Donald Holt wrote this account of one day in his life as a response to a request from Gravesend library asking for wartime recollections.


16th August 1940


I was living at No.4 Waterdales at the time and was less than a month away from my 10th birthday. It started as a warm August morning but was to end in tragedy. As kids we used to play near what we called "the arch", a railway bridge that spanned Vale Road. With very little traffic about in those days and having a clear view of Vale Road we had the pathway and the road to play in.

Just under the arch on the left was an army camp where we used to run errands for the soldiers to the post office in Vale Road to get stamps, stationary or whatever. For this they would give us brass buttons. I don't know what happened to those I collected. Then just after midday the air-raid siren sounded and under strict instructions from our parents we ran home and got down the shelter. My mum, dad, brother and sister were at work. We used No.2 Waterdales shelter as we were waiting for ours to be delivered. Little did I know when all the kids ran to different shelters that some of them would not make it through the day.

It all seemed to happen very quickly. I had only just got to the shelter when all hell broke loose. All I heard was one massive great bang! which sent me headlong into the shelter followed by the dirt filled sandbags which were acting as a blast wall in front of the shelter. They wedged in the opening preventing us from getting out. Other people in the shelter were Mrs Packham, her daughter, a lady that was visting Mrs Packham and my younger sister. The shelter had filled with dust from the blast wall and we were all screaming and crying in the dark hardly able to breathe that is except for Mrs Packham who was trying to comfort us telling us we would all be ok. She was a very unwell lady at the time and later died of cancer but what a brave lady she was on that day.

I don't know how long we were buried, it couldn't have been long but it seemed like forever. Then daylight started to appear and it was soldiers from the camp digging us out. One of them still had his cook's uniform on and his tall white hat but what a great sight he was. When I was out of the shelter I looked at the devastation around me. Most of the slates were off the roofs, windows and doors all blown in, sheds and aviaries flattened, dogs, cats and chickens all rushing around and a lot of dead ones. Those that were badly injured were put out of their misery by the men on site. The soldiers were still digging out next door No.6. They were all ok. Out the front it was even worse. There were dead people at the bottom of Waterdales and a lot in Preston Road, Vale Road and Detling Road.

There were a lot of confused and bewildered people unable to take in what had just happened. A lot were calling for help to rescue the trapped and injured. People from surrounding houses were doing what they could in the situation they found themselves in. Most of the men were in the gardens digging out trapped and injured victims. It wasn't like just carrying out a dead person, some of the shelters took direct hits so you could imagine what they were having to deal with. Some of the sights they saw there that day would stay with them for the rest of their lives. Other people were clearing the roadways so that ambulances could get to the victims. All this was happening at the same time in Preston Road, Vale Road, Detling Road and London Road so everyone got stuck in that day and did what was expected of them with feeling and respect. I learned later that my mum was on her way home from the Six Bells Pub, where she was a cleaner, and was blown off her feet by the blasts. She was taken into one of the wooden houses that still exist today, given a drink of water and asked to stay until after the raid but she told them she had to get home. She ran the rest of the way down Vale Road and the nearer she got the worse it got. I don't know what she must have been thinking when she turned into Waterdales and saw the state of things. All I know is when she ran around to the back garden and saw we had all survived she was on the point of collapsing and had to be helped to sit down on some sandbags. Not long after mum my aunt arrived. She had run all the way from Tooley Street. She still had her apron on as she was cooking dinner when it happened. We were all in the back garden among the rubble and the bomb craters and were all cuddling each other, part crying, part happy that we were all together and ok.

In the meantime my dad who worked at the Kent works cement mill and my brother at the paper mill were told to go home as the bottom of Waterdales, Detling, Preston and Vale Roads had all been badly hit and there were a lot of dead and injured people. My dad was told that the second house in Waterdales had taken a direct hit and all were killed. This could have been No.3 on the other side of the road or No.4 our house but knowing that we did not have a shelter at No.4 must have given him some hope. In the confusion of that day whoever told him must have got mixed up with Detling Road. It must also have been bad for my brother not knowing until he got home (or what was left of it) that we were all ok.

The house was too badly damaged for us to live in, so dad had to split up the family. My brother went to live with his mate further up the road. My sister went to live where she was working, a little cafe in Perry Street, now the Argy Bargee takeaway. Mum, dad, my younger sister and me went to live at the Six Bells Public House. I remember that night making up the beds in the cellar between the barrels and the pipes. When the light went out it was black as coal but then I went to sleep. Friday 16th August was over and we had all survived but a lot hadn't. I remember seeing Mrs Barker running up and down Waterdales looking for her son David. He was killed near the railway arch aged 13. Vale Road and Waterdales were closed to all traffic other than ambulances and emergency vehicles. Police were also stopping people from coming into the area unless they had good reason to be there. I remember two brothers coming from Preston Road with jugs of water for those who wanted it. I believe it was their father Mr Walmsley that was killed at the bottom of the railway embankment and was not found for a while. He was a man that was gassed in World War One. He walked slowly because of his breathing problems and was taking a shortcut to his shelter when he died. His sons couldn't have known that while they were helping others their dad had been killed.

The day I completed this is 16th August 2006 and 66 years have passed since it happened. Why I've decided to write this now I'm not sure. Maybe someone will find it interesting. I'm grateful for the 66 years I've had but often wondered how things would have worked out for those who never made it, especially the kids, if there hadn't been an air-raid that day.

Appendix


I moved out of the Six Bells Public Hose after two or three nights. I couldn't handle sleeping in the cellar, it felt like a tomb when the light went out and I went to live with my aunt in Tooley Street. I stayed there for several months. My bedroom was under the living room table or if things got bad, the shelter. I preferred this to the cellar. While sitting on the front door step at No.26 with some friends, a big van turned into Tooley Street and stopped opposite us. They were American people distributing aid to British children. They kitted us out with clothes from top to bottom. I knew there was an America but I didn't know where it was and couldn't understand why they were not being bombed like us. I thought everybody was being bombed. It was nice what they did for us afterall they didn't have to be there.

END


Author's Notes


One thing we were grateful for was that Colyer Road School had been closed for the Summer holidays otherwise Vale Road would have been full of kids some going home for lunch and others just milling about. The playground would have been full and the death toll would have been catastrophic but fortunately it never happened. Contrary to the belief that some people were machine-gunned that day, it is unlikely as the bombers shed their bombs in order to gain speed to avoid our fighters. Any machine-gunning heard that day was probably aerial. We heard they were all shot down over the English Channel, how many I don't know. Others thought that Colyer Road School was targeted because it resembled an army barracks. This is also unlikely but it did take a direct hit destroying the carpentry shop and science lab. The bombs continued onto the playing field, Waterdales, Vale Road, Preston Road, Detling Road and finally London Road was the end of the bomb run.

With the help of some people and the aid of a computer I've been able to put this together along with certificates previously mentioned of those civilians who did not make it through the day.

A memorial plaque to the children killed in World War Two whilst attending Colyer Road School was for many years on the lectern located on the stage in the main hall of the school. I don't know if it's still there. Donald Holt died aged 77 in May 2008.