Monday, 23 October 2017

Remembering a Charlton hero: The Jim Mackenzie Story

Jim Mackenzie at right of photo (Charlton Athletic Museum)

This blog usually concentrates on events and people from the Second World War but to commemorate Remembrance Week 2017, we look back at the 1914-18 conflict and visit the story of a young man who was one of those involved in the formation of Charlton Athletic FC and whose death took place one hundred years ago this year. This article is a modified version of a piece I wrote last year for the club's museum and is reproduced here with acknowledgements.

Even though Jim Mackenzie was only fifteen years old at the time of the formation of Charlton Athletic FC, he can now be rightly seen as one of the 'Founding Fathers' of the club and to commemorate the centenary of his death, it seems a good time to re-visit his story, which I have been able to update, having unearthed some more information covering his final days.

Although I no longer attend matches as regularly as in previous years due to the various issues connected with the club's ownership, they are still 'my club' and will always be so. Over the years, Charlton Athletic have gained a justifiably superb reputation for community involvement and for our awareness of the club's proud heritage and one such initiative is the excellent Charlton Athletic Museum, an entirely self-funded charity founded and operated by a team of trustees and volunteers.

On an early visit of mine to the museum, my friend, fellow battlefield guide and Addicks fan, Clive Harris drew my attention to what was then a newly produced marble plaque which was to be added to the club's war memorial and which featured the names of the three Charlton Athletic players and officials who lost their lives during the First World War.

Detail of the Charlton Athletic FC Roll of Honour (Author's Photo)

One name, or perhaps rather a ship’s name, immediately caught my attention when looking at the finely crafted plaque. This was the steamship Heron, a name I recognised as being a vessel from the General Steam Navigation Company, a London based short sea and coastal shipping concern that later became a part of the shipping company for whom I once worked, the P&O Group. So apart from the connection to Charlton Athletic, there was also a link, albeit a slightly tenuous one to my first employer, with whom I had spent some of the happiest working years of my life. I had to learn more.

Of course, it wasn’t just a ship’s name on the plaque, for the Heron was merely providing background to the story behind the loss of a human life. The individual’s name was somebody who had been involved with the club literally right from the very start, for he was none other than Jim Mackenzie, the very first Honorary Secretary of the embryonic Charlton Athletic when the club was formed by a group of young lads from the East Street area of Charlton in time for the beginning of the 1905-06 season and whose name and home address at 5 York Street, Charlton was shown in the Kentish Independent newspaper advertisement of 27 October 1905, as the person to contact for potential opponents looking for a friendly fixture.

John Alexander Mackenzie, as his surname suggests, was a Scot, born in 1890 in Dundee to parents William and Annie Mackenzie. Jim, as he seems to have been universally known, was eventually the eldest of five children, with a younger brother and three sisters. By the time of the 1901 Census, the family had moved to 36 Cedar Grove, Charlton as Jim’s father William had taken a job as a Dockyard Labourer, no doubt at one of the many wharves that lined the Thames in the area at that time. By 1905, the family had moved to York Street, today called Mirfield Street and which connected East and West Streets (now Eastmoor and Westmoor Streets respectively) at the heart of the area from whence the young players of the newly formed football club were to be found.

Jim was Honorary Secretary of Charlton Athletic FC during it's formative years but in November 1908 at the age of eighteen, he decided to join the Merchant Navy, being engaged by the General Steam Navigation Company, often referred to simply as the GSN, or ‘The Navvies’. Although the company’s headquarters were at Trinity Square in the City of London, they also had a wharf and engineering works at Deptford, at that time a short tram journey away from Charlton. Perhaps it was the locality of his new employers, together with the relatively short routes covered by the company that attracted Jim to this type of work, which would have permitted him to watch at least the occasional home match when time and voyage schedules permitted.

The s.s. Heron of 1920 - the replacement for the vessel sunk in our story (author's collection)

The 1911 Census found Jim on board the steamship Heron, berthed at Weaver’s Wharf, North Dock, Swansea, when his rank was Mess Room Steward. By 1915, Jim was still aboard Heron and by this time, his rank was shown as the Ship’s Cook. In those days in the Merchant Navy, it was not uncommon for crew members to serve aboard the same vessel for voyage after voyage, for if the seaman was good at his job and conducted himself well, the Ship’s Master would encourage these men to form the nucleus of a trusted and competent crew. We can therefore assume from his long service with the company and aboard the Heron in particular, that Jim was both well liked and a decent Ship’s Cook.

Despite his somewhat nomadic life at sea, Jim kept his roots in Charlton and surely must have kept in contact with his friends at the football club he had helped to set-up during his periods of leave. In the 1911 Census, the family had moved to 93 East Street but by the time the 1913 Electoral Register was printed, the family had moved again to a newer and larger home at 57 Delafield Road, adjacent to Charlton Railway Station and ironically a short walk from what was to become Charlton Athletic’s future home at The Valley.

The Heron was the second of the company’s vessels to bear the name and was an iron hulled steamship of 879 gross register tons delivered to the company in 1889 by Gourlay Brothers of Dundee, so coincidentally the Heron had the same birthplace as her Ship’s Cook and was just a year older. She was engaged on one of the GSN’s regular routes from London and other UK ports to Oporto, carrying general cargo as well as having provision for some passengers. Sadly, no photograph of the vessel seems to have survived the passage of time. The third Heron was built in 1920 and although she was a larger vessel than her predecessor, her general layout was quite similar and gives the reader a good idea as to the type of vessel Jim served aboard.

The First World War saw the emergence of a new form of warfare at sea in the form of the submarine. At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, the submarine had been damned by many and the opinion of Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson RN, who described submarines as “Underhand, unfair and damned un-English” was typical for the time. Attitudes changed however, and by the outbreak of the War in 1914, submarines had been adopted by both the Royal and Imperial German Navies as an integral part of their respective fleets.  

Kapitanleutnant Walter Remy of U-90 (author's collection)

German submarines made an immediate impact in the war, with one notorious incident in September 1914 seeing the loss of the British cruisers Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy with heavy loss of life. The repercussions the following year of the torpedoing of the Cunard liner Lusitania, including the deaths of 128 American civilians, who at that time were citizens of a neutral country, caused the Germans to scale back their submarine operations for fear of further alienating public opinion in the United States and thus drawing them into the war. The submarine flotilla was duly withdrawn from the commerce war and was given strict instructions to attack enemy warships only.

However, on 31 January 1917, with the war beginning to go against Germany and the effect of the Allied blockade having a disastrous effect on food supplies, the Kaiser ordered that unrestricted submarine warfare should be recommenced with immediate effect. As a countermeasure, the British reluctantly instigated a convoy system, initially only on the shorter supply routes to France and across the North Sea but later extended to cover the Transatlantic and Gibraltar routes as well. The exigencies of war meant that there were frequent alterations to loading schedules and diversions to convoy assembly points.

