Thursday, 22 December 2011

1939: The first wartime Christmas, The Phoney War and a victory at sea

The Graf Spee (Bundesarchiv)
The winter of 1939 was to prove one of the coldest for many years. In Germany there was thick ice in the Baltic, the Kiel Canal and the Rivers Elbe and Jade which hampered trade almost as much as the British naval blockade, which was beginning to affect the supply of food and essential products into the Reich. In France, the soldiers of the newly arrived British Expeditionary Force found the ferocity of the winter had frozen the ground so hard that they were unable to make much progress in digging the trenches and defensive systems that were seen as essential to the sort of war they were expecting to have to fight. In December 1939, the BEF introduced a forces’ leave service so that at least some of the men who had been in France since the previous September were able to spend Christmas at home with their families.

At home in Britain in December 1939, people were beginning to come to terms with the blackout. In September 1939, the casualty figures for road traffic accidents had increased by almost 100 percent over peacetime figures. This didn’t include people who suffered from other blackout-related mishaps, such as falling from railway platforms, walking into canals or falling down steps. By December, the imposition of more severe petrol rationing forced most private cars from the road, so traffic accidents began to decrease almost by default. A slight relaxation in the blackout also permitted civilians to carry hand torches, albeit masked but sufficient to help in finding one’s way around more safely. The dance halls, cinemas and theatres were packed out once again but the cold weather was beginning to play havoc with the public transport system; some main line express trains from Scotland and the north of England ran over a day late!

Although there had been no actual air raids over British cities by December 1939, there was no shortage of alerts, which showed up the many flaws and deficiencies in the ARP system, some of which were still apparent when the shooting war started in the spring and summer of 1940. This then, was the "Phoney War."

At sea however, this phrase was an anathema to the men of the Royal and Merchant Navies. The first ship to be sunk was the liner Athenia, torpedoed by Fritz Julius Lemp in the U-30 with heavy loss of life on 3rd September, just hours after the declaration of war. The Royal Navy had also suffered an early loss when the aircraft carrier HMS Courageous had been torpedoed by U-29 with the loss of 519 officers and men, including her captain. The Royal Navy had begun to sink U-Boats and was beginning the long and painful battle to overcome this menace but in December 1939, despite these and other high profile sinkings, the U-Boat was not a major threat. There were insufficient numbers of ocean-going submarines and without the French Atlantic coast bases that the Germans were later to capture, those submarines that were in commission did not yet have the direct access to the Atlantic convoys that was later to cause such carnage to Britain’s life lines.

In December 1939, the main threat to Britain’s merchant fleet came from the surface raider. Apart from the converted merchant vessels that tended to prey on vessels sailing alone, the Kriegsmarine had three specialised Panzerschiffen, known to the rest of the World as ‘pocket battleships’, so called because they were not armed quite to the same level as the conventional battleship but still powerfully equipped with six 11 inch guns and a heavy secondary armament. They were powered by diesel engines which gave a speed in excess of most British heavy units and more importantly gave these vessels a tremendous level of endurance, especially when operating in tandem with a supply tanker, meeting at pre-arranged rendezvous points in the open ocean.

One such vessel, the Graf Spee (pictured at top), under the command of Kapitan Hans Langsdorff (pictured below), had sailed from Wilhelmshaven shortly before the outbreak of war, on the 20th August 1939 and had been undetected as she sailed via the Norwegian coast and through the Denmark Strait into the Atlantic and her war station in the South Atlantic. The British only realised that she had sailed on the 31st August, some eleven days after she had departed. By then it was too late; units of the British Home Fleet patrolled the area around Norway and the Shetlands but Graf Spee was long gone and especially in these pre-radar days, finding a ship in the Atlantic that did not want to be discovered was like the proverbial needle in the haystack story.


Hans Langsdorff (Bundesarchiv)
It was only when British merchant ships began to disappear in the South Atlantic, around the Cape, off the coast of Lourenco Marques and finally off the coast of South America that British suspicions of a raider at large were confirmed. Graf Spee was operating in tandem with her supply vessel, the tanker Altmark and proved to be a formidable and elusive enemy. The Royal Navy immediately mobilised hunting groups of warships to track down the enemy and one of those hunting groups was the South Atlantic Squadron under Commodore (later Admiral Sir Henry) Harwood, flying his broad pennant in the cruiser HMS Ajax with two further cruisers Exeter and the New Zealand manned Achilles. These vessels more than matched the Graf Spee for speed but were vastly outgunned by the German vessel. Nominally Harwood had a fourth cruiser, the Cumberland but she was at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands undergoing a self-refit, so already Harwood’s force was somewhat depleted. However, Henry Harwood was a shrewd operator and he had been using the intelligence available to him to try and calculate where he could intercept the raider. Many of the British ships sunk by the Graf Spee had bravely transmitted an ‘RRR’ signal together with a position, which indicated that the vessel had been attacked by a surface raider. It was doubly brave to send these warning signals as the Germans threatened dire consequences for any radio officers sending these messages. Fortunately for the British, Kapitan Langsdorff was an honourable man who did not take reprisals against his captives and was scrupulous in his fair and humane treatment of prisoners. The same could not be said of his counterpart, Kapitan Dau of the supply ship Altmark and the British merchant seaman held on board this vessel, whilst not physically harmed, were kept in squalid conditions in one of the ship’s holds. A number of British Merchant Navy officers were transferred to the Graf Spee for her anticipated voyage back to Germany and the difference in the treatment they received on the pocket battleship was notable.

Not all of the vessels intercepted by Graf Spee managed to send an ‘RRR’ report but enough did to allow Harwood to undertake some inspired detective work. Piecing together the reported positions of the sunken vessels, he was convinced that Graf Spee would return to the South Atlantic for one final tilt at the constant stream of British merchantmen heading from the River Plate with much needed meat for the home market.

Having made his dispositions accordingly, Harwood concentrated his three cruisers off the River Plate and waited for Graf Spee to appear. On December 13th 1939, the German pocket battleship obligingly sailed over the horizon. Harwood’s plan for this contingency was to split the enemy’s fire by dividing his own force; the two smaller cruisers Achilles and Ajax formed one division, whilst the more heavily armed Exeter was to fight alone. It was at this early point in the battle that Langsdorff made his first and ultimately fatal error. On approaching the British vessels, Langsdorff wrongly assumed that Exeter was the sole cruiser and that the two smaller vessels were escorting destroyers and closed accordingly to make a quick kill. Once he closed the range and had realised his mistake, it was too late. The three cruisers tore into the pocket battleship and harried her relentlessly. At first Exeter bore the brunt of the raider’s counter attacks and was soon turned into a blazing, sinking shambles with all of her main armament knocked out. At first Captain Bell of the Exeter considered ramming Graf Spee, but he was ordered by Harwood to retire from the battle and was soon heading towards the Falkland Islands which she eventually reached in order to lick her wounds. The remaining two lightly armed cruisers kept up the pressure, closing the range and hitting Graf Spee and hitting hard. Fearing that the two British vessels were leading him onto superior heavy forces, Langsdorff inexplicably turned and ran; heading towards the River Plate, he eventually reached the sanctuary of the River Plate within the territorial waters of the neutral country of Uruguay. She had suffered thirty seven men dead and fifty seven wounded and whilst the ship was in no way mortally wounded, she had been hit over fifty times and had suffered extensive damage. Unknown to the pursuing British forces, there were sixty one British Merchant Navy officers aboard who had fortunately been unhurt in the battle. Once the fighting was over, a different kind of battle was about to begin, involving diplomacy, bluff and counterbluff that was ultimately to cost Langsdorff his life.

Despite the strain he must have been under, Langsdorff once again proved his humanity and sense of honour by releasing his erstwhile prisoners according to international law. Afterwards, these officers to a man had nothing but praise and respect for their former captor.

It was estimated that Graf Spee’s battle damage would take fourteen days and during this time, Langsdorff knew that the British would be mustering reinforcements but what he was not to know was how long it would take for these reinforcements to arrive. It was now the 14th December and the nearest heavy British unit, the battlecruiser Renown and the aircraft carrier Ark Royal could not reach the River Plate until the 19th December but Langsdorff was not to know this. The British ambassador to Uruguary, Eugen Millington-Drake (pictured below with Harwood) and his naval attaché, Captain (later Admiral Sir Henry) McCall, used every trick in the book to conjure up an imaginary British fleet massing just over the horizon. German requests to charter light aircraft to survey this fleet were always rebuffed; no aircraft were ever available. The British also tried their hardest to get Graf Spee interned; Langsdorff must have been in mental turmoil.


Sir Henry Harwood
Faced with an impossible situation, he decided to scuttle his ship and on the 17th December moved his ship into the shallower waters of the River Plate and after evacuating the remainder of his crew, shortly before 20:00 she blew up; demolition charges had been set by the crew and the Graf Spee was no more.

