Sunday, 7 February 2016

Book Review: Heavy Rescue Squad Work on The Isle of Dogs - Ann Regan-Atherton

Cover to the book - Bill Regan at front, extreme right (author's photo)

Christmas seems a long time ago now but during the Festive Season, several new books arrived at Blitzwalker Towers but only now am I beginning to make some headway with reading them. One excellent addition to my 'Home Front' library comes in the form of Heavy Rescue Squad Work on The Isle of Dogs: Bill Regan's Second World War Diaries, which were discovered by Bill's daughter Ann Regan-Atherton as they were on the verge of being thrown out - indeed Bill had already disposed of some pages. Being a History Graduate, Ann immediately recognised the importance of these diaries, not just as a family heirloom but as a document of wider historic value and originally transcribed them in the late 1980s. This latest version has been edited by local Island historians Con Maloney and Mick Lemmerman, whose recent book The Isle of Dogs During World War II was reviewed in an October 2015 edition of this blog.

Readers of MJ Gaskin's excellent book Blitz: The Story of 29th December 1940 will be familiar with the exploits of Bill Regan and his wife Vi, as their efforts in reaching home on the night of 'Second Great Fire of London' forms an integral part of her book.

Bill Regan was a bricklayer by trade but for the majority of the War, served in the Heavy Rescue Service, which like the majority of the various arms of the Civil Defence network, had been originally regarded by many members of the public during the 'Phoney War' period as a waste of space but with the onset of the Blitz, were now viewed as heroes by those same fickle members of the public. Bill was an intelligent man, widely read and whose inspiration for keeping a diary was Samuel Pepys, whose own journal he had borrowed from his local library. He was also a keen amateur self taught artist as well as an amateur photographer. 

This latter hobby also helps to illustrate this collection of Bill's diaries, as he took many photographs of the bomb damaged local area. This activity was strictly illegal in wartime and was punishable by up to three years in prison. It was ironic therefore, that his photos were developed by a friend who served in the Metropolitan Police!

Bill's Heavy Rescue Squad, like similar teams across the country, were trained to deal with bomb incidents where damage was serious enough to warrant using heavy lifting and excavating equipment in order to reach victims who were trapped in the debris. Like Bill, many of the Squad members were experienced in peacetime as civil engineers, carpenters and bricklayers as well as from other areas of the construction industry, where their knowledge was particularly valuable in understanding the layout and construction of buildings in order to work out the safest and quickest ways to reach trapped people. Like many others in the Civil Defence service, Bill's squad was based at a school vacated by the wartime evacuation of school children. Bill Regan's Squad was based at the former Millwall Central School in Janet Street on the Isle of Dogs.

The diary starts on 7th September 1940, 'Black Saturday' and the first day of the Blitz on London. The first 'rescue' for Bill's squad turned out to be in his own words 'a non-survivor' - an elderly man who was found still sitting in his armchair but totally embedded in rubble. Bill tells us in great detail about the work his squad undertook on that day and night as well as providing fascinating insights into the other events on the Island, such as the Anti Aircraft gun site in the area we now know as Mudchute (the remnants of which can still be seen incidentally). The Squad's subsequent rescues that day proved to be more successful, with people being evacuated alive from buried Anderson Shelters and into Rest Centres, although as Bill remarks in the diary, such was the noise "You would have to be stone deaf to rest in any kind of centre."

As well as accounts of the action during and after air raids, Bill's diary also tells of the more mundane facets of life in wartime London, such as the rare moments of leisure and time spent with his beloved wife Vi, as well as some more stressful and personal times in their relationship. There are also moments of humour such as the foul-mouthed (or beaked) parrot, discovered in a bombed out house on the Island. According to Bill, "It was well educated, and after preening itself, it gave a most wonderful recital of obscene language I have ever heard." You will have to buy the book to find out exactly what the parrot said!

Being a Greenwich boy, I was also interested to read many references to my own locality, including the damage to Greenwich Foot Tunnel, which although repaired, can still be seen to this day. Bill mentions the damage in his diary as well as the fact that during the period that the tunnel was closed, "Rowing boats from Greenwich are ferrying people across at 2 shillings (10p in today's money) a time." This seems quite a steep fee for the time and was presumably an unofficial arrangement by local opportunists.

Wartime damage repairs to Greenwich Foot Tunnel still apparent today (author's photo)

Arguably the saddest part of the diary also shows that despite becoming hardened to the worst that the Blitz could throw at him, Bill Regan's humanity remained intact in the aftermath of the bombing of Saunders Ness School, in use by the Auxiliary Fire Service and which was largely destroyed on the night of 18th September 1940 with great loss of life. It soon became clear that the majority of the work for Bill's Squad would be recovery of victims, rather than rescue and he writes with great tenderness of how he personally insisted on removing the bodies of two young AFS Firewomen who had been recovered some time after the actual incident. These two girls were quite unmarked, looking to all effects as if they were sleeping and Bill's account of how he gently removed the two girls is extremely moving. Bill later learned that the two girls were named Joan Bartlett, aged 18 and Violet Pengelly, aged 19. They had the same Christian names as his own daughters (as well as his wife, Vi) and this fact moved Bill to tears.

Memorial Plaque at Millwall Fire Station to Joan Bartlett and Violet Pengelly (author's photo)

From the violence of the First Blitz, Bill Regan's diary goes on to cover life on the Island during the relatively quiet years of 1942 and 1943 before covering the Little Blitz and the V-1 campaign of 1944. The diaries end rather abruptly in mid-August 1944 without covering the remaining part of the V-1 campaign and omitting the V-2 Rocket incidents and VE Day completely, so perhaps this is the portion of the diary that Bill had already disposed of when his daughter Ann discovered it.

Despite this minor disappointment, Ann Regan-Atherton, together with Mick Lemmerman and Con Maloney have produced a fascinating and invaluable record of life in wartime London and I highly recommend it to you. The book runs to 200 pages and is priced at a very reasonable £10.95, with all proceeds from sales being donated to the Friends of Island History Trust, which is a charitable trust run by local people who wish to preserve and record the local history of the Isle of Dogs.

Heavy Rescue Squad Work on the Isle of Dogs: Bill Regan's Second World War Diaries - Ann Regan-Atherton, editors Mick Lemmerman and Con Maloney - CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015. ISBN 9781519610867


  1. As a boy, I lived on the Isle of Dogs and played up on the Mud Chute where my aunt Jessie and uncle Jim had a garden allotment and heavy, thick concrete anti-aircraft emplacements dotted the landscape over-looking Millwall Park. It was the epicenter of the London docks target the Luftwaffe bombers above were aiming at. Dangerous Days to be on the Island. I'm sure I will enjoy every one of Bill Regan's words. Thx for the review.

  2. Thanks for the kind words - if you enjoy this book, you'll enjoy Mick Lemmerman's other book about the Island in WW2, which I reviewed as per the link below. Thanks, Steve

  3. i am married to bil regans grandson and it is lovely to know people are reading the book