Friday, 24 May 2013

Footprints of the London Blitz (1)

Until very recently, I have had a large number of my wartime related photographs published on one of the well known photo sharing websites. A recent unilateral "improvement" of this site which I felt was anything but an improvement has finally given me the incentive to cancel my subscription, take the photos down and begin to re-publish them on this blog.

Rather than attempt to upload a hundred or more photographs in one hit, perhaps it is a good idea to use these images plus some which have never been published before to illustrate a theme relating to wartime London which still survives. This week, we are going to examine air raid shelter signs, a surprising number of which still survive in various parts of London. All of these images were taken by me, are my copyright and may not be used or reproduced without my express written permission.

Perhaps surprisingly, Westminster is the home to many surviving shelter signs, although less surprisingly these are mainly off the beaten track.

Lord North Street

The signs above and below are to be found at several locations along Lord North Street and Longmoore Street and indicate the way to shelters that were formerly located in 'vaults' in the basements of the properties concerned. These were public shelters which would have provided a measure of protection against anything but a direct hit on the premises above.
Longmoore Street
36 Longmoore Street

The next sequence of shelter signs are slightly easier to find, being on main roads but perhaps a thoroughfare which people would normally traverse by car or cab. The first sign is outside La Gavroche, a Two Star restaurant in Upper Brook Street, just off Park Lane. This isn't the only shelter sign to be found on this street, for continuing into Brook Street proper, two further signs can be found and these are also reproduced below.
43 Upper Brook Street

42 Brook Street

The final sign in Brook Street can be found outside number 72. All of these are remarkably well preserved.  

72 Brook Street

The final pair of shelters to be found in Westminster are in Queen Anne's Gate and are of a similar 'vault' type basement shelter. The first sign is now partially obscured by a Blue Plaque erected in 1954 by the erstwhile London County Council. Were the plaque to be erected today, the shelter sign would doubtless have been preserved but the fact that it has been partially obliterated reflects the mood of 1954; the Blitz was too recent a memory for most people and any remnants of it were not to be commemorated.

28 Queen Anne's Gate

A few doors further along though, we can still find an unadulterated sign, again in a good state of preservation. At the time of writing, it is partially obscured by a building contractor's hoarding but I am assured that when the works are complete, the sign will remain intact!

30 Queen Anne's Gate

Moving away from Westminster and the centre of the capital, we can find more shelter signs both in southeast and east London. In Poplar, we can find a sign outside Our Lady Immaculate Church in Norway Place, the crypt of which during the Blitz, in common with many other places of worship would have been used as a shelter. The faded sign tells us that the shelter was capable of accommodating 250 people, no doubt in fairly grim conditions but which would have provided respite from the horrors outside. This sign was painted over, no doubt immediately after the war but seventy years on, the black paint is wearing away, revealing once again the original sign.

Norway Place E13

Moving south of the river to the London Borough of Lewisham, we can find another cluster of signs. The first group can be discovered in and around Deptford High Street. The first one, adjacent to Deptford Station actually points towards a still extant location, the railway arches, although the shelters have naturally long disappeared. These are much larger signs than those found in Westminster and whilst some have been painted over, they are still readily visible and identifiable.

Deptford High Street SE8, adjacent to Station

There are a couple of other signs to be found just off the High Street, in Frankham Street and Comet Street and again, especially the former, still readily visible. These point to the location of now long demolished public surface shelters.

Frankham Street SE8

Comet Street SE8

For our next group of shelter signs, we remain in the borough but move along towards Lewisham itself. The first one we see is on the road bridge across the railway in Tanners Hill and once again, points towards a shelter that is now only a memory for some older residents of the area.

Tanners Hill SE8

The next sign is at the junction of Shardeloes Road and Lewisham Way and although the wall upon which it is painted is somewhat the worse for wear, the sign itself is still clearly visible some seventy four years after it was first painted.

Lewisham Way/Shardeloes Road junction

Until recently, there was another surviving sign in this area but which sadly has recently fallen victim to a new property development, being replaced by a facile imitation in the form of a Dollar sign advertising the development. This sign was in Jerningham Road and is shown below for the record.
Jerningham Road SE14

For our final shelter sign in this sequence, we remain in the Borough of Lewisham but move to nearby Ladywell Station, where a large sign advertising 'Shelter for 700' points to the direction of the nearby railway arches.

Ladywell Station SE13

For our final collection of shelter signs, we remain south of the Thames - just but move back towards the centre of London, to the old Metropolitan Borough of Bermondsey. The St John's, Neckinger and Lockyer Estates, all located within the borough close to Jamaica Road all have signs pointing to shelters located at the base of the various blocks. The shelters themselves are still extant but firmly sealed so as to prevent access. To show all of these shelter signs would be somewhat repetitive as they all look rather similar but reproduced below is the sign pointing towards Shelter A7 on the St John's Estate in Druid Street, SE1.