The watching British on the two remaining cruisers, by now reinforced by the Cumberland, which had made a helter-skelter dash from the Falklands watched with incredulity and relief; they had expected another bloody battle and could not have been certain of the outcome. As it was they had won a great victory, partially through hard fighting and partially through bluff but the Royal Navy had won the first major engagement of the war.

For the crew of the Graf Spee, internment in Argentina was on the agenda but for Langsdorff, and honourable man to the end, there was to be no such escape. On the evening of the 19th December, after addressing his officers and men for one last time, he retired to his hotel room, wrote three letters to his wife, his parents and one to the German Ambassador to Argentina. He then shot himself whilst wrapped in the ensign of the old Imperial Navy, rather than the Nazi flag.

Back home, the victorious ships’ companies marched through London and Winston Churchill, not yet Prime Minister but still at that time First Lord of the Admiralty proclaimed that the victory “in a dark cold winter, it warmed the cockles of the British heart.”

For those at sea, there was no Phoney War; for those at home, the war was still distant but 1940 would see a change that would bring the conflict home to everyone.

Published Sources

BEF Ships before, at and after Dunkirk – John de S Winser, World Ship Society, 1999

London at War 1939-1945 – Philip Ziegler, Sinclair Stevenson, 1995
The Battle of the River Plate – Dudley Pope, Secker & Warburg, 1987

The People’s War; Britain 1939-1945 – Angus Calder, Jonathan Cape, 1969

War in a Stringbag – Charles Lamb – Cassell, 1977

Saturday, 26 November 2011

What Still Remains

Shelter Sign in Frankham Street, Deptford (author's photo)
As a Blitz historian and part time guide for walks around the bombed areas of our capital city, this writer is often asked what clues of London’s wartime past remain visible. The answer is that perhaps surprisingly, there is still evidence to be seen; not exactly plentiful but certainly still out there if one uses one’s eyes, knows where to look or has the occasional piece of luck. Sometimes, it can be it a tip-off from a friend or occasionally one can blunder across a little gem by accident

Finding these pieces of our wartime heritage using one’s own detective skills is half of the fun, so it would not be right to spill the beans about everything that remains and this writer certainly does not profess to know about everything that still remains but for those that wish to make their walk to work or school, around their local neighbourhood or simply a stroll around a much loved area a little more interesting, here is a guide to the sort of thing that can still be spotted by the discerning eye.

Shrapnel damage at St Clement Danes (author's photo)
Probably the most striking evidence of London’s bomb strewn past are the “honourable scars” worn by many buildings in the capital caused by bomb fragments, or shrapnel as it is more commonly known. Colonel Henry Shrapnel, whilst still a Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery in 1784, invented on his own initiative, a hollow cannon ball, filled with shot that after firing, burst in mid air, thus spreading the shot over the unfortunate soldiers beneath. This first crude form of anti-personnel weapon, when formally adopted by the British Army in 1803 was immediately christened the Shrapnel Shell and whilst during the Second World War, neither side used this sort of weapon against either civilians or military, any sort of bomb or shell fragments were also given the Colonel’s name.

So it is that many buildings in London still bear scars caused by this terrifying by-product of bombing. Some of the better known examples can be found at St Clement Danes Church in the Strand (pictured), the General Wolfe Statue in Greenwich Park, Waterloo Place in Westminster and perhaps best known, the Victoria & Albert Museum in Exhibition Road, which even has a helpful commemorative plaque explaining what the damage is, how it was caused and why it has been left unrepaired. There are many other examples of this sort of damage to be found right across London and it is probably the most vivid reminder to be seen of our wartime past. It also provides ample food for thought. If pieces of white hot steel, flying through the air at massive speed can cause the sort of damage to solid masonry that remains today, what it could do to the vulnerable human frame does not bear thinking about. If one does think about it, the bravery of the Air Raid Wardens, the Fire Brigade personnel, Police, Ambulance and other Civil Defence workers, both men and women exposed to this lethal barrage, defies belief.

Whilst out walking, look for the tacit signs of damage; the replacement brickwork around windows, the lighter coloured masonry that even after nearly seventy years, still hasn’t quite blended back in with the original, or the most tell-tale sign of all, a terrace of Victorian or Edwardian houses that is abruptly interrupted with a more recent building before resuming its original progression. These are all sure signs of bomb damage, not a dramatic memorial to the Blitz, but a memorial nevertheless. A closer examination of Civil Defence Incident Logs for the area concerned will usually prove one’s suspicions correct and will often reveal that on the site in question, people perished in the own homes. Each piece of repaired damage or replacement building is often therefore a mute memorial to times gone by.

Less widespread, but still visible in places are the painted Air Raid Shelter Signs. The Wartime lead-based paint was surprisingly durable, although with the passage of seventy-odd years, even the hardiest of these signs are starting to look their age now. In some cases, it is the paint used to obliterate the sign which has worn off, thus re-exposing them to public view long after they became obsolete. For some reason, there is a plethora of these Shelter signs in southeast London, with Deptford in particular, being the Shelter Sign Capital of London. Quite why London SE8 has so many of these surviving signs is a bit of a mystery; perhaps it is because (with all due respect to the area) it has escaped serious redevelopment until recently, perhaps it is just good luck. Whatever the reason, we can only hope that with the rediscovered interest in our Wartime past, some or all of these signs can be preserved. Already, one of these southeast London signs, in Jerningham Road, has been lost forever after the wall it was on was recently demolished as part of a housing scheme. Let us hope it is the last to be lost in this way, for these signs deserve to survive and act as a reminder of more troubled times. Apart from Deptford, there are Shelter signs to be found in Westminster, in Poplar and opposite the Oval Tube Station, although this sign has recently been partially covered with a street sign.

Shelter at NPL Teddington (author's photo)
From Shelter Signs, we go to the Air Raid Shelters themselves. As has been discussed on this blog in the past, Shelters came in many shapes and sizes, from the corrugated Anderson Shelter in the back garden to the communal ‘Morrison Sandwich’ shelter via the Deep Level Shelters in Central London. Examples of all these and more remain; most Anderson Shelters have long since been uprooted from their original back garden locations but some remain as sheds on allotments in odd parts of the capital. The communal brick and concrete shelters were christened ‘Morrison Sandwiches’ by some laconic Londoners, when some of the early examples of these structures showed a propensity to collapse at the merest hint of a nearby blast. The concrete slab base and roof of these shelters provided the bread and when the poorly keyed in and frankly Jerry-built brickwork was blown out by the blast of a near-miss bomb, the unfortunate occupants of these buildings provided the meat in the sandwich – enough said. Some of these shelters still survive; Fawe Street in Poplar, Battersea Park, Raynes Park and Norbury all possess surviving examples as does the one pictured in the grounds of the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington. The Deep Level Shelters were built from 1941 based on the experiences of the London Underground stations used as shelters; eight were built in total, four north of the Thames at Chancery Lane, Belsize Park, Camden Town and Goodge Street and four south of the River at Clapham North, South and Common as well as at Stockwell. Designed to take 8,000 people each in relative comfort and unrivalled safety, these shelters all survive and the ungainly concrete entrance structures can all still be seen at these locations.

EWS Sign on Albert Embankment (author's photo)
Altogether a rarer specimen of wartime signage is that which signifies the “EWS” or Emergency Water Supply. This usually takes the form of a white or sometimes yellow rectangle with diagonal black stripes painted across it with the letters E W S in the lateral and lower quadrants, with the water capacity shown in the upper. These Emergency Water Supplies were large static water tanks, originally formed from the sealed basements of bombed out building, but later often purpose built tanks designed to augment the Fire Brigades’ supply of water should the regular water mains be damaged by bombing. Few of these signs still survive; Camberwell Church Street has two splendid if slightly faded examples and Copperfield Street in Southwark still sports one. There is another example pictured on Albert Embankment and there are one or two others that remain dotted around London.

Other sundry structures remain; Wardens’ Posts, Pillboxes, Anti-Tank defences, Anti-Aircraft Gun emplacements, rifle loopholes and the like remain across our capital. Putney Bridge Station is the home to a highly visible pillbox, Blackheath is the home to a set of Home Guard rifle loopholes and Epsom Downs is the home to a set of Tank Traps. These defences all formed part of the ‘Stop Lines’ formed to slow down and delay the advance of the advancing Germans in order to buy time for the British defenders to call up reserves. Fortunately, these defences were never put to the test but this fascinating and untried part of our wartime history can still be seen gently crumbling away in many parts of suburban London. Mudchute Park on the Isle of Dogs is the home to an almost complete Anti-Aircraft emplacement (without the guns!) Wardens’ Posts are rarer creatures although one or two others are still extant; Blackheath and Kew Station are the home to two of them but there are others about.

