Thursday, 1 March 2018

"An Unprincipled Rogue"

First Edition cover of Bamboo and Bushido (author's collection)

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am a football fan. My support these days is reserved for my local non-league side, Dulwich Hamlet but my league team, albeit one from which I am serving a self-imposed exile, is Charlton Athletic.

I've written on a few occasions about the club, most recently in November 2017 when we looked at the story of Jim Mackenzie, our very first Honorary Secretary, who lost his life whilst serving with the Merchant Navy on 30 September 1917. 

Today's story began with an innocent enquiry by a poster on the club's message board which concerned someone by the name of Vic Wilson, who was mentioned in a book called "Bamboo and Bushido" by Alfred Allbury (pictured left), who served in the Royal Artillery at Singapore and was captured, along with the vast majority of his regiment at the time of the surrender on 15 February 1942. Vic's name came up in the story as being a close friend of Alfred, who described him as " unprincipled rogue with a delightful wry sense of humour and a healthy hatred of the war that kept him from his wife and young baby back in Charlton."

A few things in this story intrigued me; it isn't often that my little backwater of Southeast London gets a mention in a book that doesn't concern football and the fact that the two men served in the Royal Artillery - a local regiment - meant that we were quite possibly looking at men from my immediate locality and perhaps who supported the same football club. Unfortunately, Allbury's book didn't say with which regiment of the Royal Artillery they had served but a delve in one of my many reference books provided the Order of Battle which informed me that a local Territorial Army Battery - 118th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery - was present at the fall of Singapore and this encouraged me further.

A search of the excellent Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, as it so often does, provided the basis for my research. It told me that Vic Wilson had sadly not survived the war but had indeed served with 118th Field Regiment. Vic had died in captivity on 27 July 1943 and was buried at Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery in Burma, which indicated that he was one of the many who perished whilst being employed as slave labour of the Japanese on the infamous Burma Railway.

Further research showed that Vic had been born in Greenwich in 1918 and lived at 49 Chevening Road. During the third quarter of 1939, Vic married Violet Elizabeth Wilson from 60 Inverine Road, Charlton and in the first quarter of 1940, Violet gave birth to a baby daughter, Valerie. With the onset of the Blitz, Valerie and Violet were evacuated to the relative safety of Hampshire but Vic and his colleagues, being members of the Territorial Army, had been mobilised upon the declaration of war.

The War Diary of 118th Field Regiment RA reveals early mobilisation plans (author's photo)

In normal times, 118th Field Regiment was based at their Drill Hall in Grove Park, Southeast London but inspection of the Regimental War Diary reveals that the process of mobilisation began as early as 23 August 1939 with the call-up of civilian transport and by the evening of 1 September, an advance party of 150 officers and other ranks marched from Grove Park to Cambridge Barracks at nearby Woolwich, to take up their wartime duties. Apart from a brief spell in late November 1939 when the Regiment took part in an exercise in the Ramsgate area, they remained at Woolwich Garrison until mid-January 1940 at which point they moved to Eastbourne to take up coastal defence duties. The Regiment was equipped with a mixture of 18 pounder field guns of Great War vintage and 4.5" howitzers, of similar ancestry. From late June 1940, they moved to the Norfolk coast to take up anti-invasion duties and whilst here, were re-equipped with 75mm artillery supplied from the USA. In September 1940, a further move occurred, this time to Worstead during which time the Regiment was finally re-equipped with the iconic 25 pdr guns so beloved of the Royal Artillery. Yet another move to the Scottish Borders followed in January 1941 and it was whilst here that the War Diary first mentions the possibility of a deployment to a "Tropical Climate" with training being arranged accordingly. In early April 1941, the Regiment moved to the Staffordshire area, where training continued. Study of the War Diaries tends to lend the lie to the usual perception that the British were forever unprepared for war and muddling through - the politicians may have been unprepared but the Regiment was making preparations for mobilisation over a week before the declaration of war and then training to fight in the Far East some eight months before the entry of Japan into the war.

The Regiment sailed from the Clyde on 30 October 1941 as Convoy CT 5 in eight large troopships, which in peacetime had been better known as the ocean liners ANDES, DUCHESS OF ATHOLL, DURBAN CASTLE, ORCADES, ORONSAY, REINA DEL PACIFICO, SOBIESKY and WARWICK CASTLE. The convoy took the troops as far as Halifax, Nova Scotia where they arrived on 7 November 1941. The next phase of the voyage saw them trans-shipped to six American Troop Transports, the JOSEPH T DICKMAN, LEONARD WOOD, MOUNT VERNON, ORIZABA, WEST POINT and WAKEFIELD. This particular aspect of the voyage is fascinating as the Americans were by now openly assisting their British allies some two months before their official entry into the war and were transporting the British soldiers to potentially fight against an enemy who had also not yet entered the war!

