Friday, 30 August 2013

Footprints of The Blitz (5)

The Admiralty Citadel (author's photo)

In previous editions of this occasional series, we have tended to look at specific items of London's wartime past which have stood the test of time and which are still extant, perhaps albeit in a somewhat faded form and therefore maybe not to be seen for much longer, after seventy years or more. We have seen evidence of air raid shelters, signs for shelters, emergency water supplies, shrapnel damage and memorial plaques.

Today, we are going to take a look at some other sundry aspects of our wartime heritage which can still be seen in various parts of London and no doubt elsewhere across the country, if only one knows where to look. 

We start with something that is very close to this writer's doorstep, which takes the form of an Air Raid Wardens' Post, which is located in the car park of a private members' club in Charlton Road, Blackheath. The level of the car park has been built up somewhat over the ensuing years, hence the rather odd appearance but the entrance door which still exists at street level soon proves that it was designed for the habitation of fully grown adults. The owner of the club is quite proud of his piece of wartime history but was under the misconception that the concrete structure was the entrance to an air raid shelter. This writer did explain otherwise to him but isn't sure that he was convinced!

Charlton Road Wardens' Post (authors photo)

Fortunately, research at the excellent Greenwich Heritage Centre has discovered a complete list of the old Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich's Wardens' Posts and this list confirms that the photograph above is of Post 'Park 20' located adjacent to Charlton Conservative Club, which is indeed next door to the location in question. This list of Wardens' Posts tells us that the Post Warden in February 1940 was a Mr Plummer, who lived at 15 Banchory Road and that the telephone number of the post was Greenwich 0358! 

Further examination of the archives bring forth a cutting from a local newspaper of the period which informs us that the borough had installed no fewer than twenty two of these 'pillbox' type of posts as they were described. The cutting is reproduced below, which if the club owner is reading this, should put him in no doubt as to what the structure is in his car park.

From Wardens' Posts, we move just a mile or so along the road to Charlton Way on the edge of Blackheath itself, where we can see evidence of some of the improvised anti-invasion measures which sprung up across the country in the days following the fall of France in June 1940 when the invasion of this country seemed to be a serious threat. Amongst those defences that can still be seen are some loopholes, complete with firing steps behind in the wall of Greenwich Park, located inside what is now a council depot. It was a fair assumption that any advancing German force would be heading for central London after having fought their way from their landings along the south-eastern coast. The then Commander in Chief, Home Forces, General Sir Edmund Ironside, favoured a series of fixed defences, known as the GHQ Line as well as a series of 'Stop Lines' all of which were designed to halt, or at least slow down, an invading army. These fixed defences were abandoned in July 1940 prior to their completion on the orders of his successor, General Sir Alan Brooke, who believed in a more mobile form of warfare rather than static defence lines. Perhaps the best known vestige of London's anti-invasion defences is the Admiralty Citadel, which glowers over Horse Guards Parade, it's harsh concrete appearance softened, at least in the summer months, by the ivy which is allowed to cover it's walls.

These defences at Blackheath were not part of these fixed defences but more of an ad-hoc defence put in place by the local Home Guard, the 25th (County of London) Battalion, based at nearby Hollyhedge House. Closer examination of the wall today from inside the Council Depot reveals a whole array of loopholes, rather than the five visible today. The majority are today bricked up from the front but the apertures are still clearly visible from the rear. The Home Guard or Local Defence Volunteers may have been derided as 'Look, Duck and Vanish' but there can be no doubt that these brave men, a mixture of warriors from earlier conflicts and those too young to have been called up, would have exacted a heavy toll of any invading army.

Blackheath loopholes(author's photo)

We move from the Home Guard and anti-invasion measures to the Auxiliary Fire Service, formed in 1938 as part of the massive expansion of Britain's Civil Defence services in the wake of the Munich Crisis. The AFS were part time volunteers, who called be called up for full time service in the fire brigades if required. Although well trained by regular fire fighters, the vast majority of these enthusiastic volunteers had never fought a 'real' fire by the time that the Blitz on London started in September 1940. Never has the phrase 'baptism of fire' had a more literal meaning. The AFS acquitted themselves bravely and with great honour but were hampered by a lack of equipment and more importantly, a lack of standardisation across the country which hindered their ability to act as a mobile reserve to assist fire brigades across the country. It was as a direct result of this lack of standardised equipment that led to the removal of fire brigades from municipal control in August 1941, when the country's fire brigades were nationalised to form the National Fire Service or NFS. Although the NFS was disbanded after the war and the brigades returned to municipal control, the NFS formed the template for the modern fire services which continue to serve us bravely to this day.

