Tuesday, 17 December 2013

'Get off my bloody ship!'

HMS Peterel's crest
By the time of the Japanese entry into the war in December 1941, most of Britain's Eastern Fleet, the so-called 'China Squadron' had been withdrawn to home waters or the Mediterranean in order to counter the Axis threat and as a result, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbour, typical of the British defences of her overseas interests in the Far East was the River Gunboat HMS Peterel, under the command of 62 year old Lieutenant Stephen Polkinghorn RNR.

Incidentally, the spelling of the Peterel's name, though incorrect, was a perpetuation of a mistake made by a clerk in the Admiralty at the time of the first ship to bear the name in 1777. Built by Yarrow Shipbuilders in 1927, Peterel was armed with two 3 inch guns as well as eight Lewis machine guns dating from the First World War and her job, along with her sister ship Gannet and many other similar gunboats was to patrol the inshore waters of Britain's eastern empire protecting her interests, defending the numerous British merchant ships in the area and generally 'showing the flag' to keep up morale of the expat population. Any serious fighting would be left to the larger warships of the China Station. The trouble was that by December 1941, there were practically no larger friendly warships left in the region and the River Gunboats would just have to do the best that they could.

Polkinghorn was a New Zealander whose peacetime job was as the master of small coastal steamer but on the outbreak of war had been appointed to command the Peterel. War with the Japanese had long been considered likely but their sneak attack on Pearl Harbour had taken everyone by surprise. Nevertheless, Polkinghorn had already rigged scuttling charges on the Peterel so as not to allow her to fall into Japanese hands should war break out and now, on 8th December 1941, war became inevitable.

The Peterel's ship's complement had been reduced from her normal fifty five to a mere twenty one, three of whom were ashore overnight on the night of 7th/8th December. She was moored in the Whangpoo River, Shanghai and with her reduced complement, was acting as a floating W/T Station for the British Consulate. Downstream from the Peterel, lay the American gunboat Wake, which was performing a similar task for the American Consulate. Further downstream, lay the Japanese cruiser Izumo as well as a Japanese destroyer and a gunboat. An Italian gunboat, the Lepanto was also moored nearby, although she was to take no part in the action that followed.

HMS Peterel (NavalHistory.net)

In the early hours of 8th December, a motor launch flying the Japanese flag came in view and was obviously approaching the British gunboat. In the stern of the launch were several senior naval officers and the boat was also crammed full of heavily armed Japanese marines. The scene was described by Desmond Wettern as follows:

"Up on the fo'c's'le Able Seaman Tipping handed Able Seaman Mariner the Quartermaster's pistol and belt. Mariner watched the Japanese launch come alongside and saw a senior Japanese naval officer come on board. He heard the officer say 'We want to keep the peace of Shanghai.' 'Come into the wardroom,' Polkinghorn replied. Mariner gripped the pistol more tightly. The rest of the conversation was lost to him.

The next thing both Munn (another Able Seaman) and Mariner heard was Polkinghorn saying 'Get off my bloody ship.' The Japanese officer, who they later heard was chief of staff to the flag officer in the port, climbed back into the launch after handing a copy of the surrender demand to Polkinghorn. The launch started to move back downstream.

Lieut Stephen Polkinghorn RNR
Polkinghorn and Munn watched the Japanese launch move away from the ship. It had not gone more than a few yards when two red Very lights were fired from it.

After the Japanese launch had left the ship, the Japanese guns on the French Bund and across the river on the Pootung side had joined with the Izumo as well as the destroyer and the gunboat, in firing on the Peterel. As soon as he saw the Very lights go up from the launch, Polkinghorn gave the order for the ship's two manned Lewis guns to open fire. From 'A' gun deck, Petty Officer Linkhorn poured a steady stream of fire into the Japanese launch. Mariner manned the other gun and joined with Linkhorn in firing on the launch. Several of the men in it were hit. Neither had time to realise that they were the first Englishmen to open fire on the Japanese in the war.

The fire from the Japanese ships war murderous. One destroyer only 200 yards away was pumping shells into the tiny gunboat. Fortunately, one shell in the action parted the forward cable and the ship swung across the river, leaving one side comparatively safe from the enemy's fire."

Polkinghorn and the seventeen crew members aboard at the time managed to escape the blazing gunboat but only twelve survived, the Japanese machine gunning several of them whilst in the water. The survivors managed to get aboard a neutral Panamanian registered merchant vessel that was laying in the river but in a clear (and sadly typical) violation of international law, the Japanese boarded this vessel and removed the survivors, the majority of whom spent the remainder of the war in Japanese internment camps in China, although in May 1945, some were moved to camps in Japan itself. All survived the war and upon release in 1945, Polkinghorn was awarded the DSC in recognition of his refusal to surrender despite impossible odds.

A new HMS Peterel entered service with the Royal Navy in 1976 and rather endearingly perpetuated the original incorrect spelling of the name. She was sold as a result of one of the endless rounds of defence cuts in 1991 and with the vastly reduced size of the modern Navy, it is unlikely that we shall see another ship bearing the same name. Stephen Polkinghorn lived in retirement in New Zealand until the age of 97, whilst Jim Mariner, who fired those first shots against the Japanese Navy, spent twenty eight postwar years as a Police Officer in Bournemouth and passed away aged 90, in 2009.


Published Sources:

The Lonely Battle - Desmond Wettern, WH Allen 1960
The War at Sea - editor John Winton, Hutchinson 1967
Warships of World War II - HT Lenton and JJ Colledge, Ian Allen 1973

Friday, 29 November 2013

The All American

The crippled All American in flight (Warbirds News)

Earlier this month, I had the great pleasure of guiding Barbara and John Kinnear from Santa Barbara, USA on a Blitz walk around Westminster and during the course of our walk, I discovered that Barbara's late father, the then Captain Richard E Evans had served in North Africa with the 346th Bomb Squadron, 99th Bombardment Group, 12th Air Force and had indeed served as the personal pilot of General Bernard Montgomery's B-17 Flying Fortress for some time during that campaign. That, as they say, is another story which will be covered in a forthcoming edition of this blog but as a result of the mutual interest that we both have in World War 2 history, Barbara recently sent me another story of a B-17 and how due to the skill of it's crew, the soundness of the aircraft's construction and no little measure of good fortune, this particular aircraft survived terrible damage and brought it's crew safely back to base. 

Sadly, the story that was emailed to Barbara had become something of an urban myth perhaps due to constant retelling but the essence of the story is true and this Thanksgiving Weekend seems an appropriate time to tell the accurate version of the story of the 'All American.'

The Boeing B-17 was a four engined heavy bomber originally designed in the mid 1930s and entering service with the US Army Air Corps in 1938. Entry into service was slow however, and by the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, fewer than two hundred machines had been delivered, although much larger orders were pending. Despite it's name as the Flying Fortress, the early marks were not really adequately defended against determined fighter attack and it was not until the entry into service of the B-17E in early 1942 that introduced a new tail gun position, together with ventral and dorsal turrets that the B-17 began to positively bristle with armaments and could go onto the offensive in the European Theatre of Operations. 

The later B-17F introduced the 'chin' turret  and although these marks of the Fortress boasted no fewer than thirteen gun positions, the B-17 was no more capable of flying unescorted missions over German occupied Europe than the early British attempts in 1939. However, with fighter protection - at first provided by RAF Spitfires on shorter range missions and later by the superb P51 Mustang which had the range to fly to Berlin and back to Britain - the tight formations of B-17s enabled the Allies to bomb Germany around the clock, the RAF mainly by night and the USAAF by day. The B-17 could never carry as heavy a bomb load as it's British equivalent, the Lancaster but it had a higher altitude for bombing and operating by day enabled it's attacks to be carried out with greater accuracy, at least in theory.

