Sunday 3 July 2011

An Unlikely Hero

As we have discovered already in previous entries to this blog, heroism and heroes come in all shapes and sizes. Just occasionally, somebody emerges that fits the image of the classic, square jawed 'Boys Own' hero but more often than not, heroes look just like ordinary people - for that is the what heroism essentially is all about - ordinary people performing extraordinary deeds.

Stanley Barlow (pictured above) was just such a man. In May 1941, he was a 35 year old newly qualified accountant who was Post Warden of Air Raid Warden's Post D2 in the Borough of St Marylebone in London. This post was located in the basement of the Royal Institute of British Architects' Building in Weymouth Street, just off Portland Place. Barlow had already demonstrated considerable moral courage, when he had taken on a Nigerian law student by the name of 'Sam' Ekpenyon at a time when the attitude of some Londoners towards black people were very different to the accepted norm of today. Sam was the son of a Nigerian chieftain whose story is one worth telling in it's own right and we shall hear more of him later.

To return to Stanley Barlow, it is fair to say that both amongst his subordinate wardens and in his working life, he was respected rather than liked and indeed, his wardens had nicknamed him 'The Fuhrer' behind his back. This would not particularly have bothered Barlow as he wanted results rather than popularity. What his wardens did not know and which possibly would have changed their attitude towards him, was that Barlow beneath his seemingly calm exterior, was a nervous wreck. He had supervised rescue work in New Cavendish Street on 'The Wednesday', April 16th 1941 and as a result of the grisly scenes he had encountered, even the banging of a shutter in the wind on an otherwise silent night had sent him rushing for cover and digging his fingernails into his palms to stop him from screaming out. Today, it is clear that Barlow was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress but in 1941, people were expected to pull themselves together and get on with it, which is just what he did.

In the early evening of 10th May 1941, Barlow was on duty and was engaged in checking the members of a new shift on duty; Sam Ekpenyon was one, Winnie Dorow, a young Jewish tailoress, Annie Hill, who worked at a clothes wholesaler, Charlie Lee, a mechanic, Joan Watson, a hairdresser and full time wardens Jim Grey and Eileen Sloane, as well as many others. The differing backgrounds and occupations of the wardens was reflected right across London and indeed the whole country. It was the task of people like Stanley Barlow to mould these diverse groups of people into effective teams.

When an air raid was not in progress or an alert hadn't been sounded, the wardens had to settle down and play the waiting game. Some would play darts and others card games but there were other mundane tasks to complete as well. For Barlow on this night, it meant checking one of the local shelters where some bunks had been damaged and also to check out a report by a local woman that her Austrian maid had been sending smoke signals to the Germans!

There was also the task of performing the nightly census; this basically meant checking the neighbourhood to see who was sleeping where and to know which properties were occupied in the event of a raid and whether the Rescue Squads would be required to attend in the event of a direct hit on a building in the area. Barlow himself led by example - even on a non-raid night, he would be out on his rounds on and off until dawn, He would check and double check each street, road and mews in his area and being an accountant, he would keep notes and knew exactly who was in which building; something which would stand him in good stead later that night.

Fate would decree that this night would not be a non-raid night; at 11 p.m., the sirens sounded the alert. A big raid was building and had been tracked for some time as the bomber force built up and crossed the Channel coast. The Knickebein guidance beams were fixed on London, so there was no doubt as to where the raid was heading. There was also a full moon - the so called 'Bomber's Moon', so as the sirens wailed most Londoners stoically headed for the shelters and braced themselves for another night in which they and their city would face the worst that Hitler could throw at them.

For Stanley Barlow and his wardens, along with countless other Civil Defence workers across London, taking shelter was not an option; in fact this was where all the training paid off and where all the hours of waiting for something to happen became worthwhile. At the sound of the sirens, Barlow hurried back to Wardens Post D2 and passed two of his wardens, Charlie Lee and Winnie Dorow leaving the Bay Moulton pub in Great Portland Street; he had promised to meet them for a quick one but had forgotten all about it. As he returned to the post, he called out to them that he would make good tomorrow.

