On 30 May 1943 a group of of Luftwaffe bombers hit the seaside town of Torquay in Devon. Some believe it became a target because so many RAF crew were based there whilst training. The south coast of Britain was no longer accessible to the general public for holidays, so many of the guest houses had been taken over by the military to house personnel during training. Alternatively it may just have been another ‘Nuisance raid’, a target almost chosen at random where the Luftwaffe could sweep in, drop some bombs, machine gun the streets and then make a swift exit.
On this raid 54 people died in total but the bomb that hit the Sunday school being held at St Mary the Virgin killed twenty-one children and three adults. It was a devastating blow to the small community.
Jean Sangster was a young girl who had a lucky escape:
I had two brothers in the RAF and a younger brother of only 3. I was 10 at the time.
The morning of 30 May 1943, I had finished my household duties for mother and got ready for Sunday school in the afternoon. As I left the house my mother called “Are you taking your brother?” I said “No, I am walking with my friends after Sunday school,” and off I went.
I arrived at Sunday school just before 3.00pm and had just sat on the end pew when the sirens sounded and someone shouted “Duck!”. I saw a flash at the stained glass window before I managed to dive into the upright at the end of the pew.
However, I couldn’t get my legs in as well. The whole church collapsed in on us – apart from the tower – and in the rubble I remember holding hands with a friend of mine that was buried even deeper. There was dust and debris everywhere.
I was one of the first to be rescued because my legs were near the surface of the rubble but I had been there for an hour. I was asked if I would like to go to the WVS centre which was a hotel opposite the church, namely the “George Hotel”.
I declined and walked home with the WVS lady as I just wanted to get home. From the four avenues where I lived (First, Second, Third and Main Avenue) a pair of twins, a boy and a girl, were killed in my avenue and another girl killed in Third Avenue. Altogether 21 children died that day and 3 Sunday school teachers.
The brother I did not take with me to Sunday school that day became Britain’s number one tennis player and also entered the Guinness Book of Records with the fastest serve in the world — Mike Sangster.
The Women’s Voluntary Service had played an invaluable role in assisting people during the worst days of the Blitz in 1940-1941. They helped the homeless and the lost wherever and whenever the bombers struck Britain throughout the war. They also played an important role in many other aspects of wartime life.