Please read Ministry of Home Security - The R&E Files, before continuing.
The lighthouse was never camouflaged as the German aircraft, when coming across the English Channel, would take their bearing from it. As they used it as a landmark, so it was thought it would never be bombed as long as it remained white.
Viola Gwendoline Mary Evans, National Fire Service, Station 14D3V, Niton.
Since the 7 April attack on Newport, other than a random sprinkling of incendiaries, the Island had enjoyed a spell of enemy disinterest. This can be measured by the activity of the WVS, an organisation that responded in strength to support those affected by bombings. At the end of May, Sylvia Needham’s County report for WVS activities on the Island was unprecedented in its brevity, comprising just eleven lines and summarised by – The month of May being a comparatively quiet one, which has enabled the County Office to attend rather belatedly to domestic matters.
Perhaps the calm was due to the change in fortunes of the Red Foxes, a Luftwaffe squadron that specialised in terrorising the Isle of Wight, as its commander Leopold Wenger (Enemy of the People) noted in his diary on 14 April; We’re receiving frequent visits from ‘the other side’ now. They attacked us twice yesterday afternoon. The R.A.F. success in damaging aircraft and landing fields in northern France perhaps contributed to the stagnation of tip-and-run raids. But the Luftwaffe pilot’s notes suggest a variety of factors; We haven’t flown any missions in the past few days, but we’ve been in the air a lot, mostly practice missions, testing various kinds of new and smaller bombs, almost always dropping them at low altitude or practice attacks on paratroopers. But on 18 May he confesses in a letter to his parents that the intensity of attacks against them on the ground had deflated morale, adding; It’s a miserable feeling to lie there in the dirt and be unable to defend yourself when they’re shooting all around you.
Red Fox inactivity ended on 23 May with a large-scale tip-and-run assault on Bournemouth, followed by Brighton two days later and a heavyweight attack on Torquay on the last day of May; We carried out a very heavy attack against Torquay. As with every large-scale attack we really gave it to them. I left a good comrade behind on this mission.
It was approximately 11:20 in the morning of Tuesday 1 June as Wenger and elements of his squadron of Red Foxes approached the southern coast of the Isle of Wight in their fighter-bombers, each carrying an underslung 500kg SC bomb.
A Red Warning split the peace of night in the early hours of 1 June 1943, but no raiders harassed the awakened residents of Niton. Dawn broke on a near cloudless blue sky and the rising sun promised the villagers a brilliant summers day.
On the outskirts of the village, where once a Roman military outpost provided a beacon to craft in the channel, St Catherine’s Lighthouse, it’s sturdy eminence and outbuildings unmistakable in their brilliant whiteness had stood in proud seclusion since the first stone was laid in 1838. Among the buildings Principal Keeper Richard Grenfell, and his subordinates Charles Tompkins and William Jones, went about their early morning tasks – recording meteorological conditions and preparing the shipping log for the day ahead. Normally this would be followed by the three dispersing to separate jobs around the site, but that morning Grenfell requested that all three worked together in the engine room of the Power House.
A squad of Niton firemen of NFS Station 14D3V
In the village, where part of the White Lion Inn had been requisitioned for use as a modest NFS fire station, designated 14D3V, the firemen would have gone about their morning routines – equipment inventory, running the engine of the trailer pump and towing vehicle, refuelling, and then checking their personal equipment, boots, helmets, the keenness of the edge of their Chillington ARPAX axes.
Before the war and long before the National Fire Service was conceived, Niton's fire protection was afforded by the men of Ventnor Fire Brigade. When planning for the additional men of the Auxiliary Fire Service began in 1938, there were many cross-table arguments in local chambers of power concerning the necessity of providing the village with its own AFS force. Many argued that Niton would remain as low-risk during war as it had been in peace, and that bolstering the numbers of AFS stationed in Ventnor would be sufficient to cover the village needs.
At a meeting of the Parish Council, held in the Village Hall in April 1939, the chairman Mr Haddock, who was also Chief Warden of the local ARP, expressed concern that the services were insufficient for the needs of the parish – The wardens service is complete, the first-aid service is by no means full, and an auxiliary fire brigade and demolition squad need to be formed. The fire brigade service is supposed to be situated at Ventnor, but in a state of national emergency, Whitwell, Niton, and Chale, will probably have to work out our own salvation.
Mr Haddock continued – All the casualties in the area will come to Niton to be dealt with. The number who have volunteered for first-aid service is extraordinarily poor. We want larger numbers in Niton… If we have to rely on Ventnor for a fire brigade service, we might have to wait a very long time, if we get it at all.