The particular B-17 we are looking at today though, did not operate in the European Theatre but rather in North Africa, to be precise the bomber named 'All American' by it's crew was part of 414th Bomb Squadron, 97th Bombardment Group of the 12th Air Force based at Biskra, Algeria and on February 1st 1943 was part of a raid on Tunis, which at that time was still in German hands, being used for the supply of Rommel's beleaguered Afrika Korps which was gradually being squeezed out of North Africa by the Allies.

Inspecting the damage after landing (Warbirds News)

The All American, under the command of Lieutenant Kendrick R Bragg Jnr. along with her squadron colleagues had already braved German fighters and flak before making a successful bombing run. Turning for base, the formation again came under attack, this time from two Bf109s, one of which attacked the lead aircraft, whilst the other concentrated it's attentions upon the All American. The first fighter was shot down by the bomber leader, whilst the second made a head on attack upon Bragg's aircraft. The German fighter was met with a withering barrage from the All American's guns and began to roll away from her intended prey. The gunfire from the B-17 must have killed the Messerschmitt's pilot and instead of rolling away from the bombers, the fighter collided with the Fortress with a sickening crunch, tearing a huge gash in the B-17's tail section and ripping off the port stabiliser before the fighter plummeted to the ground. Amazingly, nobody aboard the B-17 was hurt and after what must have seemed an eternity, the crew discovered that their bomber, though seriously wounded, was still flying and that the tail section had not fallen off.

The tail section was visibly moving and the crew, fearing that their aircraft could break up at any moment, donned their parachutes ready to escape. However, the wounded bomber managed to keep flying, at first closely escorted by her squadron colleagues and then, safely out of range of further German attack, limped on alone before managing to reach base at Biskra and landed safely, although perhaps not surprisingly without a tail wheel which had been disabled in the collision.

Apart from the skill and bravery displayed by the pilot and crew in nursing their crippled bomber back home, this story is also a testament to the strength and soundness of the design as well as to those who built the B-17 at Boeing in Seattle. 

I am indebted to Barbara Kinnear for making me aware of this story and also to the excellent Warbirds News website for helping to set the record straight.

Next month, I hope to tell the story of Monty's B-17, how he came to 'win' it and to tell something of the men who flew for him.





Tuesday, 5 November 2013

San Demetrio, London

mv San Demetrio (Crown Copyright)
In November 1940, although the Battle of Britain had officially ended, the people of Britain's towns and cities were settling down to a long winter of bombing that they would have to endure throughout the long nights of winter right through until the spring of 1941 when at last, Hitler's eyes would begin to turn eastwards to fresh conquests against his erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union.

Apart from the hardships brought about by the Blitz, the British public were starting to feel the pinch of the rationing of all sorts of products from foodstuffs to fuel. This shortage of petrol had already forced the majority of private cars off the roads and what petrol as could be imported was mainly reserved for the war effort. The fall of France in June 1940 had brought the major ports along France's Atlantic coast into the hands of the Germans and the vessels of the Kriegsmarine no longer had to make the perilous and fuel consuming voyage through the North Sea or the Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap in order to reach the rich pickings of the Atlantic convoys.

Prior to the fall of France, convoy after convoy had sailed safely across 'The Pond' without ever seeing a submarine or a surface raider but this had now all changed and the supplies to Britain and her Empire, at this time standing alone against the Nazi threat, were suddenly in danger of being cut off. 

Today, when asked about the Battle of the Atlantic, most people would imagine that the threat came solely from the U-Boats and to a great extent, this is true but in the early years of the war especially, there was also a substantial danger posed by surface raiders such as the so-called 'Pocket Battleships' of the Admiral Scheer class. One of these, the Graf Spee, had already been hunted down and destroyed in December 1939 giving the Royal Navy it's first major victory of the War. However, this victory had come after the raider had created havoc and alarm amongst British merchant shipping in the southern sea lanes. 

Now, another raider was at large; Admiral Scheer was prowling the North Atlantic in search of easy pickings in the form of either unescorted merchant ships, or the still woefully under-escorted convoys that were streaming across from Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Admiral Scheer (US Naval Historical Center)

One such convoy was HX84, which had sailed from Halifax on 28th October 1940 and by 5th November was well into it's voyage, which was intended to end at Liverpool around the 11th November. For these early convoys of the war, the close escort was pitifully weak and at this mid-Atlantic stage of the convoy, consisted solely of the Armed Merchant Cruiser, Jervis Bay, under the command of Captain ESF Fegen RN, which in spite of it's impressive sounding title, was basically a converted passenger ship of the Aberdeen Commonwealth Line, which had been requisitioned by the Royal Navy and hastily armed with seven 1898 vintage six inch guns as well as a couple of three inch anti aircraft guns from First World War stocks. It was intended to reinforce the escort for the final leg of the voyage into Liverpool but in the meantime, Captain Fegen and the remainder of the convoy waited anxiously in hope that there would be no fireworks on the 5th November.

As darkness fell, these hopes were dashed as the Admiral Scheer discovered the convoy and began approaching in the expectation of easy pickings. Despite being hopelessly outgunned, Fegen ordered the convoy to scatter under cover of a smokescreen generated by the Jervis Bay and took his weakly armed vessel into combat with the raider. It was a hopelessly uneven contest and the Jervis Bay was soon reduced to a blazing wreck by the eleven inch guns of the German raider. Out of a ship's complement of 254, only 65 survivors were later rescued by a neutral Swedish merchant vessel. Captain Fegen was not amongst them and he was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his gallantry in attempting to save the convoy.

Although the Admiral Scheer then moved amongst the scattering merchant ships and managed to sink five of them, the remaining ships of the 38 vessel convoy managed to reach Liverpool in ones and twos and so Fegen's sacrifice had not been in vain.

One of the merchant ships damaged in the ensuing melee had been the 12,000 deadweight ton tanker San Demetrio, owned by the Eagle Oil Company and carrying a precious cargo of petrol. She was indeed struck by an eleven inch shell and set ablaze, with her Captain wisely ordering the crew to abandon ship, for a blazing tanker was no place to be and in the circumstances, even the North Atlantic of November posed a better option for survival. One of the two lifeboats, the one containing the ship's master Captain Waite and 25 others, was quickly picked up by another merchant ship from the now scattered convoy but the other boat, containing the Chief Engineer Mr Pollard, the Second Officer Mr Hawkins and fourteen others was not so fortunate and spent the night in the cold Atlantic swell. The following morning, a ship was sighted and knowing that this might prove to be their only chance of rescue, the now exhausted men headed for it; amazingly, it turned out to be their old ship San Demetrio, abandoned, still ablaze but also still afloat. The men took the decision to reboard the ship and despite the rising seas, managed to do so. At first, it was intended to be a temporary measure until either the weather abated, or until they stumbled upon another ship but when the lifeboat was washed from the falls by a heavy sea, the men were effectively stranded on board their own ship.

San Demetrio arrives on the Clyde (John Lewis Jones)

An inspection of the engine room by Mr Pollard soon discovered that a diesel generator could be made to work, thus giving a means of providing pressure for the fire hoses and pumping the engine room dry, following which it was decided that the main engines were still serviceable and that the ship could eventually be made to move under her own power. This was a herculean task given the lack of manpower but it was achieved and three days later, the ship resumed her passage. All of the charts, compasses and other navigational equipment had been destroyed in the shelling and the ensuing fire but with the aid of a school atlas discovered in one of the undamaged cabins and some skilful navigation by Mr Hawkins, San Demetrio was soon heading homewards.

Food and drink for the men was also a major problem but some rum was found on board, as well as plenty of fresh water. Some tea being taken home as a present was also discovered and despite the enormous risk of lighting the galley stove - there were still petrol leaks and vapours in the air - the chance of a hot 'cuppa' lifted morale enormously. Hot food was provided by boiling vegetables in the engine room and although not ideal, proved sufficient to keep the men nourished.

