The White family had established a shipbuilding tradition in Kent as far back as the 18th century. In 1802, the company moved from its Kentish coastal location at Broadstairs to East Cowes. Additionally, during the final stages of the Napoleonic War, work began on what would become the Thetis Yard to the west of the River Medina. The site on the east side was further developed and named Falcon Yard. It rose in prominence throughout the Victorian era and by the turn of the century was acknowledged as one of the world leaders in the construction of small and medium-sized naval and merchant ships.

J.S. White’s became synonymous with life and employment for residents of the Isle of Wight. Its sustained success was inextricably linked to that of its locality. The company’s importance to the war effort was no less vital.


28 April 1942

Peter Montgomery, a boy in 1942, recalled the events of that morning around 07:00. Surprise was so complete that not a gun was fired at the raiders. I heard the aircraft go over and my parents, who were lying in bed with the curtains open, saw them and thought they were some of ours. They were disillusioned when, about three minutes later, the aircraft returned and shot up the streets as they passed. This time, the light AA guns around the town opened fire and I made one of my fast exits from my bedroom, rushed downstairs and dived into our reinforced cupboard under the stairs.

The County Press included some statistical insight in its report – Flying in low from the Channel seven Messerschmitt 109s made a sudden raid on a South Coast town shortly before 7 a.m. on Tuesday. After swooping even lower to release their bombs they opened up with cannon-shell and machine-gun fire before disappearing as quickly as they arrived. The raid was over in a few minutes, but the seven bombs dropped, one by each plane, caused a number of casualties, some of which proved fatal.

Writing to her daughter in the aftermath, Hilda Alexandra Day commented - I could have cried when I went out yesterday afternoon to see the people coming along with what they could salvage from their homes. I haven’t got over it yet although it only lasted a few minutes it was terrible. Seven German bombers dived over us down to the housetops almost, the screeching of the bombs and the explosions was terrible, they came on us suddenly without any warning given. I was thankful you were out of it, but I live in fear of it coming back again.

In the following week, seven J.S. White’s employees (named in the IW County Press) tasked with fire-watching duties, were hauled before the bench at the County Petty Sessions and fined for defaulting on their responsibilities.

Nine people died in the attack.

Naturally the Research and Experiments were alerted and had an interest in the attack. However, before a field investigator got to the Island to carry out the survey, a second much larger attack occurred.


4/5 May 1942

To summarise the event of what is still remembered locally as the Cowes Blitz is to do it something of an injustice. Suffice it to say, the event is marked as the darkest hour in the history of the Isle of Wight, representing a more violent and damaging raid than those inflicted by marauding seaborne invaders of centuries past. Over 70 civilians, including members of the civil defence services, lost their lives that night. The number of those maimed, injured and made homeless were many more.

The number of German bomber aircraft involved vary between publications, anywhere between 80 to 160, and they came in two waves. The first, came late in the evening of 4 May. With the Island’s entire civil defence resources deployed to either side of the Medina in a desperate battle to control fires, rescue entrapped persons from debris, and provide lifesaving medical care to the injured, the second wave struck at approximately 03:45 in the morning of 5 May.

Hilda Alexandra Day again wrote to her daughter – Thank God you were not here, we have been through hell. My house and home are nearly ruined, hardly a house in East and West have escaped. Mr. Jackman rescued us from under our stairs, our mouths were filled with soot and dust. The place is full of time bombs, the fires were terrific. We have not a window or door in the house. We’ve got the ceiling down on the beds, all doors off, nearly all my china gone, and I am filled with soot and debris up and down. Poor Dad has been like one in a trance, and we have so much to do now, we have to arrange all the funerals etc., I will get wreaths from us all.


Ministry of Information - Home Intelligence Report

Wasting no time, Mr. Asbury, Deputy Regional Commissioner of Civil Defence Region 6 – Southern, ordered a post-raid conference to be held at 12:30 on 5 May at Northwood House (incorrectly described in the original report as Northbrooke House).