The American ships sailed as Convoy WS 12 X (a British convoy designation) even though the naval escort at this stage was entirely provided by the US Navy and proceeded via Port of Spain to Cape Town, where they arrived on 9 December 1941, two days after the USA's official entry into the war. From Cape Town, the naval escort was a mixed Royal Navy and US Navy affair and the convoy proceeded via Mombasa to Bombay, where they finally arrived on 27 December 1941. From here, the troops transferred to British ships for the final leg of the voyage to Singapore, where they arrived in mid-January 1941, barely one month before the surrender of the colony to the Japanese.

General Arthur Percival (IWM)

The fall of Singapore was arguably the biggest debacle in British military history and is a story of poor preparation, poor command  and a classic case of resources being spread too thinly. Despite this, the Allied forces enjoyed a huge numerical superiority over the Japanese, consisting of some 85,000 British, Australian, Indian and Malay forces against some 36,000 invading Japanese. The Allies however, had no tanks in Singapore and were initially convinced that any Japanese assault would come from the seaward side and not via the Malay Peninsular. The air cover was also insufficient, consisting at first of obsolete Brewster Buffalo fighters and later, small numbers of Hawker Hurricanes, which were no match for the Japanese fighters and were quickly overwhelmed. As a result, there were constant air raids on Singapore and the British commander General Percival, faced with a civilian catastrophe as well as a military defeat, surrendered his forces on 15 February 1942. It was an utter humiliation and one from which British prestige in the region never really recovered.

Alfred Allbury wrote eloquently of the final hours before the surrender:

"My co-driver Vic Wilson and I sallied forth on nightly excursions to ammunition dumps scattered around the island-no transport could survive ten minutes on the road by day. Once our 15cwt was loaded, we had to deliver the shells to our guns. This called not so much for a knowledge of map reading as for the gift of clairvoyance. Jap planes and the unsuitability of the terrain for effective artillery positions kept our battery commanders roving the island in a desperate search for potential gun-sites. Those found and occupied were speedily made untenable by the sustained accuracy of the Japanese counterfire." 

"Vic Wilson and I had long been friends. He was an unprincipled rogue with a wry sense of humour, and a healthy hatred of the war that kept him from his young wife and baby back home in Charlton."

"On the morning of February 14th the first tentative shells landed among our supply-dumps. They quickly found the exact range and soon a searing bombardment developed that sent us scuttling into our fox-holes. The Japs were ranging on us from heights that overlooked the town. Bukit Timah was theirs after the bloodiest of struggles, the reservoir was stained crimson with the blood of those who had fought so bitterly to hold it, and the little yellow men whom we had ridiculed and despised were in swarm across the island. It was already theirs." 

"Next morning Vic and I set off on a last mad jaunt taking ammunition to ‘A’ Troop who were dug in behind a Chinese temple to the north of Racecourse Road. Vic drove like a maniac. He had, I found, been sampling a bottle of ‘John Haig’. We thundered along deserted roads, pitted and scarred with bomb craters. Wrecked and burnt-out vehicles lay everywhere, strewn at fantastic angles. The trolley-bus cables hung across the road in desolate festoons which shivered and whined as we raced over them. A few yards from the charred remains of an ambulance were a knot of troops gathered round a cook’s wagon. From them we scrounged a mug of hot tea and found out the guns of ‘A’ Troop were only a few hundred yards distant. We delivered our ammunition and an hour later rejoined Battery HQ close by the Raffles Hotel." 

"But late that afternoon came the news that we had surrendered. There was to be a cease-fire at four o’clock. We had fought and lost. And the ashes of defeat tasted bitter. At three o’clock all but a few of the guns were silent. Ammunition had been expended. From the hills there still came the occasional bark of a Japanese gun followed by the whine and crash of its shells. But by six o’clock, save for the spluttering of flames and the occasional explosion of ammunition, all was quiet over the island of Singapore. The carnage of the last ten days was quieted now, and in eerie silence our troops sat huddled together in puzzled but fatalistic expectancy."

"Vic and I returned to our lorry, ate some tinned bacon and biscuits and stretched ourselves luxuriously for our first uninterrupted sleep for many days. We took off our boots, smoked, talked and listened to the distant caterwauling of the Japanese." “They’ll probably,” said Vic “be crawling round us in the night, cutting off our ears.” 

"But we stretched out and slept the sleep of the utterly exhausted, while around us into the tropic rose a barbaric and discordant dirge: the victory song of the triumphant Japanese." 

