Frederick Walter Birt was a Suffolk man who worked as an agricultural labourer before joing the Royal Navy in 1893. After leaving the service he married in Suffolk in 1907, going to have two sons by 1911 when he was a lamplighter. His wife died that year and in 1920 he and his sons moved to Chelmsford where he found a job at Hoffmann's bearings factory. He married again the following year and by 1925 was living in West Avenue, his home until his death in October 1942 when he was fatally injured during an air raid on Hoffmann's.
Frederick was born in Martlesham, Suffolk on 4th April 1878, the son of Henry Birt and Sarah Ann Birt (nee Stevenson).
In 1881 the census found Frederick, aged 3, living with his parents and two older siblings in Marlesham where his father was an agricultural labourer. Ten years later Frederick was recorded by the next census still in the village, living with his parents and edler brother. Frederick was an agricultural labourer, as was his father and brother. In 1893 Frederick joined the Royal Navy, but had left by 1901 when the census described him as a ‘navy pensioner’, living in Martlesham, with his widowed father.
In 1906 Frederick’s father died, and the following year Frederick married Elizabeth Buttery in Suffolk. Elizabeth already had a son Alfred Arthur Buttery. Frederick and Elizabeth went on to have two sons, both born in Woodbridge, Suffolk: Walter George Birt (born on 25th April 1908) and Wilfred Harry Birt (born in 1911).
The 1911 census listed 32 year-old Frederick living with his wife, two sons and a boarder at 20 Bredfield Street in Woodbridge. Frederick was a lamplighter. Frederick’s wife died later that year.
Frederick moved to Chelmsford around 1920. In 1921 he married Annie Maria Bailey in Essex and by February 1925 they were living at 13 West Avenue in Chelmsford, with Frederick working as a machinist at Hoffmann’s ball-bearings factory in the town.
In 1941 Frederick's younger son Wilfred was captured in Crete by the Germans while serving as a Corporal with the Royal Army Service Corps.
Hoffmann’s was a target for the German air force throughout the war. At 10.59 a.m. on 19th October 1942 a lone German Dornier Do 217E aircraft approached Chelmsford from the east at an altitude of around a thousand feet. Taking advantage of low cloud and poor visibility, typical of a misty autumn morning, the aircraft dropped to around a 150 feet to make a bombing run on Hoffmann’s approximately along the line of one of the factory’s railway sidings.
Almost immediately Hoffmann’s light machine defences opened up on the raider, but other army posts were unable to fire their Bofors guns at the aircraft because of its extremely low altitude - the gunners would have been firing in the direction of nearby buildings and people. The Dornier was able to release two 500 Kg SC high explosive bombs on the works, with delayed actions of about twenty seconds, and machine gun the ground. With its bombs released the aircraft turned north-eastwards, circled to the north of Chelmsford and made off due east towards the coast, apparently unscathed.
Those on the ground were not so fortunate. One of the bombs scored a direct hit on the factory. It penetrated the roof and exploded in the recently completed Cage & Assembly Shop, (part of Hoffmann’s ‘C factory’, to the north of Rectory Lane). The other bomb deflected off the factory’s roof and exploded amongst houses in neighbouring Henry Road.
Four people died as a result of the bomb at Hoffmann’s, including 64 year-old Frederick, and another five were killed at Henry Road which lay at the western edge of the factory.
As well as the four fatalities the Hoffmann’s bomb resulted in six seriously injured, and 43 men and 16 women slightly hurt. Casualties would have been far higher but for the excellent civil defence arrangements at the factory which meant that many of the factory workers were inside air raid shelters when the bomb struck.
Frederick is thought to have been caught in the open by the blast, and to have been buried under rubble. He died two days later at the Chelmsford & Essex Hospital. His home was still at 13 West Avenue.
Frederick’s funeral service was held at All Saints’ Church in King’s Road, Chelmsford on 27th October with burial afterwards at Chelmsford Borough Cemetery (grave: A7387).
A local newspaper reported:
"THE LATE MR F. W. BIRT. The interment took place on Tuesday of Mr Frederick Walter Birt, of 13 West Avenue, the victim of enemy action. Aged 64, he was native of Martlehsam (Suffolk), but had lived in Chelmsford fer 22 years, being empfoyed at the Hoffmann Works. He leaves a widow and two sons, one of whom. Cpj. W. H. Birt, a priioncr of war in Germany: Service at All Saints', Boarded Barns, the interment at Writtle Road Cemetery."
Frederick's widow died in 1970.
Frederick Walter BIRT, Civilian
Fatally injured during an air raid on Hoffmann s factory, Chelmsford. Aged 64