The Heron was no exception in being a part of the new convoy system and having loaded a cargo of coal at Newcastle, topped up with general cargo in London, the little coaster found herself at Falmouth on 27 September 1917 as part of Convoy OF6, which comprised of nineteen vessels bound for Genoa, Gibraltar, Alexandria, Savona, Tunis and Oporto, which was the destination of the Heron, the smallest vessel in the convoy and the only one destined for the Portuguese port. The convoy sailed at 16:00 and was escorted by nine warships of the 4th Destroyer Flotilla under Commander Francis Twigg RN in HMS Lysander, who was the Senior Officer in command of the escort, which comprised the destroyers Porpoise, Hind, Achates, Cockatrice, Unity, Christopher, Brave and Lyra. Considering the size of the convoy, this was a powerful escort on paper but it must be remembered that unlike their Second World War counterparts, the destroyers of this era could not detect submerged submarines whilst they were underway as their hydrophone systems would only work when the destroyers were stopped. The destroyers would therefore hope to catch the submarines on the surface and deal with them either using their gun armament, or as a last resort, by ramming. Conversely, the attacking submarines would often surface at night to sink their prey using their own guns and to avoid wasting torpedoes, which at this time, were not always the most reliable of weapons and could only be guided visually. A large destroyer escort was also required as ships would be detached to cover the merchantmen departing for their individual destinations along the convoy route.

Jim Mackenzie remembered on the Merchant Navy Memorial at Tower Hill (CWGC)

On the night of 30 September whilst crossing the Bay of Biscay, the Heron’s company sister ship, Drake, was sunk by the gunfire of U-90, under the command of 34 year old Kapitanleutnant Walter Remy. The U-90 had only been commissioned at the beginning of August 1917 but Remy was an experienced commander, who had previously commanded the U-24 and who was already responsible for sinking over 31,000 tons of Allied shipping when he took command of his new U-Boat at the Kaiserliche Werft, Danzig. The U-90 was quite a large submarine for the time and displacing 998 tons, was actually slightly heavier than the Heron. She was armed with six 50 centimetre torpedo tubes, four at the bow and two astern and carried sixteen torpedoes. She was also armed with a 10.5 centimetre gun, with 240 rounds for surface attacks.  

The entire crew of the Drake were able to take to the ship’s boats and were eventually picked up the following morning but two hours after her sinking, a single torpedo fired at close range from U-90 slammed into the hull of the Heron adjacent to the engine room and with disastrous results. The impact of a heavyweight torpedo upon the small and elderly iron built coaster must have been devastating, as the Heron with her cargo of coal, sank like a stone. The Engine Room crew along with anyone else caught below decks would not have stood a chance and of the crew of twenty three, there was just one survivor. 

The remaining members of the s.s. Heron commemorated at the Merchant Navy Memorial, Tower Hill (author's photo)

He was a Japanese crane operator by the name of Higo, who had been off duty and taking a bath when the torpedo struck. He quickly realised that the ship was rapidly sinking and ran out on deck, grabbed a life belt and jumped naked over the side. Higo later recalled that it was a beautiful night with a calm sea and bright moonlight. He could hear the cries of other survivors in the water but they were too far away to be visible. After about twenty minutes in the sea, he was picked up by the submarine and a short time later, whilst in captivity but safe aboard the U-90, he was joined by Captain Carter, Master of the Drake, who had also been picked up, doubtless to try and obtain knowledge of the convoy and of the ships they had sunk. 

The remainder of the Drake’s crew were later rescued by the escorts and other ships in the convoy and landed at Gibraltar but of the other twenty two crew members of the Heron, including the 27 year old Jim Mackenzie and of the vessel herself, there was no trace save for a few fragments of wreckage floating on the surface. Jim and his shipmates lay at position 46⁰ 27’ N, 11⁰ 14’ W, some 300 miles southwest of Ushant, in the Bay of Biscay.

The Charlton Athletic FC Memorial and Roll of Honour (Author's photo)

The crew of the Heron represented the British Merchant Navy in microcosm, being a very cosmopolitan bunch.  As might be expected, there were men from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales on board but there were also crew members from Denmark, India, Portugal and Sweden as well as Japan. Coincidentally, apart from Jim Mackenzie, there was one other resident of Charlton on board; Charles Davey the First Engineer was from Eversley Road, whilst the ship’s Master, Captain RS Bristow hailed from nearby Beckenham in Kent. 

The men of the Heron are commemorated on the Merchant Navy Memorial at Tower Hill, a stone’s throw from the GSN Company’s former headquarters at Trinity Square and where 12,210 British Merchant Seaman from the First World War who have no grave but the sea are remembered. Unfortunately, the panel bearing Jim’s name is located quite high up on the memorial and is difficult to photograph well but is clearly visible to those wishing to pay their respects.

The poem “No Roses Grow on a Sailor’s Grave” could have been written for Jim Mackenzie and his crewmates and it is a fine achievement by the Museum that one of the original ‘East Street Boys’ without whom we would not have a Charlton Athletic, is now commemorated at the home of the football club that he helped to set in motion back in 1905.

The Charlton Athletic Museum is not connected to the club and is run by a volunteer team of trustees and helpers who are committed to preserving the club's heritage and history for a wider audience. The Museum is located within the North Stand at The Valley and is open on Fridays from 11:00 to 15:00 and on matchday Saturdays between 11:00 and 13:00.

Unpublished Sources:

Greenwich Heritage Centre - Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich, Electoral Registers, various 
National Archives - ADM 137/2628 - Admiralty Historical Section: Records used for Official History, First World War: Convoy Records, Outward Convoys Falmouth OF1 - OF21
National Maritime Museum Archives - GSN/1/43 - Minutes of the GSN Company - October 1917
National Maritime Museum Archives - GSN/41/24 - GSN Newsletter issue 93
National Maritime Museum Archives - RSS/CL/1915/3444/12 - ss Heron crew list 1915

Published Sources: 

Birds of the Sea: 150 Years of the General Steam Navigation Company - Nick Robins, published Bernard McCall, 2007
Business in Great Waters - John Terraine, published by Leo Cooper Ltd, 1989
The Story of Charlton Athletic 1905-1990 - Richard Redden, published by Breedon Books, 1990

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Exploring Wartime Woolwich

LCC Bomb Damage Map for the area of the walk (author's image)

Last month, we looked at the classic British war movie Battle of Britain, in advance of the special open-air screening of this film as part of the 2017 Charlton and Woolwich Free Film Festival. The evening was a great success and although it has to be said that the weather was not particularly kind to us, some quick thinking on the part of the organisers, coupled with some judicious examination of on-line weather forecasts, ensured that the hardy souls who did brave the rain were able to sit under cover in order to enjoy the film.

One of the supporting events for the film was a short guided walk of the local area to give people a taste of what the people of Woolwich had to endure not only during the Battle of Britain/Blitz period but during the whole of the Second World War. As this walk is unlikely to be repeated in the immediate future, it seems a good idea to give readers the chance to undertake a 'virtual' walk of Wartime Woolwich without having to get wet!

Postcard view of a Church Parade in Victorian times (author's collection)

Needless to say, the walk started and finished at the event venue, the Royal Garrison Church of St George, which as it's name suggests was originally built for the soldiers of the adjacent Royal Artillery Barracks. The church was built between 1862-63 on the orders of Lord Herbert, the Secretary of State for War in order to provide "moral well-being for soldiers of the Royal Artillery" and which was part of a more general response to the criticism aimed at the government of the day following the Crimean War, when the lack of modern facilities for the British Army was brought to the attention of the public. The church was designed in an Italo-Romanesque style and was very similar to Lord Herbert's own parish church in Wilton, Wiltshire, although built on a much larger scale. The church was the work of the architect Thomas Wyatt, assisted by his brother, Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt.