With the fall of Singapore, some 80,000 Allied personnel became Prisoners of War. The Japanese had already signalled their scant regard for humanity when the day before the surrender, they had captured the Alexandra Hospital. A British lieutenant, clearly displaying a white flag, approached the Japanese in order to act as an envoy and explain the presence of a military hospital but was killed with a bayonet. As Japanese forces entered the hospital, they killed soldiers undergoing surgery and bayoneted doctors and nurses with no regard to their non-combatant status. The following day, a further 200 patients and staff were dealt with in the same manner. This was just the beginning of the now-familiar tale of atrocities committed by the Japanese.

With the exception of small parties who escaped Singapore by small boats, including a group of nineteen from the 118th Field Regiment, who safely arrived in India in April 1943 after an odyssey that lasted some fourteen months, the vast majority of those who surrendered went into captivity. After initially being held at Changi Prison, many of the men were sent to work as slave labour on the infamous Burma-Thailand Railway and this is where the story of Vic Wilson ended, succumbing to Beri-Beri on 27 July 1943 and thus never returning home to his wife and daughter.

The Nominal Roll records Vic Wilson's death (authors image)

The Regiment somehow managed to maintain a Nominal Roll which records the fate of Vic and his colleagues, despite the writer of the Roll being imprisoned at Changi and the Regiment being scattered far and wide. It makes heartbreaking reading and a manual count by this writer revealed that of the 744 Officers and Other Ranks that went into captivity at Singapore, 188 died whilst POWs, which represented a loss rate of 25.27%. The vast majority of these men died from disease but inspection of the Nominal Roll reveals some who died from acts of brutality, with one cause of death recorded as "Fractured skull caused by rifle butts" not being uncommon, all of which confirms the Japanese lack of regard for Allied Prisoners of War. 

Despite the sad loss of Vic's life, this story does have an uplifting ending, as following further research, I was able to ascertain that Vic's daughter Valerie is still alive and lives in the local area. I rather tentatively wrote her a letter, explaining who I was and asking whether or not she was aware that her Father featured in a book covering the fall of Singapore. I was delighted to receive a phone call a day or so later from Valerie and had a pleasant conversation with her. Valerie doesn't remember her Dad, as she was only a baby when he went overseas for what proved to be the final time and neither was she aware of Alfred Allbury's book. Valerie's Mum had of course told her something of her Father and had frequently told Valerie that she shared many of Vic's characteristics. She also confirmed that as far as she had been told, Vic was a Charlton football fan and had attended matches at The Valley before going overseas. I sent Valerie copies of the pages in which Vic had been mentioned and subsequently had another long chat on the phone. Valerie doesn't have a photograph of Vic but mentioned that she had given all of the family photographs to her daughter, who now lives in Australia. Hopefully, I will soon be able to share a photo of Vic - a Charlton Athletic supporter and
"unprincipled rogue" who now rests far away from Southeast London.

Published Sources:

Bamboo and Bushido - Alfred Allbury, Robert Hale Limited, London 1955

Unpublished Sources:

National Archives WO 166/1530 - 118th Field Regiment RA, War Diary 01 August 1939 - 30 September 1941

National Archives WO 361/235 - 118th Field Regiment RA, Malaya: Missing Personnel
National Archives WO 361/1300 - 118th Field Regiment RA, Thailand, Casualties
Naitonal Archives WO 361/2092 - 118th Field Regiment RA. Far East, Prisoners of War, Nominal Roll

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

My Thoughts on "Darkest Hour"

Warning: Contains some spoilers:

As there have been two decent Second World War related films released in the past twelve months, I thought that following on from my review of Dunkirk in July of last year then I should perhaps share my thoughts on Darkest Hour the new film which loosely covers the first twenty three days of Winston Churchill's Premiership from his taking the job upon Neville Chamberlain's resignation on 9 May 1940 until towards the end of the Dunkirk evacuation when it became apparent that the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force was going to be saved.

Before going any further, it should be remembered that as with Dunkirk, this film is not a documentary, it is a film and therefore plays fast and loose with historical fact on occasions as well as employing one or two fairly creaky links to the plot.

Gary Oldman's performance as Churchill is quite magnificent and he simply dominates the film. The supporting performances are strong too, with Kristin Scott-Thomas as Clementine Churchill, Ronald Pickup as Chamberlain and Samuel West as Anthony Eden, particularly worthy of note.

The film opens with what proved to Chamberlain's final appearance as Prime Minister in the House of Commons and this leads to my first minor gripe as to the accuracy of the film. During the debate, the Leader of the Opposition, Clement Attlee (played by David Schofield) refers to Chamberlain by name; this of course is never allowed in the House as members are referred to as "Members" or "Right Honourable Members" but never by name. Also the Chamber of the House of Commons appears in a very strange sort of gloomy half-light, no doubt for dramatic purposes but in no way a true representation. Attlee also comes across as a somewhat weak and vacillating character, when in reality, he was a staunch anti-Nazi and supporter of Churchill as Prime Minister.