The vast expansion of the fire brigades caused by the inception of the AFS meant that existing fire stations could not cope with the additional numbers of men and equipment and so it was that on the outbreak of war in 1939, many schools and garages were requisitioned for use as Auxiliary Fire Stations. The majority of the schools taken up in London were vacant in any case, as their usual occupants had been evacuated to the relative safety of the countryside, whilst many garages were finding a lack of trade due to the almost complete disappearance of private motoring due to petrol rationing. The AFS Stations in London, all followed London Fire Brigade practice of having code letters and numbers, which were prominently displayed on uniforms and vehicles. The station at 19-21 Cheyne Place, Chelsea was coded '6W' being under the overall control of Station 6, Brompton, located at 18 South Parade, Chelsea. The fire fighters at Cheyne Place obviously decided to make their presence permanently known in the area as they had carved in one of the masonry walls adjacent to their station a very large '6W' which is still clearly visible to this day.

Station 6W insignia (author's photo)

It is not known who carved the station code letters for posterity. Many of those who served in the AFS were from the world of the arts, some of whom were devoted pacifists who felt that they could serve their country better by saving lives rather than taking them but whose subsequent bravery in fighting the fire lit by the Luftwaffe could never be doubted. Perhaps this is the work of a sculptor turned firefighter.

Across London and it's suburbs are many reminders of the wartime past of our capital. As always, we have merely scratched the surface in this article but hopefully have given some of our readers the appetite to go out and discover some for themselves - tracking these clues of our Blitz history is good fun and elicits a certain amount of satisfaction at the culmination of a successful hunt.

More of these photographs will follow in coming editions but in the meantime, good hunting!

Published Sources:

London Fire Service: Directory of Auxiliary Sub Stations 1939-41 - WF Hickin, The Watchroom 2000

Unpublished Sources:

List of ARP Wardens' Posts - Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich/Greenwich Heritage Centre

Friday, 16 August 2013

The unknown Battle of Britain

Sgt John Hannah VC (IWM)
In August 1940, the Battle of Britain was at it's height and had been raging since early July. The enduring image of the Battle for most people around the World is of 'The Few', that gallant band of fighter pilots from the RAF supported by their comrades in arms from the Commonwealth and Allied air forces who succeeded in taking on the Luftwaffe over southern England, denying the Germans air supremacy and thus rendering stillborn any chance of a land invasion of this country.

To put matters simply, this is what happened; history tells us so and the fact remains that the efforts of RAF Fighter Command provided a turning point in the war and proved to the remainder of the World that the Nazi war machine was capable of being beaten and more importantly kept these islands free to ultimately provide the springboard for the liberation of Europe some four years later.

Of course, it was not known at the time that Hitler was lukewarm about an invasion of the British Isles, as were his Generals and especially his Admirals who rightly harboured a deep seated inferiority complex to the Royal Navy and despite the promises from Goering of air supremacy feared a bloodbath amongst the invasion fleet should the Navy be let loose amongst them. These divisions were not known to the British people and their Government and an invasion attempt was widely expected at some point during the summer or early autumn of 1940.

August 13th 1940 was 'Adler Tag' or Eagle Day, which was planned to be the first day of a concerted attempt by the Luftwaffe to knock out the RAF on the ground as a prelude to invasion. As so often during the Battle of Britain, German intelligence was faulty and many airfields which were not part of Fighter Command were attacked and thus Fleet Air Arm, Training Command and Coastal Command stations were attacked. This represented a hugely wasted effort by the Luftwaffe which merely allowed them as the hunters to become the hunted when RAF fighters from airfields hitherto untouched on the day tore into the German attackers, taking an especially heavy toll of the Ju87 Stukas. The sequence of events on August 13th 1940 is really beyond the scope of this particular article but suffice to say Adler Tag ended in a resounding defeat for the Luftwaffe, with forty five of their aircraft shot down for the loss of thirteen RAF fighters. Even a 700 per cent exaggeration by the German press of the RAF's losses could not disguise the fact that this was a defeat and that air supremacy over the British Isles would not come easily. After further heavy fighting and another decisive defeat on September 15th 1940, the day we now commemorate as Battle of Britain Day, Hitler postponed the invasion of Great Britain indefinitely two days later.

However, whilst this struggle for Britain's airspace was raging, another battle was going on, which to this day receives little publicity but which in it's own way was vital and demonstrated the British determination to defend the homeland whatever the cost.

In 1940, RAF Bomber Command was a shadow of the force it was to become two to three years later. Like the Luftwaffe's bomber force, it consisted almost entirely of twin engined light and medium bombers, along with the remnants of the single engined Fairey Battle force which had been all but wiped out during the Battle of France. The twin engined bombers were mainly obsolescent types such as the Blenheim, Whitley and Hampden, all of which were unsatisfactory aircraft and deeply unsuitable for daylight operations. The only modern bomber in the RAF's arsenal in 1940 was the Vickers Wellington, designed by Barnes Wallis, which with it's revolutionary geodetic construction was able to absorb huge punishment, which was just as well as this aircraft too, was unable to defend itself in daylight attacks, forcing the RAF to adopt the night bombing tactics with which it was to largely persevere for the remainder of the war.

