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.