Sunday, 19 March 2017

Firemen Remembered at Invicta Road

The Invicta Road plaque in situ overlooking the school playground (author's photo)

On Thursday last, 16 March 2017, I was fortunate enough to attend the unveiling ceremony of the latest memorial plaque erected by the charity Firemen Remembered which took place at Invicta Primary School, Blackheath and which commemorated events at the school some seventy seven years ago when the then vacated school premises were in use as London Auxiliary Fire Service Sub-Station 54X.

The day of the ceremony was a beautifully bright and sunny early spring day, which made it hard to imagine that this now happy place which today once again resonates to the cheerful sound of children playing, was once the scene of one of the worst tragedies in wartime Southeast London, when twelve London Auxiliary Firemen and three civilians were killed when the school received a direct hit from a Luftwaffe parachute mine.

Invicta Road School shortly after opening in 1900 (Invicta Primary)

On 3 September 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made his now famous radio broadcast in which he informed the British people that they were "now at war with Germany" but two days prior to this, schoolchildren from across London were being evacuated, in the case of those from Invicta Road School, to the relative safety of the Kent countryside. The school buildings dating from 1900, in common with many across the capital were taken over by the London Fire Brigade as a wartime fire station, being given the somewhat functional title of Sub-Station 54X. It then became home to members of the Auxiliary Fire Service, men and women who had volunteered to serve in the fire brigade should war come. These men and women have often been the subject of writings on this blog, most recently in November 2016 when we reviewed a book that concentrated on participation by the Jewish community in the Fire Services. Those who served were paid the princely sum of £3 per week and were exempt from the call-up to the Armed Forces for the duration of their service with the AFS and before the coming of the Blitz, met with hostility from some quarters, being dismissed as "£3 a week Army dodgers" from certain members of the public. They also met initial resistance and prejudice from some members of the regular Fire Services and it wasn't until after the Blitz started that Churchill's tribute to the "Heroes with Grimy Faces" gathered currency.

When the Blitz did begin on 7 September 1940, the men based at Invicta Road School would have seen plenty of action, since the school was located very close to the River Thames, adjacent to which were situated many factories, wharves and associated industries, all of which were by now undertaking vital war work. At 23:05 on 13 September, the school itself suffered its first damage of the war when a small bomb - probably of the 50 kg variety - fell through the roof of the School Assembly Hall. Fortunately for all concerned, the bomb failed to explode and it was carried out of the building by Fireman Arthur Grant into the Playground, where he then proceeded to bury it beneath a large pile of sandbags. The bomb did subsequently explode but because of being shielded by the sandbags, did little further damage to the school buildings. For this act of extreme bravery, Arthur Grant was recommended for a George Medal, the award of which was confirmed on 12 November 1940.

The ruined school following the bombing (Author's collection)

London suffered nightly bombing from 7 September 1940 for fifty seven consecutive nights but the evening of 14 November proved to be a quieter one than usual for the nation's capital, because on this night the attention of the Luftwaffe switched to Coventry, where one of the worst raids of the war took place. So bad was the destruction resulting from this raid that a new word entered the language, to "Coventrate" which came from a word that had similarly entered the German language at this time "coventrieren", meaning to raze a city to rubble from the air. The death toll from this raid was 568 people killed, with a further 863 who suffered severe injuries. Some 500 tonnes of high explosive bombs were dropped on the industrial city and around 3,600 incendiaries, which started so many fires that firemen were sent from as far away as London to help extinguish them. The industrial output of the city was disrupted but factories were quickly repaired or relocated to new "shadow" factories elsewhere and production recovered within a few months.

Whilst this raid was occurring in the Midlands, the situation in London remained quiet but at 19:30 the air raid sirens sounded and the men at Sub-Station 54X settled down waiting for their first "shout" of the evening. The first bomb in the Borough of Greenwich was reported just ten minutes later at 19:40 when a High Explosive bomb fell on the premises of J Stone & Company, a ship propeller manufacturer in Anchor & Hope Lane, Charlton but on this occasion the men of Invicta Road were not required to attend and they continued to wait patiently, little realising that they would in fact become the subject of the next incident to be reported. At 21:20, a one tonne parachute mine floated silently down and became entangled in the trees that lined Invicta Road and then exploded with the terrific air-burst effect that these weapons, converted naval mines, were capable of. These mines could flatten large areas from their blast and so the adjacent school buildings did not stand a chance.

Parachute Mine at the IWM London (author's photo)

The school buildings collapsed like a house of cards and left many firemen trapped and seriously injured beneath the rubble. These men, usually the rescuers, now found themselves in need of rescue themselves and help quickly came from their colleagues in surrounding fire stations. The work to free them went on well into the next day but sadly, when everyone had been accounted for, twelve firemen were dead, along with a further three civilians who had been in the school premises when the mine exploded. Amongst the firemen killed was Firemen Arthur Grant, whose award of the George Medal had been announced just two days previously and who had not yet received his decoration. One of the civilians killed was Mr White, the School Caretaker who died in his house on the school site. We shall probably never know the reasons as to why the other two visitors were at the school. One of them, Cecil Smith lived at 2 Invicta Road, so perhaps was visiting a newly found acquaintance amongst the firemen or perhaps was a friend of the caretaker. The reason behind the other civilian casualty, 21 year old tailoress Rosetta Florence Johnson, being at the school will remain an even bigger mystery, as being a resident of Islington, she was far away from home on this bleak November evening.

