Saturday 2 February 2013

Plaques for the memory

The First Bomb on the City of London (author's photo)
For almost 150 years, famous people and the locations of great events in history have been recorded by the now familiar circular blue plaques. At first these plaques were neither circular nor blue but gradually evolved into the shape that we are now accustomed to. These plaques were originally unique to London and were produced and funded by the Royal Society of Arts, then taken on by the London County Council and following the local government reorganisation of 1965, the Greater London Council. Following the demise of this latter organisation in 1986, the scheme has been administered by English Heritage and under their stewardship has been rolled out across the country. Apart from the English Heritage plaques, many people and events have been commemorated in a similar fashion by local authorities and other organisations across the country.

Recently, the English Heritage Blue Plaque scheme has been in the news for the sad reason that all new installations are to be suspended for at least the next two years due to cuts in government funding. Whilst it is to be hoped that an alternative method can be found to enable this decision to be reversed, perhaps now is a good time to examine some of the people and events of the Second World War that are commemorated by blue and other plaques across the capital.

There are too many wartime related plaques to mention them all in one article but instead we will try and mention as many as possible of the more notable people and events commemorated.

Leonard Rosoman's haunting image (author's photo)
We start not with a plaque in the conventional sense rather than a stone but seeing as how it marks the beginning of what was to escalate into the London Blitz, it is not possible to ignore it. Prior to the night of 24th/25th August 1940, London had not suffered from any serious bombing; indeed the capital had been placed 'off limits' by Adolf Hitler, perhaps in the hope of still being able to bring the British to the negotiating table rather than by forcing an invasion. Everything was to change on this night however, when a flight of German bombers, aiming for the Thameshaven oil refineries at the mouth of the Thames, instead found themselves hopelessly lost and instead of ditching their bombs over open countryside as their commander had thought, actually dropped them over the northern part of the City of London, at Fore Street, Moorgate. This theory of this first raid being a mistaken one is open to debate, for as well as the first bomb mentioned above, bombs also fell on East and West Ham, Stepney, Bethnal Green, Hackney, Leyton, Edmonton, Walthamstow, Bloomsbury and Islington - surely too large an area for an 'accidental' attack by a handful of bombers. Whatever the reason, it is generally agreed through subsequent corroboration of local authority incident logs that the first bomb fell on the City of London at Fore Street at 00:15 on 25th August 1940 and this landmark incident is recorded today with a commemorative stone on the replacement building erected on the spot. A landmark incident because it can be argued with some justification that the course of the war changed decisively in favour of the Allies from this moment. The switch to night bombing of London took the pressure away from RAF Fighter Command, who were able to regroup and consolidate the air superiority over the United Kingdom that they had never looked like losing during the Battle of Britain. They were able to inflict on Nazi Germany their first decisive defeat of the war and one from which they would never subsequently be able to recover.

Sydney Alfred Holder (author's photo)
The Blitz of course, was to create many heroes, myths and legends. A group of heroes to come out of this turbulent period in London's history, were the men and women of the London Fire Brigade and Auxiliary Fire Service, the 'heroes with grimy faces' as they were dubbed by Winston Churchill. Formed in 1938 as a result of the rapid expansion of the Civil Defence services following the Munich Crisis, the AFS volunteers were originally held in low esteem by the British public. One of the most common insults hurled their way was to be called '£3 a week Army dodgers' as a swipe at their being exempt from the call-up to the fighting services. Although trained by regular firefighters, on the outbreak of war in 1939, most of these auxiliary firefighters had never even tackled a 'normal' fire, let alone the maelstrom that they would face during the Blitz and never has the phrase 'baptism of fire' held more truth. Today the charity Firemen Remembered commemorates the numerous acts of self sacrifice and heroism displayed by the Fire Services in London by placing their distinctive white plaques at the scenes where fire fighters made the ultimate sacrifice. Theirs is an ongoing work and new plaques sponsored by this charity continue to be erected. The author has been lucky enough to be invited to several unveilings, the most recent of which saw a plaque unveiled to the memory of Auxiliary Fireman Sydney Alfred Holder, who died on the night of 29th/30th December 1940 - the Second Great Fire of London - in a scene immortalised by the War Artist Leonard Rosoman, himself an AFS firefighter who was present at the same incident and who narrowly avoided death under the collapsing wall that he subsequently painted. The plaque pictured is located at the scene of the incident in Shoe Lane, EC4.

Sir Winston Churchill (author's photo)
Winston Churchill, who gave the Fire Services their epithet as mentioned above, is commemorated with at least seven plaques across London, the one pictured being at what proved to be his last home in the capital at 28 Hyde Park Gate. Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940 in the aftermath of the Norwegian fiasco, a campaign for which his predecessor Neville Chamberlain was to take the blame but which ironically had seen Churchill as one of it's architects. Despite this, Churchill was to galvanise the country into a new atmosphere of defiance and belief in the final victory over Nazism. Part of this new atmosphere was to see new blood at the head of the armed services and after not a little exasperation on his part, the installation of military leaders who were accustomed to winning battles.

