The day the horrors of war came to ReadingBy Caroline Cook
January 24, 2013
There was just one fatal air raid in Reading during the Second World War.
Caroline Cook finds out about the day the bombs fell
It was a rather grey, overcast February afternoon when the air raid sirens broke out with their deafening cry over Reading.
Workers were heading home as it was early closing day, and children were making their way to the cinema to catch a screening of Bambi.
As families sipped tea at the People’s Pantry, they barely had time to put down their cups before the bombs fell.
It was Wednesday, February 10, 1943, and, at 4.35pm, four 500kg bombs dropped on to Reading and exploded right in the centre of town.
As buildings crumbled around Friar Street and Broad Street, 41 people lost their lives and more than 150 were injured.
“There was virtually no warning. The records show the air raid sirens went almost at the same time as the bombs fell,” says local historian Mike Cooper, who will be talking about Reading’s air raids at Battle Library next week.
The first bomb hit Simmonds Brewery in Broad Street and exploded, leaving a 25 foot crater in the street.
The second passed through the Labour Party offices on Minster Street and exploded in the restaurant of Welsteeds department store across the road.
“The manager of Welsteeds said in a report that if it had not been early closing day 100 people would have been in there,” says Mike. “But two girls taking shelter in an arcade nearby were killed by falling rubble.”
The third bomb collapsed part of the Victorian arcade linking Broad Street and Friar Street before exploding in a yard outside the People’s Pantry.
“The People’s Pantry was one of the British Restaurants set up to offer cheap meals to help supplement rations,” explains Mike.
“The building collapsed and two floors went into the basement. People would have been in there getting a cup of tea and a bun.
“The place was staffed by the Women’s Voluntary Service, who did an amazing job on the day.”
The final bomb passed through the top of the People’s Pantry before exploding a few feet from the south tower of the Town Hall.
In the aftermath, when volunteers were searching through the rubble, they found a stone finger that had been blown off the statue of Queen Victoria. The statue can still be seen today outside Reading Museum, and her finger can be found inside as part of an exhibition about the bombings.
While the dust settled and people tried to escape from the rubble, the horror continued as the German bomber opened fire with its machine gun.
“People remember seeing the bomber doing that,” says Mike. “I was talking to one gentleman who remembers quite clearly because he taught people aircraft spotting.
“A school in Hemdean Road was hit, and a woman was hit in her living room. She had gone to the window to see what was going on.”
Eventually the bomber flew off, perhaps towards Newbury where a similar attack took place on the same day.
A bomber was shot down in Newbury but there is no evidence to show the Dormier aircraft that bombed Reading was destroyed.
With the bombing over, the town was left to cope with the aftermath.
“People were killed in the arcade when that collapsed. Another person was killed in Broad Street, near where Patisserie Valerie is today. There were people killed near what is now Jelly in Market Place,” says Mike.
But while the loss of life was devastating for the town, some had a lucky escape. “A man who was in the People’s Pantry when the bombs fell went outside to check the time as he was due to meet his friends,” says Mike. “He was blown back into the building and spent months in hospital. He still has shrapnel in his body today.
“A number of people say, ‘if I had not been naughty my mum would have taken me to the People’s Pantry for tea’, or, ‘I was going to meet my friend but decided not to’.
“One gentleman was meant to be there but he had worked through lunch so was allowed to go home early and missed it.”
Reading had been prepared for the bombings, with all of the basements along Broad Street and Friar Street adopted by the council as air raid shelters. There was enough space to shelter thousands of people, but no one had time to get to them.
Groups and services rallied round in the wake of the bombing, with another British Restaurant in the town serving 7,000 sandwiches in the 24 hours after the bombing as volunteers cleared the rubble.
The reason the Germans decided to bomb Reading that day is thought to be because they were targeting the railway – but they missed their target and struck the town instead.
Reading had previously been ignored by the Germans as they perceived it to have nothing worth bombing although, unbeknownst to them, Spitfire parts were being produced in Caversham.
“They were attacking all across the South East, as a reprisal for raids in Germany and to keep the British forces on their toes,” says Mike. “It wasn’t strategic bombing as far as we can see.
“German intelligence was very poor in the war. They managed to photograph Reading from the air in 1940, which probably explains why they went to the railway.
“To be honest, in terms of the war, this was not a particularly big event,” he adds. “But these four bombs hit something that had never been hit before in Reading – the centre of town.
“I have lived in Reading all my life and I find it shocking to think that the photos are not of some anonymous place like London or Southampton, but it’s the Town Hall, it’s Minster Street.”
Although the raid may not have been on the scale of bombings in London, on that day in 1943 it shook Reading in a way it had never been shaken before, and the memories of that day remain engraved on the minds of its survivors even today.
Mike Cooper will be giving a talk called Earley Closing Day at Battle Library in Oxford Road on Thursday, January 31. The talk is sold out, but you can contact the library for returns on (0118) 937 5100.
The Bombing of a Southern Town exhibition is on at Reading Museum in Blagrave Street until March 3. The exhibition is free.
Michael Bond's memories of the bombing
Michael Bond OBE, the author of the Paddington Bear series, was installing a BBC radio transmitter on the top of the People’s Pantry the day the bomb struck.
He told his story to Martin Ellerbeck from Thursday Films.
“One day I was on shift, working on the transmitter at the very top of the building.
“It really was the top because if you climbed the widow there was a flat roof and I can remember always being worried because the cement between the bricks had dried off and you could actually lift the bricks up.
“It was pay day, and at the bottom of the building there was a British Restaurant. There was the sound of a low-flying aircraft not very far away and somebody went to the window and said, ‘gosh it’s a Dornier’, and we started to say, ‘oh, don’t be silly’, and suddenly a string of bombs dropped.
“Because it was going very fast, it was trying to get rid of its bombs because it was being chased back to Germany. The bombs came at a very sharp angle and it blew the bottom of our building, it blew it away, and all the building collapsed underneath us.
“I remember every time I started to get up another bomb got closer and closer. I can remember climbing down, there was a staircase attached to the wall and that was still usable, but very rickety, and I remember climbing down and everybody in the restaurant had disappeared.
“The first person I saw was a girl who lost both her legs, just lying there. Then I was climbing over the rubble and I can remember a hand coming up and it was a man’s hand and he had his false teeth and he was trying to save his false teeth.
“It was not a very nice experience but again I was very lucky, we were all very lucky we escaped.”