Sunday, 14 December 2014

Walker and The Gallant Starling

Capt. F J Walker CB DSO*** (IWM collection)

One battle of the Second World War that lasted from the first day of hostilities on September 3rd 1930, when the Donaldson liner s.s. Athenia was torpedoed and sunk by U-30, commanded by Fritz Julius Lemp, to almost the last day when U-881 and U-683 were sunk in American waters, was the Battle of The Atlantic.

Churchill described it as the only thing during the entire war that ever truly frightened him and whilst there may be an element of exaggeration in that statement, the prospect of Britain's supply lifeline being cut was a truly appalling one. Whilst the British public suffered the hardships brought about by the Blitz and rationing, the men of the Merchant Navy and their escorts of the Royal Navy along with their Canadian and American allies suffered hardships as well as the prospect of a lonely and freezing death in hostile waters.

At the beginning of the war, the Royal Navy, despite it's pre-eminent position as the World's largest and most powerful navy, suffered from a great shortage of vessels suitable for convoy escort work and the men who had chosen to specialize in anti-submarine warfare, as opposed to what was seen as the more glamorous and important gunnery branch, were derisively known as 'Pingers' from the sound made by the then top secret British invention of ASDIC, what we now know as Sonar but then acronymically named after the Anti-Submarine Detection Investigation Committee.

The shortage of both ships and men took time to rectify; apart from the existing hard-pressed destroyers and escort sloops, the first escorts to appear were the Flower Class corvettes. Adapted from a commercial design of whale catcher, these little ships were not really suited to the rough waters of the North Atlantic but armed with a four inch gun and heavy depth-charge armament, these vessels formed the backbone of the escort force during the first half of the war and indeed many of them served throughout the conflict. Nicholas Monserrat, the author of 'The Cruel Sea', the classic novel of the Battle of The Atlantic, served in one of these ships and wrote that 'a corvette could roll on wet grass' such was their lack of sea-keeping qualities.

A more thoroughbred design of escort was the Black Swan class sloop, of which HMS Starling was a member. Turbine powered, with a heavy gun and depth charge armament, because of their more sophisticated layout, these ships took longer to construct. Some of these vessels had appeared just before the outbreak of war but being an evolving design, the majority of them did not begin to appear until 1943 when the Battle of the Atlantic was approaching it's height.

HMS Starling (IWM Collection)

HMS Starling was built at Fairfield's Shipyard on the Clyde and took about 18 months to build, being completed on April 1st 1943. Her first commanding office was to be the Royal Navy's leading U-Boat killer, Captain Frederic John Walker CB DSO***, who was already becoming a legendary figure at the time of his appointment. 

Walker had been one of the Navy's 'Pingers' and was in peacetime parlance, a 'passed over' Commander, meaning that he had not been selected for promotion to Captain and in normal circumstances, could have expected his naval career to end in a relatively dead end position and never achieving promotion beyond his present rank. Pre-war, he had been Second in Command on the battleship HMS Valiant, but had frequently clashed with her captain, who sent damning reports on Walker to the Admiralty. Walker loathed being on big ships but it looked as if he would never get the chance to prove himself as a leader of men on smaller vessels.

The War changed all of this and Walker was given another chance. He had already made his name commanding another sloop, the peacetime built HMS Stork and had won a notable victory escorting convoy HG76 in which two U-Boats had been sunk. Now after a rest from sea-going duties, Walker was back and in command of the Starling.

Walker's appointment ensure that Starling would be at the very centre of all the action involving the Second Support Group, of whom Walker was Senior Officer, for he was one of those officers who led from the front at all time. Indeed, it was this quality that would lead to Walker's premature death, from overwork, some fifteen months later. Due to Walker's insistence on being involved at all times, as well as the undoubtedly high level of training of her officers and crew, HMS Starling was to become the most successful anti-submarine vessel of any navy, with a staggering fifteen 'kills' to her credit, as well as the involvement of her group in a good many more.

There is not really the space in a blog of this nature to fully describe every action that resulted in the sinking of a U-Boat by HMS Starling but the following brief summary will give readers a good idea of what was involved.

Her first kill came on June 1st 1943 when U-202 was the victim; there were 30 survivors from her 48 man crew. Next to go was U-119 on June 24th, caught on the surface and sunk with a combination of gunfire, ramming and depth-charges at shallow settings. There were no survivors. Starling herself had been damaged in ramming the U-Boat; it was a practice soon to be discouraged by the Admiralty, because sinking submarines in this manner also usually put the escort out of action at a time when the Navy was still desperately short of ships. Ever keen to continue the fight, Walker transferred to HMS Wild Goose, signalling to Starling from his new, temporary command "GOODBYE MY GALLANT STARLING. GOD BE WITH YOU." Walker then promptly sank another U-Boat, this time U-449 being the victim, in an attack in which Walker described the submarine as "not knowing what had hit her." Again, there were no survivors.

Back aboard Starling following repairs, November 6th 1943, saw two more victims fall to the gallant sloop; U226 was detected and sunk on passage from Brest. This time, there were 51 men aboard the U-Boat and once again, there were no survivors. Later the same day, U-842 was sunk after a concerted, hour long, depth charge attack Starling and Wild Goose and yet again, as was often the case in these sinkings, the submarine was destroyed with all hands.

After a short lull in sinkings, Starling and the Second Support Group sailed from Liverpool at the end of January 1944 and were to sink an incredible six U-Boats in one trip.The first victim on this trip was U-592, another victim of a group attack with Magpie and Wild Goose in company. Conditions aboard the submarine, under perpetual depth charge attack do not bear thinking about and once again, the entire ship's company of the U-Boat was to meet an horrific death. Starling was not directly involved in the demise of the next victim, U-762, which was despatched by sister vessel HMS Woodpecker on February 8th but returned to form the following day, when U-734 met her end, sunk by the old team of Starling and Wild Goose, followed by U-238, sunk in conjunction with Kite and Magpie. The fact that nobody escaped the imploding submarines, sunk by depth charges at a depth of 300 plus feet, is a given. The next of the six-in-one-trip was U-424 sunk on February 11th by Woodpecker and Wild Goose, with no involvement this time from Starling. The final sinking of this extraordinary sequence came on February 19th, when U-264 was caught by Woodpecker and Starling. After a lengthy series of attacks, the submarine commander, Oberleutnant Hartwig Looks, could no longer stop the water pouring into his boat and managed to bring his crippled vessel to the surface, where he and his entire crew were able to abandon ship and be picked up by the victorious British. 

The party was somewhat dampened by the loss of HMS Woodpecker to torpedo attack the following day, although all of her crew were rescued. Despite this loss, the Second Support Group returned to a rapturous welcome at Liverpool and Walker's reputation as the Allies' leading U-Boat killer was secure. 

Back at sea, on March 15th, U-653 was sunk by the old team of Starling and Wild Goose, whilst on the 29th of the same month, U-961 was destroyed by Walker's ship alone. This U-Boat was described by Walker as 'a genuine mug' as she took no avoiding action and probably never knew what had hit her. With both of these sinkings, there were no survivors from the two submarines. The final sinking by Starling under Walker's command came on May 5th 1944 when U-473 was sunk by Starling, Wild Goose and Wren after a depth charge attack and a rare gun battle on the surface. Thirty of the U-Boat's crew survived to be picked up and taken prisoner.


Capt Walker's memorial at Liverpool Pier Head (Rept0n1x)

After a short period on patrol guarding the D-Day invasion fleet from submarine attack, Walker and the rest of the Second Support Group were in Liverpool. On July 7th 1944, after watching a film with his wife, Walker complained of giddiness and a violent headache. Walker hardly ever complained of any sort of illness, so to see him admitted to hospital was a shock. Two days later, on Sunday July 9th 1944, 'Johnnie' Walker had died, throwing his own ship and the entire group into a state of shock. They had come to see Walker as simply indestructible and now he was gone.

