This page deals with the devastating events of 3 January 1943 as they affected the town of Shanklin. Everything from below this paragraph is extracted from a draft chapter entitled The Dark Sunday which is intended for inclusion in a future volume of the Island's firefighting history.


This chapter deals with the events that mark Isle of Wight fire-fighting’s darkest day. It was also a day when a total of 23 Island residents, including those of the National Fire Service, lost their lives to enemy bombing. In producing a chapter of such harrowing consequences the author is keenly aware that for some this may evoke distant but distasteful memories. For that reason names of persons other than those members of the NFS who are remembered within the fire service and on the monument at the junction of Shanklin’s High Street and Chine Avenue, have been concealed beneath pseudonyms, not out of a lack of respect, but in all good faith for quite the opposite. I thank them for sharing their humbling first hand experiences with me.


Grey clouds of a dozen or more shades drift lazily across the cobalt sky above two short terraces of vacated homes squatting in stout defiance amid an eerily empty setting. No children ran about the diminutive street, no football bounced across the muddied field beyond. Inside the houses that were once homes were carefully staged tables, chairs, bedsteads. Ghostly repositioned framed photographs stand in testament to a dispossessed and persecuted people long since departed from the red brickwork within which they once dwelled. Nothing moved, nothing made a sound save the whirring of the 16mm Siemens camera positioned on a sturdy tripod at a safe distance, the lens pointing at the end of the terraces.

The moment had come, the detonation was initiated. Away to the left, almost out of shot a black cloud rapidly gathered beneath which a skirt of lighter dust appeared moving low and at phenomenal speed sweeping all before it until battering into the face of the first terrace. The cluster of homes shattered and fell inward, unable to withstand the uncontainable power; the invisible force rippled over the flailing debris and tore tiles from the roofs of the second terrace. As the remnants of the first terrace swelled outward to its rear the windows of the second were shattered inwards, the comparatively minor damage was fleeting as the rear walls of its devastated counterpart toppled over as one, slamming in to the obliterating street paving, throwing whole bricks, half bricks and tiles and dust as aerial missiles or lower as scurrying assailants across the rippling surface toward the second terrace, penetrated, pock-marked and spoiled by the ferocious debris. The photographs swept from the table and dashed to a thousand pieces against the crumbling wall.

500 kilograms of ammonium nitrate and TNT packed inside the Sprengbombe Cylindrisch is proven in the blink of an eye. The camera stops.


Bibi was barely more than a boy, guided by his father’s beliefs, he being a man who’d struggled in the post First World War environment and only embittered by their plight as their neighbouring and true Fatherland emerged reinvigorated. Bibi had been a Hitler Youth since the time it was illegal in Austria, but empowered by Anschluss his efforts intensified and he volunteered eagerly for all manner of roles, both political and practical including the TN, the Technical Emergency organisation that operated in support of regular fire brigades in times of emergency or catastrophe.

As the Fatherland widened its doors to the eager young Ostmark boys he took off with his close friend, passed the entrance examination in Berlin and entered the Napola, a National Socialist education institution that clandestinely existed to draft suitable young officers in to the air force. He attended and excelled at the Reich glider school in East Prussia and there, aged 18, eight weeks before the declaration of war, passed his first flying test. When news of the declaration reached him the zealous teenager discussed the matter with his father, the latter declaring disbelief that the cordial relationship they believed they had with their friends in Britain had descended to a state of conflict.

On 15 November 1939 Leopold Wenger, no longer little Bibi, left Pomerania, via Berlin for Saxony and following intensive weeks of basic training finally took to the air in a two-seater biplane on 8 February, noting in his diary; it’s funny how small people and houses appear, almost like toys, quite unreal.

By 3 April he made his first solo flight and three weeks later was upgraded to begin training on the heavier ‘B’ machines, now wearing the rank of lance-corporal. A month later he flew a Heinkel He 72 over the Alps. In June, considered a competent pilot, he began lessons in radio navigation and in July having passed all examinations asked of him he wrote to his parents; I am very anxious about where I shall be posted. I have applied for Stukas or fighters.