Shelter A7, Druid Street SE1

There are other shelter signs elsewhere in London that I am aware of but have yet to capture on film and no doubt there are others out there that I don't know about. Rest assured, they will appear here as and when they are photographed.

Unpublished Sources:

Author's private research

Friday, 17 May 2013

Logging the Blitz

The Blitz Hotel (Greenwich Heritage Centre)

Perhaps one of the lesser known aspects of the Civil Defence services during the Second World War but a vital one none the less was an administrative one, carried out as and when the bombs fell by a group of now anonymous senior air raid wardens or council officials, usually tucked away in the basement of a town hall at the end of a network of landline telephones and messengers. As each raid developed, every bomb that dropped, each incident as it developed, was logged and as the reports came in, the controllers would ensure that the correct response to each developing incident was despatched to the scene, whether this be the recognised emergency services such as the fire, police or ambulances, the seemingly mundane but equally essential  services such as the local gas board officials to switch off the supplies where gas mains had been severed by bombs, or the melancholy task of arranging mortuary vans to remove the unfortunate victims of war.

London Civil Defence organisation
The Civil Defence organisation had been established in 1938 as a response to the Munich Crisis and a brief explanation is required to give the reader a better understanding. The country was divided into twelve civil defence regions, each of which was placed under the control of a Civil Commissioner. London was designated Region 5 and was placed under the command of a veteran of Captain Scott's ill-fated Antarctic Expedition of 1912 and subsequently a First World War hero, Admiral Sir Edward Evans - "Evans of the Broke" as he had become known. Evans was to serve in his role as Civil Commissioner for the majority of the war and threw himself into the role with the energy and enthusiasm that had typified his Royal Naval service.

London Region was responsible for the 28 Metropolitan Boroughs of the erstwhile London County Council, or LCC as it was known, together with the City of London plus the County Boroughs of Croydon, East and West Ham and the remaining Urban and Rural District Councils in Essex, Middlesex, Kent and Surrey out to the boundary of the Metropolitan Police District. These authorities were collected into groups of between 5 and 11 councils and placed under the overall control of one of them. Therefore, that selected borough had two controls within it, one local and one group. The inner ring of LCC Boroughs were numbered Groups 1 to 5, three north of the Thames and two south. The outer ring were numbered 6 to 9 and two counties, Middlesex and Surrey, were further sub-divided into 6A to 6D for Middlesex and 9A to 9D for Surrey.

A typical 'chain of command' - this one is for Westminster

Each council was run by a Civil Defence Controller (usually the Town Clerk/Chief Executive) who was responsible for Civil Defence matters and the control of incidents through the network of ARP Wardens who acted essentially as incident officers, patrolling the streets often during the height of an air raid, pinpointing incidents and co-ordinating rescue efforts on the spot. Fire, ambulance and rescue services were supplied by the LCC but were under the operational control of the Controller. A copy of the organisation for London Region is shown for easy reference, as is a copy of a typical 'Chain of Command' for one London borough - on this occasion Westminster but which was echoed across the capital.

A typical incident report sheet (author's image)
Fortunately for today's historian, the majority of London boroughs kept their Incident Logs after the war, although some did dispose of them in the 1960s and 70s, in what today seems like a terrible piece of historical vandalism. Neil and I have spent many hours sitting in local authority archives transcribing these records and although we still have a few to go, between us we have so far gathered about half of the various London boroughs' records.

Reading these logs today, it is amazing to think that they were written at the moment that history was being made. The actual presentation of the logs varies from borough to borough; for example the Greenwich Log has been transcribed at the time into a series of A4 sized notebooks, whilst the neighbouring borough of Woolwich's log is still as it was written at the time with each individual development of an incident written on a separate report sheet. In this way, a major incident could require upwards of twenty such sheets, each updating the incident as it developed.

The other striking thing about reading these logs today is the matter of fact way that major incidents were noted. Whilst this professionalism cannot be faulted, one cannot help but wonder what feelings were going through the minds of the officials concerned whilst writing up and recording these reports, especially on those occasions when they were reporting on incidents in their own immediate neighbourhoods, or perhaps even seeing a report of their own homes being destroyed. Reproduced above is a typical report sheet from the Borough of Woolwich, which reports a fairly minor incident but which gives the reader the general idea of how an incident was written up.

