Gwendoline Marjorie Oakley was the daughter of a police officer. She was killed with her mother and an aunt when her home in Gainsborough Crescent was destroyed by a German bomb in August 1940.
Gwedoline was born in Essex in 1930, the daughter of the police officer Albert Edward 'Ted' Oakley (1901-1975) and Ivy Bertha Oakley (nee Bunting) (1899-1940). Her parents had married at Great Warley in 1927, the year Gwendoline's father joined Essex County Constabulary. Gwendoline had an elder brother, Gordon Edward Oakley (1928-2005).
Ten year-old Gwendoline was killed in an air raid on Monday 19th August 1940, when shortly before 1.45 p.m. a German Heinkel He 111 aircraft, apparently on an armed reconnaissance mission, appeared without warning above Chelmsford and released around 23 small sized high explosive bombs and one or two incendiaries.
The bombs were probably intended for the Essex Police Headquarters which stood at the north-western end of Gainsborough Crescent. However, they fell wide of their probable target and dropped in a line across Kingston Crescent and neighbouring Gainsborough Crescent where Gwendoline's home, number 20, was flattened by one of the bombs. Two other people, Gwendoline's mother and aunt, Alice Louisa Oakley, were also killed as a result of the raid. Six others were injured, some seriously.
At the time of the bombing Gwendoline's father had been in the kitchen preparing to go on duty at Police Headquarters when the aircraft was heard overhead. Meanwhile the rest of his family including Gwendoline were sat around the lunch table in the front room of the house.
According to one report Gwendoline's father went to the back door to look out for the aircraft, and as he did so a bomb from the aircraft passed over his head and dropped behind him in the middle of the house. He was flung into the garden by the explosion and escaped serious injury. The occupants of the front room were not so fortunate. Gwendoline, her mother and aunt were buried under tons of debris, though remarkably Gwendoline's cousin and brother, who were also in the room escaped practically unscathed and were able to clamber out of the devastated house.
Rescue parties which rushed to the scene frantically began to clear away the debris to get to the three buried victims. The first to be recovered was Gwendoline's 47 year-old aunt, Alice Louisa Oakley, of Brentwood who had been staying for a few days. She was rescued still alive but died the following day at the Chelmsford & Essex Hospital. Eventually Gwendoline and her mother were recovered, both dead.
The fire brigade, police and rescue services, who were quickly on the scene, were praised for their speed and effectiveness of their rescue work. One sour note, as far as the authorities were concerned, was the large number of sightseers who hampered some of the rescue work.
The three victims were buried at Brentwood Cemetery on 24th August 1940.
George Henry Rookwood Totterdell, a detective superintendent in Essex County Constabulary, who lived near Gainsborough Crescent later wrote about the incident:
“My wife’s birthday on August 19, 1940, brought the tragic news that her sister, sister-in-law, and niece, aged ten years, were missing after their home at the rear of my headquarters had received a direct hit from an enemy bomb.
We had had an early lunch this day and were preparing to leave for a matinee in London. While waiting for my wife, I went into the garden and saw an enemy plane hovering around headquarters. I watched its movements for some time and came to the conclusion that it was probably carrying out reconnaissance of some kind.
I went indoors, but I had hardly got inside when I heard a bomb explosion which shook the house. I ran outside again and was in time to see the plane disappearing towards the coast. Within a few minutes I received a telephone call from my brother-in-law - Sergeant Oakley - informing me that his home had received a direct hit which had demolished it, and that his wife, daughter, and sister were buried in the crater among the debris.
My wife and I immediately went to the scene and awaited frantic efforts if the search-party clearing away the debris to get at the unfortunate victims. My wife’s sister, who had been staying there for a few days, was the first to be recovered. She was still alive and was taken to hospital, but she had received terrible injuries and died within a few hours.
