Friday, 11 November 2016

An Ordinary Hero

Ordinary Seaman Jack Dorrington (Dorrington family collection)

On this Remembrance Day, it is fitting to publish the story of one of the many hundreds of thousands of ordinary men and women who served their country during the Second World War. Happily, Jack Dorrington, the subject of this article survived the war to lead a long and happy life in peacetime but we should also remember the many thousands who were not so lucky and who made the ultimate sacrifice. The piece below is the result of the sort of typical family history research that we are able to undertake. If you're interested in learning more about one of your wartime ancestors, please contact me either via the main website or by leaving a comment below.

Jack Dorrington’s story in the Royal Navy is similar to many of those citizen sailors, soldiers and airmen who served in the Second World War. Reginald Jack Dorrington was born in Southwark in 1924 and was a young man who like many others found himself suddenly transplanted from civilian life into something that must have seemed very alien to him – a new life of training, obeying orders and overseas travel into a war zone. What is remarkable about Jack and all of these reluctant warriors is that they so readily adapted and to paraphrase a contemporary saying “kept calm and carried on” with their lives.

His introduction to the Royal Navy would be familiar to any new entry to the Service, then or now, as it began at HMS Raleigh, a Shore Establishment or ‘Stone Frigate’ at Torpoint in Cornwall. This establishment was commissioned in 1940 to provide basic training to new entries into the Navy, a role which continues to this day. Jack was a member of Class 93 from 16 June 1943 and due to the exigencies of wartime, he received a very basic fourteen days training, in which he would have been given aptitude tests, learned drill, weapon training and basic aspects of seamanship as well as something of the structure of the Royal Navy. It is interesting to note that today, in peacetime, the equivalent induction into the Service and basic training takes ten weeks, so Jack and his wartime shipmates had ten weeks’ worth of training crammed into fourteen days!

On arrival at HMS Raleigh, Jack was allocated a Service Number, which like everything in HM Forces, has a meaning and is not just a random collection of letters and numbers. He was given the number JX 566902. The letter ‘J’ signified that he was to be trained as a member of the Seaman & Communication Branch (as opposed to Fleet Air Arm, Stoker, or Cooks & Stewards Branch), meaning that he would be involved either as a Signalman, Radar Operator, Gunner, or any seaman’s duty ‘above decks’ rather than in the Engine Room, for example. The letter ‘X’ signified that he was on the post-1925 basic pay scale, which at that time amounted to the princely sum of 2 Shillings (10 pence) per day for an Ordinary Seaman, rising to 4/3 (about 22 pence) per day for an Able Seaman with six years’ service. Even the number itself told a story; by 1943, the original six-figure sequence of numbers begun in 1925 at 125001 was beginning to run out due to the massive wartime expansion of the service, so from 1 April 1943, a new sequence starting at 500000 was instigated, which instantly told administrators and paymasters that a rating in this sequence of numbers was a ‘Hostilities Only’ engagement, or ‘Hostile Ordinary’ as the regulars nicknamed them. This service number would remain with the serviceman for his entire career and would be used for pay, welfare and disciplinary records. It was probably during his time at Torpoint that Jack acquired a nickname and being a six footer, it was almost inevitable that he would become known as ‘Lofty’ from this point onwards during his Royal Navy service.

Jack (top, second from right) and HMS Raleigh shipmates (Dorrington family collection)

His basic training completed, Ordinary Seaman Dorrington as he was now officially known, was allocated a Port Division, effectively a home barracks, which in his case was Chatham. The letter ‘C’ was therefore added as a prefix to his service number which now read C/JX 566902. Other prefixes regularly in use were ‘D’ for Devonport, ‘P’ for Portsmouth and ’L’ for Lee-on-Solent Fleet Air Arm ratings. Upon arrival at Chatham, Jack was based at HMS Pembroke, the name for the barracks at the Naval Base, where he would doubtless have received further training before being drafted to his first ship, the frigate HMS Lawford, then building at the Boston Navy Yard, USA. It hasn’t been possible to ascertain from his Service Record exactly what Jack’s specialization was but given his service number and looking at the types of vessels he served in, it is highly likely that he was either a Radar or a Sonar (at that time in the RN called ASDIC – an acronym for the fictitious Anti-Submarine Division Indication Committee) Operator, or perhaps a lookout – all extremely responsible positions for a young lad straight out of basic training.

Reaching the USA could be a nightmare journey for many servicemen, often being allocated to a slow and overcrowded troop ship in an equally slow moving convoy through U-Boat infested waters. Jack however, was one of the more fortunate individuals, being transported across the Atlantic in the Cunard liner RMS Queen Mary, converted into a troop ship and therefore with fairly basic accommodation but which had the saving grace of being fast – too fast in fact for a submerged U-Boat to touch – so that any discomfort and overcrowding would be short-lived. Jack was on Voyage TA66, which sailed from the Clyde on the evening of 29 September 1943 and arrived at New York City just over five days later, on the morning of 5 October 1943. Upon arrival in New York, a welcome sight would have been that of a US Navy Paymaster on the quayside, whose job was to present ten dollars to each British sailor arriving in the USA. The exchange rate at this time was around four dollars to the pound, so this would have represented a small fortune to the poorly paid British servicemen. The reason for this generous act was that the cost of living in the USA was higher in comparison to the UK, so it was designed to make life easier for the lads when buying drinks and food ashore, which would have been difficult, if not impossible on their low Royal Navy rates of pay.

RMS Queen Mary in her wartime guise as a troopship (IWM)

An overnight train journey from New York to Boston then beckoned for the young sailors. Upon arrival in Boston, the next stop was at Fargo Barracks, where the seamen would be accommodated until such time as their ship was ready for them. Fargo Barracks was a vast complex in the centre of Boston that had begun life as a wool warehouse but which had now been requisitioned by the US Navy as their Induction Centre for the crews destined for the many frigates being built at the nearby Boston Navy Yard at Charlestown. The barracks had a reputation for plentiful supplies of excellent quality food, which was in sharp contrast to the rationing back home in England. Some of the young sailors were able to lodge with local Boston families rather than stay in the huge barracks. Jack was one of those selected to do so and recalled being fussed over by a kindly local family anxious to do their bit for the war effort. The lads also had free access to cinema and theatre tickets, with every effort made to ensure that these youngsters, most of whom were on their first ever overseas trip, felt welcome in their new surroundings far away from home. Of course, the British sailor enjoys his beer and there were plenty of bars for them to sample, although some of these were deemed strictly ‘off limits’ to the British, being considered home territory to US Navy men. Some fierce fights between the sailors of the two allied nations were recorded as a result of unsuspecting (or foolhardy) British tars entering an 'American' bar. One of Jack's tasks at this time was to be part of a squad that collected a member of Lawford's crew that had drunk too much in order to return him to his ship.

Whilst here, the ratings and junior officers would receive further training from US Navy instructors in connection with the layout and equipment of their new ships. This training was of a high standard and during his time in Boston, Jack learned how to drive, although whether this was part of his official training, or something done to relieve the boredom is not clear.

The Ship's Company moved aboard HMS Lawford at the Navy Yard on 30 October 1943 shortly before she was commissioned on 4 November, after which the new frigate would have conducted further trials and training. Some minor defects must have come to light during these trials, as Lawford was back in shipyard hands from 7 to 12 November 1943, with the crew back in shore accommodation.  The men finally moved on board permanently on 13 November and following further trials and a basic working-up exercise, HMS Lawford sailed at 14:30 on 5 December 1943, in company with her sister ship HMS Kingsmill, on passage to Liverpool. The Commanding Officer of the Lawford, Lieutenant Commander Sydney Ayles RNR, was the Senior Officer and therefore had overall responsibility for the two ships.