Stretcher Fencing at Watergate Street, Greenwich (author's)
Another evocative piece of wartime London still visible, albeit not being used for its original purpose and in declining numbers, is the once ubiquitous stretcher fencing. Mass produced in steel and wire mesh for the expected vast numbers of civilian casualties caused by German bombing, the ‘ARP’ stretcher was designed to be easily cleaned and re-used in clearing the dead and wounded. Many of these were never used and the war’s end saw hundreds of thousands of these simple pieces of equipment suddenly made redundant. In an early piece of recycling, an ingenious use was made of these stretchers in order to replace the wrought iron railings sacrificed for the war effort. There were also many new estates being built to replace the vast swathes of local authority housing destroyed in the Blitz. The stretchers provided a simple and effective solution and can still be seen in several locations across the London suburbs; Watergate Street in Deptford, Amherst Road in Hackney, the Springfield Estate in Stockwell are but three of the places that these can found.

Apart from these physical reminders, there are of course, an abundance of monuments which commemorate events, people and places connected with the wartime past, not only of this country’s wartime achievements but the Allied cause as a whole. So, across London we find plaques and statues galore commemorating such diverse personalities as the Polish General Sikorski, the Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied invasion at Normandy, Dwight D Eisenhower, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff Viscount Alanbrooke and General De Gaulle as well as many others. Plaques mark the spot of the first V-1 Doodlebug falling in Bow, the V-2 Long Range Rocket in Chiswick as well as the location of the Special Operations Executive, the Headquarters of the Norwegian Merchant Marine. There are also memorials to the fallen; across London there are still springing plaques erected by the charity Firemen Remembered marking the locations where members of the Fire Services fell in the course of performing their duties whilst under fire.

The reminders of our wartime past referred to above merely scratch the surface of what is still out there to be seen. As mentioned earlier, there is much enjoyment to be found in discovery and as always, any comments from the readership are welcomed. If you know of some aspect of London’s wartime heritage that can still be seen, then please feel free to share the information with us.

Friday, 28 October 2011

The real heroes of football

Spotter at The Valley (Greenwich Heritage Centre)
As we have already discussed the nation's summer sport in an earlier post, it only seems fair to take a look at the winter game and how it fared during the dark days of the Second World War.

Firstly, it should be remembered that in many ways, football was a completely different game to the sport we know today. In the 1940s, it was truly the working mans' game and the players and spectators had far more in common with each other in those days than is the case today. For example, it is hard to imagine today's pampered Premiership stars travelling to the game by public transport; indeed, it is highly probable that most of them would get lost inside a tube station and would have no idea as to how to go about catching a bus!

Another thing that is hard to imagine is any of the players of today, giving up the game "for the duration" and donning the uniform of one of the fighting services, not for a cushy job on the sidelines but actually putting their lives on the line. Perhaps this writer is too much of a cynic but cannot help thinking that the agents who represent these players would be furiously trying to extricate their clients from any sort of involvement. We can only hope that such a situation never arises.

Upon the outbreak of war on 3rd September 1939, the 1939/40 football season was just three matches old and on the Saturday before the fateful Sunday which heard Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain broadcast to the nation that "consequently, this country is at war with Germany", the matches seem to have been played in a curiously subdued atmosphere. Indeed, across the country, attendances for these matches were greatly reduced. For example at The Valley, home of Charlton Athletic, which only a year previously had seen a crowd of 75,031 for a cup match against Aston Villa and where the average for the previous season had been over 25,000, a mere 8,608 had bothered to turn up to watch The Addicks play Manchester United. It seemed that minds were already drifting towards the inevitability of war.

On the outbreak of war, the Government immediately banned any form of public assembly, which meant that all forms of public entertainment ceased forthwith. The reasoning behind this was to avoid mass casualties in the air raids which were expected to begin the moment that war was declared. Fortunately, the raids and mass destruction did not materialise and the Government's somewhat panicky restrictions, which had also seen the closure of all theatres and cinemas, as well as sporting venues, were soon eased. Although the Football League programme had been abandoned, it was decided to commence a greatly reduced and regionalised league programme, so as to avoid causing problems for Britain's public transport system, which was also very much on a wartime footing. As it was, football matches had to cease immediately upon the sounding of the Air Raid Alert and our photograph shows a spotter posted at The Valley, home of Charlton Athletic, keeping a sharp look out for enemy raiders.

When football did resume, attendances were greatly reduced; after all the vast majority of football supporters were disappearing into the armed forces and those that did remain were too heavily involved with their wartime jobs to be able to spare the time to travel to away matches in any case. Despite this, it was recognised that football, along with other forms of entertainment, needed to continue in order to provide some form of diversion from the war. Once it was decided to resume playing, the problem for the clubs was one of raising teams.

With the termination of the league season in September 1939, players had been released from their contracts in order to make themselves available for war service and each club made different arrangements for their players. For example, in 1938 at the time of the Munich Crisis, West Ham's players were encouraged to join either the Territorial Army or the Reserve Police, whilst Arsenal's squad nearly all became ARP Wardens. Brentford, at that time a top division club, saw their players become War Reserve Policemen, whilst Liverpool's entire first team squad joined the Territorial Army. It was suggested in some quarters that this mass joining up at these and other clubs was a cynical ploy by club chairman in order to keep their playing squads together. Whilst there may have been some truth in this viewpoint, it quickly backfired when the league season was abandoned and the players had nowhere to play!

When the new regionalised league began in late October 1939, many of these players had already been called up with their new units and in many cases were posted far and wide across the country. With the cancellation of contracts, players were able to guest for clubs in the areas to which they found themselves posted. So it was that Charlton players such as Sam Bartram and 'Sailor' Brown guested for Southeast London arch-rivals Millwall, Stanley Matthews played for Crewe and Sunderland's Raich Carter regularly turned out for Derby County. If you were a supporter, you never quite knew who was going to turn out and if you could play a bit yourself, it was worth taking your boots as there was always a chance that you could end up getting a game yourself!

Just as the players themselves took up war work, many of the stadiums they had previously graced went onto a war footing, with some being immediately requisitioned for wartime purposes. For example, Arsenal's Highbury Stadium became an ARP Wardens' Post and Public Air Raid Shelter, with the adjacent training ground being taken over by the RAF for a barrage balloon unit. Supporters found themselves having to watch their beloved Gunners playing at the White Hart Lane home of their great rivals Tottenham - something that would be unthinkable today. Not surprisingly, Arsenal's ARP Wardens team, which boasted players such as England's Cliff Bastin, who was excused military service due to poor hearing, were usually the winners in matches against local rival ARP Wardens teams!

White Hart Lane, although it remained open for football, was also turned over to war work with part of the ground becoming a gas mask factory, whilst another part of the ground was set aside as a mortuary for air raid victims. Outside London, Preston's Deepdale ground became a Prisoner of War camp, as was part of Doncaster Rovers' ground at Belle Vue.

As well as being lost for war work, many grounds were damaged by bombing. In London, Arsenal's Highbury would have been rendered unusable for football even if they had been able to remain there. In October 1940, the famous old ground was damaged by incendiary bombs which destroyed the roof of the North Bank and in April 1941, a High Explosive bomb hit the training ground, killing two RAF men from the Barrage Balloon unit there and destroying a large part of the North Bank terracing. Millwall's Den ground was badly damaged, and elsewhere in London, Stamford Bridge, The Valley, Upton Park and Brentford's Griffin Park all suffered varying degrees of damage. When peace finally returned in 1945, many clubs found themselves returning to grounds that were in an extremely dilapidated state.

Grounds could always be repaired, so more importantly, let us look at what happened to those players who found themselves in the front line and in many cases made the supreme sacrifice. Raich Carter, who was mentioned earlier, was in the Fire Service and regularly put his life on the line during the Blitz on Sunderland. Two Queens Park Rangers players found themselves in German POW camps; Johnny Barr was captured in North Africa and found himself working in a German cement factory, whilst goalkeeper Reg Allen was captured in North Africa in 1942 whilst serving as a commando and after an unsuccessful escape spent the remainder of the war in an Austrian POW Camp. Charlton's Arthur Turner was the only survivor when his Coastal Command aircraft came down in the Bay of Biscay and he spent several hours in the sea prior to being picked up. Crystal Palace's Howard Girling recovered from wounds received in Germany whilst serving with the Army to play 27 times for Palace before being transferred to Brentford in 1947.

Bolton Wanderers' entire squad had joined the 53rd Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery and served at El Alamein and later in Italy, where their famous pre-war captain, Harry Goslin was killed in action. Goslin was only one of many well known players who made the ultimate sacrifice and whilst only a few can be mentioned here, all of those players who laid down their lives are remembered with honour.

