Some months ago a gentleman in his late 60’s called on the caretaker to ask if he could look around the gardens, explaining that as a child he had been brought up in Ashworth Mansions. He now lived in Australia, but was visiting relatives in the UK and wanted to see his old home. He told Daron about how he and other kids from the block had done all of the normal things children do. They had played hide and seek in the gardens, drawn chalk animals on the walls, run around and shouted (and no doubt some residents were disturbed by the noise and complained). He had happy memories of his childhood here in the early 1940’s, but his story had a sad twist because, as he explained, one of his young friends had been killed when a bomb hit Ashworth Mansions, causing terrible devastation. The gentleman left Daron wondering if this was a tall story or whether the building really had been attacked in the Second World War…
There were already rumours around the block that something like this had happened, and there are some odd, structural features distinguishing the Ashworth Road end of the buildings from the rest. One account had it that the building had been hit late in the war by one of the V weapons and was later rebuilt. Some amateur research carried out by a couple of Ashworth residents has now thrown up the outlines of a remarkable and traumatic night, but one which was suffered by so many. It turns out that Daron’s gentleman was telling nothing but the truth. This is Ashworth Mansions’ wartime story.
The V1 flying bomb (doodlebug or buzz bomb) was Hitler’s first ‘revenge weapon’ that he hoped would turn the tide of the war. Almost 30,000 V-1s were made, mostly by slave labourers. Approximately 10,000 were fired at England; 2,419 reached London (5 hit the Borough of Paddington), killing about 6,184 people and injuring 17,981. They flew at around 400 m.p.h. at an altitude of between 2,000 and 3,000 feet. Each carried a warhead containing a ton of an early, but potent high explosive called amatol. As it approached its target a timing mechanism connected to a spinning vane in the nose of the weapon would force the V1 into a powered dive. The V1 would strike its target and explode with pretty much the same energy as one of the aircraft that hit the World Trade Centre on 9/11. The versions fired at London in June 1944 had a fault that meant they were all but silent in their terminal dive, and were often not heard by those they hit.
Residents of Ashworth Mansions going to bed on the night of 22 June 1944 would probably have felt that the worst of the war was behind them. The building itself had been spared the blitz – the nearest damage had been on Lauderdale and Essendine Roads, or along Carlton Vale on the far side of Paddington Recreation Ground. Rome had fallen on 4 June. The Allies were ashore in Normandy, with their flanks secure and preparing for the savage battle to break out of the beach-head. In the East the Army was annihilating the Wehrmacht.
But there had been a worrying development. The first ten V1’s were launched against England nine days previously. V1’s hit London on 13 June, killing six people in Hackney. By 15 June the Nazis were able to launch hundreds every day from launch sites in the Pas de Calais area of France. Rumours had flown around London that large numbers of German aircraft had crashed, causing extensive damage, but on 16 June the population was told that these new air attacks were not carried out by conventional aircraft but were instead Hitler’s new secret weapon.
By 21 June the barrage balloons defending London had been moved to a line along the North Downs in Kent in order to intercept the weapons. Eventually, nearly 90% of incoming V1’s were stopped in this way or by anti-aircraft guns and stripped-down spitfires that – incredibly – flew alongside the V1 in a special high-speed air corridor, touched and flipped the flying bomb’s wings over causing it to crash. In the early phases of the V1 attacks London’s defences were nowhere near as good though. A few minutes before 2 in the morning on 23 June one slipped past the barrage balloons, heading for west London.
Where exactly a V1 struck depended on an adjustment made by a German engineer just before launch. The engineer would turn a screw clockwise or counterclockwise for a longer or shorter flight. A tiny twist this way or that would mean 100’s of feet shorter or longer of flight. Had this unknown engineer twisted just a little further then the V1 would have landed smack in the middle of the garden and there would have been no more Ashworth Mansions as we know them. As fate would have it his adjustments meant that at 02.04 on 23 June 1944 a ton of high explosive struck the ground at 400 m.p.h. and detonated, half way along and next to the railings between the Ashworth Mansions garden on the pavement along Ashworth Road, slightly nearer Elgin Avenue than Grantully Road.
Gillian Lewis takes up the story:
“In 1944 our family lived in Ashworth Mansions. I cannot remember the number, but we lived on the second floor. My grandparents, Benjamin and Cissie Lewis, and my cousin, Teresa Feri (aged nine) lived in a flat [at the corner of Ashworth Road and Elgin Avenue]. Not only was Teresa my cousin she was also my friend and we went everywhere together and to the same school and she introduced me to the local brownie group (St John’s Wood).
I remember being woken up by my father and my bed being covered in glass. I recall our family making our way down to Maida Vale Tube station. My grandparents’ flat and that section of Ashworth Mansions being ablaze. I kept asking my father, ‘will Teresa be coming?’, but my grandparents and my cousin were killed. We spent the night in Maida vale underground station. I found out that my Grandparents were buried in the Jewish Cemetery in East Ham, a most depressing place, not a single flower in sight. Teresa, being half Italian, must have been buried somewhere else, possibly a children’s mass grave. I no longer live in the area, but Elgin Avenue & Ashworth Mansions and the whole area as it used to be holds a special place in my heart.”
215 Elgin Avenue was destroyed. That end of Ashworth Mansions was damaged beyond repair and much of the rest of the building was seriously affected. Sadly, a total of seven people in Ashworth Mansions were killed and thirteen were injured. The buildings were left mostly uninhabitable and only block five on the corner of Biddulph Road and Elgin Avenue had anybody living in it 1945.
After the war the building was reconstructed, pretty much as it had been before, but if you look carefully you can see the differences – a railing here of there does not quite match; there are some suggestive lines in the brickwork; the trees on Ashworth Road are not quite where you would expect them to be. There is a house on the corner of Elgin Avenue that does not match its neighbours and the flats in block one are laid out differently to how they were when they were originally put up. Perhaps there is something else? Although we do not know for sure, it is an odd coincidence that the area of Ashworth that was heavily damaged by the V1 is the same as where we have the communal heating.
So, there you have it, the communal hot water and heating is in fact not the Board’s fault, but Hitler’s! And little Teresa Feri must have been the unfortunate playmate of that Australian gentleman. And just maybe, he is one of the children pictured watching the clean-up operation…
Martin Clements, March 2008
Photos courtesy of the Daily Mirror Archive.
Note: for further reading, Here is a very good description of a flying bomb attack on a neighbouring block in St John’s Wood.