There was one further casualty, when John Boyle, who had been injured during the initial battle, died from internal haemorrhaging two days into the voyage home.

 Poster for the film (Ealing Studios)
On 13th November, San Demetrio made landfall at Black Sod Bay, Eire and by now escorted but still under her own power, she at last reached the Clyde on 15th November, where her precious cargo was offloaded and the men who had salvaged their own ship were able to return to their homes.

The men were awarded salvage money as they had re-boarded and salvaged their own vessel without any outside assistance. The cargo of petrol was worth £60,000 at 1940 prices and the ship, being almost new, was valued at £250,000 and the award of salvage money was spread more or less equally around the men who had re-boarded their ship, including a payment to the estate of John Boyle.

San Demetrio herself was repaired and returned to service but in March 1942, the tanker finally succumbed to enemy attack, this time from a U-Boat and was torpedoed and sunk by U-404 whilst sailing independently to the UK from Baltimore. Sixteen of her crew plus DEMS (Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships) gunners were lost, although there were 32 survivors.

The story of the San Demetrio was a heart warming tale of ingenuity at sea as well as a triumph over adversity that was made into a film by Ealing Studios, simply entitled San Demetrio, London that was released in 1943 and which still gets shown on TV from time to time to this day.


Published Sources:

The Battle of The Atlantic - John Costello & Terry Hughes, Harper Collins 1977
The War at Sea - editor John Winton, Hutchinson 1974

Web Resource:

Arnold Hague Convoy Database 






Friday, 18 October 2013

Scapa Flow, HMS Royal Oak and Gunther Prien

HMS Royal Oak (Crown Copyright)
On the outbreak of war in 1939, the Royal Navy's Home Fleet had returned to it's northernmost wartime base of Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, from whence the immense Grand Fleet had sailed for the Battles of Dogger Bank and Jutland and where the German High Seas Fleet had ignominiously surrendered in 1918, as well as being the scene of the 'Grand Scuttle' in 1919, when the officers of the Imperial German Navy destroyed their own ships rather than allow them to fall into the hands of the victorious Allies.

Scapa Flow had been selected to serve once again due to it's distance from German airbases but in the intervening years following the end of the Great War, it's defences had been allowed to fall into disrepair; the anti-aircraft defences were inadequate and the blockships sunken during the 1914-18 conflict had largely collapsed through corrosion. Anti submarine nets had been installed across the three main entrances to the naval base but in the early days of the war, these only consisted of single stranded wires and at this stage of the war, there was a distinct lack of anti-submarine patrols by destroyers and smaller craft. Measures were being put in place to rectify these shortcomings but on 14th October 1939, the base was still largely in it's pre-war state of preparedness. 

Two days earlier, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had made an uncharacteristically tough talking speech in which he had rejected Hitler's peace proposals made to the Reichstag six days previously. The German reply was an audacious attempt to hit the Royal Navy hard on it's own doorstep and the man chosen to lead this attack was 31 year old Kapitanleutnant Gunther Prien, a former Merchant Navy office but now one of the rising stars of Donitz's U-Boat fleet. In January 1932, Prien had passed his Master Mariner's examination but had subsequently been unable to find employment and frustrated at this situation had briefly joined the Nazi Party. However, a year later Prien applied to join the Reichsmarine and was forced to renounce his Nazi membership as the Navy would not accept members of political parties. Prien quickly rose through the ranks of the embryonic Kriegsmarine, as the German Navy had by now become and in December 1938, he was appointed to the command of the new submarine U-47 and promoted to the rank of Kapitanleutnant.

Gunther Prien (Bundesarchiv)
Prien had been personally selected by Admiral Donitz to undertake this daring mission as he had proved to be one of the most determined of all of the new breed of U-Boat commanders. Despite the fact that the defences had been allowed to run down over the years, the British countermeasures were still formidable and apart from the blockships and anti-submarine nets, there were also extensive minefields but German air reconnaissance had revealed the possibility of a narrow channel between the blockships in Holm Sound that could possibly be negotiated by a U-Boat on the surface at the turn of the tide. This was a hugely risky undertaking and would need all of Prien's determination and daring in order to make it a success.

On the evening of 13th October 1939, the majority of the British Home Fleet was not actually at Scapa Flow; following a fruitless search for the German battlecruiser Gneisnau, the fleet had returned to Scapa on 12th October but a sighting of a German reconnaissance aircraft had convinced the Commander in Chief of the Home Fleet, Sir Charles Forbes that an air attack was imminent and he therefore ordered the bulk of the Home Fleet to disperse to other ports on the west coast, out of range of German bombers. However, one battleship remained behind; HMS Royal Oak, a 25 year old veteran of the Great War.

HMS Royal Oak had been built at Devonport Dockyard and commisioned just in time for the Battle of Jutland in May 1916. Never the fastest of ships, Royal Oak and her four sister ships were obsolete by 1939 and in the normal course of events would have been replaced by the new Lion class then under construction by 1942. However, the outbreak of war changed all that and Royal Oak had to carry on despite her lack of speed and a modern anti aircraft armament. This lack of speed was the main reason why she was still at Scapa Flow on this fateful night; nominally capable of 21 knots, the hunt for the Gneisnau had proved that she was not even capable of achieving this modest speed. She had lagged behind the faster units of the Home Fleet and had suffered in the heavy weather encountered, having several of her boats and liferafts smashed by the huge seas. Whilst the remainder of the Home Fleet's battleships had been dispersed elsewhere, Royal Oak remained behind to lick her wounds and to augment the anti aircraft defences ashore should the expected German air raid materialise.

Back on the U-47, Prien surfaced his boat late on the evening of 13th October and in a textbook manoeuvre, guided his submarine through the narrow channel, which was there just as the intelligence photographs had suggested. Apart from his skill in manoeuvring his vessel through the narrow channel, luck was also with Prien, because if he had attempted this entry just twenty four hours later, he would have found the channel blocked by a new blockship which was en route even then. As it was, shortly after midnight in the early hours of the 14th October, Prien had entered Scapa Flow. Shortly after this, one of the bridge lookouts identified "two battleships lying at anchor." Prien correctly identified the nearest vessel as being one of the Revenge Class, whilst the furthest ship he mistook as being a battlecruiser of the Repulse class, which was in fact a seaplane carrier, HMS Pegasus. At 0058, Prien fired a salvo of three torpedoes, two of which failed to find a target, with the other one striking the anchor cable of Royal Oak. On board the battleship, it was thought that perhaps there had been some sort of internal explosion and orders were given to inspect ammunition magazines for overheating and the forward paint store, in case of an explosion there. Many of the ship's complement returned to their hammocks, unaware that their ship was in fact, under attack. Undeterred by this initial failure, Prien fired a salvo from his stern torpedo tubes, all of which missed their target. By this time, three of the bow tubes had been reloaded and this time, the salvo of three torpedoes all found their mark. Massive internal explosions rent the stricken battleship and at 01:29, just thirteen minutes after Prien's successful strike, Royal Oak rolled over and sank, taking with her 833 officers and men, including over one hundred boy seamen below the age of eighteen. At this time, the Royal Navy was still persisting with the practice of taking boy seamen between the ages of fifteen to seventeen to sea on it's warships, a practice which abrubtly ceased in wartime with the loss of the Royal Oak.

Capt WG Benn RN (Unit Histories)
Heroic efforts by the tender Daisy 2, moored alongside Royal Oak for the night and usually used for ferrying men to and from the battleship, ensured that some 386 survivors were pulled from the water, including Captain William Benn, the battleship's commanding officer. Rear Admiral Henry Blagrove, commander of the Second Battle Squadron was not so fortunate and went down with his flagship. For his rescue efforts, the skipper of Daisy 2, John Gatt RNR was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

Apart from the terrible loss of life, the loss of an obsolete battleship was not a huge material blow for the Royal Navy but the fact that a German U-Boat had managed to enter the Home Fleet's main base was a massive humiliation for the Royal Navy and was a shocking revelation to the British public of the vulnerability of one of their principal naval bases.