Walker's second in command, Commander Wemyss from the Wild Goose, whose own ship was in refit, took over the Starling on a temporary basis and in partnership with HMS Loch Killin, sank two more U-Boats on this patrol, U-333 on July 31st and U-736 on August 6th; the spirit of Captain Walker was still very much alive. A further victim followed on August 11th when U-385 was sunk by Starling in conjunction with a Sunderland flying boat of RAF Coastal Command.

HMS Starling remained in commission until the end of the war, when she was converted into a training ship and "Gallant Starling" finally paid off. She was scrapped in 1965.
re-commissioned into the peacetime navy, engaged in the navigational training of young officers, an activity that Walker would have thoroughly approved. On her final voyage in 1959, her very last courtesy visit was, most appropriately made to Liverpool, where she embarked Captain Walker's widow who took passage in her husband's old ship back to Portsmouth, where the

Today, Captain 'Johnnie' Walker is commemorated by a statue on the Liverpool Pier Head. Of the sloops, there are vague 'on and off' hopes that the former HMS Whimbrel, another member of the Second Support Group, sold post-war to the Egyptian Navy may be brought home and preserved in Liverpool but these plans have been continually dashed by political changes in Egypt and continued haggling over the price. It is to be hoped that something can be worked out with the Egyptians as Whimbrel preserved in the former home of the Second Support Group, would make a fitting memorial to all those who perished in the greatest and longest sea battle of them all.

Published Sources:

Sloops 1926-1946 - Arnold Hague, World Ship Society - 1993
Walker RN - Terence Robertson, Evans Brothers - 1956
The War at Sea - ed. John Winton, Hutchinson 1974






Saturday, 8 November 2014

Remembering them all

The Charlton Athletic FC memorial (author's photo)

Last weekend, this writer was lucky enough to be present at The Valley, home of Charlton Athletic Football Club, at the unveiling of our Club's war memorial to the fallen of this famous old football club.

Fittingly, whilst this memorial was unveiled during the year marking the centenary of the outbreak to "The War to end all wars", Clive Harris, the military historian and Charlton fan who has been the driving force behind this project, was quick to point out in his brief but moving speech during the ceremony, that this memorial was for everyone associated with the club, whether they be players, officials or supporters and whatever conflict, or facet of the war they were involved in, whether military or civilian, as Charlton with it's close proximity to the Thames, was at the heart of the Blitz in 1940-41.

So perhaps with this in mind and at this remembrance weekend, perhaps now is a good time to remember those civilians and civil defence workers who lost their lives, either as innocent victims of bombing, or in the case of Civil Defence workers, trying to protect the citizens of their localities, whether in London, Coventry, Liverpool, Plymouth, or wherever in the UK that Hitler's bombs fell.

The statistics tell us that overall, some 30,000 civilians died in London during the Second World War due to enemy air attacks and the 'Vengeance' Weapons campaign of 1944-45. What mere statistics do not necessarily convey is the sheer awfulness of the reality of these figures; a glance at a typical incident log will impart some more detail - entire families wiped out, children and babies killed (the youngest this writer has seen mentioned was 9 hours old), groups of people in pubs and church congregations alive one moment and gone the next - nobody was immune. Even Armistice Day itself brought terror in wartime; on November 11th 1944, the Brook Hotel, a public house on suburban Shooter's Hill was obliterated by a V-2 rocket, the toll of 29 dead, including some on a passing bus, warranted 'major incident' status but probably had to be seen to realize the true horror of the aftermath.

Woolworth's V-2 memorial (author's photo)
The worst V-2 incident in London came just a few short miles along the A2 from Shooter's Hill, in New Cross, at a busy Woolworth's store. This time, everything that could go wrong, did - the 25th November 1944 was a busy pre-Christmas Saturday - the rumour had gone around that the Woolworth's store had received a consignment of saucepans, which had become something of a rarity in the austere conditions prevailing in the sixth year of the war and the store was busy with shoppers literally from all across London in search of one of these rare finds. In addition, the store was busy, as usual, with children eager to spend their pocket money (and 'personal points' under the rationing scheme) on sweets. At 12:25, the missile struck and what had been a bustling and busy high street was instantly turned into a scene of utter devastation and carnage as the Woolworth's store and the next door Co-op were destroyed. As with the Shooter's Hill incident, passengers on a passing bus were also victims and when, two days later, the final victims were retrieved by the rescue services, the final death toll was an appalling 168, with almost as many seriously injured, many of whom required amputations. There were few people indeed in south-east London who did not know a victim of this terrible incident.

So much for the civilians, but we should also not forget the work done by the Fire and Ambulance Services, Police, Rescue Squads, ARP Wardens and all of the other Civil Defence services, male and female, including the WVS, whose members, mainly ladies of a 'certain age' provided refreshments for those working during the Blitz, often placing themselves in as much danger as those doing the rescuing!

Wartime Civil Defence badges, from left WVS, ARP Wardens, AFS (author's photo)

The Firefighters' Memorial, appropriately sited opposite St Paul's Cathedral records the names of 1.027 men and women of the Fire Services who lost their lives during the Second World War, the London Ambulance Service lost 36 members of staff during the Blitz and the Metropolitan Police lost over 100 killed both on and off duty during the Blitz.

Apart from the casualty figures, a good indication of the bravery involved amongst the Civil Defence services, is the number of bravery awards made for services above and beyond the call of duty. We have already looked at the story of Anthony Smith GC in a February 2012 post on this blog but another example of a George Medal award is typical of those made during the Blitz.

Join the AFS (author's collection)
On the night of 19th/20th October 1940, the Red Lion public house just off Shooter's Hill was hit by a High Explosive bomb; there were thirteen fatal casualties both in the pub and in adjoining houses which had collapsed but there were also survivors trapped in the ruins. Without a thought for her own safety, Nurse Mary Thomas, whose job was to tend to the injured after they had been extracted, decided to crawl into the rubble to reach two trapped survivors and tended to their injuries whilst they were awaiting rescue. The survivors were eventually rescued and went on to make a full recovery. As a result of her bravery Nurse Thomas was awarded the George Medal.

Apart from their work with Blitz victims, the Ambulance services were often required to assist with transporting wounded soldiers who had been repatriated from the front line en route to hospitals back in the UK. The ambulance staff would always put on a brave and cheerful face for the soldiers, some of whom were suffering from appalling injuries. In Angela Raby's excellent book, 'The Forgotten Service', Babette Loraine recounted being sent to Paddington Station to collect wounded being returned from North Africa. Even her normal composure was rattled at the sight of a soldier, who had neither arms or legs and was also blind. Not surprisingly, she was temporarily taken aback but recovered sufficiently to ask the soldier the standard fall back question, if he would like a cup of tea. The soldier cheerfully replied "Can a duck swim?" Babette got the soldier his tea and gladly assisted him to drink it.

Perhaps the final word should go to an anonymous Firewoman, ostensibly operating the switchboard at Redcross Street Fire Station on the night of 29th/30 December 1940, the great City Blitz. The appliances had all been ordered out early in the raid and in the meantime, the fires were gradually creeping ever closer to the Fire Station. Senior Officers were debating whether to evacuate when an ARP Warden burst in, yelling "Hey! Your bloody roof is on fire!"

"Whoopee!" cried a Firewoman and grabbed a stirrup pump before making for the stairs followed by her colleagues armed with buckets of water. At last they had a chance to prove themselves equal to the men and made an expert job of extinguishing the fires. The Fire Station, along with the Whitbread Brewery, was one of the few buildings to survive in an area which was devastated by fires.

Such was the spirit of both civilians and Civil Defence workers.

Whatever you are doing this Remembrance Day, remember them all.

