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:


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

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Westminster's Monuments to War

As regular readers of this blog will no doubt be aware, I have accumulated over the years a fairly vast collection of photographs recording London's 'footprints' of her wartime past. These take the form of signs for air raid shelters, emergency water supplies and occasionally the shelters themselves and other surviving wartime relics, such as shrapnel scarred buildings and wartime graffiti. Back in May 2013 I ran a short series of articles on this blog running through to August of the same year which detailed many of these and hopefully many Londoners and visitors to the capital have managed to discover at least some of these, perhaps by coming on one of our walks, or by exploring for themselves. The City of Westminster is home to some of these and walkers will have an opportunity to see some of them on September 18th 2016 when I shall be guiding a walk around the area's wartime past - booking details can be found on the main website.

Eagle Squadrons Memorial in Grosvenor Square (author's photo)

There are also many memorials and plaques to notable wartime events and personalites located across London. Many of these are sited in high profile locations and are probably well known to both Londoners and visitors alike but there are also many that are tucked away in lesser known places and today, we are going to explore some examples of both types of these.

St Clement Danes Church is well known today as the Central Church of the Royal Air Force, although it could be argued that the building itself is a monument to the Blitz, as it was destroyed in an air raid on the night of 10/11 May 1941. It certainly carries it's own 'honourable scars' in the form of some heavy duty shrapnel marks in the masonry at the Law Courts side of the building.

Shrapnel scars at St Clement Danes (author's photo)

In addition to the shrapnel scars, there are two statues commemorating key figures in the RAF's history standing guard outside the church. The first is of Air Chief Marshal Baron Dowding of Bentley Priory, who as Sir Hugh Dowding was one of the architects of British victory in the Battle of Britain in 1940, the first German defeat of the war and one which ensured that the RAF retained control of the skies over the British Isles, thus avoiding any serious prospect of a German invasion of this country. Born in 1882, Dowding who was nicknamed 'Stuffy' as a result of his seemingly somewhat aloof manner (in reality more down to shyness), was the first Air Officer Commanding of RAF Fighter Command and oversaw the introduction of an integrated system of radar backed up by human observers, raid plotting, radio vectoring of fighters, interlocking groups and sectors designed to reinforce one another as well as ensuring the introduction of modern, eight gun fighters in the form of the Spitfire and Hurricane. He also saw off challenges from others who tried to foist upon him  inferior aircraft such as the Defiant, making himself somewhat unpopular with some of his contemporary senior officers in the service. He was coming towards the end of his tenure at Fighter Command on the outbreak of war but fortunately for the country, was given an extension of service until late 1940, which ensured the British victory. His service rivals finally ensured that he was dismissed in November 1940 and after a brief and unhappy appointment to the USA on behalf of the Ministry of Aircraft Production and the production of a study into RAF manpower, he retired from the service in July 1942.

Baron Dowding's statue at RAF St Clement Danes (author's photo)

The other 'gate guardian' at St Clement Danes is an altogether more controversial figure and remains so to this day. Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris, known to his friends as 'Bert', to his Bomber Command crews as 'Butch' (short for Butcher) and to the wider world as 'Bomber' was the Air Officer Commanding of RAF Bomber Command from 1942 until 1945 and as such, oversaw the area bombing campaign of German cities. A long time proponent of aerial bombing, Harris was at first given command of 5 Group in September 1939 and took command of Bomber Command in February 1942 when it was at a low ebb. Early attempts at daylight, unescorted precision bombing had been disastrous and having switched to night bombing, navigation was found to be lacking, with only one in three aircraft getting within five miles of their intended targets. Harris reinvigorated his new command, placing greater emphasis on night flying techniques and pushed for the introduction of electronic navigation aids such as 'Gee' and 'Oboe' as well as improved radars. Harris also recognised that precision bombing at night was next to impossible, so resorted to Area Bombing of large cities, starting with a trial run on Lubeck in March 1942 and achieving a major publicity coup in May 1942 with Operation Millenium, a huge 1,000 bomber raid upon Cologne, in which he successfully gambled the entire force at his disposal to demonstrate his area bombing techniques. These culminated in Operation Gomorrah, a series of raids over seven days and nights in which the city of Hamburg was more or less erased from the map, with the loss of some 42,000 civilian lives. The destruction of Dresden in February 1945 with the loss of a further 25,000 lives was arguably the most controversial raid of the war and saw Churchill attempting to distance himself from the policy of area bombing, even though he had ordered the raid himself in order to assist the Russians in their advance from the east. Harris remained unapologetic about the policy and rightly considered the post war government's refusal to issue a campaign medal to his 'old lags' as he called his men, an outrage and refused to accept any peerage or higher honour himself as a protest. Bomber Command lost 55,573 men during the Second World War, the highest losses for any arm of the British Armed Forces. Harris was fiercely loyal to his men and despite the losses, they reciprocated the loyalty with interest. The controvery surrounding Harris continues to this day and when his statue was unveiled in 1992 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, it was vandalised within a day or so by someone throwing red paint over it. The statue has been defaced several times since but thankfully in more recent years, it has remained untouched.

