Friday, 31 January 2014

Wartime Greenwich & Woolwich

(Author's collection)
Over the four years that this blog has been appearing, it is fair to say that I have managed to insert a few wartime photographs of my own local 'patch' of Greenwich and to a lesser extent, Woolwich and each time that these photos have appeared, I have always been asked to share a few more. So in this week's blog, we are once again going to visit, what in 1939-45 were known as the Metropolitan Boroughs of Greenwich and Woolwich but which nowadays are united as the Royal Borough of Greenwich. Unless otherwise stated, all of these photographs come from the excellent collection of the Greenwich Heritage Centre and are reproduced here with their permission.

We actually start with a couple of pre-war photographs that show the preparations being made by the fledgling Civil Defence Services. The first shot is taken at a familiar location that is still easily recognisable today and shows the Greenwich Auxiliary Fire Service, or AFS on an exercise on the Greenwich river front on 28th July 1939.

Greenwich AFS on exercises - July 1939

The second photograph was taken at a location in Woolwich currently unknown to the author but shows the Air Raid Wardens of the borough undertaking a gas decontamination exercise, again in 1939. Mercifully, poison gas was never used by either side during the Second World War, despite stocks being held by both sides. The whole procedure has gathered some fascinated onlookers. Are any of these small children watching still alive, I wonder?

Woolwich Gas Decontamination exercise

Another vital cog in the Civil Defence mechanism was the WVS, or Womens' Voluntary Service as they were then known. The WVS were to be seen everywhere in wartime Britain, handing out tea and refreshments to returning soldiers evacuated from France in 1940, assisting with the evacuation of children and mothers at railway stations and other marshalling points and operating mobile canteens for the emergency services during the Blitz to name but a few of their activities. The photograph below shows another pre-war exercise in Woolwich, with the ladies stockpiling loaves, once more before a fascinated audience!

WVS ladies in Woolwich -1939

The next photograph shows a group of Woolwich children at Victoria Station on their way to being evacuated to Cranbrook in Kent. Once again, are any of these Children still alive today?

Woolwich children at Victoria Station - 1940

Once evacuated, these children from urban London and other major cities were thrown into an alien environment. The majority of them had never left home before and certainly not without their parents, so it must have been an enormous culture shock to suddenly move from a London suburb such as Greenwich down to rural Torquay. The photograph of this trio is especially poignant for me, as they are captioned as having come from my old primary school, Charlton Manor.

Charlton Manor evacuees - June 1940 (LMA)

What of those left behind - both children and adult? Following the fall of France in June 1940, invasion of this country was thought to be a serious possibility and so the Home Guard was formed as a result of Anthony Eden's call to arms. Initially christened the Local Defence Volunteers or LDV (or 'Look, Duck and Vanish' as they were named by some unkind people), this force was largely formed by gentleman of 'a certain age' who had seen service in the previous conflict, as the next photograph of the 26th (County of London) Bn., Home Guard shows. As well as the Great War veterans, there are also a fair number of younger members, perhaps waiting for their call-up into the fighting services.

'C' Coy, 26th (County of London) Bn., Home Guard in 1942

Sometimes derided, even at the time, there is no doubt that the Home Guard were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country and the attached extract from their Traning Manual shows what was expected of them should invasion have come.

Home Guard Muster Instructions (author's collection)

Although the German land invasion did not occur, the bombers of the Luftwaffe did visit London on a nightly basis. Greenwich and Woolwich suffered badly and the following selection of photographs shows some of the damage across the two boroughs. The first image shows the aftermath of a high explosive bomb at Stratheden Parade, Blackheath in the early hours of 19th October 1940. The pub visible on the right is the Royal Standard.

Stratheden Parade & The Royal Standard - October 1940

The sheer devastation caused by the 'airburst' effect of a parachute mine can be seen in this admittedly grainy photograph of Alabama Street, Plumstead on 20th March 1941, which sadly caused twenty one fatal casualties.

Alabama Street, Plumstead - 17th March 1941

Following the end of the 'First Blitz' in May 1941, a period of respite followed and Londoners may have been forgiven for thinking that by June 1944, with the invasion of Europe beginning to become an established fact, that perhaps the days of bombardment for London were over. Unfortunately, on 13th June 1944 the first of Hitler's so called 'Vengeance Weapons' began to fall on the capital and southeast London was once again in the firing line. Although the very first V-1 to fall on London landed in Bow, it wasn't long before Greenwich and Woolwich were on the receiving end of these weapons. An early recipient was the fire appliance factory of Merryweather's in Greenwich High Road on 25th June 1944.

Greenwich High Road - June 1944

Greenwich High Road was once again the target on 12th July 1944 when West Greenwich House and it's immediate surroundings were devastated.

West Greenwich House - 12th July 1944
 
After the V-1, came an even worse Vengeance Weapon, the V-2 rocket. Fired from mobile sites in Holland, these early guided missiles came with no warning whatsoever and destroyed their 'targets' totally at random. Once again, Greenwich and Woolwich were at the forefront, as this shot of Troughton Road, Charlton taken in the immediate aftermath of a rocket explosion on 8th February 1945 shows.

Troughton Road, Charlton - 8th February 1945

Fortunately, the end of the war in Europe was now a matter of weeks away and the last V-2 was to fall on London on 28th March 1945. The German surrender came on May 8th and this day was immediately declared VE (Victory in Europe) Day and the street parties could begin as in this example in Frances Street, Woolwich.

The day they waited for - VE Day

If these photographs have given you an appetiser to see more of wartime Greenwich, I will be guiding a Blackheath and Greenwich Blitz Walk on Sunday 30th March, in which more of these archive photos will be used to give a 'then and now' perspective of the area. Details of this - and all of our other walks - can be found at www.blitzwalkers.co.uk/dates.html and which also gives booking details.

Unpublished Sources:

Greenwich Heritage Centre photos
London Metropolitan Archives
Author's collection photos









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