Behind the Headlines: Petworth Bombing

Former Petworth School boy Tony Penfold who lost two of his cousins in the bombing.''Picture by Louise Adams C131346-5 Mid PetBoys
Former Petworth School boy Tony Penfold who lost two of his cousins in the bombing.''Picture by Louise Adams C131346-5 Mid PetBoys

IT was Tuesday, September 29, 1942 and the pupils of Petworth Boys School were sitting at their desks.

Suddenly their world was shattered when a bomb exploded in the school, killing 28 boys along with the headmaster Charles Stevenson and assistant teacher Charlotte Marshall and injuring more.

A lone German bomber had dropped three bombs on Petworth, missing his possible target – the troops in the grounds of nearby Petworth House.

One of the bombs hit a tree and ricocheted into the school with devastating consequences.

The bomb wiped out a generation in the middle class at the school and those who died are still remembered in an annual service of commemoration, as reported in today’s Observer (page 5).

It is attended by children from Petworth Primary School as well as others who have first-hand memories. They gather at a memorial set up in the Horsham Road cemetery which is tended by today’s schoolchildren.

“I had been finding the war quite exciting – seeing the aeroplanes and troops.

“But after that day, it wasn’t so enjoyable any more.”

These are the words of Tony Penfold, 82, who was 11 years old when the bomb dropped as he sat at his desk in school. He attends the annual service at the cemetery every year.

“A lot of children didn’t come in that day because of the weather, which saved their lives. But I was never allowed a day off,” said Tony.

“I was either drinking my milk or playing a bamboo flute as it was break time. I can still see the headmaster sitting at his desk – ‘Old Stevers’ we used to call him.”

Tony reacted quickly, running into the adjacent classroom, to get out of the door – which was where the bomb landed. He believes being so close to it saved his life.

“I heard an almighty bang and felt as if I was falling through space, then was buried beneath rubble.

“One boy emerged from a crater with no shoes or socks on.

“I started to trot off with the idea of going home, but was taken to the Petworth Cottage Hospital. I could feel a bubbling in my neck, and it was a piece of brick.

“I was picked up by a Canadian soldier in his khaki overalls, covered in blood. I then spent three weeks in St Richard’s Hospital.”

Many Canadian soldiers, who were stationed locally, helped out both on the day and at the funeral.

Tony has since led a fulfilled life, having worked as an administrator for the health 
service. In his spare time, he was an avid motorcyclist and running London marathons 
until a couple of years ago, “I can still run, though,” he swiftly added. He also builds, and flies, model aeroplanes.

After leaving Midhurst Grammar School, Tony volunteered for the air force but it transpired he was unable to hear high-frequency sounds due to suffering a scarred eardrum in the blast. He still did two years’ national service.

Never one to complain or make a fuss, a piece of glass remained in Tony’s neck for 13 years after the bomb.

However, though he escaped almost unscathed, Tony lost two of his cousins in the blast – Peter and Ronald Penfold. Mr and Mrs Jack Penfold – his aunt and uncle – lost their only sons that day.

Tony’s memory of the tragic day is as vivid as ever. “I can still see my good friend Ronnie (Ronald) Speed, just as he was.

“A lot of people took it very badly – losing their only sons.

“It was so overcast that I think the pilot just let the bombs go, and that was it,” said Tony.

However, he failed to let the trauma affect his life, having lived every second to the full and continuing to pay his respects to the great friends, and family, he lost on that fateful day.

For the full Behind the Headines feature, see this week’s Midhurst and Petworth Observer (Thursday, October 3).