The Interesting Life of Hilda Fletcher – Part 2

By Talitha Organ Fletcher

Part 2 – The Bombing

“I remember waking myself up screaming.”

Having a well paying job at the Vickers Armstrong Aircraft factory before the war even started, Hilda had her daily routine down pat.

She would cycle to work every day, perform her duties as a spar inspector on in-construction aeroplanes, have lunch at 12:30 and at 5pm cycle home. It was the usual, the expected and reliable, until one day it wasn’t.

“It was such a nice day, blue skies and not a cloud in sight. Which is part of the reason they found us. They thought it was our boys, our planes at first with them coming over in the middle of the day.”

The Vickers Armstrong Aircraft Factory in 1939
Picture courtesy of Spirit of Brooklands museum

On September, 7 1940, the German bombers  managed to locate the factory by the car park next door. The sun glinting off the windscreens of hundreds of cars had acted as a beacon for the opposing forces, leading them straight to the factory to drop their devastating cargo.

“If I’d done what I usually did for lunch, then we wouldn’t have even been there.” Hilda recalls, her mug of tea long since gone cold as she gets lost in the memories.

“Me and my mate Alice would take sandwiches across to the golf course and sit on the grass, but we’d been to the staff canteen that day, you could get a whole plate of chips for a penny or a roast dinner for a shilling ($0.22) Anyway, we’d come back in after buying some bananas from the fruit stand outside and we were waiting to clock back in, Alice was quite a bit in front of me in line, and that’s when we heard the sirens.”

The factory did have bomb shelters, but they were unfortunately quite inadequate for the number of employees on shift at any one time. The small bell shaped structures could only protect four people, there were a few scattered around the factory in different departments but it turned out better for Hilda to not make it to the shelter in time.

“We heard the sirens and dove for the sandbags. Next thing I remember is waking myself up screaming.” The administration office, the shelter and surrounding section of the factory sustained a direct hit from the bomb, Hilda was the only one in the vicinity to survive,

“I’d been wearing a smock, like an apron, but when I came to it was gone. Blown off. I tried to stand and reached out my hands to grab onto the metal railing. I didn’t really feel it at first, but I lifted my hands up after a second and all the skin on my hands had been burnt off. Blistered. The windows of the office had been blown out and I had shards of glass sticking out of me everywhere, and a big piece of metal in my thigh. I couldn’t blink properly and I lifted my hand to my left eye to find a shard of glass sticking out of it. I lost that eye.”

Hilda’s injuries were extensive, but luckily help came quickly. A man who had been outside the factory came in to assist and stopped in his tracks when he saw this nineteen year old girl covered in blood, cuts and burns. “I saw him,” Hilda stops her recollection and laughs a little, “I said to him, ‘Excuse me, can you help me?’ my God, what I must have looked like. I don’t know who he was or if he said anything else but all I remember him saying is ‘Oh my darling,’ before he helped me outside.”

The army had requisitioned any and every vehicle in the area and Hilda was taken, in extremely critical condition, to the hospital in the back of a commercial lorry.

Only three weeks before the bombing Hilda had married Henry Morris, a local lad that she’d known for years. They weren’t even living together yet, and upon hearing about his pretty new brides injuries, Henry refused to visit her in the hospital. Even when he was told that Hilda likely only had three days left to live before she would succumb to her wounds, as she had burns on 85 percent of her body. Hilda never saw him again.

Despite her very bleak prognosis, she was a fighter. Hilda made it past day three, then to a week, then a month and so on as she began to very slowly heal. It took a total of about six months in hospital before she was able to go home, but was still required to visit regularly for dressing changes and check ups.

To this day, almost eighty years later Hilda still has bizarre side effects from the bombing. “If I stand outside in the sunlight, you can sometimes see the sun glint off my skin. That’s a little piece of metal or glass left over. They obviously weren’t able to get it all out so I still get little bits surface occasionally.” She says with a little smile on her face, as though surviving such an ordeal was an everyday occurrence rather than a miracle. The bombing at the Vickers Armstrong Aircraft factory resulted in eighty-three people dead, over four hundred injured and an untold number of lives irreparably devastated. Yet the war had only just started.