Friday, 28 June 2013

The Fighting Cocks, Black Saturday and Dickie Reynell

Flt Lt RC Reynell RAF (Shoreham Museum)
Earlier today, I was lucky enough to attend the unveiling and dedication of a memorial stone to Flight Lieutenant Richard Carew Reynell RAF, who died on the first day of the Blitz, Saturday 7th September 1940, when the Hurricane he was flying was brought down whilst in combat with Bf109s over Blackheath, southeast London. A fuller account of Dickie Reynell's life and his last hours appeared in February 2012 edition of this blog, so whilst a full repetition of the story would be pointless, today's ceremony did once again bring home the incredible heroism of the fighter pilots of RAF Fighter Command, who fought selflessly against huge odds to defend this country. 

The 2,927 pilots of Fighter Command were memorably dubbed 'The Few' by Winston Churchill and whilst most of this gallant band hailed from these islands, a significant number came from overseas. The British Empire and Commonwealth countries contributed many men to the battle. The largest single contingent came from New Zealand, who sent 127, closely followed by Canada with 97. Dickie Reynell was an Australian, which country contributed 27 pilots. Neither should the countries of occupied Europe be forgotten; the Poles made the largest single foreign contribution to the Battle of Britain with 146 pilots, who were rightfully recognised as particularly fearsome combatants, as were the Czechs with 87. 

The raid on London of 7th September 1940 was what RAF Bomber Command and the US 8th Air Force would later call a 'Maximum Effort' raid. Goering deployed 348 bombers escorted by 617 Bf109 and Bf110 fighters. They were basically in one massive formation heading towards London at between 14,000 and 23,000 feet. It was no exaggeration to say that this huge force filled the skies and they must have presented an awe-inspiring sight to the defending Spitfire and Hurricane pilots of 11 Group, Fighter Command sent up to meet them. It was no wonder that Londoners were to dub this day 'Black Saturday' such was the intensity of the assault upon the capital.

43 Squadron Crest - Gloria Finis
The first two squadrons to intercept the attackers were the auxiliaries from 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadron and the 'regular' 43 Squadron, known as 'The Fighting Cocks' from their squadron badge. Three of 43's Hurricanes went in against the fighters, whilst the other six, led by the Squadron commander, the Rhodesian Caesar Hull, along with Dickie Reynell and Pilot Officer Alan Deller, took on the bombers. The engagements lasted all the way from the Sussex coast and even after they had exhausted their ammunition continued to harass the bombers as best as they could by making mock attacks. Hull shot down two Dorniers but was eventually shot down by an escorting fighter and crashed in the grounds of Purley Grammar School in Surrey, whilst Dickie's Hurricane exploded over Blackheath and he fell to earth without his parachute having deployed. Deller too was shot down but managed to bale out out of his blazing Hurricane and lived to fight another day. When John Kilmartin, leader of the rear section that had attacked the fighters landed, he could only mutter the words "My God!"

Although the RAF quickly recovered it's equilibrium, Black Saturday was arguably the closest that Fighter Command came to being overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Air Vice Marshal Park of 11 Group had called upon the neighbouring 12 Group for assistance as per the well tried system within Fighter Command but as often happened, the 'Big Wing' took far too long to formate and to compound this delay, the leader of the Duxford Wing, Douglas Bader ignored the instructions of his controller and took his wing to patrol at 15,000 feet over North Weald instead of at 10,000 and whilst engaging a formation of bombers were 'bounced' by the escorting fighters which shot down or damaged six Hurricanes. The 'Big Wing' concept was unwieldy and on this day, was also hindered by communications breakdowns that slowed it's deployment still further. Despite all of this, pro and anti 'Big Wing' attitudes in the RAF would harden in the coming months.

The unveiled memorial stone
At the end of the day's fighting, the Germans had lost only fourteen bombers, or 4% of the attacking force but had lost twenty three of the escorting fighters, which had sacrificed themselves in protecting the bomber force. It had been a bad day for Fighter Command, losing twenty six fighters and more importantly six of their pilots. Despite this attrition, the odds still favoured the RAF; their pilots that survived being shot down were over friendly territory and were usually quickly returned to the fray, whilst the Luftwaffe pilots were either killed or taken prisoner. Furthermore, by switching their attention to London, the Luftwaffe were no longer attacking the RAF's airfields.