Ironically, despite the unfolding tragedy at Invicta Road, it was to be a relatively quiet night in Greenwich, with just three reported incidents.


Rescue and recovery work goes on (Invicta Primary/LFB)

The idea to place a memorial plaque at the present-day Invicta Primary School was first mooted as far back as 2010 but was delayed for various reasons, not least of which was the rebuilding of the school's temporary premises, first erected in the early 1950s, with a more permanent structure. The modern school is a splendid facility and they are rightly proud of their reputation of having a friendly and stimulating environment for the pupils and are also very conscious of their heritage and local history. 

Therefore, the ceremony, whilst under the overall auspices and guidance of Stephanie Maltman from Firemen Remembered, was very much driven by the school and for this initiative, Mrs Marie Corbett, the Executive Head Teacher and Emily Perfect, Creative Arts Leader, as well as the children themselves, deserve much credit. The ceremony started with Mrs Corbett welcoming everyone to the school and explaining to the pupils what was about to take place. There had been much excitement and anticipation amongst the children, not all of whom were in on the secret!

The Museum curators read the Roll of Honour under the watchful eye of Mrs Corbett (author's photo)

The Year 2 choir opened the ceremony with a delightful rendition of the popular wartime song "We'll Meet Again" before some of the curators of the School's own museum showed photographs of the aftermath of the bombing. A certain local historian and Blitz guide (who shall remain nameless) gave those present a brief description of the events of the night of 14 November 1940 before four pupils from Year 6 read poems that they had written about the war. We then heard the Roll of Honour read to us by fifteen of the School Museum's curators before Mrs Corbett, assisted by two hand-picked pupils from the assembly unveiled the plaque. A minute's silence followed after which the entire school sang "Tipperary", a song perhaps better known as a First World War number but which was sung with great enthusiasm and which seemed very fitting as it was undoubtedly a song with which all of the firemen would have been familar. The indoor part of the ceremony was then repeated with the older pupils coming to join in - this was because the Assembly Hall was too small to accomodate the entire school, such was the interest shown in the proceedings.

The plaque is unveiled as Stephanie looks on (Ken Sinyard)

Amongst the guests present were Ken and Graham Sinyard, whose Grandfather Frank Smart had been a member of the AFS based at Invicta Road, although fortunately not present on the fateful night. Fellow guide and official historian of Charlton Athletic FC, Clive Harris was also present, as was Darryl Chamberlain co-author of the Charlton Champion blog and an old boy of Invicta School from the 1980s (from the "old" school, not the "old old" school as the wartime premises are now known!) 

After the indoor ceremony was complete, we then repaired outside to the school playground, where the plaque was installed in it's new permanent home, fittingly located onto the last surviving retaining wall of the original Victorian school, which now overlooks the present school's playground.

Lest we forget - and the reason we were there (author's photo)

We left the school just as the children were emerging into the playground for their lunch break and the final photograph taken of a group of them inspecting the newly unveiled plaque spoke volumes.

Thanks are due to Stephanie Maltman and Bill Hickin of Firemen Remembered for continuing to raise awareness of the work done and sacrifices made by the men and women of our wartime Fire Services and also to Marie Corbett, Emily Perfect as well as all of the staff and pupils of Invicta Primary for making us all so welcome and for arranging such a wonderful ceremony, of which the fallen of 14 November 1940 would surely have been proud.

The unveiled plaque (Ken Sinyard)

Invicta Road School - Roll of Honour - 14/15 November 1940

David (or Davis) Appleby - Fireman AFS - 432 Bancroft Road, Mile End
John Arthur Axcell - Fireman AFS - 10 Archbishop's Place, Brixton
Charles William Barrow - Leading Fireman AFS - 18 Hassendean Road, Blackheath
Henry Arthur Charles Dixon - Fireman AFS - 35 Alberta Cottages, Kennington
Edmund Francis Emmett - Fireman AFS - 1 Lewis House, Greenhundred Road, Peckham
Edward James Fox - Fireman AFS - 12 High Street, Pinner
Arthur Hugh Grant - Fireman AFS - 107 Footscray Road, Eltham
Ronald Francis King - Fireman AFS - 71 Evan Road, Catford
Reginald Francis William Knight - Fireman AFS - 196 Croydon Road, Hayes
John Phelan - Fireman AFS - 151 Grove Lane, Camberwell
Stanley Sargent - Fireman AFS - 21 Havelock Road, Bromley
Frederick Charles Sutherland - Sub Officer LFB - 203 Kidbrooke Park Road, Blackheath

Rosetta Florence Johnson - 117 Southgate Road, Islington
Cecil Critoph Smith - 2 Invicta Road, Blackheath
Charles White - School Caretaker - School House, Invicta Road, Blackheath








Monday, 27 February 2017

His Majesty's Stationery Office at War

One of the many bonuses of my job as a guide, speaker and researcher is being able to indulge myself in one of my old hobbies of collecting old books, although this is something of a double-edged sword, as my home is rapid becoming submerged in an ever growing tide of books both old and new. Indeed, one item firmly on the agenda for 2017 is to build some new bookshelves.

