Lone bomber hits Petworth School – 32 dead

Only a few bombs hit the Petworth Boys School but the result was complete devastation.

‘Nuisance raids’ were now almost an everyday occurrence up and down the country, sometimes causing little harm, sometimes causing immense suffering to small communities. Such was the case in the quiet rural town of Petworth in Sussex on the morning of the 29th September:


There has been no damage of national importance. The more outstanding incidents were at Hastings on the 24th, when 19 people were killed and 17 seriously injured, and at Petworth (Sussex) on the 29th, where a boys’ school was completely wrecked; casualties are reported to be 23 killed, of whom 20 are children, and 30 seriously injured, of whom 24 are children. It is feared that 7 children are still missing and must be presumed dead.

Other incidents involving fatal casualties and damage to private property and/or utility services were reported from Seaford (the 24th), Penzance (the 25th/26th), Colchester and Broadstairs (the 28th), Somerton (Somerset), Shrewton (Salisbury Plain), Betteshanger Collthbourne (Kent) (the 29th), Ashford, Worthing. Lancing and Colchester (the 30th).

The estimated civilian casualties for the week ending 0600 hours the 30th September are 62 killed and 82 seriously injured

From the Home Security Situation Report for the week ending 30th September, as reported to the British War Cabinet, see TNA CAB 66/29/23

Canadian troops stationed nearby were quickly on the scene assisting with the rescue dig.

John Exall was 11 years old at the time and a pupil at the school:

It was a damp and miserable day when we went to school that morning. My brother Bob was twelve and I was eleven.

At break time I was playing around in the cloakroom when the first bomb dropped. I remember seeing the dust fall from the ceiling. I ran to get out of the building but was told to go the other way as we had been told there was an escape route through the laundry into the tunnel that went into Petworth Park: but that was not to be as the bomb fell on the laundry too.

There were two more bombs and by that time I don’t remember much more as I was buried under the rubble. I came to and heard a lot of voices and realised that I couldn’t move except for one arm, which I managed to push up through the rubble.

It was like a very bad dream and when I heard the other boys shouting and screaming I realised that it was not a dream.

My father, who was a part-time fireman, was on his way to Billingshurst when he heard the bomb drop. He made his way back to Petworth and realised it was the school that had been hit.

Firemen already there, who knew he had two boys in the school, turned him away, so he went home to tell Mum and the other parents in Grove Lane what had happened.

They anxiously awaited news!

Bob had been blown onto the wall the other side of the road then fell off.

When my arm was spotted I was rescued by the Canadian soldiers and taken by one of their army trucks to the Cottage Hospital, but was then transferred to Chichester Hospital.

I had quite serious injuries to my back and leg and a smashed up arm. I awoke in the ward and found out I was next to my brother who had injuries to his leg and knee. He was in hospital for 7 weeks and I was there for 8 weeks.

My parents had not heard what had happened to me until the evening. What a relief for them to have both sons alive. The Canadians were wonderful during this time and Petworth will be forever grateful to them.

Read this story on BBC People’s War.

All images are © George Garland, courtesy of West Sussex County Council Library Service, which has much more material on the episode.

The funeral was attended by almost everyone in Petworth.
The mass grave that contains most of the 32 victims – 28 boys and 4 school staff including the Headmaster.

4 thoughts on “Lone bomber hits Petworth School – 32 dead”

  1. My father served in the Canadian Army in WW2. He told me this story many times over the years, and it never changed in the telling. He said they landed in England and their first job was to clean up after a school had been hit by a skip-bomb dropped by a German plane. There were pieces of bodies in the trees. They shot the plane down into the English Channel. Dad picked up a 7- or 8-year-old girl to take her to a church. On the way she grabbed her necklace off and gave it to him (she managed to do this without breaking the clasp). It was a little silver chain with a little painted Madonna pendant. He thinks she was still alive when he dropped her off, but she was unconscious, and may have died. After that first job, he was invited by Lady Light of Petworth to stay at their house (Lord Light was fighting in Africa, and Dad never met him), the only one of his platoon invited. He met their daughter and stayed there almost a year. He saw Stonehenge twice with her. I asked him how Lady Light could remove him from active service, and he said, “She was Lady Light. She outranked my captain.” I’ve been unable to find anything on Lady Light, or how he could have found an injured girl at a boys’ school. Any information anyone could provide would be most appreciated!

  2. I was born in Haslemere, Surrey. and the oral history that I was told is that one of the female teachers at the school had relationship with a German national who had fathered a child. when war broke out he moved to Germany and became a German Luftwaffe pilot.
    with the custody of the child unresolved he bombed the school. As a vindictive act?

    Does anyone know if this story is correct? Or wish to refutation this?

  3. Hi – i have just watched richard vobes report in his tv series about the school bombing and how sad it is – can u tell me which cemetery thay are buried please as i would like to on my next annual holiday to visit – and i was wondering if u can send me a list who is buried if that is okay to ask and if there exist of a photo of the school before it was bombed – thank you Chris

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.