The horrific German 'doodlebug' bomb attack that devastated Tottington
3:21pm Tuesday 31st December 2013 in News
NEXT year will mark the 70th anniversary of one of the most tragic days in Tottington’s history. Six people died in a horrific German ‘doodlebug’ bomb attack on the town on Christmas Eve, 1944. Reporter Dale Haslam looks back on the story of that fateful day, as told by those who survived it and historians who have documented it.
With the Second World War in its fifth year, the people of Tottington only had one wish for the festive period — peace.
In those dark and wintry days, they could never have known their wish was just five months away from reality and they prayed to God for “Our boys” to come home, victorious and unscathed.
And as children slept, full of hope and excitement for what Christmas would bring, many awoke in terror at 5.50am.
Tottington resident Colin MacDonald, who was aged 14 at the time, said: “I just woke up with a tremendous bang and the ceiling coming in on top of the bed. There was a mad scramble to get out.
“We didn’t know what happened. We thought it might be a gas explosion.
“None of us thought it would be a bomb or a flying bomb.”
What Colin saw next brought the horrors of war right to his family’s doorstep.
“We got out and all the backs of the houses were down and there was a crater, 30ft deep, and all the windows were out. There was glass from kerb to kerb,” added Colin, who remarkably, went on to become an England goalkeeper on eight occasions and also played for Burnley.
On that freezing night, the Nazis had launched a raid on Britain — the first such attack since the 1941 Blitz — and the North West was their target.
Previously, the Germans had fired rockets from ramps in Northern France and Holland which landed in London and Kent. But, by the end of 1944, Allied Forces had overrun enemy lines in those areas, forcing the Germans to think again.
Having developed the V1 pulsejet-propelled missiles, Hitler’s forces were able to load up Heinkel H111 bombers, fly them over the North Sea and fire at will.
They fired 45 doodlebug rockets — named after the buzz the planes made as they moved through the air — on December 24 and, while 14 landed without incident, 31 hit their targets with devastating results, 15 in the North West.
They struck in Radcliffe, Chesham, Worsley, Turton, Didsbury, Chorley and Oswaldtwistle, where no one was hurt, but in Oldham 32 people were killed.
In Tottington, the bomb landed on a row of cottages in Chapel Street, killing two men and four women and injuring 14 others and flattening the properties, including a shop. Horrified rescuers dug for a 10 hours in a desperate attempt to save the victims but, in some cases, it was in vain.
At 19, Chapel Street, Nicholas Conway, aged 50, a dye plant worker and his wife Mary Ann Conway, aged 48, were killed, and their daughter Mary Conway, aged 22, was seriously injured.
Their next-door neighbour Annie Greenhalgh, aged 75, was killed, and though her sister, Bertha Greenhalgh, aged 64 survived, she died the following February at Bury Infirmary. Her husband, Dewhurst Greenhalgh, was also injured at that house.
Miss Conway, who is now aged 91, said: “Mrs (Bertha) Greenhalgh worked as a nurse and her husband had been begging her for months to retire and move away, but she was so passionate about her work that she wanted to stay.”
Further along the row, at number 31, shop assistant Elizabeth Hodgkinson, aged 54, was killed and next door to her, there was more tragedy.
James Dyson, aged 52, and his wife Teresa had only arrived in Tottington a few hours earlier from their home in Nottinghamshire to visit Teresa’s sister, Nurse Mary Rooney, for Christmas They died when the rocket hit the house, though Nurse Rooney, was not at the house as she was on night duty.
Staff at Bury Infirmary, where she worked, knew casualties were on their way.
At about 5.45am, a hospital porter was walking to work in the early hours when he saw the bomb overhead.
His Army training told him it was a V-1 and, when he arrived at work, the night sister on duty began preparing for casualties.
In Tottington, 14 injured people were put on to stretchers at The Printers’ Arms near the bomb site and then taken to the infirmary, including were Miss Conway, Ethel Riley, Herbert Young and Ellen Barnes.
Many schoolchildren had been evacuated from Manchester to Tottington as families thought they would be safer in the country.
Two families evacuated from London —a Mrs Barry with her two children and Mrs Anderson with her two children — had a lucky escape as they had left Tottington the previous afternoon for the capital.
Mrs Conway said: “We saw them off at the station in Manchester. Mrs Barry’s husband was working in London at the time. In November, he had written to my father, asking him to persuade Mrs Barry to stay in Tottington for Christmas.Luckily, she went back to London.”
Likewise, George Ormerod, who owned one of the damaged houses, was on holiday in Lyme Regis for Christmas. A nearby school was opened as an emergency centre for the 53 people made homeless, before friends and family offered them all somewhere to stay.
On that fateful afternoon, The Bury Times’ sister paper, The Bolton Evening News ran a feature-length article about the attack.
Under Churchill’s strict censorship rules, journalists were not allowed to say where it was, as it could let the Nazis know how accurate their bombs were so they could aim differently next time.
The newspaper displayed pictures of the damage.
Numbers 21 and 23 Chapel Street were destroyed, while two neighbouring properties and a shop were severely damaged. A total of 27 houses suffered serious structural damage and eight of those had to be demolished.
St Anne’s Church nearby had all its windows blown out, save for one behind the altar and clothes, bedding and furnishings were scattered into trees. Showing true resilience, the congregation turned out for a Christmas Day service, despite the devastating damage of the previous day.
A total of 350 homes suffered an element of blast damage.
One of the most touching aspects to come out of the horror of that day was a kind-hearted gesture from the Whitehead family, of Stormer Hill, who paid £5,000 for a remembrance garden to be built in Chapel Street and it came to be known as Whitehead Gardens. Today, a plaque remembering the dead is in the gardens and a service was held there on Christmas Eve, 2004 to mark the 60th anniversary.
The tragedy touched many and, in 1988, historian Peter Smith wrote a book about it and the Doodlebug bombings called Flying Bombs over the Pennines — the story of the V-1 attack on Manchester, December 24, 1944.
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