Remembrance Day 2020: What World War II cost Essex
- Credit: Archant
As we mark Remembrance Day 2020, Essex Life looks back at the impact World War had on local people in Essex
‘I’m all right.’
These poignant words came from a ten-year-old lass plucked from ruined buildings in Romford. They were her last.
It was the most destructive war in human history, lasting for six years and costing a conservative estimate of 60 million lives, the majority non-combatants. As we mark another Remembrance Sunday this month, there will be a special note of reflection on World War II, which ended 75 years ago this year.
While the men of the Essex Regiment and Yeomanry served overseas, the people of Essex did their bit on the Home Front. No-one was spared in this ‘total war’. The 1st Battalion of the Essex Regiment served in North Africa and in the Far East. The 2nd Battalion meanwhile had moved to France in 1939, so participated in the evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940.
It returned to France in June 1944, landing on D-Day, and fighting on until Germany’s final surrender in May 1945. Further battalions were raised during the war, also serving in North-West Europe after D-Day. There were also Territorial battalions that served overseas. Lt. Col. Augustus Charles Newman (1904-72) was a Chigwell-born recipient of the Victoria Cross, and member of the Essex Regiment, who gained the award during the attack on St Nazaire in March 1942. The Essex Yeomanry also played its part. The 104th Regiment served in North Africa, while the 147th Regiment landed on D-Day.
Essex itself was in the front line too. Chelmsford, a key centre of light engineering and home to the vital work at Marconi, was heavily bombed. A raid of May 13, 1943 left more than 50 dead and nearly 1,000 homeless, while a V-2 just missed the Marconi factory and Hoffmans ball-bearing factory on December 19. 1944, but still killed 39 more, with close-on 150 injured.
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There’s a monument to the dead in the cemetery in Writtle Street. This was just one of more than 300 V-2 rockets that hit Essex between September 1944 and March 1945. Chelmsford was hit three times, with Chingford receiving the most V-2 blasts in the county, being targeted 12 times. The GHQ Line, part of the British Hardened Defences of World War II which was designed to contain and throw back an anticipated German invasion, ran directly through Chelmsford, with many pillboxes still extant. Had that invasion occurred, we can assume that Essex’s county town would have been the scene of heavy fighting. The coast was also defended, with Burnham on Crouch an example, where pillboxes can still be seen.
Colchester, a centre for infantry and light-anti-aircraft training, was also home to the Paxman factory which turned out engines for submarines and landing craft, was also hit. The Germans tried to take out the town’s industries, but inadvertently found another target instead. On August 11, 1942 bombs fell on a psychiatric hospital, killing 38. In February 1944, further bombing led to a massive fire in the St Botolph’s area, which afflicted part of Paxman’s Britannia Works.
Brentwood had more than 1,000 bombs fall, which destroyed over 5,000 houses and left over 40 dead and nearly 400 injured. The proximity of Warley Barracks, the depot of the Essex Regiment, may have been a factor in Brentwood’s targeting. Ironically, Brentwood had been considered safe enough to evacuate children there from London at the start of the war, with some 6,000 arriving in September 1939 alone.
Saturday, April 19, 1941 was the worst night suffered by the residents of Romford and Hornchurch. Essex Road in Romford was hit by a parachute mine, which killed 38, mostly women and children. One little girl (Vera Carter, aged ten) was pulled from the rubble on the Monday afternoon, reassuring her rescuers with an encouraging, ‘I’m all right’. Sadly she lost consciousness soon after and died the same day in Oldchurch Hospital.
Nearby Hillfoot Avenue was also hit, with another six dead. A direct hit on an air-raid shelter on the Hornchurch border (Brentwood Road) saw nine members of one family die, a mother and father and their seven children, whose ages ranged from 11 to just 23 months. The area was unlucky to be on the Luftwaffe’s flightpath to London as well as having RAF Hornchurch, which would also have been considered a prime target.
Essex airfields also played their part though in RAF Fighter Command, particularly North Weald and that one at Hornchurch, which participated in the Battle of Britain, with RAF Bradwell joining them later in the war, when the menace had switched to V-1 flying bombs. RAF North Weald played host to Group Captain Douglas Bader after his release from Colditz in April 1945, as he was briefly in command of the North Weald Sector of Fighter Command.
As Winston Churchill himself said to cheering crowds on VE Day, ‘God bless you all. This is your victory! It is the victory of the cause of freedom in every land. In all our long history we have never seen a greater day than this. Everyone, man or woman, has done their best. Everyone has tried. Neither the long years, nor the dangers, nor the fierce attacks of the enemy, have in any way weakened the unbending resolve of the British nation. God bless you all!’
Essex was badly hit and its losses were grievous, but it had played its part in achieving the final victory, whether it was the county’s regiments serving overseas, the airfields of Fighter Command or all those facets of the Home Front, from the Bomb Girls of the munitions and ordnance factories including Waltham Abbey Royal Gunpowder Mills, to the Land Girls on the farms.
Let’s continue to use that freedom wisely and respectfully. It really was hard won.
Did you know?
Over one million women worked in munitions factories during World War II, the so-called Bomb Girls. There were also around 80,000 who’d either volunteered or been conscripted into the Women’s Land Army by 1943 (known better as the ‘Land Girls’) and a further 6,000 who were working in the Timber Corps (the ‘Lumber Jills’).
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