One of the publications I have found myself collecting over the years are the excellent and numerous series of wartime booklets published by HMSO, or His Majesty's Stationery Office to give this organisation it's correct title.

It would be easy to dismiss these works as mere propaganda but this would be to do them a great disservice; of course they tell the stories from a staunchly pro-Allied point of view but there is a great difference between these works and the blunt nature of the works put out by the HMSO's Nazi counterparts. For one thing, the British works do tend to tell things pretty much as they were and some of the photographs pull no punches. For example, in the first of these booklets I acquired, Front Line 1940-41, which tells the story of Britain's Civil Defence Services during this time, the images of destroyed buildings, injured civilians and people being rescued are all real enough and are in no way "manufactured" shots for the benefit of the book. The narrative, although understandably of its time, is thoughtful and well-written and leaves nobody in any doubt that the country has suffered grievously. The underlying message of course, is a positive one - that although times are hard, everything will eventually come right. The books themselves are a masterpiece of good design - the covers are innovative and the standard of some of the photography is first class. The price of these little booklets varied depending on the size of them but were generally between 6d and 2 shillings (between 2 1/2 and 10 pence in today's money) and were an invaluable way for the British public to keep up with events during the wartime years.

Not strictly an HMSO publication but one in which they doubtless had an input is Fire Over London, which tells the story of the London Fire Service during the Night Blitz of 1940-41. Published by the London County Council, who were about to relinquish control of the capital's Fire Brigade into the nationalised National Fire Service, it is a slimmer volume at 34 pages in comparison to most of the HMSO publications, which were generally around the 100 page mark but follows a similar format. It starts with a brief summary of the wartime Fire Service and of the preparations that had been made for war, before going into an account of events of some of the various great raids on London up to that point - 'Black Saturday' 7th September 1940, 'The Second Great Fire of London' 29th December 1940 and the heaviest raid of them all on the night of 10th/11th May 1941. It also tells us of the different types of bomb dropped by the Luftwaffe and gives an insight as to how various types of fires were tackled and as with the HMSO booklets, it is well illustrated with some fascinating photographs. Once again, this is not by any means a piece of blunt propaganda.

Another non-HMSO publication but one with which they undoubtedly were involved is It Can Now Be Revealed published in 1945 on behalf of the four major railway companies - GWR, LMS, LNER and Southern Railways, together with London Transport - by the British Railways Press Office. This is an early use of the phrase 'British Railways' as the railways were not to be nationalised until 1948 but had been effectively under state control during the wartime years under the Railway Executive Committee. Interestingly, each of the railway companies, plus London Transport were to publish their own wartime stories in the early years of peacetime but this is another well written piece, which apart from telling us of the railways' work during the recent war, also tells us something of the plans for peace. The booklet starts by telling us not of railway operations but of the war work undertaken by the railway companies - of building tanks, Halifax bombers and Horsa gliders, anti-aircraft guns and even motor boats. This section reminds us that the railway companies contained superb in-house heavy engineering and manufacturing capabilities, all of which were put to good use to aid the war effort. We then turn to the railways themselves and the arrangements put in place for handling child evacuees, war workers, troop movements and war production. We then look at the preparations and arrangement for D-Day, which as well as being the largest sea-borne invasion of all time, was probably the greatest logistical achievement ever likely to be undertaken. The booklet then closes by telling us the work undertaken to maintain services during the V-Weapons campaigns of 1944-45 as well as something of rebuilding for the future.

Staying with the Civilian Services for now, we turn to Merchantmen at War, an HMSO publication that tells the story of Britain's Merchant Navy and the great convoy battles of the war. The booklet starts by telling us of the men of the sea, the Masters, Chief Engineers, officers and men and also tells us of the diversity amongst the crews of the British Merchant Fleet and reminds us that many of the seamen came from places as widespread as Sierra Leone, Bombay and Mombasa. We learn of the convoys themselves, the pre-sailing conferences and of the cargoes themselves, which could be anything from foodstuffs to vital wartime supplies of raw materials and finished products such as tanks, aircraft and ammunition. Like the other booklets, it pulls no punches and there are some pretty graphic photographs of ships being torpedoed and men being rescued who were clearly at the limits of their endurance. We learn of the Arctic Convoys, which were arguably the most arduous of all and finally we see the 'turn of the tide' the preparations for the various landings at Sicily and Normandy. As someone who served in the Merchant Navy in a small way during the 1970s and 80s, this is a fascinating account of a subject close to my own heart.