Following the attack, Prien managed to extricate U-47 relatively easily in the confusion of the old battleship's sinking and the rescue efforts for the survivors. He returned to Wilhelmshaven on October 17th to a hero's welcome, being met by Admirals Raeder and Donitz, who immediately awarded the Iron Cross First Class to Prien and the Iron Cross Second Class to every other crew member. As can be imagined, much was made of the triumph by Dr Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry, which whisked Prien and his crew off to Berlin, for a motorcade from Templehof Airport, a meeting with Adolf Hitler and a stay at the prestigious Kaiserhof Hotel. During his meeting with the Fuhrer, Prien was presented with a new award, the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross, or the Ritterkreuz as the U-Boat crews immediately dubbed it.

Following this devastating attack on the Royal Navy's prestige, Scapa Flow was temporarily abandoned as an operational base whilst urgent upgrades were made to the defences; new blockships were hurriedly installed and the channel that Prien had used to enter the flow was permanently blocked with a causeway carrying a road, which was built largely by Italian prisoners of war. Although the base was quickly brought back into use, some of these new defences were ironically not completed until after VE Day and the base itself was closed in 1956.
Captain William Benn was later appointed to command the new cruiser HMS Fiji, before being promoted to Rear Admiral and ending the war as Director of Navigation at the Royal Navy's Hydrographic Department. He retired in 1946 and passed away in 1962, aged 73.

Gunther Prien was nicknamed 'The Bull of Scapa Flow' and continued in command of U-47 and during his career, in addition to the Royal Oak, sank thirty merchant ships totalling 162,769 gross register tons, including the notorious sinking of the troopship Arandora Star described in the July 2010 edition of this blog in which some 713 German and Italian POWs being transported to Canada were lost.

HMS Wolverine (Naval History.net)
Prien's career ended abruptly on 7th March 1941, when U-47 formed part of a Wolf Pack attacking Convoy OB203. Prien, by now promoted to the rank of Korvettenkapitan, was attempting to attack the convoy on the surface. Spotted by the destroyer HMS Wolverine, Prien managed to crash dive just as the destroyer dropped a full pattern of depth charges. Working in tandem with another escort, HMS Verity, Commander JM Rowlands in the Wolverine attacked U-47 for over five hours. The two destroyers maintained this relentless attack despite Prien's best efforts to evade them, until finally an oil slick came to the surface and at 0500 the ASDIC operator on HMS Wolverine reported loud clattering sounds. Twenty minutes later, Prien surfaced again and attempted to creep away on the surface but had to crash dive when he saw the British destroyer preparing to ram. This time, the full depth charge pattern resulted in a massive underwater explosion and a dull red glow beneath the surface.

The end had come for The Bull of Scapa Flow.
Printed Sources:
Battleship at War - Cdr BR Coward RN, Ian Allan 1987
Battleships of World War 1 - Anthony Preston, Arms & Armour Press 1972
Engage The Enemy More Closely - Correlli Barnett, Hodder & Stoughton 1991
Hitler's U-Boat War: The Hunters 1939-1942 - Clay Blair, Cassell 2000
The Battle of the Atlantic - John Costello & Terry Hughes, Collins 1977


Friday, 27 September 2013

The Battle of Barking Creek

56 Squadron RAF (MOD)
Warfare is by definition, a pretty grim business but one of it's most tragic aspects is the so called 'Friendly Fire' engagement. These 'Blue on Blue' incidents, as they have become known amongst the post-war NATO allies, are probably as old as warfare itself and have been caused by a myriad of factors, including bad weather conditions, poor tactics resulting in friendly forces being fired upon, technical breakdowns of equipment leading to an unlucky misdirection of fire, or simply poor training or inexperience leading to mis-identification of friendly forces.

It was the latter reason that was probably the cause of an engagement at the very beginning of the Second World War that became known in RAF circles as The Battle of Barking Creek, even though the action took place in the skies above rural Essex rather than above Barking. 

Just three days after the declaration of war, on the morning of 6th September 1939, a single aircraft returning from patrol over the English Channel was plotted as 'hostile' by the 11 Group controllers at Uxbridge and the Hurricanes of 56 Squadron based at RAF North Weald, were scrambled to intercept the raider. None of the pilots involved had ever seen combat and almost certainly none of them had ever seen an enemy aircraft at this early stage of the war. This inexperience wasn't just confined to the pilots; the controllers too were learning the hard way and the system, later to be such a superb instrument of war during the Battle of Britain, needed some serious tweaking. 

The Hurricanes of 56 Squadron became split in their hunt for the so-called intruder and in turn, these sections too were plotted as 'hostile' and soon the Ops Room table in Uxbridge became cluttered with 'hostile' plots. As a result of these multiple plots, further squadrons were scrambled and soon further squadrons were scrambled to investigate - 151 from North Weald, also with Hurricanes, as well as the Spitfires of 54, 65 and 74 Squadrons from Hornchurch. One of the pilots of 54 Squadron was the New Zealander Al Deere, later to become one of the RAF's 'aces' and in his excellent autobiography entitled 'Nine Lives', Deere described vividly the confusion that was beginning to unfold;

"I had trouble starting my aircraft and was late getting off and in the hour I was airborne, I spent the whole time trying to join up with my squadron which was receiving so many vectors that it was impossible to follow them."

When Deere did eventually find his squadron, they were over Chatham and soon came under fire from the anti-aircraft guns defending the area. However, it was not only the gunners on the ground that were having difficulty in aircraft recognition. Based on the information they had been receiving from their controllers, everybody in the skies over Essex on this day were expecting to see enemy aircraft at any moment. This potential disaster had been escalating for about an hour when it was to culminate with truly tragic consequences.

'Sailor' Malan (IWM)
The Spitfires of 74 Squadron's 'A' Flight, led by Adolph 'Sailor' Malan caught sight of one of these suspect plots and Malan ordered "Tally Ho" over the radio, which was the universal signal to attack. Almost as soon as he gave the order, he realised that he had made a mistake - the 'hostile' aircraft were in fact two of the Hurricanes of  56 Squadron. At the subsequent court martial and to the end of his life, Malan insisted that he countermanded the order by shouting "Friendly aircraft - break away" but two of his pilots, Paddy Byrne and John Freeborn didn't hear the order. Neither did they spot the RAF roundels on the Hurricanes and immediately opened fire. In the ensuing melee, both of the Hurricanes were shot down and although one pilot baled out safely, the other, 26 year old Pilot Office Montague Hulton-Harrop had the unfortunate distinction of being the first RAF pilot to be shot down and killed over England during the Second World War, albeit by his own side.

John Freeborn in 1944 (IWM)
Byrne and Freeborn were taken under arrest as soon as they landed back at Hornchurch and quickly brought before a court martial. Fortunately, both men were acquitted, for it became clear that in the confused atmosphere prevailing on the day, it was impossible to apportion blame. However, this whole affair led to considerable ill-feeling in some quarters; Malan had appeared for the prosecution at the court martial and had accused Freeborn of being irresponsible and of ignoring orders. Freeborn, on the other hand believed that Malan was covering his own back and indeed during the proceedings, Freeborn's counsel, Sir Patrick Hastings, accused Malan of being "a bare faced liar." Remarkably, once the dust of the court martial settled, the two men continued to serve together in 74 Squadron, although not surprisingly relations between the two never recovered and despite Freeborn receiving a DFC and bar, he was not recommended for either award by Malan; neither did he receive command of 74 Squadron when the South African was rested in March 1941, despite being the next most experienced man in the squadron and an obvious choice as his successor. 

