Please read Ministry of Home Security - The R&E Files, before continuing.
Context of the raid - Operation Capricorn
The attack on East Cowes of May 1944 was of stark difference to those typically investigated by the Ministry of Home Security, Research and Experiments Dept. The nature of the attack, the type of ordnance used, and the motivation behind it require some context.
The Eastern Front had drained the German military of resources that were once aimed squarely against Britain. From September to December 1943 the Isle of Wight recorded just one aerial attack, a sudden and limited attack using only machine gun and cannon fire by eight Luftwaffe fighter-bombers. Given the lack of underslung bombs they were possibly returning to France after attacking a mainland target and chose to strafe the Island as they scooted through its airspace. The effect of the sporadic attack was negligible, but, according to the report in the County Press, came at the cost of two of the aircraft that were met with a hail of anti-aircraft shells.
With the threat from the air diminishing, men of the National Fire Service were able to reflect on what had been, and several began turning their thoughts into words for publication. Such was the security concern that in November the NFS issued Instruction 25/1943, restricting the act. But the fact was that the NFS, the largest fire force in United Kingdom history, was largely reduced to incidents of a more domestic and less threatening nature. By late November a further NFS instruction laid the foundations for the release of some NFS personnel for essential war work - i.e. the fighting forces.
The bigger picture of the war was the growing momentum of the Allied Combined Bomber Offensive over Germany, for which the Luftwaffe struggled to find a solution. Relations between Hitler and Luftwaffe commander-in-chief Goring had deteriorated such that the latter became little more than a figurehead and conduit of instructions issued by the Fuhrer. In response to destructive Allied bombings the OKL, high command of the German air force, wished to switch finance and resource priority from offensive bombing to a scheme favouring defensive fighters. General of the Fighter Force Adolf Galland stated - Never before and never again did I witness such determination and agreement among the circle of those responsible for the leadership of the Luftwaffe. There was no conflict between the General Staff and the war industry, no rivalry between bombers and fighters; only the common will to do everything in this critical hour for the defence of the Reich.
Goring took the OKL proposal to Hitler. Generalmajor Dietrich Peltz described the situation on Goring’s return from his meeting - We were met with a shattering picture. Göring had completely broken down. With his head buried in his arms on the table he moaned some indistinguishable words. We stood there for some time in embarrassment until at last he pulled himself together and said we were witnessing the deepest moments of despair. The Führer had lost faith in him. All the suggestions from which he had expected a radical change in the situation of war in the air had been rejected; the Führer had announced that the Luftwaffe had disappointed him too often, and a change over from the offensive to defensive in the air against England was out of the question.
Hitler was adamant that attacks on southern England, and London in particular, were to be renewed with intensity, compelling Goring to backtrack on the outcome of his meeting with OKL and announce - All they (the German people) wish to hear when a hospital or a children's home in Germany is destroyed is that we have destroyed the same in England!
Amid such was born Unternehmen Steinbock, or Operation Capricorn, a strategic bombing campaign against southern England lasting from 21 January to 29 May 1944, which came to be known on the home front as the Baby Blitz. The attack on East Cowes was no fluke, it was no offload of unnecessary ordnance by bombers keen on a speedy return to safety. The report in the IW County Press includes an indicator of intent – Chandelier flares were dropped which brilliantly illuminated several parts of the coast, and a sharp attack with high explosive followed… The attack was an element of the Baby Blitz.
Before the events of May 15/16, the Island had received previous attentions under the Capricorn plan. On 25 April, Newport, Ventnor and Whitwell received high explosives by night without loss of life. On the next night the ARP Controller at Newport recorded high-level bombers dropping ordnance as follows.
- Ryde – 7 x HE bombs (2 x UXB), plus 1 HE that dropped in the sea
- St Helens (golf course) - 2 x HE bombs
- Nodes Point – 2 x HE bombs (1 x UXB at Priory Farm)
- Springvale – 1 x HE bombs
- Park Farm, nr Ryde – 1 x UXB
- Bembridge – 2 x HE bombs
For all the racket and nuisance, the Luftwaffe made little, or no, tangible gain, as indicated in the County Press – High explosive bombs were dropped in many parts of the area, but the damage was not heavy and there was only one slight casualty. The death toll was limited to four heifers and a calf. The end of month report submitted by the Ryde branch of the Women’s Voluntary Service, where the most ordnance fell, noted that only two persons had arrived to make use of the Rest Centre, opened in expectation of a flurry of displaced persons, and that the Food Service had been operated for exercise purposes only, producing sausage and mash with tea and sandwiches in less than an hour.
High-level bombing of limited ordnance afforded a degree of luck, and to date Capricorn had blessed the Isle of Wight with plenty. Following the late April attacks, it went quiet again, for a time.