Bernard Law Montgomery (author's photo)
One of this new order of military leaders was Bernard Law Montgomery. The son of a clergyman, Montgomery was born in Kennington, southeast London in 1887. A career soldier, he had served in the Great War and had been shot through a lung and severely wounded in 1914 whilst serving in Belgium. Following a lengthy recuparation, he was to return to the Western Front in 1916 and saw further action at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917 before finishing the war as GSO1 with the 47th (1/2nd London) Division as a temporary lieutenant colonel. Peacetime service followed with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and marriage to Betty Carver came in 1927. These years were undoubtedly the happiest of his life; his wife Betty smoothed the many rough edges of his character and brought him a family. Tragedy was to follow in 1937 when his wife died suddenly following the onset of septicaemia caused by an insect bite. Devastated by his loss, Montgomery characteristically threw himself into his work, to the exclusion of all else and became the arch-professional of the British Army, expecting and demanding the same levels from all who served under him. Those who failed to meet his exacting standards were dealt with ruthlessly and dismissed in his own phraseology as being 'quite useless' and as such quite often damned from any further advancement in the Army.  This sort of attiude was to bring Montgomery many enemies in the peacetime Army but in wartime, especially under the new regime of Churchill and his new Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Alan Brooke, who had advanced and protected Montgomery in peacetime, it was only a matter of time before the spiky little general was to come into his own. He had distinguished himself during the withdrawal of the BEF from France in May 1940 and following a spell in Southern Command in the UK during the invasion scare of 1940, he was sent out to North Africa in the summer of 1942 to take command of the British Eighth Army from General Auchinleck following the latter's withdrawal to a defensive line at a railway halt called called El Alamein. The subsequent victory at El Alamein in November 1942, was the first time that the British Army had beaten the German Wehrmacht before the arrival of American troops into the European theatre and marked the beginning of the end of the German presence in North Africa. Today, a blue plaque marks Montgomery's birthplace at Oval House, 52-54 Kennington Oval.

Dwight D Eisenhower (author's photo)
During Montgomery's time in North Africa and subsequently in Sicily, he was to encounter a then relatively unknown general of the United States Army, Dwight D Eisenhower, who was to exercise overall command during this latter campaign. He was to find Montgomery a difficult man to command but like the superb diplomat and commander he was, recognised Monty's qualities as a 'winner' and allowed him a certain amount of latitude. The two men were to be reunited during the Normandy Campaign when Eisenhower was appointed Supreme Allied Commander with Montgomery as his overall Land Force Commander for the invasion and the immediate aftermath before Eisenhower was to take over the overall land command, much to Monty's annoyance. It was during this campaign that Eisenhower's friendship with Montgomery finally faltered; the lack of tact and respect shown by his subordinate was too much for him to take and the relationship between the two men was never the same again. Eisenhower was well liked within the UK and whatever shortcomings he had as a field commander, he was widely respected for his diplomacy and for his refusal to allow nationalistic concerns interfere with the overall Allied cause. The plaque shown is outside Eisenhower's former headquarters in Grosvenor Square.

The First Buzz Bomb - Grove Road, E3 (author's photo)

During the Normandy campaign the people of London, who perhaps might have felt that they had seen the last of bombing to their city, were to get a rude awakening in the early hours of 13th June 1944 when the railway bridge at Grove Road, Bow was struck by what was at first thought to be a crashed aircraft. This theory was soon dispelled when more and more of these weapons began to fall on the capital as well as in Kent, Surrey and Sussex. These first crude cruise missiles were being launched mainly from sites in the Pas de Calais and although countermeasures were soon put in place, such as moving the anti-aircraft guns and balloons to form a coastal defence line, behind which the RAF could operate to shoot down those bombs which still got through, some 2,515 of these 'buzz bombs' as they were quickly christened by the war weary Londoners, managed to evade all of the defences and caused further havoc where they fell. The worst of the V-1 attacks had passed by late August 1944, when the last of the launching sites were overrun by the liberating Allied forces.

The First V-2, Staveley Road Chiswick (author's photo)