The fighting services are not ignored either and there is comprehensive coverage of various aspects of the 'sharp end' of the war. A recent acquisition courtesy of the excellent David JB Smith aka @NavalAuthor on Twitter (with whom some swapping of doubles was done), is The Mediterranean Fleet, which is the Admiralty's account of Naval operations in that theatre from April 1941 to Janaury 1943. Like all of the others, this is well written with a copious amount of illustrations and covers some of the hardest moments such as the evacuations from Crete and Greece and the losses of such ships as HMSs Ark Royal, Barham and York, as well as the Malta Convoys, to the more triumphant moments such as the victories at Cape Matapan and Sirte. Once again, the standard of photography is outstanding and leaves the reader in no doubt that before the final victories, there were many moments of tragedy along the way. Some of the photographs of the sinking of HMS Manchester are particularly hair raising and it is hard to imagine anything nearly so candid being published in Nazi Germany at any stage of the war.

Neither are our various Allies forgotten in these booklets either and another recent acquisition  focuses on the exploits of Queen Wilhelmina's Navy or the Royal Netherlands Navy to use the correct title. At twenty five pages, this is a slimmer volume but like the others described earlier, is still well-written and contains a large number of excellent photographs. In common with the other booklets in the series, the narrative doesn't just provide the reader with mindless propaganda but also speaks candidly of the defeat and losses suffered when the Netherlands were invaded and how the Dutch Navy fought a brave delaying action. Despite the loss of their homeland to the German invaders, the Navy fought on and suffered further heavy losses when the Japanese entered the war and attacked Dutch colonies in the East Indies and the booklet tells of the heroic defeat of Admiral Doorman's combined Dutch, American and British force at the Battle of Sunda Straits. Like the other booklets reviewed above, this one also ends on a hopeful note and tells of the Dutch Navy's ongoing fight against both Germany and Japan and looks forward to the day when they will be able to return to a liberated country.

Staying with the Allied theme, Target: Germany examines the work done by the United States 'Mighty Eighth' Air Force in it's first year of operations over Europe. The booklet in my possession is marked "British Edition" so this was clearly something produced for consumption on both sides of the Atlantic. The narrative here starts with the description of two  daylight raids (all American raids were in daylight) on a synthetic rubber factory at Huls as well as the General Motors' factory in Antwerp and tells of how important it was for the American bombers to stick in a close defensive formation. As before, the narrative is quite candid in it's descriptions of massed attacks by German fighters, of bombers exploding and of others coming down in the Channel and the crews awaiting rescue by the British Air-Sea Rescue services. The chapter closes with the post-mission interrogation of the surviving crews and the questions asked of them. Next, we read about the comparisons between the two main American heavy bombers used, the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-24 Liberator, such as relative bomb loads, speeds, defensive armaments etc. The next chapter steps back in time and gives us the background of the raison d'etre of the Eighth Air Force and the early developments in it's formation and deployment to Britain. All in all, this is another quality piece of work and whilst the narrative is perhaps the most 'gung-ho' of all those reviewed thus far, it is also fairly candid in it's descriptions and like the other books, the standard of the photography is first class.

Staying with the theme of air power, our next booklet RAF Middle East concentrates on the work of the Desert Air Force and air operations in the Middle Eastern Theatre of War from February 1942 to January 1943. This volume tells of operations primarily in the North African desert but also covers the defence of Malta. We hear descriptions of the unique conditions encountered in the desert that made flying so difficult and the maintenance of aircraft challenging in the extreme. Like most of the other volumes, we read descriptions of the early reverses and the back and forth struggles across the desert during this most fluctuating of wartime theatres. The siege of Tobruk is covered as is the later fall of this supposed fortress-port. Air operations in support of the British Eighth Army at Alamein are covered in some detail, when probably for the first time there was really close and effective co-operation between the British Army and Royal Air Forces. This was one of Montgomery's finest achievements and was something of which all those involved could be justly proud. The booklet closes with the pursuit of the Afrika Korps across the Western Desert until their final surrender in Tunisia. Once again, the narrative is truthful and speaks of the reverses as well as the triumphs and the standard of photography is excellent.

We stay in the desert for our next HMSO publication for The Eighth Army which covers this Army from it's official formation in September 1941 through to the brink of final victory in that theatre during January 1943. When the Eighth Army was formed, British fortunes in North Africa were at a low ebb following the earlier brilliant successes achieved by General Wavell's Western Desert Force against the Italians early in the war. Wavell was replaced by General Auchinleck and the book really opens by describing The Auk's (as he was nicknamed) first offensive in November 1941. The book makes a point of describing the cosmopolitan nature of Eighth Army, as besides men from all of the home nations of the British Isles, there were soldiers from Australia, India, New Zealand and South Africa. We again hear of the siege of Tobruk, this time obviously from the point of view of the men on the ground. The book tells us of the great advances and retreats that symbolised this campaign before the Army settled on it's defensive line at El Alamein. It was at this point that Churchill decided on another change of command and Auchineck was relieved both as Commander in Chief, Middle East and as General Officer in Command of Eighth Army. He was replaced by Alexander in the former position and the then little-known (outside the Army) Bernard Law Montgomery as Eighth Army Commander. After halting the Afrika Korps at Alam Halfa inSeptember 1942, Montgomery's thoughts turned to the offensive and the booklet covers the ensuing Battle of El Alamein in some details but perhaps understandably considering when the book was written, does not cover any of the later controversies with regard to Monty's perceived over-cautious approach to battle. Seemingly after years of defeats on land, the British at last had a winning General and would not allow dissent in an official publication!