Region dispatched the conference notification at 09:07, while firefighting and rescue efforts were ongoing in Cowes and East Cowes. All were instructed to rendezvous at Portsmouth Fire Station by 11:15 to be checked in by the National Fire Service and conveyed by launch to the Island. Despite the short notice the majority of the party made it to Portsmouth on time, ironically it was Regional staff from Reading, that issued the instructions, that were late, so the remainder crossed the Solent ahead of them.

The party were taken by motorbus from Ryde to Cowes. Meanwhile Regional staff had crossed directly to Cowes, their vehicles converging somewhere near Somerton, with the latter advising the former that the meeting had been rescheduled for 15:15 at Newport. The advance party believed they had time to observe the conditions in the town before the meeting and pressed on. Due to the level of damage to the roads, the presence of unexploded bombs and rescue work progressing, they had to leave the bus and walk into the town, allowing only ten minutes of observation before they headed back to Newport.

At County Hall local officials apprised the conference of the situation. The greater part of the damage was to industrial property, although there was a considerable amount of civilian damage. Four factories were destroyed and 20 others damaged, between 4,000 and 5,000 workers being affected. The canteens at J.S. White's and Saunders-Roe were both destroyed, and 2500 midday meals would be needed the following day.

A rough estimate of the casualties was given, as known at that time, as 51 killed and 180 injured, these figures were to increase substantially. All civil defence services were fully extended, and a great deal of help was given by the military. This included the service of a field ambulance unit. Royal Engineers were undertaking demolition work. Houses damaged numbered between 200 and 300, Between 500 to 600 homeless were being cared for with at six WVS rest centres and were expected to have been billeted before the end of the day.

Following discussions regarding utilities and telephone communications, which had been cut to just one line to the mainland, the conference closed. Ministry of Information representatives felt there was no reason to remain and returned to the mainland the same evening. Other attendees of the conference remained to continue their own departmental tasks. Among them was a field investigator from the Research and Experiments Department. Initial and follow-up visits were conducted to furnish the report in full.


RE/B46/6/5 – Shipyards, Cowes, J.S. White & Co. East Cowes

The R&E field investigators visit to the J.S. White’s premises was the first since the attack of 28 April. Accordingly, one report, RE/B46/6/5 was provided to cover both incidents. In the Raid Summary document, the investigator lists that between the two attacks the Falcon Yard was struck by 2 x 1,000kg bombs, 2 x 500 kg bombs and 5 x 250kg bombs – the latter each featuring an Incendiary Bomb device installed in the tail. The number of self-contained incendiary bombs dropped was impossible to calculate.

The Summary is annotated with the following text – During the first raid 3 H.E. bombs fell on engineering works and 2 H.E. scored near misses on shipyards; bombs were 250kg with I.B.s in the tail; in the second 1 H.E. 1,000kg (estimated) and a number of I.B.s; two 500kg H.E.s and a 1,000kg H.E. fell just outside the works.

Services

28.4.42 – Not affected except in gutted shops.

4/5.5.42 = Main supplies affected, other damage was caused.

Resulting Loss of Production and Causes

The latter included:

  • Through damage to buildings and plant – Loss of sheeting in the Boiler Shop caused a delay of two weeks in this Dept. Remaining structural damage was not expected to cause any hold up in production.
  • Through damage to stocks – Loss of stocks was considerable but no long term delays were anticipated as arrangements for replacements had been made.
  • Through damage to boat building – Two destroyers delayed as result of raid, one was damaged and the other help up due to articles not on board and general disorganisation. Some small boats were destroyed and damaged.

In a document marked ‘Most Secret’ R.E.4 (Technical Development branch) delivered the following.

FIRM:                    J. Samuel White and Co. Cowes

PRODUCTS:      Shipbuilding and Engineering

PRE-RAID ORGANISATION:      Shipyard and Joiners shops on the East side of the River Medina, engineering works, fitting out berths and boatbuilding (70’ MTBs) on the West side. The firm was building destroyers of various sizes and MTBs with engines, turbine & boilers for the former.

ATTACK:               1. 28.4.42 – daylight

                              2. 4/5.5.42

EFFECT ON SHIPYARD

In the first raid 3 H.E. bombs fell on the engineering works and 2 H.E. scored near misses on the shipyards; in the second 1 H.E. and a number of I.B.s. The damage is shown in the following schedule.