At least these weapons could be defended against; much worse was soon to follow. At 6.34 pm on the 8th September 1944, there was a huge explosion in Staveley Road, Chiswick and a massive crater appeared in the roadway opposite number five. All along this hitherto quiet suburban road, houses were destroyed and those which did not collapse were seriously damaged. Perhaps surprisingly, the death toll was light, with only three people being killed and a further ten suffering serious injury. Unfortunately, this pattern of light casualties was not to last. Although the authorities suspected what was the real cause of the explosion, the authorities initially stated that the explosion was caused by an exploding gas main. Perhaps this was to avoid any panic but seeing as Londoners had not significantly panicked during the preceeding four years of bombings, this logic is hard to understand. These frightening weapons, which were launched from mobile sites mainly in the vicinity of Den Haag (The Hague) in the Netherlands, could not be defended against. The only way to stop them was to force the launching sites out of range of the UK, or to bomb the production sites but seeing as the main factory for the production of these weapons was an underground facility (where they were produced using slave labour in horrific conditions) this latter option was not viable. There were several high-casualty incidents on London - the worst being the Woolworths store in New Cross, which was struck on Saturday 25th November 1944, when 160 people - mainly Christmas shoppers - were killed, with a further 77 serious injuries and scores more walking wounded. These weapons were also fired on Maastricht, Brussels and Antwerp amongst other placess and it was at the latter location that the worst V-2 incident of the whole war occurred, when on 16th December 1944 the Rex Cinema received a direct hit. It was crowded with both locals as well as Allied soldiers enjoying some hard earned leave and the final death toll of 567 surpassed even the worst attack on London. Some 1,600 V-2s were lauched on Belgium, compared with the 1,400 aimed at the UK but fortunately, terrible as these weapons were, they came too late to affect the outcome of the war, although the last one was not to fall on London until March 27th 1945 and on Antwerp the following day. 

There are many more plaques in London commemorating people and events from the Second World War and below is a non-exhaustive list of those which this author is aware of. The knowledge of any others would be gratefully received!

Auxiliary Firemen Stanley Harold Randolph and Harry Richard Skinner - Tavistock Square WC1
Auxiliary Firemen Albert Edward Arber - Athelstane Grove E3
Balham Underground Station - 14th October 1940
Beckenham Auxiliary Firemen - Beckenham Fire Station
Bernard Law Montgomery - Oval House, Kennington Oval SE11
Blackfriars Station Entrance V-2 - Blackfriars Road SE1
Captain Ralph Douglas Binney - Birchin Lane EC3
Druid Street Arch Bombing 25th October 1940 - Druid Street SE1
Dwight D Eisenhower - Grosvenor Square W1
Earl Mountbatten of Burma - Wilton Crescent SW1
Edward R Murrow - Hallam Street W1
The First Flying Bomb - Grove Road Railway Bridge E3
Sir Frederick Handley Page - Grosvenor Square W1
West Ham Auxiliary Fire Service - Gainsborough Road School E15
Charles De Gaulle and Free French Forces - Carlton Gardens SW1
Guy Gibson VC - Aberdeen Place NW8
RAF Aircrew - Lord's Cricket Ground Pavilion NW8
Joan Bartlett and Violet Pengelly, AFS Firewomen - Old Millwall Fire Station, West Ferry Road E14
Nortraship, Norwegian Shipping & Trade Mission, Leadenhall Street EC3
Oranjehaven - Hyde Park Place W2
Queen Wilhelmina of The Netherlands in Exile - 77 Chester Square SW1
The Queens Hall - Langham Place W1
Auxiliary Fireman Sidney Alfred Holder - Shoe Lane EC2
Sir Archibald McIndoe, Reconstructive Surgeon - Draycott Avenue SW3
Sir Barnes Wallis - New Cross Road SE14
Sir Douglas Bader - Petersham Mews SW7
Sir Winston Churchill - Hyde Park Gate SW7
Old Palace School, St Leonard's Street E3
Stainer Street Arch Bombing 17th February 1941 - Stainer Street SE1
Station 39 London Auxiliary Ambulance Service - Weymouth Mews W1
Surrey Docks Fire September 7th 1940, Surrey Quays Road  SE16 
Old Surrey Theatre, St Georges Circus SE1
Field Marshal Viscount Gort, Belgrave Square SW1
Woolworths V-2 Attack 25th November 1944, New Cross Road SE14
Dr Hannah Billig, Cable Street E1
Alan Turing, Warrington Crescent W9
First V-2 Attack 8th September 1944, Staveley Road W4
Chelsea Fire Station, Kings Road SW3
Norwegian Government in Exile 1940-45, Princes Gate SW7
Poplar Fire Station, East India Dock Road E14
Turk's Row V-1 Incident, Turk's Row SW3
Auxiliary Firewoman Yvonne Green, Chelsea Old Church, Old Church Street SW3  

Published Sources:

Hitler's Rockets - Norman Longmate, Frontline Books 2009
The Lonely Leader: Monty 1944-45 - Alistair Horne, Pan Books 1995
Monty - Nigel Hamilton, Hodder & Stoughton 1994
The Narrow Margin - Derek Wood with Derek Dempster, Tri-Service Press 1995     


  1. Thanks for your kind comment Bernard - glad you enjoyed it.

  2. Was searching about plaques when i stumbled across this post. Great article. It's astonishing how we used to commemorate significant events from our history with such great plaques that often stand the test of time to remind people across generations of the significance of places and events. What is surprising today however is how we don't seem to want to commemorate anything anymore. Maybe it is because physical recording of events don't have as much significance today as before. All we have today are college or school plaques that commemorate personal achievements.

    This is an informative post. Good writing. :)

  3. Many thanks Al - glad you enjoyed the article and hope you can find time to delve into the rest of the blog when you get a chance.

  4. We've got a huge number of plaque records on Open Plaques If you have any information to add then please contact us.

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