For my generation the events of the night of the 4th/5th May 1942 are inconceivable. I have been privileged to have received and heard the firsthand accounts of many people, some of whom are no longer with us. All of their memories are valid testimony to the most staggering loss of life and destruction of property in the Island’s modern history.

These memories are most notable for the understated remarks that betray the feelings and the fear that existed. What’s more incredible is that despite the overwhelming threat from the skies in the form of dozens of bombers that bore down on the mouth of the Medina, all of these witnesses inadvertently evidenced an incontrovertible courage by the fact that they went about their duties throughout.

However memories tend to differ when it comes to specifics such as timings and as such I have been fortunate to locate documents at the National Archives that allow me to anchor the events with a greater chronological accuracy. In the main the formal reports by Lieutenant Buist of the Royal Navy and the celebrated Captain Francki of the ORP Blyskawica provide these important factors from which the backbone of the story can be told.

The story told below is a modest sample of the version planned for a future volume of the history of Isle of Wight firefighting, but of course the full tale goes far beyond the actions of the fire service. Every conceivable organisation represented themselves with valour and I apologise that there isn’t the capacity in this article to specify the courage and fortitude displayed by all of those individuals from the Women’s Voluntary Service, First Aid Parties, ARP Wardens, Fire Watchers and Fire Guards, several different works fire brigades, Osborne House Fire Brigade, Home Guard, Free French Navy, Polish Navy, Street Fire Parties, Royal Observer Corps, Royal Artillery Anti-Aircraft gunners, various on and off-duty military personnel of Britain and its dominions, every single member of the National Fire Service of the Island including many detached from the capital and supposedly recuperating from the trials of the London Blitz, the Women’s Institute, the Citizens Advice Bureau and so on, and not forgetting of course those valiant citizens who endured and recovered from the toughest test that any Island community has faced.

One striking memory recorded was that of a member of the Royal Observer Corps. From his post at the top of Mount Joy he witnessed the scene from hell in panoramic horror accompanied, incongruously, by the unremitting beauty of the song of the nightingales.

This article is written in respect for all the lives lost during and because of the raid and in particular to remember on behalf of the IWFBF; Air Raid Warden Edward Arthur Kersey, Firewatcher Reginald Howard Pidgeon, Firewatcher William Reeves, Fireman Colin Henry Weeks, Leading Fireman Herbert James Dewey and Fireman John Howard Blundell.

While the Nightingales Sang

At 08:00 on the bright morning of 4th May 1942 Leading Fireman Stout of the Bembridge section of the National Fire Service opened the watch log for the day. Having made the roll-call he recorded three firemen on day leave, two on annual leave, and two on detached duties leaving five on duty. While the firemen were tasked with cleaning the station from top to bottom Stout made a call to sub-divisional headquarters and synchronised the station clock at 08:28.

Stout apprised himself of the content of the despatches brought from HQ by Ryde’s Fireman Colin Weeks on his motorcycle the previous day. With nothing significant since his last shift he sought information to see what progress had been made concerning the sub-divisional instruction received two days before originating from Acting Column Officer Herbert Scott, the Island’s most senior fireman, demanding that a check of fire-fighting equipment be made at ancient and historical buildings in the district. It seemed such an odd out-of-context demand but for the firemen of Bembridge it was just another duty to undertake.

A couple of red warnings had disturbed the sleep of the Island’s people but the monotonous threatening drone of the bombers was to spell a disaster for the people of Exeter, not the Island, and the relatively peaceful night emerged in to a quiet day experiencing just one eighteen minute spell under the Red Warning that petered out to nothing. Bembridge’s firemen were clear to carry out respirator drills in the morning and in the afternoon set about cleaning the new Dennis pump B.6583.