EFFECT ON SERVICES

28.4.42 – not affected except in gutted shops.

4/5.5.42 – main supplies not affected, but wiring in Boiler Shop (Building No.1) needed extensive repairs; lighting and power cables in all damaged shops and offices required repairs.

EFFECT ON LABOUR

4/5.5.42 – 11 employees killed and 7 injured – these casualties did not occur in the works, however, and the management reported that the loss of these employees did not have a direct effect on production.

The following list gives the number of employees asbent daily from 24th April – 24th May. No records appear to be available for the 28th April – the date of the first raid.

Date                                No. of absentees

24.4.42 (Saturday)         178

25.4.42 (Sunday)            257

27.4.42 (Monday)           178

28.4.42 (Tuesday)           - date of 1st attack

29.4.42 (Wednesday)      246

30.4.42 (Thursday)          200

1.5.42 (Friday)                197

2.5.42 (Saturday)            312

4.5.42 (Monday)              204

5.5.42 (Tuesday)             Works closed – date of 2nd attack

6.5.42 (Wednesday)       Works closed

7.5.42 (Thursday)            923

8.5.42 (Friday)                 761

9.5.42 (Saturday)             1064

11.5.42 (Monday)             504

12.5.42 (Tuesday)            469

13.5.42 (Wednesday)      392

14.5.42 (Thursday)          359

15.5.42 (Friday)               333

16.5.42 (Saturday)          456

17.5.42 (Monday)            305

18.5.42 (Tuesday)            268

19.5.42 (Wednesday)      253

20.5.42 (Thursday)         257

21.5.42 (Friday)              248

22.5.42 (Saturday)         501


RESULTING LOSS OF PRODUCTION AND CAUSES

  1. Through external causes – Nil.
  2. Through damage to building and plant – The loss of sheeting in the Boiler Shop was estimated to have caused a delay of two weeks in this Department, but was not expected to affect the delivery of vessels. The remaining damage to structure was not expected to cause any hold up in production. Alternative premises were found for the Mould Loft and Joinery Shop.
  3. Through damage to stocks – Loss of stocks was considerable – exact numbers are, however, not available at present. Work in progress in the Joinery Shop, Mould Loft and Light Platers’ Shop were included.
  • Finished Joinery works for all wood fittings for vessels 1908, 1909, 1916, 1917, 1918, and 1919 lost, representing 8 months turnover for 60 men.
  • In the Light Plating Shop finished materials (racks, lockers, screens etc.) for 1908 and 1909, and portions for the other vessels listed above destroyed, representing 4 to 5 months work for 40 mins*.

*NOTE – It is assumed ’40 mins’ is a typo and that ’40 men’ was the intention.

  • Mould Loft, Moulds, battens and templates etc., destroyed for vessels 1921, 1922, 1923, 1924 also certain items for 1925. This represents 8 month work for this Department (15 men).
  • Spar Shop Yards masts and spares for 1908, 1909, 1916, 1917, 1918 and 1919. This Shop normally employed 10 men.

This was largely made up by adapting joinery materials supplied by the Admiralty. Whole of the patterns for the Engineering Shop were lost, and their replacement would take some considerable time. No production delays resulted, however, as patterns from other firms were used.

No long term delays were anticipated from the loss of stocks as arrangements made for replacements should avoid these. The bulk of the aluminium stocks were destroyed but it was proposed to substitute light gauge steel material which was in stock.

  1. Through damage to boat buildings – Destroyers J1908 and J6200 were the only destroyers delayed as a result of the raid. J6200 suffered some damage from Bomb No. 27 from splinters and blast and was delivered some three weeks late. J1908 although not damaged was held up for two weeks due to articles not on board and general disorganisation.

The following small boats were destroyed or damaged – details of cost or building times are not available at the moment.

East Cowes

  • 8 whalers and boats delivered from vessels building (Admiralty supply) destroyed.

