|Shelter Sign in Frankham Street, Deptford (author's photo)|
Finding these pieces of our wartime heritage using one’s own detective skills is half of the fun, so it would not be right to spill the beans about everything that remains and this writer certainly does not profess to know about everything that still remains but for those that wish to make their walk to work or school, around their local neighbourhood or simply a stroll around a much loved area a little more interesting, here is a guide to the sort of thing that can still be spotted by the discerning eye.
|Shrapnel damage at St Clement Danes (author's photo)|
So it is that many buildings in London still bear scars caused by this terrifying by-product of bombing. Some of the better known examples can be found at St Clement Danes Church in the Strand (pictured), the General Wolfe Statue in Greenwich Park, Waterloo Place in Westminster and perhaps best known, the Victoria & Albert Museum in Exhibition Road, which even has a helpful commemorative plaque explaining what the damage is, how it was caused and why it has been left unrepaired. There are many other examples of this sort of damage to be found right across London and it is probably the most vivid reminder to be seen of our wartime past. It also provides ample food for thought. If pieces of white hot steel, flying through the air at massive speed can cause the sort of damage to solid masonry that remains today, what it could do to the vulnerable human frame does not bear thinking about. If one does think about it, the bravery of the Air Raid Wardens, the Fire Brigade personnel, Police, Ambulance and other Civil Defence workers, both men and women exposed to this lethal barrage, defies belief.
Whilst out walking, look for the tacit signs of damage; the replacement brickwork around windows, the lighter coloured masonry that even after nearly seventy years, still hasn’t quite blended back in with the original, or the most tell-tale sign of all, a terrace of Victorian or Edwardian houses that is abruptly interrupted with a more recent building before resuming its original progression. These are all sure signs of bomb damage, not a dramatic memorial to the Blitz, but a memorial nevertheless. A closer examination of Civil Defence Incident Logs for the area concerned will usually prove one’s suspicions correct and will often reveal that on the site in question, people perished in the own homes. Each piece of repaired damage or replacement building is often therefore a mute memorial to times gone by.
Less widespread, but still visible in places are the painted Air Raid Shelter Signs. The Wartime lead-based paint was surprisingly durable, although with the passage of seventy-odd years, even the hardiest of these signs are starting to look their age now. In some cases, it is the paint used to obliterate the sign which has worn off, thus re-exposing them to public view long after they became obsolete. For some reason, there is a plethora of these Shelter signs in southeast London, with Deptford in particular, being the Shelter Sign Capital of London. Quite why London SE8 has so many of these surviving signs is a bit of a mystery; perhaps it is because (with all due respect to the area) it has escaped serious redevelopment until recently, perhaps it is just good luck. Whatever the reason, we can only hope that with the rediscovered interest in our Wartime past, some or all of these signs can be preserved. Already, one of these southeast London signs, in Jerningham Road, has been lost forever after the wall it was on was recently demolished as part of a housing scheme. Let us hope it is the last to be lost in this way, for these signs deserve to survive and act as a reminder of more troubled times. Apart from Deptford, there are Shelter signs to be found in Westminster, in Poplar and opposite the Oval Tube Station, although this sign has recently been partially covered with a street sign.
|Shelter at NPL Teddington (author's photo)|
|EWS Sign on Albert Embankment (author's photo)|
Other sundry structures remain; Wardens’ Posts, Pillboxes, Anti-Tank defences, Anti-Aircraft Gun emplacements, rifle loopholes and the like remain across our capital. Putney Bridge Station is the home to a highly visible pillbox, Blackheath is the home to a set of Home Guard rifle loopholes and Epsom Downs is the home to a set of Tank Traps. These defences all formed part of the ‘Stop Lines’ formed to slow down and delay the advance of the advancing Germans in order to buy time for the British defenders to call up reserves. Fortunately, these defences were never put to the test but this fascinating and untried part of our wartime history can still be seen gently crumbling away in many parts of suburban London. Mudchute Park on the Isle of Dogs is the home to an almost complete Anti-Aircraft emplacement (without the guns!) Wardens’ Posts are rarer creatures although one or two others are still extant; Blackheath and Kew Station are the home to two of them but there are others about.
|Stretcher Fencing at Watergate Street, Greenwich (author's)|
Apart from these physical reminders, there are of course, an abundance of monuments which commemorate events, people and places connected with the wartime past, not only of this country’s wartime achievements but the Allied cause as a whole. So, across London we find plaques and statues galore commemorating such diverse personalities as the Polish General Sikorski, the Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied invasion at Normandy, Dwight D Eisenhower, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff Viscount Alanbrooke and General De Gaulle as well as many others. Plaques mark the spot of the first V-1 Doodlebug falling in Bow, the V-2 Long Range Rocket in Chiswick as well as the location of the Special Operations Executive, the Headquarters of the Norwegian Merchant Marine. There are also memorials to the fallen; across London there are still springing plaques erected by the charity Firemen Remembered marking the locations where members of the Fire Services fell in the course of performing their duties whilst under fire.
The reminders of our wartime past referred to above merely scratch the surface of what is still out there to be seen. As mentioned earlier, there is much enjoyment to be found in discovery and as always, any comments from the readership are welcomed. If you know of some aspect of London’s wartime heritage that can still be seen, then please feel free to share the information with us.