Despite being exonerated at the court martial, perhaps Freeborn's generally outspoken nature counted against him in his subsequent RAF career. He also had a run in with Douglas Bader, describing him later in life as "a self-opinionated fool" and left the service in 1946 having decided that the post-war RAF was being run by "nincompoops" and led a successful business life before passing away in 2010.

'Sailor' Malan had a brilliantly successful career in the RAF, finishing the war with 27 kills and being generally seen as a tough but eminently fair man to serve with and under. Post war, Malan retired from the RAF and returned to his native South Africa, becoming one of the early members of the anti-apartheid movement, before passing away in 1963 at the relatively young age of 53 from Parkinson's Disease.

On the balance of probabilities, Malan probably did countermand his order to open fire but the decision to arrest and court martial the two 74 Squadron pilots was plainly the wrong one. The whole affair was as described by Alan Deere "a truly amazing shambles" brought about by inexperience, a general lack of preparedness and what is known as the 'fog of war.'

Pilot Office ML Hulton-Harrop (seated front left) (North Weald Airfield Museum)

As always with a tragedy of this nature, the death of a blameless young pilot brought about some meaningful changes in Fighter Command's procedures, which when honed and put to the test in the Battle of Britain less than one year later, would prove to be a winning system. The Battle of Barking Creek ensured that the RAF  fitted a workable IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) signal system into all of it's aircraft which showed up to ground controllers whether an aircraft was hostile or not. It also compelled the RAF into strengthening it's training procedures of controllers, plotters and radar operators to ensure that the fighter pilots scrambled to intercept the 'suspect' plots would not receive either too much information - a myriad of vectors, as happened at Barking Creek, or too little, which left fighters flying aimlessly around in search of a target. Aircraft recognition, both on the ground and in the air, was also worked on and whilst this problem was never completely ironed out, it had greatly improved by the time of the Battle of Britain. 

As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, the action took place over rural Essex, nowhere near Barking Creek but as this unattractive feature of east London was the butt of several music hall gags of the time, it was probably inevitable that this misunderstanding would be christened thus by the rank and file members of the RAF, who as always showed humour in adversity.

The one victim of the Battle of Barking Creek was Montagu Hulton-Harrop, who is buried in the churchyard of St Andrew's, North Weald Bassett, a stone's throw from his old RAF Station at North Weald. His death in a tragic misunderstanding, perhaps indirectly played a part in the RAF's ultimate victory in the Battle of Britain.


Published Sources:

Flying for Freedom: North Weald Airfield in the Second World War - Arthur Moreton, privately published 2008
Nine Lives - Alan C Deere, Crecy Publishing 2012
Spitfire: Portrait of a Legend - Leo McKinstry, John Murray 2007
The Most Dangerous Enemy - Stephen Bungay, Aurum Press 2000








Friday, 13 September 2013

The Time of the Rockets

V-2 at Peenemunde (AElfwine)
Much has been written about the V-2 rockets, both on this blog (in June 2011)  and in February of this year, as well as extensively by far more accomplished writers than here. Sixty nine years ago this month, the first of these technologically brilliant but morally doubtful weapons fell in Staveley Road, Chiswick, thus ushering in a new and far more sinister period of warfare, one that remains with us to this day, where death and destruction could arrive without warning. Ironically, this first missile was the only one to trouble this particular borough, although it's place in history was now assured, perhaps for all the wrong reasons.
 
Athough these rockets were aimed at London, or other specific targets such as Antwerp, the actual point of impact could not be predicted, hence the wide spread of strikes across the whole of London. The brilliant scientific intelligence expert, Dr RV Jones, had already predicted the likely aiming point as being just down river from Tower Bridge, in the Wapping area. Jones had worked this out by analysing in great detail the fall of shot of the missiles, which showed to him an error in velocity of 'about 0.8 percent', which basically meant that the rockets were not travelling quite as fast as the Germans had predicted. This proved to be a tremendous piece of deduction, as the Germans actual aiming point was about 1000 yards to the east of Waterloo Bridge, ironically almost exactly on the spot of the London Fire Brigade headquarters on Lambeth Embankment!

This slight error in the aim meant that comparatively few of the missiles fell in central London as had been planned but many more of them fell on the eastern side of the city. With the V-1 Flying Bombs, their launching sites in the Pas de Calais region had meant that south and south east London had suffered the worst of these weapons but because of the V-2's launching points being largely in the Netherlands, most of these 'shorts' fell in the boroughs immediately east of central London. So it was that the two boroughs struck by the V-2s were Ilford and Woolwich, with 35 and 33 respectively. West Ham on 27 and Greenwich with 22, were the next in this dubious league table of devastation.

Being a south London boy born and bred, it is natural that this author should concentrate on the boroughs of Greenwich and Woolwich, both for reasons of parochial pride and the fact that he is in possession of the incident logs for these boroughs as well as several interesting personal accounts!

The first V-2 to impact upon Woolwich struck early in the campaign on September 14th 1944 when numbers 130-136 Dairsie Road, Eltham were obliterated in seconds. Six people were killed in this incident including a 5 year old boy, Keith Bungay. The list of incidents in Woolwich reflects the unpredictable nature of the V-2s, including a premature 'airburst' explosion on 28th October over Shrapnel Barracks in Woolwich in which nobody was injured. That already much-struck target, the Woolwich Arsenal, attracted the attention of the rockets on no fewer than eight separate occasions, the worst being on 27th November when the mysteriously titled 'Area D78', in reality the Heavy Gun Shop was struck, with six fatal casualties and over fifty injured. There is also one amusing V-2 related incident that pertains to the Woolwich Arsenal, when on 3rd February 1945 another rocket was reported as having struck the site, only for the incident to be cancelled a matter of moments later when it was realised that the explosion had been caused by the Arsenal's own materials being tested!
 
The most heartbreaking incident in the borough as far as this writer is concerned came on 20th February 1945, when numbers 64-70 Moordown, in the Shooter's Hill area were destroyed by a direct hit. The casualty list makes appalling reading - almost an entire family was wiped out, with Mrs Farrell and her three children aged between 3 and 6 years all being killed amongst an overall death toll of eight. The worst incident in Woolwich came on the morning of 17th March 1945 when an entire area around Jackson Street and Millward Street on Woolwich Common, adjacent to the Barracks was devastated - 14 people were killed and 144 were injured to various degrees of seriousness. This incident is the subject of a surviving incident report which rests in the archives of the excellent Greenwich Heritage Centre. Apart from the melancholy reading of the casualty lists, there is a quiet, understated description of heroism amongst the rescuers. The District Warden writing the report mentions the driver and mate of the Rescue Squad's crane who worked "continuously for 20 hours with only half an hour break for meals", such was the dedicated nature of the rescue teams who worked tirelessly to extract the victims, both living and dead. The report also highlights tensions in the hierarchy of the Civil Defence teams when the District Warden pointed out that "certain policemen will not act on Incident Officer's requests and consider that they are in charge of the incident." The report closed by praising a seemingly mundane but vitally important facet of the Civil Defence teams by reporting that the LCC Meal Service served upto 265 meals for those rendered homeless and closed by stating that "No praise is too high for the efficiency of Mrs Bull and her WVS colleagues."

Aftermath at St Nicholas's Hospital (Greenwich HC)
As well as striking 'military' targets such as Woolwich Arsenal, V-2 rockets had no respect for hospitals either as was proved on 6th February 1945 when St Nicholas's Hospital in Plumstead was near missed by a rocket which fell in the nearby churchyard but which shattered windows in the hospital and showered the area with debris. Nobody was killed in this incident but the seventeen injured were at least handily placed for hospital treatment.

