Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Mr Midshipman VC: The short, accident-prone life of George Drewry, Gallipoli Hero


For this month's blog post, we stay with the First World War for a review of a book with which I must confess at the outset, I had a very small hand in the research on behalf of the author, Quentin Falk. This input was minimal however, and the work under review here is very much the fruit of the author's own labours.

The author of this splendid biography of George Drewry VC is perhaps better known as a show business journalist and film critic who has written acclaimed biographies of Sir Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Hopkins and Albert Finney amongst others and so is venturing into somewhat uncharted waters with his latest work.

As Falk himself explains, it was a family connection that first took him to Gallipoli, with a mission to find a memorial to his wife's great uncle, Major John Jocelyn Doyne Sillery, known as 'Jack', who had served with the 11th Battalion, The Manchester Regiment and was most probably killed the day after going ashore on 6 August 1915. As part of this pilgrimage, Quentin and his wife had booked a battlefield tour, guided by a mutual friend, Clive Harris and it was his tour that he first heard the story of how no fewer than twelve Victoria Crosses had been won on the first day of the invasion, including the famous 'Six before breakfast' exploits of the Lancashire Fusiliers on 'W' Beach at Cape Helles. It was on the adjacent 'V' Beach that Quentin first heard the name of George Leslie Drewry, a 20 year old Royal Naval Reservist and former Merchant Navy officer with my old company, the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company, known universally simply as the P&O. Further research on the campaign followed and having now decided to write George Drewry's story, a further visit ensued in 2017, as well as to another of the young officer's haunts, Scapa Flow, where he would meet his premature end.

George Leslie Drewry was born in 1894 and his career as a mariner was perhaps almost predestined, for his father Thomas was a Marine Engineer, originally from Lincolnshire but who by the time of George's birth, had relocated to Forest Gate. This was due to Thomas's job as a Engineer Superintendent for P&O, based at the nearby Royal Albert Dock. George was the second youngest of four brothers and eventually, all four of Thomas Drewry's sons were to follow in his footsteps by joining the P&O in various capacities. 

George was educated at Merchant Taylors' School but by May 1909, at the age of just fourteen and a half, he was one of six apprentices taken on board the Indian Empire and joined his new ship, a three masted barque, at Liverpool's Queen's Dock. It was whilst serving on board the Indian Empire, that George's 'accident prone' tag perhaps first became apparent when he fell some 20 feet from the rigging in to the Hunter River in Newcastle, New South Wales whilst in the course of clearing an obstruction from the vessel's top-hamper. He was fished out of the river by the Second Mate and suffered an injured ankle as well as from bruises and shock but was otherwise none the worse for his ordeal.

The author goes on to describe George's early exploits on the Indian Empire, culminating in a shipwreck in 1912 close to Cape Horn, following which he and his shipmates were marooned on an island for sixteen days before rescue was forthcoming. Following George's return to home shores and still just shy of his eighteenth birthday, he became an employee of the P&O and was registered as Fifth Officer on the passenger/cargo liner Palma. By the following year, he had risen in rank to Fourth Officer and was serving on a sister vessel, the Isis. It was around this same time, Falk informs us, that Drewry enlisted as a Midshipman in the Royal Naval Reserve, which was at the time the branch of the Royal Navy for professional (i.e. Merchant Navy or retired RN) seafarers, as opposed to the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, which was for the so-called "weekend sailors" who had civilian occupations other than the sea.

On the outbreak of war on 3 August 1914, George was in Port Said and was called up for Naval service, along with 30,000 of his fellow officers and men. He was now a Midshipman RNR and after a short spell at HMS Egmont, a "Stone Frigate" or shore base at Malta, he was sent to his first seagoing draft, HMS Hussar, a veteran minesweeper serving in the Eastern Mediterranean.

It would not be fair on the author for me to describe in this review George's Victoria Cross winning exploits at 'V' Beach whilst serving aboard the River Clyde and so you will need to purchase a copy of the book to read about this amazing action. Suffice to say, like all those awarded the VC, George showed total disregard for his own safety, in his case trying to assist troops who were being cut down under murderous fire and despite having received a head wound early in the action.

George's Victoria Cross citation was announced in August 1915, although the wheels had been set in motion for his and the other awards almost immediately following the action. His medal was awarded on 22 November 1915 by King George V at an investiture at Buckingham Palace. His VC award was followed by the presentation of a Sword of Honour from the Imperial Merchant Service Guild in recognition of George being the first officer of the Royal Naval Reserve and the Merchant Service to win the Victoria Cross.

Following the award of the VC, Quentin goes on to describe George's subsequent career in the Royal Navy as well as something of the exploits of his brothers during their own wartime service. George, by this time promoted to Acting Sub Lieutenant, was drafted to the battleship HMS Conqueror on 28 December 1916 and whilst undoubtedly a prestigious appointment for the young officer, it would have seemed a strange life after the excitement and action aboard the Hussar and River Clyde, as the great battleship spent most of her time in the anchorage at Scapa Flow, rarely proceeding to sea in the post-Jutland days.

The promise of further action appeared on the horizon when in  early 1918, now promoted to Lieutenant, George attended an anti-submarine course at Portland, during which he received instruction in the use of hydrophones, which in those days were an integral part of the new art of submarine detection. Following completion of the course, he was appointed in command of HMT William Jackson, a naval trawler designed for minesweeping, patrol and anti-submarine work. George took command of the vessel upon her completion at the shipyard of Cochrane & Sons in Selby and saw her through her trials and working-up exercises.

Sadly, George was never to take command of his new charge in action, for on 2 August 1918, barely two days after he had brought the vessel from the successful completion of sea trials and working-up to the fleet base of Scapa Flow, he was dead, having suffered a fractured skull and broken arm when a derrick (a ship's crane) fell on him following the failure of a retaining shackle and block.

Thus ended the short, action packed but accident-prone life of Lieutenant George Drewry VC. Quentin Falk has brought him back to life in this illuminating biography that not only tells of his life but also captures something of the period in which George lived. I commend this book to you most heartily.

Mr Midshipman VC: The short, accident-prone life of George Drewry, Gallipoli Hero by Quentin Falk, is published by Pen & Sword Books Limited and is available direct from the publisher's website at the price of £15.99 or from all good booksellers or other online sources.


Monday, 17 September 2018

Journey's End


WARNING: CONTAINS SOME MINOR SPOILERS

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am an avid film fan and have covered the subject of war films in the past, although my interest in movies is not limited solely to that particular genre. Last year, I became involved as one of the volunteer organisers of my local Charlton & Woolwich Free Film Festival and helped to stage an open air showing of the 1969 classic Battle of Britain, which we screened in the open air surroundings of the magnificent St George's Garrison Church in Woolwich.

This year, we wanted to mark the centenary of the ending of the First World War in 1918 with a suitable film and it didn't take much persuasion on my part to convince my colleagues that the latest screen version of Journey's End was a "must have" for the 2018 Festival.

Journey's End was originally written as a stage play in 1928 by RC Sherriff, who himself served during the Great War in the 9th East Surreys and was wounded during the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. It was also adapted as a novel by Sherriff and has remained a popular and powerful work ever since it appeared. It has been produced on stage both professionally in the West End and on Broadway, as well as with numerous amateur productions. It has also been adapted for film and television over the years prior to this most recent release.

As with the previous screening that I had event-managed, I wanted to make the experience for the audience more than just a case of turning up, watching the film and then going home again and wanted to provide some insights behind the original work as well as to the real-life events that inspired Sherriff to write the piece.

