Arguably the most notorious event of the 20th Century, the Second World War was the deadliest conflict in human history.
Allied powers fought against aggression from Axis powers for 6 long years, from the moment war was declared on 1st September 1939 to the formal surrender of Japan, after V.J Day, on 2nd September 1945.
To mark 75 years since Victory in Europe over Nazi Germany (V.E Day) on 8th May 2020, this year we're uncovering the unique story of the Second World War in our own Borough.
As the largest total war the world has ever seen, the Second World War affected every single resident of Britain. At a grassroots level, this meant that each county, borough, town, village, street and household of the country played its own unique part in the national war effort - and Elmbridge is no exception.
Through the 'Elmbridge at War' programme, Elmbridge Museum has sought to promote public engagement with our borough's remarkable and varied war history. An array of projects have revealed the vastly differing experiences of the Second World War throughout Elmbridge, and helped to place the roles of our former local residents within a national framework. You can find out more about these projects in the following order on this page:
'Elmbridge at War: The Blitz in our Borough' exhibition
'Hidden Treasures' Object Videos
A game for the Blackout: Replica Crosslets
'Memories of War' Oral Histories of Elmbridge (including resources to conduct your own interview!)
Elmbridge War Trail (in partnership with Brooklands Museum)
The Flight Sergeant Charles Sydney Memorial Project
For more information on exhibition opening times, location, and details on curator's talks, please see our What's On page.
Elmbridge at War: The Blitz in our Borough EXHIBITION
From January - June 2020, the 'Blitz in our Borough' display at the Civic Centre, Esher High street, is exploring the experience of the Blitz for Elmbridge residents.
Which significant parts of the borough were Nazi targets? What happened in the immediate aftermath of a devastating raid? How did everyday life change for Elmbridge residents as a result of the Blitz?
All are important questions relating to Elmbridge's experience of aerial bombardment, and ones which our latest exhibition - tracking the Blitz from the first air raid siren to the final all-clear - seeks to explore.
'Hidden treasures' object Videos
To accompany the 'Blitz in our Borough' exhibition, we have created three sets of short object videos. These 'hidden treasures' of Elmbridge Museum include items which feature in the exhibition and ones which remain behind closed doors in our archive. Using the same format as the exhibition, we explore every inch of the chosen artefacts, inside and out, to paint a more detailed picture of some very special items.
Why not get to know our objects up close and personal by watching the videos in each section below?
To find out more about the process behind creating the videos and gain a glimpse behind the scenes, read our blogpost.
The 'Elmbridge at War: The Blitz in our Borough' Exhibition at the Civic Centre in Esher, January - June 2020
Clockwise from top left: A handkerchief with a Union Jack design, from a Second World War 'Housewife kit' from Hinchley Wood, c. 1940s; 'Air Raids: What you should know, what you should do' manual printed by the Ministry of Home Security c.1939; The Walker family photographed outside their Claygate home in 1940, where the windows have been X taped to protect against bomb blasts; The entrance to an air raid shelter in Oxshott, uncovered c.1980s.
Preparation for Air Raids
On the eve of the Blitz, 6th September 1940, the Borough of Elmbridge was prepared. Propaganda was distributed at every opportunity to encourage the famed 'Blitz Spirit' of resilience. Patriotic symbolism and imagery erupted as a result, and was included in an array of iconic posters, leaflets, and everyday items - such as on the handkerchief pictured.
But how could the government maintain positivity, while also driving home the scale of the threat to life? A vast array of Civil Defence Wardens acted as an essential reassurance. Approximately 10 Air Raid Precaution Wardens were appointed per square mile in Elmbridge to supervise the blackout and civilian safety when the sirens sounded, while Fire Guards would keep watch for bombs.
In addition to this, Anderson shelters, introduced by Home Secretary Sir John Anderson in 1939, were usually dug outside. They were convenient for the many Elmbridge residents who had gardens. There were a few prominent public shelters in Elmbridge, such as the one situated underneath Molesey recreation ground.
Did you know?
What if you were struggling to feed your family as a result of food rationing? ‘British Restaurants’ were canteens which provided food for members of the community facing hard times. The one based in Long Ditton Village hall was struck by a doodlebug bomb. Luckily, the bomb hit just before the hall opened for lunch—a few minutes later, and it would have been full of people.
The original 'Crosslets' game on display in the Elmbridge at War exhibition.
A game for the Blackout: Replica 'Crosslets'
For both children and adults, the experience of air raids could vary from extremely frightening to incredibly boring. Games which were specially designed to while away the time during the blackout were often a welcome distraction.