Pre-WW2 postcard view of the Garrison Church (author's collection)

The church served the Royal Artillery faithfully for many years, with Sunday church parades becoming a regular feature of Woolwich life. The building suffered blast damage from a Zeppelin raid in the First World War and in the following conflict, was initially damaged on the night of 9 March 1941, when a High Explosive bomb caused damage to the north-western corner of the church and left shrapnel damage to the marble entrance pillars that can still be seen to this day. This was one of no fewer than seven bombs that fell in the immediate area on that night but the real killer blow came some three years later when the church was struck by a V-1 Flying Bomb on Thursday 13 July 1944, causing the building to lose it's roof and upper levels. The church can be seen on the extract from the LCC Bomb Damage Maps above, at the bottom right-hand corner of the page. The church is coloured in light red, which indicates that it was thought that repairs were possible but as will be seen below, this proved not to be the case.

Shrapnel damage still visible (author's photo)
The Garrison Church as it is today (author's photo)

Once the rubble was cleared, the church remained in limited use, with occasional open-air services. A rebuilding was mooted in the early 1950s but a road widening scheme, coupled with the general shortage of funds for defence-related matters put paid to that plan. The ruins were further stabilised in the 1970s, with the remnants of the upper walls removed and more recently, a modern canopy was erected over the altar area to replace the unsightly corrugated iron structure previously installed there. This permitted restoration and stabilising works to be undertaken to the fine mosaics at the altar and which should ensure the future of the building going forward. In 2011, the ownership of the church was transferred from the Ministry of Defence to a Trust and today, the building seems to have an assured future as a venue for a variety of events.

From the Garrison Church, the group crossed the strangely quiet South Circular Road and began to walk along the footpath which traverses Woolwich Common adjacent to the magnificent frontage of the Royal Artillery Barracks, built between 1776 and 1802 which at 329 metres, represents the longest continuous architectural frontage in London and which today is Grade 2* Listed. This pathway can be seen running across the bottom of the map reproduced above but perhaps because the barracks were still a relatively secret establishment during the wartime years, no bomb damage is recorded on the map. The Luftwaffe had scant respect for historic buildings however, and the barracks suffered serious blast damage from the seven High Explosive bombs dropped on 9 March 1941 mentioned above as well as receiving fire damage from German incendiaries dropped on 19 April 1944, in what proved to be the final Luftwaffe raid (as opposed to V-Weapon attack) on the borough of the entire war.

Pointing out bomb damage to the group at the RA Barracks (Paul Chapman)

The rain was by now beginning to fall more heavily as the group continued across the footpath and turned right into Repository Road, which is shown on the LCC map as running to the immediate left of the main barrack block. Finding shelter beneath some trees, the group next paused adjacent to the main gate of the modern Woolwich Barracks, now home to the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, where we discovered a simple memorial to one of Churchill's 'Few' from the Battle of Britain. Given that we were walking on 15 September, Battle of Britain Day and given the subject matter of the film that we were about to watch, this was the most poignant moment of the walk and this fact was not lost upon the group.

Memorial to Robin McGregor 'Bubble' Waterston (author's photo)

The memorial is one of several placed by the excellent Shoreham Aircraft Museum in Kent, commemorating members of 'The Few' who lost their lives within a short radius of the museum. The airman in question on this particular memorial is Flying Officer Robin McGregor 'Bubble' Waterston, aged just 23 in 1940 and whose Spitfire X4273 was shot down in a dogfight over the streets of Southeast London during the early evening of 31 August 1940. As his name might suggest, Robin was a Scot, who served with 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron based at RAF Hornchurch in Essex. The squadron had only moved down from Dyce, Scotland on 27 August as part of the ongoing rotation of squadrons in order to reinforce those defending London and the Southeast during the Battle of Britain. Robin had gained his nickname due to his reputed likeness as a youngster to the young boy who was the subject matter of Millais' still life painting which was later used as an advert for Pears Soap. Robin was a very well-liked personality within his squadron who would think nothing of rolling his sleeves up during his off-duty periods in order to help his ground-crew service his aircraft.

Robin Waterston (right) holding a beer (author's collection)

Robin became one of the victims of a major air battle that took place above Woolwich during that early evening and was still inside his Spitfire when it crashed opposite to where the memorial is now placed, close to the junction of Repository Road and Hillreach. During the same battle, a Messerschmitt Bf109 flown by Oberleutnant Walter Binder of 4.KG76 was also shot down. This aircraft crashed in nearby Ann Street in Plumstead and like Robin, the German pilot was also killed in his aircraft. It was thought that he was shot down by Sergeant Stokoe, also from 603 Squadron but it is not known whether the German officer was the pilot responsible for shooting down 'Bubble' Waterston.

The rain was now falling steadily as the group turned sharp right into Artillery Place and proceeded along this road, which can be seen on the map running from left to right almost at the dead centre of the image. We paused briefly opposite the garage and car dealership, which amazingly in 1940 also served as a garage and which saw some drama on the night of 17 October 1940 when it was the scene of an unexploded bomb, which was successfully dealt with by the Royal Engineers Bomb Disposal Squad and in the rain, we talked briefly of the work undertaken by these extremely brave men.

Moving along Artillery Place, we next paused on the corner as the road bears left opposite a small side street named Belford Place, which can be seen on the LCC map as a plethora of dark shades, indicating total destruction of buildings and those damaged beyond repair. Four houses in Belford Place were destroyed on the night of 19 March 1941 by a Parachute Mine, which also caused severe damage to Mulgrave Place School, then in use as Auxiliary Fire Station 42W. Seven lives were lost from amongst the residents of the destroyed houses, including a 6 year old boy named Peter Harding, who was killed along with his father. The school, already heavily damaged, was then almost completely destroyed on the night of 20 April 1941 when a High Explosive Bomb detonated, causing the deaths of three AFS Firefighters, including Auxiliary Firewoman Lillian Baker, as well as an 18 year old AFS Messenger, Francis McDonough and Station Officer Charles Burden. This raid coincided with Adolf Hitler's birthday and was thought at the time be some sort of bizarre birthday gift for the Fuhrer.

The War Artist Bernard Hailstone was a member of the AFS who was stationed at Mulgrave Place for a while and his painting of the ruined school buildings now forms part of the collection of the Greenwich Heritage Trust. Not surprisingly, the ruins were demolished and replaced by a new school building post-war.

Bernard Hailstone's painting of Mulgrave Place School (author's photo from original at Greenwich Heritage Centre)

The group now headed down the gentle slope to the junction of John Wilson Street, which in 1940 did not exist and was then a narrow footpath called St John's Passage which can be faintly seen on the right of the LCC map running immediately to the right of the main Barrack block. The junction of this pathway with Artillery Place was in 1940 the location of St John's Church, which had already closed as redundant in 1939. The empty building was damaged by incendiary bombs on the night of 11 September 1940 and further damaged by the blast from the V-1 that caused such heavy damage to the Garrison Church on 13 July 1944. The ruins were demolished in 1948 and any trace of the footprint of the church was subsequently lost beneath the newly constructed John Wilson Street in the late 1960s so that today no trace of it's existence can be discovered.

St John's Church Woolwich (author's collection)

A now distinctly damp group now headed back to the relative dryness of the Garrison Church to take on some liquid refreshments before settling down for the main event of the evening. Despite the efforts of the weather, the evening was a great success and thanks are due to all of those who braved the rain and attended the film and the walk beforehand, the re-enactors who came along, Neil from the London Beer Factory who supplied us with light refreshments as well as to the Garrison Church Trust who permitted us to use their wonderful venue once again. Hopefully the weather will smile on us for next year's events at the Garrison Church!