London had already suffered grievously and with the Luftwaffe returning under cover of darkness to re-stoke the fires, the coming of the dawn would see 412 Londoners dead, with a further 747 seriously injured. To add to the confusion, somebody had issued an invasion alert - the codeword Cromwell had been issued and the church bells in some areas had been rung. Fortunately, this was a false alarm and the fuss soon died down. From now onwards though, London would be the Luftwaffe's main target and would suffer by night. There would be one more attempt to mount a major daylight raid - this would come just over a week later and would result in a vastly different outcome, although this is another story.

As a result of their mauling on 7th September and earlier losses during the Battle of Britain, 43 Squadron was withdrawn from the action and sent to recuperate at RAF Usworth, near Sunderland in 13 Group, Fighter Command. The squadron had been decimated and could only muster thirteen pilots, of whom six were recent postings from the Operational Training Units. Of the survivors, only John Kilmartin had any significant experience, so although the withdrawal was a painful blow for this proud squadron to bear, it was undoubtedly the correct decision. 43 Squadron's time would come again, in November 1942 as part of the Desert Air Force and in liberated France in 1944, where they became known to the local French populace as Les Coqs Anglais. Moving into the jet age, the squadron operated Meteors and Hunters in the 1950s, Phantoms in the 70s and 80s, before receiving Tornados in 1989. The squadron saw service in both Gulf Wars before standing down in 2009 as part of one of the seemingly endless rounds of defence cutbacks. The squadron is earmarked to reform as a Eurofighter Typhoon squadron at some point in the near future but whether this actually ever happens remains to be seen.

The memorial stone before unveiling

Moving ahead to the present day, today's ceremony for Dickie Reynell was a simple but moving affair organised by the Shoreham Aircraft Museum in Kent, as part of their ongoing project to place a memorial at or near the site of every Battle of Britain pilot lost within a ten mile radius of the museum. The service was attended by the Mayor of the Royal Borough of Greenwich, Cllr Angela Cornforth as well as many members of the Reynell family, representatives from the Australian Embassy, RAAF and the RAF and of course many volunteers from the Shoreham Aircraft Museum as well as a decent turn out of members of the local Blackheath and Greenwich public who braved the rain and who wished to honour this brave man who died helping to defend the city that we all love and the freedom that we enjoy today. 

Andrew Rennie tells us about Dickie's final mission

Also present was Andrew Rennie, an Australian historian and friend of the Reynell family who is close to completing a biography of Richard, which should make fascinating reading. Andrew gave a moving account of Richard's last sortie and of the events of the afternoon of September 7th. The memorial stone was then unveiled by Monsignor Nicholas Rothon of St Mary's Church Blackheath, Wing Commander Tony O'Leary of the RAAF and by David Caillard RAF (retired), who is a great nephew of Dickie Reynell. Following the unveiling ceremony, David gave a moving and insightful speech about Dickie Reynell and of his family's continuing pride in his achievements, not only during the Battle of Britain but in his pre-war service with the RAF and also as a test pilot for Hawker's, in which he did much valuable work in perfecting the RAF's first monoplane fighter and which was the real workhorse of the Battle of Britain, along with it's more glamorous half-sister, the Spitfire.

Members of the Reynell family by the memorial

From all accounts, Richard Reynell was not only a brave man, he was fine pilot and a decent person too, who had a kind word of encouragement for all and who was widely liked by not only his family but by his extended family within the RAF, in Hawkers and in the aircraft industry. It was a sad twist of fate that he had been recalled by Hawkers on 7th September 1940 but had chosen to see out the day's operations before returning to his normal work as a test pilot.

The City that Richard Reynell died whilst defending

When reflecting on Dickie Reynell and his contemporaries within the RAF during the Battle of Britain, one can only echo the words of Winston Churchill - "Never was so much owed by so many, to so few."

Lest we forget.

Published Sources:

The Most Dangerous Enemy - Stephen Bungay, Aurum Press 2000
The Narrow Margin - Derek Wood with Derek Dempster. Tri-Service Press 1990

Friday, 21 June 2013

Footprints of the Blitz (3)

In the previous article of this series, we continued our look at surviving shelters and shelter signs. This time, we will take a look at some more of these surviving remnants of London's wartime past that can still be seen, provided that one knows where to look of course. As before, all of these images are the property of the author and may not be reproduced without my express written permission.