83 Squadron Badge
Bomber Command had been at war almost as soon as war had been declared on September 3rd 1939, when a force of Hampdens from 83 Squadron at RAF Scampton set out to attack German warships at Wilhelmshaven. Fortunately for the bomber crews, they could not find their targets and eventually all returned home safely. The following day fifteen Blenheims set off for Wilhelmshaven, whilst a further fourteen Wellingtons departed for Brunsbuttel. This time the results were disastrous for the RAF; five Blenheims were shot down as were two Wellingtons, without any of the shipping targets being hit. This was to prove the shape of things to come for these unescorted daylight raids, culminating in a truly appalling attack on 18th December 1939 by twenty two Wellingtons on the Wilhelmshaven area which resulted in twelve of the bombers being shot down, after which the RAF retired to lick their wounds.

Following the Battle of France, it was clear that a potential invasion of this country was next on the German agenda and the large numbers of invasion barges photographed by the RAF's fledgling Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) shown gathering along the Channel ports was testimony to this threat. The Blenheim light bombers were identified as being best able to deliver the low level attacks on the gathering invasion fleet, although the entire force was used on several occasions to attack the barges. By September, some sixty percent of the bomber force was consistently being directed towards the Channel ports.

Guy Gibson, three years later to become known to the World as the leader of the Dambusters raid, was at that time a relatively lowly Flying Officer with 83 Squadron flying Hampdens out of RAF Scampton and described the relentless nature of the attacks on invasion barges at Antwerp in his autobiography, Enemy Coast Ahead.

"After each raid a reconnaissance was made and the C.O. would call all crews together. 'I have got some pictures of C Basin at Antwerp. Yesterday there were 400 barges there; today's reconnaissance shows 350. Who is on C Basin?'

Some pilot would shuffle to his feet.

'Well, you sank fifty, you and the rest, but that is not enough. You have got to put all your bombs in that basin, not a stick starting on the edge and then doing it's job, but every single bomb. Otherwise those bastards are going to come over here and invade us and then you will have to fight with your bare hands.'

Then off we would go again."

Guy Gibson and crew in 617 Squadron days (IWM)

These attacks were usually made from a height of around 4,000 feet and due to the low-level nature of these raids and the intense light flak, losses were heavy amongst the bombers but the German invasion barges and their naval personnel also suffered grievously and the forces concentrated in places such as Antwerp, Boulogne, Calais, Dunkirk and Ostend were never allowed to assemble in peace.

One of Bomber Command's Victoria Crosses was won by a member of 83 Squadron, Sergeant John Hannah, a Wireless Operator in one of the Hampden bombers in Gibson's squadron. On 15th September, Hannah's Hampden had delivered yet another attack on the invasion barges gathering at Antwerp and turning for home, the bomber was struck inside the bomb bay, immediately starting a fierce fire. The fire was so intense that the rear gunner was forced to bale out of the stricken bomber and Hannah could certainly have done the same. However, he chose to remain behind and fight the fires whilst the pilot, Pilot Officer Connor, a Canadian, attempted to bring the crippled Hampden home. Hannah fought the fires for fully ten minutes, exhausting two fire extinguishers and eventually resorting to stamping out the fire with his feet and hands. Hannah was wearing a flying suit, which had some fire resistant qualities but in his efforts to put out the fires, he suffered serious burns to his hands, face and eyes, as well as losing his parachute in the process. Effectively trapped on his aircraft, Hannah eventually succeeded in completely extinguishing the fire, by which time the aluminium floor of the bomber had completely melted in places, leaving a precarious grid formed by the main structure of the aircraft. The fires safely extinguished, Connor succeeded in nursing the damaged Hampden back home to Scampton. Tragically, John Hannah contracted tuberculosis in 1941, no doubt as a result of the smoke inhalation and was invalided out of the RAF. He struggled to make a living as a cab driver but his health was too frail to continue in this employment and he died in 1947 from a heart attack, aged only 25.

Handley Page Hampden (RAF photo)

In 1942, under Sir Arthur Harris, Bomber Command truly went onto the offensive with it's area bombing tactics, using their ever growing force of four-engined heavy bombers to wreak havoc by night amongst German cities and their occupants. As with the 'Battle of the Barges', the cost was a high one; by the war's end, some 55,573 Bomber Command aircrew had perished. The vast majority of these losses were on operations over German cities but when looking back at the Battle of Britain, it is wise to remember that at least some of 'The Few' were bomber crews.

Published Sources:

Bomber Boys - Patrick Bishop, Harper Press 2007
Bomber Command 1939-45 - Richard Overy, Harper Collins 1997
Enemy Coast Ahead - Wing Commander Guy Gibson, Crecy 2013
The Most Dangerous Enemy - Stephen Bungay, Aurum Press 2001
VCs of the Second World War - John Frayn Turner, Pen & Sword 2004