During the exhibition research process in Elmbridge Museum's archive, we came across 'Crosslets' at the bottom of a big box of games from the past. This 'game for the blackout', owned by a family in Molesey, remarkably still has all of its pieces in tact. A crossword game for 2 players, it contains 2 red playing boards, cut-out letter tabs, and instructions on stiff paper - all enclosed in a paper sleeve. Yet the age of the paper it is printed on has made it incredibly delicate. We therefore set about creating a replica Crosslets game, so that visitors could interact with the artefact rather than just looking at it. None of the original words have been changed, so you can experience this Blitz game at home!
Download the replica Crosslets game.
Explore a selection of our archive objects in more detail in the 'Preparing for Air Raids' video above. Including a look at anti-German propaganda, practical preparation for bombardment, and provisions for the shelter.
Clockwise from top left: female workers at the Vickers-Armstrong Factory; 'Danger Unexploded Bomb' sign used by ARP Wardens in Elmbridge; Mr. Birkhead of the Sparrows Force of Walton - an anti-aircraft unit - wearning a helmet and gas mask and kneeling beside the Kempton Waterworks reservoir; a bombed house in Greenways, Hinchley Wood
The bombs Fall
Despite its position on the outskirts of London, Elmbridge played an important strategic role in the war. Homeless London evacuees were brought in their droves to the grand estate of Mount Felix in Walton, a place of relative safety and respite. At the same time, the staff of Fairmile Marine worked furiously to produce boats for the Royal Navy, and workers at the
Navy, Army and Airforce Institute (NAAFI) headquarters planned the nation's next move from their base at Ruxley Towers in Claygate.
As a result of its involvement in war industry, parts of Elmbridge became prominent targets, and schools of children were whisked from their classrooms in Molesey to the peaceful Devonshire countryside - away from the danger. The contrasting intensity of the Blitz across the borough is stark. Many areas to the south and west of Elmbridge escaped unscathed. Others further north and east received the tail end of London’s heavy shelling.
The attack on the Vickers-Armstrong factory was a watershed in both Elmbridge and the nation’s experience of the Blitz thus far. Just after 1pm on the 4th September 1940, the factory producing Wellington bombers was shelled by its German equivalents. 83 employees were killed and 400 injured - making it the most devastating raid since the war began. Nevertheless, a year later the resilient workforce had moved to Silvermere and were continuing to contribute to the national war effort.
During this time, ARP wardens put their lives at risk in order to supervise the air raids. Mr. A. C. Cornwell from Esher is one of the wardens who we know a lot about - and Elmbridge Museum is now home to many of his personal effects from the time. These include his identity card and notes on a bombing raid in his locality, which are both on display in the exhibition.
Click here to find out more about one of the essential items in an air raid warden's toolkit.
'Hidden Treasures' object video 2: During the Air Raid
Discover the real stories of bombings in our borough in the second video of the series above. Including information about protecting civilians, the threat of gas, and the Vickers tragedy.
From top to bottom: Six Land Army women at Secrets Farm (Bell Farm), Hersham, c.1944-5; Workers attending to rows of glass cloches at Secrets Farm, c.1944-5; German prisoners of war and land army women harvesting tomatoes at Rivernook Farm, Walton, 1946; Female workers at Allsops Factory.
After the Raids
After the all-clear siren had sounded, life for most went on as usual. Vital war work continued and light entertainment was an essential source of morale-boosting relief throughout the Borough. The war necessitated a huge expansion in women's responsibilities. Women were now a part of every sphere on the Home Front - most completed manual work formerly undertaken by men, while housewifery, once a backseat role, became a national duty too.
While young and old toiled in the factories of war industry, vast numbers of local women also grew vegetables across Elmbridge's extensive farmland. Bell Farm in Hersham - next to the Coronation Recreation Ground - was formerly known as 'Secrets Farm', and became home to row upon row of glass cloches, denoting its use by the Women's Land Army (W.L.A).
Land work brought about all manner of unlikely alliances throughout the Borough. Prisoners of War from Thames Ditton's Topsite Camp, Greenwood Road, were set to work at Rivernook Farm in Walton. They harvested food crops alongside members of the W.L.A, and generally led a happy coexistence within the community.