Jackie Pritchard had been a promising goalkeeper with Cardiff City who was serving with the 77th Heavy Anti Aircraft Artillery and had been onboard a troopship heading for the Middle East when the Japanese invaded Malaya. His part of the convoy was diverted to Singapore and arrived two weeks before the colony surrendered in Britain's greatest military defeat of all time. Pritchard found himself as a POW in appalling conditions, as were all of those taken by the Japanese who showed a callous disregard for human life. He was then used as a slave labourer building airfields and was being moved on an unmarked ship when it was torpedoed by an American submarine north of Bali. Pritchard and his fellow prisoners had been worked almost to the point of death and in the eyes of their captors were expendable. Hundreds of these men were in the water but all hopes of rescue were dashed when the commander of a Japanese minesweeper, having picked up the Japanese survivors, then machine gunned the Allied survivors whilst they were floundering in the water. Jackie Pritchard had been the victim of a war crime.

Arsenal FC were worst affected by the war, losing no fewer than 11 players during the conflict; Cyril Tooze was killed by a sniper in Italy in 1944, Sid Pugh was killed in 1944 whilst serving with the RAF and Bill Dean, who admittedly had only appeared once for the club, was drowned when the cruiser HMS Naiad was torpedoed in the Mediterranean. Bobby Daniel was killed on Christmas Eve 1943 whilst serving with RAF Bomber Command on a raid to Prague and William Parr was also serving with the RAF, this time with Coastal Command, when he was shot down in 1942. Leslie Lack was also with the RAF, this time as a Spitfire pilot with 118 Squadron and lost his life over Holland in 1943. Hugh Glass, Albert Woolcock, Harry Cook, Herbie Roberts and Jack Lambert completed this sad list but nearly every club was affected in some way or another. As well as players, some clubs lost long serving officials; Lieutenant Colonel John Murray "Ivan" Cobbold, chairman of Ipswich Town, died whilst serving with the Welsh Guards. He died not on a foreign battlefield but whilst attending a church service in the Guards Chapel in Birdcage Walk, London, which was struck by a V-1 flying bomb on 18th June 1944. He was one of 122 fatalities in what was to prove the worst single V-1 incident of the war.

Overall, nearly 100 professional footballers lost their lives during the Second World War. Football was just one of the many aspects of British life that had been changed forever by the devastating experiences of wartime and we must sincerely hope that we never again have to see our sporting heroes donning their wartime uniforms.


Published Sources:

Gas Masks for Goal Posts - Anton Rippon, Sutton Publishing 2005

Home & Away with Charlton Athletic - Colin Cameron, Privately Published 1992

London at War 1939-45 - Philip Ziegler, Sinclair Stevenson 1995

Soccer at War - Jack Rollin, Willow Books 1985

Saturday, 15 October 2011

A nation of organisers

Stretcher Fencing in Watergate Street (author's photo)
It is an often quoted 'fact' that Britain was totally unprepared for war with Germany in 1939. As is often the case with many 'facts' this is not strictly accurate, although this has not stopped it being wheeled out many times over the past sixty six years since the end of the war.

To this writer at least, the inference of this total unpreparedness would have meant that those in power were completely unaware of even the slightest chance of war occurring, which surely even the most die-hard appeasers in the government must have admitted as being a distinct possibility.

The truth is that Britain had begun a tentative programme of re-armament in 1936 when the then Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin appointed Sir Thomas Inskip as Minister for Co-ordination of Defence. This programme was begun in the nick of time, because projects such as designing and building new warships and aircraft inevitably take time - for example, HMS King George V , nameship of a new class of battleship which was laid down in 1937, did not commission into the Royal Navy until December 194o, over a year into the war. Another aspect of Britain's re-armament was the re-organisation and doubling in size of the Territorial Army to some 440,000 men, on top of a regular Army strength of 224,000 plus 170,000 reservists - i.e. recently retired regulars who were now in civilian life. Of course, the speed of this re-armament was not to everyone's liking, notably Winston Churchill, who had been earmarked for the job now held by Inskip but who had not been appointed for fear of sending the wrong message to foreign powers intent on war!

It was against this background that Britain began to lurch towards the invitability of war but in one aspect at least, Britain was more prepared than in many other areas and that was in the aspect of Civil Defence, or Air Raid Precautions, as it was known until 1941.

It was Stanley Baldwin himself who had famously said "The bomber will always get through" and perhaps it was because of this and against the background of the Spanish Civil War, that the Air Raid Precautions system or ARP was established in 1938. The whole Civil Defence network divided the country into twelve Civil Defence regions, each under the control of a Civil Regional Commissioner, reporting directly to the Ministry of Home Security. For the purposes of this exercise, we shall concentrate upon London, which was Region 5, with it's subterranean headquarters located beneath the junction of Exhibition Road and Cromwell Road adjacent to the Natural History Museum. This bunker was ready for occupation by June 1939 and was another sign of British preparedness for war.

The Commissioner for London was Admiral Sir Edward Evans - a post which he held for the duration of the war. Evans presided over a complex operation, for as Commissioner he was responsible not just for Air Raid Precautions but for a whole range of operations such as but not limited to shelters, wardens, bomb disposal, the fire services and fire guards, rescue squads, mortuaries, salvage and much more as shown on the accompanying chart, which incidentally is set for the old Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich. London itself was sub-divided into thirteen groups; Groups 1 - 4 covered the inner London boroughs, whilst Groups 6A to 9B comprising a further eight groups covered the outer London and suburban Kent, Essex, Surrey and Middlesex boroughs as also shown on an accompanying chart. The level of organisation was truly staggering and nothing was left to chance.

Of course, mistakes were made and for example, the initial decision not to allow the London tube stations to be used as air raid shelters for fear of fostering a trogladyte mentality amongst the civil population, can only be described as a mistake. However, mistakes were recognised and lessons were quickly learned; in the case of the tube stations a mixture of bowing to public pressure and simple common sense soon ensured that 79 stations were quickly and brilliantly adapted into effective deep-level shelters. Sometimes the mistakes were simple over estimations as to what would ensue from the onset of German bombing. For example, the government had factored casualty figures based on experiences from Zeppelin raids on London during the Great War and also from the experiences of the Spanish Civil War. So it was that the government had ordered a million coffins to deal with the expected casualties. It had been forecast by the Air Ministry that there would be 65,000 civilian casualties per week and a million casualties in the first month of any sustained bombing campaign. In the event, during the whole of the war the total number of civilian war deaths caused by enemy air attack numbered some 60,000 with approximately half of this number in London; bad enough but nowhere near as doom laden as had been predicted. To this day, the evidence of this over estimation of casualty figures can be seen in London, albeit in dwindling number; so many steel and mesh ARP stretchers had been ordered that hundreds of thousands of these were left unused at the war's end. They were to find use as replacement fences around the council estates that were built to replace the Blitz ravaged housing in many parts of London and the photograph shows an example still extant in Watergate Street, Deptford.

Of course, within all of this organisation, there were plenty of occasions when improvisation was the name of the game but for a period in our history when we were supposed to be masters of muddling through, in reality was a masterpiece of organisation.

For further background reading on the London Civil Defence Headquarters bunker, please follow the link to the excellent Subterranea Britannica website http://subbrit.org.uk/sb-sites/sites/l/london_war_room/index.shtml

(author's collection)

Published Sources:


Backs to the Wall - Leonard Mosley, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1974London at War - Philip Ziegler, Sinclair Stevenson 1995
Westminster at War - William Sansom, Faber & Faber 1947





Saturday, 1 October 2011

A P Herbert, the Water Gipsy and the Royal Naval Auxiliary Patrol

Sir Alan Herbert, better known as A P Herbert or sometimes just "APH" would today be known as a 'maverick' - born in Ashtead, Surrey in 1890, he was also a man of many parts; he was a humorist, novelist, playwright, law reform activist and for fifteen years an Independent Member of Parliament for the Oxford University constituency as well as serving in the Royal Navy during two World Wars.

He was no stranger to war, his Royal Navy service during the Great War saw him earn a Mention in Dispatches at Gallipoli and despite becoming an M P in 1935, he had no hesitation in offering his services to the Navy once again upon the outbreak of war in 1939. Perhaps uniquely for a Member of Parliament, his service in the Royal Navy was not as an officer - he served as Petty Officer A P Herbert throughout the Second World War. He also tragically lost two younger brothers, one in each war, in 1914 and 1941.

Herbert loved the River Thames, lived alongside it at Hammersmith and was a member of the Thames Conservancy Board as well as being a Freeman of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen, so it was no real surprise when Herbert became a part of the newly formed Royal Naval Auxiliary Patrol in 1939.

Despite being the largest in the World in 1939, the Royal Navy had been rarely seen in the Thames during peacetime; the Dockyards at Deptford and Woolwich had been closed during Victorian times and apart from a small victualling yard that remained in Deptford, that produced amongst other things, the infamous ships' biscuits, the Navy was surprisingly absent from the capital's tideway.