15 May 1944 - East Cowes
Albert Edward Hyett, served 21 years with the Somerset Light Infantry before settling on the Island in 1929.
Bombs fell in two neighbouring towns that have not been raided since being heavily attacked two years ago – stated the County Press report in the edition of 20 May, making reference to the lull in the Cowes district following the horrors of May 1942.
On this occasion, such was the devastating effect to the east of the Medina, that little recognition was made of bombs dropped elsewhere on the same night – 8 x HE and 2 x UXB in Whitefield Woods, 2 x HE off the coast of Seaview, 1 x HE at Upton Farm, 7 x HE at various points in Ashey, 1 x HE at Steyne Road, Bembridge, 7 x HE at Whitecliff Bay, 2 x ‘G’ mines near Brading.
These incidents didn’t pass without loss of life. Although no mention of it was entered into the ARP Controllers Log, a family of three were killed in Shanklin, and 53-year-old Albert Edward Hyett, Fire Guard of Steyne Road, Bembridge, who was caught in the blast of the solitary Bembridge bomb, died of injuries at the Royal County Hospital on the 19th
However, it was the incident at East Cowes that captured the attention of R&E, and led to the creation of file RE/B16/47/1, investigated by T.H. Foster of the Flying Squad, Region 6, when he visited the site on 22 May following orders received on the 18th. His orders evidence a greater degree of precision, and a revised scheme of categorising damage to shelters, compared to those evident in R&E documents from 1943 (see below).
The R&E File
Writing his textual summary on 10 June 1944, Foster opened with the following – On the night of Saturday, 15/16.5.1944, at approx. 00.45 hrs, two ‘G’ type mines fell in neighbourhood of York Avenue, East Cowes. Overlooking Foster’s inaccuracy concerning the day of the week (15 May was a Monday), it was the use of ‘G’ mines that raised R&E’s interest, as emphasised by Foster – The damage presents some unusual features.
The is the first R&E investigation into a raid on the Isle of Wight that makes specific reference to mines. Contrary to the popular image of mines being devious subterranean devices dependent on downward pressure of a person or vehicle to initiate detonation, these mines were dropped by aircraft and floated earthwards beneath a parachute.
Based on the recovery of - a fragment of bakelised cardboard tail bracing sleeve, 7.9” deep bearing traces of pale blue and dark blue paint – R&E 9, the Armament Section, positively identified both devices that exploded over York Avenue as B.M.1000 (Bombenmine 1000), also known as the Monika or ‘G’ mine.
B.M.1000 was composed of steel, bakelite, and manganese steel, 64” x 26” in size , weighing 870kg with a charge weight of 680kg featuring 60% trinitrotoluene (TNT) and 40% hexanitrodiphenylamine (HND). Originally designed as anti-shipping weapons, B.M.1000 was adapted for use on land targets by the addition of a 27’ diameter parachute, with the weapon engineered to detonate at roof level after being dropped from an aircraft at altitudes from 300 to 23,000 feet. The downward blast would be devastating to anything within 100 yards, and cause secondary damage and harm over a far greater distance.
Foster continued with his report.
One fell on No.33 York Avenue causing the following damage; No.25-35, A; No.37, B; Nos. 49-39, inclusive, and Nos. 23 and 25, C. The crater, approx. 20’ diameter, 50’ from front garden fence, was filled in when inspected. The second fell in a public park, approx. 300ft. from Bomb No.1 and 30’ from shelters Nos. 3 and 7 making a crater 42’ x 11’, causing slight damage to these shelters and ‘C’ damage to the Doctor’s house.
Contemporary German photograph of parachute mines being deployed.
In the plan above, ‘A’ category damage (total destruction) is in red, ‘B’ category in blue, and ‘C’ in yellow. On the opposite side of York Avenue, rectangles marked 1-6 and 7-9 are air raid shelters as described in the text.
R&E report continued – The fact that 5 houses were completely demolished, by Bomb No.1, with only one in ‘B’ category, is probably due to the outer walls being of 11” cavity work. The 10 houses in ‘C’ category have suffered moderate ‘C’ type damage (doors and window frames seriously damaged) but it is noteworthy that the chimney stacks (even on the 5th ‘B’ category house) are undamaged. This appears to denote the absence of any earthshock. The ‘D’ category damage was both widespread and severe. The whole of Osborne Road and Adelaide Road being involved. However, the major damage was very local in character: some minor ‘C’ damage might reasonably have been expected in Osborne Road, but none was discovered. Nos. 28 and 30 York Avenue, have suffered minor ‘C’ damage (bay window brickwork cracked) probably as a result of Bomb No.1.
