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Tooting remembers: Hazelhurst Road V2 75th Commemoration

Tooting remembers: Hazelhurst Road V2 75th Commemoration

2019-11-20 
| by Tooting Newsie | Posted in News, Events, Charities & Community
  

Following Tuesday’s Hazelhurst Road V2 75th Commemoration, we wanted to share the moving speech by local historian Geoff Simmons, letters read by Lynda Cazeaux, and a poem by John Byrne.
 

Speech by Geoff Simmons, read at the commemoration

The summer of 1944, 75 years ago marked the start of a period of great danger and terrible carnage for people in Britain, particularly those living in south London. Nazi scientists finally perfected and unleashed their so-called V-weapons. Firstly the V1 flying bomb known as the doodlebug. Then from September 1944, the deadly silent killer that was the V2. A rocket that travelled at twice the speed of sound, packed with a ton of high explosive which brought instantaneous death and destruction. About 2,750 people in London were killed as a result of these. The worry and stress that fear of an unseen killer must have caused is unimaginable.

Launched from sites in occupied Holland it would have taken four minutes for the rocket to get here. It was 8:31 on a Sunday morning. People were having a lie-in, or making breakfast, opening the curtains, thinking about going out to buy a newspaper. We’ve all seen the photo of what was to happen next as the rocket crashed into the heart of Hazelhurst and Foss Road where we stand now, leaving a crater which is in the car-park behind this building. At least 35 people died on this spot and over 100 were injured. 50 houses were completely obliterated. Its almost impossible to imagine. It seems unbelievable that at least five people standing with us now today were in those houses, on that morning.

Today is a tribute to the people of this neighbourhood, families who had lived in the area for a generation or more, a close knit community that was smashed apart that morning. The greatest area of devastation was in houses directly opposite the two gates across the road. Among the dead were 14 children including two small babies. Another small child was sleeping in the bottom drawer of a wardrobe and survived when it got blown over and the drawer wedged. At no. 30, nine people died including three generations of a family of six who were completely wiped out. At no. 28 the widow of a soldier killed in the First World War died with her daughter. At no. 24 another First World War veteran who worked on the presses at the Daily Mirror and had rung in sick died that morning. A husband returned from war to no. 32 to find his wife and son had been killed. From the same family a couple who died in that house tragically lost their infant daughter through meningitis the day before. At no. 36 another serving soldier who survived Dunkirk was an escaped POW and was about to rejoin his regiment. A twelve year old boy helped pull a toddler out of the rubble but they couldn’t save her older brother and sister. They both stood here four years ago. Many of the victims were asleep in their beds and would have known nothing.

The people who lived in these streets had very little money. In many cases two families were crammed into tiny houses, one upstairs, one downstairs. They did jobs we don’t hear about any more. They were market traders, costermongers or rag and bone men, keeping horses in the fields behind the houses. Many worked as dustmen or coalmen. Some laboured at the numerous laundries in the area or the cardboard box factory in Summerstown. Their children went to Smallwood Road School and it is so fitting to have the pupils from this school join us today. I’ve spoken to many people who lived here in the war-time years, some still living nearby. They have been so generous, sharing painful and very personal memories. They remember the awful sight of the little white coffins, of the empty seats in the classroom. Only a lucky few have precious photos of a beloved brother or sister. Everything was lost in the rubble of those houses. They are the most outstanding and warm-hearted people, the last of the wartime generation who lost so much. What they endured and how they responded in the fight against facism 75 years ago should never be forgotten and their memories cherished forever.

The world is still a dangerous place and there are still people like those who sent the rocket that believe one race is superior to another. We should be thankful for 75 years of peace and do all we can to ensure it never happens again. This plaque, this occasion, is a symbol of unity and an understanding of the terrible consequences of conflict. We are fortunate to live in an area where people of many cultures and faiths from so many different backgrounds live together in harmony and understanding. People from those countries are here in many cases because bombs still rain down today on houses in Syria, Yemen, Somalia and once again innocent civilians and children will suffer. 
 
Thank you for all coming today. When you walk down these roads, or through this estate, or past this school – please, NEVER FORGET what happened here.
 

Geoff was followed by Lynda Cazeaux, who read the following:

My father was Charlie Biggs. He and his two younger sisters, Lily and Nellie Biggs were born and grew up in Hazelhurst Rd. They lived at number 36 with their uncle, Christopher Kitts, and despite the cramped conditions family members were always welcome to come and stay, particularly their cousins.

