168 dead as Woolworths obliterated in V2 attack

A scene of devastation following a V2 rocket attack, somewhere in the south of England. In the foreground, a casualty is being carried away on a stretcher, whilst in the background, Civil Defence workers continue to search through debris and rubble, checking for any other survivors. The remains of a building can also be seen. According to the original caption, the rocket fell here "about two hours ago".

A scene of devastation following a V2 rocket attack, somewhere in the south of England. In the foreground, a casualty is being carried away on a stretcher, whilst in the background, Civil Defence workers continue to search through debris and rubble, checking for any other survivors. The remains of a building can also be seen. According to the original caption, the rocket fell here “about two hours ago”.

In Britain the government had taken until November the 10th to admit that the “gas main” explosions, that had mysteriously started in September, were the result of enemy rockets. Secrecy still surrounded the time and place of the explosions themselves. There was no defence against the V2 rockets so the only means of mitigating their impact was to try to feed false information to the Germans about where they were falling.

By using their network of double agents British intelligence was telling the Germans that the rockets were falling north of London. It was hoped that the Germans would adjust the aim of the rockets further south. In due course the rockets’ impact was gradually seen to shift southwards, away from central London, where they had actually been accurately targeted. However the advantage was only marginal, some rockets still fell on London and those that fell short of it were still likely to cause casualties in the suburbs.

The worst V2 attack of the war happened on 25th November when the Woolworths department store in New Cross, south London was suddenly blown apart. It had been crowded with Saturday shoppers, perhaps more people than usual because the store had a supply of saucepans to sell, a rare wartime commodity. In an instant 168 people were dead or dying, with many more injured in the vicinity.

Tony Rollins was 13 at the time:

I used to buy Airfix model aeroplane assembly kits and put them together.Since there were few toys around I was able to sell these to a shop in New Cross Gate. The shop was situated next to the railway bridge, which is part of the main road, at New Cross Gate in a row of shops opposite Woolworths.

It was Saturday and I visited the shop to deliver some models and earn some pocket money. I boarded a tram heading down towards Deptford Broadway. I got off at my stop and started to walk the few hundred yards to my home in Friendly St when there was a huge explosion.

The V2s always exploded with two “crumps” one quickly followed by a second. I knew immediately it was a V2 and as I looked back in the direction of the noise I saw a huge tower of smoke with all sorts of pieces turning and twisting and glinting heading skyward.

I turned and ran back to the scene.It took me about 10 minutes.

I shall never forget what I witnessed.The front of the shop I had sold my aeroplanes to was completely blown in,and on the other side of the road was a huge smouldering crater.

Sheets of corrugated steel had been placed along some of the gutters to cover what was left of people and blood was seeping out from beneath. There was debris everywhere.I saw several people dead beneath telegraph poles and there were bodies and wounded and maimed laying randomly all over the place.

Everybody who could was roped in to help clear debris and I did what I was asked to give a hand.

Read the whole account on BBC Peoples’ War

James Tait was another boy who had a narrow escape, he had recently moved back to London after having been evacuated to Wales for much of the war. In July his family’s hairdressing shop had been badly damaged by a V1 rocket, on that occasion there had been a warning siren and the occupants of the shop had taken shelter in the basement. On this occasion there was no warning:

At the end of November 1944 I went by tram to Lewisham to do some shopping.It was a dry,reasonably bright Saturday for the time of month and I was in quite a happy mood with my new clothes as I returned to New Cross. I alighted at the Marquis Of Granby Inn around midday and watched the tram continue into New Cross Road. I had barely taken a few steps towards my new home fifty yards away when I was picked up by a tremendous blast of hot air and flung backwards.

I did not hear the explosion of the V2 rocket that landed on the Woolworths store that lay on the opposite side of the road just a few hundred yards away close to New Cross Gate railway station. For a few moments I could not comprehend what had happened until debris began to fall all around me. I could still hear nothing having been deafened by the blast.

People were lying around me, some bleeding with cuts to their heads from flying glass. I managed to stand up unsteadily and then I saw the huge pall of black smoke rising from the Woolworth site. There was too much for the mind to take in, but bodies lay everywhere, some stripped of clothing. Cars were mangled wrecks,on their sides or upside down. Telephone poles lay crazily across rooftops.

The tram I had been travelling in had stopped in the middle of the road. I learned later that all the passengers were found dead in their seats. My brain reeled and then I thought of the shop we had just moved into. I ran towards it, fearing the worst, but once again fate had been kind to us.

The shop and others in the parade had been partially sheltered by the facade of the Town Hall which jutted further out toward the road. The shop doors and widows had stove in and external brickwork damaged but nothing beyond repair.

Inside the recently equipped hairdressing salon glass lay everywhere from mirrors and shelves and cabinets. One large sliver had pierced a cubicle curtain a few inches above the head of a woman customer under a hairdryer. Once again everyone was more shaken than hurt.

Read the whole of his account on BBC People’s War

German photograph of a V2 rocket in the initial stage of its flight

German photograph of a V2 rocket in the initial stage of its flight

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

B calver April 26, 2017 at 11:49 pm

168 people died in the Woolworths bombing new cross on 25 November 1944 , how many survive d + have you their names. please reply ,

William Webb November 10, 2016 at 3:27 pm

I was born 21-12-1932, lived at 7 Goodwood road alongside Woolworths, Only my mother was at home on that day and had slight injurie’s, My sister and I were at a pie & mash shop near by. Will never forget that day.

John Tyrrell September 5, 2016 at 8:22 pm

I was born in November 1941 so the date 25th November was just past my 3rd birthday. I know I was visiting my grandparents and family in South London. I am wondering if it was this V2 attack I and my cousin, a few years older than me, witnessed. I have vivid memories of this day which is the first conscious memory I have. It includes being with my grandfather eating lunch (it’s about the right time), and then him scraping his food onto the garden since the ceilling had fallen in. I have the image of a woman who was a neighbour with blood on her face. I have an image in my mind of just seeing a haze down the road. The next thing I remember were other members of the family, including an uncle, the father of my cousin, boarding up windows.

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