Form B.C.4 provides a little more information about Bomb No.1 – Grid Ref. 142/937154. Point of impact direct hit on No.35, York Avenue, East Cowes 47’ SSE. along York Avenue from its junction with Church path then 81’ WSW. at right angles. ‘A’ damage to 6 two-storey semi-detached dwelling houses constructed 11” cavity outer walls with 4 ½” division walls set in cement mortar, distance 75’ frontage 126’. ‘B’ damage to 1 similar house distance 67’ frontage 18’ and heavy ‘C’ damage to 10 similar houses up to 250’. Blast damage up to 400’.
Bomb No.2 damaged slightly 7 out of 9 school shelters, the Doctor’s house (category ‘C’) and St James Church (severe ‘D’). The Doctor’s house suffered slight ‘C’ damage (some joinery fractured, roof stripped, principally by flying debris, chimney stack shaken, slight cracks in flank wall nearest Bomb No.2.
Bomb Census Form B.C.4, evidences that the residents of East Cowes had plenty of time to find shelter. Red Warning was sounded at 00:01 with the detonation of both bombs recorded at approximately 00:45. In respect of Bomb No. 2 it also includes – Grid Ref. 142/937154. Point of impact in field of East Cowes Castle Estate on north side of York Avenue. Cont. in a straight line 177’ from the junction of Adelaide Grove and York Avenue. Blast damage to large solid well built Church up to 200’ approximately. Damage from 1 and 2 bombs together. The occupants of 9 semi-sunk brick shelters escaped unhurt but 6 shelters are now unusable through roof lifting. Nearest shelter approx. 30’ from centre of crater.
House Damage Plot
18 photographs of damage were taken, but only the enclosed 4 were successful. Mr Hutchins informs me that the 2 doz. plates supplied from Headquarters in his absence were not only inferior in quality but were also stale stock, 6 years old, and should not have been supplied for field work. It will be observed that event the 4 successful prints show signs of fogging of the negative at the edges.
The outer walls of all properties damaged by Bomb No.1 were 11” cavity work: this appears to have been the general practice in this district since 1890. The Doctor’s house (‘C’ category) damaged by Bomb No.2 has 18” solid walls on the ground floor, and 13 ½” walling to 1st and 2nd floors. It is of 18th century construction.
Damage was not caused by earthshock; it will be seen that the chimney pots on houses in ‘C’ category (severe ‘C’ at that) damaged by Bomb No.1, are intact. Moreover, the slight damage to the semi-sunk shelters by Bomb No.2 shows almost total absence of earthshock.
Two fragments of bakelised paper tail fin were forwarded to Headquarters and sketches of two pieces of austenitic steel fragment are on the enclosed sheet of drawings (see below). There appears no doubt that these two weapons were ‘G’ type mines.
A plan of both incidents, to a scale of 1/500 showing all buildings and shelters, damaged, is given on the enclosed sheet of drawings.
The shelters affected by Bomb No.2 are 9 in number each being a 50 person shelter, semi-sunk of the Zinn pattern, consisting of reinforced concrete frames at 3’0” centres, with infilling between the frames at sides and on roof, reinforced concrete slabs, thickness 1 ¾”, not including stiffening ribs, with end panel pieces of similar design. This type of shelter is as originally constructed; and is; without any further reinforcement considered up to the standard required by H.S.G. 75/1942. It is interesting to note that six of these shelters were, during school hours, reserved for the use of school children attending the school in Osborne Road, 800ft. by road from these shelters.
Damage Category (Shelters)
- 1 - S.E. slight damage to emergency exit hatch.
- 2 - S.C. roof lifted 1 ¼” at corner, nearest the explosion.
- 3 - S.C. one unit over entrance fallen in, first pair of frames moved 1 ½” at top, side lining lifted at corner nearest to explosion, 2nd and 3rd pairs of frames opened ¼” frill.
- 4 - S.C. roof opened and cracked; one slab moved outwards (away from Bomb No.2) 2 ½”.
- 5 - S.C. roof lifted for 3 bays nearest bomb; maximum movement ¾”.
- 6 - S.E. first pair of frames, nearest point of explosion, opened 1/16”; roof slabs at this point opened 1/8”.
- 7 - S.E. escape hatch lifted ½” from its seating on the frames.
- 8 and 9 – no damage.
No census of shelter occupants is taken in this Urban district; enquiries from Wardens and Police have elicited no definite numbers, but reveal that the shelters were all occupied, with at least 20 persons in each. There were no casualties.
It may be of interest to note that the earth covering over the shelters had not been maintained. In many instances, the edges of the roofing slabs (18” cover of earth) were exposed, through the earth at that point, being washed down. The subsoil in this district is clay.