Published Sources:

Hitler's Rockets: The Story of the V2s - Norman Longmate - Frontline Books, 2009
The Forgotten Service: Auxiliary Ambulance Station 39 - Angela Raby - After The Battle 1999
The London Blitz: A Fireman's Tale - Cyril Demarne OBE - After The Battle 1991

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Shrapnel and London's 'Honourable Scars'

Steve pointing out the shrapnel scars on General Wolfe's statue (Sam Dorrington, Surrey Photos)

For clients taking one of our Blitz walks, the enjoyment and interest comes in many forms. For some, it is the aspect of walking the ground and imagining just what it was like to be in London, or any other town or city when the bombs were falling, whilst for others, it is the wonderment of seeing the 'then and now' perspectives to be gained by comparing the present day view with that of some seventy years ago. One aspect that does seem universally popular however, is when, at various points along a given route, the 'props' appear. These period artifacts really help to bring the walks alive and the fact that people can touch and feel something from the period helps them to better understand the subject matter being discussed at that particular 'stand' on the walk.

One set of 'props' in particular always arouse a particular fascination - this is the shrapnel fragments. The fascination is always a mixture of interest in finally handling the stuff that is so often mentioned in personal accounts, in documentaries and books as well as an appalled realization as to what this stuff that can easily scar solid masonry could actually do to the human body.

With the final bomb sites in London and elsewhere finally now built upon, the shrapnel scars left on many buildings are perhaps the remaining most tangible reminder of the daily ordeal that London and Londoners, as well as many other towns and cities endured over seventy years ago.

The author's shrapnel fragments (Author's photo)
Before going any further, perhaps we should examine the derivation of the word 'shrapnel' and how it has passed into everyday usage.

In 1784, Lieutenant Henry Shrapnel, of the Royal Artillery, perfected what he called "spherical case" ammunition, which was basically a hollow cannon ball, filled with musket balls and which was designed to explode in mid-air over concentrations of enemy soldiers. This first anti-personnel weapon was demonstrated in 1787 at Gibraltar and was adopted by the British Army. By 1803, they had evolved into an elongated shell that was christened as the "Shrapnel Shell" and continued to be manufactured with little basic change, until the end of the Great War. The name stuck and although by the Second World War, neither British or German sides used shrapnel shells against each other, the word had become generic to describe any bomb or shell fragments.

This writer is lucky enough to possess several shrapnel fragments, all of which were discovered on the Thames foreshore in Greenwich by the excellent Nicola White of Tide Line Art and which are invaluable 'props' to my walks.

These pieces take two forms; first we have the shell fragments, which in this case I think come from British anti-aircraft shells. People tend to forget that apart from the shrapnel generated by German bombs, there was a spirited anti-aircraft barrage emanating from London's defences and whilst in 1940, it has to be said that this fire was largely ineffectual, it did help boost the morale of the beleaguered Londoners, who felt that there was at least some opposition being generated to the unseen night time raiders. Of course, the theory of "What goes up, must come down" applied and as well as being peppered with bomb fragments, those who had reason to be out on the streets during a raid had to contend with this added British generated hazard.

Spent British 0.303" bullets (Author's photo)
The other shrapnel item in my possession is a collection of spent bullets. In 1940, the Battle of Britain was raging overhead and some of the Luftwaffe's early daylight raids over London were fiercely contested by the RAF's Hurricanes and Spitfires. Many of the dogfights took place over London itself and whilst most civilians wisely took cover, there were many who watched these deadly duels taking place over their own homes and workplaces. The daylight battle over London culminated on September 15th with the Luftwaffe suffering heavy losses. At the time, the Air Ministry claimed that 185 German aircraft (of 201 bombers and approximately 530 fighters deployed) had been destroyed. The actual figure was 56 destroyed and combined with earlier heavy losses, the Luftwaffe high command decided to switch their attacks on London and other British cities to night-time area bombing methods.

The bullets that I have are from British 0.303" calibre Browning machine guns, which were the standard armament of the Hurricane and the Spitfire, the versions of these iconic fighters in use during the Battle of Britain each being equipped with eight of these weapons. Nicola also kindly (and unwittingly) gave me two live rounds, which were promptly and safely disposed of!

Neil's shrapnel fragment (Author's photo)

Neil Bright, my fellow Blitzwalkers Guide is the owner of a fearsome fragment from a German bomb, which is roughly the size of the palm of my hand. The prospect of a fragment of this size striking a person simply does not bear thinking about.

Today, several buildings in London still display the "Honourable Scars" of their Wartime past, amongst them General Wolfe's statue in Greenwich Park, St Bartholemew's Hospital in the City of London, St Clement Danes Church in The Strand, Lord Clyde's statue in Waterloo Place as well as Edward VII's equestrian statue in the same location. Other buildings still bearing their scars are St Paul's Cathedral and the Victoria & Albert Museum, whose pockmarks are accompanied by a helpful plaque, which explains what these marks are and why they remain unrepaired. The Guards' Memorial also proudly displays shrapnel marks as do humbler structures such as the abutments of a railway bridge across Blackfriars Road and buildings in London Street, near Paddington Station.

Wartime scars on St Clement Danes Church (Author's photo)

All of these, as well as others serve to remind present day Londoners and visitors to this great city what our forebears endured over seventy years ago.

My next Westminster Blitz walk, in which we will explore several of the above-mentioned locations, as well as much else, is on Sunday November 16th 2014.

Printed Sources:

Battle of Britain Day: 15 September 1940 - Dr Alfred Price, Sidgwick & Jackson 1990
The Narrow Margin - Derek Wood with Derek Dempster - Tri Service Press 1990


Friday, 3 October 2014

One night in Greenwich & Woolwich

When looking back at the London Blitz, it is sometime difficult for the average person to always understand the extent of the damage caused to London (and to other towns and cities in the UK) and that interspersed with the major incidents that grabbed the headlines, there were many more mundane happenings during an average night, that occurred night in and night out but which had to be dealt with all the same and which had an impact to a greater or lesser extent on those who happened to be there at the time. The actual purpose of today's offering is to take a snapshot of a typical night during the Blitz and to show readers the number of incidents on such a night, the nature of them and how they were reported and acted upon by the Civil Defence services.

Anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis will know that this writer hails from Greenwich and so for the sake of example, we will look at the Incident Logs for this borough and for neighbouring Woolwich, which are absolutely typical of those across the capital and indeed across the whole of Great Britain.

Civil Defence Organization for Greenwich

Let us start with a brief description as to how incidents were reported and at the Civil Defence organization across the country. The United Kingdom was divided into regions for Civil Defence, under the overall control of the Minister of Home Security, who for the majority of the War, was Mr Herbert Morrison. Each region was under the control of a Civil Commissioner, responsible for the Civil Defence arrangements of the region. London was designated Region 5 and for the bulk of the War, the Civil Commissioner was Admiral Sir Edward Evans. The accompanying 'chain of command' chart gives an idea of the awesome responsibility held by the Civil Commissioner and of the huge number of services under his control.

London Civil Defence Organization
London was further sub-divided into Civil Defence Groups, each under the control of (usually) the Chief Executive of the relevant local authority; the inner London Boroughs formed Groups 1-5, whilst the outer London Boroughs and Urban/Rural Districts formed Groups 6-9, again as shown in the accompanying chart. The Chief Executive was the Civil Defence Controller for his or her borough including the control of incidents through the network of ARP Wardens, who acted as control officers to coordinate the efforts of the rescue services. In London, the Fire, Ambulance and Rescue services were all supplied by the London County Council, or LCC but were under the direct operational control of the Civil Defence Controller. Despite the seeming complexity of the system, it was basically a sound system that ran efficiently and smoothly.

Having established how London's Civil Defence was organized, let us now look at how the system worked in practice.