As was often the case, it was the strength and endeavour of one man, Mr Haddock, backed by the majority of his parishioners, that forced the change they desired. Niton acquired its own branch of the Auxiliary Fire Service and with the assistance of the Rural District Council after the opening of war, they acquired basic accommodation for a fire station which in spring 1941 was described in a Press report as the old telephone exchange – albeit that this was temporary as its desired wartime use was to be that of a morgue.
With the advent of the National Fire Service, the firemen of Niton became better equipped, better clothed and in possession of a dedicated towing vehicle and trailer pump stowed in an adapted corner of the village pub. They waited, they trained, and they prepared, for the day all hoped would never come.
R&E File RE/B16/32/1
The R&E file following the aerial attack on Niton is very brief, for reasons explained below, and refers only to the bomb dropped at St Catherine’s. Acknowledging that tragedy occurred elsewhere in the village during the same attack, this feature relates only to the content of RE/B16/32/1.
Oberleutnant Leopold Wenger (Enemy of the People), the man who led the attack and was to drop the actual bomb on St Catherine’s, wrote in a letter home later the same day – Yesterday morning the Tommies tried to tear up our position. Once again, we hit the dirt, and when everything was all right again and we had put out the fires, we could see that really there wasn’t too much damage.
So, to pay them back for their little visit, we paid them another courtesy call, with a big squadron, just for company. Just as we got to the English coast, I saw a 4-motored flying boat. We shot at it, but didn’t have any time to stick around, otherwise we would have given them a good hiding.
We had our bombs to drop after all!
On the approach to St Catherine’s, as was his penchant, Wenger took a photograph of the lighthouse where, in the Power House to the right, the three keepers went about their tasks.
Wenger’s letter continued – Then the fun started! At St Catherinas Point (sic), I scored a direct hit on a fuel or ammunition warehouse. In any case, the whole kit and kaboodle blew up with huge jets of flame. We then attacked a couple of targets with cannon and machine gun and raked a radio station. The flak was a bit lively and shot at us as we flew away. English fighter planes came after us but were too late. In any case, this mission was one we all enjoyed; anyhow we did our job for today.
Among the couple of targets mentioned in Wenger’s letter to his parents was a mother and child in a garden, the former managing to shelter the latter as cannon shells spattered around them, and an elderly pensioner enjoying a spot of gardening who wasn’t able to get away quick enough.
On the 17 June, R.A. Francis, Officer-in-Charge, Flying Squad, Region 6, submitted a brief communique to R&E stating that – The attached photographs of damage caused by Bomb No.4 to the Power House serving St Catherine’s Lighthouse are referred to in the above report. Unfortunately the report referred to, RE15/12/1/(480) has been mislaid in the mists of time – the National Archives have confirmed that they do not hold the record.
Whatever Francis’ initial report contained, it was considered insufficient. A handwritten letter, transcribed by an indecipherable name from the R&E offices in London on 22 June, requested further information.
Referring to Mr Francis’s Special Report of 7.6.43, in which reference is made to a direct hit on the Power House a technical report is required covering:-
- The structural damage to the building as indicated…
- Damage to machinery and plant as indicated…
- The fragments of Bomb No.4 – stated in the above report to be with the ARP authorities at Newport – should be forwarded to Princes Risborough* for identification.
- Any other information of interest discovered in the course of the investigation.
*Princes Risborough, a Buckinghamshire market town, was the location of R&E 9 (Armament Section), who were responsible for identifying bomb types from fragments. Their primary objective was to identify and report on new weapons deployed by the Germans.
Ten days later another handwritten letter, presumably from a senior officer within the Flying Squad, was submitted to R&E – At the moment there is no staff available to undertake this brief – to me the job does not look that important – should I hold or will you cancel?
By reply, a letter from R&E closed the case – In view of your staff shortage, this brief may be cancelled.
This effectively closed the investigation, which in any case never expanded beyond the site of the lighthouse and into the village, leaving us with eight original photographs, taken by R.A. Francis in the first week of June 1943, showing the immediate damage to the Power House and surrounding structures. Captions supplied are as per the originals.
Photo No.3 - General view of demolished Power House, looking S.E. to N.W., taken from eaves of adjacent Coastguard cottages.
Photo No.5 - General view of demolished Power House, taken from west to east, showing the adjacent Coastguard cottages on eastern side.
Photo No.7 - Close up of one of the large fuel-oil storage tanks lifted by the blast into an adjacent field on the western side.
This feature is submitted in respectful memory of the fallen.
- Richard Trenoweth Grenfell (62), Trinity House Principal Keeper, lived and killed at St Catherine’s Lighthouse.
- James Way Jacobs (73), killed in his garden at Hillside, High Street, Niton.
- Edward William Jones (49), Trinity House Assistant Keeper, lived and was killed at St Catherine’s Lighthouse.
- Charles Tompkins (47), Trinity House Assistant Keeper, lived and was killed at St Catherine’s Lighthouse.