Sunday, 26 October 2014

Shrapnel and London's 'Honourable Scars'

Steve pointing out the shrapnel scars on General Wolfe's statue (Sam Dorrington, Surrey Photos)

For clients taking one of our Blitz walks, the enjoyment and interest comes in many forms. For some, it is the aspect of walking the ground and imagining just what it was like to be in London, or any other town or city when the bombs were falling, whilst for others, it is the wonderment of seeing the 'then and now' perspectives to be gained by comparing the present day view with that of some seventy years ago. One aspect that does seem universally popular however, is when, at various points along a given route, the 'props' appear. These period artifacts really help to bring the walks alive and the fact that people can touch and feel something from the period helps them to better understand the subject matter being discussed at that particular 'stand' on the walk.

One set of 'props' in particular always arouse a particular fascination - this is the shrapnel fragments. The fascination is always a mixture of interest in finally handling the stuff that is so often mentioned in personal accounts, in documentaries and books as well as an appalled realization as to what this stuff that can easily scar solid masonry could actually do to the human body.

With the final bomb sites in London and elsewhere finally now built upon, the shrapnel scars left on many buildings are perhaps the remaining most tangible reminder of the daily ordeal that London and Londoners, as well as many other towns and cities endured over seventy years ago.

The author's shrapnel fragments (Author's photo)
Before going any further, perhaps we should examine the derivation of the word 'shrapnel' and how it has passed into everyday usage.

In 1784, Lieutenant Henry Shrapnel, of the Royal Artillery, perfected what he called "spherical case" ammunition, which was basically a hollow cannon ball, filled with musket balls and which was designed to explode in mid-air over concentrations of enemy soldiers. This first anti-personnel weapon was demonstrated in 1787 at Gibraltar and was adopted by the British Army. By 1803, they had evolved into an elongated shell that was christened as the "Shrapnel Shell" and continued to be manufactured with little basic change, until the end of the Great War. The name stuck and although by the Second World War, neither British or German sides used shrapnel shells against each other, the word had become generic to describe any bomb or shell fragments.

This writer is lucky enough to possess several shrapnel fragments, all of which were discovered on the Thames foreshore in Greenwich by the excellent Nicola White of Tide Line Art and which are invaluable 'props' to my walks.

These pieces take two forms; first we have the shell fragments, which in this case I think come from British anti-aircraft shells. People tend to forget that apart from the shrapnel generated by German bombs, there was a spirited anti-aircraft barrage emanating from London's defences and whilst in 1940, it has to be said that this fire was largely ineffectual, it did help boost the morale of the beleaguered Londoners, who felt that there was at least some opposition being generated to the unseen night time raiders. Of course, the theory of "What goes up, must come down" applied and as well as being peppered with bomb fragments, those who had reason to be out on the streets during a raid had to contend with this added British generated hazard.

Spent British 0.303" bullets (Author's photo)
The other shrapnel item in my possession is a collection of spent bullets. In 1940, the Battle of Britain was raging overhead and some of the Luftwaffe's early daylight raids over London were fiercely contested by the RAF's Hurricanes and Spitfires. Many of the dogfights took place over London itself and whilst most civilians wisely took cover, there were many who watched these deadly duels taking place over their own homes and workplaces. The daylight battle over London culminated on September 15th with the Luftwaffe suffering heavy losses. At the time, the Air Ministry claimed that 185 German aircraft (of 201 bombers and approximately 530 fighters deployed) had been destroyed. The actual figure was 56 destroyed and combined with earlier heavy losses, the Luftwaffe high command decided to switch their attacks on London and other British cities to night-time area bombing methods.

The bullets that I have are from British 0.303" calibre Browning machine guns, which were the standard armament of the Hurricane and the Spitfire, the versions of these iconic fighters in use during the Battle of Britain each being equipped with eight of these weapons. Nicola also kindly (and unwittingly) gave me two live rounds, which were promptly and safely disposed of!

Neil's shrapnel fragment (Author's photo)

Neil Bright, my fellow Blitzwalkers Guide is the owner of a fearsome fragment from a German bomb, which is roughly the size of the palm of my hand. The prospect of a fragment of this size striking a person simply does not bear thinking about.

Today, several buildings in London still display the "Honourable Scars" of their Wartime past, amongst them General Wolfe's statue in Greenwich Park, St Bartholemew's Hospital in the City of London, St Clement Danes Church in The Strand, Lord Clyde's statue in Waterloo Place as well as Edward VII's equestrian statue in the same location. Other buildings still bearing their scars are St Paul's Cathedral and the Victoria & Albert Museum, whose pockmarks are accompanied by a helpful plaque, which explains what these marks are and why they remain unrepaired. The Guards' Memorial also proudly displays shrapnel marks as do humbler structures such as the abutments of a railway bridge across Blackfriars Road and buildings in London Street, near Paddington Station.