Sir Arthur Harris's statue outside RAF St Clement Danes (author's photo)

There is also another figure from the wartime RAF commemorated not too far from St Clement Danes, who whilst not as controversial a figure today, certainly divided opinion within the Service at the time, although today almost all historians now believe his tactics were correct and indeed Lord Tedder, a former Chief of the Air Staff stated "If any one man won the Battle of Britain, it was him."

The "him" in question was Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park, AOC of 11 Group, RAF Fighter Command for the whole of the Battle of Britain. A New Zealander, Park was much beloved by his subordinates, having no 'side' to him at all, but was perhaps less loved by some of his contemporary senior officers. Maybe this was down to his being seen as a mere 'colonial' and maybe it was Park's straight talking and inability to suffer fools that caused this friction but there is no doubt that he did not see eye-to-eye with his counterpart in neighbouring 12 Group, Sir Trafford Leigh Mallory. The two men had diametrically opposite views on fighter tactics; Park believed in intercepting enemy formations as far forward as possible, using relatively small formations of fighters, whilst Leigh Mallory, encouraged by subordinates like Douglas Bader, was an advocate of the so-called 'Big Wing' in which as many as seven or eight squadrons would be formated together to attack in large numbers. Park had already experimented with large formations during the Dunkirk operations and had found them to be unwieldy. It took time to gather together such a large number of aircraft and by the time they had done so, the attacking bombers had often discharged their loads and were on the way home. Furthermore Bader, although undoubtedly a brave man, was something of a loose cannon and would often ignore instructions given to him by the ground controllers, preferring instead to look for the enemy where his 'gut instinct' told him they would be. Thus, when Park called upon 12 Group for assistance, as was their function, they would often not be in the right place, or sometimes not turn up at all. As a result of this, Park didn't trust Leigh Mallory, told him so and more importantly told Dowding so into the bargain.

Unfortunately for Park, Leigh Mallory was also jealous for control of 11 Group and his friend Sholto Douglas had envious eyes towards Dowding's position. Sholto Douglas was also used to the machinations of the Whitehall machine and used his political connections to make sure that the two men got their own way, with the result that with the Battle of Britain won, Park's reward was to be effectively sacked and relegated to Training Command. His replacement was Leigh Mallory, with Douglas manouvering himself into the top job upon Dowding's enforced retirement. Park was later moved to Malta, where using the same tactics as he used in the Battle of Britain, transformed the situation and stopped the air raids on the beseiged island within weeks of his arrival and later still in the war, commanded the Allied Air Forces in the Far East, replacing Leigh Mallory who had been killed in an air crash.

Sir Keith Park's statue in Waterloo Place (author's photo)

We continue the Royal Air Force theme for the moment and now look at a memorial that will only be seen by cricket lovers, located as it is at Lord's Cricket Ground but even so, it may be that many visitors to the Home of Cricket will have passed by without the unobtrusive bronze plaque on the famous Lord's Pavilion that tells us the ground was used by the Service as an Air Crew Reception Centre during the Second World War. Many of these men subsequently gave their life on operational service and the simple plaque reminds us that our continued enjoyment of cricket reflects their sacrifices.