Company Officer Weaver arrived in the early evening, formally booking into the watch log at 18:00 hours. The men of the night shift turned in and evening routines began. With all duties complete the Bembridge firemen settled with a brew, cigarettes and a game of cards while Captain Wolciech Francki of the Polish Navy, aboard his command the ORP Blyskawica, a potent destroyer, strolled the decks alongside the J.S. White’s works in Cowes where the vessel was scheduled for a refit.

ORP Blyskawica

At 22:42 an aircraft recorded as doubtful was spotted south-east of Sandown on a north-west heading. Eight minutes later engines could be heard over the land and the ROC on Mount Joy sent signals that sent people scurrying to their shelters. The first aircraft passed close over Mount Joy’s spotters as the sound of the sirens rolled up the hillside from the Medina valley below.

22:55 Captain Francki heard anti-aircraft guns firing somewhere on the Island; his gunnery officer Lieut. Commander Tadeusz Lesisz set his men in readiness. Suddenly the clear dark sky was punctuated by the noiseless descent of flares that illuminated both the ground and water at the head of the Medina and the underside of the first aircraft was visible in the unnatural light. Lesisz’s gunners opened up immediately as the first explosions of the heavy ordnance struck the area. In Bridge Road, Cowes, 18 year old Fireman Vallender burst from his home two doors above the junction with Thetis Road and against the flow of those running for the shelters headed dutifully down to Medina Road where the nearest fire-fighting unit was located. He was joined by four others as further heavy explosives fell around them accompanied by a shower of incendiaries.

The Luftwaffe had designed the 1kg incendiaries to be dropped 700 at a time from a container, of which their Dornier’s could carry six. The devastating effect was witnessed by Captain Francki who from his position on the Blyskawica witnessed a kilometre of the East Cowes river front erupt in flame within minutes of the start of the raid. Fireman Vallender and his colleagues had plumbed their engine’s suction hose in to the Medina and began fighting a fire at the paint and turpentine filled premises of E.G. Watts when an oil bomb struck Ratsey and Lapthorn’s. Their progress was hampered by a falling tide leaving the suction hose desperately drawing in air as a vortex formed in the water; firefighting had to stop while the sweating firemen secured the air-tight joints on more lengths of the rigid hose. At No 2 Wellington Terrace, Kings Road, East Cowes, 10 year old Maisie Frampton was cowering beneath the stairs in the arms of her father. Suddenly he leapt up, gathering Maisie with him, and ran as fast as he could to the communal shelter in the street where they were soon joined by several wide eyed neighbours.

In Alfred Street, East Cowes, it was the habit of Cecil Wright’s father to take a walk outside when the alert sounded, watching for signs of imminent danger and normally wandering back in some time later. On this occasion 16 year old Cecil was shocked when his father burst back into the house and began hurriedly ushering his family to the shelter. Scuttling across the road to the shelter the sound of engines and explosions was deafening and the night like day due to a string of flares descending in west to east direction in a line over Saunders Roe’s premises. The family made the sanctuary of the shelter, Cecil and his father sat facing each other in the doorway, the only males. An incendiary bomb tumbled into the opening, Cecil’s father was up like a shot, he took the device by the tailfin and threw it into a neighbouring garden.

As the attack progressed the handwriting of the watch officer at ARP headquarters in Newport began to worsen, from the hurried nature of developing events or the horror of the reports he was receiving at his relatively isolated location. Among the early events he recorded were the dropping of incendiaries at the aerodrome, high explosive bombs dropped on Saunders Roe at Cowes, another which fell almost near enough to destroy the Blyskawica. For inexplicable reasons two HE’s fell into the sea near Ventnor pier and the Shide end of Medina Avenue in Newport took ordnance, destroying two houses and exposing the gas and water mains. As the officer closed the page on the date of 4th May and turned to the next day, Nettlestone AA battery recorded a kill. Right on the stroke of midnight, annotated in the ARP log at 00:00, the officer wrote telephone communications with Cowes gone. Four minutes later despatch riders were dispersed from ARP HQ with a message to distribute to command points on either side of the Medina; Please send messages for me by despatch rider.

