Heritage: The first bombing of Wimbledon
At 5.20pm on this day 73 years ago, Friday 16 August 1940, a number of 50kg German bombs were dropped along Merton High Street and Kingston Road, killing 14 people and injuring 59. It was the first time the Wimbledon area had suffered attack by the Nazis and just three days since the start of the Battle of Britain.
World War 2 had already been under way for 11 months but life had been comparatively quiet until then. Apart from a false air raid warning within 15 minutes of war being declared on 3 September 1939, nothing much had happened.
Wimbledon’s cinemas and theatres had re-opened and many evacuees had returned home.
Although Croydon had been hit the previous day, everything seemed normal in Wimbledon until lunchtime when an air-raid siren had lasted for 50 minutes before ceasing without incident.
In the afternoon, the Elite cinema in Wimbledon Broadway was packed with children watching the film Just William when the alarm sounded again and few bothered to move. So when the attack finally came it caught many by surprise.
Many houses were damaged - and some completely destroyed - in quite a few streets, particularly Cecil, Montague, Palmerston, Russell, Gladstone, Hartfield and Graham Roads. Half of the fatalities happened when the Wimbledon Tyre Company, at the corner of Montague Road, suffered a direct hit and heavy clouds of black smoke were produced by the burning rubber.
A bomb also fell on the railway line behind Kingswood Road. Electricity cables and gas and water mains were damaged and some roads were closed by craters or debris.
Amid the chaos, emergency services arrived to take victims to hospitals and first aid posts. As this was the first occasion of its kind in the vicinity, various organisational weaknesses soon became apparent, not least effective identification of all victims.
Policing too was needed to fend off ghoulish sightseers and property looters.
Nevertheless, despite the deceptive calm beforehand, the previous 11 months had seen local preparations for that day.
A Civil Defence Control Centre had been set up in the basement of Wimbledon Town Hall controlled by the Borough Engineer. He had also established a system of observation posts on the roofs of both the Town Hall and Eagle House in the Village, from which almost every part of Wimbledon could be seen. Later, when the bombing really got under way, bearings could be taken from these posts, enabling the exact location of incidents within minutes.
The main ambulance station was established at Cottenham Park Church Hall with first aid posts at Pelham Road School, Oberon Playing Fields and the All-England Club, which also served as a mortuary.
The Village Hall was later taken over to house bombed out families. Wimbledon itself would not be struck again until 8 September, after which bombing became more frequent and would last until May 1941, recommencing in February 1944. The worst attack came in November 1940 (see Heritage story 2 November 2012).
Overall, 150 Wimbledonians would be killed, more than 1070 injured and nearly 2120 rendered homeless.
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