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WAR: Witnesses speak of horrific German bomb raid on Catford primary school
8:00am Wednesday 28th October 2009 in News
In part four of News Shopper's Second World War series, reporter DAN KEEL speaks to elderly residents who witnessed German planes attacking a Catford School in a deadly daylight bomb raid.
SPIRITS were high at Sandhurst Road School at noon on January 20 in 1943. Younger pupils were tucking into their school meals while older children prepared for a theatre trip to see A Midsummer Night's Dream.
But in the space of just a few terrifying seconds 38 of them were dead along with six of their teachers. A further 60 people were wounded - some with truly devastating injuries.
A German Focke-Wulf 190 aircraft, escorted by Messerschmitt 109 fighters, had dropped a 500kg bomb on the school's dining room.
According to eye witnesses the pilot waved to children in the playground as he flew at rooftop height before unleashing his deadly load.
Other German fighters strafed the playground and surrounding streets with machine gun fire.
By the time the chaos was over and the smoke had cleared, neighbours could see half the school building had collapsed into a heap of rubble.
For two days people picked through the debris digging out the bodies.
An inquiry at Lewisham Town Hall found there were problems with alarm equipment which helped the raiders reach their target with complete surprise. The air-raid siren did not sound until immediately after the bomb had dropped.
After the war the Germans claimed they thought the school was an Army training facility.
The destroyed section of the school was rebuilt in 1950.
James Roper, 78, of Reigate Road, Downham, was a 12-year-old pupil at nearby Downderry School at the time and watched the attack unfold.
He said: "I was just walking home from school with a couple of friends for my lunch.
"We heard a plane coming but there weren't any sirens and the barrage balloons had not been put up - so we thought it was one of ours.
"All of a sudden the plane started machine gunning our roads. It was so low you could see the silhouette of the pilot.
"He tried to drop a bomb on my school but it missed and hit a house. One of the older boys from the school - a big lad - picked me up and threw me over a hedge and jumped on top of me to protect me."
He added: "Afterwards I went over to the house to see where the bomb had dropped. I can just remember seeing loads of chicken feathers. Someone had a lot of roast chicken that night.
"It was only a few days later I found out this was the plane which went on to bomb Sandhurst Road School.
"A lot of people said afterwards they weren't scared but I'm happy to admit I was shaking all over."
Mr Roper later discovered one of his neighbours, 15-year-old Mary O’Rourke, was one of the 38 children killed in the Sandhurst Road blast.
Roy Stringer was a 15-year-old boy living less than 500 yards from Sandhurst Road School at the time of the attack. The teenager was asleep in bed after working a night-shift at Deptford munitions factory.
He said: "It was the most terrible noise. To be honest I was so scared that I nearly soiled my pyjamas. You had to be there to understand just how loud the explosion was. Everything shook.
"I ran outside to see what had happened and it was a terrible sight. They were only young children and they were buried by the rubble. All you could see was smoke and rubble.
"The kids said the pilot waved at them and that they waved back. They thought he was one of ours. I just felt so sorry for those children - they didn't deserve that."
The 85-year-old who now lives in Chilham Road, Mottingham, added: "I had a friend who was in the ARP (Air Raid Precautions service).
"He said a Spitfire chased the pilot all the way over the English Channel and shot him down over the sea.
"He got what was coming. How could you wave at a load of kids like that and then drop a bomb on them."
June Rogers was a seven-year-old pupil at Sandhurst Road School at the time of the attack. But in a miraculous stroke of luck Mrs Rogers was asked to stay at home that day as her sister, Brenda, was suffering from the measles.
Mrs Rogers, now 73, said: "In those days there weren't injections for measles and so the school wanted me to stay at home to stop the spread.
"I vaguely remember a plane flying really close to the chimney tops and that this was the plane which dropped the bomb.
"I had two friends who were twins. One of them had a badly burnt back after the explosions."
She added: "My parents never really spoke to me about it all, but I found out as I got older and then realised how lucky I was.
"It was a very sad time, and shortly afterwards I was evacuated to Nottingham."
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