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Battle of Britain

Original poster for the film (author's collection)

Regular readers may remember that in the October 2016 edition of this blog, we looked at "Real to Reel" an exhibition covering a century of war films that was held at the Imperial War Museum, London and selected my own ten personal favourite examples of the genre.

One of those I selected was Battle of Britain a film released in 1969, appropriately enough on Battle of Britain Day, 15 September. This film used to get regular airings on television but seems to be less frequently seen nowadays and remains one of my personal favourites. It was one of the last of the great British war movies and was directed by Guy Hamilton, himself a Royal Navy war veteran and director of four of the iconic James Bond films.

On 15 September 2017, as part of the Charlton & Woolwich Free Film Festival I'm delighted to be hosting a special open air screening of this classic British war movie at the wonderful atmospheric surroundings of the Royal Garrison Church of St George, Woolwich. For those that don't know the area, this church was the victim of a direct hit by a V-1 Flying Bomb on 13 July 1944. Despite being largely destroyed, the church remains as consecrated ground and is the home of the Royal Regiment of Artillery's VC Memorial, as well as the memorial to Fusilier Lee Rigby, who was murdered by terrorists in Woolwich in May 2013. The church is now managed by the Woolwich Garrison Church Trust, who are responsible for the management of the building and who have made great strides in preserving the building for the future.

Plaque outside the Garrison Church explaining it's wartime past (author's photo)

Going back to Battle of Britain the film is an extremely faithful re-telling of events running from the Fall of France in June 1940, culminating in events on Battle of Britain Day, 15 September 1940. The film had a budget of $13,000,000 (equivalent to $91,000,000 today) and therefore represented a considerable financial risk to the producers Harry Saltzman and S Benjamin Fisz. Shooting of the film took place in the spring and summer of 1968, with much of the filming taking place on location. Many of the airfield scenes were filmed at Duxford, Debden, Hawkinge and North Weald - all genuine Battle of Britain airfields. One of my abiding memories as a nine year old boy growing up in Southeast London at this time was seeing large formations of Second World War aircraft appearing in the skies overhead, including what looked like Heinkels and Messerschmitts. I found this very exciting but looking back, I suspect that my parents, grandparents and others of their generation may perhaps have been less enthusiastic as it would have no doubt rekindled some less than happy memories, especially to my Mother and Grandmother, both of whom lived in London throughout the Blitz.

Group Captain Hamish Mahaddie (Bomber Command Museum of Canada)

To recreate as authentic a group of aircraft as possible, Group Captain Hamish Mahaddie, a former Bomber Command Pathfinders officer, was hired to source suitable aircraft, both British and German. He managed to locate over hundred Spitfires in the UK, of which twenty seven were made available for the film, although twelve were in flying condition. Two of these were authentic Mark I and II variants, with the others all later marks, which had to be suitable modified to look the part for the period. The Hurricanes, although far more numerous than the Spitfire during the real Battle of Britain, were far fewer in surviving numbers by 1968, with only six being made available for the film, half of which were flyable. On the German side, there were no surviving flyable Heinkels, Dorniers, Junkers and Messerschmitts in 1968 but a ready solution was found in Spain, whose air force were still flying Spanish built CASA 2.111 twin engine bombers, virtually identical to the Heinkel III. Mahaddie obtained the services of no fewer than thirty two of these authentic looking aircraft, along with twenty seven Hispano 'Buchon' fighters, Spanish built versions of the Me 109, so in 1968 as in 1940, the RAF found itself outnumbered. Together, these aircraft represented what was described in 1968 as the thirty fifth largest air force in the world. The Ju 87 Stukas were represented in the film by large scale flying models and the aircraft destroyed on the ground and in flying scenes, were also models. The other flying scenes were all shot 'for real' as this was many years before the advent of CGI technology and the film in my opinion is much the better for being shot in this way. Even today, the flying scenes remain amongst the best ever put on film.

Other locations used for filming were St Katherine's Dock, Aldwych Tube Station, Peckham Rye and Dragon Road in Camberwell, which were all used for the sequences of the London Blitz. Sir Hugh Dowding's office at RAF Bentley Priory was used once again as such in the film but the 11 Group Bunker at RAF Uxbridge was recreated at Shepperton Studios as an almost exact replica of the real thing. Huelva in Spain doubled up for Dunkirk at the start of the film, whilst some other airfield shots were filmed at Tablada in Spain. 

Apart from Hamish Mahaddie, the other technical advisors for the film included Tom Gleave, Bob Stanford-Tuck and Ginger Lacey, all real life Battle of Britain pilots for the RAF. Squadron Leader Boleslaw Drobinski advised on the Polish scenes and General Adolf Galland was the main technical advisor for the German scenes. Galland was anxious to ensure that the German pilots were not portrayed as 'Cartoon Nazis' and was involved in a furious argument on set when he objected to a scene in which German pilots were shown giving the Nazi salute and threatened to walk off the film if the scene was included. Galland was adamant that German pilots didn't use this salute and insisted that even he had never used it in normal circumstances, even when meeting Hermann Goring. After much debate, the scene was left in the film, although other scenes do show the German pilots using the conventional military salute. Galland was also instrumental in the decision to show the German actors actually speaking German, with English subtitles being used, rather than speaking heavily accented English, as has usually been the case in other war films prior to this time.

Robert Shaw as he appeared in the film (author's collection)

The cast for the film represented a veritable 'Who's Who' for the period and included Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir Ralph Richardson, Sir Michael Redgrave, Trevor Howard, Christopher Plummer, Robert Shaw, Kenneth More, Michael Caine, Susannah York and Kurt Jurgens, as well as appearances by younger actors who were to subsequently become well known in their own right such as Edward Fox and Ian McShane.

Most of the senior figures of the Battle are portrayed as themselves, so we see in the film portrayals of Hermann Goring, Albert Kesselring and Erhardt Milch on the German side and Sir Hugh Dowding, Keith Park, Trafford Leigh-Mallory on the British. Further down the chain of command, for reasons of brevity in the film, characters are merged to greater or lesser degrees, so the character played by Robert Shaw, known somewhat enigmatically in the film as 'Skipper' is largely based on the South African 'Sailor' Malan, who had acquired his nickname due to his having served in the Merchant Navy in a previous career. It was a nickname adopted by all who knew him and happily used by Malan as well, perhaps because his real Christian name was Adolf!

The character played by Christopher Plummer, Squadron Leader Harvey is loosely based on Squadron Leader Foxley, not a Canadian as in the film but someone whose real-life experiences closely matched those of Plummer's character in the movie. Edward Fox's character in the film, a Sergeant Pilot known simply as 'Archie' is heavily based on Sergeant Ray Holmes and as with Foxley, a character whose exploits in real life closely matched those of his film alter-ego. Similarly, on the German side, the character Major Falke is based on Adolf Galland, who really did inform Hermann Goring that he could use a squadron of Spitfires to help win the Battle for the Luftwaffe.

General Adolf Galland (Bundesarchiv)

There were other issues that arose during the production of the film, most notably concerning the musical score. The original composer for the score was Sir William Walton, who was recommended to the producers by Sir Laurence Olivier, who had collaborated with Walton on three of his own film productions, Henry V, Richard III and Hamlet and who was also a close personal friend of the composer. Walton wrote a classical orchestral score for the film, which all of those involved with the production felt was perfect for the film, if perhaps a little on the short side. The executives at United Artists thought differently and felt that the score was old-fashioned and ordered that it be scrapped. This caused Olivier to threaten to walk off the set and he stated that if he were to leave the production, he would not allow his name to be shown in the credits to the film and any of it's publicity. This would have been a major blow as Olivier was still a major player in the film world, even in 1968 and as a result of this, a compromise was reached. A new score was commissioned from the British composer Ron Goodwin, who had previously scored films such as Murder at The Gallop, 633 Squadron, Where Eagles Dare and Operation Crossbow amongst many others. However, a sequence from Walton's score, entitled Battle in the Air was retained and used towards the end of the film to accompany the climactic air battle which is played out with almost no dialogue and no other extraneous sound effects.