HMS Lawford at Liverpool in 1944 (IWM)

Both ships were ‘Captain’ Class Frigates, designed primarily for anti-submarine convoy escort work but these two vessels had been earmarked for conversion into Headquarters Ships for the forthcoming Normandy invasion, so their usual anti-submarine training at Bermuda was omitted, which was to have repercussions later on the voyage to the UK. All ships of the class were named after famous Captains and Admirals of the Royal Navy, mostly from the Nelson era and HMS Lawford was no exception, being named after Captain John Lawford, commander of HMS Polyphemus at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801.

It is hard to imagine a tougher initiation for the embryonic sailors as that which befell those aboard HMS Lawford, for two days after sailing she ran into a Force Nine gale and by 22:30 on 7th December, she was 'hove to' with the ship’s bows heading into the wind at reduced speed in order for the frigate to ride out the storm without causing serious damage to the ship or endangering it’s safety. The conditions on board at this time do not bear thinking about and many of the men would have been wishing for the warmth and comfort of their Boston lodgings once again!

The ship resumed passage at 08:10 the following morning but there was some further excitement on the 10th December when a radar contact was reported at 20:11 at a range of six and a half nautical miles. Four minutes after initial radar contact, a German U-Boat was then sighted on the surface ahead of the two frigates. The submarine spotted the two ships closing in and dived at 20:22, by which time the range had reduced to around two miles. The Sonar crews were obviously well trained as contact was held despite the poor weather but the depth charge attacks can only be described as shambolic, with the poorly trained novice depth charge supply teams only managing a sporadic supply of depth charges up to the decks. At this point, Ayles the CO of Lawford, decided on a ‘Hedgehog’ attack. The Hedgehog was a forward throwing weapon which fired charges ahead of the ship designed to explode on contact with a submarine’s submerged hull. However, just as Ayles was about to open fire, sister ship HMS Kingsmill crossed the bows of the Lawford, inadvertently placing herself in range of the Hedgehog projectiles, thus forcing the attack to be aborted. By this stage, at 22:41 on the 10th, the weather was closing in again and the decision was taken to abort the attack for fear of the two frigates having to 'heave to' once more and thus leaving them potentially sitting targets for the submarine. The decision to proceed was vindicated because by 00:45 on 11th December, the gale had increased to Force Ten with the ships 'hove to' once again and Ayles was unable to follow orders received from C in C Western Approaches instructing him to return to the search for the submarine. The weather began to moderate by 07:20 on the 12th and following amended orders from Western Approaches Command, the two frigates resumed their passage to England.

The two ships arrived off the Liverpool Bar Light Vessel at 08:00 on 14th December and were alongside at Gladstone Dock a few hours later, from whence they were immediately sent to the Cammell Laird Shipyard in Birkenhead for conversion into their Normandy role. Christmas Leave was given and most of the ship’s companies were paid off to be transferred to other vessels. Jack was one of those selected to remain with the ship, which suggests that he had acquitted himself well in his duties and was someone who would be required in the ship’s new role. This lends further credence to the theory that he was a radar or sonar operator, some of the few people to have come out of the U-Boat debacle with credit. The conversion entailed fitting additional accommodation for the extra staff officers to be carried, an enhanced radar outfit and additional radio communications, with the close-range anti-aircraft armament being considerably strengthened by fitting an extra sixteen 20mm Oerlikon cannons at the expense of one of the three inch guns, which were of limited value in any event.

Whilst undergoing her post-refit trials, two merchant ships collided in the River Mersey during thick fog and caught fire. HMS Lawford approached to give assistance and her motor boat crew did what was described as “magnificent” work in rescuing some of the crews of the two ships, including going right into a patch of burning oil to pick up men from the water. A proper work-up programme then ensued which was completed by the end of May 1944, at which time it would be fair to say that the crew of Lawford were an efficient and fully trained unit. The work-up complete and her ship’s company at the peak of training, HMS Lawford sailed from Portsmouth for the Normandy invasion beaches on 6 June 1944, under the command of Lieutenant Commander MC Morris RN. She was escorting ten former ferries carrying Canadian assault troops for ‘Gold’ Beach.

Her role on D-Day was that of the Command Ship of Captain AF Pugsley RN, initially co-ordinating the landing of the troops on J1 Sector of ‘Gold’ Beach but who was also nominated to be in command of all patrol activity off Normandy following the invasion. All went well at first but on D+2, disaster struck when she was hit by an Hs 293 Glider Bomb dropped by a Ju88 aircraft, which seemed to appear as if from nowhere, thus demonstrating that even with the enhanced radar protection on offer, the fleet was still vulnerable to attack from low flying aircraft penetrating beneath the radar.

Hs293 Glider Bomb (Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin)

The ship broke in two and sank inside ten minutes, with 26 men being killed, who were mainly engine room ratings trapped below when the missile struck. A total of 8 officers (including her CO) and 210 ratings were rescued by two minesweepers and returned to the UK. Royal Navy records rather confusingly refer to these glider bombs as ‘aerial torpedoes’ and the records for HMS Lawford are no exception but the Hs293 was actually a radio controlled ‘ship busting’ bomb – an early form of guided missile with a warhead of over 1,000 kilograms. Not surprisingly, most vessels hit by these weapons were either sunk or damaged so severely as to be beyond repair.

Jack was above decks when the missile struck and was thus able to quickly comply with the ‘Abandon Ship’ order but being a non-swimmer, his troubles were just beginning. Wearing heavy sea boots, greatcoat and steel helmet, he was hardly equipped for buoyancy and soon found himself struggling to remain afloat. Jack recalled trying to grab hold of shipmates, being told to “Let go of me, Lofty” on numerous occasions before eventually being hauled into a small boat, probably from one of the rescuing minesweepers. Jack was unceremoniously dumped into the bottom of the boat and soon found himself underneath a pile of men as fellow survivors were thrown into the boat on top of him. Jack had swallowed a lot of seawater but the weight of the other men on top of him forced him to be sick, thus probably speeding his recovery.

Royal Navy ratings repairing buildings in London damaged by V-1 attacks (IWM)

In common with all shipwrecked Royal Navy personnel, Jack was given seven days survivor’s leave and arrived home in the clothes he was wearing when he jumped into the sea, plus a blanket wrapped around him for good measure. On his return to barracks at HMS Pembroke on 16 June 1944, Jack was promoted to Able Seaman, which is another indication that he had done good work aboard HMS Lawford. He was based at barracks until 4 September 1944 after which time he was allocated as a member of the ‘London War Party’ from 5-13 September. London had been under attack from V-1 Flying Bombs from 13 June until early September 1944 and it had been decided to deploy members of the services, including many of those whose peacetime jobs had been in the building trade, to assist in repairing some of the worst of the bomb damage. It hasn’t been possible to find out exactly what work Jack was doing at this time but the IWM has documented some of the work in a series of photographs which give us a fair idea.

Destroyer Depot Ship HMS Wolfe (IWM)

Following the end of this work, Jack was drafted to HMS Dolphin at Gosport on 16 September 1944. This was another shore establishment and was until 1999 the home of the Royal Navy Submarine Service. Jack’s Service Record shows that he underwent submarine training here, which would have included escape training. The current Submarine Escape Training Tank dates from 1954 but similar training was given in wartime, designed to simulate escaping from a submerged submarine using breathing apparatus and other life-saving equipment. On completion of his submarine training, Jack was drafted on 29 October 1944 to HMS Adamant, the submarine Depot Ship for the 4th Submarine Flotilla, based at Trincomalee, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). So far, it has not been possible to ascertain how Jack reached Trincomalee from the UK, but he would almost certainly have taken passage in a troop ship, or perhaps on board another Royal Navy ship taking up position on that station.