Moving across the borough boundaries into Greenwich, the story of the rockets makes familiar, if depressing reading with their first incident, actually proving to be the worst in the borough. On Saturday 11th November 1944 at just after 6.30pm, the drinkers in the Brook Hotel on Shooters Hill Road, would have been settling down for a relaxing evening's drinking, when suddenly everything familiar was obliterated. The adjacent Brook Hospital was damaged and apart from the casualties in the pub, a passing 89 bus was also destroyed, thus adding to the death toll. When the rescuers had finished their work, it was found that 29 people had perished, with a further 22 taken next door to the Brook Hospital for treatment. A further 21 of these missiles fell on Greenwich and whilst the casualty lists steadily grew, none of these incidents proved worse than the first one at the Brook Hotel.

The very last V-2 of the war in Greenwich and Woolwich occurred on 19th March 1945, barely six weeks before the end of the war in Europe, when a rocket struck the end of the Iron Pier at Woolwich Arsenal, putting the pier out of action and causing damage to property within the Arsenal proper but mercifully without incurring further loss of life.

By this time, the missile launching sites around The Hague, were in danger of being surrounded and cut off by the advancing Allies and were withdrawn into Germany, with a view to continuing the struggle from there. Some abortive attempts were made in early April to re-start operations from the Hannover area but these test firings fortunately did not lead to a resurgence of operations and the missile firing units were gradually swallowed up in futile attempts to provide infantry to defend the ever shrinking Reich.
Devastation from a V-2: Troughton Road, Charlton (GHC)

Although 1,358 rockets were fired at London, a higher number were fired at Antwerp, with 1,610 being launched at the by now Allied-occupied port. The excellent website V2ROCKET.COM gives a full listing of each rocket ever launched, as well as a breakdown of the launching units responsible.

Apart from this writer's obvious interest in the subject, the V-2s made a lasting impact on the family home, when on 25th January 1945, a rocket fell in the grounds of Charlton House, partially destroying the Jacobean manor house as well as causing widespread blast damage to houses in the surrounding area, including mine! The legacy can still be seen with replacement ceilings still apparent in the upstairs rooms of the house. Fortunately, Charlton House itself was rebuilt after the war, although the repairs were made using different coloured bricks, making the repairs easy to spot even sixty nine years after the event.
 
Footprints of the Blitz indeed.
 
Published Sources:
 
Hitler's Rockets: The Story of the V-2s - Norman Longmate, Frontline Books 2009
 
Unpublished Sources 

Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich Incident Log - Greenwich Heritage Centre
Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich Incident Log - Greenwich Heritage Centre
Jackson Street District Warden's Report - Greenwich Heritage Centre
 


Friday, 30 August 2013

Footprints of The Blitz (5)

The Admiralty Citadel (author's photo)

In previous editions of this occasional series, we have tended to look at specific items of London's wartime past which have stood the test of time and which are still extant, perhaps albeit in a somewhat faded form and therefore maybe not to be seen for much longer, after seventy years or more. We have seen evidence of air raid shelters, signs for shelters, emergency water supplies, shrapnel damage and memorial plaques.

Today, we are going to take a look at some other sundry aspects of our wartime heritage which can still be seen in various parts of London and no doubt elsewhere across the country, if only one knows where to look. 

We start with something that is very close to this writer's doorstep, which takes the form of an Air Raid Wardens' Post, which is located in the car park of a private members' club in Charlton Road, Blackheath. The level of the car park has been built up somewhat over the ensuing years, hence the rather odd appearance but the entrance door which still exists at street level soon proves that it was designed for the habitation of fully grown adults. The owner of the club is quite proud of his piece of wartime history but was under the misconception that the concrete structure was the entrance to an air raid shelter. This writer did explain otherwise to him but isn't sure that he was convinced!

Charlton Road Wardens' Post (authors photo)

Fortunately, research at the excellent Greenwich Heritage Centre has discovered a complete list of the old Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich's Wardens' Posts and this list confirms that the photograph above is of Post 'Park 20' located adjacent to Charlton Conservative Club, which is indeed next door to the location in question. This list of Wardens' Posts tells us that the Post Warden in February 1940 was a Mr Plummer, who lived at 15 Banchory Road and that the telephone number of the post was Greenwich 0358! 

Further examination of the archives bring forth a cutting from a local newspaper of the period which informs us that the borough had installed no fewer than twenty two of these 'pillbox' type of posts as they were described. The cutting is reproduced below, which if the club owner is reading this, should put him in no doubt as to what the structure is in his car park.

From Wardens' Posts, we move just a mile or so along the road to Charlton Way on the edge of Blackheath itself, where we can see evidence of some of the improvised anti-invasion measures which sprung up across the country in the days following the fall of France in June 1940 when the invasion of this country seemed to be a serious threat. Amongst those defences that can still be seen are some loopholes, complete with firing steps behind in the wall of Greenwich Park, located inside what is now a council depot. It was a fair assumption that any advancing German force would be heading for central London after having fought their way from their landings along the south-eastern coast. The then Commander in Chief, Home Forces, General Sir Edmund Ironside, favoured a series of fixed defences, known as the GHQ Line as well as a series of 'Stop Lines' all of which were designed to halt, or at least slow down, an invading army. These fixed defences were abandoned in July 1940 prior to their completion on the orders of his successor, General Sir Alan Brooke, who believed in a more mobile form of warfare rather than static defence lines. Perhaps the best known vestige of London's anti-invasion defences is the Admiralty Citadel, which glowers over Horse Guards Parade, it's harsh concrete appearance softened, at least in the summer months, by the ivy which is allowed to cover it's walls.

These defences at Blackheath were not part of these fixed defences but more of an ad-hoc defence put in place by the local Home Guard, the 25th (County of London) Battalion, based at nearby Hollyhedge House. Closer examination of the wall today from inside the Council Depot reveals a whole array of loopholes, rather than the five visible today. The majority are today bricked up from the front but the apertures are still clearly visible from the rear. The Home Guard or Local Defence Volunteers may have been derided as 'Look, Duck and Vanish' but there can be no doubt that these brave men, a mixture of warriors from earlier conflicts and those too young to have been called up, would have exacted a heavy toll of any invading army.

Blackheath loopholes(author's photo)


We move from the Home Guard and anti-invasion measures to the Auxiliary Fire Service, formed in 1938 as part of the massive expansion of Britain's Civil Defence services in the wake of the Munich Crisis. The AFS were part time volunteers, who called be called up for full time service in the fire brigades if required. Although well trained by regular fire fighters, the vast majority of these enthusiastic volunteers had never fought a 'real' fire by the time that the Blitz on London started in September 1940. Never has the phrase 'baptism of fire' had a more literal meaning. The AFS acquitted themselves bravely and with great honour but were hampered by a lack of equipment and more importantly, a lack of standardisation across the country which hindered their ability to act as a mobile reserve to assist fire brigades across the country. It was as a direct result of this lack of standardised equipment that led to the removal of fire brigades from municipal control in August 1941, when the country's fire brigades were nationalised to form the National Fire Service or NFS. Although the NFS was disbanded after the war and the brigades returned to municipal control, the NFS formed the template for the modern fire services which continue to serve us bravely to this day.

The vast expansion of the fire brigades caused by the inception of the AFS meant that existing fire stations could not cope with the additional numbers of men and equipment and so it was that on the outbreak of war in 1939, many schools and garages were requisitioned for use as Auxiliary Fire Stations. The majority of the schools taken up in London were vacant in any case, as their usual occupants had been evacuated to the relative safety of the countryside, whilst many garages were finding a lack of trade due to the almost complete disappearance of private motoring due to petrol rationing. The AFS Stations in London, all followed London Fire Brigade practice of having code letters and numbers, which were prominently displayed on uniforms and vehicles. The station at 19-21 Cheyne Place, Chelsea was coded '6W' being under the overall control of Station 6, Brompton, located at 18 South Parade, Chelsea. The fire fighters at Cheyne Place obviously decided to make their presence permanently known in the area as they had carved in one of the masonry walls adjacent to their station a very large '6W' which is still clearly visible to this day.