Lord Halifax (played by Stephen Dillane) and Chamberlain to a lesser extent are played very much as the villains of the piece, constantly trying to undermine the new Prime Minister and working behind his back to negotiate a separate peace. The reality of it was that whilst Halifax did indeed favour a negotiated settlement, he didn't go behind Churchill's back and Chamberlain, whilst he didn't wholly approve of Churchill, didn't actively try to undermine him for his own political ends as is shown in the film. 

It is true that Winston Churchill did have an initially tricky relationship with King George VI (sympathetically played here by Ben Mendelsohn) but the King did warm to his new Prime Minister and they eventually became very close friends. Whether the circumstances of the King's epiphany were as depicted in the film, one has to doubt.

The film does show Churchill's decisive nature well - firing off instructions and "Action this Day" memos to all and sundry, although the notion that Operation Dynamo, as the Dunkirk Evacuation was code named, was Churchill's own idea is quite false. Like the Dunkirk film reviewed in July, this movie also perpetuates the myth that the BEF was saved entirely by the "Little Ships" when in reality, only some 5-7 percent of the men were evacuated this way, with the vast majority being rescued by the Royal Navy's warships and the larger transport ships requisitioned from the Merchant Navy.

Darkest Hour does touch on what Churchill called his 'Black Dog' - his momentary periods of depression and self-doubt but this in turn leads to what this writer feels is the biggest hole in the script. At no point did the Prime Minister ever disappear down in to the London Underground to canvass the opinion of the British public as to whether to continue the war, or to sit down and negotiate with Hitler. Also, what in reality should be a less than five minute journey from St James Park to Westminster seems to last an eternity whilst Churchill seeks the opinion of almost everyone in the carriage!

The film does correctly show Churchill's meeting with members of his 'Outer Cabinet' in which he gauged their opinion, effectively outmanoeuvring any lingering opposition to his policy of fighting on and which culminates in his now famous "We shall never surrender" speech in the House on 4 June 1940.

There is a lot more to this film that the incidents described above and despite my quibbles, it remains a superb piece of film making, which I thoroughly recommend to you. If Gary Oldman should win a Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Churchill, it will be one of the most well-deserved and popular wins ever.

Monday, 8 January 2018

History on our doorsteps

One is never too far from history in London and reminders of the capital's wartime past are certainly still out there in abundance if one knows where to look. Over the years, I've shared photographs of wartime remnants that I encounter on my travels and in the weeks before Christmas, I set out to take some photographs of other reminders of our wartime history.

My first foray took me just across the Thames from my own home to photograph something that I had seen previously but had never thought to photograph before. A short journey on the Docklands Light Railway found me at Stratford and walking along the Greenway - a footpath and cycleway that runs along the top of the Northern Outfall sewer pipe and which also passes the Olympic Stadium. 

Tank Traps and Pillbox on the Greenway (author's photographs)

Following the fall of France in June 1940, a Nazi invasion of this country was thought to be a serious proposition and urgent arrangements were put in hand to counter the threat. Under the direction of General Sir Edmund Ironside, Commander in Chief Home Forces, a series of fixed defences known as the "GHQ Line" and a further series of "Stop Lines" were put in place around London and across the southeast of England. Perhaps it was felt that German tanks could proceed easily along the Greenway as in addition to pillboxes at the Thames end of the Outfall pipe, anti-tank obstructions and a further pillbox was installed at Stratford as part of the London Stop Line Outer, or "Line A" as it was also known. General Ironside's plans for fixed defences were controversial and those commanders who had seen recent action during the British Expeditionary Force's withdrawal from France were vehement in their condemnation of this proliferation of concrete, which in France, the German Army had simply manoeuvered around, or obliterated from the air. Indeed, the then Major General Bernard Montgomery simply stated that he was in "complete disagreement with the general approach to the defence of Britain" and refused to apply it!

He was supported by General Alan Brooke, who had conducted a brilliant fighting withdrawal of his II Corps to Dunkirk, who also appreciated the realities of modern, mobile warfare and who proposed to create mobile reserves close to probable German landing sites. These views in particular, coincided with those of Winston Churchill and following a conversation between the Prime Minister and Brooke during a visit to the latter's Southern Command, Ironside was sacked after only two months in the role. His replacement was Brooke and as a consequence, the "pill box madness" subsided in favour of more mobile forces. History tells us that the invasion never came and fortunately, the Olympic Park defences were never called upon to fire a shot in anger.