Sometimes, these reports can today appear ridiculously terse; for example the terrible incident on 17th April 1941 that saw the destruction of Chelsea Old Church and the tragic loss of life of Canadian firewatcher Yvonne Green and four of her colleagues is reported simply "Para Mine - heavy damage, casualties, water and gas mains gone." Obviously, there would have been more detailed incident sheets written at the time but this precis still somehow captures the horror of the incident, which was recorded more fully in the April edition of this blog. In other boroughs, the reports go into more detail, some of which even seventy years on, are heartbreaking. For example, the Woolwich report of an incident in the 'Little Blitz' on 2nd March 1944, lists the four fatal casualties by name, including six week old baby Joyce Bowskill - a life cruelly ended before it had properly begun and which had even this fairly hardened researcher having to stop work for a while in order to reflect.

Devastation in Heavitree Road (Greenwich Heritage Centre)
The onset of the terror weapons in 1944 kept the recorders busy and in the south east London boroughs especially, the casualties started to mount again. A Woolwich report of an incident at Heavitree Road, Plumstead on 16th June 1944 lists seven fatal casualties and laconically describes "houses in Heavitree Road heavily damaged." A local photographer recorded the scene and it must be said that the writer of the report was a master of understatement.

Throughout all of the horrors of the London Blitz, a sense of humour prevailed, even amongst the Wardens and Civil Defence personnel who were very much in the front line and saw some terrible things in the course of their duties. When the Wardens' Post 'EE1' in Milward Street, Woolwich was rendered uninhabitable following a nearby V-1 strike in August 1944, the wardens, who must have endured a fearful shaking up when the flying bomb detonated, still saw fit to re-christen their devastated place of work 'The Blitz Hotel' as the accompanying photograph at the head of the page shows.

In August 1944, the British public may have been forgiven for thinking that despite the onset of the V-1s, the end of the war was in sight. Unfortunately, they had another seven months of V-2 rockets to endure, which brought yet more misery to the people of London but which were faithfully recorded by the London boroughs. The final incident shown in the Woolwich Incident Log is on 19th March 1945 was a rocket which fell on one of the piers servicing the Woolwich Arsenal, which itself had suffered terrible damage during the Blitz of 1940. This rocket exploded on the pier itself, causing 37 'slight' casualties, no doubt mainly cuts and shock but mercifully no fatalities. The last V-2 of all fell on Kynaston Road, Orpington on 27th March 1945, killing Mrs Ivy Millichamp in her home. With this one final fatal casualty, London at last had seen it's last attack from the German bombs which had started way back in August 1940.

Unpublished Sources:

Civil Defence Incident Logs for Metropolitan Boroughs of Chelsea, Greenwich & Woolwich and City of Westminster 

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Apres Moi Le Deluge: 617 Squadron, Cheshire, Tait and Fauquier

617 Squadron Badge (RAF)
This month marks the seventieth anniversary of Operation Chastise, more commonly known as the Dambusters raid. We covered this raid in the May 2012 edition of this blog, in which we looked at the story of Barnes Wallis, who invented the bouncing bombs used on the raid, at Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC who commanded 617 Squadron, the special squadron established for the raid. Having already covered this raid, perhaps now is a good time to commemorate the other wartime exploits of this elite squadron following on from the Dambusters raid.

617 Squadron was formed amid great secrecy on the orders of Sir Arthur Harris, head of RAF Bomber Command, on 21st March 1943 for the express purpose of undertaking the raid on the Eder, Mohne and Sorpe Dams and therefore delivering the bouncing bombs, codenamed Upkeep that had been designed for that specific purpose. Although the squadron had originally only been formed to carry out this one mission, once the raid had been completed, it was decided to keep 617 in being as an elite unit to be used in carrying out precision attacks on specialised targets. 

Guy Gibson relinquished command of the squadron he had established in July 1943 and handed over to his successor, Wing Commander George Holden. After some well deserved leave, Gibson was sent on a lecture tour of the USA and Canada which lasted nearly five months. Gibson was eventually to return to operational flying in September 1944, only to be killed almost immediately whilst returning from a raid on Rheydt and Moenchengladbach on the 19th September. 

George Holden's tenure at 617 Squadron was to be tragically brief as he was shot down and killed on his fourth mission, which was an attack on the Dortmund-Ems Canal in September 1943 and died along with four members of Gibson's original crew. A veteran of the Dams raid, Harold 'Mickey' Martin took command of the squadron on a temporary basis, before handing over to another legend of Bomber Command, Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, the youngest person to hold this rank in the RAF. Cheshire had already completed three operational tours and was an inspirational figure to his crews. When appointed as commander of 76 Squadron, Cheshire had inherited a dispirited unit, beset by problems with the then new Halifax bombers which were suffering high losses due to their poor performance and inability to reach the same altitudes as the Avro Lancaster. Cheshire had immediately set about removing the nose and mid-upper turrets on his squadron's aircraft as well as other unnecessary weight and with this improved performance, the altitudes improved, the loss rates dramatically dropped and the morale amongst the squadron improved accordingly. He also made representations to Handley Page, the builder of the Halifax to make modifications to the tail of the bomber so as to improve the aircraft's stability. 

