Lieutenant-Commander Roy S. Kerridge: A British ‘Death or Glory Boy’? Or member of the ‘suicide squad’?
Both terms were commonly ascribed to the Bomb Disposal Officers who regularly ran headlong into mortal danger in their attempts to defuse the many types of German bombs raining down over London during what became known as the Blitz. From the 7th September, 1940, close to the start of World War 2, Londoners were subjected to bombing raids for 57 consecutive days and nights. And these Officers had the job of protecting Londoners from further devastation.
Abney Park Cemetery, the resting place of the music hall star, Nellie Power, about whom John Finn wrote so entreatingly in our last blog post, was one site where these Bomb Disposal Experts worked on the excavation of an unexploded bomb; it had wreaked such havoc on the graves and statuary that one of the men, Lee Stokes, described the cemetery as looking like ‘ a hundred tanks had run across it.’ It took the team two and a half days to clear the site, with families arriving with flowers and trying to locate the graves of their loved ones. The experience was so harrowing that the team could not stomach eating their dinner for three nights thereafter. In fact, some believe that another unexploded bomb still remains there. And as late as 2015, an unexploded WW2 bomb was found on a construction site at Temple Street in Bethnal Green, causing the evacuation of 150 residents to a local school, and requiring the expertise of the military, working through the night, to have it safely defused. It is believed that its potential for destruction would have surpassed that for which it was originally intended.
The reverberations of those dangerous and traumatic Blitz bombings can be witnessed and experienced even closer to home today. If you walk further south from Abney Park towards the far eastern end of the Borough of Islington and arrive at the junction of the Balls Pond Road and Kingsbury Road, you will see a green commemorative plaque, naming ’ L-Cmdr Roy S Kerridge’.
The plaque was placed on the wall of an Islington Council block of flats in 2016; it replaced a former bronze plaque which was erected in 1950, when the post-war build was completed. It is probably true to say that most people passing by today would be unaware of just how much the local people felt indebted to Roy Kerridge. Not only was the block named after him and called ‘Kerridge Court’ but its opening was attended by his widow and other dignitaries of the Borough at the time.
To get a clearer appreciation of just how heroic and self-sacrificing this man was, we can look to various contemporary accounts that also give us a flavour of the conditions in which he worked and the fateful events that took his life in 1940 at the age of only 37.
Firstly, thanks to the BBC archives, we have the eye-witness account of Pat Lelliot, who, as a child, lived nearby and later described the event. She tells us that during a lull in the bombing on ’a hot summer Friday night’, while she and her brother, mother and Gran were all safely tucked into the Anderson shelter at the bottom of their garden, her father popped out and saw a parachute floating down. He was heard to shout out, ‘Cor! Someone has baled out! I hope they catch him!’ They watched it land not far off and soon the Air Raid Whistles blew and the ‘All Clear!’ sounded.
The following day, the family all went about their usual Saturday morning business, confident that the bomber had been captured. Gran was getting out the tin bath and heating up water to get the washing done; mum was heading with the children to go shopping at Ridley Road market; and dad was off to do his voluntary work, collecting for National Savings to help people save money. But Pat and her mother and brother had not got very far before they saw a road cordoned off and police saying a mine had landed. The area had been evacuated and experts to defuse it were on their way. Realising that a bomb and not a bomber had come down in the parachute, off they went to get the shopping done.
On their return journey, they stopped off again. They saw a black cab arrive and two naval officers get out. However, Mum had no sooner agreed to let Pat and her brother stay and watch for a minute than the air raid sirens came back on and they all started to run back up the road towards home. No later than ten minutes after, they entered the hallway to the sound of ‘an almighty explosion’ and ‘all the windows were blown out.’ Despite the glass falling into the tin bath, Gran was uninjured and ‘we were all in one piece.’ But what had been happening to the naval officers? And, in particular, to Roy Kerridge?
According to Chris Ransted, in his exhaustive and carefully researched account of ‘Bomb Disposal in World War Two’, Roy Sheldrake Kerridge was born in South London, in 1903, the son of a shoe and boot retailer. At the age of 15, on leaving school, he had joined the merchant navy, where records described him as being five feet five inches tall and fair-haired. Interestingly, his naval career began at the close of World War 1 and had ended towards the start of World War 2. So how did he become involved in Bomb Disposal?
As Ranstead explains, it was usually the Royal Air Force who were responsible for the defusing of bombs but aircraft that carried mines were generally dealt with by the Royal Navy. Sometimes, it would not be immediately clear whether the bomb was a German or Allied Forces one. Indeed, the Ministry of War officials would not reveal the way to defuse British bombs for fear that captured soldiers might reveal the secrets to the Germans. To which policy, a British Royal Engineer, whose section lost 6 men in Italy in 1944, reportedly said, ‘What a load of cobblers!’
Who is to know what Roy Kerridge’s life may have been like had he remained safely in the family shoe business? As it was, by 1940, he was part of the Royal Navy Reserve and then, in turn, became a member of the Rendering Mine Safe section of the Admiralty. And on that fateful day of 21st September, 1940, he was one of those two naval officers, witnessed getting out of a taxi by Pat Lelliot. He was looking to defuse his first ever unexploded parachute mine, which had come to rest on the ironically named ‘Wright Road’, at number 26.
It is difficult to imagine how Roy Kerridge must have felt as he worked on the mine. And he would not have known exactly which type of mine he was dealing with until he started to hear an ominous ticking. Then he would have realised that the clockwork mechanism of the self-destruct bomb had started. And that he and his assistant had precisely 17 seconds left in which to make their escape…
With so little time, it was all Kerridge could do to warn his assistant to flee up the narrow passage to the only exit from the property. The subsequent explosion wiped out Wright Road, with 122 houses being destroyed or made uninhabitable. And courageous Roy Sheldrake Kerridge himself, recorded in the Islington Book of Remembrance as having suffered concussion, multiple facial injuries and a broken leg, lost his life.
Posthumous despatches praised Kerridge for his bravery and devotion to duty during the Blitz. We certainly know that, thanks to Kerridge’s ‘coolness’ in extreme circumstances, his fellow bomb disposal officer owed his life to him. And we also know that Kerrridge’s sacrifice was rightly acknowledged more than once by the Borough of Islington.
Whilst today there are many ways for us to recall those tumultuous and tragic times – there is even a 50 line form of poetry devoted to ‘quick fire’ and sound-driven lines and images, known as Blitz poetry – we still need to be reminded of the courage of others under fire. And as we witness the brave resistance of the Ukrainian people, threatened with even greater weapons of destruction, it is perhaps even more important that the contributions of Kerridge and others to securing the safety and survival of their fellow citizens should never be forgotten.
For more information on my local and other tours, please contact me, Johannah Barrett.
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- https://www.poetrysoup.com/dictionary/blitzRanstead, Chris ‘Bomb Disp
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