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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

24 thoughts on “168 dead as Woolworths obliterated in V2 attack”

  1. I was 3weeks old, I had a cold and mum was trying to feed me otherwise she would have been in the rush to get saucepans. Dad was a fireman stationed in Southwark. He heard the explosion and knew mum was hoping to get to Woolworths. He drove a fire engine as close to the bomb site as possible and ran the rest of the way. After a nightmare clearing bodies and injured, he went home to Childeric Road to find mum and me safe. That night he was back on a fire barge on the Thames hosing down warehouses. God they were tough then.

  2. My father Thomas James Gushlow was killed at New cross Woolworths.I was just a year old.My mother did not go with him as she was looking after me and my elder brother.
    Will their be a commemorative day on 25th November 2019 as it will be 75years.Are the Council doing anything.?

  3. My mother, Vivienne Pitt, was born in 1921. She lived with her parents in Evelyn Street, Deptford.

    Her father, Jack (John James) Pitt, worked for Civil Defence during WWII in the Deptford/Newcross area.

    When the V2 landed on the Woolworths store, my mother knew her father was near the area where the V2 had landed and was worried about him, so she went looking for him. As the area close to the bomb site was cordoned off, she folded up a blank piece of paper, held it up in the air and said to the police officer “I have an urgent message for Jack Pitt”. The officer let her through the cordon.

    My mother came across a car in the street that looked similar to her father’s car. It was all covered in brick dust from the explosion. There was a man in the driver’s seat. She tapped on the window and there was no response so she opened the car door. The man was dead, no doubt from the shockwaves of the V2; it was not her father.

    She walked on further to where the Woolworths store had been and found her father, helping to direct the recovery of bodies/body parts. Her father was angry that she had come to the site and although he was not prone to swearing he swore at her.

    He got her to go to nearby stores to collect bags into which the people working on the site could place body parts into. My mother said that to determine the number of people killed by the V2, the people helping on the site had to count the number of limbs and divide by four.

  4. I always remember my late mother Joyce Lovett talking about this… she lost a good friend in that bomb attack.. I wish I’d asked her more about her time in the war if she was still with us..x

  5. My grandads first wife Ethel Watson was one of the dead in this blast.. What a terrible scene this must of been.

  6. My grandfather, Albert Woodbridge, was a member of the Home Guard and Heavy Rescue in New Cross. He was having a drink in the nearby Marquess of Granby while waiting to go and meet my grandmother in Woolworth;s when the rocket hit. Blowing out all the windows of the bar where he was drinking. He had no idea if she was inside or not.
    As a rescue member he was one of the first on the scene. His description of the carnage was horrific. The streets looked like they had been literally hosed down in a shower of blood. Body parts both human and horse, were strewn all across the New Cross Road.
    I wonder if at any point he stopped later to think about this occurring right across from the Deptford Town Hall where he’d lined up to enlist in WWI, the ‘war to end all wars’.
    Odd thing I found while checking out some genealogy matches today.
    One of the New Cross Woolworth’s bombing, the worst V2 attack of WWII, was a distant relative:
    VANDYKE, DORIS, (1907 – 1944) aged 37, Daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Philip Vandyke, of 56 Beecroft Road. Died at New Cross Road.
    Mrs Vandyke, was my great great aunt (my grandad’s aunt), Florence Shiret.
    I don’t think my granddad ever knew his second cousin was one of the victims.

  7. My maternal grandmother Emily Holmes, was killed in the blast. Her daughter, my aunt Iris, worked in Woolworths but for some reason couldn’t go that day. My grandmother went there, either to work her daughter’s shift or to notify them that Iris would not be at work.

  8. My aunt Sylvia Brown was killed in this V2 attack. She had gone with her friend Alma to by some extra Christmas presents. My grandmother always cried when she heard the song ‘would you like to swing on a star’s as this was Sylvia’s favourite song.

  9. My Mother worked at Woolworths in New Cross. She was 32 years old in 1944. On the day of the V2 explosion she was talked into taking an early lunch by a work colleague. They were both in a cafe nearby when the rocket hit. They rushed back & saw the devastation. All their co workers & customers were killed or injured. Whenever she talked of this she was very tearful.

  10. I was nine months old, my sister was three. The story is that my paternal grandmother had made us a rag doll from one of her old dresses. She went to Woolworths that Saturday to buy buttons to sew onto the front. Apparently she was only identified by a ring she was wearing. I have no memories of my Nan but we played with the Doll for years afterward. Her name was Lilian M Walker. I don’t think my Dad ever got over the loss. Never spoke about it.

