Selfridges, Oxford Street

18 September 1940

By Ronan Thomas

Selfridges department store at 400 Oxford Street was damaged in 1940, 1941 and 1944. On 18 September 1940 – in the same raid which destroyed John Lewis’s further east along Oxford Street – Selfridge & Co Ltd was hit by a single high explosive bomb and by several incendiaries. The store’s elegant roof gardens – popular since 1910 as a place for strolling after shopping – were wrecked by blast and closed to the public. Broken glass from Selfridges’ many upper storey windows fell into surrounding streets. Owner H.Gordon Selfridge’s prized signature window - autographed by dozens of celebrity visitors to the store since its opening in 1909 - was shattered. The sight reportedly reduced the retired 84-year-old American retailer to tears.

Selfridges' magnificent Art Deco lifts, installed in 1928, suffered flood damage and were rendered inoperable until the end of the war. After the 18 September raid, the ground floor windows – normally used for the store's world famous shop front displays - were bricked up for the war’s duration. Selfridges had survived, but with serious internal wounds. St Marylebone Civil Defence records detail further incendiary bomb damage inflicted in the night raid of 16-17 April 1941. In this attack, fire destroyed the store's Palm Court Restaurant, venue for the rich and famous.

Despite the damage of 1940-41, Selfridges was keen to show its continuing commitment to Allied victory. The store hosted Utility fashion shows and mounted exhibitions and window displays with wartime themes. It was also to play a more important role as the war progressed. One of Selfridges’ sub-basements was converted to hold a secret Bell Telephone ‘X-System’ communications system. Codenamed ‘Sigsaly’, and operated by US Army technicians, specialist cryptographic signal equipment scrambled top-secret phone calls between Britain and her Allies.

From 1943, this system – linked from Selfridges to the Cabinet War Rooms in Whitehall - provided Prime Minster Winston Churchill with a secure telephone link to his US counterpart, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. But conditions for many in the Selfridges basement were basic. According to one account:

We worked under ground under Selfridges and if we were on night duty we had to sleep in bunks in the tunnels where there were rats. We didn’t get much sleep but it was preferable to trying to get home in the small hours if there were bombs going off. The place itself was bombed and the soldier who was on guard was killed. We didn’t know what to do when we arrived in the morning because we couldn’t get in. We were simply told we would be contacted”.

Selfridges’ war was not over. At 11pm, 6 December 1944, a V2 rocket hit the Red Lion pub on the corner of Duke Street and Barrett Street, just yards from Selfridges. A canteen situated in the Selfridges Annex building – bordering Somerset, Wigmore and Orchard streets and nicknamed the SWOD - was massively damaged. Eight American servicemen were killed and 32 injured. Ten British civilians - some in passing vehicles - were also killed and seven injured. Selfridges’ shop-front Christmas tree displays were blown into Oxford Street. Although the Food Hall was unscathed, other departments had to be cleaned throughout. Ruptured water mains also threatened operation of the Sigsaly system. A staff member recalled:

“We moved fixtures away from the water coming through the ceiling and swept the water down the building towards Duke Street; it slopes that way. There were sandbags across all the stairs to prevent the water going down to the basement.”

In a memo to staff, H. Gordon Selfridge praised their swift response and their courage. The next day, 7 December 1944, Selfridges was again open for business. 

For more on the raids on Oxford Street on 17-18 September 1940 see:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/london/hi/people_and_places/history/newsid_8937000/8937074.stm

Photo:V2 damage to Selfridges, 1944 (viewed from Barrett Street)

V2 damage to Selfridges, 1944 (viewed from Barrett Street)

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:V2 strike on Duke Street, 1944 (view from Selfridges Annex)

V2 strike on Duke Street, 1944 (view from Selfridges Annex)

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:ARP Message Form, Selfridges, September 1940

ARP Message Form, Selfridges, September 1940

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:V2 strike opposite Selfridges, 1944 (Duke Street/Barrett Street).

V2 strike opposite Selfridges, 1944 (Duke Street/Barrett Street).

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:ARP Message Form, Selfridges, September 1940

ARP Message Form, Selfridges, September 1940

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:St Marylebone ARP Message, Selfridges, 6 December 1944

St Marylebone ARP Message, Selfridges, 6 December 1944

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:St Marylebone ARP Message, Selfridges, 6 December 1944

St Marylebone ARP Message, Selfridges, 6 December 1944

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:St Marylebone ARP Message, Selfridges, 7 December 1944

St Marylebone ARP Message, Selfridges, 7 December 1944

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:Bomb Map: V2 strike opposite Selfridges, 1944

Bomb Map: V2 strike opposite Selfridges, 1944

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Selfridges, Oxford Street

This page was added by Camilla Bergman on 15/06/2010.
Comments about this page

My father, Leslie Sore, worked in Selfridges during the war. He earned extra money by doing night duty on the roof of the store and kicked incendaries off the roof during the raids. He remembered one night when a bomb had exploded and a window display of surplus paint tins had been blown into the store turning all of the internal columns of the building multicoloured. He also remembered that a limousine carrying a lady drove into a crater caused by the bomb, the lady was killed as she was flung through the glass divide inside the car. My father completed 40 years service with Selfridges and they acknowledged his service during the war when he retired in 1976. He died in 1989 aged 76.

By Brian Sore
On 06/09/2010

I read with interest the section headed codename Sigsaly. It was not only US Army technicians that worked at Selfridges, my deceased mother Pauline Longstaff also worked there, she was British there were other British women as well. My mother worked for the US Embassy at the time, and the underground facilities at Selfridges was an annex of the US Embassy. Do you have any further information in addition to your script above

By Duncan Longstaff
On 26/01/2014

My uncle, Sgt. Leland Carr of Stephenville, Texas worked in the basement annex of Selfridge's during World War II.  He was working the night the V-2 struck the pub across the street and narrowly missed being killed or injured.  His shift as a teletype operator was supposed to end at 23:00, but he was sending a lengthy dispatch to Washington, and he stayed about half an hour late.  Two coworkers who were also his friends went upstairs to wait for him in the canteen.  As he was finishing, he heard a huge explosion and went upstairs to find that his two friends had been killed.  I am writing his story as part of a book, and would like to hear from others who worked there.  Thanks,  Jerry L. Carr, Kea'au, Hawaii, USA

By Jerry L. Carr
On 01/05/2014

I am very proud of my parents; both worked in the basement of Selfridges for the War Office during WWII. My father was in the US Navy and my mother was British. I am only just beginning to piece together, thanks to my mothers help, what they did for the Allied cause. My mother was involved with sending 'false information' and my father in covert ops. His nickname was always 'spooks'. My mother was kept in the dark about his missions and sadly we no nothing of them.   He was involved in missions, we believe, to France teaching the resistance how to make radios, etc. I am hoping to find someone who will be able to give me more information. Again, I am very, very proud of the work my parents did during these times.

By Sandi Marchant
On 12/07/2014

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