The bomb map of the district; no reasonable attempt could be made to plot the fall of the tens of thousands of incendiaries.

18 year old Parkhurst fireman Dennis Russell was aboard an old Buick requisitioned to tow the unit’s trailer pump. Thousands of incendiaries had been dropped in the area of the forest but had mainly fallen in marshy ground representing nothing more than a peculiar spectacle. The unit proceeded as directed to Cowes but was prevented from advancing further than Northwood. The road was severed by a huge crater great enough to swallow a bus and the crew were faced with the ghastly image created by a similar explosion that had literally blasted the dead from their graves at Northwood Cemetery. With great effort and tenacity the firemen managed to find a way to the J.S. White’s yard where they engaged in fighting a fire in the paint shop building. As they struggled with the hose Fireman Russell was staggered by the incessant blasting of the nearby Blyskawica’s guns as they pummelled the sky with seemingly endless 40mm shells and 13.2mm machine gun rounds.

The Chief Warden in East Cowes had little time to dwell on words in his first despatch to Newport by motorcycle; Heavy raid. Fire in works. Some casualties. Fuller report to follow. Among those responding on that east of the river were the First Aid Party in their converted bread lorry who drove into the centre of the chaos and set up a post at the Town Hall while the local ARP relocated their command point to the moderately safer Victoria Grove. Nearby a 15 year old bicycle messenger decided to divert home at Minerva Road and check on his family between runs; finding them deceased he showed extraordinary fortitude by remounting his cycle and continuing his duties. At 00:35 the message was sent to all Civil Defence and NFS bases around the Island; Send rescue parties, F.A.P.’s and ambulances to RVP at East Cowes Town Hall. Reserve only one party of each service in area.

In the meantime Captain Francki had been busy, going beyond the call of his duty as a Naval commander; The ship was surrounded by fires which excellently illuminated the whole dockyard and the two destroyers building there. Owing to this I sent three men with smoke candles to the lee-side of the river where they lit them in turn making a smoke screen over the threatened area. I think the effect of the screen was considerable as it covered the ships and part of the dockyard almost continuously. As admirable as Francki’s efforts were, the effect was to compel some of the bomber pilots to drop their loads further afield. No 1 and 2 Point Cottages sat the junction of the Racecourse and Whippingham Road. In a near incomprehensible tragedy based on nothing more than bad luck, these houses took a direct hit. In No.2 a 65 year old man and five year old girl were killed, tragedy enough. But next door at No.1, Wallace and Charlotte Chiverton survived the blast, but they may have asked for what, given that they lost six children between the ages of five weeks and seven years.

Although by now the attack had abated the devastation left behind was immense and ARP HQ despatched the following message to all Civil Defence and NFS units around the Island at 01:44; Despatch all remaining resources to East and West Cowes. Men of the Free French Navy whose three chasseurs were positioned on the river, despatched men ashore to assist in any and every way they could, so too did Captain Francki; 01:30 I sent 3 parties of about 11 men each to East Cowes to prevent the fire from spreading from the dockyard tracery to other buildings. I sent these men when communication with the two banks was possible, thanks to an English motorboat.

Communication and transportation between the towns was vital to the effort and whilst the floating brigade had been knocked out of action early in the attack the men who operated it somehow returned the vessel to workable status by 01:10. This critical link enabled the transportation of casualties to appropriate aid, the initial locations being the Frank James Hospital, Osborne Hospital, County Hospital in Ryde, Parkhurst Military Hospital and the Home of Rest in Shanklin. The WVS mobilised all possible aid to the district and with typically British stoicism listed among their priorities the capability to deliver tea and sandwiches to those toiling at the rescues and firefighting after having first collected supplies at Parkhurst. 