Jack (second from left) and shipmates aboard HMS Wolfe (Dorrington family collection)

Jack was based aboard Adamant only until the end of 1944, being transferred on 1 January 1945 to HMS Wolfe, another submarine Depot Ship, this time for the 2nd Flotilla, also based at Trincomalee. The role of the Depot Ship was basically to provide port, repair and rest facilities for submarines and their crews whilst serving away from normal port facilities – in other words a home away from home. The life on board a Depot Ship would have been quite routine for most of the time, probably not a bad thing considering the fate of Jack’s previous ship but just occasionally there does seem to have been some excitement, as the log of HMS Wolfe records several air raid warnings as well as a loud explosion outside the harbour entrance in January 1945.

On 10 September, with the war against Japan over, Jack was assigned as part of the passage crew of the submarine HMS Torbay which was returning home to the UK to be placed in reserve and eventually scrapped. Torbay was a ‘T’ Class submarine commissioned in January 1941 and had fought a distinguished war, firstly in the Mediterranean, where her CO, Lieutenant Commander Anthony Miers had won the Victoria Cross for his actions in sinking enemy troop transports. Miers was later transferred from Torbay following allegations from fellow officers and crew members that he had ordered them to machine gun enemy survivors in the water. Whilst Miers never attempted to deny the allegations, no further action was ever taken against him.

HMS Torbay (IWM)

Torbay had enjoyed continued success against the Japanese in the Far East and had sunk several transport vessels as well as a patrol boat. The battle weary submarine sailed for the UK on 10 September 1945 via the Suez Canal and arrived at Gosport on 22 October following an uneventful passage. She was later moved to Briton Ferry in South Wales and it appears that Jack formed part of the crew which delivered the submarine to the scrapyard located there on 16 December 1945. He was once again drafted to HMS Pembroke at Chatham from the following day, when he would no doubt have been granted Christmas leave at home for the first time since 1943.

On 14 February 1946, Jack was drafted to HMS Vigilant, a ‘V’ Class Destroyer at that time serving as an Anti-Submarine Warfare training vessel based at Londonderry in Northern Ireland. His service in the Royal Navy was by now drawing to a close and he was only on board Vigilant until 3 April 1946, when he was once again based at Chatham for a few weeks. Jack’s final draft was to HMS Lynx, a shore establishment for Coastal Forces at Dover, where he was based from 25 April to 17 September 1946.

Jack Dorrington was demobbed back to civilian life on 17 September 1946 but old habits formed during his service in the Royal Navy appear to have died hard, as he continued to enjoy a daily tot of rum for the rest of his life. In later years, Jack and his wife Elsie also became regular devotees of cruises aboard liners such as the Canberra and Oriana, so the nautical life must have held a lasting appeal. Jack passed away in 2015 aged 91, one of the many 'ordinary heroes' who helped defeat Hitler as well as Japanese tyranny and to whom we owe so much.

I am indebted to the Dorrington family and especially his grandson and close friend of mine, Sam, for allowing access to Jack’s photographs and for providing many personal anecdotes.


Published Sources:

The Captain Class Frigates in the Second World War - Donald Collingwood, Leo Cooper - 1998


Unpublished Sources:

Dorrington family reminiscences
RMS Queen Mary log extracts - National Archives BT 380/1202
HMS Lawford log extracts December 1943 - National Archives ADM 217/313
HMS Lawford report on sinking 8 June 1944 - National Archives ADM 267/117
HMS Wolfe log extracts January-July 1945 - National Archives ADM 53/122516-122522
HMS Torbay log extracts September-October 1945 - National Archives ADM 173/19946-47


Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Book Review: Jewish Participation in the Fire Service in the Second World War

With the spectre of anti-Semitism still sadly very much in the news in recent times, Jewish Participation in the Fire Service in the Second World War is a timely reminder of how a large proportion of the Jewish population of this country volunteered to serve as part of the huge civilian 'army' of Civil Defence workers who defended their own neighbourhoods against Hitler's bombs and missiles. In doing so, these men and women often had to overcome prejudice and sometimes downright hostility at home and this important work by Martin Sugarman tells not only of how they overcame this hostility but were also able to make a not inconsiderable contribution towards the Allied victory. In their own way, as Richard Overy states in his introduction to the book, these men and women were also fighting for a more democratic and tolerant Britain.

The story of the Second World War firefighters in the United Kingdom is a fascinating one; in may ways they were neither fish nor fowl, being regarded as neither civilians or members of the armed forces. In 1938, the Auxiliary Fire Service was established as part of the newly formed Civil Defence/Air Raid Precautions network and saw a massive expansion from around 5,000 full time firemen to 225,000 men and women by the time of the Blitz in 1940/41.

The author, ably assisted by Stephanie Maltman, has put together a fascinating 408 page work that tells the story of those Jewish men and women who were often amongst the first to volunteer for service. Obviously, reflecting what we now call the demographics of certain areas, there was a much higher proportion of Jewish recruits in some areas over others. In the Whitechapel and Aldgate areas of London for example, the authors estimate that around 85 percent of the entire Civil Defence network were of the Jewish faith and perhaps as many as a third across the whole of London. The West Hampstead and Golders Green areas of London also had enormouse Jewish populations and the local recruitment figures naturally reflected this. These statistics are the more remarkable because before the outbreak of war, there were hardly any Jews serving in the Fire Service across the country.

Ironically, as this war was being fought against a regime that was anti-Semitic to it's very core, these new recruits had to overcome both what we would now call 'casual' anti-Semitism and well as the more endemic kind apparent within some members of the regular Fire Service. It is a sad fact that that some members of the Fire Service were, or had been members of Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists and held views consistent with those of that loathsome organisation. Some of the more 'casual' versions of anti-Semitism encountered by Jews at the time were simply the product of ignorance and poor education - indeed many non-Jewish members of society had simply never met anyone of the Jewish faith and therefore their views were tainted by the various stereotypes peddled throughout history. Sometimes, this 'casual' anti-Semitism bred through ignorance was overcome simply by people getting to know one another and the book tells a nice story of Renee Hurst, a Jewish AFS recruit in London's East End who encountered a fellow recruit named only as 'Winnie', who was openly hostile towards her. The two women ended up having a fight and were both confined to quarters due to their conduct. It was during this time forcibly spent together that the two women got to know each other and eventually became firm friends, remaining in contact after the war, even after Winnie had emigrated to Canada.

The book contains a Roll of Honour which lists all of those Jewish Fire Service personnel who lost their lives either on Active Service or in Action. In their introduction, the authors explain the rationale behind some of their research for this aspect of the book. As explained earlier, firefighters were neither classified as armed forces personnel, nor as civilians, although for the purposes of casualty returns, they are classed as 'Civilian War Dead' by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. This means that some graves of Fire Service casualties have simply disappeared with the passing of time, so it is not always immediately apparent whether a casualty died on Active Service, or sometimes even whether or not they were Jewish, so some assumptions have had to be made by the authors, which we will look at shortly. A sobering statistic is put forward in the introduction to this chapter; of the 327 London firefighters killed in the War, 32 (over 8 per cent) were Jewish, yet of the 8.6 million population of London in 1939, only 150,000 (1.7 per cent) were of the Jewish faith.

Following the Roll of Honour, we move on to the various Testimonies and Short Stories, which for me forms the most fascinating part of the entire book. This is a mixture of personal accounts and life stories of individual members of the Fire Service across the entire country and tells tales of heroism during the Blitz and V-Weapons campaigns as well as many interesting insights into the more routine aspects of Fire Service life. I was already aware of some of these stories, such as that of Harry Errington, the only London firefighter to be awarded the George Cross during the Second World War. I also knew of Abraham Lewis, the subject of one of the many Firemen Remembered plaques across London but the vast majority of the stories of these brave men and women were not and it is a fine achievement by the authors that they have at last been placed in the public domain.

