Wilberforce Road And The Doodlebug

Extract from a 1944 Diary keep by Mary Mather 

Laurel Villa, Wilberforce Road , Sunday Afternoon; 20 August 1944 

Sitting reading on the front doorstop in the sunshine. Hear the whine of a distant doodlebug, and get up to watch. The noise gets louder and louder then the doodlebug starts to dive, with engines still roaring. The scream is now on top of us and I run in to find mother. Now the throbbing fills the whole house and I think “Oh my God, we’re FOR it, we’re FOR it”.

The house shudders and seems about to crumple, then miraculously, to hesitate and recover. Mother, who had been on her knees cleaning the fireplace, is spluttering with a mouthful of soot. (She said afterwards she had been breathing in because we had been told to keep our mouths open when we hear a doodlebug in case of blast.). A voice in the doorway shouts “All right in there?” “Yes, we’re OK”. 

We go out and walk down the hill. There is glass everywhere. Next door to the laundry, the Cotters’ windows have been blown out. So have the windows of the corner shop, where Mrs Billing is standing dazed among the wreckage of packages, jars and pots of disinfectant, pickles, floor polish, etc. Mr Billings is already picking bits of glass out of Shredded Wheat cartons. From further up Wilberforce Road , women and children are pouring out onto the road to look at the damage. Some are crying, some laughing, others shouting with relief. Notes are compared “I crouched down by the wall when I head it coming” “I grabbed the children and pushed them under the stairs”,

Four year old sister Nancy, who had been playing at Linda Buss’s house, comes running home and says in an awestruck voice “Linda’s windows have all gone and the glass just missed my feet in the shelter”. 

Then we see a great plume of smoke rising over the Coastguard houses, and there is a rush down the little hill, over the road to the seafront, where there is a gap in the barbed wire that runs along the beach. Not far out is a blue-black stain on the water, which is slowly spreading out and merging into the green of the sea. Two NFS lorries scream to a halt, and we are told to stand back. 

The crowd disperses and we go back up Wilberforce Road . Girls are coming out of the laundry, some holding their heads where pieces of ceiling had dropped on them. My father is out too, and is laughing at the mess in Mr Billings’ shop. His face drops when he turns round and notices the damage to the laundry roof! Miss Francis, who lives opposite Laurel Villa, is just emerging, looking very dishevelled. Aged 83, she is our fire warden. Now, wearing her tin hat, she totters over to see if Mother is all right. It seems she had been sitting in her garden and the first floor veranda had collapsed on her. Chunks of plaster are sticking to her jacket. Mother and I then set to clearing up the mess in the kitchen so we can sit down and have a cup of tea. Feeling quite limp with relief that we are still here and OK, I get out my diary, sit at the kitchen table, and start to write . . . . 


More excitement! It acts like a drug and we are all out on the road again! A lorry has come with poles and barricaded Wilberforce Road off! Men in uniform are telling people to stand back from the corner house whose walls are cracked and building. A crowd has gathered and remarks are bandied about with much laughter. “What an ‘ell of a mess’ ‘Talk about the wreck of the Hesperus’. Cars on the main road stop and more people crown up under the poles to see what is going on. Boys are swinging on the horizontal barriers and playing tag as they dodge in and out of the uprights. Then more men arrive in a van and tell us all to move away, as emergency work is started on the house. 

Further up Wilberforce Road , there is the sound of glass being shovelled into dustbins and of hammers nailing temporary weather shields over broken windows. And above all is the sound of laughter and the excited chatter of people who have just come through it, now boasting about narrow escapes, comparing damage, swapping anecdotes. I feel a bit sorry that we have nothing to boast of, as our only damage was plaster from fallen ceilings!