All this was to change in 1939; naval control of shipping and the convoy system meant that the Navy would need to maintain a considerable profile on the Thames and they set themselves up alongside the Port of London Authority within their prestigious offices at Tower Hill. With a nod towards their location, the Navy, never without a sense of humour named this 'Stone Frigate' HMS Yeoman. Apart from the organisation of convoys, another important aspect of the Navy's work was the Minesweeping Service and it was in the Thames Estuary that Lieutenant Commanders J D G Ouvry and R C Lewis of HMS Vernon, the Navy's school of mines and torpedoes, each earned a deserved George Cross for defusing the first magnetic mine, and thus discovering it's secrets when these weapons had come close to paralysing shipping movements into and out of the Port of London. Because of their work an effective countermeasure, in the form of degaussing - in other words, reducing the magnetic signatures of ships - was quickly introduced.

However, perhaps the most famous section of the Royal Navy on London River, was certainly the one with the highest profile and one which saw the White Ensign flying proudly along the length of the River Thames, was the Royal Naval Auxiliary Patrol, a kind of naval version of the Home Guard which saw gentlemen of a certain age mixing with younger recruits aboard requisitioned patrol boats performing a variety of tasks. At first glance, it perhaps may have looked like a waterbourne 'Dad's Army' pottering about on the river but in reality they performed many vital duties and were often in harm's way. Amongst other things, the small patrol boats towed barges out of danger during the Blitz and provided invaluable assistance to the Fire Brigade and ARP services with their fire watching duties. They also provided some sixty mine watching barges along the river which provided important information in spotting the location of mines which had been dropped into the Thames, sometimes as far upstream as Hammersmith. There were also many downed airmen, both British and German who had reason to be grateful to the RNAP who were rescued by them having parachuted into the river from their shot-down aircraft. One of the more mundane duties, although no less important, was the delivery and collection service from merchant vessels entering or leaving the Port of London.

It was natural that A P Herbert should join the RNAP, as it was the type of organisation that might have been created for him. His own motor launch, the Water Gipsy, named after one of his earlier novels became HMS Water Gipsy and was arguably the heaviest armed vessel of her size in the Navy, having been armed with several additional machine guns 'acquired' by Herbert through his various contacts. She once opened fire on German bombers directly over the Palace of Westminster and Herbert later claimed that this was the only occasion that one of HM Ships had opened fire in direct defence of the 'Mother of Parliaments.'

Despite suffering numerous casualties in both men and vessels, including an occasion when their base at Tower Pier received a direct hit from a high explosive bomb in 1940, at the end of the War, these brave men were denied the 1939-45 Star because it was deemed by the Admiralty that they had only operated in "sheltered waters." Sir Alan Herbert, as he had become in 1945 in Churchill's resignation Honours List, took up the battle in Parliament.

"From whom were these vessels sheltered?" he demanded to know. "They were not sheltered against bombs above or mines below and during the material times, these vessels were patrolling night and day, ready to repel invasion. So that what they were sheltered against, we do not know."

Despite this impeccable argument, this was a battle that Sir Alan was destined not to win, as the Admiralty remain unmoved and the medals remained unawarded.

Despite this, perhaps Herbert did manage to have the last laugh against Their Lordships, when with the war safely over, all members of the service were obliged to complete a questionnaire regarding their pre-war employment. In answer to the first question which was "How were you employed before the war?" he answered succinctly "Gainfully." And to a question about the character of his work, he replied "Good!"

If ever a man had the Thames in his blood, it was A P Herbert. After the war, he remained as Independent Member of Parliament for Oxford University until the seat was abolished in 1950 and continued writing, both novels and humorous works for publications such as Punch as well as his autobiography entitled simply "APH: His Life and Times" which appeared in 1970, one year before his death, which occurred on 11th November 1971.

Published Sources:

London at War 1939-45 - Philip Ziegler, Sinclair Stevenson 1995
London's Docks - John Pudney, Thames & Hudson 1975
The Thames on Fire - L M Bates, Terence Dalton 1985
The People's War - Angus Calder, Jonathan Cape 1969

Friday, 16 September 2011

It's That Man Again

Although the BBC had begun embryonic television broadcasts from Alexandra Palace in 1936, these transmissions were received by only the relative handful of people who could afford a television set. However, on the outbreak of war in September 1939, the BBC's television broadcasts ceased 'for the duration' and for the time being at least, this new medium was consigned to the back burner.

However, BBC Radio had been broadcasting since 1922 and although like television, the initial audiences had been small, they had been steadily growing until by 1939, the vast majority of the British public were avid listeners to some degree or another. On the outbreak of war, all public places of entertainment were closed and although this short sighted piece of government legislation was soon reversed, even upon the re-opening of the theatres and cinemas, not everyone was able to regularly visit them, especially those who lived away from the larger towns and cities.

One aspect of the BBC's radio broadcasts that quickly became invaluable to the populace were the regular news bulletins. These broadcasts, although within the restraints of wartime censorship, were widely felt to be as unbiased as the circumstances allowed and the British public (as well as the many listening illegally in occupied Europe) soon appreciated that they were being told the news pretty much the way it was, which was far from the case in Nazi Germany.

Soon BBC correspondents like Frank Gillard, Wynford Vaughan-Thomas and Richard Dimbleby became household names for their unbiased reporting and bravery in broadcasting from the thick of the action and like their American counterpart Edward R Murrow, reported from Lancaster bombers over Berlin on more than one occasion. The broadcast that Dimbleby made from Belsen Concentration Camp towards the end of the war in Europe was a memorable if chilling piece of war reportage that brought home to the British public just what atrocities the Nazis had been capable of.

There was much more to the BBC than news broadcasts and the entertainment of the listening public was always a major part of the BBC's wartime agenda. Shows such as Desert Island Discs (yes, it was running in 1942), Workers' Playtime and Childrens' Hour were all popular shows. By far the most popular was ITMA, which was an abbreviation for It's That Man Again. This had been a popular newspaper headline in pre war stories about Adolf Hitler and was now transferred to refer to the man around whom the show was written, Tommy Handley (pictured above.)

Written by Ted Kavanagh, ITMA was first broadcast in July 1939 and quickly settled down into a fast paced, sometimes surreal show which was very popular with the listening public. The show was an ensemble piece and apart from Handley, the show starred Jack Train, a brilliant 'voice man' whose creation of Colonel Chinstrap was based on a buffoonish retired Indian Army officer to whom he had been introduced by BBC announcer John Snagge shortly before the show was first broadcast. The real life colonel had remarked proudly to Snagge that "I have purchased a new water heater on ten years hire purchase but what the gas company doesn't know is that I am drinking myself to death!" Train quickly recognised that he could base his new character firmly around the Indian Army man and soon his line "I don't mind if I do" in answer to any question became one of the many oft-repeated catchphrases from the show to pass into general usage by the public at large. Some nine years later, Jack Train received a telegram from Snagge which read "THE COLONEL BEAT THE GAS COMPANY BY SEVEN MONTHS."

Other stars of the show who would become well known after the war were Deryck Guyler, Joan Harben, who played a character called Mona Lott and Hattie Jacques, whose character Sophie Tuckshop was the first of many played by Hattie that was directly related to her real life physical size.

The show soon assumed cult status and was widely attributed as being a great morale booster on the Home Front and ran throughout the war. In fact the show ran for over three hundred editions until 1949 and only stopped because of the untimely death of Tommy Handley shortly after recording what proved to be his last show. The series was immediately cancelled as it was rightly felt that Handley was irreplaceable.

The show's influence was not lost - amongst the many disciples that the show had gathered over the years, were four young men - Michael Bentine, Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers - who of course were later to star in a radio comedy just as popular and even more surreal than ITMA - The Goon Show.

Television was to resume in 1946 and although radio was to remain in the ascendency for most of the 1950s, television was to gradually take over as the new mass media.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Two Way Traffic


Although Saturday September 7th 1940 marked the beginning of the Night Blitz on London and was the start of 57 consecutive nights when the capital received the attention of the Luftwaffe, this first raid actually began at about 4.30 on this sunny late summer afternoon and marked the first and last time that the German air force attempted a large scale mass attack on London in daylight. Although they did attempt daylight raids subsequently, notably on September 15th, the losses they suffered at the hands of RAF Fighter Command were too heavy and the strategy soon settled down to one of night bombing. At night, although the British radar still picked up the approaching raiders, the RAF at this stage of the war, lacked an effective night fighter and it was not until the entry into service of the Bristol Beaufighter in early 1941, coupled with Airborne Intercept radar sets that the Luftwaffe began to find the night skies over the British Isles seriously contested for the first time.