There then follows the Record of Honour and as mentioned earlier when examining the Roll of Honour, the authors explain that they had to make some assumptions whilst researching whether or not a firefighter was from a Jewish background. Much time was spent by them examining Fire Brigade Registration Cards to check on a combination of names, occupations and the areas in which personnel served in order to make an educated guess at an individual's background.

The book closes with a sizeable collection of photographs of those who served, as well as pictures of many artefacts, medals and letters.

This is an excellent, well researched and well written book which brings the story of Britain's Jewish firefighters in the Second World War into sharp focus and honours those men and women who served. It will be essential reading for anyone with an interest in the history of the Second World War Civil Defence Services and the Fire Service in particular, or for anyone interested in British social history and I have no hesitation in recommending it to you.

Jewish Participation in the Fire Service in the Second World War by Martin Sugarman is published by Valentine Mitchell and is listed at £35.00 (although this can be improved upon by shopping around online)

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Real to Reel

Choosing one's favourite war movies is by definition, an extremely subjective process. Even deciding what actually constitutes a war film can become a matter of intense debate between friends. For example, should a documentary film be considered a true war movie, or does it have to be a star-studded feature or an epic with a 'cast of thousands' to be so classed?

Recently, I was lucky enough to visit "Real to Reel", an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London that is devoted to the genre and which covers pretty well every aspect that you could imagine, from the very earliest film, The Battle of The Somme, a documentary actually made during the same year of the Allied offensive in 1916, right through to the modern day Kajaki as well as American Sniper both dating from 2014. The exhibition looks at the initial ideas for movies, the 'vision' of a director, the casting, as well as the physical and logistical difficulties in making an historically accurate depiction. Sometimes though, film makers get things horribly wrong; the execrable U-571 dating from 2000, ignored the historical fact that the Royal Navy captured the first Enigma coding machine and actually showed this as an entirely American feat of heroics. The film was debated in Parliament and rightly shunned by British veterans. The film makers were eventually shamed into inserting a disclaimer at the beginning of the movie to explain what really happened but by then the damage had already been done. Another example was Objective Burma! made in 1945 and which featured Errol Flynn leading American paratroopers defeating the Japanese in a conflict which in reality was almost exclusively a British and Commonwealth affair. The outrage caused at the time was widespead and the movie was actually banned in British cinemas shortly after it was released.

As might be expected, the exhibition features many excerpts from classic movies as well as many of the props and models used to ensure that the experience of watching these films remains realistic and authentic to the time. For example, we can see some of the uniforms and costumes worn by David Niven in A Matter of Life and Death, by George C Scott in Patton, and by Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. Interestingly, whilst O'Toole was a strapping six footer, the real life TE Lawrence was a somewhat smaller 5 feet 5 inches tall, which demonstrates another issue facing film makers, that of casting their movies accurately. Amongst the models on display is one of the B-17 models used in Memphis Belle, the cable car from Where Eagles Dare and the submarine from Das Boot. Perhaps the most famous prop on display is that motorcycle from The Great Escape, a Triumph TT Special 650 disguised to look like a German machine, that Steve McQueen used and on which he performed many of his own stunts, although not the final leaps over the barbed wire, which was actually performed by a stunt double.

My own very enjoyable morning viewing the exhibition sparked off afresh the debate in my mind about the greatest war movies, so in the hope of sparking a whole new debate amongst the readership of this blog, I've decided to list my favourite ten war films, in no special order of merit and for no other reason except that I like them. Some are complete fantasies whilst some are almost documentary accurate. Believe me, I have had to murder some of my darlings in paring this list down to a mere ten but will cheat slightly by adding some 'honourable mentions' at the end. You will almost certainly disagree with some or all of my choices but then you do have the chance to make your own list through the comments page.


At 10, we start with Battle of Britain, a 1969 British film that is an extremely accurate depiction of the events of the summer and autumn of 1940, when the RAF handed the first serious defeat to the German war machine. The film stars Laurence Olivier, Trevor Howard, Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer, Robert Shaw, Susannah York and many others portraying a mixture of real people such as Lord Dowding, Sir Keith Park and Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory and thinly disguised fictional characters (for example, the Robert Shaw 'Skipper' character is loosely based on 'Sailor' Malan.) The film is also remarkable for it's flying sequences, being all shot using real aircraft in real time. There was no CGI available in 1969 and the film is all the better for it. The movie's flight consultant was Group Captain Hamish Mahaddie and he managed to gather together what was described at the time as the 27th largest air force in the world. The German aircraft were sourced largely from the Spanish Air Force and were adapted Spanish built CASA 111 bombers (almost identical to the Heinkel He111) and Buchon fighters, a Spanish version of the Bf109. The Spitfires and Hurricanes were mainly later marks that didn't fight in the Battle but which were carefully adapted to increase authenticity. The scenes of the London Blitz were filmed in St Katherine's Dock in London, at that time being redeveloped and with many of the old warehouses being earmarked for demolition in any case, with further filming taking place in Southwark and at the real life Aldwych Tube Station. I first saw this film shortly after release in 1969 with my Dad and some 47 years on, it remains one of my firm favourites.


Number 9 sees another film I first saw as a young lad - this time on tv - and which made a lasting impression upon me. This is The Cruel Sea, a 1953 production from Ealing Studios which itself is an adaptation of Nicholas Monsarrat's classic novel of the same name. Monsarrat himself served in the Royal Navy on North Atlantic, East Coast and Arctic convoy duties, so much of what we see in the film is based on his own experiences. The film stars Jack Hawkins as Commander Ericson of the fictitious corvette HMS Compass Rose and who in my opinion, gives the performance of his career. He is ably supported by Donald Sinden as Lieut. Lockhart (who is almost certainly Monsarrat), Denholm Elliott and Virginia McKenna, as well as a superbly unpleasant performance by Stanley Baker. Perhaps the most famous scene in the book features Ericson having to make an agonising decision when a U-Boat is detected directly beneath a group of survivors in the water. Having decided to attack, the men are blown to pieces in the ensuing depth-charge attack, with Ericson and his crew watching horrified at the sight of what they have done. Haunted by what has happened, Ericson gets himself helplessly drunk when Compass Rose puts into Gibraltar at the end of this voyage. The little corvette has already rescued many survivors of other sunken ships and some of them try to console Ericson by telling him that they owe him their lives and that he should feel no remorse towards the men who died in the water - "The men you had to kill" - as one of them says somewhat undiplomatically. He is joined by Lockhart who has also been drinking and who also tries to console Ericson by taking the blame for identifying the contact as a U-Boat. Ericson tearfully looks at Lockhart and merely replies that "No one murdered those men, it's the war, the whole bloody war."