Temporary Shelter
First up, we see an example of a temporary shelter designed for use by one or at most, two people for short periods of time when working in exposed areas. This particular example is to be found in the London Transport Museum Depot at Acton and was discovered in undergrowth at Hainault Underground Depot in Essex, which had been used by the United States Army Transportation Department during the war in the run-up to the invasion of Europe. London Transport used these temporary shelters extensively for their members of staff and they were often to be seen in the booking halls of underground stations so that staff on duty could take cover in an emergency without having to leave their posts. They were made of fairly thick guage steel and would have provided protection against anything other than a direct hit but would also have been extremely uncomfortable for anyone even of average build.

The next photograph is of some shelters that have recently been unearthed by building works adjacent to Hayes & Harlington Station in Middlesex. I have note been able to examine these shelters too closely as they are now in the middle of a construction site but they appear to be quite substantial affairs possibly for the use of railway workers at the time. It is quite possible that these shelters will disappear once building works get underway and another small piece of London's wartime heritage will be gone for ever.

Hayes & Harlington Station

Another shelter possibly intended for railway staff can still be found adjacent to Bromley South Station in Kent. This shelter is also difficult to reach as it is on railway land  behind a solid looking fence but is of a concrete construction and capable of holding twenty or so people in reasonable safety.

Bromley South Station

For our next look at surviving shelters, we take a look at one of the once ubiquitous Anderson Shelters which could be found in the garden of almost every house in the country with a garden large enough to accommodate one. Nowadays, the effects of the passage of time on these largely steel structures has ensured that most of these once widely seen shelters have now disappeared from view.  These Anderson Shelters, named after Sir John Anderson, the minister responsible for Air Raid Precautions in 1938, were of a galvanised steel construction, largely of corrugated sheets six feet high, bolted together and then buried four feet beneath the surface, leaving only the top portion protruding above the ground, which was then designed to be covered with a minimum of fifteen inches of soil, so as to provide a measure of protection from shrapnel and blast. These shelters could accomodate a typical family of four people and were issued free of charge to those householders who earned less than £5 per week and for those who earned more than this figure, they could be purchased outright for £7. Despite their seeminly flimsy construction, these shelters were extremely efficient at absorbing blast and there was many a family who survived some very close shaves who had reason to be grateful for their Anderson Shelter. Today, one of these shelters survives in the garden of a house located in Stockwell, south London and the owner has made an effort to keep the shelter in something approaching it's original condition. This pleasant urban garden is occasionally open to the public during the Open Gardens Weekend event, at which time the owner places bedding inside the shelter to add to it's authenticity. Some photographs are shown below which shows the inside and outside of the shelter.

Anderson Shelter exterior
Anderson Shelter interior

To give the reader an idea of the robustness of these shelters, take a look at this archive photo from the Greenwich Heritage Centre that shows the damage caused by a V-1 explosion in Burney Street, Greenwich on 27th June 1944. Despite the terrible damage to the properties which no human being could have survived, the ruined gardens reveal several Anderson Shelters, battered but unbowed. The occupants of these shelters would have survived the experience, no doubt shaken but still in one piece.

The aftermath in Burney Street (Greenwich Heritage Centre)

One type of shelter that can still be seen in the centre of London are the Deep Level Shelters, which were built as a response to the experiences learned during the First Blitz of 1940-41 and were designed to shelter vast numbers of people in unrivalled safety and comfort. These huge structures were built adjacent to existing Underground stations and were originally planned to be ten in number - five north and five south of Thames. In the event, the shelters at Oval and St Paul's were not proceeded with but the constructions at Belsize Park, Camden Town, Chancery Lane and Goodge Street north of the River and at Clapham Common, Clapham North, Clapham South and Stockwell south of the Thames went ahead. Each of these shelters was designed to accommodate 8,000 people and post-war were intended to be linked to form a new express tube line, which in the event never happened. The shelters were all completed by 1942 and although the worst of the conventional bombing was over by this time, five of them were opened to the public as a result of the 'Terror Weapons' campaign and provided safe accommodation for many thousands of people during this period. The shelter at Goodge Street was used by General Eisenhower and his staff as a safe underground headquarters during the run-up to D-Day in June 1944. These shelters all survive to this day, many in use as archive storage facilities but there are hopes that at least one of them may one day be opened to the public for inspection.

Exterior of Stockwell Deep Level Shelter

Next time, we will take a look at some of the sundry structures and signs from wartime London that can still be seen in their fading glory.

Printed Sources: 

London Transport at War - Charles Graves, London Transport 1974
The Shelter of The Tubes - John Gregg, Capital Transport 2001

Friday, 7 June 2013

Footprints of the Blitz (2)

Last time we looked at some of the surviving shelter signs in London that I have managed to capture on film for posterity. This week, I have unearthed some more photos of shelter signs along with one or two surviving shelters of various types. As before, all of the images shown are copyright to the author and may not be reproduced without permission.