Using the power of social media, I contacted Taff Gillingham, who had acted as Military Historical Advisor for the film and who is a stickler for correct detail in any production with which he is involved. Although we have never met, Taff and I have followed each other on Twitter for many years and are very much on the "same wavelength" when it comes to matters of military history. Taff immediately and very kindly offered to help and although he was unable to come down to London to appear personally at the screening, he very kindly recorded a video introduction to the film in which he provided many fascinating insights, not only into his own involvement with the project but also concerning the events which lay at the centre of the story. Relevant to the introduction was the fact that Taff spoke standing in front of the very uniform worn by Asa Butterfield in the movie.

Taff Gillingham makes his video introduction (author's photo)

Taff began by explaining the difficulty of staging or filming the story for a modern audience who would not necessarily be aware of the German Spring Offensive. The play revolves around the events immediately leading up to the opening of the Kaiserschlacht as it was known, in the early hours of 21 March 1918. At the time, intelligence had ascertained that the offensive was definitely coming and was also able to predict with some confidence when this would occur and so the key to the play is the suspense - the men in the Redoubt all know that the attack is coming and it is their reactions to this grim fact that forms the central part of the plot. Even in 1928, the opening date of the Spring Offensive was etched in the memories of everyone that had been involved and even of those people back home in Britain who remembered the news coming in. As Taff explained, it was the equivalent of setting a modern play in an office block in New York on 10 September 2001 - there would be no need to explain what was going to happen because everyone watching the play knows what is about to happen - the suspense being in how the characters are going to react and what is going to happen to them.

Taff also told us something of Sherriff himself and how he had been adamant that the play was not an anti-war piece but rather a snapshot in time that reflected his own experiences and those of people that he knew and served with in the East Surrey Regiment. He referred to a famous photograph, reproduced below in which many of the prototypes for the officers depicted in Journey's End appear. There is an older officer, who is clearly Osborne, a portly gentleman who is destined to be Trotter, as well as all of the other main characters. Sherriff himself said that he was based on Hibbert, who is a man clearly struggling with his own reserves of courage in a different way to that of Captain Stanhope, the Company Commander.

RC Sherriff (back row, second left) and fellow officers of the 9th East Surreys (Exploring Surrey's Past)

For our "live" introduction, I enlisted the help of my good friend and fellow guide Clive Harris, who like Taff, kindly agreed to give up his time to help with the screening. Clive hadn't seen this particular film version and this formed part of his introduction, in which he skilfully exploded a few myths by telling us how he hoped that the film makers hadn't fallen for some of the common errors and cliches made by many of the makers of First World War dramas.

Firstly, he expressed the hope that the story wasn't depicted as a story of the trenches, as by the time of the Spring Offensive, there were no trenches as such. The impression of many people was that the Trench system so typical of the 1916 battles, was the standard throughout the Great War but by 1918, Clive explained, this had evolved in to a series of Redoubts. The film makers, no doubt following Taff's advice, had this aspect absolutely correct and Clive's fears were allayed!

Clive presents his introduction to the film (author's photograph)

Secondly, he echoed a comment earlier made by Taff in that the film makers had insisted on depicting the Battalion Commander (played in the film by Robert Glenister) as a rather elderly Colonel, who is sitting in an office in the rear, in relatively luxurious conditions, far removed from those endured by his men. This had irked Taff and it had the same effect upon Clive, as by the time of the Spring Offensive, the British Army had ensured that they had the right men serving in the right jobs and had become far more professional in the process. The average age of the British Battalion Commanders - typically holding the rank of Lieutenant Colonel - was 30 years of age and these men were not in the rear out of harm's way but were fighting (and in many cases dying) alongside their men. One case in point being Lieut. Colonel Wilfrith Elstob VC of the 16th Manchesters, who had won his Victoria Cross posthumously on 21 March 1918 having previously issued the exhortation "Here we fight and here we die" - which as Clive said, was not what a soldier really wanted to hear from his Commanding Officer!

Clive then went on the mention the high esteem in which the play was held by veterans of the Great War. For them, it was simply the most accurate depiction of life at the front and of the interaction and camaraderie between officers and men living and fighting alongside each other. Clive went on to state that the Great War changed the social structure of this country for ever, largely because of the shared experiences of officers and men at the front which had brought about a more meritocratic system. The war had also given women a voice due to their involvement in the "Home Front" caused by the absence of men serving in the Armed Forces. He closed his talk by telling us how much he loved the work and as an ex-soldier himself, how much it rang true to him. He had read the novel as a young lad and to prove it, produced his original copy from his jacket pocket!

The screening itself took place in the splendid surroundings of Charlton House, a Jacobean Manor House originally built for Sir Adam Newton between 1607-12 but which later passed to the Spencer Maryon Wilson family and which, appropriately for our purposes, was used as a Military Hospital from 1915-18.

Some thirty five people attended and whilst the vast majority of those present were familiar with RC Sherriff's story, most were seeing this particular production for the first time. Directed by Saul Dibb, the film was originally given a limited release in 2017, followed by a wider release in the Spring of 2018. It stars Sam Claflin as Captain Stanhope, Paul Bettany as Lieutenant Osborne, Asa Butterfield as Second Lieutenant Raleigh, Tom Sturridge as Second Lieutenant Hibbert, Stephen Graham as Second Lieutenant Trotter and Toby Jones as Private Mason. 

The screening gets under way (author's photograph)

The plot will be familiar to anyone who has seen the play or read the novel but in order not to spoil the experience for anyone that doesn't know the work, I won't repeat it here suffice to say that it tells the story of the officers of 'C' Company in the run up to the Spring Offensive and how they each cope (or sometimes don't) with the knowledge of an impending attack upon their position and also the fact that they must mount a raid to obtain a prisoner prior to this attack. The acting is superb throughout but of those mentioned above, I would single out Paul Bettany as Osborne, known to his fellow officers as "Uncle" who represents the best of British-ness, unflappable, good-humoured and always with a kind word to say to his colleagues. Claflin as Stanhope, who is clearly suffering with PTSD, not recognised as such in 1918 (or in 1928 when the play was written) and who is self-medicating with alcohol is also very convincing as is young Asa Butterfield as Raleigh, a former school friend of Stanhope, who arrives full of wide-eyed enthusiasm, wanting to mix it with the enemy but who soon becomes more worldly-wise. Toby Jones as the Company Cook also plays a superb part, with many pithy one-liners to lighten the mood of the film at times.

The 2018 Charlton & Woolwich Free Film Festival is one of a series held across London during the course of the year and the process will soon begin of thinking up a programme for the 2019 Festival - watch this space!

For those interested, here is a link to Taff Gillingham's introduction to the screening.

Thanks are due to all who helped on the night with the screening and to all those who attended the event.

Internet Links:


Khaki Devil (Taff Gillingham's company)

Battle Honours Tours (Clive Harris's company)















Sunday, 19 August 2018

Book Review: Zeppelin Onslaught: The Forgotten Blitz 1914-15


Ian Castle is perhaps our foremost historian and author on the air raids mounted against the United Kingdom by Germany during the Great War. Last month, I was lucky enough to attend a fascinating talk by Ian organised by the Friends of Lincoln's Inn during which he spoke about the raids that affected that particular area of London. I already have several of Ian's books and after the talk, took the opportunity to purchase a copy of his latest offering, Zeppelin Onslaught: The Forgotten Blitz 1914-15 which is intended to be the first in a series detailing the German air war against the British "Home Front" during the Great War.