Eventually the search-party succeeded in recovering the bodies of the other two victims, but both were found to be dead. I learnt afterwards from my brother-in-law that he had only just finished his lunch and was putting on his uniform to go on duty when he heard the plane overhead. He left the rest of the family, which also included his young son - who is now a member of the C.I.D. - sitting round the lunch-table, and went to the back door of the house to watch. While there, a bomb passed over his head and dropped plumb in the middle of his dining room. The force of the explosion flung him out into the garden. After recovering from the shock, he learnt that his son was alive and uninjured, having been blown out of the window.”
In the late 1990s Gordon Oakley (Gwendoline's brother) told the following recollection of the bombing:
“It was lunchtime on a clear summer’s day and I was at home sat around the table in our front (dining) room with my sister, mother, aunt and cousin, having just finished our meal. Then we heard a droning noise which I’d come to recognise as a German aeroplane - as a typical eleven year-old I’d become fairly expert at distinguishing our aircraft from the Germans by studying aircraft silhouettes and so on.
I rushed over to the bay window at the front of the house to see outside and as I looked up I could see a German aircraft coming from the direction of police headquarters. I shouted a warning to the family, something like ‘It’s one of theirs!’.
That is the last thing I can remember until I came round, actually under the table - how I got blown backwards from the window towards the bomb there is no telling!
I never heard the sound of the bomb dropping, or even the house falling down. You can’t really say that I was trapped, because I was able to pull away various bits and pieces of debris and crawl out to daylight. There I found that our house had been totally destroyed and was reduced to a pile of rubble.
Gwendoline Marjorie OAKLEY, Civilian
Killed in an air raid at Gainsborough Crescent, Chelmsford. Aged 10
Remarkably P.C. Shepheard’s house next door was still intact, and apparently a newspaper reported that it didn’t even have a broken pane of glass. The fireplace which backed onto his house was still there and I saw my cousin standing right beside it with her hands over her face. I got hold of her and we scrambled across the rubble to the road. Fortunately neither of us was injured - I didn’t even have a cut even after clambering out over all the bricks and rubble.
The next thing I knew there were people shouting - a crowd of policemen had come out of headquarters and rushed down the road to start searching the debris for survivors. They took charge and one of them got hold of my cousin and I and took us a few doors down the road, I think to number 8, where someone invited us in and gave us comfort. My dad who had been in the kitchen getting ready to go on duty, had survived the bomb, and he stayed at our house to help with the rescue efforts.
A short while later there was an enormous panic when they discovered that some of the string of bombs had landed in Kingston Crescent, but had not gone off. That meant that we had to evacuate the area so they brought a police car down from headquarters and I was put in it and taken off to relatives of my father in Brentwood. My cousin was taken back to her family up Ipswich way. Of course I had nothing, no clothes nothing at all, so after a couple of days I was taken out shopping in Brentwood. While we were out another German bomber came over. As I watched it dropped bombs which I thought had fallen on where I was now living, but fortunately it turned out to be the next street.
It was at Brentwood that my dad told me that my mother, sister and aunt had all been killed. My mother and sister had been sitting nearest to the door to the hallway and were both dead when they were dug out. Apparently my aunt had left the dining room to go to the kitchen to warn dad when the bomb exploded near the hall.
She stopped all the shrapnel in her back which presumably saved dad. She was rescued alive and as she was being carried out on a stretcher she asked someone to wish my aunt, Gert Totterdell, a happy birthday. Although she was still conscious at that stage she died later in hospital.
My father had previously been stationed at Rettendon and through that he was able to get hold of fruit that my sister and I used to weigh up and sell from our house, making a bit of pocket money for ourselves.
We used to keep the money in a bakerlite bowl on the mantle piece and I remember seeing that intact when I got out from under the table. However, once the site was cleared afterwards the money and bowl went missing - that has always griped me.
After the bombing I went back a few times to Gainsborough Crescent to see the site after it was cleared and I watched the house being rebuilt, but I never lived there again. I followed my father into the police and since retiring I frequently visit headquarters to attend functions, parking in Gainsborough Crescent. Then I often stop outside my old house and reflect on the bombing.”