Saturday, 10 November 2012

Armistice Day 1940, The London Blitz and Taranto

Bomb Damage in Greenwich (Greenwich Heritage Centre)
In last week's post, we concentrated on one of the many fallen servicemen of the Second World War, in this case one of those commemorated on the memorial plaque of Ickenham Cricket Club in Middlesex as part of the run-up to Remembrance Sunday, which this year coincides with the actual day of the original Armistice Day; the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, which in 1918 marked the end of fighting in the First World War.

As we have not concentrated solely on the Blitz in London for some time, perhaps this weekend of remembrance is a good time to do so. Study of a cross section of the Civil Defence (ARP) Incident Logs from across London reveals that the Luftwaffe was no respecter of Armistice Day and that the Blitz on London continued regardless.

The 10th November was a Sunday in 1940 and in London the sirens sounded the alert shortly after 7pm, part of the nightly routine of attending to your daily business, grabbing a bite to eat if there was time and then descending into the shelter, not knowing whether your house or place of work would still be there in the morning, or indeed whether one would even see the morning.

It seemed to be a particularly bad night in the Borough of Greenwich; a Public Air Raid Shelter in Armada Street, Deptford suffered a direct hit from a High Explosive bomb causing three fatal casualties. There were also nine seriously injured shelterers, including three children who were taken to the Miller Hospital. The street level shelters were particularly vulnerable, offering some protection against flying shrapnel but being no more resistant to a direct hit or even the blast from a near miss than the average house. As if this wasn't bad enough, a private air raid shelter at the nearby Rodney Iron Foundry also suffered a direct hit from a HE Bomb, this time with the loss of six lives, presumably employees of the foundry, with a further thirty nine casualties, of whom twenty one were serious. Elsewhere in the borough, the Bugle Horn pub in Charlton Village was hit in the early hours of the 11th November and whilst there were only three slight casualties, part of this historic old inn was destroyed, although happily rebuilt after the war.

Moving westwards across the capital, Westminster, the seat of government, was not immune from the Luftwaffe's attentions that night. Browsing through the Incident Log, one sees famous names such as Dickins & Jones, Swan & Edgar as well as the Army & Navy Stores in Victoria Street all suffering from HE bomb hits or the effects of blast. Well known street names also feature; Duke Street, Buckingham Palace Road and Vauxhall Bridge Road as well as many others all received direct hits from either HE or Incendiary devices. Even the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square was not spared, although in this instance the bomb did not explode and was later safely removed by those brave men of the Royal Engineers Bomb Disposal Squad.

South of Westminster, in Camberwell, most of the bombs recorded seem to have fallen harmlessly on open ground, such as Alleyn Girls' School Playing Fields which saw another HE bomb, although the Nunhead Allotments received what would today be called a 'Friendly Fire' incident when an unexploded Anti-Aircraft Shell made an unwelcome appearance. Although on this occasion causing no casualties, these shells could sometimes be just as deadly as the German bombs and study of the Incident Logs across London record many instances of fatal casualties being caused by these shells, which on the basis of "What goes up, must come down" fell indiscriminately having missed their intended targets. Indeed, the Bethnal Green Tube Station Disaster of March 1943, in which 173 people were trampled to death in a stampede, was caused by people panicking at the sound of what at the time was thought to be the explosion of a bomb but what was in fact, the guns in nearby Victoria Park opening fire.

In Southwark as in Camberwell, the raid on this night was relatively light, with the main problems being caused by two Unexploded Bombs in Collinson Street and although one of these did subsequently explode, it was after the area had been cleared and there were no casualties.

Moving north to Stoke Newington, the bombers concentrating on this borough seem to have been loaded with a batch of substandard bombs, with no fewer than twelve unexploded HE devices being successfully dealt with by the Royal Engineers across the borough. In neighbouring Finsbury, the bombs were slightly more effective, with a HE Bomb falling at the junction of Whitecross Street and Banner Street causing a gas main to ignite but mercifully with no recorded casualties.

HMS Illustrious in 1942 (Australian War Memorial)
Although the nights of 10th/11th November and 11th/12th November 1940 did not see particularly heavy raids, the bombs fell far and wide across London, Poplar, as always seemed to suffer. The eastbound District Line at Bow Road Station was blocked for some hours by a HE Bomb and a further bomb fell outside the Wellington Arms Public House in Wellington Way, although the Log does not record any human casualties resulting from these incidents.

Although Londoners were not to know it, the Blitz which had begun on September 7th 1940 was approaching a temporary lull; bad weather was beginning to affect the ability of the Luftwaffe to launch effective attacks and the results of the attrition resulting from the Battle of Britain had also had it's effects on the Germans. They were in today's parlance suffering from Battle Fatigue and although they were to return with a vengeance on the night of 29th December and again during the spring of 1941, for now at least, the attacks were beginning to wane.

Fairey Swordfish of the RN Historic Flight (Peter Noble)
It was not all one way traffic though. The British were beginning to fight back and following on from the decisive victory gained by the RAF during the Battle of Britain during the summer and autumn of 1940, the 11th November was to see a major British victory over the Axis Powers, this time involving a handful of obsolete biplanes issuing a shattering blow to the Italian Fleet. At 2040 on the evening of 11th November 1940, the first of some twenty one frail looking Fairey Swordfish aircraft took off into the darkness over the Mediterranean from the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious bound for the Italian Naval Base at Taranto. The object was to cripple the Italian Fleet which at that time, numerically at least, was threatening the superiority of the British Mediterranean Fleet. The Swordfish biplanes achieved total surprise and for the loss of two aircraft and their crews, one battleship - Conti di Cavour - was sunk and two others - Littorio and Caio Duilio - damaged so badly that they were out of action for over a year. The Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Andrew Cunningham, a man not easily given to praise, signalled to HMS Illustrious "MANEOUVRE WELL EXECUTED" which was fulsome indeed coming from such a perfectionist. 

As a result of this action, the Italian Fleet, always somewhat in awe of their British opponents, never seriously threatened them again, although there were to be scares in the ensuing years. Rather more ominously for the Allies, the action at Taranto was studied very closely by the Japanese. Although they were not yet in the war, they based their plans for a pre-emptive strike on the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour and armed as they were with much more modern aircraft and many more of them than the venerable Swordfish, the results when the attack took place in December 1941 were devastating indeed.

Clearly, Armistice Day was in abeyance for the duration.

Published Sources:

Engage The Enemy More Closely - Correlli Barnett, Hodder & Stoughton 1991
The Illustrious & Implacable Classes of Aircraft Carrier - Neil McCart, Fan Publications 2000
The War at Sea - ed. John Winton - Hutchinson 1974

Unpublished Sources:

Civil Defence Incident Logs for the Metropolitan Boroughs of Camberwell, Finsbury, Greenwich, Poplar, Southwark , Stoke Newington and the City of Westminster

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