Wartime scars on St Clement Danes Church (Author's photo)

All of these, as well as others serve to remind present day Londoners and visitors to this great city what our forebears endured over seventy years ago.

My next Westminster Blitz walk, in which we will explore several of the above-mentioned locations, as well as much else, is on Sunday November 16th 2014.

Printed Sources:

Battle of Britain Day: 15 September 1940 - Dr Alfred Price, Sidgwick & Jackson 1990
The Narrow Margin - Derek Wood with Derek Dempster - Tri Service Press 1990

Friday, 3 October 2014

One night in Greenwich & Woolwich

When looking back at the London Blitz, it is sometime difficult for the average person to always understand the extent of the damage caused to London (and to other towns and cities in the UK) and that interspersed with the major incidents that grabbed the headlines, there were many more mundane happenings during an average night, that occurred night in and night out but which had to be dealt with all the same and which had an impact to a greater or lesser extent on those who happened to be there at the time. The actual purpose of today's offering is to take a snapshot of a typical night during the Blitz and to show readers the number of incidents on such a night, the nature of them and how they were reported and acted upon by the Civil Defence services.

Anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis will know that this writer hails from Greenwich and so for the sake of example, we will look at the Incident Logs for this borough and for neighbouring Woolwich, which are absolutely typical of those across the capital and indeed across the whole of Great Britain.

Civil Defence Organization for Greenwich

Let us start with a brief description as to how incidents were reported and at the Civil Defence organization across the country. The United Kingdom was divided into regions for Civil Defence, under the overall control of the Minister of Home Security, who for the majority of the War, was Mr Herbert Morrison. Each region was under the control of a Civil Commissioner, responsible for the Civil Defence arrangements of the region. London was designated Region 5 and for the bulk of the War, the Civil Commissioner was Admiral Sir Edward Evans. The accompanying 'chain of command' chart gives an idea of the awesome responsibility held by the Civil Commissioner and of the huge number of services under his control.

London Civil Defence Organization
London was further sub-divided into Civil Defence Groups, each under the control of (usually) the Chief Executive of the relevant local authority; the inner London Boroughs formed Groups 1-5, whilst the outer London Boroughs and Urban/Rural Districts formed Groups 6-9, again as shown in the accompanying chart. The Chief Executive was the Civil Defence Controller for his or her borough including the control of incidents through the network of ARP Wardens, who acted as control officers to coordinate the efforts of the rescue services. In London, the Fire, Ambulance and Rescue services were all supplied by the London County Council, or LCC but were under the direct operational control of the Civil Defence Controller. Despite the seeming complexity of the system, it was basically a sound system that ran efficiently and smoothly.

Having established how London's Civil Defence was organized, let us now look at how the system worked in practice.

Typical incident report for Woolwich (author's collection)

As mentioned above, the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) Wardens were the essential link between events happening 'on the ground' and how they were dealt with. The Wardens were on patrol at all times during an 'alert' when the sirens had sounded. The wardens wore a basic uniform of a blue boiler suit, with the ubiquitous 'tin helmet' to provide their only protection against flying debris and shrapnel. Their 'badge of office' was a small silver 'ARP' badge worn proudly on the lapel which along with the 'W' on their steel helmets signified that these brave men and women, largely volunteers and many of whom were of 'a certain age' were the vital cog in the Civil Defence machinery. The wardens usually patrolled in pairs and when they came upon an incident, which on busy nights were only too commonplace, the younger and fitter of the pair was detailed to report back to the nearby Wardens' Post, where the Chief Warden for the Post would arrange for the required services and then phone details of the incident back to the Borough Control, usually located in the basement of the local Town Hall. There, the Duty Controller would record the incident on a sheet of paper as shown, which would then either be transcribed into a ledger for future reference, or filed as loose sheets. Each incident would be updated until deemed 'closed.'

Let us now look at a typical night in Greenwich and Woolwich and the sequence of events on the night of 5th/6th October 1940. During the day, the Luftwaffe had attacked targets in Kent and also Southampton, no doubt the Supermarine works, where the all-important Spitfires were being produced. By night, the targets switched to airfields in East Anglia and to London, which had been the focus of attention since September 7th. The weather had been bright during the day but with increasingly frequent showers in most areas.

