Remembering the devastating New Milton bombing 80 years on
DONALD Tomkins (88) was among those for whom the dramatic and tragic events of 23rd August 1940 will be forever on their minds.
Eight years old at the time, Donald was standing on the town’s railway bridge with some friends and his younger brother George on the fateful day German bombs rained down on the high street.
They each had apples stuffed up their shirts, having taken them from the Wiltshire Regiment’s barracks near Great Ballard School.
Hearing a rumbling sound, they looked up to see an aircraft flying near the landmark water tower in Ashley Road and seemingly head off towards Ashley.
But it circled round and, as it flew right over Station Road and Old Milton Road, it released a stream of what Donald described as “egg-shaped” objects.
“We were wondering what they were, and then the next thing we knew there was this ‘thump, thump, thump’ as explosions went off, starting fires all along Station Road,” he recalled.
“Roberts Adlard Builders’ Merchants, which was where Station Financial is now, just went up in flames.
“We just ducked down behind the bridge.”
In just a matter of seconds the Heinkel 111 bomber had dropped 24 bombs in a line from Old Milton Road across Station Road and into Spencer Road. These included three 250lb bombs and 19 50lb anti-personnel incendiaries.
Twenty-five people were killed in the devastation.
Of those who lost their lives, 20 were civilians and five were servicemen – three from the Lancashire Fusiliers, stationed at the nearby Fernhill Manor School, and two from the Royal Artillery.
Members of the Lancashire Fusiliers were praised for preventing an even greater loss of life by bravely running down the street shouting for people to take cover as the bomber flew over.
Donald’s group attempted to make their way home as police and fire crews quickly arrived to deal with the disaster.
“All of a sudden the policeman, Sgt Bennett, stopped us going down the high street and said, ‘You’ve got to go back out round Stem Lane and go home’,” Donald continued.
“They’d blocked the road off and they had the fire service bringing all the dead people through.
“Our parents were worried about us and where we were.”
Among the fatalities was 15-year-old Scout Archie Bursey, who was serving as a telegraph boy attached to New Milton post office. He was killed instantly by an explosion as he was delivering a telegram in Old Milton Road, off the Station Road crossroad.
The late John Hutchins, who would later become New Milton mayor and a long-serving town councillor, was nine years old when he and friend Ivan Bryant were caught up in the raid.
They initially thought the objects being dropped by the plane were propaganda leaflets. Bill Pitman (50), who had been with them at the time, was killed instantly when a bomb landed.
One of the soldiers pushed John into Boots the Chemist, which was on the opposite side of Station Road to today’s branch. There he took cover as shockwaves from the explosions brought medicine bottles crashing down from the shelves on top of him.
Donald witnessed all three of the bombing raids carried out on New Milton during the Second World War.
During the second, on 8th August 1942, he and his brother George were looking out of the bedroom window of the family home in Peckham Avenue when they saw a plane fly over and drop two bombs over Spencer Road.
“The siren sounded more or less the same time we heard the engines roar,” he recalled.
“We felt the blast from that, and me and George were thrown back onto the bed.”
This bombing claimed the life of 52-year-old Gladys Richardson.
The third and final raid in the town came much closer to home for Donald’s family when it brought devastation and tragedy to a neighbouring street. It also sent debris smashing through the roof of their house.
A property called Mere Villa took a direct hit from one of four bombs dropped in the area by a lone German raider on the evening of 22nd January 1943.
Two families had been lodging in the home at the time, and four children were among the five people killed – the youngest being six-year-old Brian Holloway. The adult who died was 38-year-old Evelyn Morin.
Donald told the A&T his father Jack was on Home Guard duty at the time and Ivan Bryant, who lived next door, had just come round.
The air raid siren sounded as Donald was bringing back some fish and chips to enjoy with his friend.
“I had just got in the door when Bob Bryant, Ivan’s dad who was also in the Home Guard, came in and said, ‘Get down, get under anything you can find!
“All of a sudden, we heard two thuds. A bomb landed at the bottom of our garden, near next door’s place.
“We were dead frightened and wondered what was going on. We were scared out of our wits.
“Some debris – clay and concrete – came through the roof of the house and landed on my bed and in the bathroom. If I’d been in my bed, I wouldn’t have been here now; and if I’d been in the bathroom, I wouldn’t be here now.
“My brother Geoff, who was home on leave from the navy, went round to Vincent Road with a mate to see what could be done.”
Since 2016 there has been an annual gathering of councillors, local dignitaries and residents at the memorial clock in Station Road on 23rd August to remember all those killed in the bombings.
Although such a large gathering cannot take place this year in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, Donald intends to make his way there on Sunday to pay his respects.
Despite not having personally known any of the 31 people who lost their lives in the raids, Donald stressed the importance of remembering them and what happened.
“You know the names and faces,” he said. “Several servicemen were killed, as well as people who were out shopping.
“I think about it a lot of the time because my birthday is on 12th September.
“When we gathered for the 70th anniversary, it was very nice to see a nice little crowd, and people came from Canada – they had relatives who lived
in Peckham Avenue at the time.”
Not put off by the explosive experiences of his youth, Donald went on to serve in the military after completing his National Service.
Twelve years in the Territorial Army included a special royal duty when he formed part of the guard of honour for Queen Elizabeth II’s parade through Piccadilly on her Coronation day on 2nd June 1953.
“We were standing in the road waiting for the Queen to come from about five in the morning until about 4pm when she passed by,” he recalled.
“There was some sand in the road, which the horses slipped on, and we had to drop our rifles and help push the carriage up the road.”
Two years with the Royal Artillery stationed at Larkhill in Wiltshire included an extended tour of duty brought on by the Korean War.
In the 1970s, Donald went to work with his brother George as a groundwork building contractor. This he continued until retirement in 1990, and he even built his own home in Kestrel Drive, Mudeford, where he still lives today.
Donald was married to his wife Hilda for 68 years until she died on his birthday in 2018.