Sutton's Role in World War Two
The Borough’s Role In World War 2
To commemorate Remembrance Day 2022, our last blog post focused on the London Borough of Sutton’s role in World War 1, both with regard to the general populace and with individual people who played their part. For Remembrance Sunday, we will be discussing the role that the Borough had during World War 2.
In particular, one of our volunteers Geoff West has recounted his own experiences of World War 2 for this article. This includes experiences of the war back in Cheam and experiences of the evacuation process that occurred at the time.
In contrast with World War 1, the technology and weapons needed for war had evolved. Rather than merely battling in the trenches, opposing sides could invade each others’ countries and bomb them from above. In particular, the Germans bombed British cities such as London in what became known as the Blitz. 1942 to 1944 in particular saw the Baedeker bombings, in which the Axis forces targeted famous tourist attractions in order to damage British morale.
Since the Borough was in the London area, it too was the victim of the Blitz. Many homes were bombed and the inhabitants inside were either gravely injured or killed - in total, more than thirty seven people in the borough were killed in the bombings. Sometimes though, the inhabitants survived, but lost their homes. Most of the incidents occurred in 1940, when the Blitz had just started, and 1944, when it was coming to an end. More information about individual bombings can be found in the Sutton Archives.
Staff and students looking on at the damage to Wallington County Boys’ School, which was bombed on the 20th February 1944. All the occupants escaped uninjured.
Geoff recalls a flying bomb landing on the Browning Avenue/Calbeck Road Junction on the 16th June 1944, killing ten people and injuring over forty. He says that:
“We were still indoors, on the way to the back door and the shelter. I was in the passage between the Stairs and the Kitchen, my sister Barbara and our Lodger were still coming down the stairs! The blast travelled between Caldbeck Avenue and us in Longfellow Road. It brought a lot of the plaster and lath ceiling down and shattered most of the glass in the windows, except for the Dark Room sash window which was found to be resting on the ground and leaning against the window cill, with all the glass intact. The Back Yard was otherwise covered in glass shards, as we rather belatedly picked our way down the garden to the Anderson Shelter. The next day, on the way to school, we passed damaged shops and piles of debris which had by then been piled up along the edge of the footpath.”
Damage done to a cottage at Guy Road by a V1 doodlebug on the 1st July 1944. The occupant survived.
It wasn’t just the enemy bombs that civilians had to watch out for. On the 24th February 1940, a British warplane crashed into a house on Foresters Drive in Wallington while the pilot was on his first solo flight. Two residents died from their wounds in the War Memorial Hospital.
Moments of heroism were demonstrated during these dark times though. On the 16th April 1941, the original California Arms pub and station were bombed, with 10 people killed and many more injured. However, the Canadian Pte Gibb held up debris for three hours and saved many more lives in the process, leading to him receiving the British Empire Award for his act of courage.
In response to the Blitz, many children were sent off to the countryside as evacuees. This included people from the Borough, with plenty of people lining up at Cheam Village station saying goodbye to their families for instance. In some cases, siblings were separated from each other.
“Soon after the Flying Bomb Incident, we were taken to South Wales. I can remember getting on a coach at the side of Cheam Baths, but nothing of the train journey or the coach journey at the other end. Anyway, we ended up at a small town in the Upper Rhondda Valley called Tonyrefail. Through lack of suitable billets, I had to be separated from my mother and two sisters. I apparently just walked off without even a goodbye! Although we were only a few hundred yards apart, I was only allowed to visit them once a week and I don’t think my mother was allowed to visit me at all.”
Obviously, living in the countryside was a wholly different scene for children from the city - some hadn’t even seen farm animals before being evacuated. The experiences that evacuee children had in their new homes were mixed, with some staying with caring families and some being severely mistreated. Cheam resident Barbara Shrives had it both ways - initially she and her sister stayed with a “real witch” who they fled from, but afterwards got to stay with a “lovely family”. Geoff also had a mixed experience:
“I was billeted with two old ladies, a Mrs Evans and a Mrs Gimblett. Mrs Gimblett was the widow of the Revd. Gimblett, a Baptist Minister. We had to go to Church every Sunday and sit through a Service in Welsh, and Services were always very long! They were not used to children and not very welcoming or friendly. However, also staying there was their sister-in-law, the so-called English Mrs Gimblett from Crawley. She was kind and very understanding, a friend to me and presumably to the other Evacuee, 12 yr old Derek from North Cheam.”
Croydon Airport played a particularly large role in the war. The predecessor to Heathrow Airport and Britain’s busiest airport between the two world wars, it took to its original role of protecting Britain from aerial attacks on the 30th August 1939, taking up the name of the Royal Air Force Station Croydon. Many squadrons and aircraft arrived and transited through RAF Croydon over the next few months, with the first squadrons arriving on the 2nd September.
On the 15th August 1940, Croydon Airport was attacked by enemy forces in the infamous “Rubensdorffer” raid. Hitler had given orders to have the important airfields in Britain bombed, but the commander Walter Rubensforffer attacked Croydon instead of Kenley by mistake. Radar picked the raiders up and nine Hurricanes from 111 Squadron were scrambled thirty minutes before the attack, therefore ready and waiting. However, the damage was severe - 200 local homes were damaged and 62 civilians were killed. It was also a major turning point in the war - afterwards, the Axis forces stopped focusing on bombing the airfields and instead started focusing on bombing London.
The Bourjois Factory, which made perfume, was one of the many places bombed during the Croydon raid.
RAF Croydon’s squadrons also played a major role in the Battle of Britain, which started in July 1940. Residents residing in the Borough could see the planes fighting in the air, with Geoff remembering the event clearly:
“My earliest memory is of the occasion when we all went out at the back to watch a dog fight, presumably between Spitfires and Messerschmitts, weaving about each other. It was way to the south of us, though, and noiseless. Probably even as far away as Banstead!”
One borough resident who took part in the war effort was James Farrar, who had grown up in Carshalton. He often wrote during his life, whether it be poems or accounts of events that had occurred. At the age of 18 in 1942, he enlisted with the RAF and continued to write about his experiences, even as he moved from one place to another. He ultimately died on a dawn mission with the RAF on the 26th July 1944, three months before his 21st birthday. His writing is compiled in The Unreturning Spring, published by the Friends of Honeywood Museum.
If you are curious about finding out more about the Borough’s role in World War 2, you can come and see the WW2 exhibit at our sister heritage centre Honeywood Museum. Some of the information in the exhibit helped inform this blog post, as did Geoff West’s accounts.
Farrar, James. The Unreturning Spring. Friends of Honeywood Museum, 2008.
West, Geoff. “Memories of WW2.”
“World War Two - More War.” Historic Croydon Airport Trust, https://www.historiccroydonairport.org.uk/history/world-war-ii-military-operations/