What is perhaps less widely known, is that the start of the heavy raids on London was brought about by a series of navigational errors, subsequent escalations and 'tit for tat' retaliatory raids. This escalation began on the night of August 24th 1940 when part of a force of 170 German bombers tasked with bombing the Thameshaven oil refineries in the Thames Estuary and also the town of Rochester in Kent, became disoriented and thinking that they were jettisoning their bomb load over open countryside in Hertfordshire, actually dropped their deadly cargo over the London Wall area of the City of London as well as Islington, Finsbury, Millwall, Stepney, East Ham, Leyton and Bethnal Green, in a grim foretaste of much worse to come.

As a result of this raid, the following night saw a curious two way traffic develop over the North Sea, for while the Luftwaffe reverted to attacking their then normal targets of RAF airfields, Channel convoys and sporadic attacks on towns along the south coast, some 81 Hampden and Wellington bombers of RAF Bomber Command were heading in the opposite direction, for Churchill had ordered a raid against Berlin in retaliation for the previous night's attack on London. Although this and a subsequent larger raid on September 23rd were ineffectual in terms of actual damage done, they were to have far reaching effects on future German strategy. Ironically, the switching of the Luftwaffe's attacks from the RAF's airfields to London and other major British cities, took the pressure off Fighter Command and allowed them to concentrate on attacking the intruders in daylight without having to continually worry about attacks on their own airfields, thus ensuring continued British air superiority and the ultimate defeat of the Luftwaffe.

The RAF's raids on Berlin caused outrage amongst the German leadership. After all, Hermann Goering had boasted that no enemy aircraft would ever fly over Reich Territory; Hitler flew into a rage and insisted that in retaliation for the bombing of Berlin (which itself was a reprisal raid), then London would be erased from the map.

This threat, like so many of Hitler's others, soon proved to be empty. Although the damage to British cities was grievous and the casualties heavy, the British people were not easily cowed. Also, unlike previous targets of the Luftwaffe such as Warsaw and Rotterdam, the defending air force had not been destroyed on the ground; the RAF was tenacious, well led, well organised and manned by men of the highest calibre. They also had the edge with technology, both in terms of radar and it's utilisation and also with the fighting hardware. Although the Spitfire was closely matched to the German Bf109, the British defenders had the great advantage of fighting over home territory; if a British pilot was shot down and survived, he was landing in a friendly area. If a German pilot was shot down over Britain, whatever his fate, he would take no further part in the war - it was to put it brutally, a case of death or captivity.

This was a lesson that the RAF was to learn later in 1941 and 1942, when they went on the offensive. The tactic was known as 'leaning towards the enemy' but Fighter Command was to lose many of the 'aces' of the Battle of Britain, such as Douglas Bader and Bob Stanford-Tuck, who were shot down over enemy occupied France whilst taking part in 'Rhubarbs' as these massive fighter sweeps were known. These men and many others were to spend the rest of the war in captivity and it was only the superior numbers of the British and the newly arrived Americans, together with the continual dilution of the Luftwaffe's resources in the Russian campaign that ensured that the Allies would continue to enjoy air superiority and eventual air supremacy by the time of the invasion of Europe in June of 1944.

By this time, RAF Bomber Command had grown in strength hugely from the early raids of August and September 1940. Berlin, far from being the distant object of raids by medium bombers such as the Wellington, Hampden and Whitley, had become 'The Big City' attracting the nightly attention of the RAF's Lancasters and Halifaxes and although it was a battle of attrition, it was a battle that the Germans could never win. One by one, every major city in Germany was reduced systematically to ruins. As well as Berlin, cities such as Cologne, Essen, Hannover, Kassel and worst of all, Hamburg and Dresden 'reaped the whirlwind' sewn by the Luftwaffe in the early days of the war.

The tentative two way traffic across the North Sea had by the spring of 1944, become for the Germans a very monotonous one way affair and it was only the coming of peace in May 1945 that saw the ruined cities of Europe gain much needed respite and eventual rebuilding both of ruined buildings and lives.

As a footnote to this article, many of the ruined cities in West Germany as the free half of this divided country had become post war, were rebuilt far more quickly and thoroughly than London and many other British cities. Perhaps this was one advantage of starting with a blank canvas; for the destruction had been more total in Germany than almost anywhere else. Bomb sites could still be found in London well into the 1970s and generally speaking it seemed to take London a long time to recover completly from the scars of wartime. Conversely, a visit to Communist East Berlin in the mid 1980s by this writer, discovered a drab city with many still wrecked buildings extant and with vast areas of central Berlin still laid waste. The fall of East Germany in 1990 presented this now re-unified city as a property developer's paradise and the centre of Berlin is unrecognisable from those dark days of communist control.

All this is incidental and we would do well to remember the reasons behind the bomb sites. Never forget, never again.

Published Sources:

Bomber Boys, Patrick Bishop - Harper Press 2007
Bomber Command 1939-45, Richard Overy - Harper Collins 1997
The Narrow Margin, Derek Wood with Derek Dempster - Arrow Books 1969

Friday, 19 August 2011

Looting is nothing new

Pretty well everybody in the United Kingdom and many people around the World will have witnessed the awful scenes of riot and looting last week in our cities last week and felt rightly angered at those who perpetrated these crimes.

In the aftermath, there is now a public debate as to whether the sentences being handed out are too harsh, too light or whether public boiling should be re-introduced!

These arguments are brought into perspective when we journey back in time to the Second World War and consider Emergency Powers (Defence) Act of 1939, which was brought in to regulate almost every aspect of home life in this country. Under this legislation, the death penalty was readily available in punishment of the offence of looting. Looters could, in fact, have been shot on sight, although there are no recorded instances of this ever happening, or indeed of the death penalty being imposed for this crime.


Theft of any sort is a pretty despicable sort of crime and looting, especially in wartime of properties damaged and laid open by bombing was just about the lowest of the low. The photograph shows a bomb damaged house in Greenwich, southeast London with the pathetic remnants of the owner's property laid outside the ruined home. In the upstairs window is the ominous warning that looters face death.

Despite this warning, looting still occurred; at the scene of the wrecked Cafe de Paris in Coventry Street, looters prowled the floor of the destroyed nightclub, tearing open handbags and removing rings from the hands of the dead and dying. Looting reached epidemic proportions during the Blitz and the Metropolitan Police, already hard pressed, had to set up a special squad to deal with the problem. Much of the looting was organised by gangs, who would send out spotters during a raid to highlight 'promising' incidents, report these to their bosses, who would send out teams of looters to the spot before the emergency services could reach the scene. More often than not though, the looting was a casual affair, with young boys being particulary susceptible to the temptation of stealing from bombed houses. Philip Ziegler, in his excellent book "London at War" reported that four boys, aged ten and eleven were sentenced to be birched for stealing from a bombed house in the capital.

Sadly, some of the looters were people who should have known better; the rescue and demolition squads seemed to have more than their fair share of thieves amongst them. Perhaps the temptation of seeing trinket boxes and other valuable items such as gas and electricity meters laying amongst the ruins was too much for some of them. Nearly half of the arrests made by the Metropolitan Police for the offence of looting came from members of the Civil Defence services. Then as now, there were calls for harsher sentences to be served on offenders. Six month sentences were commonplace in 1940 but by the time the Blitz ended in May of 1941, sentences of five years imprisonment were becoming commonplace. Sometimes the police took matters into their own hands and handed out beatings to those that they caught red handed.

The end of the Blitz not only gave Londoners a respite from bombing but also from the epidemic of theft that had been seemingly unstoppable. The Little Blitz and Terror Weapons of 1944/45 started it all again but on a much higher scale. By this time, four years plus of war had left serious shortages of pretty well all day to day items. In early 1944 for example, a radio and electrical shop in West Hampstead had it's entire stock looted within twenty minutes of it's being bombed and once again the courts were handing out exemplary sentences of five years or longer but still nobody was ever hanged for the offence. Perhaps even the authorities realised that although looting, stealing from the dead was a despicable crime, they understood that Londoners had had a hard time of it and apart from the organised gangs, most of this theft was by opportunists.

Whatever the reason, nobody was ever hanged for looting and even the harsher sentences didn't seem to stem the tide of theft.

Perhaps we would do well to remember today that sadly looting is nothing new; the threat of harsher sentences did not always act as a deterrent, although it did remove the perpetrators from circulation for the period of the sentence. Seventy years ago a five year sentence meant exactly what it said and prison conditions were considerably harsher than those of today. In 1945, the answer was peace and the gradual return to normality and the respect of other people, their property and the rule of law and order.

Published Sources:

Backs to the Wall, Leonard Mosley, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1974
London at War 1939-45, Philip Ziegler, Sinclair Stevenson 1995

Friday, 12 August 2011

Sidney Alfred Holder, The Wall and the Unknown Soldier

Earlier this week, this writer was lucky enough to be invited to the unveiling ceremony of the latest memorial plaque to be erected by the charity 'Firemen Remembered' which does so much excellent work in preserving and honouring the memory of the firefighters of the Second World War, those 'Heroes with Grimy Faces' as they were memorably described by Winston Churchill.

