LEST WE FORGET
New Cross

         
By 1944 the Germans were losing the war. The allied invasion of Continental Europe went well, and before long Paris was relieved and the relentless march to Berlin was underway. Hitler was convinced that his secret weapons could still turn the situation around. By the autumn Britain was getting used to the V1 "doodlebug", a pilot-less plane, and was finding ways of coping with its destructive power. Spotters took to the roofs above factories and stores to raise the alarm and get people evacuated to the shelters. The V1s droned as they flew overhead. When they reached their target the engine cut out, and for a few seconds there was a frightening eerie silence as they came down - then bang, an enormous explosion.
         
In the Spring the Marks and Spencer store at Lewisham was hit by a V1. In a horrific sight, customers and staff emerged from the building with their clothes on fire.  Firemen, ARP wardens and colleagues from the neighbouring Woolies were quickly on the scene giving help.  They never forgot.

But they did not demand that Churchill or the RAF sent back weapons of our own.  Quite on the contrary, for much of the war public opinion in the stricken areas was violently anti-bombing.

A V1 rocket hit the Marks and Spencer store in Lewisham in Spring 1944 when the store was packed with customers.  The store and market outside were wrecked, while the nieghbouring Woolworths escape largely unscathed.  Both Woolies and M&S still trade side by side in the Riverdale Centre.  (Image: COI)
Maj. Gen. Walter Dornberger of the Wermacht and Wernher Von Braun were in charge of the German rocket programme But in Peenemunde on the German Baltic Coast,  scientists were perfecting a much more destructive weapon, code-named the "A4".  This became known as the V2 rocket.  Unlike its predecessor, the V1, which was basically a drone plane, this was a rocket - an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Leading the programme were Major General Walter Dornberger, an artillery officer in the Wermacht, and Wernher Von Braun, a Prussian aristocrat and rocket scientist.  They put together a strong team of experts and, after some setbacks, found the fuels to lift the rocket into the stratosphere and the alloys to keep it in the air until it reached its target..

On Saturday, November 11th, 1944, the Daily Herald broke the news of V2 rocket attacks on Southern England.  Up until this date the War Ministry had explained the explosions as ruptured gas mains.  But civilians had found metal shards of debris from the rockets which were up to 3 metres long. The Daily Herald provides the first details of the V2.
         
The V2 had an awesome power - diving out of the orbit at enormous speed and virtually without a sound. There was no defence - the only hope was that the allies would soon capture the launch sites off the Belgian coast and put them out of action.
         
A digital reconstruction of the F. W. Woolworth store in New Cross Road, Deptford, SE14 during World War II.  It was destroyed by a V2 rocket on 25th November 1944. Saturday, November 25th, 1944 was bright and dry.  A relief from the driving rain and light snow earlier in the week.

New Cross Road in South East London was crowded.  Workers from the town hall were hurrying home after collecting their pay packets. Women and children were out shopping to put a little something by for Christmas.

And Woolworths was packed out.  Word had got around that the Company had received a rare shipment of a hundred and forty four tin saucepans.  Servicemen in uniform queued alongside housewives and pensioners all hoping that they would be lucky.

         
Off the Belgian Coast on Walcheren Island, the Germans had other ideas.  Drinks had been arranged to celebrate the 250th successful launch of a V2 rocket.  The SS turned out in force.  At New Cross Southern Railway Station, the train cleaners also popped out for a drink - to F. W. Woolworth in New Cross Road, for a Bovril, waiting behind several children on their way back from the swimming pool.  At 12.15 second break headed off to the staff canteen, also for a drink - including some of the forty Saturday boys and girls who joined the weekday staff serving in the store. 
         
The 250th rocket was launched amidst applause and raised glasses.  Unknown to those present it veered off course and blew up safely in the sea.  Not so the 251st.
         
Suddenly, with no warning at 12.26pm, a V2 rocket hit the centre of the roof of Woolworths in New Cross Road, Deptford.  After a moment's complete silence the walls bowed, and the building collapsed and exploded.  In the ensuing hours local people helped the emergency services to lift the rubble by hand, and as it cleared the full horror was evident.  168 people dead, customers and colleagues, 122 passers-by injured and just one survivor.
         

The devastation following the New Cross explosion.  Remember the heroes who dug with their bare hands in search for survivors.   (Note that the ornate Deptford Town Hall, which is still standing today, (and is now part of Goldsmiths College, University of London,) is clearly visible to the right of the picture above the words "lest we forget".   Click for greater detail in a new window.

 
 

At long last thanks to the Deptford Historical Group a plaque at the site commemorates the tragedy.  Click to see a long overdue memorial from Woolworths.

 
 


25th November 1944, 12.26pm
New Cross Road, Deptford, London, SE14
168 people killed and 123 injured when a V2 rocket
destroyed Woolworths and the Co-op next door

"At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
we will remember them.     R. I. P."

Woolworths Group plc MMIV

 
         

 
In 1945 Woolworths' Chairman and surviving founder member, William Lawrence Stephenson, paid tribute to those who lost their lives in the pursuit of freedom. 

He praised those who served in His Majesty's Armed Forces, he thanked those who worked so bravely to keep the stores trading through thick and thin, but in particular he remembered the immense sacrifice of the people of New Cross.  In all 26 stores were lost and 326 were damaged, but the loss of life at New Cross was greater than in all of the others put together.  The community was devastated and it would be fifteen years before the store re-opened.

 

Von Braun, with a broken arm sustained during the forced march across Belgium, arranges for the entire rocket team to work in the United States. At the end of the war Wernher Von Braun marched his rocket technicians over 50 kilometres across country to make sure that they were captured by American rather than Russian troops. Weeks later he and the whole team were starting new lives in America. His built the first Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles, launched television satellites and in 1961 John F. Kennedy invited him to lead Saturn 5 - the Apollo "man on the moon project". He accepted. "The best of our energies and skills" is a quote from John F. Kennedy's speech launching the race to the moon.  Remember the servicemen who survived the Dunkirk evacuation and the Normandy landings and died in Woolworths waiting to buy a saucepan.
Von Braun took dual American and German citizenship and rarely talked of the war years. He was, he said, a patriot who answered his country's call - if he had not, someone else would. As for the rocket, he said "The V2 flew very well, the only trouble is that it landed on the wrong planet."  What price a man on the moon?

         
New Cross Road, Deptford, which re-opened in 1960.  Several senior managers refused to work there or asked to be moved from the store, even if this meant a demotion and cut in pay.
         
To find out more about Von Braun, Doodlebugs and V2 rockets we recommend Lewis Blake's excellent book "Doodlebugs and Rockets" ISBN 1-872337-21-X.  Among other material we reviewed to compile this article was "Remembering Woolworths - 50 Years On" by Deptford Historical Group, Encyclopaedia Britannica, the NASA Knowledge Base and the University of Lancaster Strategic Studies Unit.

We would like to express our sincere and profound thanks to the Deptford History Group for installing a commemorative plaque on the Building on the 50th Anniversary of the tragedy, and our appreciation for the help of Mr Brian Jeffries and Deptford Publishing Limited with our research. 

 


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Xmas 1939: UK and USA a world apart    Fire from the sky - Blitz hits major cities  
Woolies buy two Spitfires for the RAF
Occupied by the Nazis - Jersey and Guernsey
   Farewell 3d and 6d - hello rationing   "They also serve" - home front defiance
A taste of home - US forces discover FWW UK
   German "V" weapons and our darkest hour
   
New Cross Tribute   War dead - our colleague Roll of Honour   
Reconstruction and post-war austerity
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