At 8, we have another movie about the Battle of the Atlantic, albeit a much more recent example and one which looks at things from a German point of view. The 1981 film Das Boot is a superbly claustrophic piece of work from the director Wolfgang Petersen based on a novel by Lothar Gunther Buchheim which tells the story of U-96 through the eyes of a reporter placed on board to make a propaganda piece about the crew and life on board a submarine at war. The all German cast is led by Jurgen Prochnow playing the cynical, veteran commander of the boat (as all submarines are called by their crews), supported by Klaus Wennemann playing the equally veteran Chief Engineer and Herbert Groenemeyer in the role of the journalist, Leutnant Werner. The movie highlights tensions between the newer, Nazi Party supporting members of the crew such as the First Watch Officer and the older, more seasoned veterans. As the submarine moves in to attack a British convoy in filthy weather, their periscope is spotted by a Royal Navy destroyer and the U-Boat (and the audience) endures what must be the most accurate depiction of a depth-charge attack ever put on film. The boat is shaken, lamps and gauge glasses explode and one can almost feel the nerves of the crew being jangled with each explosion but the wily captain eventually manages to extricate the submarine with only light damage. Eventually, the submarine torpedoes a British oil tanker which the crew think has been abandoned. To their horror, when the torpedoes strike, crew members emerge from the stricken ship and dive into the water, which is itself now ablaze from the spilled cargo of the tanker. Under strict orders not to pick up survivors, the submarine backs off, leaving the screaming men to their fate. Further adventures follow and the submarine is ordered to attempt to break into the Mediterranean through the Strait of Gibraltar. First though, the submarine makes a clandestine refuelling stop in neutral Vigo, Spain to replenish from an interned German merchant ship located there. The Captain has radioed in advance for the Chief Engineer to be relieved in order that he may return to his family in the bombed city of Hamburg and has also requested that the journalist be allowed home as well but the request is denied and the submarine attempts to enter the Mediterranean. The U-Boat is relentlessly depth charged by the British in another hair raising sequence before finally sinking to the bottom. Makeshift repairs are effected before the submarine limps back to base in La Rochelle with a severely injured crewmember on board. The ending of the movie is both moving and tragic which echoes truthfully the fate of the vast majority of the German U-Boat men. Bravery was not restricted to the Allied side and this film is a fine testament to those intrepid submariners.


A castle known as the Schloss Adler features at number 7 in the 1968 movie Where Eagles Dare, based on the novel by Alistair MacLean and which contains many of the author's trademarks, such as the heroes fighting against seemingly overwhelming odds as well as there being a traitor (or traitors) within the closer circles of the heroes, with the main traitor not being unmasked until almost the end of the film. The action features around the rescue attempt of one General Carnaby, a senior American planner behind the forthcoming Allied invasion of Europe. His aircraft is shot down and Carnaby is taken to the castle, where he is to be interrogated, if necessary by the use of Scopalomene, a 'truth' drug. A crack team of British commandos is assigned to rescue him, led by Richard Burton, as Major Smith and Clint Eastwood, an American Ranger officer seconded to the team. The casting of Eastwood ensured that the film would do well in America and was also a central point of the plot of the movie. The team eventually infiltrate the castle, despite losing two of their number in mysterious circumstances and meet up with two female operatives working under deep cover. Once in the castle, Smith allows himself to be captured and reveals to the others that he is in fact, a double agent and exposes three other members of the team, Thomas, Berkeley and Christiansen, who the Germans are convinced are their men, as being British agents. If you're confused, one only has to look at Eastwood's expression whilst all this is going on, to realise that you're not alone! It turns out that Carnaby isn't Carnaby at all but is merely an American actor, Cartwright Jones, planted to force all of this out into the open - Burton isn't a German spy and the three traitors really are British traitors working for the Germans, now fully exposed. An incredible escape from the castle now takes place, with the four survivors plus Cartwright Jones seemingly accounting for hundreds of German troops as they make for the local Luftwaffe base. Once aboard a plane and heading home, the final traitor unmasking takes place in dramatic circumstances - I won't reveal any more in case you're one of the handful of people who have never seen this often shown movie. An absolute classic!


So far, all of my favourites have taken place in World War Two, not so number 6, which sees us during an earlier conflict, one of Britain's many colonial wars fought throughout her history. This is Zulu, a 1964 re-telling of the events at Rorke's Drift, a missionary station and makeshift Field Hospital in January 1879, in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Isandlwana, a crushing British defeat. The film stars Stanley Baker, Jack Hawkins, Nigel Greene and Michael Caine in his first major starring role. Baker, a proud Welshman, became interested in becoming involved with the film when shown an account of the battle, in which eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded to the predominently Welsh defenders of Rorke's Drift, written by the historian John Prebble. Prebble later co-wrote the screenplay with Cy Endfield, who also directed the film as well as co-producing it with Baker. The 24th Regiment of Foot (the South Wales Borderers) along with a handful of others at the Field Hospital were around 150 strong but managed to fend off attack after attack from seemingly overwhelming numbers of Zulu warriors. The actions are shown in great detail and the relationships between the various defenders are brought to light, although there are some inaccuracies from real life. For example, we see Private Henry Hook portrayed by James Booth as a malingering, heavy drinking layabout, when in reality Hook was a model soldier and teetotaller. This portrayal of him caused his daughter to walk out of the film's premiere in disgust. Conversely, Corporal Allen (played in the movie by Glyn Edwards of later 'Minder' television fame) is shown as a model soldier, when in reality he had just been demoted to Corporal due to drunkeness. Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne, brilliantly played by Nigel Greene, is shown as a battle hardened veteran soldier, when in fact he was just 24 years of age and was at the time, the youngest Colour Sergeant in the British Army. A curiosity in the film is the appearance of Chief Buthelezi, playing his own uncle King Cetschwayo kaMpande. Despite the inaccuracies described earlier, this is a classic war movie, which survives the test of time and which is still shown frequently.


We move forward to the First World War for our next entry, which is number 5 in my list. Lawrence of Arabia is a 1962 epic depicting the life and actions of TE Lawrence, directed by David Lean from an original screenplay by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson, based on Lawrence's own autobiographical account of his wartime service, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The movie won seven Academy Awards and stars Peter O'Toole (in his first major role), Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains and Jose Ferrer in a brief but memorable role. The film opens with Lawrence's death in a motorcycle accident and subsequent memorial service and so is almost entirely shot in flashback. The movie depicts Lawrence's actions in the Arabian Peninsular, his emotional struggles with the violence inevitable in war and his divided loyalties between Britain and his new-found friends and comrades from the various Arab tribes. The performance of every actor is remarkable and the production values are truly epic, as is the length of the film at 227 minutes. In cinemas, it was shown in two halves with an intermission and the DVD version of the film is also presented in the same way. The film's musical score by Maurice Jarre is also a classic and the film continues to be screened regularly to this day.


Another movie about the First World War is one that is not seen so frequently but which is still worthy of mention and features at number 4 in my list. Paths of Glory dates from 1957 and tells the story of an impossible attack by French soldiers on a German defensive feature known as 'The Anthill' which is forced upon the reluctant 701st Regiment and it's commander Colonel Dax, played by Kirk Douglas, by the ambitious General Mireau, played by George Macready. The depiction of the attack is brilliantly directed by Stanley Kubrick and shows the full horror of the attack, which begins to run out of steam. Desperate for the attack to succeed, Mireau orders his artillery to fire on his own men to force them forward but the attack fails, as predicted by Colonel Dax. To try and deflect the blame, Mireau selects one hundred men to be court martialled, although he is persuaded by his Commanding General Broulard to reduce this number to three. Dax, a lawyer in civilian life, defends the men at the Court Martial but the outcome is a foregone conclusion and the men are duly executed as an example to the other troops. The morning after the execution, Mireau is informed by Broulard that he is to be investigated for giving the order to fire on his own troops. Broulard then offers Dax Mireau's position, assuming that he is merely another ambitious officer. Dax refuses and when rebuked by Broulard for his misplaced idealism, Dax is disgusted and calls his superior a "degenerate and sadistic old man." The movie was based on the true story of four French soldiers executed in 1915 in similar circumstances and must have struck a raw nerve in France, as the authorities there banned the film's release until 1975.


