Please read Ministry of Home Security - The R&E Files, before continuing.
On 15 January 1943 Ventnor’s firemen of station 14D3Y, and its satellite sub-stations under the leadership of Section Officer Coleman held a dance at the Winter Gardens. To the music of the Fire Force Orchestra from Portsmouth, around 400-persons attended the event held in aid of the Benevolent Fund. Coming less than a fortnight since the loss of 12 firefighters in one incident at Shanklin, the dance was well supported and a major boost to the Fund enabling the Ventnor firemen to send £180 directly to the dependents of those whose lives were lost.
On the following day those same firemen were dancing to the tune of the call-out when a blowtorch exploded at Martin’s Garage in Albert Street. The service, augmented for war but equally obtainable for domestic incidents, arrived in force and were admired for swift work that prevented fire spread to the domestic abode above the workshop. But the first month of the New Year was yet to reach its apex.
By the end of January, the town had received two aerial attacks, both tip-and-run raids. One, a storangriff (spoiling attack) was typical of those designed to destroy the morale of the public, the other, a diversionary operation to draw RAF resources away from London where 100-aircraft, attackers and escorts, were to deploy a substantial lightning-raid. Ventnor had already suffered inordinately from similar raids in the previous year. The New Year raids both overlapped and created waste across more swathes of the dense town centre in addition to devastating many families through loss of homes, possessions, and lives.
Thankfully being left in peace through February and March, Ventnor began to make some sense of what had happened. Repairs were made where feasible, and debris cleared from areas of more serious damage. The Ventnor branch of the Women’s Voluntary Service had enjoyed the respite to clean, equip and open its new Rest Centre at Thorncliffe, loaned to the WVS for the duration of the war. Mrs Saunders, Ventnor centre organiser, mentioned in her end of month report to county headquarters that her ladies were involved in Exercise Veteran, held across the Island on 27/28 March, notorious for the hoisting of a Swastika up the Newport Guildhall flagpole by over-exuberant enemy troops during the invasion phase.
As inappropriate as that may seem, it was an exercise and of little consequence compared to when aircraft bearing a real Swastika returned to the sky above Ventnor on 1 April 1943.
A South Coast town, which has had several previous raids of the kind, was the target of another tip-and-run raid, by three low-flying enemy fighter-bombers on Thursday afternoon – began the report in the IW County Press, continuing with – Each machine dropped a bomb, and unfortunately there were a number of casualties, including several killed, and further damage was done to business and private property.
The trio of FW 190s were led by Oberleutnant Leopold Wenger (Enemy of the People) who wrote to his parents from his new base near Caen – I’ve flown two attacks since we got back here, on 1 April we attacked Ventnor, where again I took a couple of photographs this time.
Wenger’s photographs (below) evidence how low the pilots scooted across the sea to avoid detection. But detected they were, and Fighter Command deployed two Typhoons of 197 Squadron flown by Sergeant’s Parisse and Richards out of Tangmere. Unfortunately, the 28-mile straight line from Tangmere to Ventnor allowed sufficient time for the FW 190s to do their deed and depart before the Typhoons blazed across the sea, too late to intercept.
Above - two of Wenger's photographs taken on the approach to the raid on Ventnor.
R&E File RE/B16/28/2
Unusually this file, produced by the Research and Experiments Department of the Ministry of Home Security, took almost three-months until completed in the last week of July, due largely to the nature of the damage caused and the risk associated, and work necessary, for close inspection for investigation purposes.
Following an initial visit to Ventnor, Mr Scruby, Regional Technical Intelligence Officer of R&E Princes Risborough, despatched a memorandum to Mr Scarterfield of the Ministry on 19 April, stating that – By reason of the unstable state of the cliff face adjacent to the site – that it would take several days work to excavate and recover the Morrison table shelter that was of such interest, and that – the undersigned does not recommend excavation around this shelter for technical investigation at this juncture.
From there the investigation stumbled, partly completed but not closed, until 23 July, when Scarterfield replied to Scruby – May we remind you of the last paragraph in your minute dated April 19th… it cannot be left as it is at the moment, and suggest that when the I.O.W. is next visited the necessary details should be obtained.
The forceful nudge from above was sufficient to mobilise Mr Scruby. The completed report arrived on Scarterfields desk six days later.
R&E’s objective in the context of investigating air raids was one of providing for the future of public safety. Where a bombing raid affected a method for public protection favourably or otherwise, i.e., a public shelter, Anderson shelter or Morrison table shelter, the department was most interested.
The reason for Scarterfields insistence that the Ventnor incident was fully investigated are revealed in an extract from the IW County Press involving 40-year old Elsie Thorpe of Trafalgar House, Esplanade Road.
Mrs Thorpe, wife of an hotel keeper, had a miraculous escape from death thanks to a Morrison shelter. She was dug out of the ruins of her home yesterday (the day after the raid), and, although the table shelter was covered with about 20 feet of rubble, and was bent by the pressure, Mrs Thorpe was unscathed, although naturally suffering from shock and the effects of her long imprisonment. Splendid work was done by the Civil Defence workers and military rescuers.
The R&E report refers to this aspect of the post-raid conditions – At ‘Trafalgar’, Esplanade Road – The Morrison Shelter at this property was cleared after a few days’ excavation, but before it could be removed there was a minor landslide, and the shelter was again completely buried. There was approximately 12ft. of earth and rock debris above it. From such observation as was possible prior to the landslide, the table of the shelter appears to have collapsed to about nine inches height above the mattress at the centre of one side. The other longitudinal side does not appear to have sagged much or show other damage.