Plaque outside the Lord's Pavilion (author's photo)

The Senior Service is also well represented in London and one of the most impressive reminders of their sacrifice is the Submariners' Memorial located on the Victoria Embankment. This takes the form of a large bas-relief which depicts the interior of a submarine, on either side of which is a plaque, one of which lists the submarines lost in the First World War and the other which lists those lost in the 1939-45 conflict. Submariners are a special breed and in wartime especially, worked and fought in incredibly difficult circumstances with little chance of escape should their vessel be sunk. Perhaps in recognition of this, the submariners hold their own special Memorial Walk and wreath laying service on the Sunday preceeding the country's main Remembrance ceremonies.

The Second World War panel on the Submariners' Memorial (author's photo)

Close to the Submariners' Memorial is another reminder of the Second World War, in the form of HQS Wellington, formerly His Majesty's Ship of the same name. Now the floating livery hall for the Honourable Company of Master Mariners, HMS Wellington was launched in 1934 at Devonport Dockyard as a Grimsby Class Sloop and during the War escorted many Atlantic and Gibraltar convoys, sharing in the destruction of a single U-Boat, as well as assisting in the evacuation of Allied troops from Le Havre in June 1940. Decommissioned following the end of the War, she was converted for her new role at Chatham Dockyard, which included the removal of all her machinery spaces, which were converted into the main livery hall area of the vessel. A drydocking and refurbishment in 1991 means that her existence should be assured for the forseeable future and we can only but wonder how many people driving, cycling or jogging past the smart, white painted ship realise that they are passing a veteran of the Battle of the Atlantic.

HQS Wellington at her berth on Victoria Embankment (author's photo)

Just downstream from HQS Wellington there was until quite recently, another veteran from the war at sea, this time from the previous conflict, in the shape of HMS President, formerly known as HMS Saxifrage, a Flower class sloop dating from January 1918 and which saw active service escorting Atlantic Convoys. She was also known as a 'Q Ship', and was superficially disguised to look like a merchant ship, with her guns hidden from view. The idea was that German U-Boats would surface to engage with guns what was thought to be an easy target, only for the Q Ship to then reveal her true identity and use her overwhelming fire power to sink the submarine. In this guise, the ship's log of the Saxifrage records that she engaged nine U-Boats in her wartime career. Being completed right at the end of the war, HMS Saxifrage's service was brief and she was of little use to the peacetime Royal Navy. In 1922, she was moored permanently on the Victoria Embankment, renamed President and used as the Drill Ship for the London Division, Royal Navy Reserve, a role which she fulfilled until 1988, when she was decommissioned upon the opening of a shore establishment by the same name located slightly further downstream at St Katherine's Dock. The vessel was until recently used as a wedding and corporate venue, being latterly painted in a frankly awful approximation of a wartime 'dazzle' camouflage scheme but earlier this year, she was towed down to Chatham Dockyard pending a refurbishment which will hopefully see her return to a berth in the capital in time for her centenary in 2018 and also we must hope, in a more appropriate colour scheme.

HMS President at her former berth on Victoria Embankment (author's photo)

Apart from the Senior and Junior Services, the British Army is also well represented in Westminster in the form of numerous plaques and statues, covering all aspects of the service from the early days of defeat and evacuations, through to the winning years of 1944-45.