We return to the Second World War for number 3 in the form of Ice Cold in Alex, which dates from 1958. The 'Ice Cold' in question is a cold beer and the 'Alex' is Alexandria and as this was another film that I originally watched with my Dad, himself a veteran of the North African campaign, it is another movie for which I have great affection. Almost all of the film takes place on a journey across the desert in an ambulance escaping from Tobruk to Alexandria ahead of the German advance. Captain Anson, played by John Mills, is a battle fatigued alcholic, whilst Sergeant Major Tom Pugh, played by Harry Andrews is the archetype of the reliable British NCO. Their passengers are two nursing sisters, Diana Murdoch and Denise Norton played by Sylvia Sims and Diane Clare. Along the way, they pick up a mysterious South African Captain Van der Poel, played by Anthony Quayle. They are twice stopped by elements of the Afrika Korps and when the ambulance is machine gunned in the first attack, Sister Norton is fatally wounded. The suspicions about Van der Poel are heightened when he twice speaks to the Germans privately, who on both occasions allow them to continue with the two nurses, having disguised the fact that Norton is in fact already dead. Anson is convinced that the South African is hiding a radio transmitter in his back pack, and they startle him in the Qattara Depression (an unstable area of quicksands and searing heat) whilst he is using the radio. With the South African trapped in the quicksands, they rescue him without revealing that they have worked out that he is a German spy. Having eventually reached Alexandria and the long awaited ice cold beers, the Military Police, alerted earlier by Anson, enter the bar to arrest Van der Poel, or Hauptmann Otto Luz as he really is. The famous scene in the bar was shot using real beers and for various reasons required fourteen takes, by which time John Mills was almost falling off the bar stool!


At 2, we take a look at the American "Mighty Eighth" Air Force in England during World War Two in the form of Twelve O'Clock High, a 1949 offering from Director Henry King. Starring a young Gregory Peck and ably supported by Dean Jagger, who won an Academy Award for his performance as Lieut Colonel Harvey Stovall. The film begins in post-war London, when the now retired Stovall spies a battered Toby Jug in an antique shop window and recognises it as an old mascot item from their former base at the fictitious RAF Archbury. He decides to revist the now abandoned airfield, which is gradually returning to agricultural use. The film then goes to flashback and we see B-17s returning from a mission in 1942 and concentrates on one bomber in particular. The crew are clearly traumatised from their experiences, the co-pilot vomits and explains that he has had to fight for two hours to regain control from his captain, who has had the back of his head shot off but who was still conscious. The severed arm of another airman is also removed from the aircraft. The following day, twenty eight airmen ask to be excused from their next mission, with the Squadron's Medical Officer privately asking "How much can a man take?" The Squadron Commander Keith Davenport, played by Gary Merrill, is relieved of his duties as he is felt to be getting too close to his men and he is replaced by Brigadier Frank Savage, played by Peck. Most of the film is about Savage's efforts to rebuild morale through various means and how the men under his command, who initially despise him for pushing them so hard, gradually identify with him and what he is trying to achieve. Savage pushes himself as hard as his men and refuses to be taken off active duty. The question asked earlier in the film "How much can a man take?" is apparently answered on the day of the squadron's first daylight raid on Berlin when Savage cracks and cannot physically haul himself into the cockpit of his B-17. The mission is led by another pilot whom Savage had previously 'busted' from Air Exec to an aircraft commander. Whilst the mission is in progress, Savage is in an almost catatonic state and only comes back to life once the squadron returns safely to Archbury. This movie is unusual for its time as it looks closely at the psycholological aspect of servicemen in wartime and deserves it's occasional screenings on television.


My own number 1 is another air related movie and is comes from the classic British period in the 1950s, when the Second World War was still fresh in many people's minds and experiences. The Dam Busters dates from 1955 and tells the story of the bombing of the Ruhr Dams and the development of the so-called Bouncing Bomb by the engineer and inventor Barnes Wallis, played in the film by Michael Redgrave. The bomb has to be delivered at low height by specially adapted Lancaster bombers and so a new unit is formed in RAF Bomber Command. 617 Squadron is commanded by Guy Gibson, who is portrayed in the film by Richard Todd, himself a World War Two airborne veteran and a stalwart of many British war movies of the 50s and early 60s. The film is a fairly faithful re-telling of the story which skilfully interweaves the trials and tribulations of Wallis against bungling bureaucrats in getting the weapon perfected in time and of Gibson in first forming the squadron and then the relentless training, made more difficult through Gibson not being allowed, for security reasons, to reveal the nature of the squadron's target until shortly before the mission. The night of the mission is portrayed fairly accurately, although it does somewhat gloss over the failure to breach the Sorpe Dam and concentrates on the two successful breaches of the Mohne and Eder Dams. The end of the movie is extremely poignant when Wallis learns that eight of the Lancasters have been shot down and tells Gibson that he would never have gone ahead with the idea if he'd known all of those crews were going to be killed. Gibson tries to console him by saying that even if they'd known what was going to happen that they would still have flown but finishes by telling Wallis that he can't go to bed yet as "I have some letters to write first." Richard Todd later said that he found that particular scene and that line quite hard work, as he had had to write real letters to the wives and loved one of those killed in action, so this really was a case of art imitating life.

So there are my ten war films; it has been an extremely difficult task to whittle down my list to a mere ten. It has meant leaving out some of my other favourites and consequently there is no room for The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, San Demetrio: London, A Matter of Life and Death, The Colditz Story, The Way Ahead, The Way to the Stars, The First of The Few, Dunkirk, Bridge on the River Kwai, We Dive at Dawn and Went The Day Well? from the classic British era of war films. Neither is there space for The Longest Day, Patton, Von Ryan's Express, The Great Escape or Tora! Tora! Tora! from the American epics. Coming slightly more up to date, it has meant that Memphis Belle, Saving Private Ryan and A Bridge Too Far all miss out, as does the German made masterpiece, Downfall. It isn't just Second World War films that have been omitted out as I haven't been able to include the Vietnam movies Apocalypse Now or Platoon nor Black Hawk Down from a more recent conflict in Somalia, as well as the Napoleonic War films Waterloo or Master and Commander.  As I have concentrated solely on feature films, there is no place for any of the superb documentaries made about the Second World War, such as The True Glory, Western Approaches or Desert Victory.

These are all fabulous pieces of work and whilst it might seem criminal to leave out at least some of those mentioned, I only allowed myself to choose ten.

As mentioned earlier, I'd really like to hear your choices and your reasons - it may be like me you have a leaning for the classic British movies of the 1940s and 50s, you might be younger and will have chosen some more recent offerings but please let me know your thoughts in the comments section. Leave a name rather than an anonymous selection and please be polite about my choices and those of others. Enjoy your film watching!

"Real to Reel" is on at the Imperial War Museum London until 8 January 2017. Tickets cost £10.00 (free if you're an IWM Member) and can be purchased via the IWM website or on the day at the Museum's Information Desk.


The Blitzwalker Ten
Battle of Britain - 1969, MGM Studios - Director: Guy Hamilton
The Cruel Sea - 1953, Ealing Studios - Director: Charles Frend 
Das Boot - 1981, Bavaria Film - Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Where Eagles Dare - 1968, Warner Bros - Director: Brian G Hutton
Zulu - 1964, Diamond Films - Director: Cy Endfield 
Lawrence of Arabia - 1962, Columbia Pictures - Director: David Lean
Paths of Glory - 1957, United Artists - Director: Stanley Kubrick
Ice Cold in Alex - 1958, Associated British - Director: J Lee Thompson
Twelve O'Clock High - 1949, Twentieth Century Fox - Director: Henry King
The Dam Busters - 1954, Associated British - Director: Michael Anderson







Sunday, 4 September 2016

The 'other' St Paul's - the first church in London to be bombed

St Paul's Church in ruins with Rev. Campling inspecting the damage (Greenwich Heritage Centre)

It is sometimes hard to believe that I am now well into the seventh year of writing this blog. Like everything, it has evolved and what was once a twice or three times a month post, has now settled into a usually monthly piece, usually about the Second World War, although sometimes we have wandered into the realms of the earlier global conflict as well as occasionally moving forward to the Cold War. We have also moved into the world of book reviews, usually World War Two related but not always. The joy of writing one's own blog is that the rules of what can and can't be included can always be bent slightly, just so long as one doesn't become too self indulgent!