In this meticulously researched book, Ian tells the story of not only the raids themselves but of the planning and rationale behind them, of the British attempts at countering the raids and of the personalities involved on both sides. Each raid is also mapped so as to give the reader a good visualisation of the areas bombed and distances covered.

The book starts by giving the reading some insight into the development of manned flight and how, despite the rapid developments in Europe, Britain lagged behind the advances. Indeed, the first powered flight in this country only took place in October 1908, which was some five years after the Wright Brothers made their initial flight. Ironically, this was achieved by an American, Samuel Cody, who made a 27 second flight across Farnborough Common in Hampshire, covering a distance of 1,390 feet. Despite this, the British still trailed in aviation and matters only began to be placed on a more official footing in 1911 when the Royal Engineers Balloon Section evolved into the Army Air Battalion, later to become the Royal Flying Corps in April 1912, which at this time had both an Army and a Naval Wing. Developments continued apace and even in 1912, there were official fears that the opinion voiced in 1906 by newspaper tycoon Lord Northcliffe that "England is no longer an island" was indeed the case, such was the deadly potential of the German Zeppelin airships.

On the eve of the Great War, in July 1914, the Royal Flying Corps or RFC became exclusively an Army controlled organisation, with the erstwhile Naval Wing becoming the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), which as the name suggests, was under the control of the Admiralty. We learn that most of the RFC aircraft at the outbreak of war were either obsolete, or were worn out and only fit for the scrapyard. It was clear to those in power that the RFC was not at that time able to effectively defend the skies over Great Britain.  Fortunately, the RNAS did have suitable aircraft available and with bases near the coast, it was clear that they would initially form the first line of defence against any future German air attacks. We also learn of the organisation on the German side, the air arms of which, like the British were divided between the Army and Imperial Navy, both of which controlled Zeppelins.

The author then goes on to describe the efforts, under the direction of Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, at organising static anti-aircraft defence in the form of guns and searchlights. As with the aircraft, initially there were too few available and what there were, were invariably obsolete or not fit for purpose. In the meantime, Churchill, ever one to look to take the offensive, decided to take the attack to the Germans with preemptive strikes against German Zeppelin hangars and airfields in Belgium and Germany itself. These raids had mixed results, with one raid in particular against Cologne yielding spectacular results. However, the German advances on the ground in Belgium soon rendered German targets beyond the range of British aircraft at this time and were not to be repeated.

From this introduction, which provides important background, Ian then switches to the raids mounted against British targets, predominantly by Zeppelin airships but also the occasional raids by conventional aircraft. Each raid is covered in meticulous detail, from the planning stage, to the courses flown by the aircraft on the raid and is brought to life by the use of personal accounts of eye-witnesses, both on the ground and in the air. Official reports and records are also used to provide the most detailed record of the German air offensive ever put into print.

The era of air raids upon Britain began in Dover on Christmas Eve 1914 at around 10:45 in the morning, when a German floatplane dropped a single 10 kg bomb, probably aimed at Dover Castle but which instead fell in the garden of a nearby house of an auctioneer, a Mr Terson. Fortunately, the damage was limited to the destruction of a summerhouse and some uprooted cabbages and there was no loss of life but Britain had suffered the first air raid in its history and was the precursor of many much more serious and destructive raids, culminating in attacks upon the capital city.

At first, the Kaiser, fearing death or injury to his cousin King George V and many other English relatives, forbade attacks on London from a line west of the Tower of London but notwithstanding this order, on 31 May 1915, the German Army Zeppelin LZ38 under the command of Hauptmann Erich Linnarz dropped bombs - both High Explosive and Incendiaries upon Stoke Newington, Dalston, Hoxton, Shoreditch, Whitechapel, Stratford and Leytonstone. Some 41 fires were reported to the London Fire Brigade and more importantly seven civilians and a RNAS pilot were killed in the raid, with a further 35 people injured. Damage to property was estimated at £19,000 (in 1914 prices) and reaction to the raids on the ground was one of outrage. Some of this was aimed at those people and businesses thought to have German connections - mob rule in fact but fortunately, this was short-lived and the anger began to be aimed at the lack of meaningful response, both by the anti-aircraft guns and by the aircraft that were supposed to be defending the capital. It was at this time that the phrase 'Baby Killers' at first coined by Churchill in response to the German Navy's bombardment of Scarborough in December 1914, began to used by the popular press in connection with the raiders from the air.

Heinrich Mathy (author's collection)

Another German Zeppelin commander, this time Kapitanleutnant Heinrich Mathy from the Imperial Navy, was to become a household name in Great Britain and gain notoriety as one of Germany's leading 'Baby Killers' before he met his death over Potters Bar in October 1916. Ian's book also examines Mathy's early raids with the same attention to detail.

This is an excellent book, which should appeal to both the serious Great War history buffs and also to the more general reader. It covers absolutely every angle of the story, from the planning and execution of the raids, to the countermeasures and the experiences of those involved in the 'front line' both on the ground and in the air. I thoroughly recommend it to you and look forward to the eventual companion volumes.

Zeppelin Onslaught: The Forgotten Blitz 1914-15 by Ian Castle, is published by Frontline Books and costs £25.00

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Hamburg, the Stolpersteine Project and the Chinese community.

"The Horror didn't start in Auschwitz, Treblinka or the other camps. It started in our neighbourhood, in our house, outside our door."

Woo Lie Kien's Stolpersteine outside his former home at 7 Schmuckstrasse (author's photograph)

Regular readers will know that I have something of a love affair with the German city of Hamburg, which began in the 1980s when, as a wide-eyed youngster working for a Merchant Shipping company, I made my first visit to the great port city on the River Elbe. I've actually lost count of the number of times I've been here now but we must be talking in excess of thirty visits, during which time, as with any city worldwide, there have been many changes - in the fortunes of the port, the currency, the architecture, the status of the city's football clubs and of the country's name itself (Hamburg was in West Germany for my first few visits.)

Something that I've noticed on my more recent visits to Hamburg and indeed, to German cities in general, is the advent of the Stolpersteine, literally translated to Stumbling Stones. These small, 10 cm square concrete blocks, topped with a brass plaque and inserted into the pavement, commemorate victims of the Holocaust and Nazi persecution in general. They form an ongoing project by the artist Gunther Demnig which began in 1992 and which are placed outside the home, or occasionally the workplace, of a particular victim from which he or she was deported to a concentration or death camp, or fell victim to euthanasia or eugenics. The plaques are made to a standard format and all begin with the words "Hier Wohnte" or "Here Lived" followed by the name of the victim, their date of birth and their ultimate fate. The first stone was laid in Berlin in 1996 and spread to Hamburg in 2002.

Obviously, the majority of the victims are Jewish but the categories of those persecuted by the Nazis were widespread and so there are Stolpersteine in existence for Sinti and Romani people (then called 'Gypsies'), homosexuals, those with physical or mental disabilities, black people, communists, Social Democrats, members of the Anti-Nazi Resistance movement, the Christian opposition, Freemasons, conscientious objectors, those who assisted Allied escapees or evaders, looters - the list is almost endless but basically covers anybody who did not conform to the twisted ideals of the Nazi movement.

The bright lights of the Reeperbahn pre-war (author's collection)

One of the lesser known categories who fell victim to this oppression was the small Chinese community living in Hamburg. They were mainly located in the St Pauli area of the city and had settled in the area as a result of the employment of Chinese seafarers in the German Merchant Navy in the early 1920s and at its peak, the community numbered around two thousand people. Many of their businesses were connected with the shipping industry, such as ships' chandlers and laundries but also branched out into other areas such as restaurants and food stores. They were hard working, industrious, well educated and in some cases, married to Germans and lived harmoniously with the local people. 