We close by looking at a regiment which formed an integral part of Eighth Army and in The Royal Armoured Corps published in 1945, the narrative gives a brief account of the formation of the regiment during the First World War following the invention of the tank and tells us of how Germany embraced the tank under Hitler and of the early British defeats in France during 1940, during which campaign the Royal Armoured Corps was one of the relatively few parts of the British Army to come out with credit, although they were to lose the majority of their equipment during the hurried retreat and subsequent evacuations. We then learn of the regiment during the Western Desert campaign and the rapid expansion caused by the massive influx of wartime conscripts. There follows a detailed account of the recruiting and training process. The book closes with accounts of the victorious battles in the desert as well as the return to France in 1944 and the future advance into Nazi Germany. Although published in 1945, the book was clearly written in mid 1944 before final victory was achieved but like the other HMSO publications described above, this is a candidly written and well illustrated account.

There is a seemingly endless list of these HMSO booklets and I have yet to see the publications covering the Battle of Britain, RAF Bomber Command, The Fleet Air Arm, His Majesty's Submarines, His Majesty's Minesweepers, The Royal Marines, Australian Forces, Coastal Command and Combined Operations amongst many others that are out there. So far, my acquisitions have come from junk shops, internet auction sites, swaps and the odd gift from friends who know what a sad character they have befriended. They are a fascinating view of the war as written at the time.


HMSO Publications:

The Eighth Army: September 1941 to January 1943 - published 1944 
Fire Over London: The Story of the London Fire Service 1940-41 - published by the London County Council, August 1941
Front Line 1940-41 - published 1942
It can now be revealed: More about British Railways in peace and war - published 1945
The Mediterranean Fleet: Greece to Tripoli - published 1944
Merchantmen at War - published 1944
Queen Wilhelmina's Navy - published 1944
RAF Middle East - published 1945
The Royal Armoured Corps - Through mud & blood to the green fields beyond - published 1945
Target: Germany - The US Army Air Forces' official story of the VIII Bomber Command's first year over Europe - published 1944
 












Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Accidental Researching in Charlton


The grave of Flight Lieut FJ Kemp at Charlton Cemetery (author's photo)

Since taking the plunge in 2015 and becoming a full time researcher and guide, with the time available for research no longer restricted to weekends, I've been able to actively seek research projects for customers around the world and have thoroughly enjoyed this new aspect of my work.

One aspect of researching in archives remains constant and that is resisting the temptation of reading irrelevant documents in files that one is researching and becoming absorbed by them, rather than concentrating on the job in hand. It can sometimes be difficult to stay focussed, especially when the research is going badly and seemingly bumping into one dead end after another but if one stays patient and keeps plugging away, the reward is usually not too far away. Sometimes though, this sort of 'accidental research' can lead to some fascinating results and opens a whole new project.

An example of this arose last year, when I was - rather unusually for me - undertaking some non-wartime family history research for a contact in New Zealand. Part of the work involved searching a local cemetery for the grave of the family ancestor in question in order to photograph it. As it was a grave dating from the 1930s in a particularly unkempt part of the cemetery and there was no map available, it was proving something of a mission. I knew the grave number but finding the relevent part of the cemetery was to prove easier said than done, although after a long and laborious search it was eventually located.

Whilst exploring the cemetery in Charlton, Southeast London, I chanced upon several headstones of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission dotted around. I already knew the existence of some of these and indeed wrote about one of those buried there in the May 2015 edition of this blog. The headstone that caught my eye on this occasion though was that of a Royal Air Force pilot, Flight Lieutenant FJ Kemp, who had died in July 1944. Having the usual self-deprecating view of one's own neighbourhood, I had no idea that anyone employed in one of the war's more 'glamorous' professions such as a pilot had emanated from Charlton, so I immediately set out to discover more.

30 year old Frederick Kemp was born in Greenwich in 1914 and had married his wife Ellen in 1938, settling in the Charlton area of Southeast London. The 1939 Register shows Fred living with his wife in what must have been crowded conditions with his parents at 27 Mascalls Road, although they were later to move to a house of their own at 35 Eastcombe Avenue.