For my next stop, I wanted to check out a ghost sign in nearby Bethnal Green that I had been tipped off about and a short bus journey later, I found myself walking along Hereford Street searching for evidence of another facet of wartime London.

Ghost Sign in Hereford Street, Bow (author's photo)

Hereford Street is quite close to Brick Lane in the heart of the old East End of London and the faded sign on the wall of St Matthew's Church Gardens reads "FAP GAS CASES - WOMEN" - FAP stands for First Aid Post and this particular example would have been for treatment of women victims of a poison gas attack on the area. Since the Great War of 1914-18 when poison gas had been used by both sides on the Western Front, there was a great fear that any future conflict would see the civilian populations of British cities and towns subjected to the same horrors. As a consequence, gas masks had been issued to every citizen beginning in 1938 at the time of the Munich Crisis and gas decontamination had been one of the mainstays of the Civil Defence, or Air Raid Precautions arrangements established in the run-up to war in 1939. Mercifully, when war did come, neither side resorted to the use of poison gas and like the anti-invasion measures in nearby Stratford, the Bethnal Green Gas Decontamination Centre was never needed, although the First Aid Post would undoubtedly have seen a heavy workload during the Blitz.

Another short bus journey saw me at Hackney Town Hall, where at the rear of the building is the entrance to an underground bunker. This structure was one of the entrances to the Civil Defence Control Centre for the Metropolitan Borough of Hackney and as such, would have seen extensive service during the Blitz of 1940-41 and the subsequent V-Weapons campaigns of 1944-45. 

Hackney Borough ARP Control Centre (author's photo)

Another short bus journey took me to outside no. 322 Kingsland Road, Dalston where the unmistakeable shape of an air raid shelter entrance can still be seen. It is unclear as to why this house did not have the more familiar shape of an Anderson Shelter in the back garden but it is possible that the premises saw industrial use during the war, or perhaps the owner of the time could afford to pay for a privately built and what he would have hoped was a sturdier structure built deeper into the ground than the garden structure. Interestingly, the shelter now has a door with a letter box, although there was a note to the postman instructing him not to deliver any letters here!

Shelter entrance outside 322 Kingsland Road (author's photo)

On my way home - and much closer to Blitzwalker Towers - I then discovered something entirely by chance and which despite being less than ten minutes walk from my own front door, I had never spotted previously. Walking home from the bus stop via a slightly different route to normal, I was astonished to discover a set of "stretcher fences" in Marlborough Lane, Charlton. Before the outbreak of war, the British Government had assumed that civilian casualties in any future war would be on a Biblical scale with hundreds of thousands killed and injured within a few weeks of the onset of any bombing campaign. As such, suitable numbers of the tubular steel and wire mesh "ARP" Stretchers were manufactured and stockpiled to await the inevitable apocalypse. Fortunately, although the Blitz did claim some 30,000 killed and many more injured in London alone, the mass casualties never materialised and consequently, most of these stretchers remained unused, in storage. Post-war, a quick way needed to be found to replace the wrought iron railings sacrificed for the war effort and also to provide boundary fencing for the many new council estates that appeared to replace bomb damaged and destroyed housing. A quick and what proved to be lasting solution was found in the unused stretchers and today, over seventy years since the end of the war, many of these fences can still be seen at many locations across London.

Stretcher Fencing in Marlborough Lane, Charlton (author's photo)

A few weeks later saw me make another foray, this time with my good friend and designer of our main website, Sam Dorrington, who had tipped me off about some shelters and similar structures in his own locality of Carshalton and Wallington. One of these structures I was aware of but had never photographed, whilst the others were not known to me. After an intial exploration of Kenley Aerodrome (which will feature in a future blog post), Sam drove me to what he described as a "mystery location" which was actually on the Roundshaw Estate, which during the wartime years was part of the former Croydon Airport, at that time in use as a Fighter Station for the RAF. After a short walk through some woodland, we came across the unmistakeable shape of an air raid shelter, now daubed with graffiti but sustantially intact. Sam soon set to work in uncovering the outline of where the blast walls had been located.

Air Raid Shelter at Roundshaw (author's photo)

Sam hard at work uncovering the blast wall (author's photo)

Jumping back into the car, Sam soon took us to the site of another public shelter, this time in nearby Carshalton. Located on the Wrythe Recreation Ground, adjacent to Carshalton Athletic Football Club, I was aware of this shelter but had never examined it previously. This was a substantial concrete structure set into the grass. Most, if not all of the surrounding housing would have had sufficient space for an Anderson Shelter in the garden but during the war, there was a large gas works quite close to this location as well as other industry, so it is quite possible that this shelter was constructed with the workers at these facilities in mind.