This harmonious existence ended abruptly with the coming to power of the Nazis in 1933. The Chinese community naturally did not fit in with the Nazis' Aryan ideal and so would become natural targets for their thuggery. Those who could, fled and the population rapidly dwindled. By 1944, there were fewer than 200 remaining, one of whom was Woo Lie Kien, who was born on 8 September 1885 near Guangzhou. He originally worked as a stoker on board British and German merchant ships and thus visited European ports on a regular basis but by 1926, was living in Hamburg. In the early 1930s, he moved to 7 Schmuckstrasse, a road which runs parallel to the Reeperbahn and which was at the heart of the Chinese district. At the beginning of 1936, he took over the running of the restaurant next door to his home and operated it with the help of kitchen workers and waiting staff, both Chinese and German. The restaurant was a meeting point for visiting Chinese seafarers and the local Chinese population.

The Reeperbahn in April 1945 (author's collection)

However, in June 1938, he was accused by the Gestapo of smuggling foreign exchange by buying up foreign money at an elevated rate and acquiring German Reichsmark at very favourable rates in the Netherlands by using intermediaries. Despite extensive investigations, insufficient evidence could be gathered and no conviction followed. Ironically, because of his excellent command of German, Woo worked as an interpreter for the Hamburg authorities but following his investigation by the Gestapo, this activity was curtailed because he was felt not to be a reliable interpreter. This was almost certainly trumped up nonsense encouraged by the Gestapo as a reprisal for not being able to obtain their conviction but ensured that one of his sources of income was cut off.

The coming of the Second World War saw an intensification of raids against the Chinese community in Hamburg and on 13 May 1944, came the infamous "Chinese Action" which saw 165 Chinese arrested - virtually the entire remaining community - under the pretext of collaboration with the enemy. Woo Lie Kien was not amongst those picked up initially as at the time of these arrests, he was in hospital in Altona suffering with a heart condition. However, shortly after his release from hospital in June 1944, he was arrested, once again on the pretext of currency irregularities. He was initially held at the Gestapo prison at Fuhlsbuttel and subsequently at the Wilhelmsburg "Work Education" Camp, part of the infamous Neuengamme Concentration Camp complex. Here he was undoubtedly abused and beaten as Gestapo Agent Erich Hanisch tried to extract a confession out of him for currency smuggling. His explanation that many of his restaurant customers paid their bills with foreign currency fell on deaf ears. Woo's partner, known only as "Annemarie B" a native German citizen, later said that Woo, who was 59 years old and already in poor health due to his heart complaint, was literally beaten to death by the Gestapo.

Woo Lie Kien was taken to hospital in Barmbek following this beating and died there on 23 November 1944. Annemarie was also persecuted and told by the same Erich Hanisch that her life was "forfeited" because of her relationship with a Chinese man but despite being placed in "protective custody" at the notorious Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, she survived the war and was liberated on 27 April 1945.

2018 view of Woo Lie Kien's former residence & restaurant at 7 & 9 Schmuckstrasse (Google Streetview)

Today, almost the only knowledge we have of the existence of Woo Lie Kien and his fellow Chinese expatriates in Hamburg is because of the Stolpersteine initiative. Ironically, although Schmuckstrasse in Hamburg has largely been redeveloped, his former residence at number 7 and the former restaurant next door are still there, although in a very run down condition.

There are already over 61,000 Stolpersteine at 1,200 locations across Europe. For those wishing to contribute to the initiative can sponsor a new plaque for the price of 120 Euros and can do so by visiting the website by using this link.

"A person is only dead when their name is forgotten" - Quotation from the Talmud.

I am indebted to Amanda Lars and the Stolpersteine Hamburg website for the background information on Woo Li Kien's life story.



Sunday, 10 June 2018

Dulwich Hamlet FC: Community Football in peace and at war


Regular readers will know that in recent years, I have drifted into the world of following non-league football and have found myself supporting my local team, Dulwich Hamlet FC. Non-league football has a way of getting under one's skin and it is very easy to get involved as a volunteer performing all manner of duties. Supporting the Hamlet has allowed me to meet some fantastic people and make many new friends and this aspect has really rekindled my love of the sport.

I guess that it was inevitable that my love of history would cross over in to the world of non-league football and last year, I was honoured to be asked to write about the history of the four players who feature on the club's Second World War Roll of Honour. This book would eventually become entitled "For Freedom" as this was the motto of 106 Squadron, with whom one of these casualties, Reg Anderson, was serving when he was killed.

Last week, I was asked to speak at Wolverhampton University as part of their Football and War initiative, both about the casualties who are honoured in the booklet and about the club's wider history, both in peace and wartime. For those readers who are based "down south" or based overseas, I appreciate that Wolverhampton isn't the easiest place to reach and although we hope to repeat the seminar in the autumn at a London venue, I thought it a good idea to repeat the talk here for anyone interested.

Dulwich Hamlet is one of the oldest and best known names on the non-league circuit, having been founded as a Sports Club in 1893 by Lorraine ‘Pa’ Wilson, who was a Bible teacher at Dulwich Hamlet School and also a local councillor. This was done at the request of some of the pupils of the school who collected the princely sum of 1/8 (about 8 pence in today’s money) for him to do so. You will no doubt note from the founding year of 1893 that we are celebrating our 125th anniversary this year.

Lorraine "Pa" Wilson (Hamlet Historian)

Next month we travel to Hamburg to play Altona 93 who also commemorate the same anniversary and will be perpetuating a fixture that was first played in 1925 in Hamburg.

The club began in very humble circumstances in Woodwarde Road, Dulwich and the park players amongst you will recognise the routine of carrying corner flags and kit to the ground on match days, which is what these early Hamlet players had to do, only in their case, they also had to carry the goalposts as well! There was a local pub on the route and no doubt after matches, a few beers would be taken on the way home for those old enough to imbibe!

The Club’s first colours were described as “dark blue and red” but in reality was most likely a collection of whatever could be gathered together at the time. Fortunately, one of the founding members of the club, WT Lloyd, also happened to be a former pupil of Westminster School and had played football for “The Pinks” which was the name of their ‘Old Boys’ team. The Club’s colours were changed to pink and blue – the same as Westminster School’s – allegedly in his honour but most likely because he had obtained some second-hand kit from his old school. The Club’s colours have remained the same with minor variations ever since.

Champion Hill Stadium in the 1930s (Hamlet Historian)

The Club first played at Champion Hill in 1912, playing initially on the Greendale pitch, which visitors to Champion Hill will know as being the pitch at the top end of the current ground. The stadium was moved to the site of the current stadium in 1931 to become one of the largest and best appointed stadiums in non-league football and was also used during the 1948 London Olympics when it staged South Korea v Mexico on 2 August, which the Korean side won 5-3 in front of a crowd of 6,000 people. The stadium often attracted five-figure crowds for league matches, amateur internationals and representative matches – the stadium record being 20,744 for the Amateur Cup final between Kingstonian and Stockton in 1933. With the abolition of amateur status in the early 1970s and the subsequent decline in the club’s fortunes, the stadium fell into disrepair and was redeveloped into its present form in 1992. It remains to be seen when we will be allowed to return home.