Lord Gort's Blue Plaque at 34 Belgrave Square (author's photo)

John Standish Surtees Prendergast Vereker, perhaps better known as Lord Gort, was the Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force in France in 1939-40. He was undoubtedly a brave man, as the award of a Victoria Cross at the Battle of Canal Nord in 1918 testifies but as a commander, he was not possessed of the greatest brain power. Gort had reached the pinnacle of the British Army, being appointed it's professional head, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff in late 1937. In normal times of peace, it would have been his final appointment before an honourable retirement but on the outbreak of war in 1939 and the formation of an Expeditionary Force to fight alongside the French, as was the custom, the command of this formation went to the CIGS. Gort's command position was not the easiest, being under the orders of the numerically superior French but in time of crisis, still having the latitude to act as he thought best in accordance with the British national interest. This came to a head in May 1940, when the French Army and political leadership, largely paralysed through defeatism, seemed incapable of mounting a counter attack. The truth was that both armies were largely living in the past and seemed to think that the war in 1940 would take a similar shape to the previous conflict. Nevertheless, Gort displayed great moral courage in ordering a withdrawal to the sea and aided by skillful generalship and cool heads from the likes of Generals Brooke, Montgomery and Alexander, as well as other up and coming younger Generals, the BEF were able to extricate the majority of it's manpower (although not much of it's equipment) through Dunkirk and the other Channel ports in a series of evacuations. Gort was never given another field command after Dunkirk; Churchill tentatively put his name forward as Auchinleck's successor in North Africa but the CIGS, by now General Alan Brooke and who had served under Gort in France, was having none of it and vetoed the idea. Instead a succession of Governorships followed, first Gibraltar from 1941-42, then Malta from 1942-44 where his leadership during the siege made a great impression on the Maltese people. His final appointment was as High Commissioner for Palestine and Transjordan. It was during this tenure that he first displayed symptoms of an illness which turned out to be liver cancer. It was not diagnosed correctly on a visit to the UK in early 1945 and it was not until he returned to England permanently that he was admitted to Guy's Hospital, where his condition was finally diagnosed, by which time it had become inoperable. He died at Guy's on 31 March 1946. The English Heritage Blue Plaque pictured above is located at his former home at 34 Belgrave Square in London SW1.

The Guards Memorial with it's 'honourable scars' in Horse Guards Parade (author's photo)

A more general memorial exists in Horse Guards Parade, where it must have been seen by hundreds of thousands of people since it's unveiling in 1926. The 'cenotaph' feature was designed by H Chalton Bradshaw, whilst the bronze figures of Guardsmen were designed by Gilbert Ledward. Each figure represents one of the Guards Regiments, the Grenadier, Coldstream, Scots, Irish and Welsh Guards and each figure was modelled on a serving guardsman of the time. So from left to right we have Sgt R Bradshaw MM of the Grenadiers, Lance Cpl JS Richardson of the Coldstream, Guardsman J McDonald of the Scots, Guardsman Simon McCarthy of the Irish and Guardsman A Conley of the Welsh Guards. There are some who think that the Household Division are merely ceremonial troops but the memorial serves to remind us that they were and remain an integral part of the fighting strength of the British Army and their losses in two World Wars as well as subsequent conflicts upto and including Afghanistan are due testament to that fact. The memorial itself has it's own 'Honourable Scars' inflicted by shrapnel damage from a High Explosive bomb falling nearby in October 1940 which are clearly visible to this day.

