Memories of a miraculous escape from a German bomb raid on Exmouth’s Parade

PUBLISHED: 18:50 17 March 2018 | UPDATED: 18:50 17 March 2018

The Parade, Exmouth, circa 1935. Wills Bros Ltd shop is to the far right, next to Woolworths (now Iceland). Picture: Contributed.

The Parade, Exmouth, circa 1935. Wills Bros Ltd shop is to the far right, next to Woolworths (now Iceland). Picture: Contributed.

Archant

In March 1941, Exmouth’s Parade was hit by a German bomb. Four people died, but six people had a miracle escape. Journal reporter Paul Strange spoke to Jean Chiverton (nee Wills) who lived to tell the tale, along with her cousin John Fletcher.

March 2, 1941: the German bomb caused extensive damage to Wills Bros’ shop and others on The Parade in Exmouth. Picture: Contributed.March 2, 1941: the German bomb caused extensive damage to Wills Bros’ shop and others on The Parade in Exmouth. Picture: Contributed.

On the evening of Saturday, March 1, 1941, seven-year-old John Fletcher was in Exmouth, walking home from the cinema, with his father and older brother.

Hearing the distinctive drone of a low-flying German twin-engine bomber, followed by a high-pitched whistling, they realised Exmouth was being bombed. The Fletchers dived for cover.

“My father dragged us into the shop doorway of Gudgeons Electrical, which is where Domino’s Pizza is now,” said John, now in his eighties.

“We heard a huge explosion, and we were all cowering.”

March 2, 1941: Friends and employees sift through the rubble of the Wills Bros’ shop. Picture: Contributed.March 2, 1941: Friends and employees sift through the rubble of the Wills Bros’ shop. Picture: Contributed.

A single German plane had dropped five bombs on the town. Four caused minor damage. But the fifth struck shops on The Parade, killing four people and causing extensive damage to businesses where Peacocks is located today.

John was less than 200 yards away from the bombing. Later he discovered that one of the shops that had been hit was Wills Bros Ltd, his uncle’s drapers’ shop.

In the building that evening were John’s uncle (Leonard Wills), his aunt (Eleanor), their friend (Will Kelly), plus a friend and evacuee from London (Helen Hawkins) and her baby (Julia).

And in the basement, in a curtained-off makeshift bedroom area, was John’s nine-year-old cousin, Jean Chiverton (nee Wills).

March 2, 1941: The Methodist church and shops to the right of the Wills Bros shop had their windows smashed. Picture: Contributed.March 2, 1941: The Methodist church and shops to the right of the Wills Bros shop had their windows smashed. Picture: Contributed.

“I’d gone to bed and was reading,” said Jean.

“I didn’t hear a bang, just a muffled noise and a lot of smoke. And then I got out of bed, pulled the curtain back and there was just a tiny little hole that I could see out of and the rest was absolutely covered with plaster.

“My mum and dad and their friend Will were upstairs in the front room.

“They’d been having a sing-song. Will was playing the piano, and dad was singing. They’d just stopped and Will said, ‘My fingers are getting cold, I must come over and warm them up by the fire’.

Late 1943: Wills Bros at its new premises at 63 Exeter Road. From left: Mrs Greenslade (who ran a nearby greengrocers), Katherine Hart, (Mrs Greenslade’s niece), Bob House, (able seaman, USN), Jean Chiverton (nee Wills, aged 11) and Leonard Wills (Jean's father). Picture: Contributed.Late 1943: Wills Bros at its new premises at 63 Exeter Road. From left: Mrs Greenslade (who ran a nearby greengrocers), Katherine Hart, (Mrs Greenslade’s niece), Bob House, (able seaman, USN), Jean Chiverton (nee Wills, aged 11) and Leonard Wills (Jean's father). Picture: Contributed.

“If he hadn’t moved, he would have had a roller blind through his head because it went through the piano, right where he had been sitting.

“The only injury was to my mum. The light fitting fell and caught her on the top of the head and she had a little burn mark. It wasn’t serious, it just caught her hair.

“And upstairs there was our evacuee and her baby. The baby’s cot was covered in plaster, and mum went to pick up her daughter – thankfully she was fine.

“A policeman came along and dug me out and we went to the ARP station which was at the library and they gave us hot tea and made a fuss of us, and then we went and stayed with friends.”

Cousins Jean Chiverton and John Fletcher together, more than 75 years after the bombing of Exmouth’s The Parade. Picture: Paul Strange.Cousins Jean Chiverton and John Fletcher together, more than 75 years after the bombing of Exmouth’s The Parade. Picture: Paul Strange.

The next day it was clear that the damage to The Parade was considerable. Many shops had collapsed, windows were smashed, and there was a mass of rubble on the pavement.

A cooked meat shop next to the Wills’ store had been demolished, killing the manageress and an assistant, while two visitors to the town also died.

Although miraculously all six people at the Wills Bros shop had survived, the shop and its stock were badly damaged.

“It was a big shock,” said Jean, “but my parents took it in their stride. They rescued what they could, and sold it off cheap – bomb-damaged goods.”

Within months, Wills Bros was back up and running, at 63 Exeter Road.

“That was the attitude in our day,” said John. “If a bomb hadn’t got your name on it, you just carried on.”

Jean nods.

“About three years before the bomb, I’d become a Christian. I felt we weren’t meant to die. That wasn’t our time. We still had work to do. And I’m sure that’s what’s kept me going!”

After giving this interview, and following a short illness, Jean Chiverton, died peacefully in her sleep in early February 2018, aged 86.

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