Gp Capt Leonard Cheshire (IWM)
Cheshire was also determined to improve the accuracy of 617's bombing and pioneered new methods of marking targets at very low levels, firstly using a Mosquito and latterly a single engined P51 Mustang fighter, the gift of the US Eighth Air Force, which Cheshire insisted on flying himself. Under Cheshire's command, 617 attacked the V-3 installations at Mimoyecques in the Pas de Calais area of France. The V-3 was the third of Hitler's vengeance weapons, a supergun designed to fire a 500lb shell into London every minute. Using the Barnes Wallis designed Tallboy bombs, 617's bombing was devastatingly accurate; the massive bombs penetrated the ground alongside the concrete protecting the site, effectively putting it out of commission for the duration of the war. The V-3 was never used against London. 617 Squadron continued to use the Tallboys with devastating effect and on 8th June 1944, attacked the Saumur railway tunnel, which was a supply line for the Germans to bring reinforcements to the Normandy front. Accurate marking by Cheshire ensured that the railway cutting and the tunnel roof were both breached, with the line remaining blocked until Allied forces took the area some weeks later. On 14th June, the Tallboys were once again deployed, this time to destroy E-Boat pens at Le Havre. The E-Boats posed a serious threat to the ships supplying the Normandy beachhead. Once again, accurate marking by Cheshire at low level and in broad daylight ensured that 617 found their target with several bombs, utterly destroying it.

At the end of his fourth tour of duty and after 102 missions, Cheshire was awarded the Victoria Cross, not for a specific act of bravery but rather for a sustained period of valour, repeatedly putting himself at risk marking targets in his Mosquito or Mustang often at low level and under intense anti aircraft fire. Following the award of his VC, Cheshire was relieved as commander of 617 Squadron by Willie Tait and for his 103rd and final mission, Cheshire acted as the official British observer of the second atomic bomb, dropped on Nagasaki. After the war, Cheshire embarked on a remarkable change of career, eventually founding the  Cheshire Foundation Homes providing support for disabled people throughout the World.

Tirpitz capsized (Australian War Memorial)
Cheshire's successor at 617 Squadron was Group Captain James 'Willie' Tait, who took over in July 1944 and continued his predecessor's policy of precision attacks using low level marking. A succession of attacks on V-1 and V-2 sites followed, again using the Tallboy bombs and thus sparing London from at least some of these vengeance weapons. Tait, already highly decorated for his previous exploits with Bomber Command was awarded a bar to his DFC for pressing home a low level attack on the Kembs Dam in Southern Germany. On 15th September 1944, the squadron attacked the German battleship Tirpitz, which was anchored in Kaa Fjord in northern Norway. The squadron attacked from a base near Arkhangelsk in Russia and despite the Germans attempting to disguise the vessel using smoke flares, the squadron disabled the battleship so severely that the Kriegsmarine decided that it could not be made seaworthy again but decided to move the vessel to Tromso, where it's guns could be used in defence of an anticipated Allied invasion of Norway. The damage to the battleship was successfully kept secret by the Germans and so on 28th October a second raid was mounted by 617 Squadron, this time flying from Lossiemouth in Scotland. This raid was not a success due to low cloud obscuring the target but not to be deterred, the squadron returned on 12th November and this time three Tallboys struck and capsized the Tirpitz. Although a small number of her crew were rescued, between 950 and 1,200 were trapped inside the hull and perished.

By December 1944, Tait had completed 101 missions and was stood down from operational flying. He remained in the RAF post war, eventually retiring in 1964. His successor as commander of 617 Squadron was the Canadian, John Fauquier, under whose command the squadron continued to attack precision targets using the Tallboys and latterly the 22,000 lb Grand Slam bomb, another Barnes Wallis invention, which was used to attack and destroy the Bielefeld and Arnsberg Viaducts as well as other railway targets in northern Germany. Also attacked were the submarine shelters at Valentin in France and also in Hamburg, rendering them unusable. Their final target, on 19th April 1945 were the coastal gun batteries at Heligoland. By this time, the war in Europe was approaching it's end and no further worthwhile targets could be found for these massive bombs. After the war, Fauquier returned to his private business in Canada and passed away in 1981.

The years of peace saw 617 Squadron re-equipping with Avro Lincolns, then entering the jet age with the English Electric Canberra and forming part of the V-Bomber force with Avro Vulcans before most recently re-equipping with the Panavia Tornado and has seen action in both Gulf Wars of 1991 and 2003.

Published Sources:

Bomber Command 1939-45 - Richard Overy, Harper Collins 1997
Dambusters: A Landmark Oral History - Max Arthur, Virgin Books 2008
VCs of the Second World War - John Frayn Turner, Pen & Sword 2004