Sat on the roof of Ryde Town Hall was firewatcher Bill Turner. Bill had previously served with the town’s auxiliary fire service but the demands of his full-time responsibilities to the Borough compelled him to leave in the previous year. However he volunteered for nocturnal watching duties and he described in detail the frustration and the anguish he suffered as he witnessed the attack from afar and in no position to help and knowing his former colleagues and friends would be in the thick of it. At 02:10, in response to the call for all resources from ARP HQ, Ryde’s final firefighting crew and unit trundled out of Station Street. Bill watched the lights of their appliance as they headed out.

Fireman Bill Turner on the right, with Colin Weeks, the son of the mayor of Ryde.

Fireman Jack Fountaine and his coal lorry; adapted for fire service use.

Preceding them was Ryde’s Leading Fireman Alf Rees who departed around 01:00 with the Y9 trailer-pump hauled by the erstwhile coal lorry of Fireman Fountaine who drove, and crewed alongside firemen Bartrum and Hill. Arriving at East Cowes they were held up at an RVP at the Town Hall before receiving the order from Company Officer Max Heller to proceed to the apron of the floating brigade. Their task there was to set the pump into the river and create a single line water-relay. Once the supply to the desired position was achieved Alf directed his crew to set up a second delivery and without further orders he took the decision to get directly involved in fighting the many fires in the houses and other buildings in the immediate vicinity of the pump. They sustained their ceaseless pumping and firefighting operation for a straight ten hours, receiving welcome sustenance from the plucky WVS.

With the bombers having withdrawn back to their fields in vanquished northern France the rescuers could at least operate without fear of further attack. However a number of UXB’s were of considerable concern and none more so than a unit of firemen from Sandown. Proceeding into the town they passed the gates to Osborne House, rounded the corner and were confronted with a large crater in which had tipped a Southern Vectis bus. Carefully they manipulated their pump around the obstacle and carried on to the Town Hall. Being ordered on to one of the blazing boatyards they began setting out their gear until a policeman came running at them shouting that they were positioned adjacent to an unexploded bomb. Fireman Healey clearly recalled; luckily for us we evacuated the site safely and went to work elsewhere in the town – that bomb exploded two hours later.

Company Officer Heller of Ryde had distributed his resources, and those of other stations that tumbled in to his sector, all along the East Cowes bank running parallel to Clarence Road right up to the turn into Minerva Road where the WVS had set up a catering van in the care of 63 year old Alice Hann, proprietor of a butchers shop at the junction of Clarence Road and Yarborough Road since her husband passed away. A principle hazard in Heller’s area was the gasworks adjacent to the East Cowes Sailing Club boathouse and coke store that burned furiously and in alarming proximity to the as yet undamaged gasholder. Further along, close to Minerva Road, Marvin’s yard was in a similarly perilous state and all pumps were thundering furiously to deliver water to men at the branches. 

At the sailing club firemen Hilton, Mason, Goddard and Budden were desperate to prevent the gasholder exploding and endured high risk in doing so. They were joined by Ben Coles of the Saunders-Roe Home Guard who assisted at the branch but was shocked at one stage to find the firemen running from the scene in response to an alert of danger, leaving him struggling to control the weighty throw of water alone until he too saw sense in withdrawing.

However the four firemen between them returned to the fray and with such daring that two of them were later recommended for commendation. The testimony of Company Officer Heller, not a man to suffer fools gladly, formed part of the formal commendation documentation; the whole of the buildings were ablaze. A large store of coke was on fire and the fumes from a Plant were sweeping over the firemen as they were at work. Two lines of hose were in use and the operations had to be conducted from a narrow alley-way at the rear of a row of cottages. The men were out of sight from the road.

When I arrived on the scene, one of the firemen had just been overcome by the fumes and taken out into Clarence Road to recover. A second man was sick and the others were suffering severely through the effects of the fumes. I was at once approached with a request that permission be given for the men to withdrawn until breathing apparatus could be obtained owing to the danger of the fumes. I saw that the building against the gas-holder was well alight and that the flames were licking the side of the holder making it essential that the firefighting operations should be continued without delay.