  11. My grandfather worked behind Woolworths at the time and on this particular day he left work and
    He had left something behind in the building so he went back to collect it which was a great pity because as he reached outside Woolworths the rocket landed and he was killed. My mother was 7 months pregnant with me at the time so I never new a grandad when I was growing up because my fathers father also died young.

  12. In 1948 we moved into 291 and shortly afterwards onto 293 New Cross Road. As kids we played on the ‘bomb site’s. I remember Woolworths being rebuilt (now Iceland) and the new block of flats going up on what was our playground. Our house was the 3rd one along from the wreckage and we were told we could’nt dig because there might be bodies in there. Loved playing in the alley between the New Cross houses and the Batavia Road houses but as kids we never spoke about the bombing and neither did our parents. I returned there yesterday with my grandson for the first time since 1957. A new population now reside in ” Batavia Mews” and I wondered if they realise the wonderful culture that existed there six decades ago and the price our families paid?

  13. My Mum lived in Batavia Road at the back of Woolworths,Mum had just gone into Woolworths to look at the pans.She was pregnant with me,heard the noise and run out of the shop.Thanks to her quick thinking I was saved.God bless Mum.

  14. My father told very few stories about what he did in the war. He had come from Ireland and as a carpenter, was given work with what he called,’a flying squad’ of men who would go out and fix up buildings, bridges etc which had been damages in bombing. He started in Leicester and then moved to London. On the 25th of November, he was walking close to Woolworths with a young boy who was some kind of apprentice when he heard the Rocket and then heard the engine stop. He used to say that while you could hear the engine, you were safe. So the engine stopped and he grabbed theboy and went under a lorry which was close by. He heard the explosion and when he looked up the lorry was no longer there but had been moved by the force of the rocket exploding. He recounted that a few minutes later, a woman ame running towards him holding he baby and wanting help. The baby was obviously dead and nothing could be done but the woman kept looking for someone to help. He talked about the large number of people who died, because they wanted to buy Some new pans which were in Woolworths that day.
    The story he told was told only once; we were in the Imperial War museum and there was a V2 on display!

  15. My Dad worked on the Southern Railway during the war [a reserved occupation] and was based at New Cross Gate Station. He was a member of The Home Guard and often used to help digging people out of bombed buildings. My Mum used to tell us that after one particularly bad bombing all my Dad’s hair fell out with the shock of what he had witnessed. We think that she was referring to The Woolworths Bombing.

  16. My aunt, Harriet Amy Bentley (known as Dolly) was killed in this raid. She was doing some Christmas shopping. Her body was never identified. She was identified as one of the victims by her shoe.

  17. My cousin Hettie Plunkett age 15 was killed that day. She worked in woolworths and had swopped her shift to work that day, so a colleague could attend a wedding. Her body was only able to be recognised by a birthmark on her back, my family spent days digging through the rubble to find her.

  18. I was 12 and a half at the time and all I wanted was a saucepan to cook with – and then the store got blown up. I never got my saucepan

  19. My mum told me that she was shopping that day and was intending to go to the Woolworth for some materia and sewing needles. She was far enough away not to be hurt but was deaf for days afterwards. I was born exactly one year later.

  20. I was 14 at that time and had started work at the New Cross branch of Midland Bank in the september of 1944. Banks worked saturday mornings in those days and i was were in the basement that day working on the burroughs machines. I remember the loud bang and being blown across the floor and the light fitting dropping down. I ran upstairs to the main banking hall and we then heard a rocket had exploded.

    I used to travel by tram from my home in downham to new cross, but cannot remember exactly how I got home that day, though I imagine the trams may have been able to turn at the marquis of granby pub, which was situated opposite the bank.

  21. Hi I Remember the devastation. My father was a lorry driver carrying essential munitions, he was bringing my mother me and my brothers & sisters back from Melbourne in Derbyshire where we were evacuated. & now returning to Dartford Kent.I remember it was dark and a police man told my father the road was completly blocked with debris and it was impossible to go through as a bomb landing on Woolworths, although it was war time there were search lights shining to aid the recovery of people.
    I was 7 years old at the time & is something I have never forgotten.
    Regards Phil Williams

  22. 168 people died in the Woolworths bombing new cross on 25 November 1944 , how many survive d + have you their names. please reply ,

  23. 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.

  24. 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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