At the time of it's release, the film had indifferent reviews and this was perhaps thought to be a result of the generally pervading anti-war feeling at the time resulting from the Vietnam War, although the film did perform well in the United Kingdom. Over the years though, the film's reputation has recovered and it is today regarded as probably the definitive film covering the subject.

If you've never seen this film before, or if like me, it is one of your favourites, come and join us on Friday 15 September when you will get the opportunity to watch this film at a truly unique venue. The film is being screened at 19:45 but before that at 18:15, I will be guiding a free walk starting from the church, lasting around an hour, during which we will discover something of the area's wartime past. There will be a licenced bar available on the night and also hopefully snacks as well - full details of the timings and other events during the Charlton & Woolwich Free Film Festival can be found on the event's website.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Dickie Reynell, Black Saturday and eye-witness accounts

Flt Lt RC Reynell RAF (Shoreham Museum)
Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I have written on a couple of occasions abour Flight Lieutenant Richard Carew Reynell RAF, an Australian pilot who died many thousands of miles from home, helping to defend London on 7th September 1940 during the Battle of Britain and who was shot down just a mile or so along the road from where I now live. As a result of my original piece back in February 2012 I was contacted by Andrew Rennie, a friend of the Reynell family back in Australia who is putting together a book on Dickie's life. We have kept in contact over the years and were finally able to meet in June 2013 when the Shoreham Aircraft Museum unveiled their monument to Dickie at Crown Point in Blackheath, not too far from the spot where his Hurricane crashed and where Dickie's body was discovered.

On Andrew's visit in 2013, he had gleaned information that perhaps Richard's body had been found at a different location to that originally reported in the Civil Defence Incident Log and seeing as this information came from what was thought to be a reliable source, we set about trying to piece together the latest threads of information. We were told that Richard's body had been found by a passer-by not at Kidbrooke Grove as shown in the Civil Defence records but in Dartmouth Row, on the opposite side of Blackheath and quite a considerable distance from the original recorded spot. The source shall remain nameless so as to avoid embarrassment but his information had supposedly been corroborated by an eye-witness. The location of the wreckage of Dickie's Hurricane V7257 had been spread across the heath, with the largest portions, including the engine, falling through the roof of St Ursula's Convent, so this much at least could not be disputed.

I have always had a great suspicion of "eye-witness" accounts and think that certain authors and researchers place a great over-emphasis on their importance. These accounts are all well and good if there are several of them and they broadly agree in their description of events. They are also generally reliable if they emanate from a trained observer, such as a Police Officer or a serviceman or woman but those written long after the event from someone whose memories may be faded have to treated with the utmost caution - these people sometimes tell one what one wishes to hear, or what they think might have happened but say it with great authority. Sadly, many of these "authentic" accounts prove to be unreliable to say the least and so it proved with the information given to Andrew.

The National Archives are in the process of gradually releasing the Casualty Branch enquiries into deceased airmen from the Second World War and when news of these became known to Andrew and myself, we anxiously awaited the release of the pack containing Dickie's details. The first batch was released in 2014 and infuriatingly for us, only included details for casualties up to and including 31st August 1940 - so near and yet so far!

Almost three years were to elapse, with many enquiries as to their release dead batted away by the National Archives until the next tranche were finally released in July of this year and this time, we were not disappointed. The documents were ordered and a visit to Kew was made a few weeks ago. The file contained a great deal of correspondence, including copies of telegrams sent from the Air Ministry to Dickie's wife and family, letters from his employers the Hawker Aircraft Company enquiring about arrangements for obtaining a Death Certificate and most importantly from our point of view, a genuine eye-witness account, not from someone supposedly recalling events from thirty or so years' distance but from a Staff Sergeant Deeley of the Royal Army Pay Corps, who had been walking across Blackheath towards Shooter's Hill Road on 7 September 1940, when he witnessed the aircraft crashing and Dickie's partially opened parachute falling. After running for a short time, he commandeered a passing van and both he and the driver arrived on the scene of the incident at the same time as a Police Officer, PC Cochran from Lee Green Police Station.

This account, written by a trained observer, confirms that the original Civil Defence report was indeed correct and that Dickie's body was discovered in the garden at 3 Kidbrooke Grove, which was incidentally the residence of Commander HP Mead RN, who happened to be at home at the time of the incident. Dickie appeared to have been wounded in the chest and had crashed through a garden bench when he hit the ground. According to the report "Life was extinct and the body was removed to the Royal Herbert Military Hospital, Woolwich."

Andrew recently visited the UK once again, so on a rainy August day, we met in Blackheath and took ourselves to 3 Kidbrooke Grove and on the spur of the moment, in a fine display of Australian forthrightness, Andrew knocked on the door. We were greeted by the present owner of the house, Chris Richards, to whom we introduced ourselves and who was astonished to learn of the events of some seventy seven years ago in his back garden. Chris is a war gamer and has a keen knowledge of military history, so was fascinated to learn what had happened. Over a cup of coffee, Chris showed us his back garden and we were able to perhaps imagine what is must have been like in September 1940 with an air battle raging overhead, bombs falling and the terrible sight and sound of a fighter pilot's body suddenly arriving in one's garden.

To provide some wider background, I can do no better than include a slightly re-edited version of my original 2013 blog post which covered the day's events.

The raid on London of 7th September 1940 was what RAF Bomber Command and the US 8th Air Force would later call a 'Maximum Effort' raid. Goering deployed 348 bombers escorted by 617 Bf109 and Bf110 fighters. They were basically in one massive formation heading towards London at between 14,000 and 23,000 feet. It was no exaggeration to say that this huge force filled the skies and they must have presented an awe-inspiring sight to the defending Spitfire and Hurricane pilots of 11 Group, Fighter Command sent up to meet them. It was no wonder that Londoners were to dub this day 'Black Saturday' such was the intensity of the assault upon the capital.

43 Squadron Crest - Gloria Finis
The first two squadrons to intercept the attackers were the auxiliaries from 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadron and the 'regular' 43 Squadron, known as 'The Fighting Cocks' from their squadron badge. Three of 43's Hurricanes went in against the fighters, whilst the other six, led by the Squadron commander, the Rhodesian Caesar Hull, along with Dickie Reynell and Pilot Officer Alan Deller, took on the bombers. The engagements lasted all the way from the Sussex coast and even after they had exhausted their ammunition continued to harass the bombers as best as they could by making mock attacks. Hull shot down two Dorniers but was eventually shot down by an escorting fighter and crashed in the grounds of Purley Grammar School in Surrey, whilst Dickie's Hurricane exploded over Blackheath and he fell to earth without his parachute having deployed. Deller too was shot down but managed to bale out out of his blazing Hurricane and lived to fight another day. When John Kilmartin, leader of the rear section that had attacked the fighters landed, he could only mutter the words "My God, My God!"

