Sunday, 13 February 2011

Liquid History, HMS Arethusa, and the London Fire Brigade at Dunkirk

The River Thames has always been one of the main arteries of London. In 1940, the Thames was home to far more commercial traffic than we can see today, with five great expanses of enclosed docks on the north side of the river, the Surrey Commercial Docks to the south and all manner of wharves, power stations and the vast Woolwich Arsenal site strung out along either side of the tideway.

The Thames has always held a special place in the hearts of Londoners, who have used it for leisure, for work, for travel and have seen pageantry and tragedy unfold upon it in equal measure. It was described by the trade unionist and Labour MP John Burns as ‘Liquid History’ which is probably the most eloquent description of the river that has ever been penned.

Before the outbreak of war in 1939, the Germans had already begun aerial reconnaissance of likely targets along the river and today, we can still see these photographs which have been published under the somewhat distastefully named series Adolf Hitler’s Home Counties Holiday Snaps. Despite the trivialisation implied by this title, reconnaissance photography was a serious business which pre-war was often undertaken by concealed cameras aboard German civilian aircraft en route to or from London’s embryonic airports such as Heston and Croydon. In these photos, sites such as the Woolwich Arsenal, power stations, railways, docks and other potential targets were identified well before war was declared.

In those days before airborne radar sets and guidance beams, the best way for aircraft to find a target was to follow easily identifiable landmarks such as rivers and railway lines. London of course, has no shortage of the latter and the River Thames was and is an un-disguisable pathway to the centre of the capital and all a potential enemy had to do was to follow the course of the river from the Estuary to the centre of London. Today’s flyers call this Visual Flight Rules or 'VFR' and by using this method, it was inevitable that the Luftwaffe would be able to find their target when the time came.

When, at 4.30 p.m. on Saturday September 7th 1940, the sirens sounded to mark what proved to be the beginning of the Blitz, it was the course of the Thames that the bombers followed before unloading their bombs on the Woolwich Arsenal, Silvertown, West Ham Power Station and the Surrey Docks, lighting huge conflagrations that acted as beacons for the second wave of bombers that came that night. This was to be that start of fifty seven consecutive nights bombing and even after a brief lull in early December the bombers would continue to return right the way through until the night of May 10th/11th 1941. The docks and industries along the Thames were invariably part of the targets being attacked and with an un-knowing nod as to what was to happen some three years hence, the Luftwaffe gave the London dock system the code name ‘Hamburg’ and one can only wonder whether the irony of this was not lost on the Germans when the Allied air forces unleashed havoc on the German port city some three years later.

In 1940, the British anti-aircraft defences, although enthusiastically manned and well led by General Sir Frederick Pile – who incidentally would remain in this role throughout the war – were proving fairly ineffective against the German onslaught. The guns at this time were sighted in London’s open spaces such as Hyde Park, Blackheath, Southwark Park, Wanstead Flats and many similar places but being without the advantage of radar guidance, the chance of hitting a relatively fast moving bomber at night with only the assistance of searchlights to pick out the target, was fairly remote. As the war progressed, their performance and equipment was to improve drastically but in 1940 the anti aircraft or 'Ack Ack' guns’ crews needed all the help they could get. So it was that in November 1940, the cruiser HMS Arethusa (pictured), that had been refitting at Sheerness following arduous service in the Norwegian Campaign and covering the evacuations from France was moved to the Lower Pool of London, close to Tower Bridge to augment London’s defences. Her impressive anti-aircraft armament of eight four inch guns plus smaller calibre two pounder ‘pom poms’ joined in the nightly barrage against the Luftwaffe and although it was questionable whether they actually hit anything, they did have the advantage of forcing the bombers to fly higher and also of boosting the morale of the civilian population, who always liked to hear the sound of the guns firing back, despite the fact that on the principle of 'what goes up must come down’ the shrapnel caused by the shells fired were just as likely to cause death and damage to Londoners and their property as the German bombs.

Her brief stay in London ended in early 1941 and HMS Arethusa went on to enjoy further distinguished wartime service in the Mediterranean Fleet, on the Malta Convoys and at Normandy on D-Day before being eventually scrapped in 1950.

The sterling work of the London Fire Brigade, the Auxiliary Fire Service and later the National Fire Service in fighting the fires of the Blitz is well known and whilst everyone is familiar with the land-based fire engines and fire fighters, perhaps less well known was the small armada of fire boats, or what were effectively floating fire engines. Many of these fire boats were converted tugs and barges, hastily pressed into service on the outbreak of war but amongst their number was the purpose built fire float (as the London Fire Brigade called her) Massey Shaw (pictured) which was named after Sir Eyre Massey Shaw, first head of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, predecessor of the London Fire Brigade. Built in 1935 by J Samuel White’s Yard at Cowes on the Isle of Wight, Massey Shaw was designed to fight fires in peacetime along the vast expanses of London’s industrial riverside and was capable of pumping three thousand gallons of water per minute from each of her two Merryweather pumps. Now in 1940, she was fighting different kinds of fires – huge out of control timber fires in the Surrey Docks, exploding rum barrels that sent sheets of blazing spirits flying through the air, pepper fires, rubber fires, paint fires, the list was endless and the possibilities were unfortunately horrendous.

Perhaps the best personal account of events on the Thames on the night of 7th September 1940 was given by Sir Alan Herbert, in command of the Thames Auxiliary Patrol’s vessel Water Gypsy, which was coming downriver: “Half a mile or more of the Surrey shore was burning. The wind was westerly and the accumulated smoke and sparks of all the fires swept in a high wall across the river.” He pressed on into the clouds of smoke: “The scene was like a lake in Hell. Burning barges were drifting everywhere. We could hear the hiss and roar of the conflagrations, a formidable noise but we could not see it so dense was the smoke. Nor could we see the eastern shore.”

Not only did the Massey Shaw fight fires during the Blitz. She had already earned herself a battle honour in May 1940 when she joined in the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk. Originally sent across with a volunteer crew to fight the fires in the port of Dunkirk, she had a scare on the voyage across the English Channel, when in poor visibility her large water monitor on the foredeck was mistaken for the gun of a German fast patrol boat by a British destroyer which almost opened fire on her before realising her true identity. Fire fighting in Dunkirk proved to be a non-starter as the inner harbour area was so blocked with sunken ships and rubble as to be impassable but instead of returning to England, the crew decided to assist with the evacuation. The bulk of her service came off the beaches at Bray Dunes and La Panne, where she ferried some five hundred men from the beaches out to the destroyers and larger vessels waiting in deeper water but when the time came for her to return to England, she brought twenty eight British soldiers back to Ramsgate on 2nd June before heading back up the Thames to resume her London Fire Brigade duties.

Not retired until 1971, the Massey Shaw is still in existence and is currently being restored to her former glory, ironically at the old South Dock of the Surrey Docks where she fought fires seventy years ago. When restored, she will be a living memorial to the Blitz and the Dunkirk Evacuation and will hopefully be able to once again attend the Dunkirk ‘Little Ships’ return to the French port.

Published Sources:

Backs to the Wall – Leonard Mosley, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1971
B.E.F. Ships before, at and after Dunkirk – John de S Winser, World Ship Society 1999

Cruisers of The Royal & Commonwealth Navies – Douglas Morris, Maritime Books 1987
London’s Docks – John Pudney, Thames & Hudson 1975
The Thames on Fire – LM Bates, Terence Dalton 1985

Pillar of Fire, Dunkirk 1940 – Ronald Atkin, Sidgwick & Jackson 1990

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