The club once had thriving athletics, gymnastics, cricket, cycling and chess sections, as well as the football club and today would no doubt be called a “Multi-Sports” club. The football club itself is Wilson’s enduring legacy and memorial. Wilson was a far-sighted man, who like many of his contemporaries embraced the Corinthian ideal of “Playing the game for the sake of the game” but took this a step further to ask “How can we improve the game?” He was looking at the game from the point of view of players, officials and spectators and how they were treated; he wanted to ensure that anyone who visited Champion Hill went away knowing that they had been well looked after and had been treated with respect. He also felt it was part of the club’s duty to become an integral part of the community and to serve it, rather than just being a sports club that happened to be in Dulwich.

Because of this, he would be undoubtedly proud of the our current reputation as being an integral part of the local community and serving it with imaginative initiatives such as the Aspire Academy for young players, support of local charities and matches played against Stonewall in support of the LGBT community, Assyria (a Syrian expat team) to support the refugee community, to name but a few. We hold a Charity Day at a home match each year and ‘adopt’ a local charity – last season we adopted the Coplestone Centre, a community centre in East Dulwich based around a local multi-denominational church that does great work in helping local disadvantaged people. We also support the Royal British Legion every year around Remembrance Weekend.

Today, our support has a reputation encouraged by some lazier journalist as being “hipster” and “Left Wing” – incidentally, for what it’s worth I fit neither of those labels but just happen to think that I am supporting a football club that has a social conscience. In any event, I am immensely proud of what the club has achieved and continues to achieve both on and off the pitch at the centre of our community – and I’m sure ‘Pa’ who incidentally was a Conservative Councillor – would also be proud of what his club has become.

The War Memorial is rededicated in 1949 (Hamlet Historian)

This involvement in the local community began with the formation of the club itself and was cemented after the Great War, during which over 100 members served, of whom a staggering 22 perished, with others suffering life-changing injuries. During the war, Wilson had allowed the ground to be used to entertain the troops on leave and had published a magazine named “News of the Pink and Blue Brigade” for the men serving overseas in order for them to keep up with news from home and also keeping them updated as to news of their friends serving elsewhere. After the war, he ensured that a fitting memorial was established to preserve the memory of those who had died and from May 1921, began to sponsor a bed at nearby Kings College Hospital – “The Pink and Blue Bed” which remained in situ until 1947, long after Wilson’s own death in 1924.

The football club started by playing in the local Camberwell league but in 1907 joined the Isthmian League and was a member for 111 years until our recent promotion last month. The first Isthmian League title came in 1919/20 and we also won the FA Amateur Cup in that same year. In total we’ve won the league on four occasions – the last time being in 1948/49 and have won the FA Amateur Cup on four occasions, the last occasion being in 1936/37. Dulwich Hamlet’s strongest period was undoubtedly during the inter-war years, when the mainstay of the side was the legendary Edgar Kail.

Edgar Kail (Hamlet Historian)

No talk about Dulwich Hamlet would be complete without mentioning this legend of amateur football, who joined the club as a 15 year old in 1915 and broke through into the First Team as a result of the absence of older, more established players who were serving in the forces. With other young players coming to the fore at the same time, Kail ensured that the club kept going during the war and in the immediate post-war years. He scored 427 times in a career lasting from 1919 to 1933 and once scored 53 goals in a season (1925/26) which is not surprisingly, a club record. He was a committed amateur who resisted all calls to turn professional. He was an England Amateur International and also played three times and scoring twice for the Full England side, being the last non-league player to do so (although not the last amateur – Bernard Joy of Arsenal holds that distinction.) The club suffered harder times during the 1970s and in 1977 found itself in the second tier of the Isthmian League, as we did also in 2001. More recently, under the management of Gavin Rose, the Club regained its position in the top tier of the Isthmian League in 2013 and finally achieved promotion to the National League South by winning the play off final on May 7 against a very good Hendon team. Quite an achievement considering everything that the club has had thrown at them off the field this season .

When Shall Their Glory Fade (author's photo)

My friend and fellow Hamlet fan Roger Deason has written about the club’s Great War casualties and hopefully will contribute a future seminar concerning these men but until recently, the casualties from 1939-45 have been somewhat overlooked – even though two of them were relatively high-profile England Amateur Internationals – and it is for that reason that we will concentrate on these men tonight. In November of last year, we released “For Freedom” which tells the story of the four players on the Second World War Roll of Honour.

DHFC Juniors - September 1940 (Hamlet Historian)

The coming of another war in September 1939 meant that Dulwich Hamlet would once again lose players to serve in the armed forces and ensured that once again would look to the juniors to ensure that fixtures were fulfilled.

The Isthmian League was suspended at the outbreak of war but the club carried on and continued to play in a much smaller and more localised league, known as the South Eastern Combination, which consisted of teams including Bromley, Epsom, Erith & Belvedere, DHFC, Sutton Utd, Tooting & Mitcham, Walton-on-Thames, Wimbledon and Woking – all reasonably local, so as to cut down travelling. As the league was quite small, there were not enough fixtures to fill every Saturday in the season and so vacant weeks were filled by friendly fixtures quite often against service teams. The composition of the teams we fielded varied greatly and as in the Great War, consisted of a few older players and guest players from amongst locally serving servicemen, with the gaps filled by members of the junior teams who were given their chance.

A wartime friendly programme against the Royal Warwickshire Regiment (Hamlet Historian)

By January 1945, some 80 Dulwich players had been called up, of whom about half served with the RAF, of the remainder, the split was roughly 50:50 between the Royal Navy and the Army and at least one who served as a Bevin Boy in the coal mines.

Flight Lieutenant Richard Boyd DFC (Hamlet Historian)

One of these players who served as aircrew – Richard Boyd – is still with us at the age of 97 and today lives in the USA, quite appropriately for a former Bomber Command Pilot, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Richard was born in Brockley in November 1921 and lived in Evelyn Street, Deptford. He joined the Dulwich Hamlet junior team following a trial at the beginning of the 1938/39 season. His big chance came in August 1940 when he made his senior debut in another trial match and was by all accounts, man of the match playing at right half.

Richard’s debut in a league match came on Saturday 7 September 1940 against local rivals Bromley. This date proved to be the first day of the London Blitz and with about 20 minutes play remaining, with the Hamlet winning 3-2, the air raid sirens sounded and the referee duly abandoned the match. By 5pm, having quickly showered and changed, the players were heading out into Dog Kennel Hill but by this time, there were scores of aircraft appearing overhead. As the bombs began to fall, it was now all about getting home to Deptford, which he managed to do with great difficulty and not without fear. As part of his local Scout group, Richard acted as a messenger during the Blitz and later joined the Home Guard helping to protect the Surrey Docks. Richard volunteered to serve as aircrew and following his initial flying training in 1941, was sent to the USA as part of the Arnold Scheme. He was an excellent pilot and after qualifying, was retained as an instructor and did not return to the UK until 1943, when he was posted to Bomber Command. He served a full tour with 195 Squadron and was awarded the DFC for gallantry in bringing his damaged aircraft home. In Spring 1945, he transferred to Transport Command but in April 1946, was involved in a crash in which he broke his leg and which kept him in hospital for three months. He was demobbed in January 1947 but when he attempted to play again, he found that his leg would not stand up to the strain of playing competitive football. He later took up a non-flying role with BOAC and moved to the USA where he still lives.

Sadly, the new war ensured that further members of the club's playing staff were to lose their lives and we now look at those who feature on the club's Roll of Honour.