Although the RAF quickly recovered it's equilibrium, Black Saturday was arguably the closest that Fighter Command came to being overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Air Vice Marshal Park of 11 Group had called upon the neighbouring 12 Group for assistance as per the well tried system within Fighter Command but as often happened, the 'Big Wing' took far too long to formate and to compound this delay, the leader of the Duxford Wing, Douglas Bader ignored the instructions of his controller and took his wing to patrol at 15,000 feet over North Weald instead of at 10,000 and whilst engaging a formation of bombers were 'bounced' by the escorting fighters which shot down or damaged six Hurricanes. The 'Big Wing' concept was unwieldy and on this day, was also hindered by communications breakdowns that slowed it's deployment still further. Despite all of this, pro and anti 'Big Wing' attitudes in the RAF would harden in the coming months.

The unveiled memorial stone
At the end of the day's fighting, the Germans had lost only fourteen bombers, or 4% of the attacking force but had lost twenty three of the escorting fighters, which had sacrificed themselves in protecting the bomber force. It had been a bad day for Fighter Command, losing twenty six fighters and more importantly six of their pilots. Despite this attrition, the odds still favoured the RAF; their pilots that survived being shot down were over friendly territory and were usually quickly returned to the fray, whilst the Luftwaffe pilots were either killed or taken prisoner. Furthermore, by switching their attention to London, the Luftwaffe were no longer attacking the RAF's airfields.

London had already suffered grievously and with the Luftwaffe returning under cover of darkness to re-stoke the fires, the coming of the dawn would see 412 Londoners dead, with a further 747 seriously injured. To add to the confusion, somebody had issued an invasion alert - the codeword Cromwell had been issued and the church bells in some areas had been rung. Fortunately, this was a false alarm and the fuss soon died down. From now onwards though, London would be the Luftwaffe's main target and would suffer by night. There would be one more attempt to mount a major daylight raid - this would come just over a week later and would result in a vastly different outcome, although this is another story.

As a result of their mauling on 7th September and earlier losses during the Battle of Britain, 43 Squadron was withdrawn from the action and sent to recuperate at RAF Usworth, near Sunderland in 13 Group, Fighter Command. The squadron had been decimated and could only muster thirteen pilots, of whom six were recent postings from the Operational Training Units. Of the survivors, only John Kilmartin had any significant experience, so although the withdrawal was a painful blow for this proud squadron to bear, it was undoubtedly the correct decision. 43 Squadron's time would come again, in November 1942 as part of the Desert Air Force and in liberated France in 1944, where they became known to the local French populace as Les Coqs Anglais. Moving into the jet age, the squadron operated Meteors and Hunters in the 1950s, Phantoms in the 70s and 80s, before receiving Tornados in 1989. The squadron saw service in both Gulf Wars before standing down in 2009 as part of one of the seemingly endless rounds of defence cutbacks. The squadron is earmarked to reform as a Eurofighter Typhoon squadron at some point in the near future but whether this actually ever happens remains to be seen.

The memorial stone before unveiling

The 2013 ceremony for Dickie Reynell was a simple but moving affair organised by the Shoreham Aircraft Museum in Kent, as part of their ongoing project to place a memorial at or near the site of every Battle of Britain pilot lost within a ten mile radius of the museum. The service was attended by the Mayor of the Royal Borough of Greenwich, Cllr Angela Cornforth as well as many members of the Reynell family, representatives from the Australian Embassy, RAAF and the RAF and of course many volunteers from the Shoreham Aircraft Museum as well as a decent turn out of members of the local Blackheath and Greenwich public who braved the rain and who wished to honour this brave man who died helping to defend the city that we all love and the freedom that we enjoy today. 

Andrew Rennie tells us about Dickie's final mission

Family friend Andrew Rennie, whose book on Dickie will doubtless make fascinating reading, gave a moving account of Richard's last sortie and of the events of the afternoon of September 7th. The memorial stone was then unveiled by Monsignor Nicholas Rothon of St Mary's Church Blackheath, Wing Commander Tony O'Leary of the RAAF and by David Caillard RAF (retired), who is a great nephew of Dickie Reynell. Following the unveiling ceremony, David gave a moving and insightful speech about Dickie Reynell and of his family's continuing pride in his achievements, not only during the Battle of Britain but in his pre-war service with the RAF and also as a test pilot for Hawker's, in which he did much valuable work in perfecting the RAF's first monoplane fighter and which was the real workhorse of the Battle of Britain, along with it's more glamorous half-sister, the Spitfire.

Members of the Reynell family by the memorial

From all accounts, Richard Reynell was not only a brave man, he was fine pilot and a decent person too, who had a kind word of encouragement for all and who was widely liked by not only his family but by his extended family within the RAF, in Hawkers and in the aircraft industry. It was a sad twist of fate that he had been recalled by Hawkers on 7th September 1940 but had chosen to see out the day's operations before returning to his normal work as a test pilot.

The City that Richard Reynell died whilst defending

When reflecting on Dickie Reynell and his contemporaries within the RAF during the Battle of Britain, one can only echo the words of Winston Churchill - "Never was so much owed by so many, to so few."

Unpublished Sources:

National Archives - AIR81/3127 Air Ministry P4 Casualty Branch Flight Lieutenant RC Reynell 

Published Sources:

The Most Dangerous Enemy - Stephen Bungay, Aurum Press 2000
The Narrow Margin - Derek Wood with Derek Dempster. Tri-Service Press 1990

Monday, 24 July 2017

My thoughts on Dunkirk

As regular readers will know by now, this blog isn't usually in the business of film reviews, so please don't expect a Mark Kermode or Barry Norman style appraisal. As readers will know, I belong to the generation brought up on the classic British war films of the 1950s and 60s and have an in-built suspicion of anything made later than about 1977. In my opinion at least, many of the more recent films of the genre are pretty ordinary and I struggle to take them seriously. It's difficult for me as a military historian and guide to watch these films without forever nit-picking about the accuracy, or lack thereof concerning the uniforms, the equipment, the aircraft, the ships and so forth, at which point my long suffering friends who have been dragged along to watch the film, usually begin to lose the will to live!

However, the new Dunkirk directed by Christopher Nolan is an important work that has attracted much attention and it was because of this that I decided to go along and watch it for myself at the cinema with (hopefully) an open mind.

I still had a fair amount of trepidation and maybe even some misgivings as I entered the Barbican Centre yesterday and perhaps this was because subconsciously, I was allowing comparisons with the 1958 Ealing Studios version of Dunkirk, which starred Richard Attenborough, Bernard Lee and John Mills to prejudice my thinking and was wondering whether the new film would measure up to this British classic.

Firstly - and this doesn't give away any spoilers - the new Dunkirk cannot be compared to the 1958 film as they look at the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in completely differing ways. The old film tells the story of the whole campaign and covers the fighting withdrawal through Belgium and northern France to the coast and the subsequent evacuation, as well as telling us something of the mood in Britain, of the complacency of the 'Phoney War' period and how people were shaken out of that complacency with a jolt. By contrast, Nolan's work establishes where the British and French allies are inside the opening shots of the film. They have already been defeated and pushed back inside the Dunkirk perimeter, where the armies await evacuation back to England.