The shelter at Wrythe Recreation Ground (author's photos)

Our next port of call was close to Sam's home and took the form of an Air Raid Wardens' Post, located at Mellows Park in Wallington. Made famous by Bill Pertwee's portrayal of Chief Warden Hodges in the classic comedy Dad's Army, the real-life Wardens were an extremely brave and dedicated group of men and women, who not only enforced the black-out but performed many other vital duties during the Blitz, such as supervising air raid shelters, rescue work and acting as 'First Responders' at bomb incidents. They were controlled at a municipal level, with a senior warden on duty at the local borough control, as we saw above at Hackney but operating through a network of Wardens' Posts. Sometimes, these posts were improvised affairs in the basements of existing buildings but more often than not, they were located in small, purpose-built concrete structures that looked like miniature air raid shelters. This was the case at Mellows Park and despite the sadly inevitable grafitti, the structure remains substantially intact and is locally listed.

ARP Wardens' Post at Mellows Park, Wallington (author's photo)

Our final visit for the day was just a short drive away and in the fading light, we arrived at nearby Woodcote Green in Wallington, where another similar looking but slightly wider structure to the Mellows Park Wardens' Post was located. A large mound in the grass adjacent to the brick structure suggested that a shelter was also present and that this small building was a shelter entrance, perhaps also doubling up as a Wardens' Post. A visit to the London Borough of Sutton archives will be required at some point to ascertain what exactly the arrangements were here.

Woodcote Green Shelter Entrance (author's photo)

All in all, combined with the visit to Kenley, it was a fascinating day of exploration only about an hour from my own home and thanks were due to Sam for giving up his time to show me his local wartime history.

Despite London being a vast city, there is still plenty of history, if not quite on one's doorstep, then certainly within a short distance of it. I shall be out and about again quite soon in my search for some more examples of our wartime past.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Defending the Heart - a visit to RAF Uxbridge

Gate Guardian at RAF Uxbridge is this replica Hurricane in 303 Polish Squadron colours (author's photo)

Early in November, I was lucky enough to pay a visit to the RAF 11 Group Ops Room, more popularly known as the Battle of Britain Bunker at RAF Uxbridge in Middlesex, which was responsible for the air defence of London and the Southeast of England and as such carried the motto 'Tutela Cordis' which translates to 'Defence of the Heart.'

No. 11 Group was part of RAF Fighter Command and was an integral part of what became known as the 'Dowding System', named after Fighter Command's first Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief and the man who, with a committee led by Henry Tizard, developed what was the first interlocking command, control and communication network. This comprised of a system of Fighter Groups, Squadrons and Sector Stations, linked to the radar, observer posts, anti-aircraft guns, balloon control all controlled from Fighter Command HQ at Bentley Priory, near Stanmore in Middlesex.

It was a work of genius, which was a cornerstone of British victory during the Battle of Britain and of which the Luftwaffe were never fully aware and who never understood its significance.

The Memorial at RAF Uxbridge (author's photo)

The Groups were the second link in the communication chain and filtered down all of the information received through to the individual sector stations within their respective groups, whilst passing the information up to Command HQ at Stanmore. Today, the 11 Group Ops Room is open to the public, currently by appointment only and has been recreated to appear exactly as it did during the Battle of Britain, more specifically for around 11:30 on Sunday 15 September 1940, the day we now commemorate as Battle of Britain Day.

Appointments are necessary because the nature of the bunker makes space restricted and therefore limits the size of the groups that can be accommodated. My appointment made, I arrived a little before 14:00 having made the short walk from Uxbridge Underground Station through the former RAF Station, much of which is currently being developed into a new housing estate. On formation in 1936, the 11 Group Ops Room was located within Hillingdon House but this was a temporary measure as it was realised from the outset that any such nerve centre would need to remain impervious to enemy air attack.

The bunker was constructed by the well known construction company Sir Robert McAlpine under conditions of strict secrecy between February and August 1939 and was thus available in the nick of time for war. The bunker is sixty feet beneath the ground and was designed to be immune to the heaviest bombs of the period. It was also designed with attack by poison gas in mind and contains a gas filtration system (which is still functioning to this day) which ensures that breathable air is available at all times to those working within the complex.

On the afternoon of my visit, we had a small group of three people booked, one of whom was a 'no show' and thus, our small party of two, led by Bob, our enthusiastic and knowlegeable guide, began the descent of the first flight of 87 steps down to the Ops Room.

The first of 87 steps down - and back up! (author's photo)

As we were a small group on the day, Bob was first able to show us the gas filtration room, which after 78 years still functions perfectly well. Our next port of call was the checkpoint, which today is recreated by an RAF Regiment Guard in mannequin form, together with a rack of 0.303 rifles and a secure grill to prevent unauthorised entry. Understandably, given the secret nature of this site in 1940, entry was strictly governed by pass only. Bob explained that it was here that the Ops Room suffered its only fatal casualty of the Second World War when a WRAF was killed by a rifle which fired as it was being cleaned by one of the duty guards, killing her instantly.

