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 http://www.blitzwalkers.co.uk/dates.html


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

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