Station 6W insignia (author's photo)

It is not known who carved the station code letters for posterity. Many of those who served in the AFS were from the world of the arts, some of whom were devoted pacifists who felt that they could serve their country better by saving lives rather than taking them but whose subsequent bravery in fighting the fire lit by the Luftwaffe could never be doubted. Perhaps this is the work of a sculptor turned firefighter.

Across London and it's suburbs are many reminders of the wartime past of our capital. As always, we have merely scratched the surface in this article but hopefully have given some of our readers the appetite to go out and discover some for themselves - tracking these clues of our Blitz history is good fun and elicits a certain amount of satisfaction at the culmination of a successful hunt.

More of these photographs will follow in coming editions but in the meantime, good hunting!


Published Sources:

London Fire Service: Directory of Auxiliary Sub Stations 1939-41 - WF Hickin, The Watchroom 2000

Unpublished Sources:

List of ARP Wardens' Posts - Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich/Greenwich Heritage Centre



Friday, 16 August 2013

The unknown Battle of Britain

Sgt John Hannah VC (IWM)
In August 1940, the Battle of Britain was at it's height and had been raging since early July. The enduring image of the Battle for most people around the World is of 'The Few', that gallant band of fighter pilots from the RAF supported by their comrades in arms from the Commonwealth and Allied air forces who succeeded in taking on the Luftwaffe over southern England, denying the Germans air supremacy and thus rendering stillborn any chance of a land invasion of this country.

To put matters simply, this is what happened; history tells us so and the fact remains that the efforts of RAF Fighter Command provided a turning point in the war and proved to the remainder of the World that the Nazi war machine was capable of being beaten and more importantly kept these islands free to ultimately provide the springboard for the liberation of Europe some four years later.

Of course, it was not known at the time that Hitler was lukewarm about an invasion of the British Isles, as were his Generals and especially his Admirals who rightly harboured a deep seated inferiority complex to the Royal Navy and despite the promises from Goering of air supremacy feared a bloodbath amongst the invasion fleet should the Navy be let loose amongst them. These divisions were not known to the British people and their Government and an invasion attempt was widely expected at some point during the summer or early autumn of 1940.

August 13th 1940 was 'Adler Tag' or Eagle Day, which was planned to be the first day of a concerted attempt by the Luftwaffe to knock out the RAF on the ground as a prelude to invasion. As so often during the Battle of Britain, German intelligence was faulty and many airfields which were not part of Fighter Command were attacked and thus Fleet Air Arm, Training Command and Coastal Command stations were attacked. This represented a hugely wasted effort by the Luftwaffe which merely allowed them as the hunters to become the hunted when RAF fighters from airfields hitherto untouched on the day tore into the German attackers, taking an especially heavy toll of the Ju87 Stukas. The sequence of events on August 13th 1940 is really beyond the scope of this particular article but suffice to say Adler Tag ended in a resounding defeat for the Luftwaffe, with forty five of their aircraft shot down for the loss of thirteen RAF fighters. Even a 700 per cent exaggeration by the German press of the RAF's losses could not disguise the fact that this was a defeat and that air supremacy over the British Isles would not come easily. After further heavy fighting and another decisive defeat on September 15th 1940, the day we now commemorate as Battle of Britain Day, Hitler postponed the invasion of Great Britain indefinitely two days later.

However, whilst this struggle for Britain's airspace was raging, another battle was going on, which to this day receives little publicity but which in it's own way was vital and demonstrated the British determination to defend the homeland whatever the cost.

In 1940, RAF Bomber Command was a shadow of the force it was to become two to three years later. Like the Luftwaffe's bomber force, it consisted almost entirely of twin engined light and medium bombers, along with the remnants of the single engined Fairey Battle force which had been all but wiped out during the Battle of France. The twin engined bombers were mainly obsolescent types such as the Blenheim, Whitley and Hampden, all of which were unsatisfactory aircraft and deeply unsuitable for daylight operations. The only modern bomber in the RAF's arsenal in 1940 was the Vickers Wellington, designed by Barnes Wallis, which with it's revolutionary geodetic construction was able to absorb huge punishment, which was just as well as this aircraft too, was unable to defend itself in daylight attacks, forcing the RAF to adopt the night bombing tactics with which it was to largely persevere for the remainder of the war.

83 Squadron Badge
Bomber Command had been at war almost as soon as war had been declared on September 3rd 1939, when a force of Hampdens from 83 Squadron at RAF Scampton set out to attack German warships at Wilhelmshaven. Fortunately for the bomber crews, they could not find their targets and eventually all returned home safely. The following day fifteen Blenheims set off for Wilhelmshaven, whilst a further fourteen Wellingtons departed for Brunsbuttel. This time the results were disastrous for the RAF; five Blenheims were shot down as were two Wellingtons, without any of the shipping targets being hit. This was to prove the shape of things to come for these unescorted daylight raids, culminating in a truly appalling attack on 18th December 1939 by twenty two Wellingtons on the Wilhelmshaven area which resulted in twelve of the bombers being shot down, after which the RAF retired to lick their wounds.

Following the Battle of France, it was clear that a potential invasion of this country was next on the German agenda and the large numbers of invasion barges photographed by the RAF's fledgling Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) shown gathering along the Channel ports was testimony to this threat. The Blenheim light bombers were identified as being best able to deliver the low level attacks on the gathering invasion fleet, although the entire force was used on several occasions to attack the barges. By September, some sixty percent of the bomber force was consistently being directed towards the Channel ports.

Guy Gibson, three years later to become known to the World as the leader of the Dambusters raid, was at that time a relatively lowly Flying Officer with 83 Squadron flying Hampdens out of RAF Scampton and described the relentless nature of the attacks on invasion barges at Antwerp in his autobiography, Enemy Coast Ahead.

"After each raid a reconnaissance was made and the C.O. would call all crews together. 'I have got some pictures of C Basin at Antwerp. Yesterday there were 400 barges there; today's reconnaissance shows 350. Who is on C Basin?'

Some pilot would shuffle to his feet.

'Well, you sank fifty, you and the rest, but that is not enough. You have got to put all your bombs in that basin, not a stick starting on the edge and then doing it's job, but every single bomb. Otherwise those bastards are going to come over here and invade us and then you will have to fight with your bare hands.'

Then off we would go again."

Guy Gibson and crew in 617 Squadron days (IWM)

These attacks were usually made from a height of around 4,000 feet and due to the low-level nature of these raids and the intense light flak, losses were heavy amongst the bombers but the German invasion barges and their naval personnel also suffered grievously and the forces concentrated in places such as Antwerp, Boulogne, Calais, Dunkirk and Ostend were never allowed to assemble in peace.

One of Bomber Command's Victoria Crosses was won by a member of 83 Squadron, Sergeant John Hannah, a Wireless Operator in one of the Hampden bombers in Gibson's squadron. On 15th September, Hannah's Hampden had delivered yet another attack on the invasion barges gathering at Antwerp and turning for home, the bomber was struck inside the bomb bay, immediately starting a fierce fire. The fire was so intense that the rear gunner was forced to bale out of the stricken bomber and Hannah could certainly have done the same. However, he chose to remain behind and fight the fires whilst the pilot, Pilot Officer Connor, a Canadian, attempted to bring the crippled Hampden home. Hannah fought the fires for fully ten minutes, exhausting two fire extinguishers and eventually resorting to stamping out the fire with his feet and hands. Hannah was wearing a flying suit, which had some fire resistant qualities but in his efforts to put out the fires, he suffered serious burns to his hands, face and eyes, as well as losing his parachute in the process. Effectively trapped on his aircraft, Hannah eventually succeeded in completely extinguishing the fire, by which time the aluminium floor of the bomber had completely melted in places, leaving a precarious grid formed by the main structure of the aircraft. The fires safely extinguished, Connor succeeded in nursing the damaged Hampden back home to Scampton. Tragically, John Hannah contracted tuberculosis in 1941, no doubt as a result of the smoke inhalation and was invalided out of the RAF. He struggled to make a living as a cab driver but his health was too frail to continue in this employment and he died in 1947 from a heart attack, aged only 25.

