Rochester Airport holds many memories for Mrs. Hilda Roe from Chatham. Not least because she was there when the Airport was bombed in 1940.
“It was an experience we never had before so we weren’t really aware of what was going on until we came out of the shelter and saw the damage that was done,” she said.
Now aged 94, Mrs. Roe was 17 when she first went to work at Shorts Brothers, just before the outbreak of the Second World War.
“We’d just come back from lunch when the sirens went,” she said. “We were allotted a dugout – I think ours was number 57 – and we had to go down into it. They were quite deep.
There was this dreadful noise and dreadful flashes. You could actually see the flashes from inside the dugout, which shook.
The shock came afterwards when we looked at the factory and there was more or less nothing there, just the main office and the machine shop. The area where most of the girls worked had gone. But the machine shop, where I worked was still standing so I continued working there up until Christmas 1940.”
The hours and working conditions at the Airport factory would be seen today as tough and wages were poor. But Mrs Roe remembers her time there as a happy period.
Work started at 7.30 in the morning and went on until 5 in the afternoon with just an hour for lunch. On Saturdays they worked until midday or 12.30.
Getting to work involved a walk from Mrs. Roe’s home in Alexandra Road, Luton, over the fields, up the Coney Banks and Magpie Hall Road to the Ridgeway and then across to the Airport.
“There used to be a field that sometimes had cows in it, and I used to hope they weren’t there because I didn’t like cows,” she said.
“Our boss, Marge Black, was very strict but very fair. My job was cutting out bits of metal and bashing them over a jig to make a little component part that went on to a boom. We didn’t get much training. The chargehand, Pat Bottle, would show you what to do and you got on with it. Sometimes the work was really hard depending on what gauge metal you were working with. Luckily I was on a light one.
Pay was about fifteen shillings a week (about 75p). You paid your stamp and had to pay your mother something. It didn’t leave much.”
After a while Mrs. Roe was transferred to the Machine Shop on inspection work. It meant a maroon overall instead of a green one. Her job was to stamp numbers on the various components that came through.
“Fortunately, there were no more bombing incidents, although German aircraft did attempt to machine gun men trying to repair the factory roof. Because they could not work in the factory many of the girls were transferred to filling sandbags. Some went to the Dockyard to work.”
While she was working at the Airport Mrs. Roe saw a test flight of the famous Short ‘Stirling’, the first four engined bomber ever produced. “When it landed the undercarriage collapsed,” she said. “I suppose the aircraft was too heavy for it.”
Because of the danger of bombs, aircraft production was distributed to many parts of the country. Mrs. Roe went to work at Strood Extension factory in Knight Road. She had to undergo a training course to learn how to use the machinery.
“There’s one thing I have always been intrigued about, “she told Peter. “Towards the end of my time there, after most of the machines had been removed to the Seaplane Works, I went to work in this little Shop right at the end of the factory which they called the ‘Hush-Hush Shop’. I was working on riveting at the time and all things were made of very fine material, all put together with pop-rivets. There were fins that went on that the welder used to make. I always wondered if this wasn’t something to do with very big bombs they were using to hit the submarine shelters over in France. We were told that it was.
Apparently they used to strip everything out of the Stirling bomber so they could fit the bomb in. I think it was called ‘The Tall Boy’. I would love to know if that is what we were making.”
Another task was to make six-inch stainless steel bolts that had to fit perfectly into a bracket. “I always thought they were for fitting to Stirlings so that they could be used to pull gliders,” she said.
After work came to an end at the Strood Extension factory, Mrs Roe transferred to Greenford in Middlesex where she operated a lathe in the R.E.M.E workshops.
“A couple of weeks after I began there the buzz bombs or doodlebugs started. I saw quite a few of them going over. I used to go home at weekends and quite often the train was halted, waiting for one to pass. I once saw one from our home at Luton. The whole thing was alight. I don’t know where it landed. They were dreadful things.”
Eventually Mrs. Roe once again found work at Rochester Airport, first as a 'wire-woman', making electrical harnesses for GEC Avionics’’ for automatic pilot systems and then at Fisher Control Valves where she stayed for 22 years.
It was August 15 when around 16 Dornier DO17z bombers attacked Rochester Airport sending workers scurrying for their shelters. In just a few minutes 300 high explosive and incendiary bombs fell on the factory, runway and surrounding area causing immense damage.
A Stirling bomber on the run way was destroyed and there was massive damage to the factory where other aircraft (six Stirlings) were stored or under construction. Only one person appears to have been killed. A number of homes on the nearby Davis Estate were hit causing a number of injuries.
Spitfires from Hornchurch 54 Squadron were scrambled and it’s thought that about half a dozen German planes were shot down.
One report suggests that the Luftwaffe returned on September 4th. At which many Shorts employees fled to the woods rather than the nearby shelters. One person was killed and two injured.
Mrs. Hilda Roe 2016
during her interview
with Peter Cook