By Paul H. Vickers, Friends of the Aldershot Military Museum
Eighty years ago, in 1940, the Battle of Britain was being fought in the air over the UK. At stake was the survival of Britain, as German bombers sought to knock out the country’s defences and industry, and gain control of the air in preparation for a planned invasion. Thanks to the heroic efforts of the Royal Air Force, the Luftwaffe was defeated and the German invasion was never launched.
As the country’s largest military centre, Aldershot expected to be a target for the German bombers. In the late 1930s, following the rise of Hitler and his aggressive expansionist policies, war with Germany was widely expected. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s controversial agreement with Hitler at the Munich conference of September 1938 delayed the start of hostilities, but most people knew that war was inevitable. Aldershot’s Town Clerk, David Llewellyn Griffiths, attended a secret conference in London on probable German air raid tactics, at which Portsmouth, Southampton and Aldershot were “prominently mentioned as certain targets for blitzkrieg”.
The time gained after Munich was used to improve air defence preparations in the garrison. Air raid shelters were constructed across the camp, plans were drawn up by all units for action in case of bomb or gas attacks, and gas de-contamination and cleansing centres were set up. For more active defence, anti-aircraft batteries were established at strategic points, including a light battery in the old Victorian fort of the Redan, making the Second World War the first and only time that guns from the Redan were fired at an enemy.
It was not just in the garrison that preparations were made for expected air attacks. Llewellyn Griffiths remembered that during this time “Air Raid Precautions became almost the sole topic of discussion” for the civilian local authority. Communal shelters were built across the town and schools carried out practice drills to get from classrooms to shelters as quickly as possible. The Air Raid Precautions (ARP) Organisation was formed, which comprised first aid depots; the wardens’ service; decontamination service; and rest centres. By 1941 the local newspaper reported that it was adequately equipped but “not quite adequately staffed in all departments”.
With the danger of air raids came the fear of fire. Voluntary fire-watching groups were formed in 1940, but the numbers coming forward were insufficient. The government introduced compulsory enrolment, and registration was extended to include women, who significantly augmented the fire-fighting strength of the Borough. In October 1940 the Town Clerk appealed to “every householder … to stand a bucket of water outside the door of the house so as to maintain a ready supply of water for use of wardens and stirrup pump parties dealing with nearby fires.” Around the town a “Static Water Supply” (SWS) system was set up, large metal tanks filled with water for use by the emergency services in the event of fires. One of the SWS tanks was behind the Ritz Cinema (now Buzz Bingo) on the corner of Court Road and Wellington Avenue, where the tops of three large yellow painted “SWS” letters can still be made out on the wall of the building, the last traces of the wartime fire precautions.
The first bombs to fall on Aldershot came on 6 July 1940. Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Bradford, of the Canadian Army, recalled it was “a miserable day, the only memorable part was the steady, cold drizzle”. A single German aircraft flew over and dropped three bombs onto Canadian soldiers who were working on their vehicles on the parade ground of Salamanca Barracks:
“The first fell harmlessly into a tank park across the road from us, the second just missed the final lorry making a two inch crater in the paving of the square (and just missing the window where I was standing), the final one missed the window on the other wall demolishing a telephone kiosk beneath it. The tragedy was that this ineffective and amateurish early air raid … had absolutely no material effect on our equipments [but] the enemy blunder did end in real tragedy, three fatalities.”
The three Canadians who died, QMS Knox, Staff Sergeant Bailey and Private Sword, of the Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps, were the first Canadian soldiers to die on service overseas from enemy action. In addition, a civilian NAAFI manager was killed and a further 29 men were injured. In 1969 the Royal Canadian Legion of Toronto presented a memorial plaque for the Canadian soldiers who died, which was mounted on the old Aldershot Command Headquarters building in Steele’s Road. The plaque was moved to the new Montgomery House HQ building in North Camp, and re-dedicated when the building was opened in 2014.
In October 1940 two young men were killed by a bomb in Farnborough Road, near the Cranmore Lane junction. In other raids, a bomb caused serious damage to a Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers’ workshop under construction, a stick of bombs fell in Queen’s Avenue near the Army School of Physical Training, and an incendiary bomb hit the Hammersley Barracks cookhouse.
Later in the war, in 1944 two V-1 flying bombs landed on Aldershot, one of which hit the Oaks school in Eggars Hill, killing one pupil and injuring many others. However, at no time during the war did Aldershot suffered any systematic bombing. In a confidential return of November 1944, the Town Clerk reported that Aldershot had had 526 alerts since the start of the war but only 22 high explosive bombs had been dropped in the district, plus two incendiary bombs which were “strays” from an attack on an ammunition train at Tongham, two bombs which had not exploded, and two flying bombs.
Why Aldershot should have escaped so lightly is something of a mystery, as the location was well known to the Germans and maps and aerial photos of the Aldershot barracks were included in files of potential targets issued to Luftwaffe personnel. It may have been that the Germans thought industrial areas or transport hubs were higher priority targets, while a common local belief was that the German army wanted to keep Aldershot Garrison intact for its own use after the invasion of Britain. Whatever the reason, casualties were very low. Around 2,000 properties were damaged, but in addition to the three Canadian soldiers killed in the raid of July 1940, the only civilian casualties were three people killed, ten seriously injured, and 69 slightly injured. Although all the deaths were tragic, Aldershot could be grateful that it had survived the air war without any greater loss of life.
Article originally published in the The Garrison, Autumn 2020
Copyright © Paul H. Vickers. This article, including the accompanying pictures, may not be reproduced or republished, in whole or in part, either in print or electronically, including on any websites or social media sites, without the prior permission of the author.