Camberwell New Road (author's image)

The first image is of a sight that cannot now be seen in the form shown in the photograph, as it has now been partially obscured by a street name sign. The shelter in question that Londoners were being directed to was located on the platforms of Oval Underground Station, one of many then in use as deep level shelters. Oval Station saw out the war without incident, despite the surrounding area being heavily bombed but further down the Northern Line on 14th October 1940, the shelterers at Balham Station were not so lucky; a 1000kg high explosive bomb penetrated over forty feet and before exploding and the resulting explosion and flooding caused the northbound tunnel to partially collapse and fill with water from fractured water mains and sewers, which resulted in sixty eight shelterers being killed and many more injured.

Lee High Road

Our final shelter sign for now sees us remaining south of the Thames but moving south-eastwards to Lewisham. This is a slightly faded effort but one which is worth saving for posterity as with the passage of time, it may not be much longer before this sign fades away completely. This sign can be found in Lee High Road and it's junction with Brandram Road and the letters 'L-T-E-R' can still be seen reasonably clearly, whilst the remainder are somewhat more faded. There is the remnants of another sign in Brandram Road itself but this is so faded as to be now almost completely illegible.

We now move to the shelters themselves and for the first one, will stay south of the Thames but will move westwards to the grounds of the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington. 

NPL Teddington

There are at least two surviving shelters at this location and probably more than this but lack of time has so far precluded a more exhaustive search. The image shown is of the least overgrown shelter, which is located near to the cricket ground and would no doubt have been available for the use of employees of this important wartime facility. These brick and concrete shelters were basically surface shelters and would have provided protection from shrapnel and flying debris but would have been useless against a direct hit. Even the blast from a near miss would have probably caused the brick walls to collapse, bringing the concrete slab roof down on top of the unfortunate occupants. Londoners with their somewhat wry sense of humour, christened these type of shelters "Morrison Sandwiches" after Herbert Morrison, the Home Secretary of the time who was responsible for Civil Defence.

Another similar shelter, only on a much larger scale, survives in London's East End at Fawe Street in Poplar. Although the roof is somewhat overgrown, the shape of the shelter is still clearly visible and it is clear that this would have been capable of holding a considerable number of people.

Fawe Street, Poplar

Shelters could take all sorts of strange forms and often utilised the basements or cellars of existing buildings, expecially when there was nothing else available. Two such shelters are still visible in the Royal Borough of Greenwich - the first one in the grounds of Charlton House, which as the attached press cutting shows, was licensed to accomodate forty people. The shelter is actually located beneath a building formerly used as a public toilet, which rather primly was described as 'The House at Charlton House!' Charlton House itself was used as Wardens' Post 'Park 8' so the Air Raid Wardens presumably didn't want members of the public getting in their way!

Greenwich Shelters

Charlton House Grounds

The other shelter in Greenwich referred to in the list of 'Where to seek safety' was strangely described as a Trench Shelter but was actually located inside the underground reservoir located in Greenwich Park, although there is some doubt as to whether this shelter was ever actually used 'in anger' given the fact that there were plenty of other shelters available in the immediate locality. This would be shelter is included out of interest, especially for the fact that is was shown in the list as having been capable of holding three hundred people. Although I've never been inside this building, one can only imagine the claustrophobic conditions that would have prevailed inside.

Greenwich Park Reservoir Entrance

Before we leave the borough, there is another shelter in Charlton which is of interest, even though it is not immediately visible. This is located in the back garden of 88 Charlton Road, now a dentist's surgery but a house that during the wartime years was requisitioned by the Army as a billet for the crews of Anti-Aircraft guns that were located on the nearby Rectory Field. Whilst the guns would keep blazing away at most times, if the bombing became too adjacent, the crews would retire to their shelter, which incidentally was a good deal more substantial than the equivalent Anderson Shelters provided to the householders of the unrequisitioned houses nearby!

Shelter Entrance, 88 Charlton Road

Unfortunately, I have never been able to explore inside the shelter as it is full of old furniture, although maybe one day perhaps it will have been emptied and an exploration will be permitted.

There are plenty of shelters and other wartime structures that remain dotted around various parts of London, not all of which I have captured as yet. Our next edition will feature some more surviving shelters as well as other more random buildings and signage from the war.

Published Sources:

London Transport at War - Charles Graves, London Passenger Transport Board 1947