The V2 attack on Woolworths

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On Saturday 25th November 1944 at 12.26 pm [only 2 weeks since the first V2 rocket hit London]

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at a busy shopping parade in New Cross a V2 rocket hit without warning destroying most of the parade [including the Woolworths and Co Op stores, now Iceland and New Cross Library] in the massive explosion 168 people lost their lives [24 were never identified] and 122 were injured.

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The parade was bustling with shoppers and included a Woolworths store. The dead included Mothers with their children and the elderly as well as local people many came from outside the Borough.

Saturday 25 November, 1944 was mild. The Allies’ success in Europe had raised peoples’ spirits at home. In New Cross word spread that the local Woolworth’s had 144 tin saucepans. These had been in short supply, so a queue built up quickly. Mums, grandparents and even soldiers on home leave stood in line, hoping to be lucky.

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All of the full-time staff were at work on the busiest trading day. They were assisted by Saturday boys and girls, most of whom were just fourteen years old, and out to earn a little pocket money.

At noon the Council’s manual workers clocked off after collecting their wages from Deptford Town Hall, opposite the store. Many went shopping.

Also at noon, far away on Walcheren Island off the Belgian Coast, a select group of German dignitaries were celebrating.

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They had arranged drinks to mark the 250th launch of a V2 rocket, which was despatched skywards as they watched. A few minutes later it malfunctioned and exploded in the sky above St Paul’s Cray in Kent. No-one was hurt.

At 12.15 second break started at Woolworth’s and the next wave of store staff headed upstairs for a cooked lunch in the canteen. The train cleaners from New Cross Station on the Southern Railway slipped off early, hoping to get a hot drink of Bovril at the Woolies Tea Bar. The pile of saucepans near the back tills was going down. And the 251st rocket was launched.

Suddenly, with no warning, at 12.26 the V2 rocket hit the rear of the flat roof of the Woolworth store. After a moment’s silence the walls bowed, and the building collapsed and exploded. The Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society store next door and the queue of people waiting for a tram in the street outside were caught in the inferno. As the dust settled shards of glass and debris stretched ankle-deep all the way to New Cross Station, half a mile (0.4km) away. It is believed that the station had been the target.

In the hours that followed local people helped the emergency services to lift the rubble by hand. As it was cleared the full horror was evident. 168 people had died, both customers and staff. 122 passers-by were injured. Just one person survived. These terrible losses would have been even worse if traffic problems had not causes a suspension of the tram service along New Cross Road a few minutes before the attack.

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