Vickers-Armstrong was perhaps the most prominent war factory in Elmbridge, but there was also substantial production taking place elsewhere. On the Fairmile Estate in Cobham, Airspeed Ltd. and Fairmile Marine produced air and navy equipment respectively. Allsops was another prominent yet often forgotten player in Elmbridge's war effort, holding the contract to maintain the Vickers Company cars. Mr. Allsop, Chairman of Walton an Weybridge Urban District Council (W.W.U.D.C.), founded the business in 1925 as a garage. During the Second World War it became a private engineering company making landing gear for the Vickers factory Spitfires and Wellingtons. The company had a strong workforce of 500 (mostly female) employees.
On the 11th May 1941, the worst of the Blitz had come to an end. Four years later, on the 8th May 1945, elated residents threw street parties across Elmbridge to mark Victory in Europe (V.E. Day). A month after that, on the 8th June, a lavish celebration was being held at the Oatlands Park Hotel, with toasts, a Cabaret, and hundreds of attendees. The place that had been a convalescent hospital for New Zealand troops in the First World War had become the official venue for victory celebrations in the Second.
Across Britain, there was widespread jubilation and relief for those who had survived unscathed: the prospects of bombing and the threat to life were officially over. But there were many who were not celebrating - for the bereaved and those who still had family fighting the war in Asia, there was little to be happy about.
The close of the war could not bring back lost loved ones, nor could the end of shelling restore Elmbridge to its pre-war state. 75 years on from V.E Day, we can take the opportunity to remember all those who resiliently faced suffering and death in our Borough, and those who did not live to see the arrival of the V.E Day that they had so bravely fought for.
'Hidden Treasures' object video 3: After the Air Raid
Discover the real stories of bombings in our borough in the third and final video of the series above. Including information about women's war work, keeping entertained in Elmbridge, and the Borough's V.E Day celebrations.
'Memories of War' Oral Histories of Elmbridge
Our understanding of the experience of the Second World War is constantly changing. Oral histories – in other words, the spoken memories of people who lived through the war – add to our understanding of this historical watershed in the modern day.
As part of the Elmbridge at War project, we’ve been asking past and present Elmbridge community members to come forward with their take on the Second World War. Their recollections have been vivid, emotional, funny, captivating, sobering - and above all, extremely varied. They provide a personal insight into what it was like for some living through the Elmbridge Blitz, and the profound effect that it has had on life since.
Extracts from the oral histories are available as ‘Memories of War’ sound bites in the video below.
Anyone and everyone can take part in conducting their own oral history interview - from the comfort of the sofa.
As part of the 'Memories of War' project, we're encouraging people across Elmbridge and beyond to get talking about their memories and learn about their own friend's or family's experiences.
So why not get involved and help us preserve local Second World War stories forever?
Just take a look at our handy guide to conducting oral history interviews for more information.
COMING SOON: Elmbridge war Trail
Want to know more about how your own area was affected by the Second World War? In collaboration with Brooklands Museum, we're creating an Elmbridge War Trail to track the war effort in every locality throughout the Borough. From Molesey to Cobham; Claygate to Walton, you will be able to discover in even finer detail how your area played its part and made an individual contribution to the largest conflict in history.
COMING SOON: The Flight Sergeant Charles Sydney Memorial Project
On 27th September 1940, Flight Sergeant Charles Sydney, RAF, was flying his Spitfire R6767 over Walton for the last time.
The Battle of Britain, which had begun in July of that year and would end in October, was well underway. The huge military campaign would see the British Royal Air Forces defending its skies from attack by the Luftwaffe. In just 114 days, 1,547 British aircraft were shot down and 544 British airmen lost their lives.
Tragically, Charles Sydney was to join this list on that September morning, when his plane was shot down and crashed in Station Avenue after being confronted by 4 German attackers. He was just 25 years old - 3 years older than the average age of a pilot during the Second World War. Astonishingly, life expectancy was an average of only 4 weeks in the RAF. Flight Sergeant Sydney lasted only 17 days after joining the 92 Squadron at Biggin Hill.
The Charles Sydney Memorial project which started in September 2000 has seen the commemoration of Charles Sydney's selfless contribution and bravery, along with the many others who gave their lives defending Britain's skies.
More information will soon be available here about the story of Flight Sergeant Charles Sydney and the project to remember him.
In this video of the 'Elmbridge at War' Curator's Talk, Elmbridge Museum's Exhibitions & Interpretation Officer explains how the 'The Blitz in our Borough' exhibition at Esher Civic Centre was put together. Including:
Behind-the-scenes insight into the research and design process
The power of place and making the Elmbridge War Trail
Interpreting and using the 'Memories of War' oral histories
Curator's Talk: Elmbridge at War