Memories of the day Newmarket High Street was bombed 80 years ago
“There were hundreds of people, dazed not knowing where to go, what to do. Some were on their knees, heads cupped in their hands. I don’t know how many were hurt but wherever I looked people were staggering aimlessly, bandaging their hands with handkerchiefs, wiping blood from their faces and beginning to try and help.”
Eighty years ago, on a busy market day in Newmarket High Street, the war came calling in the shape of a lone German aircraft, intent on destruction, which tore the heart of the little town apart with bombs and machine gun fire leaving a trail of death and destruction in its wake.
Recounting his father’s memory of the terror and confusion wreaked by the raid Michael Bower captured the immediate aftermath of the attack which claimed the lives of 27 civilians, the youngest just three months old, left hundreds injured, and destroyed 18 shops and businesses.
And for every life lost, a family was left devastated. Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters, all left to count the human cost of the darkest day in the town’s history.
Teenager William ‘Billy’ Whelan was a much-loved son living with his parents, his sister, and younger brother in Laureate Terrace in Exning Road. His father, William, was head lad to town trainer, Frank Butters, and as such had played a pivotal part in Bahram’s Triple Crown triumph in 1935.
Billy was working as an assistant in Hepworths and, according to the shop manager, Mr Goult, had been standing with him, next to a stove in the shop, when the German raider dropped the first of ten bombs. Despite the force of the blast blowing Mr Goult through the floor into the cellar, he survived, and was taken to Newmarket hospital where he was to be reunited with his relieved wife, and daughter, Mary.
But of his young colleague there was no sign. Billy’s family clung to the hope that, by some miracle, their son too had survived but three days after the attack the 17-year-old’s lifeless body was finally brought from the wreckage.
Newmarket-born Bill McLernon, who now lives in Cork, never knew his uncle but learned about him from his mother, Sheila, who is now 94.
“He had two siblings, my mother, and a brother, Michael, who died some years ago and was apparently just an ordinary, fun-loving teenager, with no real idea as to any future ambitions,” said Bill. “He was probably in line for call-up had he lived.”
After the war Billy’s parents moved to Beckhampton where Mr Whelan helped Jeremy Tree set up as a trainer. They died there in the 1960s and their wish had always been to be buried with their son, their ‘darling boy’ in Newmarket cemetery.
Wartime censorship meant reports of the incident at the time were deliberately vague and information as to the extent of the casualties and who they were was hardly talked about publicly.
It was only year afterwards that the stories of that day slowly began to emerge, thanks mainly to the efforts of the Newmarket Local History Society which collated many of the eye witness accounts and published its first record as part of the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the bombing.
Such was the interest that more people came forward with their memories and a new book followed in 2011.
Among those who told their story was the late Alice Day who in 2012, aged 97, was able to recount to the Journal what happened to her that day.
Then Alice Sturgess, she was Newmarket’s most sought after hairdresser having trained in London before running the town’s most prestigious salon at Eaton House, where the clientele included the Countess of Derby and Lady Delamere as well as countless trainers’ wives.
When the opportunity arose she bought the business for £100 and it became Sturgess Hairdressers in February 18, 1941 it took a direct hit.
“As the sirens went we all started to go downstairs,” Alice remembered, “but I went back to get my handbag because my engagement ring was in it.
"As I put the ring on my finger, the yellow walls of the salon seemed to bend in two and without any bang whatsoever this tremendous force hit me in the back and blew me the length of the salon through the open doors.
"I finished up on a narrow ledge under a beam which was holding up what was left of the building. After a while I heard a voice, it was the trainer, Mr Jellis, who told me to stay where I was and someone would come and get me.”
Alice was taken to Newmarket hospital and recovered. It was only when the full horror of the afternoon unfolded she realised how lucky she had been.
Six people died in Eaton House including Viola Lambert, the hospital’s assistant matron, George Groves, reporter for the Sporting Chronicle which had its offices in the building, and solicitor’s wife Gertrude Hutchinson, 42, who was returning to the salon for the first time since having the baby she and her husband had been trying for for 15 years.
Alice was able to rebuild her life and although her business was destroyed she established a new salon near the clock tower thanks to financial help from one of her clients, the wife of an American colonel.
And her Austin 7 Ruby, which had been parked outside Eaton House, and was badly damaged, was recovered and later fully restored remaining in her family for the rest of Alice’s life.
Other families later told of lucky escapes. Olive Taylor had been in town with her husband, Richard, and was sitting in their car waiting for him to return from the bank when the attack started.
Afterwards her daughter, Josephine, said her father had eventually found her mother in Wiggs jewellers where she had been taken for safety.
“She had lost some teeth and had 60 pieces of glass in her face and was very fortunate as a piece of shrapnel passed straight through her hair without cutting her while another piece had sheared off the gear lever in the car passing over her knees. It was just before my second birthday,” said Josephine “and apparently I ran away screaming when I saw her face.”
Two years earlier Newmarket’s Urban District Council had made provision for a wartime mortuary in some former stables at the back of Stratford House in Old Station Road in the hope it would never be needed. But it was there many of those who perished were taken and grieving families brought to begin the grim task of identification.
In the town the clear-up operation began in earnest with over 1,000 tons of debris removed within two days. The landscape of the High Street had been changed forever with many buildings including the town’s post office never re-built on their original site.
Over the years there has been much speculation as to why Newmarket was targeted. Military convoys passed regularly through the town, at the time it had three railway stations used for transport of personnel and goods from all over the country, the Rowley Mile had become an airbase and, on the day of the raid, the memorial hall, whose walls still bear the scars of the bomb blast at the neighbouring White Hart Hotel, was the venue for a meeting of top level military personnel.
Whatever the reason why it would have made little difference to those families whose lives were changed forever. As for the people of Newmarket their behaviour according to a civil defence report at the time was ‘outstanding’. “Those who were unhurt immediately started to help other less fortunate,” it read.
So wherever you are at 2.57pm today, the moment the bomb blasts stopped the clock on the High Street’s congregational clock 80 years ago, pause for a moment and remember.