Handley Page Hampden (RAF photo)

In 1942, under Sir Arthur Harris, Bomber Command truly went onto the offensive with it's area bombing tactics, using their ever growing force of four-engined heavy bombers to wreak havoc by night amongst German cities and their occupants. As with the 'Battle of the Barges', the cost was a high one; by the war's end, some 55,573 Bomber Command aircrew had perished. The vast majority of these losses were on operations over German cities but when looking back at the Battle of Britain, it is wise to remember that at least some of 'The Few' were bomber crews.


Published Sources:

Bomber Boys - Patrick Bishop, Harper Press 2007
Bomber Command 1939-45 - Richard Overy, Harper Collins 1997
Enemy Coast Ahead - Wing Commander Guy Gibson, Crecy 2013
The Most Dangerous Enemy - Stephen Bungay, Aurum Press 2001
VCs of the Second World War - John Frayn Turner, Pen & Sword 2004





Friday, 19 July 2013

Footprints of The Blitz (4)

In the last edition of this occasional series, we took a look at the surviving air raid shelters that can still be found in London, whilst previously we have examined shelter signs that are still extant more than seventy years after they were first painted. Today, we return to the subject of signage as well as those buildings in London which still bear the 'honourable scars' of war in the form of shrapnel damage, which act as a lasting reminder of the deadly nature area bombing; if shrapnel could damage solid masonry in such a spectacular fashion, the prospect of what it can do to the human body does not bear thinking about.

Apart from shelter signs, one aspect of wartime London that can still be found by the patient detective, are the 'EWS' Signs, signifying the one time site of an Emergency Water Supply. These were effectively temporary dams to augment the supply of water to the fire services and proved invaluable in the event of water mains being severed by bomb damage, as frequently happened during the Blitz. These emergency supplies took three basic forms - firstly from natural or man-made waterways such as rivers or canals, or even swimming pools, of which both abound in London. This first sign which still survives on the Albert Embankment, alongside the Thames is simply adjacent to a small inlet of the Thames which actually stretches beneath the main road and allows hoses to be dipped into the river at high tide and across a short section of the foreshore at low tide. A mud filter would have been required to stop the supply silting up but apart from that precaution, a ready made supply was always available.

EWS at Albert Embankment (author's photo)


The second location for these emergency supplies was in the basements of bombed out buildings, of which by the winter of 1940-41, there were plenty to be found. These basements were exposed after the rubble of the bombed building had been removed and were then sealed with bitumen, concrete or other suitable material and following this work, all that was required was to fill the space with water and the fire services thus had immediate access to a large capacity supply. One such supply was to be found at the site of the former Surrey Theatre, a former well known Music Hall venue at St George's Circus, near the Elephant & Castle. On the night of May 10th/11th 1941, the last night of the Blitz but also the heaviest raid of the entire war, this EWS was the scene of one of the worst tragedies to affect the wartime London Fire Service. The raid started with a heavy fall of both HE and incendiaries at the Elephant and the immediate surrounding area. Soon, the fires were out of control and the hard pressed firefighters on the scene were faced with what was known in the trade as a conflagration. Shattered water mains made their task even harder and hose relays were started from Manor Place Baths, the Surrey Theatre and also another nearby 5,000 gallon dam. All of these required relays of hoses to run a distance of around 800 yards along the streets to the scene of the main fires at the Elephant & Castle and not only required firefighters at the 'business end' tackling the flames but also needed men on the spot to ensure that the supplies remained uninterrupted. Such was the intensity of the fires and the number of hoses being used, that the 5,000 gallon supply was exhausted inside five minutes, which brought the firefighting to a temporary standstill until fresh supplies could be connected. Just as the pumps were being connected at the Surrey Theatre, a bomb fell here too, killing seventeen firefighters from the London Fire Brigade, as well as from the London and Mitcham Auxiliary Fire Service. Today, the Surrey Theatre is but a distant memory but a plaque erected at the site by the excellent charity Firemen Remembered, acts as a permanent reminder of the ultimate sacrifice made by these seventeen men in the dark days of the Blitz.

Plaque at the site of the Surrey Theatre EWS (author's photo)


The third type of EWS were large man made coffer dams usually erected in existing open spaces, such as parks, school playgrounds or later in the war on cleared bomb sites. Once again, some of these signs are still extant and can be seen by the discerning eye. One such group of signs can be found in Camberwell Church Street, where there are the remnants of three such signs, although one of these is extremely faded nowadays. Closer inspection of the best survivor of these signs shows in the top quadrant, the capacity of the former dam as being 5,000 gallons.

EWS Sign Camberwell Church Street (author's photo)

In case anyone is wondering what one of these Emergency Water Supplies looked like, here is a shot of one in action located to the north of Blackfriars Bridge, in New Bridge Street. This one is a coffer dam example and is being simultaneously filled with fresh supplies of water whilst at the same time as feeding hose branches being used to fight a fire.

EWS New Bridge Street (author's collection)

From signs we move to scars - the scars left on London's buildings left by the ravages of war. Hitler's bombs did not respect the importance of buildings or structures. Those scars are today borne by noble buildings such as St Paul's Cathedral and other Wren designed places of worship, places of leisure and culture such as the Victoria & Albert Museum, statues of figures from Britain's mililtary past such as General James Wolfe and Lord Clyde to more humble but no less important edifices such as railway bridges, hospitals and railway offices. What links all of these structures is their having survived the worst that the Luftwaffe could throw at them. 

Some of the most vivid examples of shrapnel damage can be found at St Clement Danes Church, now the Central Church of the RAF but in 1941 a normal, if slightly grand, parish church on the edge of the City of London. Since 1910, it had been under the rectorship of the splendidly named Horation Pennington-Bickford and had survived the early stages of the Blitz relatively unscathed. On the night of 10th/11th May 1941, it's luck ran out and apart from a near miss from a high explosive bomb, Wren's beautiful 1685 church was soon ablaze from the incendiaries that rained down upon it. Across the road, Pennington-Bickford watched in tears as his beloved church burned and within a month, the old rector was dead, some said from a broken heart but undoubtedly due to the stress of seeing the destruction of his beloved church. In 1957, the church was rededicated as the Central Church of the RAF and is today a shrine to the RAF as well as the Commonwealth and Allied Air Forces, including the USAAF.

St Clement Danes (author's photo)

Similar damage can be found on many buildings across London and is not confined to the City centre. The statue of General James Wolfe, victor of Quebec in 1759 has stood overlooking the Thames and his beloved Greenwich since 1930. The plinth of his statue bears the scars of a German bomb which exploded nearby in 1940. Some members of the Greenwich Park staff peddle an urban myth that the damage was caused by a German fighter strafing the roadway. This story, although swallowed over the years by many a tourist and not a few locals, is utter twaddle - the nearby heath was the site of a large battery of anti-aircraft guns as well as a balloon barrage and it would have taken a brave or foolhardy pilot to risk his life by recklessly flying low merely to machine gun a statue!

General Wolfe's plinth (author's photo)

There are many other examples of shrapnel damage to be seen across London and next time we shall take a look at some more of these as well as some other reminders of our capital's wartime history.



Published Sources:

The London Blitz: A Fireman's Tale - Cyril Demarne OBE, After The Battle 1991
The Lost Treasure of London - William Kent, Phoenix Press 1947