In the meantime, the night of May 10th/11th 1941 was proving to be a big raid. The trend recently had been for the raids to get heavier and less localised and tonight was no exception. This raid was affecting the whole of London, already the docks had been hit yet again and the area around the Elephant & Castle was starting to be deluged with incendiary bombs, the intensity of which had never been seen before. It was soon to reach Wardens Post D2.

It was 12.25 a.m. on the morning of May 11th and despite the rumble of bombs and anti-aircraft gunfire towards the east, St Marylebone itself was still untroubled by bombs. Barlow had sent his wardens out on another patrol and Sam Ekpenyon was performing his usual 'lucky charm' act by looking in on shelterers in his area - some of them reckoned his dark skin lucky and wouldn't settle down for sleep until he had looked in on them. Barlow himself was about to set off on his own rounds to check on the Shelter Marshalls when at 12.36 the whole Wardens Post shook as if by an earthquake. Seconds later, Warden Johnnie Noble came sprinting into the Post to impart the terrible news that Great Titchfield Street, the Bay Moulton pub and the Rest Centre next door to it had been hit. Barlow ran to the scene to find it looking like a battlefield and thought of Wardens Lee and Dorow who he had last seen leaving the pub for the Rest Centre. Barlow felt that they must have had no chance so was pleasantly surprised to find Charlie Lee at a First Aid Post receiving treatment. His pleasure was short lived as he also spotted Winnie Dorow lying still in the street, almost as if sleeping. Barlow knew better and gently placed a blanket over her.

As he walked back to Post D2, Barlow began to experience his old fears - would his nerves allow him to get through the night, or would he crack? Barlow drove himself on and soon after 1 a.m. went out on another patrol with Annie Hill, who was one of the few who knew of Barlow's fears and admired this man who fought his fear. As they left the Wardens Post and rounded the corner into Hallam Street, Barlow saw what he thought was a light shining at the top of the tower of the Central Synagogue which straddled the block between Hallam Street and Great Portland Street. Perhaps a careless individual had left a light burning - there would be hell to pay for them if this were the case but as he drew closer, he realised that the roof was on fire and that the incendiary bombs had ignited a gas pipe. Barlow knew from his meticulous notes that fourteen people would be sheltering in the basement and leaving Hill to deal with a shocked and hysterical woman that they had encountered, ran alone to the synagogue.

Across the road in Yalding House, a tenement block with a basement shelter, Sam Ekpenyon had also seen the fire in the Synagogue and sent a report back to Post D2. He had stayed put and as the shelterers felt the blast from another nearby bomb and began to bolt towards the exit, this giant of a man blocked their way and refused to let them out. His calm, assured presence did the trick and the shelterers not only stayed put but began to join in community singing led by Ekpenyon himself.

Meanwhile, Barlow reached the entrance to the synagogue basement only to find it blocked by a huge fall of rubble. Using his tin hat as a makeshift shovel, he clawed away at the rubble to eventually break through and crawl into the basement. He found the shelterers, amongst them Mr and Mrs Roth, the caretakers and began to lead them out through an alternative exit that led into Great Portland Street. He led the men out first, as they were coherent and responded to his instructions. Mrs Roth was almost paralysed with fear and he had decided to return for her and lead her out alone so as not to hold up the rest of the group. As he got the men out, he went straight back into the now blazing building, found Mrs Roth again and began to lead her out. Just as they were nearing the exit, a large part of the roof fell in on them. By this time another warden saw all this happen and felt sure that Barlow must have perished. Nonetheless, this un-named warden sprinted back to Post D2 and called for help.

Inside the synagogue, Barlow was very much alive and shortly after the warden had rushed off to report his probable demise, Barlow had in fact broken through into the street, somewhat singed but still with Mrs Roth firmly in his grasp. He found another warden, Arthur Fayers and sent the party off in Fayers' charge to another shelter for medical attention. Incredibly, Barlow himself went back into the burning building to see if anyone else remained inside. Now though, shortly after re-entering the building for the third time at 1.45 a.m., the whole of the roof fell in on him. Amazingly, he survived this too and scrambled out through a side exit further down the road. Barlow saw rescue workers milling about the entrance but it didn't occur to him that they were in fact, looking for him. Meanwhile, he noticed that 143-149 Great Portland Street, a car showroom, was also ablaze and his memory told him that there were fire watchers stationed here.

