The Bombing of Wrotham Heath and the Royal Oak Pub
The largest (and only) loss of civilian life in the parish occurred on the night of 15 October 1940. Since early September, almost continuous night bombing of London by the Luftwaffe had caused a colossal amount of destruction in addition to killing and wounding thousands of ordinary people. Often these night raids passed over Platt on their outward and return journeys, and by mid-October the Germans had stepped up the intensity of bombing, extending it to other cities around the country.
As the sun set on that fateful night in October, Londoners prepared for another night of bombing, with spotters on roofs gazing into the darkness for any sign of approaching aircraft, and wardens ready to head out onto the streets to warn people that an attack was imminent. In Wrotham Heath, the evening began just like any other in recent months, with locals doing their best to retain some kind of normality, mindful that an air raid warning could sound at any moment.
Mrs Walters who lived at the cottages adjoining the local café (now Mings) had settled her children for the night in the front downstairs room. Her husband, who was in the police war reserve, had just gone on duty, and she had begun cleaning away the dishes from the evening meal. Next door, Mrs Roberts, the proprietress of Roberts’ Tea Rooms had closed up, and after a busy day, had taken a welcome seat in the backroom behind her shop.
A number of locals had gone to the Royal Oak pub, where a darts match commenced and others were seated about the bar area, indulging in a pint and some good conversation. In the kitchen, Harriet Fread, the eighty-year-old mother-in-law of Jack Swift, the licensee of the pub, was busy making sandwiches with the kitchen maids Margaret Breeds and Mary Ann Fisher.
Perhaps residents of Platt parish heard the 410 enemy aircraft pass overhead as they made their way towards the capital. And perhaps those with wireless sets were listening as Bruce Belfrage read the 9 o’clock news at the moment a German bomb hit Broadcasting House (Belfrage continued despite being covered in debris and plaster.) What local people were clearly not expecting occured half an hour later at approximately 21:37, when a German raider returning from London, loosed sixteen sticks of high explosives over Wrotham Heath. The attack came without warning, and locals reportedly failed to hear the whistle of descending bombs.
The first explosive scored a direct hit on the Royal Oak pub, penetrating the kitchen and killing Harriet Freed and Margaret Breeds (Mary Ann Fisher escaped with shock.) The blast tore through the premises, devastating the bar and taking the lives of Frederick Walter Heine, Edith Caroline Arragon and Frederick George Whiteman, who all died whilst trapped under rubble. A number of others in the pub were injured. William Bowen said he was in the saloon bar when the bomb fell, and the customers were showered with glass and bomb splinters.
I was having a game of darts, he said, and my wife was sitting in a chair nearby, she was blown backwards out of the chair, and when I rushed to her I found that a piece of bomb splinter had entered her knee. I pulled the splinter out and she was taken to hospital. Another girl had just got out of an armchair and a piece of bomb tore right through the back of it. Had she sat in the chair a moment longer she would have been killed.
Walter F. Amies recounted:
The friend I was with had just ordered some drinks and had got out his wallet to pay when the bombs fell. There were flashes of blue light in front of my eyes and the place seemed to be falling about me. I found myself lying on the floor.
None the worse, I picked myself up and saw a gas pipe blazing. There was a man lying near the flames, and I pulled him to safety. My friend and I had just got out of our car, which we parked outside the inn. The car was wrecked.
My wife, who was sitting in a chair near me, also escaped unhurt. This is her second lucky escape, for a fortnight ago she was blown through a hedge without being hurt.
Next-door bomb splinters smashed plates just in front of the face of Mrs Walters, who said:
Glass flew into the rooms, ceilings came down and the place filled with dust and fumes,” she said. “I thought my children must have been killed. Two big pieces of bomb splinter went through the bars of the cot in which my youngest child, little Colin, was sleeping. The splinters made holes in the wall and must have passes within inches of the child, but he lay there unhurt.
The other two children, Brenda and Brian, were sleeping in another bed and they were smothered with glass and debris from the ceiling, but they too were unhurt.
Several bombs fell on and near Wrotham Heath House, causing a great deal of damage and further loss of life. Doors and windows were shattered and the interior of the property wrecked. Hester Muriel McInnes, who lived nearby at Huntsman’s Lodge and was visiting her mother, was killed sitting in an armchair in front of the fire, whilst Charles Rootsey, Thomas Clayson died under rubble in an adjoining property known as Rhette.
A number of other houses along the Sevenoaks Road were affected by the blasts, and several bombs straddled across the highway damaging Rootes filling station, which was next to the pub. The Kent Messenger reported:
The service station which adjoins the Royal Oak suffered extensive damage, windows and doors being smashed. There was also slight damage to the roof, the oil dispensers and petrol pumps.
Fortunately the station was closed at the time and there was practically no one about. There is an electric clock outside. The hands on the clock face nearest the inn stopped at the exact time the bomb fell, but the hands on the other side still continued to register the correct time.
The seriously injured were taken to Preston Hall Emergency Hospital in Aylesford, where the following individuals later died: Harriet Fread, Harry Harvey, Margaret Olive Hodgson and Alfred Edward Palmer.
Incredibly the clearing up process began shortly after the last of the wounded were taken away, and the pub was even able to open for business the following day. Mr. and Mrs. Swift were both uninjured, although shaken, and everyone was high in their praise of the calmness and pluck with which they faced the situation. “They were wonderful,” said one of the customers. “Mr. Swift had the presence of mind to turn off the gas and electricity and do everything he could in the circumstances.”
In total eleven local people lost their lives as a result of the raid. In London it had been the worst toll since the opening days of the blitz. As dawn broke on the 16th four hundred were dead, and over nine hundred were wounded.
By the end of the month air raids in Platt had all but petered out, and life began to temporarily return to a form of normality.
All images © Kent Messenger