This particular plaque is located at Shoe Lane, London EC4 and honours an incident that was immortalised on canvas by the artist Leonard Rosoman R.A., a firefighter in the Auxilary Fire Service who witnessed the event at first hand and although traumatised by what he had seen, created a powerful image, which Rosoman himself at first thought was too raw for public consumption, showing as it did, the imminent deaths of two firefighters and colleagues but which is today recognised as one of the iconic pieces of the war artists' work that it truly is. The image entitled 'A House Collapsing on two Firemen, Shoe Lane, London EC4' is reproduced below, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, which is today the home of the original painting.

This incident occurred during the great fire raid on the City of London on the night of 29th/30th December 1940, which is sometimes known as The Second Great Fire of London, such was the intensity of the fires started by the German incendiaries and the vast swathes of the Square Mile that were laid waste.

As part of the ceremony, the redoubtable Stephanie Maltman, one of the leading figures behind the charity, explained what to the best of our knowledge today, had happened on this night in Shoe Lane and how Auxiliary Fireman Sidney Alfred Holder and a now unknown helper who had simply been passing by had come to perish beneath fifteen feet of white hot bricks and masonry.

Sidney Holder, Leonard Rosoman and the future writer and novelist William Sansom were part of an AFS squad detailed to fight a major fire in Shoe Lane, just off Fleet Street. Rosoman, Sansom and Holder were controlling a branch directing water onto the blazing building and although it looked a hopeless task, stuck bravely at their task. Amazingly, but not uncommonly during a major raid, there were still passers by going about their business and the firefighters were joined by an off duty soldier and an RAF aircraftsman, who offered to help. Again, this was not an uncommon occurence. During the course of their toils, a more senior AFS Officer appeared on the scene and instructed Rosoman to leave the branch to the others and accompany him on a recce from an adjacent building to see if they could find another spot from which to direct their branches at the by now out of control fire. As they surveyed the scene, Rosoman heard the ominous crack of the wall crumbling under the heat and collapsing onto the men below, one of whom was Rosoman's close friend, William Sansom.

Incredibly, Sansom and the Aircraftsman survived the incident by dint of good fortune; the wall had collapsed almost as a solid slab of masonry and they had the luck to be standing more or less on the spot where a window frame hit the ground and although showered with masonry, they were not seriously buried and were quickly able to free themselves and rushed to where Holder and the soldier had been directing their branch. The two men tore at the white hot bricks with their bare hands, severely burning themselves at the same time. They were quickly relieved by a Rescue Squad and it was only when they were taken aside, that Sansom and his colleague realised the extent of the injuries to their hands.

The rescuers eventually reached the two buried men; the soldier was dead when they found him. His steel helmet had been crushed almost flat. Although the details are sketchy, history tells us that Sidney Alfred Holder was alive when pulled from the rubble; the Commonwealth War Graves Commission tells us that he died 'near to St Bartholomew's Hospital' which suggests that he died in an ambulance on his way to that place.

Sidney Alfred Holder was 49 years old at the time of his death and came from Hendon in North London. Despite fairly extensive research by Stephanie and her colleagues at Firemen Remembered, the identity of the soldier who heroically offered to help on that fateful night has never been established and he remains 'known unto God' but to us mere mortals, one of the many 'unknown soldiers.'

It is thanks to the likes of Sidney Alfred Holder, his colleagues in the Fire Service and Civil Defence Services and the now anonymous helpers like the unknown soldier, that the London we know and love today still stands, with 'honourable scars' but unbowed by tyranny.

Published Sources:

Fireman Flower - William Sansom, Hogarth Press 1944

The London Blitz: A Fireman's Tale - Cyril Demarne OBE, After The Battle 1991

Sunday, 7 August 2011

It wasn't just London

Since this blog started some 18 months ago, we make no apologies for the majority of the writing being somewhat biased towards events in London. After all, the Blitzwalkers do concentrate on walks around various areas of our capital that were affected by the events of 70 years and longer ago. However, although London was the place that the Luftwaffe always returned to, we are the first to recognise that there were plenty of other places outside the capital that drew the attention of Hitler's finest.

Liverpool, Manchester, Belfast, Glasgow, Coventry, Portsmouth, Southampton, Belfast, Birmingham, Sheffield, Hull, Plymouth and Exeter amongst other places all suffered at the hands of the Luftwaffe and having just returned from a short holiday in Devon, it is this county upon which we shall concentrate today.

The county of Devon, with its rich agricultural traditions, at first choice seems an odd choice of target for Goering's bombers but with a little thought, the logic of this choice of target becomes apparent. The City of Plymouth is the home to Devonport Dockyard, the largest naval base in Western Europe and then as now, one of the homes of the Royal Navy. Hitler and his cronies were quick to recognise that if Devonport could be crippled, then the capabilities of the Royal Navy could be similarly hampered. The photograph shows the city centre the morning after a heavy raid in March 1941.

The first bombs fell on the city as early as 6th July 1940, when the suburb of Swilly was attacked with the death of three people. Much worse was to follow in early to mid 1941, when five heavy raids reduced large parts of the city to rubble. As elsewhere, the Plymouth Blitz brought tales of tragedy, heroism and defiance. Amongst the former, March 21st 1941 saw the Childrens' Ward at the City Hospital take a direct hit, when four nurses and nineteen children, the youngest barely a week old, were killed. Tragedy came again on 22nd April 1941, when a public air raid shelter located in Portland Square received a direct hit which resulted in the deaths of 72 shelterers. As always, the heroes were the firefighters, rescue workers and wardens, who toiled without a thought for their own safety. The defiance came in many simple ways; people continued to go to work, the Western Morning News, the local newspaper continued to appear every day despite the damage to their own offices and perhaps most poignantly of all was a wooden sign fixed over the door of the ruined parish church of St Andrew by a local headmistress, which read simply "Resurgam" which translated means "I shall rise again."

Neither was Plymouth the only part of Devon to be bombed; in 1940 and later during the so called Baedecker Raids of early to mid 1942 saw Exeter bombed with much of the historic City Centre being flattened. Newton Abbot railway station was bombed on 20th August 1940 when three enemy aircraft deliberately attacked the large railway station and yards resulting in the deaths of fourteen people and extensive damage and disruption to the main line to and from London.

Even seemingly sleepy backwaters such as the Regency seaside town of Sidmouth were not immune; in November 1941 a German bomber, probably on it's way back from a raid on Exeter shed it's load over the town, fortunately without loss of life but causing some material damage to properties and also causing the attention of a large number of curious locals who came to see the bomb craters the next day!

Devon, of course was the destination of large numbers of evacuees from the big cities, particulary from London. This writer knows of one friend who was evacuated from Greenford in Middlesex to Newton Abbot as a small boy. The reaction of his parents when they heard of the bombing of this part of Devon must have been one of extreme consternation, although for the most part, the evacuees sent to this part of the world must have found rural Devon a world apart from London and the other big cities.

Devon, in common with pretty well the whole of the south of England, was the home to many thousands of Allied servicemen in the build up to D-Day and many friendships were forged between American servicemen in particular and the local populace, whom they grew to like and to admire. In 1944, these servicemen were to leave for what General Eisenhower described as "The Great Crusade" to rid Europe and the World of Nazi tyranny. Many of these young men would never return, but they left behind a Devon, which like the remainder of the country, would never be quite the same again, so deep were the scars left behind.

Published Sources:

The Newton Abbot Blitz - AR Kingdom, Oxford Publishing Company 1979
Sidmouth, The War Years 1939-45 - John Ankins, privately published 2001
The Blitz of Plymouth - Arthur C Clamp - PDS Printers 1981

Friday, 15 July 2011

The Pen is Mightier........


A blog of this nature, although we try to be comprehensive and accurate in the subjects covered, cannot compete with the depth of knowledge and sheer detail that goes into many of the books written on the Second World War.

Such books began to appear immediately the war was over and continue to be written to this day. As someone who guides Blitz-related walks around London and as a Blitz-related blogger and writer, I am often asked what books I would recommend to someone starting a wartime library or to someone who has even a passing interest in the subject. Both Neil and I are very careful to add a ‘Published Sources’ footnote to our blog and whilst our articles are by no means a ‘cut and paste’ job, we are always very aware of the work that goes into producing any piece of writing and are happy (and proud) to acknowledge our sources and inspirations.

Therefore, in answer to the oft asked question, here are my thoughts on the very best of Second World War writing. By its very nature, such a list is subjective and I would welcome the comments of our readers as to their favourites.

As can be imagined, many books were written once the Blitz was over and in the immediate aftermath. These books are still of tremendous value, although some of them are written in the style of their time which can sometimes be seen as politically incorrect and were also written at a time when some of the secrets of the war were still to be revealed.