28.4.42 West Cowes

  • 1 seaplane tender seriously damaged.
  • 8 seaplane tenders slightly damaged.
  • 2 Admiralty dinghies destroyed.
  • 2 Admiralty dinghies damaged.
  • 4 hulls for Ministry of Supply launches destroyed.
  • 3 hulls for Ministry of Supply launches damaged.

The R&E file included a Preliminary Damage Report submitted by J.S. White’s, in which they stated that the total floor area of lost buildings was 69,000 to 70,000 sq. ft., and that none of the buildings included in that area could be saved – all required demolition and rebuilding. This included the complete destruction of all plant and machinery located within, affecting the work of 170 staff.

Temporary arrangements are being made to utilise certain of these employees in various sections of the Yard…a considerable number of these men are at present engaged on emergency repairs, we are satisfied that after this initial period they can all be employed on production, and that we will not require to dispense with their services.


Falcon Works (photography of damage)


Thetis Works (photography of damage)

The arrows in the above image indicate damage specific to the tip-and-run raid of 28 April 1942.


Somerton Works (photography of damage)

Although the Somerton Works barely featured in the R&E report, the following photography was included in the file.


Thetis Works - plan drawing

The plan drawing of the Thetis Works has been annotated in red with damage descriptions, and details the position of the ORP Blyskawica. A downloadable version is available below for greater scrutiny.

Thetis Works Plan Showing ORP Blyskawica Jpg
Image – 182.2 KB 57 downloads

Falcon Works - detail of firefighting

The plan below of the Falcon Works has been heavily overwritten to show the firefighting plan in place at the time of the incident - which despite the efforts were ultimately unsuccessful in saving the buildings that were showered with Incendiary Bombs, but did prevent further fire spread beyond.

  • Top right shows the location of five pumps, three manned by J.S. White's NFS affiliated fire crews, and two by those of the Saunders Roe brigade. Each pump shows a length of hard suction hose that drew water from the River Medina. Lines extending and fanning out from right to left from each pump, show the approximate location of the jets of water being directed onto the affected structure. The light trailer pumps in use each had the capability to supply at least two jets, so the presence of only five lines may be misleading.
  • At the bottom there is the comment 'AFS fought fire from the roadway' - which should read NFS as the AFS was disbanded in August 1941. From brief references in original diaries of wartime firemen, it is likely that the NFS members involved in this area were those of 14D2Z Ryde, and subsidiary stations, under the command of Company Officer Max Heller
  • A comment alongside the AFS one, states that everything hatched in red was completely destroyed by fire, and that the fire began to the right of that (bottom right) in the Galvanising Mill.
  • The area hatched in blue to the right refers to damage sustained on 28 April.
  • The comments on the left highlight the almost impossible situation the firemen faced in trying to control the fire.
    • 22:45 - 1st fall of I.B.s - but were put out by works fire watchers.
    • 22:50 - 2nd fall of I.B.s - but were being put out when 3rd fall took place.
    • 23:00 - 3rd fall of I.B.s - starting fire which spread.
Falcon Works Firefighting Plan Jpg
Image – 108.8 KB 51 downloads

Other plans within the R&E file

Medina Road Jpg
Image – 88.4 KB 55 downloads

The above extract from a much larger plan drawing, bomb numbers as applied in the survey, and within the red circles some detail of damage to other business premises in the area of Medina Road.

Top left - shows a fire damaged building at the Uffa Fox boatbuilding yard.

Bottom left - annotates that the Ratsey and Lapthorne premises was completely gutted by fire, corroborating a fireman's written recollection.

Top right - states that a Saunders Roe building was completely gutted and demolished by fire.

Bottom right - suggests the building was partially damaged by fire. 

In addition we can see that Bomb No.161 struck the premises of Pickfords Transport Ltd.


Clarence Road Jpg
Image – 127.0 KB 60 downloads

Arctic Road Jpg
Image – 104.2 KB 56 downloads

Somerton Jpg
Image – 66.6 KB 54 downloads
Osborne Jpg
Image – 95.8 KB 61 downloads

Thetis Bridge And Medina Roads Jpg
Image – 163.4 KB 60 downloads

Below - plan showing the location of the J.S. White's fire float, and in red, multiple lines of fire hose that were run ashore supplied by its pump.


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