This week, we’re marking one of the most dramatic events in the Shell Grotto’s history.
In October 1940, the Battle of Britain was being fought above Kent. 2543 RAF pilots, 147 from Poland, and more from New Zealand, Canada, Czechoslovakia were fighting the German Luftwaffe.
The Isle of Thanet was very much at the centre of the Battle of Britain. RAF Manston (on the plateau between Margate and Ramsgate) was a key frontline airfield, close to the action in France, and it had been heavily bombed
On 28th August Winston Churchill visited to see the damage, and three days later it was back in action as a forward airfield for British fighter aircraft.
During October 1940, though, the airfield was closed while damage was repaired. Two Westland Lysanders, best known for dropping secret agents into occupied France, were based at the airfield, working in an air-sea rescue role with fast launches based at Ramsgate harbour.
The Luftwaffe were bombing British cities at night – and carrying out nuisance raids on coastal towns like Margate by day. A report to the War Cabinet for this week said
‘Daylight attacks consisted mainly of sweeps over South-Eastern England, for which bomb-carrying fighters were increasingly employed. Night attacks increased considerably in intensity and relays of aircraft, singly or in groups, were active over the country from dusk to dawn, the scale of attack usually diminishing after midnight.’
On 18th October 1940, the Air Ministry reported, ‘Enemy activity was on a very reduced scale and consisted mainly of reconnaissance flights and raids by single aircraft. Our fighters damaged one enemy aircraft.’
The following day, 19th October 1940, started with a cloudy morning. During the month, German aircraft had been carrying out nuisance raids on seaside towns by day, while their main night-time bombing raids concentrated on British cities. As the weather cleared late in the morning on Saturday 19th, Messerschmitt Bf 109s raided South Coast towns. These small, fast fighters could each carry four bombs.
It’s not clear what aircraft attacked Margate on that morning. One local report says a Heinkel III, a much larger bomber, came out of cloud cover and dropped 20 bombs across the town. It’s possible that this was a stray bomber, from a larger force which launched an ineffectual attack on London.
The RAF’s campaign diaries just record that
‘eighteen High Explosives were dropped in the Central District at 1145 hours on the 19th. Four houses and two workshops were demolished. Fourteen houses and water mains badly damaged. A few casualties are reported.’
If you look at Googlemaps today, you can trace the line of the bombs that fell and find newer buildings among the older ones.
57 Milton Avenue was destroyed, and 72-year-old Maria Warren was killed. At their home in Thanet Road, 41-year-old Doris Hyde and 71-year-old Maud Cox lost their lives. Another bomb landed in Dane Park Road.
And here on Grotto Hill, a Kodak workshop and the cottage above the Shell Grotto were damaged, collapsing the east wall of the Altar Room. It’s never been replaced. Here’s another report on the bombing:
‘Clarence Hyde, summoned from his work in a clothing store, helped a rescue squad search the ruins of his home at No 46 Thanet Road. After some hours of painstaking work they eventually found the bodies of his forty-year-old wife Doris and sixty-year-old Miss Maud Cox. Only ten days before Mrs Hyde had returned from Staffordshire, where she had been working as a helper among the evacuated children. She had left behind her own two children. 'While the ARP rescue teams were systematically searching among the heaps of bricks, plaster and smashed furniture, they heard a dog whine. Crawling through a hole tunnelled in the rubble, a warden rescued the family pet – Jill. The warden was bitten for his trouble. 'The bomb which wrecked three small houses in Milton Avenue, killed seventy-three-year-old Mrs Maria Warren. Five girls and the manager at the Kodak workshop at Grotto Gardens had a narrow escape as the bomb which exploded outside the building took away half of it. The girls inside flung themselves down against the walls just as the manager shouted a warning.’
19th October is a significant day in the Grotto’s history, even if it is only a footnote in official records. Here, it’s a day when we remember Maria Warren, Doris Hyde, Maud Cox and the 32 other lives lost in Margate during the Second World War.