The first incident recorded in Greenwich was at 00:25 on the 6th October, which was a report of Incendiary Bombs dropped in the grounds of Trinity Hospital, Greenwich which were extinguished by wardens without the need for the Fire Brigade to get involved. Incidents 2 & 3 are recorded at 01:45 and 01:50 at Siemens' Works and at 19 Heringham Road and again involved incendiaries, which were dealt with by the AFS (Auxiliary Fire Service) and by a Stirrup Pump Party respectively. Incident 4 was recorded at 02:15 as a High Explosive (HE) Bomb that fell harmlessly on open ground in Charlton Park Lane opposite Siemens Sports Ground. This must have been a relatively quiet night in Greenwich as the next incident is not recorded until 03:00 and demonstrates amply that not all incidents were of the Luftwaffe's making. The log records that 51 Haddo House in Claremont Street was struck by an Anti-Aircraft shell, proving the theory that "What goes up, must come down." Fortunately, on this occasion, no casualties were reported, although these 'friendly fire' incidents as they would be called nowadays, could sometimes have tragic consequences. There is then a long gap before the next incident is reported, almost certainly after the 'All Clear' had sounded and when people went out in the light of day to discover what had happened. This is recorded at 08:30 by the Cricket Pavilion in Charlton Park, which had been damaged by a HE Bomb - could this be the consequences of Incident 4, first reported at 02:15? Sadly, we shall never know. The next incidents follow the same pattern, being an unexploded AA shell at 08:37 in a field at the rear of 260 Wricklemarsh Road, then at 10:04, a UXB was reported at the RAF Depot in Kidbrooke Park Road, before finishing with the last incident reported at 10.24 at Angerstein's Wharf with the discovery of no fewer than 3 HE bombs and an incendiary for good measure. So ended a quiet-ish day in Greenwich.

Nearest ARP Warden (Author's collection)

Across the borough boundary in Woolwich, things were slightly busier. The first incident was reported at 20:35 on the evening of the 5th October with a HE Bomb in Queenscroft Road, Eltham which blocked the road between Eltham Hill and Queenscroft Road. This was quickly followed at 20:37 by an Oil Bomb at 99 Montbelle Road, which was soon extinguished. Incident 3, reported at the same time saw 3 x HE Bombs fall upon numbers 68 and 70 Eltham Hill. Not surprisingly, both houses were demolished, with others nearby being heavily damaged as well as Eltham Hill itself being blocked. Fortunately, in all of these incidents, no casualties were recorded. The next incident is missing from the log, so we shall never know what this refers to, whilst number 5 saw a HE Bomb fall harmlessly into a field on the western side of Crouch Croft. Another Oil Bomb, this time at 305 Green Lane, Eltham saw minor damage to a fence before it was dealt with by the Fire Brigade. A short lull then ensued before the action switched to Woolwich proper. A flurry of incidents starting at 23:49 saw clusters of incendiary bombs falling in Ferry Approach, Woolwich Dockyard, Warspite Road, Woolwich Church Street, Sunbury Street, Chapel Street and the Commonwealth Buildings. Fires were reported at all of these incidents but were eventually brought under control without casualties. A grimmer entry then ensues at 04:37 on the 6th October, when a HE Bomb is reported at 121 Crescent Road. The ominous words 'Mortuary Van required - 2 fatal casualties' appears and brings home to the casual reader the true meaning of the Blitz and of the bombing of civilians in general. Further HE bombs are reported at 40 St Margaret's Terrace, Old Mill Road and Woolwich Arsenal Station, which caused both lines to be blocked and repair gangs called out. Fortunately, as the 6th October was a Sunday, not too much inconvenience would have been caused to the travelling public, who presumably would have had better things to worry about in any case. The final Woolwich incident of the night's activities is number 14 and records another HE Bomb, this time at 193 Burrage Road and reminds us of another facet of the Civil Defence service; the occupant of the house was unharmed, though not surprisingly suffering from shock, but having lost her home and many of her possessions, the log notes that 'storage for furniture required.' Wherever property could be salvaged and made safe from looters, then it would be kept in storage until the bombed-out residents could be rehoused.

Repairing the damage in Woolwich Road (Author's collection)

So ended a moderate night's Blitz in Greenwich and Woolwich. Compared with September 7th 1940 and other nights still to come, the events of October 5th/6th were small beer indeed to the people of southeast London.

If you'd like to find out more about the Blitz, the V-Weapons and the effects of the war in general on Greenwich, I will be guiding a walk around Blackheath and Greenwich on Sunday October 12th, starting at 11:00am outside All Saints' Church Blackheath - for further details and how to book, visit our main website at

Published Sources:

The Narrow Margin - Derek Wood with Derek Dempster, Tri-Service Press 1990

Unpublished Sources:

Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich Civil Defence Incident Log
Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich Civil Defence Incident Log

Original documents held in Greenwich Heritage Centre - transcribed by the author