Counterfactual Croydon: The Battle of Croydon, 1940

By - Thursday 18th April, 2013

Tom Black introduces the Citizen’s geekiest feature yet – a look at the what-might-have-beens of history, from Croydon’s perspective

The following is a work of fiction. It is based on real world documents (most notably German Invasion Plans for the British Isles and Ronald Wheatley’s Operation Sea Lion) but, for narrative purposes, it is told as if it really happened.

Yesterday, the 72nd anniversary of Liberation Day, looked like a perfectly normal day in Croydon. It rained a bit, business was slow but then picked up, and the buses were largely on time. But, at noon, in a quiet corner of King’s Gardens, a dignified group of veterans, councillors, and members of the public stood for two minutes of silence in front of the 1940 Memorial. The fateful autumn of 1940 was the closest this country ever came to falling to a foreign invader, and Croydonians, like all Britons, played their part in knocking back the Nazi menace.

When the first jackboots landed at Folkestone, Dover, Brighton, and the Isle of Wight, the resistance they met was fierce. Unfortunately, cloud cover meant British air superiority meant little, and with the Royal Navy stuck in port, the guns of German destroyers made short work of the pillboxes and trenches that littered the south coast. As the drive north began, it was the German 9th Army, commanded by Field Marshall von Rundstedt, who eyed their ‘day three objective’ – the junction town of Croydon.

Within 72 hours of S-Day (the landing), the first German units were spotted near Oxted. The British blunders at the short-lived Siege of Guildford had led to the advance on London continuing largely unabated, although it should be noted that most modern historians concur that the decisions taken by Lord Gort at Guildford were in the interests of preserving civilian lives. Regardless, on 20 September 1940, elements of the British 3rd Mechanised Division, commanded by General Montgomery (as he was then), decided to dig in around Croydon and the surrounding area.

‘The Dynamiting of Biggin Hill’ became a 1943 film starring William Hartnell and Noël Coward

The approach from Oxted made it clear that the attack would come from the southeast. Advance units of German paratroopers (now fighting overland as regular troops) were the vanguard of the German spearhead, supported by light tanks. The 9th Infantry Brigade Anti-Tank Company found themselves attached to the 1st Battalion, Suffolk Regiment and deployed in defences around Biggin Hill Aerodrome, which was under no circumstances to fall into German hands. The 33rd Surrey (County Borough of Croydon) Battalion Home Guard would get their first taste of combat at Biggin Hill.

The events that followed became known as ‘The Dynamiting of Biggin Hill’ in lore, song, and even a 1943 film starring William Hartnell and Noël Coward. The anti-tank guns of the 9th Infantry proved effective against the light armour of the German Panzers, but found themselves flanked when the well-equipped paratroopers broke through the Suffolks after an intense firefight. It fell to the Croydon Home Guard volunteers to carry out the ‘retreat protocol’ – the destruction of the airfield. Captain R.T. Harris was awarded the Military Cross for his efforts in repeatedly re-affixing the damaged detonators under fire, and a Private T.A. Warren received a posthumous Military Medal after remaining at a Lewis Gun position to allow his comrades to retreat.

Biggin Hill was, like Dunkirk, a ‘victory’ built from a disaster. While the defending forces had denied German Stukas a crucial staging point that could well have turned the tide of the battle, Montgomery had hoped to completely hold the 9th Army on the outskirts of Croydon. Now a drawn-out street battle ensued. Today a walk down New Surrey Street will show you the plaques for where all the old buildings stood, destroyed one by one by advancing tanks and field guns. Grant’s Department Store (now a nationwide chain) became a symbol of British resistance via a famous photograph of Union Flags hanging from every window, bristling with Bren guns and Lee Enfields. The stalemate on Katharine Street frustrated German efforts to advance, and at 0200 hours on 21 September, the 9th Army’s forward commander issued an order for a tactical withdrawal. Making camp in the grounds of Whitgift School, the Germans readied themselves for another attack the next day.

If the Battle of Waterloo was metaphorically won on the playing fields of Eton, the Battle of Croydon was literally won on the playing fields of Whitgift

Montgomery, after consultation with GHQ and Churchill himself, made a gamble that would earn him his place in the history books. Gathering all the forces he could, and co-ordinating with the last operational RAF squadron of Bristol Beaufighters, he launched Operation Sugar Loaf just before dawn. In the days before night vision and thermal goggles, an attack in darkness was a risky business, but the 3rd Mechanised made excellent use of flares, communications, and, crucially, strafing runs by the Beaufighters. More than 80 Panzers parked on the rugby fields, representing 18% of the tanks for the invasion force as a whole, were destroyed in a two hour engagement, and 3,000 were prisoners captured in their beds. Those Germans who remained retreated to the rest of the 9th Army in chaos, but with its armoured contingent fatally depleted, it would only engage in fighting retreats until it surrendered on Liberation Day. It was joked that if the Battle of Waterloo was metaphorically won on the playing fields of Eton, the Battle of Croydon was literally won on the playing fields of Whitgift.

The invasion of Britain cost 180,000 lives, among them 45,000 civilians and Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. But, ultimately, it failed. The Royal Navy rallied and the already retreating German Armies found themselves with no supply routes across the channel and effectively under siege on an unfriendly island. The British people defended themselves, and for the first time the German Army was decisively defeated. Croydon played her part in that, and Britain remains grateful to her. George VII himself came down to Croydon’s 1940 Memorial in 2008 and laid a wreath, as Henry IX had done in 1970. The next time you’re in King’s Gardens, go over and pay your respects. A phrase attributed to various units throughout the war is engraved on the austere concrete statue of a soldier crouching behind rubble: ‘For Our Tomorrow, They Gave Their Today’.

Operation Sea Lion, the German invasion of Britain, obviously never came. But those Croydonians who were prepared to lay down their lives for us did exist, and I am grateful for the wealth of information about them available here.

Tom Black

Tom Black

Tom is the Citizen's General Manager, and spent his whole life in Croydon until moving to Balham in 2017. He also writes plays that are occasionally performed and books that are occasionally enjoyed. He's been a Labour Party member since 2007, and in his spare time runs an online publishing house for alternate history books, Sea Lion Press. He is fluent in Danish, but speaks no useful languages. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Andrew Dickinson

    I enjoyed the article Tom.I was sniffing around parts of the town centre this week and was looking at Segas House and about 12-15 feet high on one of the walls parts of masonry were missing and I thought the only way that damage could’ve occurred was from shell-fire imagining as if Croydons streets had once been the scene of a street battle against AH forces.Then this article, it brought that back to me.It was a thought that I never thought I’d revisit.

  • Anne Giles

    Incredible article. What if???

  • Dom Hero Ellis

    Just read this. Great work! Love it when a bit of fiction makes you feel pride.