'An almighty explosion': Remembering the Highbury Corner bomb of 1944
PUBLISHED: 16:49 07 November 2017 | UPDATED: 17:05 07 November 2017
Highbury Corner suffered one of Islington’s most destructive wartime attacks 73 years ago. Ahead of Sunday’s Remembrance parade, the Gazette speaks to survivors about their memories of the blast – and how Islington remained defiant.
It’s appropriate that Islington’s annual Remembrance parade begins a few yards down the road from Highbury Corner. Because in 1944, it was the scene of one of our most devastating wartime attacks.
At lunchtime on June 27, a German “V1” – a pilotless jet aircraft 25ft in length, travelling at 400mph and carrying a 1 tonne TNT warhead – dropped near the junction with Compton Terrace. It killed 26 people and injured 138.
Islington was suffering a new campaign of Vergeltungwaffe “Vengenace” attacks. The first happened nine days before, in Spencer Street and Wynyatt Street, Finsbury. It killed 13 and injured 83.
In all, there were 41 “V” blasts in the borough up to January 1945, killing 321 with 2,011 casualties. But historian Michael Reading, a survivor of the Highbury Corner bomb himself, believes Islington embodied the defiant British spirit of the time.
Michael, author of Remembering Islington Under Attack, tells the Gazette: “I would have thought it was just another bomb, as far as the people of Islington were concerned. People just had to get on with things. London had already gone through the Blitz in 1940/41, and the ‘little Blitz’ in 1944.
“It’s difficult to convey living in wartime, but five years, as it had been in 1944, is an awfully long time. By then we were well used to it. There was a real community spirit, because we were all at risk.”
Michael, 84, now lives in Ash, Surrey. He was a pupil at Sebbon Street School (now William Tyndale Primary) at the time of the Highbury Corner blast.
“It wasn’t a roundabout then,” he recalls, “and Compton Terrace went much further along than it does now. The bomb probably fell at the end of Compton Terrace, where there was a Post Office.
“I believe quite a few were killed while walking in the street. People found dead bodies lying in the road. One of my teachers at Sebbon Street School was killed while on his lunch break.
“I was at school that day and leaving for my lunch break. It didn’t do school meals, so I’d go to my grandmother’s in Alwyne Villas. All of a sudden, I could hear the air raid siren and the V1 approaching. I raced around the corner and we got into the shelter. It was an almighty explosion.”
He adds: “I was sent out to Lincolnshire after, but I can imagine they cleared the mess up as soon as possible. Bomb damage was quite common. But nothing was repaired properly, as you would see today. Things were just boarded up and you carried on.”
As a child, Mavis Ring lived in Samuel Lewis Buildings, off Liverpool Road. She “distinctly remembers” hearing the warhead fly over her flat.
Mavis, 82, now of Chelmsford, Essex, told the Gazette: “The engine stopped. Then, a huge bang. I looked out of the window towards Highbury Corner and could see the smoke.
“A couple of our school teachers were caught up in it, but we weren’t told about it. It was kept hush hush.
“As children, we didn’t appreciate the significance of war. I would be out in the streets, playing with my friends as usual. It was actually a good time, but terrible when you look back at it.”
The devastating bomb was big news. Or so you would have thought. The Gazette’s June 30 edition – three days after the attack – had no mention of it.
Michael explains: “Today’s generation are used to the press reporting a cough. But the wartime press was given ‘D’ notices restricting what could be printed. So the Gazette couldn’t print pictures of bodies on stretchers.
“It was party tactical, as the Germans would read newspapers, but also to do with morale of the people. So censorship was very tight.”