The new film contains very little dialogue and is a series of three separate threads that gradually become interlinked. Firstly we follow the stories of two British soldiers, Tommy and Alex played by Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles (who can act and does so very well) and their various attempts to get home. Next we see the evacuation through the eyes of a small boat owner, Mr Dawson who is assisted by his son Peter and a deck hand, George. Mr Dawson is a plausible character played with great authority by Mark Rylance as are his two young helpers played by Tom Glynne-Carney and Barry Keoghan. The last of the three stories shows the evacuation through the eyes of Farrier and Collins,  two Spitfire pilots played by Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden respectively. In a nice nod to British war films of an earlier era, we hear the voice of Michael Caine as the RAF Fighter Controller coming over the radios of the Spitfires. As would be expected, the Royal Navy features strongly in this film and one of the major supporting characters is Commander Bolton, played by the excellent Kenneth Branagh, who is the Naval Beachmaster in command of the evacuation through the East Mole (a breakwater) in Dunkirk Harbour.

Without giving too much of the plot away, the film follows the attempts of the two soldiers to get away as various ships they are on board are sunk by bombs, torpedo and gunfire in some harrowing and suspenseful scenes before they are eventually rescued by Mr Dawson and his small boat, the Moonstone. On their way to Dunkirk, Mr Dawson and his son rescue a soldier played by Cillian Murphy, who appears to be the only survivor of a destroyer that has been sunk and who is not surprisingly, suffering from severe shock. He at first unwillingly, becomes part of their crew and we see how the Moonstone is first on the scene when one of the Spitfires is shot down and ditches in the sea adjacent to the small boat. Collins the pilot, is rescued just before the aircraft sinks with him inside it and he too ends up helping the others with the evacuation. The Moonstone, along with the remainder of the armada of small boats eventually reach Dunkirk harbour, where they assist in rescuing Tommy and Alex from their sinking minesweeper, as well as the remaining small craft lifting men from the beaches and from the Mole.

There is much more to the plot than this but I do not want to spoil the film for those wishing to see it for themselves. There are, in my opinion, one or two slight holes in the plot and there are some minor criticisms as to the equipment and the look of some of the scenes. For example, we never see more than one large ship alongside the East Mole at any one time and we know that in reality, the breakwater was used extensively by multiple numbers of destroyers, minesweepers and requistioned ferries. This can probably be explained by budgetary restraints and the director's aversion to using CGI in his films, so this criticism can be tempered by Nolan's quest for realistic looking scenes. Another small gripe is that the beaches never quite looked crowded enough for me, although this can probably be answered in a similar way - you can only have so many extras and the days of a "cast of thousands" are probably long gone. Some of the equipment is not quite right but it is not possible to find an authentic 1940 vintage destroyer or minesweeper without resorting to CGI - the vessels used do by and large, have the right look to them. Also, in one scene, we see container cranes in the background when we are supposed to be in 1940, some thirty years or so before the invention of the shipping container - could these not have been airbrushed out of the picture?

We also see the three Spitfires buzzing across the Channel at wavetop height - this is absurd, as for them to enter into any sort of air combat with the Luftwaffe, they would need to be at height in order to have any sort of advantage with the Bf109s that they were likely to encounter. This was the main reason for the perception amongst the soldiers of the BEF that the RAF were not there to protect them. Of coure, the RAF were there but much of their combat with the Luftwaffe took place at high altitude or inland from the beaches. The Spitfires in the film also seem to have an unlimited supply of ammunition for their machine guns, when in reality the Mark 1 only had enough for fourteen seconds firing. There is also too much emphasis placed on the role played by the 'Little Ships', which in reality were only responsible for lifting between five and seven percent of the total number of 338,226 British and French soldiers evacuated, although they did perform vital work in ferrying men off the beaches. The vast majority of those evacuated were lifted from the Mole at night by the Royal Navy destroyers and minesweepers, as well as the requisitioned ferries and excursion steamers of the Merchant Navy and in this respect, the film does perpetuate the myth of the Little Ships of Dunkirk. My only other very slight criticism is not specifically aimed at this film but is a more general complaint in that it is extremely loud. I know war is loud but whenever I see any film in the cinema these days, the volume in the theatre does always seem to be set at level eleven but perhaps this is more to do with the vagaries of my ears rather than anything else!

However, the above are minor criticisms in the scheme of things and there are a whole lot more positives than negatives about this film. Much of the location filming was shot in and around Dunkirk and that counts for much with me, at least. The three Spitfires we see are all Mark 1s, absolutely authentic for the period. Amongst the ships used for the film, we see MTB 102, which in reality was one of the final vessels to leave Dunkirk in June 1940 and some twelve of the surviving 'Little Ships' were also used in various scenes to recreate the evacuation.

The film is also extremely respectful to the period as well as to the people of this time and succeeds in capturing something of the real spirit of 1940. Also, although there are some understandably harrowing scenes of battle and of ships sinking - it would be impossible to make a film of this nature without showing people getting killed - it is done in a restrained way. There is no gratuitious blood and gore in the way that some recent war films seem to delight in. 

In one important respect, this film does resemble the 1958 version of Dunkirk, as well as many other British war films of the period, in that it is extremely understated and almost modest in the portrayal of events that helped shape history and director Christopher Nolan together with his cast and crew are to be congratulated on having achieved this, especially as this is an American production that covers events from a British perspective during a period that was long before America entered the war.

As has to be the case with any film portraying real life events, much of the action is compressed and many of the characters are amalgams of several real people. For example, Branagh's character, Commander Bolton appears to be a mix of Captain Bill Tennant, the Senior Naval Officer at Dunkirk and of Commander James Campbell Clouston, a Canadian officer in command of the East Mole, who was drowned when his motor launch was bombed and sunk whilst returning to Dunkirk from Dover after a short rest period. Mark Rylance's character, Mr Dawson seems to be at least in part based upon Charles Herbert Lightoller, one time Second Officer of the Titanic, who survived that particular disaster and who in retirement, took his yacht named Sundowner, across to Dunkirk with his son as a deck hand and rescued the implausibly large number of 130 soldiers, squeezed into the cabin and on deck. On arrival back at Ramsgate, the men filed out in a seemingly never ending stream, at which point a bystander suddenly said to Lightoller "God's truth mate, where did you put them all?" a line that is repeated in the film. Some of the exploits of the Spitfire pilot played by Tom Hardy appear to be at least in part based on Al Deere, the New Zealander who became a Battle of Britain 'ace' and who also took part in fierce air combat over Dunkirk.

There was one scene towards the end of the film that even had this cynical old military historian slightly moist eyed. As they disembark from the Moonstone at Dover, one of the young soldiers we have been following and who is by now caked in oil and dirt says to an elderly man who is handing out blankets "I'm not a hero, all I've done is survive." The old man, who we assume is himself a veteran of the previous conflict replies "Well, that's good enough - well done!"

If you haven't yet seen this film, I urge you to do so as I feel it is a respectful and moving tribute to all of those who took part in the real life evacuations some seventy seven years ago.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

The Wrens and The Royal Naval College, Greenwich

A familiar view (author's photo)

As regular readers of this blog will know by now, I'm a Southeast Londoner, born in Greenwich and continue to be a proud resident of the Royal Borough of Greenwich as we are now honoured to be called.

Centrepiece of the Maritime Greenwich UNESCO World Heritage Site is the Old Royal Naval College, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, built between 1696 and 1712 and originally designed to serve as the Greenwich Hospital, a home for retired and disabled sailors, in which role the magnificent buildings served until 1869. It was established as The Royal Naval College in 1873 and was designed to act as a centre for further education of officers - indeed it was described as "The University of The Navy" and over the years became an established part of officer training within the Senior Service. In October 1939, it gained a new function when the training of officers of the Womens Royal Naval Service, the WRNS or Wrens as they were affectionately known, began to be undertaken here.