This morning though, whilst posting my regular Battle of Britain related Twitter feed, I was reminded of an anniversary which directly affected my own locality and which was a precursor to the wider Blitz on London and other British cities. This incident formed the basis of the very first post on this blog back in April 2010, so with a few slight updates, it seems an appropriate time to re-post the piece today.

In Charlton, southeast London, at the junction of Fairfield Grove and Charlton Lane stands a small and fairly unremarkable block of flats known as St Paul’s Close. The name of the block gives a clue to the building that previously stood on this site and with the anniversary of this building’s demise upon us, perhaps it is time to recall St Paul’s Church, which has the sad distinction of being the first church in London to be destroyed in the Second World War, pre-dating the official beginning of the London Blitz and the image of which can be seen on the Home page of our main website.

The site of St Paul's Church in 2016 (author's photo)

The origins of this church go back to November 1st 1862, when an Order in Council constituted the district of St Paul’s Charlton. This was a response to the influx of new residents to the suburb caused by the growing industrialisation of the area which subsequently became known as New Charlton and as a result of this growth in the populace, the existing parish churches of St Luke’s and St Thomas’s in Old Charlton were neither large enough or conveniently enough located to accommodate these new worshippers.

The cornerstone of the new church was laid in June 1866 by Sir Thomas Maryon-Wilson, the Lord of The Manor and was consecrated on Tuesday March 19th 1867, having cost £ 5,500 to construct. The church was constructed from brick with stone dressings and the interior was faced in Suffolk white with red and blue Staffordshire bricks in bands and devices. A half-life sized group depicting the conversion of St Paul carved in stone and overlooking the altar table was the most striking feature of the new church. A seat at the upper end was marked for Sir Thomas Maryon-Wilson, patron of the church and the Baronet’s Arms surmounted the Reredos. The church could accommodate 900 but due to heavy snowfall on the day of the consecration service, the numbers attending were kept down to a mere 600!

A few years after the church was completed, the building began to suffer from subsidence on the north side but the structure was strengthened in 1885 by adding a new inner arch over the chancel and at the same time a substantial new bell porch surmounted by a single turret was erected and a 35” bell made by Messrs Mears & Stainbeck was installed in memory of the Rev Canon WH Pritchett, the first Rector of the Parish. Upon the subsequent demolition of the church, this bell was sold to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in 1951.

St Paul's Church some years prior to destruction (Greenwich Heritage Centre)

In 1934 a new Reredos was presented by Miss Helen Swinton in memory of her parents, Mrs Helena Swinton and Lt Colonel Arthur Swinton, late of the Royal Bengal Artillery who was author of ‘The Green Curve’, a volume of short stories of military and native life in India.

By September 1940, Britain had been at war with Germany for a year and the Battle of Britain was at its height. After initial attacks upon shipping targets in the Channel and along the East Coast, the Luftwaffe's attacks had become focused largely on the RAF's airfields with a view to knocking Fighter Command out of the war, thus leaving the skies clear prior to a land invasion. Whilst attacks on some individual airfields had been devastating, the only airfield to have been put out of action for any length of time had been RAF Manston, in Kent. Other airfields such as Kenley and Biggin Hill had been put out of action for short periods but the Luftwaffe, who never did understand Fighter Command's system of Interlocking Groups and Sector Stations, failed to press home their attacks sufficiently to cripple the RAF's fighter defence. Their intelligence was vastly over confident and was based upon the assumption that as soon as an airfield was bombed and damaged, then it was simply out of action. According to them, the RAF was on it's knees and it was a matter of time before the attrition rate saw Fighter Command neutralized. The British aircraft industry was also targetted with attacks on the Supermarine factory in Southampton, Short's in Rochester and Vickers Armstrong at Brooklands causing great damage. Once again though, these attacks were never pressed home and rarely repeated; British aircraft production actually rose in 1940 and outstripped German efforts for the first time during this conflict. At this time, London was strictly off limits, by order of Hitler himself, perhaps in the hope of still bringing the British to a negotiated peace.

However, on the night of 24th/25th August, London was bombed for the first time, supposedly by mistake due to a navigational error on the part of a small number of German bombers aiming for the oil refineries at Thameshaven. Bombs fell upon east and north London and although damage and casualties were minimal, Churchill ordered a retaliatory raid on Berlin. The disruption caused by the RAF was also slight but Hermann Goering, head of the Luftwaffe and Hitler's deputy had previously boasted that no enemy aircraft would fly over Reich territory. The resulting loss of face and outrage within the Nazi Regime following this raid caused Hitler to switch the Luftwaffe’s attention from Fighter Command’s airfields to full scale attacks on London, thus also taking the pressure of the RAF's airfields.

Reputedly the site of the first bomb on the City of London at London Wall (Author's photo)

Even so, what became known as The Night Blitz was not to start until Saturday 7th September, so the raid on the evening of Wednesday 4th September was very much a new experience for Londoners and the citizens of Charlton in particular.

Shortly before 9.40pm a High Explosive bomb entered the church through the roof and completely destroyed the building. The Rectory, a few hundred yards from the church also suffered with smashed windows, ceilings down and walls damaged.St Paul’s was the first London church to be destroyed and the following day, large crowds numbering thousands of people came to view the ruins. Sadly, the novelty value of seeing a building ruined by bombing would soon wear off and sights such as these would become all too commonplace, not only in London but in towns and cities across the whole country during the next five years.

The ruined interior (Greenwich Heritage Centre)

A few items were salvaged from the ruins of the church but the Church Commissioners considered that the structure was beyond repair and it was immediately de-consecrated. The crucifix and two attendant figures, part of the Reredos were salvaged and after restoration, placed in the Lady Chapel of nearby St Luke’s Church but the gutted building remained an empty shell until the end of the war, when it was finally demolished. War Damage Compensation was assessed at £ 3,823 in July 1943 with the parish divided back to its pre-1862 boundaries and split between St Luke’s and St Thomas’s Parishes. The site itself was sold for £ 2,000 in 1956 to Greenwich Borough Council who built the apartment block that occupies the site and gives the clue by its name as to the former usage of the site.

The interior of St Paul's before destruction (Greenwich Heritage Centre)

A far more famous St Paul’s in London became an iconic symbol both of The Blitz and British defiance to Nazi tyranny, whilst the ‘other’ St Paul’s today is largely forgotten but which in its own small way is an important reminder as to what Londoners faced in those dark days of 1940. 


Published Sources:

A History of Charlton, John G Smith - Privately Published, 1975

Unpublished Sources:

Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich Civil Defence Incident Log
Author's Family Recollections

Friday, 12 August 2016

A Little More from Lilliput

Reclining Figures sketched by Henry Moore at Liverpool Street (author's collection)

Regular readers will hopefully remember the March 2016 edition of this blog in which we looked at the wartime anthology of the pocket sized magazine, Lilliput and in particular a report on the work of 'Mickey the Midget', a shelter warden in East London. As there was an extremely positive reaction to this post and there are many more articles in the book to choose from, it seems a good idea to re-visit the magazine and the subject of life in wartime London.

Perhaps one of the most iconic images of life in the capital during the Blitz is that of shelterers in the London Underground, who at first endured conditions that were, to say the least, primative but who eventually, with the aid of some forceful individuals similar in outlook to Mickey Davis, managed to improve conditions out of all recognition and formed meaningful communities in their own right.

