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

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