By the end of the year he was flying, and practice firing, from the seat of a Messerschmitt Me 109 and on 11 November was formally presented with his pilots badge and in early December was on route out of Germany, collecting equipment and rations in Aachen before crossing the border and proceeding in to occupied France. Whilst expressing frustration with the pace of his contribution to the war effort he advanced through the ranks, achieving Oberfahnrich, or sergeant first class, in spring 1941 and with little delay was appointed lieutenant before May and reported seeing the coast of England for the first time, shortly followed by a hair-raising recovery of his aircraft when it suffered an engine failure at high altitude over Jersey.

Following an intensive time of ground movement and aerial combat mainly in a defensive role, Wenger transferred to a newly formed fighter-bomber squadron flying the Focke Wulf Fw 190. The squadron’s role was one of aggression, taking the fight to the south of England. In this new role Wenger continued to excel and on 9 July was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class for his part in the sinking of a 10,000 ton ship in the Solent and in August added the 1st Class for destroying Salisbury gas works, noting that his trip took him around the western tip of the Isle of Wight.

Leopold Wenger, during flight training.


Meanwhile on the Isle of Wight the County Press of Saturday 25 July included a minor reference to a notice that had appeared outside the fire station in Shanklin’s Victoria Avenue stating that the premises had been closed. The headquarters of the local section of the National Fire Service had relocated to the Gloster Hotel in Landguard Road; residents were advised to telephone the new HQ on 2675 to report an incident of fire.


On 15 October Wenger lead a mission against Shanklin, curving back over the large house at which he aimed his bomb to see the effect he noted; it was like someone had turned on all the lights in the whole house, the walls slowly collapsed outwardly and a gigantic dark red column of flame burst out upwards from the rubble. On New Years Eve of 1942 he remarked in his diary how he’d flown over an area of English countryside and; shot up a few houses on the way back. Wenger made two similar raids on Ventnor and one on Bembridge during the summer.

On the dawn of New Year 1943 Wenger was keen; to convey our New Year’s best wishes to the Tommies really early in the morning, but you couldn’t fly at all the weather was so bad. So on the 2nd we bombed a small town, Kingsbridge, until there was not much left of it. I took really good photographs during this attack.

Of the next morning Lieutenant Leopold Wenger wrote; this time it was Shanklin’s turn to get it.

Two of Wenger's many photographs that he took during attacks on south coast town's. The image on the left was taken during a low-level approach to a tip-and-run raid on Ventnor in 1942.

Shanklin enjoyed crisp, bright and pleasant conditions on Sunday 3 January 1943, even a mid-afternoon raid alert that never transpired failed to upset the mood of a seaside resort in unseasonably good weather.

Eileen O’Reilly, who had spent an enjoyable few hours at her daughter’s home, bade farewell and walked the short distance to attend late mass at the Roman Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart in Atherley Road. 13 year old evacuee Robert Jones dutifully led his younger sister and her friend to the same destination. Albert Carson, elderly veteran of the Second Boer War began packing up his gardening tools as the sun set on the rear of his home in Landguard Road. Mrs Thomas, eager to be home before dark, hurriedly conveyed her infant daughter home in a pushchair after feeding the ducks at Shanklin Manor.

At the Gloster, NFS HQ, the twenty-one resident firemen, firewomen and despatch riders settled in to their respective posts, hoping for a quiet evening having checked the readiness of the trailer pumps, the Burford, utility trucks and hose lorry, some of which were positioned in the adjacent Southern Vectis yard. Beneath the open fire and warmth of the HQ Tactical Room at the front of the building where Acting Company Officer B. Upward entertained Divisional Officer Scott, the former garage basement since cleared and prepared to shelter over 300 persons in the event of a raid, stood cold, empty and uninviting. The majority of the duty watch played cards and exchanged banter in the dining room from where the appealing aroma of the impending meal wafted in from the adjacent kitchen. 49 year old Ruby Howard, NFS firewoman, wife of Reginald a former Isle of Wight rifleman and Royal Defence Corps veteran and mother of four girls, quietly went about her tasks in the control room. Seventeen year old Lawrence Eldridge and his sixteen year old pal and fellow messenger Robert Attrill sat together. The two boys were never made to feel anything but a vital part of the service by the battle hardened firemen that they idolised and yearned to succeed, but in respect took themselves to one side in muted association.

