct hit by a doodle bug flying bomb. As I went up to it, the ARP and Rescue Services were arriving and I told them I was pretty certain that the vicar and his family were in there. They started digging.

I went up to the church, separated from the vicarage by two three-storied houses which had taken much of the blast and were badly damaged.

The church had suffered damage to the east end, nearest the vicarage, and the stained glass windows had been blown in covering the altar and the chancel with broken glass and debris.

I had the keys with me and salvaged the chalice and other silver from the wreckage and locked it in the vestry safe being aware that some looting had taken place from bombed properties.

There is a happy ending to the story for Rev'd Hunter and his family were extricated from the strengthened basement of their home after 6 hours of digging - uninjured but badly shaken by their ordeal.

From the Vicar of St. Bartholomew's, 11 July 1944

My Dear Friends,

The glorious old Parsonage - home of so many Vicars - is no more. The clock in the Church Tower told to passers-by the time of the disaster, 9.25am Sunday morning, the 2nd of July. Volumes of thankfulness have gone up from the hearts in this parish during the last week, that no loss of life accompanied the loss of the Parsonage and damage to the Church and Church House and much property in the vicinity. No structural damage seems apparent in the Church, so that with an abundance of fresh air, we may carry on our usual Services. It is probably the only time in the long history of St. Bart's that two Sundays have passed with no Divine Service held, except for the 8 o'clock Celebration on the morning of the 2nd. We must not expect to find our church "swept and garnished' as is our custom, but a little lime and dust should not make our prayers less earnest.

An Appreciation

I would like to pay a special tribute to the men of the Civil Defence Unit. It was a matter of minutes only before they were on the spot. How calmly and efficiently they got to work, and brought light out of darkness and a refreshing drink of cold water to thirsty throats.

Thanks also to those members of the congregation who started to work on Sunday morning, immediately after the damage had taken place to clear up whatever was possible. I understand they gave up their entire Sunday to make the Church as tidy as could be under the circumstances. And later in the week our Youth Fellowship spent a whole evening at the Parsonage, under dangerous conditions, rescuing what they could of my private belongings. The devastation that has taken place all round as a result of "our" bomb has caused grievous loss to a very large number of our Parishioners and others, and some have been compelled to sleep in the Church crypt. Our heartfelt sympathy goes out to all those who have sustained damage of any kind.

A special word of thanks to Mrs Shergold, who I hear has been at the Church day after day, carefully clearing away the debris and preserving everything that needs to be saved. And, too, to our local Clergy who gave us a welcome at their Services.

From the Parish Magazine, August 1944

A house has been requisitioned for us by the Lewisham Borough Council and it is No 1 Hall Drive. We are very fortunate in finding a new home so near the Church. I expect we shall be moving in there at the end of the month or the first week in September, for if all goes well and these "nasty" things stop, Mr and Mrs Robertson and their children will be returning home. We wish to convey our very real thanks to Mr and Mrs Robertson of No 11 for the use of their lovely home whilst we were without one.

Sydenham & Forest Hill Gazette

It was a matter for congratulation that St. Bartholomew's which has many interesting associations and has survived the heavy bombing which came to this quarter during the war, and that so far as its structure is concerned, it presents outwardly the same pleasing and dignified appearance as in early days. The war damage was severe, and will cost much to make good.

The chancel windows and nearly all the windows in the lower walls or north, south and west were damaged, most of them being of stained glass. The reredos suffered badly from blast effects, but some of the figures have since been repaired by a member of the congregation.

The organ was damaged, the lighting system of chancel and vestry destroyed, a ground subsidence was created under the vestry floor, drains were smashed, and there was much disturbance to slates in the chancel roof.

St. Bartholomew's Vicarage, 15th October, 1944

One so often hear the phrase "Why does God allow suffering if He is a Loving Father?" With the loss of the Vicarage and damage to St. Bart's you, as a Parish, lost a very precious possession and we, as a family, lost our personal belongings.

This apparent suffering may have been a real gain to all of us. In your efforts to repair the damage, you have built a stronger spiritual church. We, as a family, have received a wealth of friendship.

From the Heavy Rescue Squad who dug us out, the ladies who cleaned and prepared No 1 Hall Drive, those who sent gifts of kitchen utensils, china, linen and furniture and lastly our fully stocked larger, came that spirit of sharing the burden.

Wartime & Later Memories

This article by "SDG" (can anyone identify this person please?) was first published in the May 1987 issue of Sydenham Life.

St. Bart's suffered in the last war - windows blown out and the Vicar nearly killed when a Flying Bomb landed on the Vicarage in 1945 (sic). Thankfully the Rev Hunter and his wife were dug out of the remains of their shelter. Many were not so lucky for Sydenham was in the centre of 'Bomb Alley' betwixt the City and Biggin Hill. Destruction and death visited the suburban streets.

A new Vicarage was built after the war. New houses are going up on the site of the old Vicarage on Westwood Hill. The physical scars of those six years are now almost covered over.

But not the emotional scars.

Doris Pullen was married at St. Bart's in 1939. She has made a name publishing books on local history. Her new book 'Wartime Memories', (Merlin Books, £2.95) is a set of sixteen recollections from Doris and her friends - soldiers, sailors, housewives, children. They meet Lord Halifax and the Duke of Beaufort - The settings range from Sydenham where another Flying Bomb landed in a Newlands Park garden to the Burmese Jungle and Port Said. The contributors write simply - but their stories provide a human aspect to today's coloured pictures of war. There is at the end a particularly poignant memory of an eight year old girl living in Germany - showing how suffering innocence was shared between the foes.

Ordinary people in Extra-Ordinary circumstances.

The post-war world found some very ordinary people in very ordinary circumstances (alias Penge). Brian Wright's very funny tongue-in-cheek account of life on this side of the hill was first heard on deepest Radio 3. It then became a cult series on Radio 4 before hitting the pulp press as 'Penge Papers' (Pan Books, £2.50). Greater Penge apparently engulfs Sydenham as the very funniest story is about a faded Department Store (renamed Chubbs) sporting one of the Wembley domes over the Chubbs Corner entrant. Corset department sales ladies, Father Christmas with a whiff of gin and damp knees, all his juvenile horrors are brought devastatingly back to life. 

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The Home Guard

The Day the Bomb Fell on St. Bart's

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