Typical incident report for Woolwich (author's collection)

As mentioned above, the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) Wardens were the essential link between events happening 'on the ground' and how they were dealt with. The Wardens were on patrol at all times during an 'alert' when the sirens had sounded. The wardens wore a basic uniform of a blue boiler suit, with the ubiquitous 'tin helmet' to provide their only protection against flying debris and shrapnel. Their 'badge of office' was a small silver 'ARP' badge worn proudly on the lapel which along with the 'W' on their steel helmets signified that these brave men and women, largely volunteers and many of whom were of 'a certain age' were the vital cog in the Civil Defence machinery. The wardens usually patrolled in pairs and when they came upon an incident, which on busy nights were only too commonplace, the younger and fitter of the pair was detailed to report back to the nearby Wardens' Post, where the Chief Warden for the Post would arrange for the required services and then phone details of the incident back to the Borough Control, usually located in the basement of the local Town Hall. There, the Duty Controller would record the incident on a sheet of paper as shown, which would then either be transcribed into a ledger for future reference, or filed as loose sheets. Each incident would be updated until deemed 'closed.'

Let us now look at a typical night in Greenwich and Woolwich and the sequence of events on the night of 5th/6th October 1940. During the day, the Luftwaffe had attacked targets in Kent and also Southampton, no doubt the Supermarine works, where the all-important Spitfires were being produced. By night, the targets switched to airfields in East Anglia and to London, which had been the focus of attention since September 7th. The weather had been bright during the day but with increasingly frequent showers in most areas.

The first incident recorded in Greenwich was at 00:25 on the 6th October, which was a report of Incendiary Bombs dropped in the grounds of Trinity Hospital, Greenwich which were extinguished by wardens without the need for the Fire Brigade to get involved. Incidents 2 & 3 are recorded at 01:45 and 01:50 at Siemens' Works and at 19 Heringham Road and again involved incendiaries, which were dealt with by the AFS (Auxiliary Fire Service) and by a Stirrup Pump Party respectively. Incident 4 was recorded at 02:15 as a High Explosive (HE) Bomb that fell harmlessly on open ground in Charlton Park Lane opposite Siemens Sports Ground. This must have been a relatively quiet night in Greenwich as the next incident is not recorded until 03:00 and demonstrates amply that not all incidents were of the Luftwaffe's making. The log records that 51 Haddo House in Claremont Street was struck by an Anti-Aircraft shell, proving the theory that "What goes up, must come down." Fortunately, on this occasion, no casualties were reported, although these 'friendly fire' incidents as they would be called nowadays, could sometimes have tragic consequences. There is then a long gap before the next incident is reported, almost certainly after the 'All Clear' had sounded and when people went out in the light of day to discover what had happened. This is recorded at 08:30 by the Cricket Pavilion in Charlton Park, which had been damaged by a HE Bomb - could this be the consequences of Incident 4, first reported at 02:15? Sadly, we shall never know. The next incidents follow the same pattern, being an unexploded AA shell at 08:37 in a field at the rear of 260 Wricklemarsh Road, then at 10:04, a UXB was reported at the RAF Depot in Kidbrooke Park Road, before finishing with the last incident reported at 10.24 at Angerstein's Wharf with the discovery of no fewer than 3 HE bombs and an incendiary for good measure. So ended a quiet-ish day in Greenwich.

Nearest ARP Warden (Author's collection)

Across the borough boundary in Woolwich, things were slightly busier. The first incident was reported at 20:35 on the evening of the 5th October with a HE Bomb in Queenscroft Road, Eltham which blocked the road between Eltham Hill and Queenscroft Road. This was quickly followed at 20:37 by an Oil Bomb at 99 Montbelle Road, which was soon extinguished. Incident 3, reported at the same time saw 3 x HE Bombs fall upon numbers 68 and 70 Eltham Hill. Not surprisingly, both houses were demolished, with others nearby being heavily damaged as well as Eltham Hill itself being blocked. Fortunately, in all of these incidents, no casualties were recorded. The next incident is missing from the log, so we shall never know what this refers to, whilst number 5 saw a HE Bomb fall harmlessly into a field on the western side of Crouch Croft. Another Oil Bomb, this time at 305 Green Lane, Eltham saw minor damage to a fence before it was dealt with by the Fire Brigade. A short lull then ensued before the action switched to Woolwich proper. A flurry of incidents starting at 23:49 saw clusters of incendiary bombs falling in Ferry Approach, Woolwich Dockyard, Warspite Road, Woolwich Church Street, Sunbury Street, Chapel Street and the Commonwealth Buildings. Fires were reported at all of these incidents but were eventually brought under control without casualties. A grimmer entry then ensues at 04:37 on the 6th October, when a HE Bomb is reported at 121 Crescent Road. The ominous words 'Mortuary Van required - 2 fatal casualties' appears and brings home to the casual reader the true meaning of the Blitz and of the bombing of civilians in general. Further HE bombs are reported at 40 St Margaret's Terrace, Old Mill Road and Woolwich Arsenal Station, which caused both lines to be blocked and repair gangs called out. Fortunately, as the 6th October was a Sunday, not too much inconvenience would have been caused to the travelling public, who presumably would have had better things to worry about in any case. The final Woolwich incident of the night's activities is number 14 and records another HE Bomb, this time at 193 Burrage Road and reminds us of another facet of the Civil Defence service; the occupant of the house was unharmed, though not surprisingly suffering from shock, but having lost her home and many of her possessions, the log notes that 'storage for furniture required.' Wherever property could be salvaged and made safe from looters, then it would be kept in storage until the bombed-out residents could be rehoused.

Repairing the damage in Woolwich Road (Author's collection)

So ended a moderate night's Blitz in Greenwich and Woolwich. Compared with September 7th 1940 and other nights still to come, the events of October 5th/6th were small beer indeed to the people of southeast London.

If you'd like to find out more about the Blitz, the V-Weapons and the effects of the war in general on Greenwich, I will be guiding a walk around Blackheath and Greenwich on Sunday October 12th, starting at 11:00am outside All Saints' Church Blackheath - for further details and how to book, visit our main website at http://www.blitzwalkers.co.uk/dates.html


Published Sources:

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

Unpublished Sources:

Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich Civil Defence Incident Log
Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich Civil Defence Incident Log

Original documents held in Greenwich Heritage Centre - transcribed by the author

Friday, 12 September 2014

Who were The Few?

The Battle of Britain Memorial on London's Embankment (author's photo)
As we approach the 74th anniversary of Battle of Britain Day, it seems a good time to re-visit some of the myths surrounding The Few. Obviously, they were an extremely brave group of men, to whom we owe nothing less than the freedom that we take for granted today but to the average person, there are many misconceptions about these young men, their backgrounds, where they came from and what brought them to join the RAF in the first place.

The common conception of the Battle of Britain pilots portrayed in many movies about this era is that of the stereotypical upper class or upper middle class Englishmen, ex public schoolboys, who had a certain amount of independent means in order to allow themselves to support the financial burden of being an office in the RAF. This had been largely true in the very early years of the RAF when many of the pilot recruits had come from a public school background. 

However, Sir Hugh Trenchard, widely seen as the 'Father of the RAF' soon saw to it that it was essential for the infant service to set up it's own independent training establishments, such as Cranwell in Lincolnshire for officer training and Halton in Buckinghamshire for the training of ground crew. He also recognized the importance of widening the net for officer intake and an early step towards achieving this came when the best three apprentices each year from Halton were offered places at Cranwell. The next step came in late 1921 when outstanding candidates from the ranks were also offered the chance to learn how to fly, serving for five years as 'Sergeant Pilots' before returning to their trades.

At this point in time, the RAF had shrunk from being by far the largest air force in the World in 1918, to having it's very future threatened during the cash-strapped years of the 1920s and although the RAF was probably the most egalitarian of the three services, it's tiny size ensured that flyers from the ranks remained very much in the minority. 

