John Kenneth Smith was the son of a gamekeeper. By 1941 he was working for Marconi's in Chelmsford and lodging with his father's sister at Marlborough Road in Chelmsford and was engaged to marry. He was killed when Marconi's factory was bombed in May 1941.
John was born in 1922 in Suffolk, the son of Albert Walter Smith and Harriet Louisa Smith (nee Clift). His parents had both been born in Great Waltham and his father was gamekeeper to Colonel W. N. Tufnell-Smith.
John's siblings included Cecil Arthur Smith (born 1906 in Great Waltham), Victor George Smith (born 1908 in Great Waltham), Thomas B. Smith (born 1913), Albert L. Smith (born 1915), and Dorothy Smith (born 1919). John's parents had married at the Church of St. Mary and St. Lawrence in Great Waltham on 26th December 1903. At that time John;s father was 24 years old and a gamekeeper of Great Waltham, son of Thomas Smith also a gamekeeper. His mother was two yeas older and the daughter of John Clift deceased.
John was a nephew of Mrs. Alice Clara Frost (nee Smith). By 1941 John was working for the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co. Ltd. at their premises in New Street, Chelmsford and resident at 1c Marlborough Road in Chelmsford with his aunt.
Aged 19, he was the youngest man killed in the air raid. He was rescued from Marconi’s with serious injuries but he died in the Chelmsford & Essex Hospital later the same day. He was engaged to Peggy Gooday.
John died on 9th May 1941 at Chelmsford & Essex Hospital, one of 17 workers killed as a result of his workplace being bombed in a skilled raid by the Luftwaffe earlier in the day. He was aged 19, the youngest victim of the raid. A further 20 people were seriously injured and 18 others slightly hurt in the factory.
A red air raid warning had sounded the previous evening at 11.24 p.m. but all was quiet until 2.22 a.m. when an enemy Junkers Ju 88 approached the town. Eyewitnesses saw the raider clearly in the almost full moonlight, as it dived to within a few hundred feet of roof tops, released two bombs, circled and dropped two more, before rising rapidly and escaping towards the coast. The aircraft had in fact come so low that those who had seen it thought it likely to hit Chelmsford Cathedral's spire.
Three of the bombs which were dropped scored direct hits on Marconi’s, whilst another went astray and struck residential properties in Marconi Road which ran along the northern side of the factory. Marconi’s was an obvious target for the Luftwaffe. The New Street factory carried out vital work for several Government departments - designing, testing, developing and producing wireless instruments for the Admiralty, Air Ministry, Ministry of Supply and the Crown Agents.
Of the factory’s 3221 workers, some 390 were engaged on the night shift at the time of the raid. They had been on duty since 8.15 p.m. the previous evening and were due to finish at 7.30 a.m., with the day shift taking over fifteen minutes later. The air raid warning had interrupted work of the two hundred or so employees in the machine shop The men there had taken shelter behind an internal blast wall, whilst the women had gone to the strong rooms below the main office building.
The bombs that hit Marconi’s fell at the western end of the main factory building. One, thought to have been a 250 kg. DH high explosive, exploded in the centre of machine shop which occupied the southern half of the building (see picture right taken from the north).
Another, a 500 kg. DH high explosive, fell on its northern half, through the first floor carpenters’ shop and detonated on the floor of the SWB8 transmitter assembly shop beneath it. This bomb ignited a drum of cellulose in the carpenters’ shop and the fire rapidly spread across debris into the neighbouring paint spray shop. There, dope was ignited and several men, who had survived the initial explosions, were trapped behind a blast wall and killed by the fire before rescuers could reach them. The fire was eventually brought under control by 5 a.m., though not before flames had spread to Ridley’s flour mill in neighbouring Townfield Street. Damage there was extensive with a very large number of roof slates lost, timbers charred and internal linings destroyed.
During the day, whilst clearing up operations continued at the factory, a worker reported hearing tapping sounds from beneath the debris of the wrecked paint spray and transmitter erection shops. Immediately, workmen with crowbars and shovels began frantic attempts to locate the source of the sounds but despite their efforts no one could be found and it was decided to terminate any further rescue work as it was concluded that anyone still buried would be dead by then.
John Kenneth SMITH, Civilian
Killed in an air raid on Marconi's, New Street, Chelmsford. Aged 19
On the following day, Saturday 10th May, the large pile of debris was cleared and somewhat alarmingly the source of the tapping sounds was clear to be seen by all - a third 500 Kg delayed action high explosive bomb, lay there unexploded but still ticking. Its serial number Ex 536 could be clearly seen.
The Bomb Disposal Squad was immediately called in and the factory and surrounding streets were evacuated. Such was the nature and position of the device that the B.D.S. were forced to detonate the bomb where it lay. A warning was put out to this effect, and at 10.30 a.m. on Monday 12th May the bomb was exploded in situ. Further damage was inflicted to the factory, but fortunately there were no further casualties.
The fourth bomb, a 250 Kg. high explosive, narrowly missed the Marconi works and fell onto houses in Marconi Road, where two people received fatal injuries. A terrace of six houses near the junction with Bishop Road suffered most as a result, with three demolished (nos. 70, 72 & 74) and two others believed damaged beyond repair (nos. 76 & 78). The sixth house, no. 80, was seriously damaged as were five others (nos. 62, 64, 66, 68 & 82). The combined effects of blast from all four bombs affected around 375 other properties within a quarter of a mile radius with damage mainly confined to windows, doors, roofs and ceilings.
John died from shock, having lost both his legs following the bomb’s explosion. His funeral was held on 14th May 1941 with a service at St. John’s Moulsham preceding burial at Chelmsford Borough Cemetery, where he was laid to rest in the grave of his cousin Mary Kathleen Frost (1913-1927), daughter of John's aunt Alice Clara Frost (grave: 3429).