Upon the outbreak of war in September 1939, Frederick had joined the Royal Air Force, eventually qualifying as a pilot in 1941. By 1944, he had risen to the rank of Flight Lieutenant and was serving with 68 Squadron at RAF Castle Camps in Cambridgeshire, flying the De Havilland Mosquito NF XVII, which was a night-fighter varient of the sleek and versatile 'Wooden Wonder' as it was frequently referred to at the time.

Flying Officer James Donald Farrar (Aircrew Remembered)

His navigator was the 20 year old James Farrar from Carshalton, Surrey. James obviously had aviation in his family's blood, as his elder brother was the aeronautical engineer David Farrar. James had been called up in February 1942 and received his commission as a Pilot Officer the following year, serving with 68 Squadron. James was also an accomplished poet and had an anthology of his work, entitled "Unreturning Spring" published posthumously in 1950. He had been a pupil of Sutton Grammar School and his talent as a writer was described by Alwyn Trubshaw, his former English teacher who said of him "I say taught English but it would be truer to say that I taught English in his presence only. He had no need of my teaching. He was a natural born writer."

By July 1944, London was once again under German bombardment, not this time from manned bombers but from the V-1 Flying Bomb, known to Londoners as the Doodlebug or Buzz Bomb. These fearsome weapons were launched mainly from fixed sites in the Pas-de-Calais region and were programmed for their engine to cut out when over the London area. Thus, they were the first, albeit crude form of Cruise Missile, technologically advanced in their propulsion and guidance but aimed only in the general direction of London, falling indiscriminately on their target, whether factory, house or hospital.

At first, the V-1 caused havoc amongst the war weary Londoners. The first one fell on 13 June 1944, barely a week after D-Day and at a time when the British people could have been forgiven for thinking that the end of the war was finally in sight. The British defences were quickly re-organized; the anti-aircraft guns located in and around London were quickly re-located to form a defensive strip around the Kent and Sussex coasts, where the majority of the missiles crossed on their steady course. Inland of the guns, the barrage balloons were re-deployed and behind these, RAF Fighter Command was given free reign to shoot down any of the Buzz Bombs that had not been brought down by the first two layers of this new and hastily improvised defence. The new arrangements proved extremely effective; the anti-aircraft guns with their proximity shells and radar guidance shot down the most, eventually gaining a success ratio of one V-1 for every hundred shells fired. The Barrage Balloons were less successful but were still thought to have been responsible for bringing down about three hundred missiles. The RAF shot down 1,954 of them, with the Hawker Tempest being the most successful with 638 'kills' and with other types such as the Mosquito taking 623, Spitfire 303 and Mustang 238, with other types accounting for the remainder, including the then new Meteor jet fighter, which gave the people of Kent and Sussex an early vision of the jet age. Overall, out of 9,250 Doodlebugs aimed at England, only some 2,400 reached their target, which represents a remarkable change in fortunes.

The extract from 68 Squadron's Operational Record Book (author's image)

The RAF nicknamed their flights against the V-1s as "Anti-Diver Patrols" and it is was on these missions that Flt. Lieut. Kemp and Flying Officer Farrar were employed in July 1944. As the threat from these weapons was of a round the clock nature, 24 hour patrols were maintained, with the fighters being vectored onto the Divers by radar. On the night of 25 July 1944, ten Mosquitos of 68 Squadron were on patrol, with Kemp and Farrar flying in aircraft serial number MM679 with a callsign of "Ferro 19". Shortly before midnight, they were vectored to intercept a Diver over the Thames Estuary. They replied to say that whilst they could see the V-1, they were out of position and that another aircraft of 219 Squadron was better placed to intercept. Shortly after making this transmission, they sent a further message to say that the Diver had exploded. At 04:12, they were given a new vector by control to intercept but did not respond to the message. Despite repeated efforts to contact Ferro 19, they could not be raised and had to be considered as missing.

Frederick Kemp's body was later washed ashore in the Thames Estuary but there was no trace of either the Mosquito or James Farrar, who is today commemorated on the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede. Fred Kemp left a wife (who never remarried) and three daughters. I shall make a point of revisiting his grave in my local cemetery.

James Farrar's lasting memorial is his poetry - here is an early piece written as a sixteen year old after watching a Battle of Britain dogfight:

I walked endlessly, no clock drips by the hours,
The burnished hedgerows, clotted and high,
The still woods, the dead meadows, the closed flowers,
Shrunken under that bright scarred sky.
 
A light-play, as of sun on August leaves,
A height-soft moan, a wooden intermittent rattle,
And, as the scrolled conflict eastward weaves,
Feelers drooping darkly out of battle.
 
They come slowly, soft tap-roots questing down,
At the groping tip of one glisters a bead of light:
I see them, like waterflies struggling not to drown,
Soundlessly pass into earth, and meet night.
 
What is it that they are fallen?
Sane men hold it to be just
That each, when dead feed the earth like pollen,
Lies strewn in some broken field like a wrack of dust.
 