Daniel Cohen of Edgware, Harry Glantzspigel of Woodside Park and Ivor Day of Winchmore Hill, mixed freely with the local men of the NFS despite their conspicuous London brogue carving harshly through the district dialect. Everyone was acutely aware that these men had already been through the London Blitz and had earned their place at any table at which they cared to sit. Leading Fireman Alfred Brown of Ryde kept an eye on proceedings and the language used given the nearby presence of a lady in one direction and the Divisional Officer in the other. Likewise did the wizened Cecil Charles Matthews a man steeped in traditional values. Matthews was born in 1875, joined the old Shanklin Fire Brigade in 1895 and retired in 1923. Responding to the call when his town’s brigade needed firm leadership he later returned and was appointed its Chief Officer in 1928 and held the position until it was taken from him at the age of 66 years when the brigade was absorbed in to the National Fire Service. Like his Sandown counterpart and good friend Chief Officer Wilfred Brown of Sandown, Matthews had not just been overlooked for command of the new Shanklin Company of the NFS, but had been demoted back to fireman where, much to the chagrin of the Sandown-Shanklin District Council, he was said to be assisting as a cook. Matthews was a stalwart soul committed to his town despite NFS policy and whilst he had little in common with the gaggle of younger men about him, the indefatigable 68 year old understood the task of protecting his home town better than any of them.

Spirits were high; they had to be for it was only a few months since they had attended the funeral of one of their own who suffered terrible injuries during the Cowes Blitz in early May. Finally succumbing to his plight months after the event, Firemen Burberry, Hall, Hiscock, Whittington, Smith and Kingswell could afford to relax and chat over the table this day, but they’d not forgotten the inordinate load of Fireman John Howard Blundell’s coffin upon their shoulders and their minds on that summer Monday at St Saviour’s.

From over the sea came the sound of engines. Four Focke Wulf Fw 190’s lead by Lieutenant Leopold Poldi Wenger had departed Cherbourg headed for Shanklin. With perfect conditions Poldi required little navigational aid being familiar with the Island’s coast from the previous summer but he feared being spotted early and the quartet stayed low to the surf until rearing up at the last moment, strafing, exposing their single under slung 500kg bombs, catching the anti-air gunners oblivious and pairing off to begin their devastating work.

No siren sounded but the sound of gunfire alerted Robert Jones who showed great presence of mind for one so young, withdrawing from his position at the entrance to the Roman Catholic Church, pushing his sister and her friend before him and under some seats. As they curled up in terror the spattering machine gun fire was followed by the deafening wail of the first bomb.

Scuttling in at a low trajectory the bomb blasted through the outer wall and exploded at ground level. Of the twenty-six persons inside five were killed instantly as the place of worship blew apart. The frightened elder brother, dust-caked and stoic arose to see the sky slicing through the dust where the tiled roof had been a few seconds before. It now lay in impossible slabs at obscene angles; to his amazement the statue of the Lord stood unblemished to the side of the destruction.

At the Gloster, Divisional Officer Scott, Company Officer Upward and all present stood shakily but in readiness for the call, not for them the safety of the shelter just a few steps away, their town was the target and it was for them to prepare to respond to its needs.

Debris from the church laid discharged across gardens and buildings in Atherley Road as the survivors dragged one another across the rubble and in to the street. In the skies above the exponent viewed his work and swooped behind his wingman to safeguard his imminent attack as the anti-aircraft guns swung on their axis. Poldi bent his 190 over the town, curling back out to sea and taking the opportunity to both photograph and cannonade Winchester House, catching the trajectory of the outgoing rounds in his lens as he bore down, choosing to save his heavy ordnance for now.

