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

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