Despite the experiences of the First World War, when the public was permitted to use the London Underground as a means of sheltering from the Zeppelin and Gotha raids of 1915-18, by the time of the Munich Crisis of 1938, the British Government had decided not to allow the British public the use of the Tubes during any future conflict, for fear of encouraging a "Troglodyte" or "Deep Shelter Mentality." This was one of the many examples of pre-war Governments underestimating the common sense of the British people, who it was wrongly assumed, would take to the shelters at the first hint of an air raid and remain there, never to surface in order to perform their normal duties in wartime industry. In reality, the majority of people had no desire to remain underground indefinitely and merely wanted to do the sensible thing and take shelter until such time as the bombers had passed before getting with their lives as normally as possible.

This was still the official position when the bombing of London started on 'Black Saturday' 7th September 1940, although the new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill had already begun to press the Home Secretary, Sir John Anderson to open the Underground system to the public for sheltering purposes. At first Anderson resisted, supposedly fearful that large scale use of the Tubes would paralyse the system and he would only release the Aldwych-Holborn Branch for this use. For the remainder of the Underground system, posters with the following message were on prominent display across the network:

"THE TUBE STATIONS ARE REQUIRED FOR TRAFFIC PURPOSES AND THE TUBE STATIONS ARE NOT AVAILABLE AS AIR RAID SHELTERS."

Despite this seemingly unequivocal message, the lack of deep shelters in London and indeed across the country was a contentious issue and elements from the political Left continued to push for the Tubes to be opened up, at the very least pending the construction of purpose built deep level shelters. In the event, it wasn't the Communist Party, Labour Party or any other political faction that caused the Government into a change of heart, it was the sheer force of numbers of normal civilians who invaded the network on 'Black Saturday' who used the simple expedient of buying a ticket and then choosing not to travel. There was nothing in London Transport's regulations that said that passengers buying a ticket had to travel, so when people began to simply remain on the platforms, there was little the authorities could do but to acquiesce. People Power had won the day and the Government, to it's credit, did the sensible thing and began to hastily make improvements to make the system more habitable.

Shelterer at Aldwych Station sketched by Tom Purvis (author's collection)

However, these improvements took time to implement and when the American author Negley Farson visited Aldwych Station in early September 1940, he recorded a picture of somewhat primitive conditions where people were trying to make the best of things:

"One night, about six o'clock, I stood in the Strand with the long line of shelterers waiting to go down the famous Aldwych Tube. It was very much in the newspapers at the time. Nearly everyone (except those who were occupying it) believed it had just been opened as a public shelter. The Press, unwittingly, was giving the impression that great things were being done. As a matter of fact, when the authorities were complacently accepting all the ballyhoo about opening it as a shelter, it had been packed almost to capacity for over three weeks.

The first person in line was a girl, twenty years old, holding an eighteen month old baby in her arms. She told me later that she was expecting again in January. She had been standing there for an hour and a half. The next seventy people in line had of course, been standing there for slightly shorter periods. And there were more people piling up behind them while I was waiting to go down with them. She bared her gums and laughed, saying 'Maybe I'll faint. I did yesterday. Then there was an air raid and they had to let us down.'

The collapsible steel gates of the Tube were locked. They were not supposed to be opened until 6:15 but this evening an Underground worker came along and let the crowd down shortly before six. We descended 132 steps. The people scampered about the platform below to find their favourite places. This girl carried her baby to the far end and spread out a blanket. Then, from somewhere, she produced two sheets of corrugated cardboard - the thick packing case stuff. She placed her baby of top of it, 'So that he won't get damp' she said simply.

I asked her where she lived and she said in Vauxhall. She had to wait half an hour to get a bus here tonight 'And this morning I had to wait two hours before I could get one home.' 

'Bleedin bus conductors' blew out a heavy woman who was planting a family down beside us. 'Know what they said to us this morning? Ya, 'We'll take you' he says 'but we won't take your ------- bundles!'

Well it was quite a scene for a dark, damp, smelly tube - with an open 'Gent's' latrine staring you straight in the face. Lest I be accused of painting the picture, this was the Aldwych Tube; the position of the bucket latrine, used by the men, was some ten feet from the stone steps of the platform - and I'll take a chance and swear on it that there will be plenty of witnesses to come forward and swear that the only veil that covered it from public view at that date was two torn strips of burlap - with a jagged, unclosable gap between them of at least eighteen inches from top to bottom. As the light-weight woman put it, 'We has a free public view - stalls. Ha ha.'

Shelterers on Aldwych Station in the early days (author's collection)

Things did improve gradually; by December 1940 the tracks had been boarded over and rows of bunk beds installed. Chemical toilets were added as was a better ventilation system. Arrangements were made with Charing Cross Hospital for nurses to visit the shelter and later a proper First Aid Post was installed. Other stations followed suit and shelter life began to become more bearable.

Another part of the network used as a shelter was the as yet unopened extension to the Central Line east of Liverpool Street. Again, at first conditions were appalling and when the artist Henry Moore visited the shelter soon after its opening, he found hundreds of what were to become his trademark 'reclining figures' seemingly stretching for miles ahead. To him, the inhabitants had been "sleeping and suffering for hundreds of years."

As well as Henry Moore, the Lilliput wartime anthology, as you would expect, contains several other articles written about shelters and the experiences of shelterers, written by authors such as Ritchie Calder, Julian Huxley, Quentin Reynolds and Margery Sharp. The latter piece tells of how the Tubes were also a good place for a young lady (or gentleman for that matter) to meet someone of the opposite sex!

The articles also tell of how the Tube shelterers, despite being drawn from a multitude of social, racial and political groups, in other words, London in microcosm, formed enduring communities and how the various Shelter Committees even produced news sheets, such as the Subway Companion, The Swiss Cottager, The Holborn Shelter News, The Belsize Park Tube Magazine, The Goodge Street Siren and The Station Searchlight, which was the journal of the Oval Station shelterers. The first edition of the Swiss Cottager welcomed readers thus:

"Greetings to our nightly companions, our temporary cave dwellers (surely a gentle dig at the Government's initial 'Troglodtyes' injunction), our sleeping companions, somnambulists, snorers, chatterers and all who inhabit the Swiss Cottage Station of the Bakerloo Line nightly from dusk until dawn."

Children can sleep anywhere! (author's collection)

The purpose of these newsletters, apart from engendering a community spirit, was to assist in the self-governing nature of these shelters, to share information, to provide hints and appeals for cleanliness and hygiene and to provide some relief from the nightly drudgery of sheltering by providing humorous articles and cartoons.

In spite of the lull in the bombing from May 1941 until late 1943, the Tubes remained available and the onset of the 'Little Blitz' and the V-Weapons campaigns ensured another upsurge in the numbers using them as well as the new, purpose built, deep-level shelters and the continuation of the V-2 Rocket campaign on London (the last one fell on 27th March 1945) meant that the Tube Stations were in use almost right until the end of the War in Europe. The highest number of shelterers using the Tube had been recorded on 27th September 1940, when some 177,000 were recorded as having taken refuge from the bombs but even on VE Night, there were still over 12,000 people using the Tubes, although the majority of these were homeless who had been bombed out and would be given temporary accommodation, ironically some in the Deep Level Shelters until such time as more permanent arrangements could be made.

The Tube Stations themselves quickly reverted to a more peacetime guise, with the first bunks being removed on 12th April 1945 and the last (at South Wimbledon Station) on 31st May 1945.


Printed Sources:

Bomber's Moon - Negley Farson, Victor Gollanz Ltd 1941
Lilliput Goes to War - Edited by Kay Webb, Hutchinson 1985
London Transport at War - Almark Publishing, 1974
The Shelter of the Tubes - Capital Transport, 2001