The WRNS had originally been established in 1917 during the First World War and having been established solely as a wartime expedient, was disbanded in 1919. The coming of a new conflict in 1939 saw the WRNS re-born with a greatly expanded list of duties on offer for new recruits, which included piloting aircraft on ferry duties, acting as mechanics for a vast range of equipment and serving aboard small boats such as harbour launches. In their new incarnation, the Wrens made an invaluable contribution to the running of the Royal Navy.

They were again perhaps seen as a temporary expedient for wartime and one of their wartime recruiting posters which proclaimed "Join the Wrens - and Free a Man for the Fleet" tended to support this feeling. This time however, the sterling work done by the Wrens during wartime, ensured that they had a role to play in the peacetime Navy and the training of new officers continued at Greenwich until 1976. Over the years, the WRNS gradually became more and more integrated within the main service. The first Wrens served at sea from October 1990 in HMS Brilliant and in 1993, achieved complete integration with the Royal Navy when the WRNS was abolished as a separate service. 

Join The Wrens (author's collection)

Sadly, since the war, a succession of governments have suffered from "sea blindness" and have taken any possible opportunity to slash the defence budget, especially that of the Royal Navy and one of the consequences of this was the closure of the Royal Naval College as a service establishment in 1998. Fortunately, the buildings continue to serve in an educational function, today being home to the University of Greenwich as well as the Trinity Laban College of Music.

To mark the centenary of the establishment of the WRNS and acknowledging the important role played by the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, a special exhibition - WRNS Untold Stories: The Women's Royal Naval Service at Greenwich - is being held at The Visitor Centre until 5 December 2017 and I was fortunate enough to pay a visit to this fascinating exhibition last week.

The exhibition tells the story through a mixture of film, still photography and oral histories of how the Wrens overcame initial skepticism and sometimes downright hostility in a predominantly male environment, to win the respect and affection of their colleagues. During the First World War, they were given menial tasks such as serving as cooks, drivers and telephonists, thus releasing men to serve with the fleet but as mentioned previously, during the WRNS' second incarnation, in the Second World War, the roles given to the Wrens were far more varied and responsible.

W/T Operator (author's image from the exhibition)

Torpedo Wren (author's image from the exhibition)

To emphasise this growth in the range of roles available, the exhibition is illustrated by some delightful drawings showing some of the new roles given to the young Wrens, which must have seemed completely alien to the vast majority of the new recruits. We also see some newsreel footage of the time shot at Greenwich showing the Wrens in some of their more traditional roles, such as cooking and being taught how to cater for large numbers of hungry sailors. Other new responsibilities for the Wrens included jobs such as Radio Operators, Meterologists, Cypher Officers and Boat Crews.

Sadly, as with all service personnel in wartime, there were casualties and the worst incident came when the ss Aguila bound for Gibraltar, was torpedoed and sunk with the loss of twenty one Wrens who were heading for their first overseas posting as Cypher Officers. The author Nicholas Monsarrat, aluded to this tragedy when he included a similar incident in his masterful novel on the Battle of the Atlantic, The Cruel Sea.

The wartime training at Greenwich had to contend with the Blitz and the building attracted the attention of the Luftwaffe on several occasions. Perhaps the most notable incident came on 20 January 1943 during one of the so-called Tip and Run raids following the main Night Blitz of 1940-41, when the Admiral's House in King Charles Court was bombed with the loss of life of a Royal Navy Officer, Commander Alexander Reginald Chalmer. This was a day when for some unaccountable reason, the capital's balloon barrage was not deployed and the FW190 fighter-bombers used on the raid were also able to bomb Sandhurst Road School in Catford at low level, killing thirty eight children and six staff. The attackers also machine-gunned the streets of Greenwich and Charlton, with one eye-witness claiming that he could "see the pilot grinning as he gunned up the tram yard."

The Admiral's House after the bombing on 20 January 1943 (author's collection)

In 1949 with the war over, it was decided that the WRNS would continue as a part of the peacetime Royal Navy and the exhibition continues to tell the stories of the peacetime training that took place at the Royal Naval College right up until 1976, when the training of Wren officers was transferred to the Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth.

A group of Wrens being shown around the Painted Hall in 1961 (author's collection)

In closing, I feel it appropriate to include below, the following piece which was written by Second Officer Nancy Spain WRNS in 1945 about her experiences in joining the Wrens during the winter of 1940/41. The experiences Nancy Spain refers to are relevent to the exhibition and as I was born and grew up within a stone's throw of the Royal Naval College, I make no apologies for repeating it verbatim below, with acknowledgements of course.

"The lorry stopped inside a courtyard, I think, where dusk was already falling and I saw nothing but a dark hall and cold grey stones and a strip of carpet and the superintendent of the OTC reading out names from a list held in the left hand.

This moment was not altogether a shock to me. The superintendent had once taught me history at school when I was eleven years old and I was prepared for her to be there, as she was for me.

She nodded at me as she called my name and I knew that the years had not impaired her perception, nor the war her kindliness, nor circumstances her friendly interest in human nature. Just the same, I felt she knew there was a hole in my stocking. But the moments that followed. They were like a blow between my eyes.

Like many people in England, many Wrens indeed, I was still unaware of much of the inheritance that Nelson, Drake, Frobisher, Raleigh and the rest, fought for and held for us serenely and splendidly over five centuries."

Second Officer Nancy Spain WRNS

"Until the moment that I walked out into the January dusk and saw the white Palladian colonnades and domes of which Samuel Pepys wrote "The King (Charles II) is mightily pleased with his new building", I was almost unaware of Greenwich.

But that evening, rising from the snow, like a conception of God rather than of man, all English history spread itself before my eyes.

The history of England, of which Nelson is a part and which I, and so many others like me, had taken for granted. And I knew that I too, should in future feel a sense of responsibility.

So, with Pepys, to dinner.

A joy, the selection of a table napkin from the pigeon-holed erection under the blind, marble stare of Nelson and St Vincent....and then....the Painted Hall, for which no contemporary eulogy, nor nineteenth century engraving, had wholly prepared me.

How could I know what I ate, under the lovely, silly paintings of Sir James Thornhill, from the perfect copies of Queen Anne tables, carved from the timbers of ships that had fought at Trafalgar, that had sailed against the enemies of England. The lights blazing from a thousand points in silver candlesticks, again 'after' Queen Anne, seemed limelight as much as illumination. The echoing floor, the lofty grandeur of the high tables under rarer, sillier paintings recalled the cold to me.

It certainly was cold.

And what was that?

We had to sleep in the air raid shelter?


And sure enough, through the Painted Hall there echoed the sound of the guns from Woolwich. England's enemies, at it again.

The Blitz punctuated the whole of that fortnight. It held up our trains, it disturbed our sleep, it smashed the buildings around us, it sent us to bed at 2200 hours like a lot of gloomy, eiderdown-trailing sheep, but it did one good thing, for me at any rate. It made me appreciate still more the beauty and power of those buildings which mere Luftwaffes could not damage."

The exhibition encourages visits from past members of the WRNS and features a 'Memory Board' at which former Wrens who trained at Greenwich are asked to share their reminiscences and experiences.

The exhibition, to which entry is free and which runs until 5 December 2017, is well worth an hour of anyone's time and I would thoroughly recommend a visit either as part of a wider day spent in Greenwich, or as a stand alone visit.

Internet Sources:

WRNS Untold Stories website 

Printed Sources:

Red Alert - Lewis Blake, self-published, 1982
Thank You, Nelson - Nancy Spain, Hutchinson 1945