Of books written whilst the war was still in progress, Front Line 1940-41, published by HMSO in 1942 is a remarkable pictorial study of the Blitz which was issued as a tribute to Britain’s Civil Defence services. Probably the best of the contemporary histories is Carry on London! written in 1941 by Ritchie Calder, who wrote for the now defunct newspaper The Daily Herald and later became Science Editor of the also long disappeared News Chronicle. He was also the father of the author and historian Angus Calder, of whom more later. As might be expected, it is written in a journalistic style and concentrates on the trials, tribulations and triumphs of the ordinary people.

Of the books written in the immediate aftermath of the war, easily the best written in my opinion is Westminster in War by William Sansom and published in 1947. During the war, Sansom was a full time London firefighter, serving initially in the Auxiliary Fire Service and later the National Fire Service, who had several close calls, especially on 29th December 1940, when he narrowly avoided being buried by falling masonry on the night the City of London was firebombed. Well qualified to write on his subject, Sansom became a full time novelist, short story and travel writer post-war and this book stands up well to this day.

Specific raids have also been well covered; The City That Wouldn’t Die by Richard Collier, published in 1959 concentrates on the last night of the Blitz – 10th/11th May 1941 – and is written in a compelling style as befits a journalist with the Daily Mail amongst other publications. Collier skilfully selects various participants, both on the British and German sides and follows their stories through this night of nights. Blitz, by M J Gaskin, is a much more recent addition to the ranks of the publications, not appearing until 2005 and covers the night of 29th December 1940, the great fire raid on the City of London and is written in a similar style to Collier’s book, concentrating on the stories of many of those involved during this raid, cleverly interweaving their stories. Margaret Gaskin wrote this book because she was initially puzzled why so much of the history of the City of London was seemingly punctuated by the recurring date of 29th December 1940 and simply wanted to get to the bottom of the story, which she has done supremely well.

Of general histories of the Blitz, there are several that stand out; Backs to the Wall by Leonard Mosley published in 1971 deals with the general subject pretty well and uses the by now tried and tested methods of concentrating on specific people who were involved and following their stories through the war. This is a fine book but suffers, in this writer’s opinion due to the author’s political viewpoint clouding his judgement occasionally. For example, he accuses Lord Alanbrooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, of being out of touch with the situation in London. This is patently incorrect; Alanbrooke was based in London throughout the war and although his job dictated periodic absences, he was well aware as to what was going on and suffered losses amongst his own friends and family during the war. Out of touch he wasn’t! London at War 1939-45 by Philip Ziegler and published in 1995 is a masterful study of life in London not only during the Blitz, but during the war in general and as such grasps the atmosphere of London during this period very well.

However, in this writer’s opinion the best of these ‘general’ histories is The Blitz by Constantine FitzGibbon, first published in 1957 and which remains a magisterial piece of work. FitzGibbon was a well known novelist and historian who had previously written an account of the attempt on Hitler’s life, so was well qualified to write this history. It is supremely well-written and contains some of the best personal accounts of various incidents, known and lesser known. The illustrations by Henry Moore also add a touch of class to this wonderful book.

Another general history, this time of the Battle of Britain, The Narrow Margin by Derek Wood with Derek Dempster and first published in 1961, remains a valuable chronicle of the Battle of Britain. The Battle is viewed on a day-by-day basis, detailing the actions, participants and captures well the cut and thrust of the battle for the survival of this island. The organisational detail of both RAF Fighter Command and the Luftwaffe, together with the stories of the personalities and equipment used makes this a fascinating publication. An updated and illustrated version of this book was released in 1990 which takes into account many of the 'Ultra' secrets which could not be mentioned when this book was first published.

Many social histories of the ‘Home Front’ have been written. In this writer’s opinion, Angus Calder, son of the aforementioned Ritchie is the writer of two of the best books on the subject, The People’s War published in 1969 and The Myth of the Blitz published in 1990. Don’t be put off by the title of this latter book; this is in no way a revisionist work and Angus Calder is not a debunker. As he explains in his own introduction, he doesn’t use the word ‘myth’ as if exposing lies, as does one particularly forgettable book on the subject (that Calder refers to but which I will not do the honour of advertising) but rather re-examines already known facts and looks at the whole event in a rational manner, whilst at the same time reminding us that the Blitz wasn’t just about cheeky, salt-of-the-earth cockneys taking Hitler’s worst on the chin (which they actually did surprisingly often) but was also about looting, road accidents, official incompetence and the general effect on the British people, as well as how this period is portrayed in films, for example. As for The Myth itself, as Calder himself points out, it still holds true as London did survive as did the majority of Londoners without becoming gibbering wrecks.

Many companies and organisations published war histories and some of these are surprisingly interesting and well-written, mainly because the bigger organisations were able to commission first rate authors to write these histories. War on the Line published in 1946 and written by Bernard Darwin is a history of the Southern Railway during the war and although the Southern covered a vast area of Southern England from Dover to Padstow, London features prominently within its pages and includes some fascinating personal accounts from railwaymen and women of the time. London Transport at War, originally published in 1946 as London Transport Carried On and written by Charles Graves covers the story of London’s buses, trams and tubes through the wartime years and again, contains some very good personal accounts as well as being very well illustrated. It slightly glosses over the initial difficulties caused by the tubes not being originally made available as shelters but since the book is an official history written just after the war, perhaps this can be forgiven.

There have been many biographies have been written about the personalities involved during the Blitz and the Battle of Britain. Vincent Orange has written two excellent biographies of the leading RAF protagonists of the Battle of Britain; Dowding of Fighter Command is an honest and well written account of the ‘Father of Fighter Command’ whilst the simply titled Park is a biography of Sir Keith Park, the head of 11 Group, Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain and the man who was aptly christened ‘The Defender of London’ by the Germans of all people. It tells the story well of the jealousies and in-fighting within the RAF that was to lead to the dismissal of this wonderful man shortly after the Battle's conclusion but who was later to mastermind similar victories in Malta and later in the Far Eastern theatre against the Japanese.

So many books have been written about Winston Churchill, it is impossible to mention them all here. In my opinion, the best of them for sheer depth of research is Martin Gilbert’s voluminous biography Winston S Churchill of which Volume Six: Finest Hour 1939-41 published in 1989 extensively covers the Blitz period. An altogether easier to handle work on the great man is Churchill by Roy Jenkins published in 2001. This book covers the whole of Churchill’s life but there is a lengthy chapter on his Premiership during the Second World War.

There is one other book which does not really fit any of the above categories, such as they are and which goes to prove that Blitz Walking is nothing new. This book is called simply The Lost Treasures of London and was written by William Kent in 1947 when the Blitz was still very fresh in people's minds. It is a wonderful little book which consists of a series of walks through London linking those buildings, the treasures of the title, which were destroyed during the Second World War. William Kent's narrative vividly describes what was lost and when this occurred. It is beautifully illustrated and gives a startling insight into the London that might still have been had it not been for the intervention of Hitler and his Luftwaffe.

As has been mentioned earlier, this selection of books is very subjective and is certainly not exhaustive; when one has a library of over 200 books on the subject of the Second World War, of which a large proportion cover the Battle of Britain and Blitz periods, it is difficult if not impossible to mention all of them, save for presenting them in an uninspiring list but hopefully the above will give a good idea as to what to look out for. Some of the older books are now quite rare but given a bit of detective work and trawling of the internet, it is usually still possible to pick up most, if not all of the books referred to without costing a King’s Ransom.

There are many, many other fine pieces of writing, both old and new on the subject which have not been mentioned here due to the constraints of space but as mentioned earlier, I'd love to know your favourites on the subject.

Books referred to above:

Front Line 1940-41 - HMSO 1942

Carry on London! - Ritchie Calder, The English Universities Press 1941

Westminster in War - William Sansom, Faber & Faber 1947

The City that Wouldn't Die - Richard Collier, Collins 1959
Blitz - MJ Gaskin, Faber & Faber 2005
Backs to the Wall - Leonard Mosley, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1971

London at War 1939-45 - Philip Ziegler, Sinclair Stevenson 1995
The Blitz - Constantine FitzGibbon, Macdonald 1957

The Narrow Margin - Derek Wood with Derek Dempster, Tri-Service Press 1990

The People's War - Angus Calder, Jonathan Cape 1969

The Myth of The Blitz - Angus Calder, Jonathan Cape 1991

War on The Line - Bernard Darwin, Southern Railway 1946

London Transport at War - Charles Graves, Almark Publishing 1974

Dowding of Fighter Command - Vincent Orange, Grub Street 2008
Park - Vincent Orange, Methuen 1984

Winston S Churchill, Volume 6 Finest Hour 1940-41 - Martin Gilbert, Heinemann 1989

Churchill - Roy Jenkins, Macmillan 2001

The Lost Treasures of London - William Kent, Phoenix House 1947