The Check Point entrance to the Ops Room (author's photo)

With this sobering thought in mind, we descended further down two more flights of stairs until at last, we reached the bottom level. Bob explained that the bunker has always had a problem with flooding, although during the years that it was operational, the space was manned around the clock and could be adequately controlled. This is not always the case today and Bob showed us the mark left by a summer thunderstorm in July 2015 which left the complex shoulder deep in water.

Bob shows us the 2015 flood level marked on the door frame (author's photo)

Having reached the Ops Room proper, although I had never visited before, it was a strangely familiar sight. This was because I had seen it (so I thought) in many films, perhaps most notably in the 1969 classic Battle of Britain and I asked Bob about this filming. It transpired that the film hadn't been shot in the Bunker, because at this time RAF Uxbridge was still an operational station and in any case, the Ops Room in its 1940 form was non-existent at that time. A team from the production company visited, took meticulous measurements and aided by photographs of the complex taken during the war, faithfully recreated the complex at Pinewood Studios - and so myths are demolished!

The 'Tote Board' and Plot Table (author's photo)

The Gallery - VIPs were accomodated on the far left (author's photo)

The main Ops Room is dominated on one side by the vast 'Tote Board' which fills one wall and by the elevated desks and the curved glass of the gallery on the other. The desks were occupied by the 'Tellers' who were in constant contact with the Sector Stations, Radar Stations etc. and the Gallery was home to the Duty Controller and the AOC, who during the Battle of Britain was Air Vice Marshal Keith Park. The glass protection was a must, as the main Ops Room, with it's legion of Tellers, WRAF 'croupiers' on the Plot and the constant ringing of telephones, was a noisy place and the Controllers up above needed a modicum of quiet in order to take the momentous decisions needed to control the battle.

Bob immediately set about explaining the Tote Board and its complexities. It was designed to display all of the relevant information at a glance. The place names displayed prominently across the top and bottom of the board - TANGMERE, NORTH WEALD, HORNCHURCH, KENLEY, BIGGIN HILL, DEBDEN and NORTHOLT - are the Sector Stations for 11 Group. The numbers displayed beneath each Sector Station are the squadrons assigned to each sector, for example for Northolt we see 1 (Canadian), 303 (Polish), 229, 504 and 264 B Flight, which was a night-fighter squadron at this period of the Battle and is thus shown as 'Released' on the Tote Board, as it is set for 11:30 on 15 September 1940. The descriptions beneath each squadron, such as 'Available in 30 minutes' etc., show the readiness state of each of those squadrons. The meaning of the coloured lights relates to the colours shown on the clock face, so for example with the clock at 11:30, the minute hand has just passed the 'blue' section on the clock face, so if the light is illuminated in blue, the controllers know at a glance that this is up to date information, if in yellow then ten minute old information, red fifteen minutes and so on, with the lights being lit in sequence. At the bottom of the status list, we then see the words 'State of Squadrons' - this is simple with 'P' equating to pilots and 'A' for aircraft, so again we can see at a glance that 1 (Canadian) Squadron at this precise point had 23 pilots but only 13 aircraft, 303 (Polish) 21 pilots and 17 aircraft and so on across the squadrons.

Weather and Balloon Status was also shown (author's photo)

Nothing was left to chance and the lower part of the Tote Board displayed the weather and visibility across all Fighter Command airfields and so apart from the Sector Stations, we now saw other familiar names from the Battle of Britain such as Hendon, Croydon and Martlesham Heath on display. For example, the cloud status was 8/10 cloud cover at 18,000 feet above Biggin Hill and visibility of three miles. The green disks told at a glance that the airfield was open - a red would indicated a temporary closure and a red/green would indicate usable with care. The status of the balloon barrage was shown, with the heights of the barrages at Dover, Gravesend, Tilbury and London all shown.

The Plot Table set for 11:30 on Sunday 15 September 1940 (author's photo)