This situation began to change in 1934 in response to events taking place in Germany, where the Nazi takeover in 1933 ensured that their armed forces began to expand rapidly and measures were put in place to increase the numbers of pilots and aircrew coming into the RAF. In addition to this increase in personnel, the infrastructure was also expanded; forty five new air stations were planned in 1935 in order to accommodate the increased number of home based squadrons, the number for these being set at one hundred and twenty three. In 1937, more money was spent on the RAF than on the British Army - the first time this had occurred and manpower was scheduled to be increased to 118,000 with 45,000 reserves by 1939 - a fivefold increase from the 1934 figure. Moreover, the number of Auxiliary squadrons was to be increased from eight to twenty and alternative reserve force, the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR) was established.

The Auxiliary Air Force (AAF) had been established in 1924 and if any branch of the RAF fitted the common public 'upper crust' perception of the RAF's flyers, then the Auxiliaries fitted it perfectly. The first four squadrons were 600 (City of London), 601 (County of London), 602 (City of Glasgow) and 603 (City of Edinburgh). Applicants were required to have already learned to fly from within their own financial resources, not a cheap hobby in the 1920s and 30s, which meant that these first squadrons were somewhat socially exclusive; this was despite Trenchard's wish that these squadrons be open to all comers. Indeed, 601 Squadron was known as the 'Millionaires Squadron' due to the large number of it's members who were pulled from the ranks of White's Club, that most exclusive of the London Gentlemens' Clubs. By the time of the Battle of Britain, the Auxiliaries had expanded to fourteen fighter squadrons and this expansion, combined with the high number of casualties incurred, ensured that the social exclusivity of these squadrons was steadily diluted as the war progressed.

The RAFVR, founded in 1936 was in complete contrast to the Auxiliaries, being a far more democratic organization. It gave young men who were interested in flying and in aircraft generally, the chance to escape their routine civilian jobs, at least at weekends and for annual training, and gave them the opportunity to learn to fly at the Air Force's expense. Men aged between 18-25 joined as 'airmen under training' and they were commissioned as officers strictly on merit. The initial aim of the RAFVR was to train 800 new airmen per year. Volunteers were paid a £25 per year 'bounty' and in addition to their weekends, had to attend an annual fifteen day flying course. By the spring of 1939, there were 2,500 RAFVR pilots in training, 310 of whom were fighter pilots. They were to play an essential role in the Battle of Britain and in the wartime RAF in general. 

So much for the organizations which gave us the men but what of the men themselves? Who were they and where were they from?

'Sailor' Malan' (author's collection)
The excellent film, 'Battle of Britain' first released in 1969, remains the tour de force of movies covering this facet of the war. Unlike many other films, it does not fall into the trap of showing all of the RAF's fighter pilots as being toffs, neither does it show them as being all British. There are many references to the Poles, Czechs, Free French, Canadians as well as many others and the pilots are shown as a true representation of all social classes - from Michael Caine's undoubtedly (and perhaps unlikely) upper class Squadron Leader, through Christopher Plummer's regular Canadian airman, Robert Shaw's 'Skipper' character, said to be based on the South African 'Sailor' Malan and Ian McShane's Sergeant Pilot amongst others. The incident in which the Polish 303 Squadron, ostensibly on a training exercise tore into a German formation and by default got themselves declared operational, is also based on a true incident and the film in general is an excellent account of the Battle.

 In the real life Battle of Britain, the men came from all manner of the social strata and from all parts of the world; there was the aforementioned 'Sailor' Malan from South Africa, covered in this blog in October 2010 and who seemed to have a real charisma about him. Stephen Bungay's excellent book, The Most Dangerous Enemy, quotes a fitter from Malan's 74 Squadron who said simply "I think Malan was the most wonderful man I ever met. Certainly in all my long service with the RAF, I never met another like him." Malan had had an interesting background, being originally a Merchant Seaman, before deciding to join the RAF in 1935, where he passed out as 'above average.'

More typical of the public schoolboy entrant to the RAF was Peter Townsend. He was the son of a civil servant of the British Empire and was born in Burma but grew up in Devon. A product of Haileybury School, he joined the RAF in 1935 and like many young officers of the period, felt that he had joined the best and most exclusive flying club in the world. He saw the German threat coming at the time of the Munich Crisis of 1938 and then realizing that war was inevitable, changed his attitude not only towards the Germans but towards the RAF, seeing it as being rather more than a flying club but rather than a serious weapon with which this country could defend itself. Townsend served throughout the War and remained in the RAF post-war, when sadly for him, he became better known for his on/off romance with Princess Margaret than for his exploits in the Battle of Britain.

A product of the Auxiliary Air Force was Sir Max Aitken, son of Lord Beaverbrook and who joined 601 Squadron in 1935. Born in Canada, he was educated at Westminster School and Pembroke College, Cambridge. Aitken was a talented sportsmen and more importantly as far as the AAF was concerned, a keen flyer. Aitken became CO of 601 Squadron in June 1940 and was uncompromising in his view of his Luftwaffe counterparts and was seen in the excellent ITV documentary series The World at War in which he stated "I hated them (the Germans). They were trying to do something to us. They were trying to enslave us." Aitken retired from the RAF in 1946 to become involved in his father's newspaper business, eventually taking over the Express Group of newspapers upon Lord Beaverbrook's death in 1964.

Amongst the many excellent flyers produced by the RAFVR was Bob Doe. He was a quiet young man from Reigate in Surrey and had been an office boy at the News of the World newspaper and like many of his counterparts, had joined the Volunteer Reserve because he wanted an escape from his boring job and had had a fascination with aeroplanes from a young age. Doe had good co-ordination, possibly as a result of being an amateur violinist and was a decent shot, the result of hours of practice in his garden with an air rifle. He narrowly passed his Wings examination but in November 1939 was posted to 234 Squadron at Leconfield in the East Riding of Yorkshire. One of the flight commanders at 234 Squadron was Pat Hughes, an Australian for whom Bob Doe gained a great deal of respect and who took Bob under his wing. From a hesitant start, which was as much to do with his shyness as much as anything else, Doe became an excellent pilot, ending the Battle of Britain with 14 'kills' to his name. Bob remained in the RAF post war, retiring in 1966 as a Wing Commander.

Pat Hughes was one of the many Commonwealth pilot who came to Britain under the short service commission scheme in the late 1930s. Hughes arrived in the UK in 1937 and qualified as a pilot in early 1939 and was posted to 64 Squadron at Church Fenton before moving to the newly formed 234 Squadron in November 1939. Pat had gained 14 'kills' plus 3 shared by 7th September 1940, the first day of the Blitz on London, when he was killed in a collision with a Dornier 17 over the village of Sundridge, Kent. Hughes was awarded a posthumous DFC in October and this was presented to his widow (after only five weeks of marriage) Kay Hughes.

Lord Dowding (centre) - Al Deere (in beret) next to him, Max Aitken fourth from left. (Crown Copyright)

The largest Commonwealth contingent, with 127 flyers in the Battle of Britain, was New Zealand. Amongst them was Alan Deere, who was another to take advantage of the short service commission scheme and who arrived in the UK in December 1937. After passing his examinations, Deere was posted to 54 Squadron at Hornchurch in 1938, at first operating Gloster Gladiator biplanes but converting to Spitfires in early 1940. Also on 54 Squadron was Colin Gray, another New Zealander who would become the top scoring pilot for that country during the war with 27 'kiils' plus two further shared. Deere himself some tough combat through the fall of France and covering the Dunkirk evacuation and of course, the Battle of Britain. Alan Deere served throughout the Battle and in Europe for the majority of the war, ending it with 22 'kills'. Deere remained in the RAF post war and retired in 1967 as an Air Commodore.

