23rd February 1944 - Incendiary Attack on Colchester

Wednesday
Thick fog.  At Birchwood corner came across Polley, the Dedham coachbuilder, who said he had seen a big fire during the night, in the south, and thought it was either at Colchester or beyond.  NFS lorries standing about and policemen.

Strange police on duty and could not get through.  They refused to give any idea of the damage and pushed me roughly up Priory St.  Saw the wooden stone-shed next to Markham’s, pawn-brokers, a heap of smouldering ruins, surrounded by a crowd of small boys and American negroes.  Down Childwell Alley and onto the foot-bridge, from which you could see a column of smoke rising beyond the station, drifting across the façade of Hollington’s factory, a roofless ruin.  Both of Alderman Blomfield’s shops have gone, Geary’s, Cheshire’s, a boot shop, a tobacconist’s, a fruit shop on St Botolph’s Corner, a barber’s on Stanwell Street corner, two shops next the ‘Empire’ in Mersea Rd, and four or five more shops on the W. side of St Botolph’s Street, including Hancock’s the old sweet-shop, a 17th century place.

Went next to St. Giles’ and found the place quite undamaged, not even a window cracked.  Somebody had removed all the altar ornaments to the west end of the church.  Saw Duncan Clark outside, and he asked me if there was any damage in the church.  Looked at the Abbey Gate, which is untouched, and then worked my way round to Osborne Street, over dozens of hose-pipes, which straggled in every direction.  

Went down as far as the Electricity Station.  Saw Alderman Harper going towards the ruins, and Orchard, the Deputy Engineer, with ARP officers, on the other side of the rope barrier.  More fire-pumps and lorries, and more American police.

Went up to the High Street bought myself a new neck tie at Johnson’s, and at last got to the office an hour and a half late.

This evening went down there again, and walked along Vineyard St.  From there the ruins of Hollington’s look huge and majestic, more like the Baths of Caracalla than a mid-Victorian clothing factory.  There was still smoke drifting up, and several hoses were sending plumes of shining water high over the blackened walls, while the sun sank into a bank of golden mist which made a background to the empty windows.

This is the biggest fire that Colchester has ever known, and the whole thing seems to have been caused by two or three canisters of incendiaries.  This is the German’s latest scheme, and it seems incredible that it has not been thought of before.  The greatest damage ever done in London was in the great fire-raid at the end of 1940, when no explosive bombs were used.  Meanwhile the RAF concentrates on getting larger and larger ‘planes to carry even heavier explosive bombs with which to destroy German houses, churches, or museums.

Tonight went to Boxted, collected 6 eggs, and then went to see the Rushburys at Higham.  The beacon light was flashing brilliantly, and I could see it as far away as Boxted.

Spent a pleasant evening at Rushburys.  They were both very friendly and charming.  Next week they go to York.  He showed me a piece of shrapnel and several of the black paper strips which the Germans drop to confuse radio-location.  These he found in the garden.

Felt very nervous when I left at 10.30, and rather ill.  Dark, and bitterly cold, glittering stars, and the crimson flash of the beacon on my left.  Never seen it so bright before.  As I crossed the Brett, at the foot of Higham village, the sirens wailed, at first faintly at Colchester, then louder at Hadleigh, ending with the distant blare of Brantham factory.  I felt I could not under any circumstances go to the cottage, and decided to go up to the Pentons at Lark Hall, late as it was, (Higham Church clock had just struck eleven.)  There was not a ‘plane nor a gun to be heard, and I sped along with no lights, hoping not to meet a policeman.  Great relief to find Jack Penton still up.  Felt very foolish, made excuses about the noise of the beacon motor.  I think he saw the situation at once, and with great kindness gave me blankets to sleep on a very comfortable sofa.  Mrs. Penton was already in bed.

At about 11.15 came the “all-clear”, and I curled up under the warm blankets.  Got neuralgia on the left side of my face.

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