So cast your mind back to the evening of Saturday 18th November 1944 when the mood at 36 Hazelhurst Road must have been one of happy anticipation. Dad’s sister Nellie, his cousin Corporal Douglas Kitts and Uncle Chris were all making preparations for a party on the Sunday evening to celebrate Doug’s escape from a Prisoner of War camp in Italy and his 24th birthday just a few days later. Tragically it was not to be as the V2 rocket fell on Hazelhurst and Foss Roads the following morning. Amongst the many victims were Nellie, Douglas and Uncle Chris.

My Dad was in the army, fighting in Italy at the time, so his only way of knowing what had happened back home was via letters from relatives. His collection of correspondence is a legacy for us today of what happened here 75 years ago in 1944. It gives an insight not only to the devastation and the lives lost but also shows how everyday life still had to go on.  

The first letter is from Lily Biggs to her brother Charlie, my Dad, dated Monday 18th December 1944, a month after the rocket fell.

Dear Charlie,

Thanks for your letter of 6th. I am still away from work and it’s not worth going back now as it’s a week to Christmas. I don’t suppose you’ll have much of a Christmas in your position but perhaps next year will be different.

In answer to your query regarding the day on which the rocket fell, it was on a Sunday morning about 8.30am on November 19th, just when most people were in bed. I don’t think Nell or Doug could have known anything about it as one of the demolition workers, who brought them out, told me they still had the bedclothes round them and looked very peaceful. Mrs Webb and Uncle George went to identify them as two witnesses were needed, and I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Mrs Cooper, Hinson upstairs, and Mrs Bushaway were all killed. Mrs Stewart and Gardner and many others. Betty Ackerman, Ray Hinson and Bobby the baby and Mrs Bushaway’s young baby were all victims. Mr Bushaway is seriously ill and Cissie is believed to be blind in one eye but Edie upstairs is ok, though how she escaped beats me. She was in the garden, but even so it must have been a terrible shock.

By the way, we have actually got the street lights on in most places now, true they are not full strength but it’s certainly made a great difference.

I’ll write again in a few days’ time as I still have to go to Wandsworth Town Hall to collect your books, so I’ll let you know how I get on.

Cheerio for now,

Lily
 

The second is from Dad’s cousin Lena Slaughter. This is quite short but extremely poignant.  Lena had spent a short holiday with her cousins and uncle at 36 Hazelhurst Road shortly before the bombing and had opened the door to Douglas Kitts when he returned home after his escape.

Dear Charlie,

Well I don’t know how to write to you. We were hoping you’d be home but as I haven’t heard from Lily to say that you are home, I am sending this to you.

It’s a terrible tragedy and there is nothing we can say that will soften the blow. As you know if you got my letter, I was down there two weeks before. I let Doug in the night he came home. He was so thrilled to be home and Nellie couldn’t take her eyes off him, and what harm had Uncle Chris ever done anybody? The only consolation is knowing that they couldn’t have suffered at all.

Charlie, we can only offer our deepest sympathy. I cannot write any more. What are words….

Sincerely yours,

Lena and family


Like many of the victims of the V2 attack on Hazelhurst Road, Corporal Douglas Kitts is buried in Streatham Cemetery. He has a peaceful corner near the beehives, and his grave is marked with a Commonwealth War Graves headstone. Nellie Biggs and Christopher Kitts lie with him.

 

Local poet John Byrne then read is poem HAZELHURST... a V2 atrocity:

A madness wrought by maddest minds with hellish implication
Their unleashed terror on its way, pure indiscrimination
The proverb says, ‘all’s fair in love and war’

Destruction scorched through silent skies that god forsaken Sunday
And 35 oblivious souls had lived their final Monday
But ‘all’s fair in love and war’

Five Farmers, five Gardners, three Channells, three Hinsons
Three Stewards, two Ackermans, two Bushaways, two Kitts
Two Wares, Biggs, Cooper, McVicars, Millward, Ogilvie,
Taplin, Wilson, Woodley and countless injured more
Yet still it’s said that ‘all’s fair’, ‘fair in love and war’

Why not the school? No marbles rolled on Sundays late or early
Or the cemetery where death prevailed? No living hurly burly
Was all still, ‘fair in love and war?’

Shattered then their simple world no hate did they invite
Yet no remorse or mercy shown, their innocence despite
For them ... How fair the bloody war?

 

If you’d like to find out more about this event or any of Geoff’s Tooting history events and walks, see summerstown182.wordpress.com
 

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