He charged down the stairs into the basement and found that the three men were in a badly shocked state and had also been cut by flying glass. To make matters worse, the cars stored here were on fire and Barlow had to lead the first two men through this deadly obstacle course to get the men safely out into the street. Once again Barlow returned inside and eventually led the third man to safety, although by this time Barlow felt a strange sensation in his ankles. It later transpired that his rubber boots had begun to melt and fused his woollen socks into a sticky mess. This party of stunned and terrified survivors were ushered to a nearby First Aid Post. Back in the street again, Barlow saw yet another building, Hallam House on fire and once again instantly knew how many people were inside. This time there were fifteen; fortunately thirteen of them had managed to escape by themselves but Barlow went inside the rubble strewn building and using his tin hat once again to scrape a way through, managed to free the remaining two survivors inside twenty minutes.

For the next two hours, Barlow organised a bucket chain of wardens and fire watchers to keep the walls of the buildings adjoining the blazing synagogue cool. His energy was amazing - this quiet man had performed extraordinary deeds; even more extraordinary considering that some of his colleagues thought that he was dead!

Back at Wardens Post D2, Eileen Sloane, who had been left in charge by Barlow, was in despair. Some four hours previously she had received a report that he was buried inside the synagogue and had heard nothing since. The next thing she was aware of was the image of Barlow, who was covered from head to foot in white dust. Sloane was one of Barlow's few close friends and their friendship had been the talk of the post. Upon seeing him, she broke down and cried.

At 5.52 a.m. on Sunday 11th May 1941, the 'All Clear' had sounded. London was a city licking it's wounds, which were grievous indeed. This raid had been the heaviest of the entire Blitz but mercifully, although Londoners were not to know this right now, it was also to prove the last as Hitler, despite the entreaties of his Luftwaffe commanders, decided to turn his attentions eastwards, towards Russia and the promise of lebensraum for the German volk. Despite this, Goering and Sperrle wanted to continue to attack London. Two thirds of the Luftwaffe was to remain in the western theatre but Hitler was having none of it. Unwittingly, and not for the first or the last time, the incompetent 'military genius' that was Adolf Hitler had done his enemies a huge favour.

If he were to have known the havoc wrought in London, he may have had second thoughts. Fourteen hospitals had been hit, fifty percent of London's telephone circuits were broken, twenty Fire and Ambulance Stations were out of action, the Port of London was down to a quarter of it's capacity, 605 water mains were broken, 71 key war production factories were knocked out, 8,000 roads were rendered impassable with rubble and every main line railway station was out of action as were all through rail routes across the capital. In addition, some 155,000 people were without water, gas or electricity on this grim Sunday morning. This was destruction on a scale that London had never seen before, or thankfully, since. The value of the damaged caused was £ 20,000,000 at 1941 values but even this staggering sum cannot cover the human cost. A series of raids on this level would have had serious repercussions indeed and Churchill ordered the emergency services to draw up plans accordingly. The general opinion was that two more raids of this intensity would leave London at a standstill.

It never happened. Apart from conquering his own demons, Stanley Barlow deservedly was awarded the George Medal for his incredible acts of bravery on this night of nights. Amongst the public, the attitudes of Londoners towards their German counterparts hardened noticeably after this raid. When the RAF began plastering German cities later in 1941 and early in 1942, the general feeling was one of wreaking revenge - a revenge which was to be terrible in it's intensity.

Today, thanks to a remarkable find of home movie footage donated to Westminster City Council's archives, we can see Stanley Barlow, Sam Ekpenyon and the other wardens of Post D2 in colour footage. Check out this link to see this evocative footage.

Published Sources:

The City that Wouldn't Die - Richard Collier, Collins 1959

Westminster at War - William Sansom, Faber & Faber 1947

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