Friday 4 August 2023

The Bombing of the Somerton Milk Factory (29 September, 1942)

Whilst visiting the small West Country town of Somerton last month I was struck by the rather impressive war memorial in the Market Square. A First World War soldier in service dress, stands with his head bowed and his hands resting on a reversed rifle. In addition to a roll-of-honour showing men who fell in the Great War, a closer examination revealed a list of nine civilians lost in the Second World War, under an inscription that reads 'KILLED IN LOCAL AIR ATTACK 29-9-1942'. I needed to know more. 

Somerton War Memorial

A quick online search revealed that nine local workers were killed when the nearby Cow & Gate milk processing factory was bombed by a lone Luftwaffe aircraft. Since becoming interested in this story, I have been in contact with Denise Lazenby who, with the help of local Somerton historian, Nancy Schooling, has researched the incident and interviewed a number of witnesses to the sad events of that fateful day.  

The milk factory was built in the late 1920's to process milk derived from dairy herds reared on the prime agricultural pastures around the town. The factory produced pasteurised milk and powder for infants. It was completely self sufficient, generating on-site electricity by means of steam engines driven by water drawn from a nearby well. 

The Somerton Milk Factory - Historic England

The weather on the morning of the 29th September 1941 was overcast with light rain falling. A number of witnesses recall seeing a lone German aircraft shortly after 8am, and one recalled seeing the bomb-bay open and four bombs falling. One can see from the picture above, that the factory offered an attractive target - the high chimney was an ideal aiming point. According to Denise, the bombs had a thirty second delay and this provided a brief moment when some of the workers could take cover (the factory employed 40 individuals at the time). The processing plant received the worst damage, exacerbated by the fact that there was a glass block floor upstairs. 

The Civilians Killed at Somerton - 29-9.1942

The factory itself was largely destroyed, though ironically the tall chimney that had presumably attracted the attention of the Luftwaffe pilot was undamaged and wasn't taken down until 1962, when the bomb site was cleared. The school that now occupies part of the site, was opened in 1966. Ten nearby houses in Elsome Terrace were badly damaged. Seven people were killed instantly, and two more (Charles Phear & Dennis Cook) died of injuries soon afterwards (including brother and sister, Harold Cribb and Gladys Bennett). The dead were taken to nearby Mowries Farm which served as a temporary mortuary. Thirty seven others were injured and they were taken to the Parish Rooms for first aid, with some subsequently being taken to hospital. Shortly after the attack the Nazi broadcaster William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw) announced that an ammunition factory in Street had been destroyed, so maybe that's what the German raider thought was the target.

Etsome Terrace Memorial Garden

Commemorative Plaque

Sometime after the war, after the site was cleared and the Cow & Gate Company gave part of the site to the community, for a children's playground - in perpetuity. On the 80th anniversary in 2022, Denise recalls that local people gathered to remember those killed on the fateful day. Nine trees chosen by relatives of those lost, were planted and in anticipation of the anniversary a memorial gateway was erected with a commemorative plaque nearby.

Henry Gardner and his Father
With the exception of Reginald Tanner, who was buried at his home village, Henton near Wells, those who died are buried in the cemetery at Behind Berry, Somerton - quite close to the site of the destroyed factory. Two of the names are recorded inconsistently - William Surmon is recorded by the CWGC as 'Turmon' and William Gardener is shown as 'Gardner'. In the latter case an examination of the contemporary census record shows that the name was spelt incorrectly on the original memorial, with the error being repeated on the more recent plaque in the Memorial Garden.

Let us remember those who lost their lives on that day: Mrs Gladys M. Bennett, Stanley Childs, Harold Cribb, Henry Gardner, Austin Greaves, Reginald Tanner, William Surmon, Dennis Cook and Charles Phear. 

With thanks to Denise Lazenby, for providing the information and filling in quite a few gaps.

The grave of Dennis Cook in Somerton Cemetery - view here
The grave of Henry Gardner in Somerton Cemetery - view here.