Friday 17 May 2013

Logging the Blitz

The Blitz Hotel (Greenwich Heritage Centre)

Perhaps one of the lesser known aspects of the Civil Defence services during the Second World War but a vital one none the less was an administrative one, carried out as and when the bombs fell by a group of now anonymous senior air raid wardens or council officials, usually tucked away in the basement of a town hall at the end of a network of landline telephones and messengers. As each raid developed, every bomb that dropped, each incident as it developed, was logged and as the reports came in, the controllers would ensure that the correct response to each developing incident was despatched to the scene, whether this be the recognised emergency services such as the fire, police or ambulances, the seemingly mundane but equally essential  services such as the local gas board officials to switch off the supplies where gas mains had been severed by bombs, or the melancholy task of arranging mortuary vans to remove the unfortunate victims of war.

London Civil Defence organisation
The Civil Defence organisation had been established in 1938 as a response to the Munich Crisis and a brief explanation is required to give the reader a better understanding. The country was divided into twelve civil defence regions, each of which was placed under the control of a Civil Commissioner. London was designated Region 5 and was placed under the command of a veteran of Captain Scott's ill-fated Antarctic Expedition of 1912 and subsequently a First World War hero, Admiral Sir Edward Evans - "Evans of the Broke" as he had become known. Evans was to serve in his role as Civil Commissioner for the majority of the war and threw himself into the role with the energy and enthusiasm that had typified his Royal Naval service.

London Region was responsible for the 28 Metropolitan Boroughs of the erstwhile London County Council, or LCC as it was known, together with the City of London plus the County Boroughs of Croydon, East and West Ham and the remaining Urban and Rural District Councils in Essex, Middlesex, Kent and Surrey out to the boundary of the Metropolitan Police District. These authorities were collected into groups of between 5 and 11 councils and placed under the overall control of one of them. Therefore, that selected borough had two controls within it, one local and one group. The inner ring of LCC Boroughs were numbered Groups 1 to 5, three north of the Thames and two south. The outer ring were numbered 6 to 9 and two counties, Middlesex and Surrey, were further sub-divided into 6A to 6D for Middlesex and 9A to 9D for Surrey.

A typical 'chain of command' - this one is for Westminster

Each council was run by a Civil Defence Controller (usually the Town Clerk/Chief Executive) who was responsible for Civil Defence matters and the control of incidents through the network of ARP Wardens who acted essentially as incident officers, patrolling the streets often during the height of an air raid, pinpointing incidents and co-ordinating rescue efforts on the spot. Fire, ambulance and rescue services were supplied by the LCC but were under the operational control of the Controller. A copy of the organisation for London Region is shown for easy reference, as is a copy of a typical 'Chain of Command' for one London borough - on this occasion Westminster but which was echoed across the capital.

A typical incident report sheet (author's image)
Fortunately for today's historian, the majority of London boroughs kept their Incident Logs after the war, although some did dispose of them in the 1960s and 70s, in what today seems like a terrible piece of historical vandalism. Neil and I have spent many hours sitting in local authority archives transcribing these records and although we still have a few to go, between us we have so far gathered about half of the various London boroughs' records.

Reading these logs today, it is amazing to think that they were written at the moment that history was being made. The actual presentation of the logs varies from borough to borough; for example the Greenwich Log has been transcribed at the time into a series of A4 sized notebooks, whilst the neighbouring borough of Woolwich's log is still as it was written at the time with each individual development of an incident written on a separate report sheet. In this way, a major incident could require upwards of twenty such sheets, each updating the incident as it developed.

The other striking thing about reading these logs today is the matter of fact way that major incidents were noted. Whilst this professionalism cannot be faulted, one cannot help but wonder what feelings were going through the minds of the officials concerned whilst writing up and recording these reports, especially on those occasions when they were reporting on incidents in their own immediate neighbourhoods, or perhaps even seeing a report of their own homes being destroyed. Reproduced above is a typical report sheet from the Borough of Woolwich, which reports a fairly minor incident but which gives the reader the general idea of how an incident was written up.

Sometimes, these reports can today appear ridiculously terse; for example the terrible incident on 17th April 1941 that saw the destruction of Chelsea Old Church and the tragic loss of life of Canadian firewatcher Yvonne Green and four of her colleagues is reported simply "Para Mine - heavy damage, casualties, water and gas mains gone." Obviously, there would have been more detailed incident sheets written at the time but this precis still somehow captures the horror of the incident, which was recorded more fully in the April edition of this blog. In other boroughs, the reports go into more detail, some of which even seventy years on, are heartbreaking. For example, the Woolwich report of an incident in the 'Little Blitz' on 2nd March 1944, lists the four fatal casualties by name, including six week old baby Joyce Bowskill - a life cruelly ended before it had properly begun and which had even this fairly hardened researcher having to stop work for a while in order to reflect.

Devastation in Heavitree Road (Greenwich Heritage Centre)
The onset of the terror weapons in 1944 kept the recorders busy and in the south east London boroughs especially, the casualties started to mount again. A Woolwich report of an incident at Heavitree Road, Plumstead on 16th June 1944 lists seven fatal casualties and laconically describes "houses in Heavitree Road heavily damaged." A local photographer recorded the scene and it must be said that the writer of the report was a master of understatement.

Throughout all of the horrors of the London Blitz, a sense of humour prevailed, even amongst the Wardens and Civil Defence personnel who were very much in the front line and saw some terrible things in the course of their duties. When the Wardens' Post 'EE1' in Milward Street, Woolwich was rendered uninhabitable following a nearby V-1 strike in August 1944, the wardens, who must have endured a fearful shaking up when the flying bomb detonated, still saw fit to re-christen their devastated place of work 'The Blitz Hotel' as the accompanying photograph at the head of the page shows.

In August 1944, the British public may have been forgiven for thinking that despite the onset of the V-1s, the end of the war was in sight. Unfortunately, they had another seven months of V-2 rockets to endure, which brought yet more misery to the people of London but which were faithfully recorded by the London boroughs. The final incident shown in the Woolwich Incident Log is on 19th March 1945 was a rocket which fell on one of the piers servicing the Woolwich Arsenal, which itself had suffered terrible damage during the Blitz of 1940. This rocket exploded on the pier itself, causing 37 'slight' casualties, no doubt mainly cuts and shock but mercifully no fatalities. The last V-2 of all fell on Kynaston Road, Orpington on 27th March 1945, killing Mrs Ivy Millichamp in her home. With this one final fatal casualty, London at last had seen it's last attack from the German bombs which had started way back in August 1940.

Unpublished Sources:

Civil Defence Incident Logs for Metropolitan Boroughs of Chelsea, Greenwich & Woolwich and City of Westminster 

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