It was a typical Saturday morning at New Cross Road. Shoppers queued outside Woolworths following rumours that a new supply of sought-after saucepans had become available. Then disaster struck.
At 12:26 pm, a V2 rocket landed onto Woolworths, killing 168 shoppers and injuring another 123 on November 25, 1944. The Co-op store next door collapsed. An army lorry overturned. A double-decker bus spun round. Debris spread from Deptford Town Hall to New Cross Gate station. It was the one of the worst civilian disasters in London during the Second World War.
Today’s children of St James Hatcham School, survivors of the attack and the Mayor of Lewisham came to St James Hatcham church to pay their respects and commemorate the lives lost, on the devastating November day of 1944.
John Henderson was a child at the time and lived in nearby Forest Hill. He remembers the attack as a seven-year-old child. “I didn’t see the bombing, but I remember hearing about it. It was worse than the doodlebug bomb. The sad thing is, no one even knew it was coming.”
“It was the middle of the day and no one inside those shops would have known anything about it. The V2 was so huge and travelled at thousands of miles per hour. The area was completely destroyed.”
John Warren, of St Donatt’s Road in New Cross, survived the attack aged just 14. He recalls his experience five years ago. He told the News Shopper: “I heard this almighty bang and all the windows blew in.”
“At a blink of they eye it could have hit my factory, 600 yard was nothing when you realise the rocket was going at 1,200 mph.”
Barbara Smith saw the immediate effect of the bombing and told the BBC’s WW2 People’s War about it. She said: “It [the V2] had fallen at the bottom of my road on the Woolworths store in New Cross. As I hurried home I saw many people who were injured, and others were dead and lying on the pavements and in the road.
“Ambulances and fire engines were parked nearby, attending to the injured and dying. The air was filled with grit and dust. There was a huge crater on the Woolworth site where the V2 had fallen.”
“The first four houses in my road were demolished. We were number nine and my house was badly damaged, a four-storey Victorian house, but it was still standing. The front steps were damaged, windows fallen out, ceilings down, furniture damaged. “
“I had been at the Woolworths store visiting every Saturday morning with a friend, but that particular Saturday, I’m glad to say that I hadn’t gone”.
Children from the local school, St James Hatcham C of E Primary School were part of a service held at St James Church, by Bishop of Woolwich, the Rt Rev Michael Ipgrave. Children aged between nine and 11 read out names of those who lost their lives that day.
The head teacher, Sonia McFarne said: “The school felt very connected to the past and what happened. Lots of people who died that day went to this school and attended the church. Some were very close to the children’s ages, which particularly moved them.”
Sir Steve Bullock, Mayor of Lewisham, attended the service and planted a commemorative tree while the church bells chimed 168 times. He said: “I was honoured to take part in the 70th anniversary at St James church this week to remember those that were injured or lost their lives.”
“In an age where war is often something we in the UK only see via our TV screens, remembering the attack on New Cross helps us to understand the brutality of conflict and that we must continue to do all we can to avoid it where possible.”
The service was arranged by Reverend Neil Nicholls of St James Hatcham church in New Cross and Ellanor Houston, the school’s history subject leader.