The largest overseas contingent had nothing to do with the British Empire or Commonwealth but was in many ways a windfall from the German occupation of mainland Europe. When Poland was conquered in September 1939, some 8,500 Polish airmen managed to escape, firstly to France and later to the UK. The Polish Air Force had been in the process of converting to modern aircraft but this had come too late to save them against the rampaging Luftwaffe. The Poles were good flyers but obviously, there was a massive language barrier to be overcome before the majority of them could fly as part of the RAF. Some individuals were posted into RAF squadrons, where they were immediately taken under the wings of the RAF men, who treated them almost as lucky mascots. One pilot, Ludwik Martel, who flew with 54 and 603 squadrons, twice refused transfers to a Polish unit and was quoted by Stephen Bungay as saying "My most cherished memories date from 1940 to 1941, when I was in an English squadron."

Unlike their British counterparts, the Poles had seen what the Nazis could do once they had conquered a land and fought the Luftwaffe with an implacable hatred and with a passionate desire to avenge their own country's defeat. 303 Squadron, based at Northolt, was the highest scoring squadron in Fighter Command with 126 accredited 'kills' and at first, there was some skepticism as to whether all of these claims were genuine. As a result, the Station Commander at Northolt, Group Captain Vincent, flew with 303 on one sortie and came back rather shaken but was certain after this experience that "what they claimed, they did indeed get!"

The Czechs were fighting with the same motivation as the Poles, but were somewhat more disciplined in their approach and once the language barrier was overcome, fitted into the RAF very comfortably.

Many of the Belgian contingent had already flown Hawker Hurricanes, with which the Belgian Air Force was re-equipping but as this force had been largely destroyed on the ground by the Luftwaffe, had not had the chance to use them in anger. Those that escaped to the UK were quickly integrated into the RAF and posted to squadrons which already flew the Hurricane.

Billy Fiske (Crown copyright)
One other overseas contingent should also be mentioned; it is uncertain exactly how many Americans fought in the Battle of Britain as some of them pretended to be Canadians in order to get around their government's strict neutrality laws. Some made it to France, planning to join that country's Air Force, just in time for France to fall and came to England instead. It was not yet an American war but there were around ten or eleven who fought in the Battle of Britain. One of them was Billy Fiske, a film producer, stockbroker and Olympic bobsleigh champion, who had married into English society when he wed the former wife of the Earl of Warwick. He joined 601, the so-called Millionaires Squadron so that he could fly with friends who were already members and thus became the first American to die in the War. On 16th August, Fiske's Hurricane was hit in the fuel tank by return fire from a Stuka dive bomber. Despite suffering severe burns, Fiske elected to bring his crippled aircraft back to Tangmere and although he was extricated from the burning Hurricane by medical teams moments before the aircraft's fuel tank exploded, Billy Fiske died from his wounds and from surgical shock in hospital the next day. He was 27 years of age.

This was Fighter Command - predominantly British but with significant numbers of oversea airmen making it a diverse, international force with men of vastly different backgrounds and upbringings as well as arguably, differing motivations. 

Whatever their nationality and whatever their motivation, we still owe these men an enormous debt of gratitude.


Remember them on Battle of Britain Day.

"Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many, to so few." Winston S Churchill

Printed Sources:

Battle of Britain - Patrick Bishop, Quercus 2010
The Most Dangerous Enemy - Stephen Bungay, Aurum Books 2001
The Narrow Margin - Derek Wood with Derek Dempster, Tri Service Press 1990
Nine Lives - Air Commodore Alan C Deere, Crecy 2012
Spitfire: Portrait of a Legend - Leo McKinstry, John Murray 2008

Monday, 25 August 2014

Heinrich Mathy, Blackheath and the 'First Blitz'

Tranquil Vale, Blackheath in 1916 (Greenwich Heritage Centre)

Whilst looking through my photograph collection for something else, it is all to easy to become sidetracked and end up looking at something completely unrelated to one's original search. On this occasion, it was rather uncanny as the photograph I came across is one that features regularly in my Blackheath and Greenwich Blitz walk but which happened to be on the exact anniversary of the subject incident taking place. The photo in question is reproduced above and comes courtesy of the excellent Greenwich Heritage Centre, from whose archives it comes. It is actually a reproduction from an unknown local newspaper of the period which perpetuates an error in the caption but which offers a fascinating insight into the 'First Blitz' on London, during the Great War when the Zeppelins of the Imperial German Navy brought the war right to the doorsteps of the British civilian population.

The raid in question actually occurred on August 24th 1916 when thirteen airships headed for London, including the L31, commanded by 33 year old Kapitanleutnant Heinrich Mathy. Due to a combination of adverse weather conditions, poor navigation and technical problems with the craft, twelve of the Zeppelins turned back without finding their targets. Only Mathy in the L31, skillfully flying through the low cloud cover, managed to reach London to make a successful bombing run and in the space of ten minutes, proceeding at it's maximum speed of 65 mph, the L31 dropped a total of thirty six bombs on the Isle of Dogs, Deptford, Greenwich, Blackheath, Eltham and Plumstead before heading back to it's base in Northern Germany. The L31 was one of the new generation of so-called 'Super Zeppelins' and at nearly 200 metres in length and 24 metres width, it was truly a monster. Although the L31 had been undamaged in the raid, it suffered from a heavy landing upon it's return to Germany, which required repairs putting it out of action until October 1916.

Heinrich Mathy (IWM)

The raid in which Blackheath had been hit, albeit unwittingly caused in excess of £130,000 worth of damage, which at 1916 prices, was no mean sum. 

Heinrich Mathy was by 1916, a veteran of fifteen bombing raids on Great Britain and had made his first attack on London in 1915 in command of an earlier and smaller airship, the L13. These raids on British cities and the indiscriminate nature of them, a precursor of what was to come during the next conflict, led to the Zeppelin crews being dubbed by the British press as the 'Baby Killers' and in the eyes of the British, Mathy was one of the leading exponents.

During his enforced absence whilst L31 was being repaired following it's heavy landing, Mathy learned that the British had shot down their first Zeppelin, when Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson flying a BE2C fighter, brought down the SL11 near Cuffley, Hertfordshire. The hydrogen filled gasbags of the airships made them hugely vulnerable to the newly developed incendiary bullets and the fact that German airmen, in common with their British counterparts, were not issued with parachutes at this time, ensured that they faced an awful choice; death by fire in the crashing airship, or jumping to avoid the flames but still facing the same end result. For his skill, determination and no little bravery in carrying out this first successful downing of a Zeppelin, Leefe Robinson was awarded the Victoria Cross, only for him to later die from influenza at the end of 1918, his health having been weakened by a period of captivity in Germany from April 1917, during which time he was singled out for rough treatment by his captors.
 
Wulstan Tempest, William Leefe Robinson VC & Frederick Sowrey (IWM)

Hearing of more and more Zeppelins being destroyed saw Mathy make the following diary entry:

"It is only a question of time before we join the rest. Everyone admits that they feel it. Our nerves are ruined by mistreatment. If anyone should say that he was not haunted by the visions of burning airships, then he would be a braggart."

Rather strangely, Mathy himself had previously sent a somewhat bragging letter to the New York Times in which he stated that he and his comrades were going to "smash London", so it was somewhat ironic that on the newly repaired L31's next raid to London, Mathy and his crew did indeed "join the rest" as predicted in his own diary entry.

Zeppelin L31 (IWM)

On October 1st 1916, L31 was once again heading towards London with Mathy in command and once more, his skill in navigation through questionable weather had ensured that his machine was the only one of eleven that had originally set out from Germany to near it's intended target. This time however, they were picked up searchlights over Kelvedon Hatch in Essex and turned away to try and avoid further detection. Taking a course over Stevenage and Hatfield, the L31 was once again picked out by searchlights over Cheshunt and three BE2C fighters of 39 Squadron, based at Hornchurch Aerodrome intercepted the giant airship. One fighter, piloted by the splendidly named 2nd Lieutenant Wulstan Tempest, engaged the Zeppelin shortly before midnight. Three long bursts from the fighter's Lewis gun set fire to the airship and the burning monster crashed into a field near Potters Bar in Hertfordshire, resulting in the death of all nineteen on board, including Mathy. The commander had faced the awful choice mentioned earlier and elected to jump from his blazing Zeppelin; his body was found quite close to the wreckage, embedded some four inches into the ground.

