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11:08 GMT, Thursday, 24 June 2010 12:08 UK

Remembering city's wartime horror

Workers inspect bomb damage, Vicarage Terrace, Cambridge, 1940

It is 70 years since the Germans bombed Vicarage Terrace in Cambridge yet Barbara Wright remembers it as if it were yesterday.

The six-year-old was huddled with her entire family on the stairs of their house when the bomb exploded.

"Suddenly there was a huge noise," she said. "The actual walls on either side came in and practically touched us."

Nine people were killed that night and are believed to be the first British civilian casualties of World War II.

The bomb attack took place on the night of 18 to 19 June, 1940. One woman survived because she had got out of bed after the raid started; her 11 year-old sister was not so lucky.

Barbara Wright's brother spent the night with his family instead of returning to his billet further along the terrace.

He was unharmed while his fellow evacuees were killed.

Barbara's story

Like so many other London families, Barbara's was sent away from the capital to keep them safe.

They were scattered into different billets to begin with, because the children were evacuated with their schools. Her youngest sister ended up at Elvedon Hall, her toddler brother went to the old Linton workhouse, her mother was at Malcolm Street in Cambridge, while Barbara stayed with Mr and Mrs Leeson in Yaxley.

"They were absolutely wonderful," she said. "They really spoilt me. They were the first people to take me to see Father Christmas and to see Fairy Land."

Mr Leeson was a shoemaker and had a workshop in the garden. She would watch him fill his mouth with nails and spit them onto his hammer.

"When I think back to those days," she said. "I smell blackberry and apple pie and shoe polish."

By 18 June, 1940 the family was back together and living on Vicarage Terrace in Cambridge, while her father was away serving in the Royal Air Force.

Mother's reaction

Bomb damage, Vicarage Terrace, Cambridge 1940

Barbara's brother Stuart was not billeted to the same house as the rest of the family but it was their four year-old sister's birthday so the whole family planned to get together to celebrate.

When her father turned up unexpectedly, invalided out of the RAF and on his way to London for an operation, there was even more cause for celebration.

After the birthday tea Barbara was getting ready to take Stuart back up the road to his billet when her mother stopped her.

"She said, 'I don't want any of you to go'," remembered Barbara. "'I've got this most awful feeling, I don't care, we're all going to be together under this roof tonight' and that's what we did.

"At about 11.30 my father comes and shakes us to get out of bed. We all got ready and no-one was panicking as we'd come to Cambridge to get away from the bombs.

"I can remember the moonlight streaming through the windows when all of a sudden I heard this high-pitched whistle."

Night terror

"Suddenly we were grabbed and my father said 'Quick - to the stairs'. It was an old two-up and the stairs were in a cupboard off the kitchen. We huddled there, my father in front with my brother Stuart and sister Anne, then mother with the baby and me behind them and it went quiet.

"There was a huge noise, we heard the windows rattling and then it was quiet again. After a few minutes my father got us all up and we went to the front window and got under a huge, solid table there."

The next morning her first worry was how she would get to school. She went outside and saw people milling around.

"Houses one to five had gone. All the lovely stained glass windows at St Matthew's were smashed and water was pouring down the road.

"The next day my mother realised that all the other evacuees, in the house where my brother would have been if it hadn't been for my sister's birthday, were dead. I still remember the place as if it was yesterday."

Forgotten story

Five children and four adults were killed that night but after the war the story was forgotten. Indeed a myth grew up that Cambridge was not bombed at all.

Tim Harding is a Cambridge plumber who has researched wartime Cambridge.

"I'd read a couple of articles which claimed Cambridge wasn't bombed. There was a rumour that the Germans and British had an agreement not to bomb cities like Cambridge, Oxford and Heidelberg," he said.

"But I knew from my grandmother and auntie that this wasn't true. My auntie lived in Great Eastern Street and it was bombed twice - people in the house opposite were killed.

"The Germans' main target was the railway yard and sidings to prevent troop movements through Cambridge, so I guess the raids were never near the university. Maybe that's why people thought the university was being avoided. In fact the only university building bombed in the war was the students' union in 1942."

So he began his own research and during it spoke to an historian who had seen the German records and knew which Heinkel had been involved. The target on the night of 18 to 19 June, 1940 was the railway sidings on Mill Road.

In all Tim believes 24 people in Cambridge died due to enemy bombs during World War II; a further three were killed when a British aeroplane crashed on Histon Road.

"Compared to other towns - Norwich lost 200 people and Newmarket had 27 die in one day - I suppose in that way we did quite well," he said.

Wartime reports

Bomb damage, Vicarage Terrace, Cambridge 1940

Reporting restrictions limited the coverage given to the Vicarage Terrace raid.

"I've seen the news reel covering the raid," said Tim. "It reports seven planes shot down and limited damage - while showing a picture of Vicarage Terrace flattened! And it was only given two columns in the local paper, the same as the wedding anniversary announcements."

Heather Deere was the youngest casualty, aged six months. Her parents' bedroom collapsed into the sitting room and the couple had to be dug out.

Cousins' story

Gladys Clark was also killed. She was only 11-years-old.

Her cousins Jean Patman and Joyce Bishop still remember that night. Their grandmother lived at 15, Vicarage Terrace.

Gladys was in bed with her older sister when the raid began. Edna got up and asked her father if they were alright. He replied, "Yes my duck, get back to bed."

She was on her way back when the bomb dropped and knocked her down to the floor. A beam fell across Gladys, killing her.

Edna remembered being pulled out of the rubble by a soldier and then she passed out.

The first Joyce knew about it was the next day when her mother was reading the paper and started crying: "I didn't know what was going on until dad came home and she said Gladys was dead."

Vicarage Terrace

The site was redeveloped in the 1960s and 1970s and there is nothing there now to remind people of that night 70 years ago.

Tim Harding believes it was a significant landmark in the history of the war.

"I looked at the date and thought 'This is three months before the Blitz in London started'," he said. "And the more I researched it, I started to realise that these were the first civilian casualties in the Second World War."

He plans to continue gathering the memories of those who survived that night.

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