An extract from the IW Bomb Map held at the County Records Office showing the location of the two 'G' mines. The other bomb types marked on the map relate to events on different dates.
Extract from the IW County Press
Bombs fell in two neighbouring towns… Only one caused fatalities. This fell on a row of houses in the centre of the town, demolishing six, and also doing extensive damage to private residences and buildings. Nine people were killed and about half a dozen injured were taken to hospital. Eight of the fatal casualties occurred in a house which received a direct hit.
Extract from Beyond Victory (IW firefighting history Vol.8)
James Henry Cooke, born 11 January 1914, was a shipyard joiner. He married Eileen Doris nee Jones (27) in 1935 and they enjoyed family life at 33 York Avenue with their daughters, Valerie (8), Jeanette (5) and nine-month-old Vivien. They shared their home with Scottish couple William and Nessie Adams. On that night, as was often the case, 76-year-old widow Annie Moore had come to the warm embrace of her neighbours’ home at the sound of the air raid warning. They sat unprotected but together as the G-mine, bomb No.1, suspended in the night air by its voluminous parachute, drifted slowly towards them.
59-year-old Fred Polley of Chelmer, Osborne Road, sat in the entrance to the Anderson shelter in his garden staring into the threatening sky. Keenly alert, the ARP stretcher-bearer spotted that one of the Luftwaffe flares had caused a fire in a garden at the rear of a York Avenue property. Leaving the shelter to grab his stirrup pump and make haste he was joined by E. Moore and T. Skinner. As they scuttled forwards through the darkness and made entry to the garden close to the back of the house, the G-mine erupted.
Instantly No.33 and the four nearest properties were smashed to the earth by the tremendous downward force. Polley, Moore and Skinner disappeared under falling masonry. Damage was inflicted to the Town Hall, St James’s Church and the Frank James Hospital – little surprise that the occupants of No.33 were killed instantly. Most macabre is the report that so absolute was the destruction that not all bodies were ever accounted for.
… A.R.P. rescuers extricated Moore, Skinner and Polley from beneath the debris of the flattened houses. The former two were badly injured but recovered, but Polley was found deceased, his lifeless hands still clutching the stirrup pump.
Of the bomb that killed the Moss family in Shanklin on the same night, although not appearing in the local ARP Controllers Log, the following was discovered as it appears in Beyond Victory - The final terrible act was played out in Shanklin. 30 Queens Road was the residence of 61-year old electrician Arthur Moss, his wife of the same age Eliza, and their 30-year-old single daughter Patricia, a shop assistant. Their home was levelled by a blast that virtually destroyed another house across the road where the visiting parish Vicar sheltered beneath the stairs with a family of his flock. Moss and his daughter were killed outright. Eliza passed away five days later at the Home of Rest. Perhaps through divine providence the vicar, though severely injured, forced a route from beneath the debris through which he and the family crawled to safety, although in a severe state of shock.
The County Press report concluded with – A resident… was strolling round surveying the damage, and stopped in front of the ruins of a demolished house. While he was meditating upon the scene of destruction he noticed a starling with a worm in its mouth fly down and perch itself on the rubble. He kept his eye on the bird, which, after looking round for a moment or two, disappeared into the debris. This roused the sightseer’s curiosity, as he could not understand why the starling would want to take a worm into a heap of ruins. On investigating he was amazed to find a starling’s nest full of young which must have come down with the house without being injured.
This feature is submitted in respectful memory of the fallen.
- Nessie M. Adams (30) - killed at home, 33 York Avenue, East Cowes.
- William Adams (35) - killed at home, 33 York Avenue, East Cowes.
- Eileen Doris Cooke (27) - killed at home, 33 York Avenue, East Cowes.
- James Henry Cooke (31) - killed at home, 33 York Avenue, East Cowes.
- Jeanette Elizabeth Cooke (5) - killed at home, 33 York Avenue, East Cowes.
- Valerie Ann Cooke (8) - killed at home, 33 York Avenue, East Cowes.
- Vivienne Christina Cooke (9 months) - killed at home, 33 York Avenue, East Cowes.
- Albert Edward Hyett (53) - Fire Guard of Wellington, Steyne Road, Bembridge, injured in Steyne Road, died of his injuries on 19 May.
- Annie Trotter Moore (76) - killed while sheltering with her neighbours at 33 York Avenue, East Cowes.
- Arthur Harold Moss (61) - killed at home, 30 Queens Road, Shanklin.
- Eliza Moss (61) - killed at home, 30 Queens Road, Shanklin.
- Patricia Mary Moss (30) - killed at home, 30 Queens Road, Shanklin.
- Fred Samuel Polley (59) - ARP Rescue worker, of Chelmer, Osborne Road, killed in the garden of 33 York Avenue, East Cowes.