Another 190 strafed the Esplanade, causing little damage but ample panic as he climbed away from the pursuing AA rounds. Avoiding further risk as the ground gunners got their aim the aircraft yawed wider afield, coming back over Hyde, rattling madly and releasing a bomb at so low a level it slapped down on its side and bounced off the bowling green, hurtling another 250 feet over the railway track and beyond before slamming back into the ground and exploding ten or so yards short of a row of cottages. The nearest was shattered to bits, outer walls blew out, rafters and joists crashed down, but the Morrison shelter in the kitchen, nudged eighteen inches by the force, didn’t fail in its purpose despite the shower of debris and a joist shaken from the party wall that slammed down upon it. Tragically the two occupants, whilst in the kitchen, hadn’t time to make use of its protective components. A survivor from upstairs in the same building slid in his bed with the collapse to the garden, unharmed. The immediate neighbouring property was likewise levelled; the third lost its roof and part of the outer walls and the fourth its roof only from where four occupants emerged uninjured. A home-made trench shelter in the rear gardens, topped with iron sheets and just 6” of earth remained both undisturbed and unoccupied.

Throughout all of this Mrs Thomas remained curled protectively over the squirming body of her young daughter whom she’d instinctively pushed in a to hedge, scrabbling desperately for shelter, oblivious to the sharpness of the thorns and seeking only the sanctuary of the deeply lobed dark green leaves.

The gas works evidenced damage from the same blast and more so from the third bomb which made a direct hit on the smaller division of a two-section surface shelter of the No 3 pattern. Built of brick and intended to house eighteen persons in total, the smaller six person section, fortunately vacant, was totally obliterated in addition to an adjacent dry stone wall whilst the larger section remained undisturbed. Just yards beyond stood the Station Hotel, battered, scarred but upright. The Retort House of the gas works remained standing but fractured, its 4½” brick panels resembling Swiss cheese in the eyes of Mr Payne the manager who was shaken but alert to the fact that despite this and machine gun damage, his gas works remained functioning.

About the railway station and buildings staggered the shocked and dazed staff and travellers but the structures around them, approximately 150 feet from the blasts, showed only minor damage. In the Gloster they anxiously awaited the call that must come, perhaps by person, or for the phone to begin ringing around which many stood nervously in the control room; but it didn’t come.

The final bomber, eager to disengage the encumbering ordnance and join his flight in a rasping departure to the safety of vanquished France eagerly sought a worthy target, the brightness of the white painted surfaces of the Gloster stood out from those around it in Landguard Road and caught his gaze.

Hurtling in from the south the 190’s path was streaked by the AA rounds of the furious gunners, the desperate pilot climbed by instinctive response, nosed back down to secure his quarry and released his bomb from a greater altitude and angle than the previous three. The weapon bore down on the Gloster and smashed through the south face close to the bottom of the middle floor of the three stories, busting through the joists and boards, thundering in to the ground floor of the kitchen and exploding. Every pane of glass shattered and disintegrated outwards, the two storey rear of the property fell completely apart, to the front all exterior and partition walls fell to pieces leaving only the scorched and distorted steel frame of the building standing exposed and vulnerable. The roof lifted and shook off two thirds of its tiles. Some of the vertical RSJ’s were torn from their bolted positions, pirouetting sideways in a chaotic dance before toppling and crashing down to destroy the hose lorry and a self-propelled pump. Divisional Officer Scott’s staff car was showered with high velocity debris and wrecked; other vehicles and pumps were also damaged.

The hole created by the entry of the bomb at the Gloster Hotel, seen both outside and in.

Above the scene Poldi and the 190 pilots took one last strafing run over the town, their engines deafening before throttling away from the bay on a south-west heading as the grim faced AA gunners spat a final frantic flurry in their wake. Scott faltered from the wreckage in to Landguard Road, supported by Upward, minds spinning, ears ringing. His deliberations quickly turned to his firemen and women. With the remains of the upper floors teetering dangerously overhead on extraordinarily twisted steel girders and with every sign of further collapse they ploughed in to the remains of the dining room and began the search, assisted by those persons of Shanklin who felt compelled to come to the rescue of their fire-fighters.