Eric Pierce (Gavin Heaton)

The first of our 1939-45 casualties was Eric Pierce, whose senior Dulwich Hamlet career would be over almost as soon as it started. Eric was born in Camberwell on 15 June 1921 and had played all of his football prior to the outbreak of war for the club’s junior teams. He was also a keen cricketer who played for Dulwich Hamlet Cricket Club whenever possible. It seems an alien concept for footballers nowadays but it was by no means uncommon at the end of the football season to simply swap one set of playing kit for another and continue to play another sport for the same club.

The loss to service of many of the club’s more senior players saw Eric break through into the First Team for some of the local wartime league matches that replaced the usual Isthmian League fixtures but on 23 January 1941, Eric enlisted into the RAF to train as a pilot. He was undergoing training at 16 Elementary Flying Training School at RAF Burnaston and had passed a major milestone for any aspiring pilot by achieving solo flight - about a quarter of any new intake of prospective pilots failed to go solo, so Eric was obviously a competent pilot. Unfortunately, on 12 October 1941 when undertaking aerobatic duties, his Miles Magister trainer aircraft suffered an engine failure whilst at low altitude and despite his attempts to make a forced landing, Eric’s aircraft crashed into a field at Broken Flats Farm in Derbyshire, which killed the young pilot instantly.


Ron Ebsworth (Hamlet Historian)

The second to perish was 35 year old Ron Ebsworth, who had been born in Ilford in 1906 and played for his local club Ilford FC who were at that time an established amateur club who also played in the Isthmian League. He joined Dulwich in 1936 and in contrast to Eric Pierce, was perhaps coming towards the end of his playing career when he joined us. Ron was one of those people that you need at any amateur club, whether it be football, cricket, rugby or whatever sport – he was always available to play and would happily play in any team and in pretty much any position. He was a very popular figure at the club because of this willingness to play anywhere and his uncomplaining nature. 

He preferred to play either at full-back or wing-half and whilst he played a number of times for the Hamlet First Team, he played the majority of his football for the club’s Reserves. He was initially Vice Captain of the reserves but was named Captain of the Reserves for the 1938-39 Season and led the team to the runners-up spot in what must have been a very tight competition as his team had remained unbeaten until 13 April 1939 but were pipped at the post by his former club, Ilford. He would have been Reserve Captain again for the 1939-40 Season had it not been cancelled due to the outbreak of war. He was also a keen cricketer and in common with many of his team mates, played for Dulwich Hamlet CC during the summer months. 

Like many of his team mates, Ron volunteered to serve as RAF aircrew and enlisted into the service on 13 July 1940. He trained and qualified as a Wireless Operator/Gunner and was posted to 214 Squadron, Bomber Command, which flew the Vickers Wellington bomber, at that time the main workhorse of the RAF’s bomber squadrons. Ron and his crewmates completed four operational flights but they were not to return from their fifth, a mission to Hamburg on 30 November 1941, during which their aircraft was lost without trace near the Dutch coast. Only one crew member's body was ever recovered and today Ron, with the remainder of his missing crew mates, is remembered on the RAF Memorial at Runnymede in Surrey.

Reg Anderson (kneeling, second from left) (Hamlet Historian)

Our third casualty was Reg Anderson, who like Eric Pierce had joined the club as a youngster and had progressed through the club’s junior teams. Reg was a local boy, born in Peckham and who lived in Woodwarde Road, the location of the Club’s original ground. He was a natural sportsman and had played football for Wilson’s Grammar School in Camberwell and subsequently for his Old Boys club before signing for the Hamlet in 1934 as an 18 year old. He played on the right wing and progressed quickly through the junior teams. He broke into the First Team in late 1936, making an early impression by scoring the winner over Margate in a shock FA Cup victory in November of that year. Margate were an unofficial ‘nursery’ side for Arsenal at that time and were regarded as the strongest team in the competition at that stage.

Reg was also part of the team that lifted the FA Amateur Cup for the final time in the club’s history in 1937 when they defeated Leyton 2-0 in front of 33,000 spectators at Upton Park, as seen in the photograph above. He played in another cup final that same season when he scored in a 2-0 victory over Kingstonian in the Surrey Senior Cup final that was played at Plough Lane

Reg’s form also attracted the attention of the selectors for the England Amateur side and he scored a hat trick on debut against Wales in an 8-2 victory at Rhyl in January 1938. Almost certainly as a result of this performance, Reg was approached by Sir Herbert Merrett, the industrialist and chairman of Cardiff City to play for them as an amateur, with the offer of a job in Wales as a sweetener. He accepted the offer and made his debut in a 1-1 draw at Notts County on Easter Saturday 1939 – he played at home against the same opposition two days later when he scored in a 4-1 win, in which he was by all accounts man of the match. The 1939-40 season was cancelled in common with all senior football but Reg nevertheless made three wartime appearances for the Bluebirds. Shortly after this time, Reg had decided to leave Cardiff and return to Dulwich – this was possibly down to a change of manager at Cardiff which wasn’t to Reg’s liking and in all subsequent representative matches, he is described as a Dulwich Hamlet player.

He played in some wartime football for the Hamlet and continued to play representative football but volunteered to serve as RAF aircrew and enlisted on 22 July 1940. Reg trained and qualified as an Observer and was posted to Bomber Command, joining 106 Squadron. Reg was lost on his fifth operational flight, when his Hampden bomber was shot down over the Danish island of Sylt whilst on a minelaying mission, with the loss of all four crew. Reg and his crewmates are buried together at Kiel War Cemetery in Germany.

Bill Parr in the RAF (John Cross)

The final name currently on the Roll of Honour is 26 year old Bill Parr, who unusually for the time was an established England Amateur International when he joined Dulwich Hamlet in early 1939, having already played seventeen matches for Blackpool in the old First Division of the Football League. Bill had played alongside Reg Anderson during the latter player’s England Amateur debut against Wales and the two men had run riot down the right hand side of the pitch, with Bill scoring four goals and Reg a hat trick, so he undoubtedly joined Dulwich in order to replicate this partnership with a player with whom he had formed an immediate rapport. The new club partnership bore immediate fruit when the Hamlet lifted the London Senior Cup but having played for Blackpool at the very highest level of English football, perhaps Bill found the Isthmian League a little too easy and in May 1939, Arsenal announced that he was to play the next season for them as an amateur. The 1939-40 season was abandoned and so there remains some doubt as to which club Bill would actually have played for, as some programmes for representative matches at this time still show him as a Dulwich Hamlet player. Like his three Hamlet team mates, Bill volunteered to serve as RAF aircrew and in his case trained as a Pilot. On completion of training, he was posted to Coastal Command to fly the Lockheed Hudson light bomber on Maritime Patrol duties covering the vital convoy routes on the Western Approaches. Bill was killed on 8 March 1942 when his aircraft suffered engine failure just after take-off on a night navigational training flight.

When I was asked to come and speak here tonight, I though that this was the end of the story - that was until a couple of months after the publication of “For Freedom”. I then received a slightly sheepish email from one of our supporters who had successfully bid for a job lot of old wartime programmes from an internet auction site. Wartime programmes for the Hamlet are quite rare as they were not produced in great numbers and long periods elapsed when they were not produced at all due to material shortages. 

Unlike most professional clubs, we do not have a club statistician, neither do we have a museum with an exhaustive database of programmes to call upon – like most amateur clubs, we accepted that there was quite a high turnover of players and that it was almost impossible to keep an accurate handle on everyone who had ever appeared for the club. Neither was there in those days quite the same obsession with statistics that we have in today’s game. We had however, assumed that the Club Committee at the time had kept an accurate record of the wartime casualties and had accordingly included all of the relevant names when the memorial was updated in 1947 to include the Second World War casualties. At the end of the day, when the booklet was written, we had to take a leap of faith and go by the information that was available to us on the Roll of Honour.