Moving to the Plot Table, the same principal of showing at a glance the age and therefore the validity of the information to hand applied. Looking at the photograph immediately above, three raids can be seen heading across the Channel; these are marked 'H' for Hostile and the number '04' for example, signifies that it is the fourth hostile raid detected so far that day. The figure in red below indicates the number of aircraft in the raid, either based on the radar operator's judgement, or as observed by a member of the Royal Observer Corps. The arrows behind the raids are coloured according to the clock face, so in this instance a blue arrow represents the most up-to-date and therefore accurate information available and by looking at the progression of arrows, it is possible to plot the course of the raids as they head towards the English coast. The RAF fighter squadrons being deployed in response to the raid are shown in similar fashion, with the squadron numbers displayed on yellow flags atop the  wooden blocks, so we see that the first squadrons likely to intercept are 92 and 72 Squadrons, which comprise of twenty aircraft and which are patrolling at a height of 25,000 feet, in other words, with the advantage of height. Other squadrons are shown at various points, either patrolling over airfields, or ready to intercept before the raiders reached London. In the distance, just over the demarcation line between 11 and 12 Groups is a formation marked 'W' which shows fifty five aircraft patrolling at 20,000 feet. This is the Duxford Wing, or the "Big Wing" of 12 Group, which although it had let down Park in 11 Group earlier in the battle by appearing too late to be effective, on this day it was to have a devastating psychological effect on the Luftwaffe by appearing in large numbers, just at a time when the German pilots had been led to believe that the RAF was on its last legs.

From the Plot Room, we moved upstairs to the gallery area behind the curved glass. Part of this is still laid out with the desk for the Duty Controller, which during the Battle of Britain was Air Commodore Baron Willoughby de Broke, who during the Battle of Britain always ensured that he was available and never missed a single day's action. An interesting fact relayed by Bob our guide, was that contrary to popular belief, no RAF personnel slept in the bunker at any point during the war, the only person being allowed to do so was the duty GPO telephone engineer, so vital was it to maintain communications with the outside world and the 11 Group airfields in particular. Another interesting point of interest is that the map on display is the original dating from 1940, which when the Ops Room was restored to it's original Battle of Britain configuration in the mid-1980s, was found rolled up in a storeroom, gathering dust!

The view down from the Gallery (author's photo)

The remainder of the Gallery, along with many of the adjoining former offices, has been converted into a most attractive and interesting museum, housing models, uniforms, medals and memorabilia from the RAF's Second World War history and beyond. This was largely the work of Warrant Officer 'Chris' Wren MBE, who whilst stationed at RAF Uxbridge for the final nine years of his RAF career, took it upon himself to restore the Ops Room to it's former glory and made it a personal mission to achieve this end. Chris is now retired from the RAF and from overseeing the Ops Room but he can be extremely proud of the end result.

During the Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill was a frequent visitor and would sit in the VIP area of the Gallery watching the day's events unfold and indeed, it was following a visit on 16 August 1940 that he was so moved by what he seen, that he began to pen the speech that would include the now immortal phrase "Never in the field of human conflict, was so much owed, by so many to so few."
Churchill was again present on 15 September 1940, the day we see frozen in time at the Ops Room today but the Bunker was visited by many other VIPs during the war, including Field Marshal Montgomery and General Dwight D Eisenhower.

Air Raid Siren formerly mounted on the roof of Hillingdon House (author's photo)

Babys' Gas Mask (author's photo)

Other parts of the Museum are dedicated to the Royal Observer Corps, Bomber Command and to RAF Uxbridge. A slick looking new Visitor Centre is currently under construction outside in the grounds which is due to open in February 2018 and it is to be hoped that this new facility doesn't detract from the charm of the current arrangements too much. There is also a Lecture Theatre, and whilst we were undertaking our visit, watched a fascinating film made especially for the RAF in 1990 which highlighted the work of 11 Group. Bob mentioned that for school groups, who are also catered for here, he frequently shows the classic documentary "London Can Take It!" which dates from 1940.

Of course, the 11 Group Ops Room was at the centre of events other than the Battle of Britain, although this was undoubtedly it's 'Finest Hour' to coin a phrase. The subsequent fighter sweeps, known as 'Rhubarbs', a costly strategy envisioned by Keith Park's successor Trafford Leigh-Mallory, who had intrigued for the 11 Group AOC's post, were all controlled from here, as were the air operations for another ill-advised mission, the Dieppe Raid in 1942. The culminating moment came in 1944, when the air operations for Operation Overlord, the D-Day Landings were all controlled from the 11 Group Bunker and today a replica Spitfire Mk IX in "Invasion Stripes" acts as the joint gate guardian with the Hurricane to represent the two pinnacles in the Ops Room's history.

Replica Spitfire Mk IX gate guardian (author's photo)

The Battle of Britain Bunker in it's present format is open by appointment only until Friday 22 December 2017, after which point it will close until the new Visitor Centre opens in February next year. I highly recommend paying a visit and details as to how to book can be made by checking out the Museum Website as per this link. If you can, visit before the closure so that you can see the current arrangements before it is too late!

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Remembering a Charlton hero: The Jim Mackenzie Story

Jim Mackenzie at right of photo (Charlton Athletic Museum)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unpublished Sources:

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

Published Sources: 

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

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Exploring Wartime Woolwich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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