As we might expect, our Allies during the Second World War are also well represented in London. General Wladyslaw Sikorski had been an integral part in the formation of a free and independent Poland during the Polish-Soviet war of 1918-1921 and had become an almost legendary figure amongst the Polish people for his exploits during that conflict. He had subsequently briefly been Primer Minister in 1922-23 and had also played a large part in the organisation of the Polish Army. Following the coup organised by Josef Pilsudski in 1926, Sikorski declared his opposition and was susbequently relieved of his Army command in 1928 and went into retirement and semi-exile in Paris. Following the German invasion in September 1939, Sikorski pressed unsuccessfully for a command and escaped back to Paris via Romania, where he formed a Government in Exile with Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz as President and Stanislaw Mikolajczyk. Sikorski was invited by the President to become Prime Minister. Despite their defeat, the Poles still commanded considerable forces that had escaped to France and Great Britain. Almost the entire Polish Navy had escaped, as had large numbers of airman and several divisions of the Polish Army. Following the fall of France in June 1940, Sikorski rejected a proposal by Marshal Petain that Poland should capitulate along with the French and the Government in Exile, followed by many thousands of Polish servicemen, escaped to Great Britain. Following the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, tens of thousands of Polish prisoners were released and made their way to British controlled North Africa, where they fought with great distinction. The Soviet change of heart came too late for the 20,000 Polish Army officers who had been murdered by the Soviets and buried in the Katyn Forest. This atrocity by the Soviets would weigh heavily on Sikorski's heart as well as upon future Soviet-Polish relations. Sikorski himself died in an air accident when his Liberator bomber crashed on take off from Gibraltar. He had been returning from an inspection of his troops in North Africa and his death remains controversial to this day; the Soviets had broken off diplomatic relations with Sikorski's Government in Exile and conspiracy theories abound about his possible assassination by the Soviets. Nothing was ever proved although his death had a profound effect on Allied-Polish relations, with no subsequent Polish leader having anything like Sikorski's influence with the Americans and British. Sikorski was buried at the Polish War Cemetery at Newark on Trent, although with the formation of a free and democratic Poland following the collapse of the Soviet Union, his remains were exhumed and transported to a new grave at Wawel Castle in Kracow. His statue pictured below is in Portland Place and was unveiled in 2000.

General Sikorski's statue in Portland Place (author's photo)

No collection of War Memorials in Westminster would be complete without mention of our American Allies. There are too many to mention here but one of note is located outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square. Many readers will be aware that the embassy is scheduled to move to a new location at Nine Elms, south of the Thames at some point in 2017 and it is unclear whether the various memorials outside the current embassy, including statues of President Franklin D Roosevelt and General Dwight D Eisenhower, will move with the embassy. The one pictured at the top of the page is that to the American Eagle Squadrons, formed in 1940 in Great Britain. This was prior to America's entry into the war and although too late to serve in the Battle of Britain, they served with great distinction as part of the RAF until formally turned over to American control in September 1942. Only 244 Americans actually served with the Eagle Squadrons and although they never renounced their American citizenship, they wore RAF uniform and rank insignia with an Eagle Squadron emblem proudly displayed. Some of the recruits had already been rejected by the USAAF as unsuitable for flying duties and took great pleasure in proving this decision wrong, whilst others had intended to initially fight for the Finns against the Soviets or for the French against the Nazis. They all eventually gravitated to England and some of the stories of how they reached this country were quite epic in their own right.

Eagle Squadron insignia (author's collection)

71 Squadron was the first of the Eagle Squadrons to be formed, in September 1940 but was not declared operational until February 1941 at RAF Church Fenton. The second unit was 121 Squadron at RAF Kirton-in-Lindsay in February 1941, with the final one, 133 Squadron being formed in July 1941 at RAF Coltishall. Upon transfer to the American Eigth Air Force in September 1942, the squadrons were re-numbered as the 334th, 335th and 336th Fighter Squadrons respectively, initially retaining their Spitfires until re-equipped with P-47 Thunderbolts in January 1943. During their time with the RAF, they had earned twelve Distinguished Flying Crosses and one Distinguished Flying Order. At the insistence of the men themselves, all of the original RAF Eagle Squadron pilots continued to wear their RAF pilot's 'wings' alongside their new American insignia. Of the original thirty four pilots from 1940, only four of them were able to transfer to American control. The remainder had either been killed or captured.

There are many other statues and memorials in Westminster commemorating our other staunch allies, including the Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders as well as the French and the Dutch, as well as many memorials to our own various arms of the Civil Defence Services. There are also many others outside Westminster and in our next article will try to cover some more of these.

Published Sources:
Bomber Harris: His Life and Times - Henry Probert, Greenhill Books 2003
Dowding of Fighter Command - Vincent Orange, Grub Street 2008
Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man - High Sebag-Montefiore, Viking 2006
Park - Vincent Orange, Grub Street 2001 
Sloops 1926-1946 - Arnold Hague, World Ship Society 1993
War Diaries 1939-1945; Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke - editors Alex Danchev and Daniel Todman - Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2001