80th anniversary of Second World War bomb tragedy

Eighty years may have passed since a random bomb from a German Luftwaffe plane killed two women and three children by destroying four houses in Sawbridgeworth, but for survivor John Liddell the events of the tragedy are still fresh in his mind.

This is the first year that 88-year-old John has not had the chance to return to the town to honour the dead and wounded. So when he spoke to the Indie he was keen to keep alive the memory of the Second World War attack.

The night of October 10, 1940, also saw bombs dropped in Bishop's Stortford, with one hitting the former Hockerill Girls Training College in Dunmow Road, killing three girls.

In Sawbridgeworth, a German bomber dropped its deadly cargo onto the middle of Cambridge Road, causing a huge crater. Nearby homes took the full force of the blast.

Two mothers, Alice Fulker and Dorothy Chappell, and three children, brother and sister Derek and Jean Burrell and evacuee Constance Baker who was staying with the Chappell family, were killed. Several others, including John and his younger brother Grahame, were injured.

"The only reason I keep stirring it up is to remember the people who died and were wounded," said John, who was living in a house in Cambridge Road with his mum and dad and Grahame when the tragedy unfolded.

In an article for the Sawbridgeworth Local History Society, he recounted the events after the bomb landed at around midnight.

"A profound silence lasted for about two seconds," he said. "The noise then started. Items falling including slates and tiles, glass breaking, some of it where my mother had stuck net curtain to the windows. People shouting."

Eight-year-old John was asleep in a double bed with his six-year-old brother at the back of the house, with Grahame nearest to the bomb blast.

"His first words were that he could see the moon," recalled John. "There was a large hole in the wall beside his head, over a foot wide.

"About the same time our father called out from the front bedroom 'Boys, stay where you are as there may not be any floor'.

"This sent Grahame into a fit of giggles. My pyjama top was sticky and we were both white from the ceiling dust."

The boys were taken to The Bull pub opposite, which was run by their grandmother. It was discovered Grahame had suffered a serious injury to his left hand.

He was taken by their father to Rye Street Hospital in Bishop's Stortford, where he had recently had his tonsils removed,

John said Grahame's hand was so badly injured surgeon "Mr Coleman" decided it should be amputated, but the nurse who had been looking after the boy weeks before took umbrage at that.

"Sister Norbury told Mr Coleman that he was not to amputate and stood between the surgeon and Grahame," said John. "She went on to say that most of the hand could be saved with dedicated nursing."

"The hand was saved, but he lost the top of his thumb, a finger and most of another one," added John. "He was very ill in hospital for over two months – a major part of the problem concerned his throat. Ceiling dust caused problems. There were no antibiotics, no penicillin at this time."

It was subsequently found that John had suffered shrapnel wounds. He had an operation at Rye Street Hospital to remove it, something he remembers vividly.

"The anaesthetic was a liquid which was poured over a gauze, held in place with a metal frame on my nose," he said. "My memory is of being drowned."

John has spent the intervening years ensuring the tragedy is not forgotten.

The names of the dead are on the war memorial in the Great St Mary's churchyard and were read out at a service in the church. The Union flag was flown at half mast at Sawbridgeworth Town Council offices at Sayesbury Manor, Bell Street, and mayor Cllr Annelise Furnace will say a few words at the October council meeting.