Elementary First Aid precautions were taken using coverings for the mouth and the men were rallied. They then again attacked the fires and by good team work, coupled with extra strenuous efforts, the building that was on fire nearest to the gas-holder was concentrated upon and the fire was brought under control.

Further testimony was provided by a Mr R.E. Hannam; Choking fumes were coming from a burning heap of purifying materials on the water front of the gas works. Four men, who I believe were part of a Ryde crew, were in a particularly dangerous spot, working in a narrow lane at the rear of the cottages between J.S. White’s property and the gas works. Although almost overcome with the fumes they prevented the fire from spreading and eventually reached a large gasholder. Their action undoubtedly played a big part in saving the Gas Works. 

Despite the many and varied efforts to save life and extinguish the fires, the ARP commander on the ground felt confident enough now that the bombers had withdrawn to despatch a message to HQ at 02:35 that; situ under general control. 

Control of the units responding may have been achieved but there had been losses among the various members of the civil defence services. So far the losses to the fire service had been restricted to appliances, KYF 9113, KYF 9121 and KGW 9501 having been burned out. 

Ryde's Company Officer Max Heller in Station Street, 1941.

Leading Fireman Alf Rees of Ryde, on the occasion of receiving a long service medal in 1938.

With the gasholder situation falling into the in control category, Company Officer Heller moved south along Clarence Road to check on progress at Marvin’s Yard where the Chasseurs were based. Here he found signs of progress, albeit that the destruction was immense. He instructed the firemen there to begin a system of short reliefs, allowing men in pairs to attend Mrs Hann’s WVS van for refreshment. The Commanding Officer of the Free French Base, Lieutenant Malcolm Buist of the Royal Navy. Under his command the French were split between assisting the firemen and firing the guns of the F.S. Diligente and Chasseurs 5, 8, 11, 13, and 43 in addition to a shore mounted Hotchkiss 8mm gun and Lewis guns mounted for anti-aircraft use. Fire pumps put to use by the French were those of the Chasseur Base itself plus the Marvin’s works pump. A vessel referred to by Buist as the Cowes Corporation Fire Float, but more likely that of the NFS, came to their aid and ran hose along the piers to attack the fires from the river side. He noted that Ryde’s firemen had accessed the 10,000 gallon water tank with further supplies coming from the mains. Ryde manned three pumps but a fourth provided by them was put to use by men put ashore from the Blyskawica.

As the firemen rotated for tea and sandwiches Mrs Hann refused an order from her WVS commandant to withdraw for her own safety. Leading Fireman Herbert Dewey of Ryde and his teenaged colleague Colin Weeks, younger son of Ryde’s mayor, took their turn and approached the van.

At this point the formal reports by Captain Francki of the Polish Navy and Lieutenant Buist of the Royal Navy differ by thirty minutes. The former stated that the second attack came at 03:45 and the latter at 04:15. Whichever was correct the fact remains that of the first stick of bombs dropped, one came down either directly into or close to the WVS van and instantly killed Mrs Hann, Leading Fireman Dewey and Fireman Weeks.

The second attack lasted just over an hour, adding dread to the pandemonium beneath as the determined firefighting and rescuing continued beneath a renewed seventy minutes of unremitting violence from the skies. Captain Francki recorded the all clear being declared at 06:00 but the work continued for many hours thereafter. So shattered were all those involved it is perhaps no surprise that mistakes were to occur. One such accident cost the life of Shanklin fireman John Howard Blundell who, having battled through the night and surviving the most apocalyptic event any Island firefighter has ever had to face, was mortally injured in a crash between his fire appliance and another vehicle as they manoeuvred their way out of the scene to return home.

IWFBF remembers all those who lost their lives on the 4th/5th May 1942.

 

The East Cowes gas works in the background. In sad irony is that the vehicle to the front is that of local butcher Tom Hann who's wife Alice died while serving close to this spot with the WVS.