The Zeppelin raids continued into 1917 but their days as a terror weapon were finished and the Germans would make increasing use of their giant biplane Gotha bombers to continue their bombing campaign against the British.

Combined deaths from both airship and aircraft raids against Britain during the Great War caused 1,392 deaths, which compared to what was to come in the Second World War, are small beer but it has to be remembered that almost one hundred years ago, the bombing of civilians was a new and terrifying method of waging war. The deaths of 60,000 British, 600,000 German and possibly a similar number of Japanese civilians are testament to how this embryonic new form of warfare in 1914-18 was to develop in later conflicts.


Printed sources:

A Wander Through Wartime London - Clive Harris & Neil Bright, Pen & Sword 2010





Friday, 8 August 2014

A-Z of the Blitz (E)

Evacuation: Why & How? (author's photo)

After a holiday break, we resume our occasional series with a look at the letter 'E' and connections with the Battle of Britain and the Blitz.

Perhaps the most obvious 'E' is for Evacuees and when one thinks of this facet of the war in Britain, most people immediately and correctly think towards the mass exodus of children that was instigated two days before the official declaration of war, on September 1st 1939, under the title of 'Operation Pied Piper.'

In a superb piece of organisation, spread over four days, over half a million people were evacuated from London alone, largely using London Transport buses and the main line railways. Children were evacuated to all manner of places in the countryside, some as near to London as High Wycombe and some as far away as Torquay, Newton Abbot and South Wales but all out of the way of the dreaded and expected appearance of huge fleets of German bombers. Apart from children, others evacuated included expectant mothers, blind persons, the mentally ill and hospital patients, the latter so as to free up valuable bed space for the vast numbers of casualties expected to arise when the bombing began. 

"We are not going to win a war by running away." (author's photo)

As can be expected with this massed parting of children from their parents, there were more than a few tears shed both from children and from mothers and although some children came to enjoy the experience and found the country life a great adventure, it has to be said that some frankly hated every moment of it and were quickly brought back to London by mothers who could not bear to be parted from their children, especially when the bombers failed to materialize and Britain entered the period now known as the 'Phoney War.'

Schoolchildren from Woolwich awaiting evacuation at Victoria Station (Greenwich Heritage)

This was unfortunate; whilst the evacuation scheme for children was recommended, it was never mandatory and although the great majority of children stayed away from danger for the duration, the commencement of the Blitz on September 7th 1940, saw more children in London than had been the case exactly one year previously. Needless to say, the bombs falling on London did see a renewed exodus to the countryside.

One scheme that was stopped in it's tracks was the evacuation of children across the Atlantic to the absolute safety of Canada. Unfortunately to reach this safe haven, the vessels being used for the evacuation had to run the gauntlet of U-Boats and German raiders in order to reach safety. On September 27th 1940, the Ellerman liner City of Benares, carrying ninety children was torpedoed by U-48. Only thirteen children were rescued and six of those rescued had to endure a week in an open lifeboat before they were picked up by the destroyer HMS Anthony. One of the childrens' escorts on this voyage, Miss Mary Cornish, a 41 year old music teacher was awarded the George Cross for her efforts in evacuating children from the ship and subsequently caring for them whilst adrift in the lifeboat awaiting rescue.

Evacuees from Charlton Manor School, London at Torquay (Greenwich Heritage)

Another evacuation, strictly outside the scope of this article but worth mentioning nonetheless, was the evacuation that occurred during the onslaught of the so-called 'Terror Weapons', the V-1s and V-2s. Many people, thinking perhaps that the war was as good as won, decided that London was not the place to be in the summer of 1944 and the numbers of 'official' evacuees - i.e. those recorded by their local authorities soared from around 319,000 in March 1944 (which was the lowest number recorded) to an astonishing 1,012,200 by September of that year, which was almost on a par with the peak figures recorded in early 1941. On top of these official figures, it was estimated that a further half million made their own arrangements and left the capital by July 1944. It has to be said that the vast majority of these evacuees were people in the categories mentioned previously and those with war jobs or business in London remained at their posts.

The Daddy of all evacuations was that which occurred at Dunkirk in late May and early June 1944, together with other similar operations from the Channel ports which secured the escape of the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force as well as a sizeable French contingent from under the noses of the advancing German forces. Whilst this evacuation did not directly concern Londoners, it was once again a masterpiece of organisation, combined with not a little good fortune. The magnificent role of the Royal Navy and of the little ships has been well documented but perhaps lesser known is the effort in distributing the evacuated soldiers once they arrived back in England. This was again a stunning piece of logistics, this time on the part of the railway companies, mainly the Southern, who ran some 573 troop trains for evacuees, including ambulance trains for the wounded, many of which passed through London on their way to their various centres where the troops were able to rest and recuperate before returning to their proper units.

Another 'E' synonymous with the Blitz is the Emergency Water Supply, or EWS, with their distinctive signs, some of which still survive in London and other cities as fading reminders of our wartime past. Like many innovations brought about by the necessity of war, the idea of the EWS was a stunningly simple one. It was quickly realized, often through bitter experience that the regular supply of water to the fire services could easily be disrupted by bomb damage as the mains water supply was extremely vulnerable to even the smaller high explosive bombs in the Luftwaffe's arsenal. A simple expedient therefore, was to arrange a supply of emergency reservoirs at strategic points around any built up area. These originally took the form of steel dams which were kept filled and maintained by the local fire services and which could then be used in the event of a failure to the mains supply. They would be refilled by relays of hoses from the nearest source of water or by tanker lorries. Once the Blitz started in earnest, many bombed out buildings were cleared and their basements sealed with concrete or bitumen to create a watertight dam and these were then filled with water. Some of these conversions were official but some were done using local initiative, which sometimes incurred the wrath of the 'dead hand of the uninvolved', no doubt for not filling in the correct paperwork, or some such trifling matter. Bureaucrats and 'jobsworths' thrived even in wartime!

The plaque at the site of the Surrey Music Hall (author's photo)
 
One of these Emergency Water Supplies in London was the scene of one of the tragedies of the Blitz, when on the night of 10th/11th May 1941, the basement of the old Surrey Music Hall at St George's Circus, near the Elephant & Castle, received a direct hit from a High Explosive bomb, killing seventeen London firefighters who were engaged in keeping the water supplies to the already hard pressed firefighters tackling the huge fires burning in the area. Apart from the appalling loss of life, this one bomb cut off the water supply and until fresh water relays could be brought on line, in some cases from the Thames itself, the fires began to burn out of control. Eventually, after some heroic efforts, the water supply was restored using some nine miles of hoses from the Thames and the Surrey Canal and the vast fires began to be brought under control.

Today, a plaque erected by the Firemen Remembered charity marks the spot where these firefighters laid down their lives. 

As mentioned previously, some of these EWS signs survive in London and elsewhere to give a faded footprint into London's wartime past.

Next time, we shall look at the letter 'F' which could stand for Firefighters, First Aid Posts and Firestorms amongst other things.

Published Sources:

The Battle of The Atlantic - John Costello & Terry Hughes, Harper Collins 1977
The Doodlebugs - Norman Longmate, Arrow Books 1986
The London Blitz: A Fireman's Tale - Cyril Demarne OBE, After The Battle 1991
London Transport at War - Charles Graves, Almark Publishing 1974
Return from Dunkirk: Railways to the Rescue, Operation Dynamo 1940 - Peter Tatlow, The Oakwood Press 2010
War on The Line - Bernard Darwin, The Southern Railway Company 1946

Friday, 11 July 2014

D is for Doodlebugs and Divers

The devastation caused by a V-1. This is Shirley Way, Croydon (author's collection)

Seventy years ago exactly, London and the southeast of England was in the midst of another German air offensive. Unlike the First Blitz of 1940/41 and the subsequent, smaller incursions of the Baedecker Raids and the Little Blitz that had petered out earlier in 1944, these attacks were all the more sinister because they were the aircraft involved, and aircraft they surely were, carried no pilot nor any other aircrew, hence the early use of the 'robot' name.
 
