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The Parish of Kingswood

VE Day – 75th Anniversary Celebrations Postponed & History of Fire Watching at St Andrew’s

 

Sadly, all the events planned countrywide to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day this weekend have had to be cancelled due to circumstances. Our own presentation and tea party at the Village Hall this Saturday have been put on hold as well, but will definitely take place at a later date, when it is safe for us to meet again.

Here, in the meantime, is just a taster of what life would have been like for the inhabitants of Kingswood during those war years.

Pia Chamberlain

 

 

 

FIRE WATCHING AT ST ANDREW’S

By Pia Chamberlain

A fascinating record of wartime Kingswood has recently come to light quite by chance in the archive cupboard of St. Andrew’s Church. It looked at first sight like just another parish accounts book. On closer inspection, however, it turned out to be the logbook of the St. Andrew’s fire watchers during the last war.

In February 1941 the Parochial Church Council had decided that a rota of fire watchers should be set up for St. Andrew’s. 21 people willing to ‘watch’ for one night a week were needed. Bedding for these fire watchers was also sought. A team of three people would be on duty each time, with one of them keeping watch for four hours at a time, while the other two slept somewhere on the church floor.

The logbook had several columns spread across two pages of what was in fact an accounts book. These columns had to be filled in every night by the person in charge. They showed the name of the person on duty for each shift, the duration of alerts and the weather conditions on that particular night. There was also a column for special remarks and some of those entries, although brief, make for pretty chilling reading.

The first entry for 8th March 1941 reads as follows: Aerial activity only; alert 7.45 p.m. – 11.50 p.m.; weather v. fine; activity fairly heavy. This was the middle of the Blitz, when alerts on the whole were frequent and pretty lengthy, often lasting for some 4 hours or more. On 15th March we read about two bombs, distance about 1 mile. On 16th April the entry reads: Constant activity, gunfire, several bombs heard, many flares seen; alert 9.10 p.m. – 5.00 a.m.; weather fine and clear; very heavy activity, Blitz. On 19th April: Heavy activity early on. Bombs very close; alert 9.15 p.m. – 4.45 a.m.; activity heavy, weather wet, dark. That night four high explosive bombs came down on Banstead Heath without causing any damage: no doubt they were the bombs the St. Andrew’s fire watchers heard nearby. Then on 2nd May: Our planes very active during later part of night; no alert. On 10th May: Blitz; alert 10.55 p.m. – 4.45 a.m.; weather moonlight; much activity. This was, the night of a particularly devastating raid on London, when indeed a full moon illuminated the path of the German bombers. After 17th May the frequency of air raids diminished.

After that only a few occasional alerts were reported until February 1944, when alerts seemed to pick up again, although they never lasted for more than an hour. Surprisingly, no particular activity was reported around the date of the D-Day landings. With the advent of the V1 rockets on 13th June, the number of alerts increased again dramatically until the end of July, when the logbook came to an end.

One can only imagine what temperatures inside the church must have been like in winter, when conditions outside were described as ‘very cold’ and ‘cold as ice’. Some of the fire watchers, judging by their handwriting, appear to have been very young. We know that one of them, Raymond Fry, who was on duty in January 1944, was just slightly over 15. They must have experienced more than one anxious moment, with high explosive bombs going off at close range and incendiaries raining down all around the churchyard. Another one of those fire watchers, David Southgate, remarked years later that if an incendiary had come down on the roof of the church, they would have been unable to reach it. All they could have done was to contact the Banstead Fire Brigade and hope that one of their vehicles was nearby.

However dire the situation, the British sense of humour was always ready to surface. Stuck inside the cover of our fire watchers logbook is a very official looking notice entitled

Fire Watchers Act 1941 – Equipment to be carried by Fire Watchers
1. Respirator
2. One belt, waist, with hooks (10) to carry six filled sandbags and four buckets of water
3. One axe stuck in belt
4. One stirrup pump, to be carried over the left shoulder
5. One extending ladder to be carried over the right shoulder
6. One long-handled shovel to be tucked under left arm
7. Two wet blankets slung around the neck
8. One tin helmet with turn-up brim to carry spare water
9. Spare sand to be carried in all pockets
10. Ship’s anchor to drop, in case Watcher cannot stop after galloping
11. One box of matches to light incendiary bombs failing to ignite
12. One umbrella to keep off rain of incendiaries

There were several versions of these facetious instructions circulating among fire watchers all over the country, one of them suggesting that a loo roll carried on the back for immediate use could also come in handy!

For the rest of the population of Kingswood, a prolonged air raid alert meant that the night had to be spent in an Anderson air raid shelter in the garden, in often damp and cold conditions. It is only with the introduction, in March 1941, of the Morrison shelter, a new type of indoor shelter, that things started to improve somewhat. Although more cramped than the Anderson shelter, it had at least the advantage of allowing people to spend the night inside their houses.

In the end, the only damage sustained by St. Andrew’s Church, to the East Window and to two stained glass windows on the north chancel wall, occurred in 1944 when a flying bomb hit a house in Bears Den. The chancel windows were eventually removed and replaced by plain glass. Repairs to the East Window were not completed until 1953. The cost of the repairs, amounting to some £200-300, was borne by the War Damage Commission