Given the R&E description of the shelter and conditions in which it was found, one can only wonder at the terror Elsie Thorpe experienced during her more than 24-hour entrapment.
Four photographs showing the location of the Morrison shelter from which Elsie Thorpe was rescued more than 24-hours after the attack.
The bomb that very nearly took Elsie Thorpe’s life was listed by the R&E investigator as Bomb number three of three in total. It didn’t take R&E’s Section 9 Armaments experts long to piece together from fragments that, as was common, all three bombs were of the 500kg SC type.
The R&E report moved on to Marine Cottage, also in Esplanade Road – This shelter, which was situated in the bathroom on the ground floor, was still covered by about 4ft. of stone rubble, but it was possible to get down to see inside it at one end. It was absolutely impossible to get any photographs, but from an external view of the inside (by match light), the table of the shelter appears to have collapsed to within about two inches of the mattress at the centre of one side. The longitudinal side nearer to the wall which is still standing, does not appear to have sagged very much. There is some diagonal distortion of the top frame, but exact details cannot be obtained. The mattress appears intact, and two of the weldmesh panels are intact (3 panels were fixed). The longitudinal panel on the side which has collapsed is bulged outwards, but appears to be in place.
Whether or not 72-year old Kate Bessie Ward, wife of retired butcher Edward Henry Ward, for whom Marine Cottage was her home, was able to get inside the damaged shelter is not recorded in R&Es report or that of the IW County Press. All that is known for certain is that she was severely injured and passed away the following day at the Royal National Hospital.
At the time of the attack 86-year-old retired bookmaker William Newbery of The Retreat, Dudley Road, was killed instantly while passing along Marine Parade. Gabrielle Marie Henriette Testa of 19 Air Street, Piccadilly, was visiting Ventnor at the time. She was severely injured and died at the Royal National Hospital later the same day. There is discrepancy between reputable official records concerning her age, 19 or 29.
The next section of the R&E report referred to a shelter blown out of a property called Ozone, which came to rest on the roof of the Grand Pavilion, which the investigator terms a Casino – At ‘Ozone’, Esplanade Road – The shelter from this house was blown out of the building on to the roof of the Casino, about 200ft. away. It is badly twisted, and the report is not of much value as the damage may have been due to the explosion or the subsequent impact with the roof. The weldmesh panels are not evident. The mattress is entirely removed, but there are a few loose laths on the roof near the shelter. The roof is torn off on one side, and at both ends. One end frame is more or less intact, but distorted, and at the other end all the bolts have sheared excepting two.
Other than a couple of photographs, damaged sustained by the Rex Cinema was of little interest to R&E as no public or private shelters were affected. The IW County Press reported – One bomb did extensive damage to a nearly new cinema, which was providentially empty at the time save for one or two of the staff. One of those was 68-year-old Ernest George Stickley of Teddington who lived at 21 Church Street. He sustained injuries and passed away at the Royal National Hospital a day later. The 1939 Register noted Ernest’s occupation as a handyman, the County Press reported that at the time of his death he was the cinema commissionaire.
Other than the range of photographs below, some of which were those of the Police provided to R&E investigators, there is little more detail within the R&E file. The IW County Press provides some context to the wider incident.
The raiders, flying very fast, came in low from the sea, straight at the centre of town, with their cannons blazing, and, after dropping the bombs, swung to the west and quickly disappeared over the sea again into clouds. En route they used their cannon, they fired at a party of farm workers engaged in thrashing in a field, who dived under the thrashing machine, and no-one was hit. One of the farmer’s sons, who was closing a barn door, had a very lucky escape. Several cannon shells passed through the door, but he was not hit. A car belonging to the county horticultural instructor, standing on the front, was riddled with shells and wrecked. The owner and his son were having tea in a hotel nearby, which was damaged, but they escaped injury.
This feature is submitted in respectful memory of the fallen.
- William Newbery (86), of The Retreat, Dudley Road, Ventnor, killed at Marine Parade, Ventnor.
- Ernest George Stickley (68), of 21 Church Street, Ventnor, injured at the Rex Cinema, died of his injuries at the Royal National Hospital on the following day.
- Gabrielle Marie Henrietta Testa (29), died of her injuries at the Royal National Hospital.
- Kate Bessie Ward (72), injured at home Marine Cottage, Esplanade Road, Ventnor, died of her injuries at the Royal National Hospital on the following day.
Most of the photographs below were taken by an R&E investigator between April - July 1943. The final six images are copies of Police photography provided to R&E taken soon after the events of 1 April. Captions are copied exactly as produced in the R&E file.
Close up of damaged western flank wall of Cinema looking across the demolished shop, which was the point of explosion.
Close up of flank wall of cinema shewing where the bomb made point of impact, demolishing a section of brick casing and ricocheting off the steel stanchion.
Another general view of the damaged cinema, taken from the N.W., with the demolished shop on the right.
Another view of the same damaged site which also shows part of the retaining wall which collapsed on Morrison shelter No.1.
Looking due north across the two demolished hotels, showing a stone building appearing intact. Actually, both flank walls are split and the building is considered 'B' damage by the local surveyor.
Morrison shelter in bomb damaged house, completely buried beneath debris, shown on left-hand side of photograph.