Immediately a man was discovered amongst the mass that was once the dining room, he was dead and in the ground floor control room two men, one seriously injured laid beside the broken remains of his friend. Proceeding to what comprised the remains of the first floor they discovered one injured man in the passage, a fatality in the Section Leader’s bedroom accompanied by another with severe injuries. In the station dormitory they discovered two injured and one, incredibly, traumatised but otherwise untouched.

Retracing their steps and rechecking every corner where corners still remained, Scott and Upward directed the injured to be taken to the Home of Rest Hospital, the peppered but otherwise intact Winchester House.

It was then that it dawned on them that of the persons that were within the building at the time of the explosion one woman and eleven men were missing. One of them was 68 year old Cecil Matthews. It took three hours to locate and unearth the former Chief Officer from the rubble, where, incredibly, he was found injured but alive. It was some time before the remains of the others were recovered at a distance of up to 120 yards from the site of the disfigured NFS headquarters.

Cecil Charles Matthews

Former Chief Officer Cecil Charles Matthews never fully recovered from his wounds, shock sustained from the blast and three hours of entrapment beneath the rubble. He was finally retired from duty on 15 July after a total 43 years service over a 48 year period. He passed away on 9 August 1950, at home 7 Western Road, Shanklin. Matthews had not only been a committed fireman but a committee member of the Conservative Club, a trustee of the British Legion, and member of the Chine Lodge of Freemasons and in his younger days was a notable goalkeeper and a valued member of Shanklin Rowing Club.

 

Lieutenant Leopold Wenger noted of the attack in his diary; The flak was quite accurate but too late. Once again we got good photos of the attack.


On 17 February Wenger returned with eight aircraft to attack Shanklin. This attack also took a terrible toll on the town and many more lives were lost. The loss of every single unarmed civilian that died in these non-military and pure terror attacks is something incomprehensible even in war, but perhaps the effect on one family is almost beyond any understanding at all. 34 year old Edward James Kingswell, one of the firemen who died in Wenger’s attack of 3 January, left a widow Dorothy and three-year old daughter Audrey Frances. Both they and the late Edward’s mother Mary Ann were to die beneath Wenger’s wings in the attack of 17 February. It’s unfathomable that the young German pilot recorded in his diary that the highlight of his second visit to Shanklin was; giving them a good beating. For his efficiency in remote despatch of unarmed civilians in the cause of the Fatherland, Wenger was promoted within a month and given his own squadron to command.

On 8 April he led his new squadron to attack Newport and killed a further seventeen civilians, an off duty airman and two more who died later of their injuries. On 1 June he was personally responsible for the bomb that slammed in to the St Catherine’s Lighthouse engine house, killing all three keepers sheltering therein. Remarking in his diary he wrote; the mission was one we all enjoyed. Again he had time to consider photography, catching a blurred and ghostly image of the proud lighthouse as he bore down with malevolent intention.

Four days later he was removed to the Italian theatre and by the latter part of the year was convalescing from injuries sustained in Vienna, by now as an Oberleutnant (senior lieutenant) before a move to the Eastern Front.

Poldi’s war met with stiff resistance in the East and by 1945 he was a recipient of the Knights Cross and had returned to his native Austria, flying out of St Polten. On the morning of 10 April, following a visit to the dentist, he took to the skies following reports of Soviet tanks breaking through the German lines.

Taking a young and inexperienced pilot with him (he was only 23 himself), he led the attack head on before encountering Soviet fighters and shifting his fight to the skies. From there we meet conjecture as to his demise. His wingman, having successfully evaded the Soviet aircraft, some of which it was alleged were captured 190’s flown by Russians and Hungarians, reported Poldi missing.