Perhaps the Vergeltungswaffe Eins, or V-1s, as they were more correctly known, acquired more nicknames than any other German weapon during the Second World War. At first, the Civil Defence services rather coyly referred to them as 'Pilotless Aircraft' or 'PACs', later re-naming them 'Fly Bombs' or 'FLY' as abbreviated in the Incident Logs themselves. The RAF pilots sent up to intercept them in their Spitfires, Tempests, Mustangs or more rarely, the new Gloster Meteor jet fighters, referred to them as 'Divers' and indeed, their patrols soon became officially known as Anti Diver Patrols. To the long suffering British public as well as the many overseas servicemen and women in the south of England, they became known as 'Buzz Bombs', 'Doodlebugs' or 'Doodles', although some ruder citizens were known to refer to them as 'Farting Furies' due to the distinctive rasping sound made by their pulse-jet engines.

We have examined the V-1s in some detail in an earlier edition of this blog, so rather than repeat things too much, perhaps now is a good time to examine to raw statistics behind the first of Hitler's vengeance weapons.

St Mark's Church, Greenwich South Street (Greenwich Heritage Centre)

The V-1, although a sophisticated piece of technology by 1944 standards, was a remarkably cheap weapon to construct. The contract with Volkswagen, the main suppliers of the Flying Bomb, allowed an average cost of £125 per bomb and indeed the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough estimated after the war, that a British factory, awarded a large scale contract, could have built a similar weapon at a cost of £115 each. When this is compared to the usual quoted price for a Lancaster bomber of around £15,000 plus the cost of training and paying it's crew and supporting ground crew, this appears to be a real bargain basement weapon.

It was estimated that some 9,250 V-1s were launched at targets in Britain, mainly from their fixed, ramp sites in the Pas de Calais area, although some were air launched from converted Heinkel III bombers. These fixed launching sites ensured that most V-1s, far from 'doodling', tended to remain on a fixed course, the only imponderable being how far along this course would the engine cut out. British civilians who lived beneath these fixed routes, especially nearer the coast, tended to be wary, though quite sanguine about the constant stream of Doodlebugs roaring overhead. Those nearer to the intended target of London, became heartily sick of them and very soon certain areas of London, mainly the south and southeastern suburbs, began to resemble a battlefield, with damage far more concentrated than that caused by the earlier Blitz of 1940/41.

Unlike the V-2 rockets which were to follow, effective countermeasures could be taken against the V-1. The British Government set into motion Operation Diver, which entailed moving around 2,500 anti-aircraft guns from their London sites to a coastal ribbon along the Kent and Sussex coasts where the guns could fire at the incoming V-1s without fear of shooting them down over a built up area. The guns ranged from the 'heavy' batteries using the excellent 3.7 inch gun, to the 'light' units equipped with the 40mm Bofors. All were equipped with proximity fuses and assisted by gun laying radars. At first the results were modest, with only 17% of bombs destroyed in the first week of operation. This quickly rose to around 60% by August 1944 and on one day towards the end of the month, an incredible 82% of all V-1s intercepted were shot down by the anti-aircraft guns. Overall, the guns were thought to be responsible for shooting down 1,460 Doodlebugs.

RAF Spitfire toppling a V-1 over Kent (IWM)

Inland of the guns was next deployed a 'layer' of barrage balloons, designed to entangle the onrushing 'Divers' in their steel tethering cables. The balloons were rather less successful than the anti-aircraft guns in bringing down the V-1s, but were still credited with downing around 231.

Further inland still, any surviving divers that made it through, were then fair game for the RAF fighters. Many will have seen the iconic image of a Spitfire seemingly toppling a V-1 by flying alongside it and tipping it's wingtips overs but many were actually shot down rather than toppled. This was no mean feat; flying behind a fast flying one tonne warhead required a special kind of courage. The main RAF aircraft employed on these Anti_Diver duties was the Tempest, which was also the most successful, being credited with 638 'victories' over the V-1s. The next most successful was the Mosquito with 428, then the Griffon engined Spitfire Mk XIV with 303, the Mustang with 232 and all other piston engined types combined 158. An oft-quoted myth is that the new Gloster Meteor jet was responsible for turning the tide against the Robots. This was not so; the Meteors were new into service and like all new aircraft prone to teething troubles, not the least of which was a tendency for their cannon armament to jam at the most important time. Because of this, the Meteors were responsible for the downing of only 13 V-1s, but it was an important chapter in the dawning of the jet age. In total, the fighters were responsible for bringing down 1,772 V-1s.

Perhaps less known than these obvious countermeasures was the part played by deception of British agents. The now celebrated 'Agent Garbo', real name Juan Pujol was thought by the Germans to be working for them and was requested by his German controllers to provide accurate data on the impacts of the V-1s on London. Unknown to the Germans, Pujol was a dedicated anti-Nazi, a loathing formed during the Spanish Civil War and had deliberately set himself up as a double agent to feed the Germans false intelligence with the express aim of harming their war effort. Pujol therefore fed back information which downplayed the impacts to the south of the capital whilst concentration on those impacts to the north and west of London, therefore giving the impression that the V-1s were consistently overshooting their targets. The Germans were unable by this time to perform aerial reconnaissance over London to check the results and so largely believed Pujol's reports and adjusted the ranges of the V-1s accordingly.

Croydon was London's most 'Fly Bombed' borough. This is Zion Road, Thornton Heath (author's collection)

One unwitting downside of this was that the south and south east London boroughs became even more heavily bombed than before and a 'league table' of the most heavily bombed London boroughs reads as follows:

Croydon - 141
Wandsworth - 122
Lewisham - 114
Camberwell - 80
Woolwich - 77
Greenwich - 73
Lambeth - 71
Beckenham - 70
Orpington - 63
West Ham - 58

As can be seen from the above, the only borough in the 'Top Ten' was West Ham, with 58 impacts. The remainder of the league table also showed a distinct bias of impacts to the south of the Thames. Outside London, the story was a similar one. The county of Kent bore the brunt with 1,444 impacts, with Sussex next on 888, with Essex coming in third on 412. There were impacts elsewhere in the country, although these northern V-1s were of the air launched variety rather than those coming from France.

Lest we forget (author's photo)

The monetary cost to the Allies was staggering and it can be argued that this aspect was the most successful for the Germans. It was estimated by the British Government that the cost to the British taxpayer (and to a lesser extent, the American) was in the region of £48 million (at 1944 prices), this was in aircraft and airmen lost, bombs dropped on the V-1 production sites and launching ramps, shells fired and balloons lost, the clearance of damage and lost production. Add to this the estimated (by the Ministry of Health) cost of £25 million  for replacing or repairing lost or damaged housing, then the sum is indeed incredible. Compared to this, the German cost was estimated by the Air Ministry to be in the region of £12.6 million for constructing the launch sites, training the launching crews and the capital outlay for building the missiles.

However, compared with the human cost, the financial outlay is unimportant; it was estimated that some 6,184 civilians and 2,917 Allied servicemen and women were killed in the V-1 campaign, with a further 20,000 seriously injured. This then, was the true cost of the 'Robot war' which was to largely fizzle out when the launch sites were overrun by the Allied armies by early September 1944.

Air launched V-1s continued to be launched right through until late March 1945, although these were mainly only of 'nuisance value' compared to the onslaught of V-2 rockets which was to commence in September 1944 and against which there were no effective countermeasures.


Published Sources:

The Doodlebugs - Norman Longmate, Hutchinson 1981
Most Secret War - RV Jones, Hamish Hamilton 1978