The email I received uncovered what can only be described as an astonishing oversight on the part of the then Club Committee, for these programmes revealed that two further players – one a former player at the time of his death but the other still very much a current member of the playing staff – had died on active service during the war but had not been included on the memorial.  To omit a former player was perhaps an understandable policy decision taken at the time but to ignore someone who had been acknowledged by the Club itself at the time as having represented Dulwich Hamlet in wartime matches seems unbelievable. It therefore seems only right and proper that we should record the stories of the two men concerned.

Charles Ede (Richard Coulthard)

Charles Ede was born in Croydon in 1911 and thus was another local lad. He’d joined the club as a junior and had progressed through the ranks. He was a good player in his own right but unfortunately for him, played at inside right – which was the same position as the legendary Edgar Kail. Because of this, he played most of his football for the reserves for whom he was a regular goal scorer. Appearances for the First Team were largely restricted to when Kail was injured or on representative duty but when he did play, he rarely let the side down, which must have added to his frustration. In early 1934, Charles requested a transfer to Kingstonian, which was granted by the club committee. He made 43 appearances for the Ks and scored 20 goals for them before he faded from the football scene at the end of the 1934/35 season, perhaps to concentrate on his job as an editor of a food magazine. He was called up in 1940 and served with 45 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, which after serving on Home Defence duties outside Crewe during the Blitz, was deployed in October 1942 to North Africa as part of Operation Torch. On 20 November 1942, his unit was based in Djidjelli (now called Jijel), on the Algerian coast about 320 kilometres east of Algiers, which was the location of an Allied airfield. On this day, Charles was killed during an air raid on the airfield by a single Ju88 bomber. He is today buried at the Deli Ibrahim War Cemetery, near Algiers.

Alan Adams - nicknamed "Boy" whilst in the Army (Luuk Buist)

Alan Adams was yet another local boy, born in Camberwell in 1925 and thus by far the youngest of our casualties, being only just 19 when he died. Alan was a pupil of Archbishop Tenison’s Grammar School (the large school opposite the Oval Cricket Ground) and on the outbreak of war, was evacuated with the entire school down to Reading in Berkshire. He was an accomplished sportsman and represented his school at athletics, cricket and football – these latter two at First XI level. He also appeared to have an interest in military life from an early age and was a member of his school Cadet Corps from 1937 to 1940 and then transferred to the Air Training Corps when this was established in 1940 during the Battle of Britain, which would indicate that he had an eye on a career as a flyer. He left school in 1941 and took up a job as a junior insurance clerk but also joined his local Home Guard unit in Dulwich the following year once he turned 17.

He made his senior debut for Dulwich Hamlet at this time, having been previously a member of our junior team. His first match was against the London Fire Force at Champion Hill and thus played in an away match at his normal home ground. He was a left back and his first appearance came about due to the absence of the regular left back, Roger Bishop, who had been detained at work. No doubt the fact that Alan lived close to the ground at Herne Hill enabled him to make a quick dash to Champion Hill. Alan enlisted into the Army in May 1943 and after basic training with the Gordon Highlanders, he transferred to the Army Air Corps to train as a Glider Pilot. He qualified just too late to serve at D-Day but did serve at Arnhem. On 18 September 1944, the Horsa glider that he was piloting was shot down whilst part of the Second Wave of landings during Operation Market Garden. Alan had been hit by shrapnel from an anti-aircraft shell and although his Co-Pilot made a forced landing, they overshot the landing zone and hit trees at over 100 mph. The Co-Pilot was catapulted through the Perspex windscreen of the glider but survived unscathed but unfortunately, Alan was killed when the load (a Jeep and two trailers of ammunition) shifted forward and crushed him. The remaining two Army passengers also survived the crash. Alan was buried initially in the grounds of the Psychiatric Home at Wolfheze but later reinterred at the main British war cemetery at Oosterbeek.

We hope to add the names of these last mentioned men to our Roll of Honour but obviously, as this is on display in the Boardroom at our historic home of Champion Hill Stadium, access is currently not possible. 

In normal times, today’s fans of Dulwich Hamlet continue to honour these players from the club’s past who made the ultimate sacrifice. Hopefully, the impasse over the future of Champion Hill Stadium will soon be resolved and we will be able to add these men’s names to the Memorial and provide belated recognition to their sacrifice.

Thanks are due to Alex Alexandrou at the Football and War Project for inviting me to speak at the seminar. Hopefully a London date will be arranged in the autumn, which will also include other speakers. Once this date is arranged, I will advise this via social media.



Sunday, 6 May 2018

The Aldwych Tube, Bomber's Moon and Negley Farson

Negley Farson (Wikipedia)

Blitz aficionados will be aware of the name of James Negley Farson, the American author, adventurer and fisherman, who wrote one of the best accounts of the London Blitz, Bomber's Moon, published in 1941 and which apart from Farson's vivid descriptions of life in London during 1940, contains some beautiful pencil illustrations from his friend and commercial artist Tom Purvis.

Almost an entire chapter of the book is devoted to shelter life, more specifically to the experiences of those sheltering in the London Underground. The small branch line station at Aldwych - actually located in the Strand - features prominently in this chapter and was the subject of some of the most famous photographs taken of Tube shelterers. This station has been closed to the public since 1994, when the little-used Aldwych branch was finally discontinued. This was partially due to the prohibitive cost of replacing the original 1907 lifts, which although still in perfectly good working order at the time, could not continue to be used for Health & Safety reasons owing to the exposed moving parts in the lift machinery. The station is still in situ and although different schemes have been floated over the years for its re-opening and incorporation into various Tube extensions, it remains as a mute reminder of London's wartime past. The site is occasionally opened to the public in conjunction with the London Transport Museum's Hidden London initiative but tickets are expensive and sell out quickly, so I have never actually been able to visit the station since closure 24 years ago. My memories of the place were those of a vague air of decay but also of a station that would have been instantly recognisable to a wartime shelterer.

Setting the scene outside Aldwych Station (Tom Day)

In addition to these rare public openings, the station is often used for filming and is also utilised by TfL and various Government Departments for training purposes. It was in connection with this latter use that I was recently able to pay a visit, as part of my guiding duties for a British Army group's Battlefield Study tour looking at the London Blitz, amongst other subjects. 

Mother & Baby drawn by Tom Purvis (author's collection - from 'Bomber's Moon')

To try and give the reader some background to the notion of spending the night in an Underground Station whilst bombs are falling "up top", I can do no better than quote directly from Farson himself:

"One night, about six o'clock, I stood in the Strand with the long line of shelterers waiting to go down the famous Aldwych Tube. It was very much in the newspapers at the time. Nearly everyone (except those who were occupying it) believed it had just been opened as a public shelter. The Press, unwittingly, was giving the impression that great things were being done.

As a matter of fact, when the Authorities were complacently accepting all the ballyhoo about throwing it open as a shelter, it had been packed to capacity for over three weeks.

The first person in line was a girl, twenty years old, holding an eighteen-months-old baby in her arms. She told me later, that she was "expecting" again in January. She had been standing there and hour and a half. The next seventy people in line had, of course, been standing there for slightly shorter periods. And there were more people piling up behind them while I was waiting to go down with them. She bared her gums and laughed saying:

'Maybe I'll faint. I did yesterday. Then there was an air raid and they had to let us all down.'