 
Unpublished Sources:
 
68 Squadron Operational Record Books - National Archives AIR 27/604 

Monday, 12 December 2016

Out of the Ruins

The 1950 Ordnance Survey Map of Greenwich Town Centre (Dave Wood)

Regular readers of this blog may remember that back in February of this year, we looked at a fascinating photograph that had been provided by Dave Wood @liverpoolimages of Enderby's Wharf, taken immediately post-war in 1946 and how we were able to compare the photograph with the LCC Bomb Damage Map as well as the same view today.

Dave has now posted another image, this time of an Ordnance Survey Map of Greenwich Town Centre dating from 1950, which regularly features the slightly enigmatic description "ruin" on the map. Given the date of the map, it is apparent that the ruins are in fact, bomb damaged buildings and following on from the Enderby Wharf exercise, it might be interesting to compare Dave's OS Map image with the ARP Incident Log, photos of the bomb damage and how it compares to the Bomb Damage Maps for the area.

Aerial view of Greenwich Town Centre immediately post-war, almost certainly taken from the Town Hall clocktower (Author's collection)

What is just as significant as the ruins marked on the OS Map is perhaps what isn't shown; in 1950 there are large areas of emptiness in what was before the war and what is today a thriving built up area. These empty spaces are bomb sites, of which there were plenty in London in the immediate post-war years, some even surviving into the 1970s and 80s. The LCC Bomb Damage Maps for the area are held at the Greenwich Heritage Centre along with the Civil Defence Incident Logs that this author spent many hours transcribing some years ago. These resources are invaluable in translating the basic information on the Ordance Survey Maps into showing exactly which buildings were damaged and at what level of damage.

Greenwich Town Centre Bomb Map (Author's image from original at Greenwich Heritage Centre)

Luckily, as Greenwich has been well photographed over the years, we are able to compare the maps with photographs taken immediately after the war which graphically show the amount of damage incurred by German bombs during the Blitz of 1940-41 and subsequent V-Weapons Campaigns of 1944-45.

Therefore, if we start just below the centre of the two maps, we can see Nicholas Hawksmoor's St Alfege Church of 1718 clearly marked on the OS Map and at first glance all seems well. Compare this however with the Bomb Damage Map and we see that the church is marked in light red, signifying "Seriously Damaged, Repairable at Cost." An examination of the photograph, in which the roof of the church can be seen (unfortunately the spire is out of shot) towards the top left of the image, shows that the roof of the church is still showing signs of wartime damage, with repairs still at an early stage. The church was damaged on several occasions during the Blitz but the killer blow came on the night of 19 March 1941 when the church was gutted by Incendiary Bombs which lodged in the roof timbers, eventually causing the entire roof to plummet into the church itself where the fire burned out of control for some time. There was also an Oil Bomb reported exploding in the Churchyard on the night of 10/11 May 1941 but this seems to have done little if any damage. Happily, the church was rebuilt under the direction of Sir Albert Richardson and re-consecrated in 1953 and continues today to be an important spiritual centre of the community.

Looking at Dave's OS Map, we can see that directly opposite the church, the only building shown is a bank, in 1946 the Westminster Bank but today a Natwest branch. There is a large fallow area either side of the bank and this can be confirmed by looking at the Bomb Map, which shows many buildings coloured in black, which indicates "Total Destruction." This is interesting, because closer examination of the 1946 photograph shows that the bank building is actually still standing, although there is obvious damage both to it and to pretty much everything else left standing in the surrounding area. The cause of this almost total destruction was caused by a V-2, or as described at the time in the Incident Log, a "Long Range Rocket" which was reported at 16:19 on 24 January 1945, causing four fatal casualties, seventeen serious injuries and another ninety two walking wounded. Thanks to the excellent V2 Rocket website, we know that this missile was lauched some five minutes previously in the Den Haag area of The Netherlands. The V-2 Rockets caused widespread damage, mainly in London but also in liberated cities such as Antwerp and Brussels but which mercifully came too late to alter the outcome of the war, with the final British bound example falling at Orpington, Kent on 27 March 1945, less than six weeks before the final German surrender.

If we look again at the photograph and come slightly nearer to the camera, we can see on this side of the church The Mitre public house, which still stands today on the three-way junction with Roan Street, Straightsmouth and Greenwich High Road. Once again, there are some anomalies between the OS Map, the Bomb Damage Map and the photographic evidence, which shows the pub looking somewhat the worse for wear but probably still open for business, whilst the OS Map shows "ruins" on both sides of it. A closer look at the photograph confirms what looks like a bombed out building next door to the pub in Roan Street (which today seems to form part of the pub itself), whilst the Bomb Damage Map makes no mention of any bomb damage whatsoever at this end of Roan Street.  The only bomb damage recorded in the Incident Log for Straightsmouth is a V-1 Flying Bomb further along the road, which caused severe damage to the railway embankment on 1 July 1944 and caused seven serious casualties but thankfully no fatalities. There are some further buildings marked in purple, meaning "Damaged Beyond Repair" at the junction of Straightsmouth and Roan Street but the cause of this damage is unknown as there is no mention of this in the Incident Log, although there is a corresponding fallow area on the OS Map. Despite all of this visual evidence, the bomb that caused the damage to the pub and which caused the adjacent buildings to be described as ruins, is still something of a mystery as it does not appear to have been accurately recorded. The only possible explanation is blast damage caused either by the V-2 that destroyed the area opposite St Alfege Church, or by the V-1 in Straightsmouth described above, or perhaps a combination of both.