He was was later discovered within his aircraft, crashed on a railway embankment near Aspern. He had bled to death from an injury to his back that, it was speculated, may have been caused by German anti-aircraft fire.

It would be fair to suggest that with the exception of the Cowes Blitz, the name of Leopold Wenger is infamous in the annals of Isle of Wight history for being the one individual who orchestrated more chaos, destruction, death and sadness than any other single member of the Luftwaffe.


Eight months after the attack, in September 1943, the Regal Cinema in Shanklin’s High Street hosted the first Isle of Wight showing of Humphrey Jennings movie Fires Were Started. The part-drama blended with authentic footage told the tale of London’s firemen during the blitz, the cheery fortitude, the gritty fire-fighting and the tragic aftermath that touches on understated images of post-traumatic stress that would have resonated deeply with the people of Shanklin who packed the auditorium. It's hard to imagine that any of the town's NFS attended.

On 2 January 1944 a service of commemoration was held at St Saviours Church. Senior officers, firemen, firewomen, messengers and fire guards from every corner of the Island attended the service conducted by Reverend R.B. Copley. In his closing words, referring to the twelve NFS members who died a year before he suggested; perhaps from their place in another world they shared our struggles and would also share in our triumph. But we should not see them among the rejoicing throng, their presence would be invisible.

Six days later, and over a year since those events, the Shanklin section of the NFS held their first social event since Isle of Wight fire-fighting’s blackest day.

Post-war on Sunday 2 February 1947, with bureaucracy already in progress to dismantle the country’s first, only and much vaunted National Fire Service, a commemorative plaque was unveiled by Fire Force Commander Charters from behind a Union Jack on the south wall of the Victoria Street fire station.

The plaque, photographed high on the wall of the engine house at today's Shanklin Fire Station (also includes Fm JH Blundell who died at Cowes in May 1942).

The hastily appointed station was decommissioned and moved a few years after the war to the state-of-the-art combined Police and Fire building on Landguard Road. Where the firemen went, so did the plaque, mounted in tranquil reverence on the engine house wall of Shanklin Fire Station and by which the firefighters and machines of today’s Shanklin Fire Station pass by on every occasion they go out of the doors to protect their town.

Fireman/Despatch Rider Robert William Attrill

To perpetuate the memory of our comrades...

 

*Leading Fireman Alfred Buchanan Brown (36) of 1 Lind Street, Ryde, Husband of Kathrin Ann.

*Fireman David Cohen (35) of 7 Grove Road, Edgware, Middlesex. Veteran of the London blitz.

*Fireman Edward Francis Harris (48) of 1 Arcade, High Street, Shanklin. Husband of Dorothy May.

*Fireman Edward James Kingswell (34) of 85 Landguard Road, Shanklin. Husband of Dorothy. One of the coffin bearers of his colleague who died of injuries sustained in the line of duty in summer 1942.

*Fireman Harry Glantzspigel (32) of 70 Chanctonbury Way, Woodside Park, North Finchley, London. Veteran of the London blitz.

*Fireman Ivor Charles Day (39) of 11 Radcliffe Hill, Winchmore Hill, London. Veteran of the London blitz.

*Fireman/Despatch Rider Lawrence Desmond Eldridge (17) of 6 Council Houses, West Street, Brading. Son of the late George William Eldridge.

*Fireman Leslie Alfred Jacobs (39) of Shoreside, The Esplanade, Shanklin. Son of the late Major CJ Jacobs.

*Fireman Percy James Sheath (38) of 14 Caesars Road, Newport. Son of Mr and Mrs EJ Sheath.

*Fireman/Despatch Rider Robert William Attrill (16) of 25 Wilton Park Road, Shanklin. Son of William Henry and Joan Attrill.

*Firewoman Ruby May Howard (49) of 17 Albert Road, Shanklin. Wife of Reginald Prouten Playle Howard. Mother of four daughters. The only woman in the history of Island firefighting to be killed on duty.

*Fireman Thomas John Healey (38) of 14 West Howe Road, Kinson, Bournemouth. Husband of Ethel May.