The collapsible steel gates of the tube were locked. They were not supposed to be open until 6:15. But this evening an Underground worker came along and let the crowd down shortly before six. We descended 132 steps. 

The people scampered about the deserted tube platform below to find their favourite places. This girl carried her baby to the far end, spread out a blanket. Then, from somewhere, she produced two sheets of corrugated cardboard - the thick packing case stuff. She placed her baby on top of it:

'So that he won't get damp,' she said simply."

At this stage of the war, there were no facilities at the station and as Negley Farson alluded to in his narrative, it had only been available as a shelter for around three weeks at the time he wrote his piece. He goes on to confirm the lack of basic facilities thus:

"Well, it was quite a scene for a dark, damp, smelly tube - with an open "Gent's" latrine staring you straight in the face. Lest I be accused of painting the picture, this was the Aldwych Tube; the position of the bucket latrine, used by the men, was some ten feet from the stone steps at the end of the platform - and I'll take a chance on it that there will be plenty of witnesses to come forward and swear that the only veil that covered it from public view at that date were two torn strips of burlap - with a jagged unclosable gap between them of at least eighteen inches from top to bottom.  

As one woman put it:

'We have a free public view - stalls. Ha ha!'"


An elderly lady shelterer drawn by Tom Purvis (author's collection from 'Bomber's Moon')

On the outbreak of war, the Chamberlain government had decreed that unlike the 1914-18 War, the London Underground would not be made available for Air Raid Shelter purposes. The vaguely ridiculous reasoning behind this was that allowing the public to shelter in the Tubes would "encourage a troglodyte mentality" - in other words, they were afraid that people would enter the Tubes, never to emerge again, with the resulting catastrophic effect on war production, followed by a general collapse of society. 

When the bombs did start to fall on London, the population used their common sense, ignored the Government's edicts and simply invaded the Tube Stations, invariably by simply buying a ticket to the next station and then refusing to board a train. The Authorities quickly relented and allowed the Tube stations to be used but as Farson mentions in his book, the complacent attitude that had previously been demonstrated took some time to put right and it took some time, running into months, before steel bunk beds, chemical toilets and first aid posts, amongst other facilities began to appear on those stations selected for use as shelters.

Recreated station signage (author's photo)

Aldwych Station had opened in 1907 as part of the Great Northern & Strand Railway and was originally named Strand. It was intended to be the terminus of a line running from Wood Green (now Alexandra Palace) via Finsbury Park and Kings Cross. Whilst under construction, the line was taken over by the Brompton and Piccadilly Circus Railway (the modern day Piccadilly Line) and permission was granted to link the two lines via a new tunnel running between Piccadilly Circus and Holborn to connect the two routes. This left the line running down to the Strand as a somewhat superfluous spur that eventually became the Aldwych Branch. The station was renamed Aldwych in 1915 to avoid confusion with the station of the same name (now Charing Cross) owned by the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway (now the Charing Cross Branch of the Northern Line).

The Aldwych Branch settled down to life as basically a shuttle service that ran to-and-fro between Aldwych and Holborn Kingsway Stations. It is possible to walk between these two points in less than ten minutes, so it was never a particularly well used service. Probably because of this relative lack of use, the entire branch was selected for use as a shelter and closed to the public on 22 September 1940, shortly after the beginning of the London Blitz. The station had originally been named consisted of two platforms serving a double track line in two tunnels to Holborn but one platform had been closed in 1917, as just one platform and a single track was more than sufficient to cater for the shuttle service. For shelter purposes, the disused platform was also opened up to the public and the train running tunnels (including the disused tunnel) were used by the British Museum to store some of their collection, including the Elgin Marbles. The electric current was switched off and eventually, the platform was built out over the tracks so as to create a much wider area for the shelterers than was normally found on a working station but initially, some of the shelterers had to sleep on the tracks, as the accompanying photo shows.

Aldwych Station - then and now (author's photograph)

My entry into the station was through similar "collapsible steel gates", perhaps the very same that Negley Farson and his fellow shelterers had used nearly 78 years previously. I then walked through one of the original 1907 Otis lifts - both of which are now held statically by large steel beams beneath them - into the Booking Office area, part of which is original and the remainder an elaborate film set which has been retained in situ. Following a safety briefing, our group descended the spiral staircase towards platform level. It was whilst walking down the stairs that my memories of this station began to be rekindled; a somewhat musty, damp smell pervaded the staircase and the passageways leading to the platform. There was also a strange, unaccountable feeling of melancholy - as if the old station was trying to tell us that it was lonely and missed the sound of commuters footsteps.

The beginning of the 132 steps (author's photo)

Walking through the original 1907 Otis elevator (author's photo)

A now lonely passageway echoes to the sound of footsteps once again (author's photo)

Once on platform level, I explained a little of the station's wartime history as well as hearing a interesting briefing as to the history of tunnels and tunnellers in warfare through the ages, a fascination which continues to this day. Whilst listening to this talk, we were disturbed by various distant rumbling sounds and periodical bursts of cool breezes, all of which reminded us that not far away, up the line at Holborn, the Underground network was still operating. The area we had been visiting was Platform "A" which had been the working platform when the line closed to the public in 1994 and which, we had been warned at the Safety Briefing, still contained energised live rails and which was still frequently used for filming. The station has featured in numerous movies, ranging from Battle of Britain, Patriot Games, V for Vendetta and Atonement, to pop videos, perhaps most famously The Prodigy's "Firestarter" in 1996.

Looking south towards the buffers (author's photo)

Looking north towards Holborn (author's photo)

We then moved across to the other platform, disused since 1917, which although bricked off from the main running tunnels, still contained a stretch of the original one hundred year old track, which lay flat on ballast as with surface railway lines and did not contain the now familiar "Anti-Suicide Pit" which we see today at Tube stations. Unfortunately, the sensitive nature of some of the equipment being demonstrated in this area meant that it was not possible to take photographs here on this occasion but the platform presented a strange mixture of old and new, due to the fact that London Underground sometimes use this area to trial new systems of lighting, tunnel panels and other equipment.

The footbridge leading across to the 1917 platform (author's photo)

"Way Out" sign, together with the 'A N' from STRAND which was the station's original name (author's photo)

After about 90 minutes below ground, it was now time to return to the surface and it was at some point during the ascent of the 132 steps that I became painfully aware of how much we took lifts and escalators for granted. Some of my Army colleagues sprinted up the steps, leaving the oldest man in the group to bring up the rear somewhat wearily!

The Leslie Green designed Ticket Hall (author's photo)

Back at surface level, I made a brief inspection of the original Leslie Green designed Ticket Hall, with an elaborate "BOOK HERE" sign, as well as discovering an original 1930s direction sign pointing would-be interchange passengers in the direction of the nearby Temple Station.

1930s signage still extant (author's photo)

The way out to Surrey Street (author's photo)

As mentioned earlier, many proposals have been mooted to incorporate the Aldwych Branch into various other underground extensions and new lines but personally, I rather hope that the line remains preserved as a time capsule looking back into Underground history.

Blinking as we emerged back out into the bright spring sunshine, it was time for me to start earning my keep again as a guide but thanks are due to Major Christopher Garrard of 29 EOD & Search Group HQ for arranging the visit and for allowing me to add an unusual extra dimension to our Battlefield Study Tour.


Printed Source:

Bomber's Moon by Negley Farson, illustrated by Tom Purvis - Victor Gollanz Ltd, 1941