The clearing up operation after the V-1 of 1 July 1944 (Greenwich Heritage Centre)

A further look at the photograph adjacent to the tram nearer to the foreground shows some obvious bomb damage, which on the Bomb Damage Map is indeed marked in purple, as "Damaged Beyond Repair." It is hard to pinpoint exactly when this damage was caused as there were so many incidents recorded but it was probably caused on 18 September 1940 when incendiary bombs fell in the area and were reported as having destroyed number 277 and adjacent buildings on the opposite side of the road (again marked in purple on the Bomb Damage Maps), so it would seem a fair assumption. The photograph bears out the level of damage as there is a fairly large extent of cleared land on the left hand side of the road as we see it in the foreground.

On the right hand side of the photograph, to the rear of Greenwich High Road, there is almost total destruction still evident in 1946. This is almost certainly the legacy of another V-1 Flying Bomb which fell on Burney Street on 27 June 1944, causing many houses to be destroyed as well as causing widespread blast damage to the already battered area. Many of the houses were damaged beyond repair and subsequently demolished. Today, the abrupt ending of the surviving terrace gives away the location. In one of those strange post-war twists of fate, the land was later used as the site of the new Greenwich Police Station, which ironically replaced the original Police Station in Park Row, itself destroyed by a Flying Bomb in July 1944.

Damage to Burney Street after the V-1 incident of 27 June 1944 (Greenwich Heritage Centre)


As a matter of interest, the nearest Air Raid Wardens' Post was 'West 5', located in the Town Hall further along Greenwich High Road, which also housed the Borough Civil Defence Control Room. The new Town Hall, completed in 1939, is an impressive Art Deco structure which with it's tall clock tower (from which the aerial photo was taken) dominates the immediate area. It houses a substantial reinforced basement, which apart from the Wardens' Post and Borough Control Room, was also the location of a large public air raid shelter, capable of housing some seven hundred people. This, together with the other public shelters in the vicinity, would have been in frequent use during most of the incidents mentioned above.

Moving further away from the camera nearer to the Thames and almost entirely out of shot behind the church, is another area shown on the Bomb Damage Map as having incurred severe damage. Unfortunately, this area is just off the top of the page for the OS Map, so we are unable to compare the two maps on this occasion but it does make interesting viewing. This area close to the entrance to the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, is shown in a combination of colours, mainly black for "Total Destruction" but with large areas of purple "Damaged Beyond Repair" and crimson "Seriously Damaged - Doubtful if Repairable" showing on the map. There is also a large area shown in green, which indicates a "Clearance Area" which in other words is an area already reduced to rubble and which has already been cleared for redevelopment. The bulk of this devastation was caused by yet another V-1 Flying Bomb that was reported at 06:24 on 3 August 1944 and which killed one person. Had the weapon fallen a few hours later, the casualties would doubtless have been higher as this was a busy area of shops and small businesses, as well as a pedestrian thoroughfare to the Foot Tunnel. Almost the whole block, including the gutted remains of the old 'Ship Hotel', which had already largely been destroyed by a HE Bomb in November 1940, was subsequently cleared to allow the building of the dry dock to house the Cutty Sark in 1954.

As always, the photographs and the two maps make fascinating reading, showing as they do an area that is familiar today to residents and visitors alike, in a completely different light. The documents also show the difficulties that sometimes arise when researching an area's wartime history and the dangers of becoming over reliant on one particular document or source of information. The LCC Bomb Damage Maps are an excellent resource and are invariably correct but one has to remember that these were produced by fallible human beings, often in the heat of the moment. What appeared beyond repair to one local authority building surveyor was sometimes actually very repairable in reality. Likewise, the Civil Defence Incident Logs were written very much in the heat of the moment and therefore sometimes get locations muddled or wrongly named. What always helps are the photographs of any bomb damaged area as these provide incontrovertible visual evidence, even though they do sometimes throw up more questions!

However, the use of all of these sources together will usually allow the determined researcher to get to the bottom of most mysteries as well as providing hours of harmless fun in the process!

As this is likely to be the final blog post for 2016, I'd like to thank everyone for reading and commenting upon the various articles, as well as wishing all of our readers the compliments of the season and also a happy and healthy 2017. We will be back in January with further reports on our wartime history.

Unpublished Sources:

LCC Bomb Damage Maps for Greenwich - held at Greenwich Heritage Centre
Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich Civil Defence Incident Logs - held at Greenwich Heritage Centre 
Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich Public Air Raid Shelter locations - held at Greenwich Heritage Centre
Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich Air Raid Wardens' Post locations - held at Greenwich Heritage Centre







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