The maps themselves are things of great beauty and when studying them, it is sometimes easy to forget that each carefully coloured in building represents death, injury, personal loss and at the very least the loss of, or damage to, a place to live or work. These maps are also an important part of London's social history and it is right that they have at last been made available to a more general audience than just people like myself, who has frequently studied some of them at the archive.
In my opinion, some historians of this time have too much of an over reliance on personal accounts, which unsupported by facts, tend to become rather tedious after a very short time. In this comprehensive history, Mick manages to get a nice mixture of personal accounts and hard facts, well supported by a wealth of period photographs and some present day shots to give a 'then and now' perspective of many of the locations mentioned in the text.
The book starts with a brief introduction explaining something of the history of the Island and the construction of the docks, as well as providing the reader with some social history as to the demographic of the residential areas. The author then goes on to give a synopsis on the rise of Hitler in Germany and how Europe slipped inexorably into war during the 1930s.
There then follows a lengthy and useful chapter on the British preparations for war, covering the setting up of the Air Raid Precautions or ARP Sub-Committee in the late 1930s, which began to make provisions for the Civil Defence network across the country. This included the distribution of gas masks to the population, Gas Decontamination training, lighting restrictions (the 'Blackout'), air raid shelters, first aid posts, Air Raid Wardens, Rescue Squads, the Auxiliary Fire Service and Ambulance Service. Also covered in this chapter is the provision of anti-aircraft guns, barrage balloons, conscription and the evacuation of school children and pregnant women from the main centres of population to the relative safety of the countryside.
The scene is now set for the main focus of the book and Mick devotes a chapter to the First Day of The Blitz - 'Black Saturday' 7th September 1940. The timeline of the evening's events is given on an incident-by-incident basis, with some useful maps to provide the reader with a good idea as to where the bombs fell as well as a good number of personal accounts to illuminate the text and to give the human touch to what was happening on the ground. This chapter really brings home what it must have been like for the local residents and for the Civil Defence workers doing their best to keep the fires at bay and to keep the populace safe.
The following chapter focuses on the remaining days of the Night Blitz and summarize on a daily basis, each raid that affected the Island. Once again, the author provides a nice mixture of hard facts, personal accounts, contemporary news items as well as many photographs that bring the whole period to life very vividly. The following chapter looks at the period after the Blitz and tells of Home Guard exercises with mock battles, 'Tip and Run' raids, daily life in post-Blitz London, the 'Little Blitz', the construction of the Mulberry Harbours for D-Day (of which a considerable portion were built locally) and of course, the V-Weapons and the impact that these had on the already war-weary Islanders.
The final chapters concentrate of the aftermath of the war and the effect on the local population as well as the devastation caused that now had to be rebuilt, including the rise of the once ubiquitous 'pre-fab' as well as the difficulties in dealing with the unexploded wartime ordnance that is unearthed from time to time. The book closes with a chapter on the various memorials to the victims of the Blitz and subsequent attacks that can be found in the area.
All in all, this is a well researched and well written book that is a credit to it's author and a deserved memorial to the people of the Island who suffered so much during times of great hardship. I noticed one small typo (the 7th September 1940 is inadvertently given as 1941 in a couple of parts of the text) but this is a minor quibble. This self published book is very good value at £10.95 and is available direct via the author's blog as well as usual internet sources.
The final book to reach me is another recent publication dating from 2014 and concentrates on an often overlooked aspect of the German air attacks on Britain, the 'Little Blitz' of early 1944. The official name given by the Luftwaffe was Operation Steinbock, but to Londoners hardened by five years of war, it was dismissively known as the 'Baby Blitz' or The Little Blitz and it the latter name from which this book takes it's title. Written by John Conen, the author provides one of the few detailed studies of what was very much the Luftwaffe's last throw of the dice against London, certainly when it came to conventional, manned aircraft.
Operation Steinbock was a strategic failure for the Germans for a number of reasons. Firstly, the Luftwaffe of 1944 was a different animal to that of 1940-41. The losses incurred during the Battle of Britain and subsequent campaigns in the Mediterranean and Russia had weakened it irreparably both in terms of numbers of aircraft and experienced crews. Secondly, the Luftwaffe had not really modernized it's bomber fleet in any meaningful way and still relied largely upon the same obsolescent types of medium bomber that had failed to deliver the knock out blows against Britain in the Night Blitz; the only new type to see service during The Little Blitz was the Heinkel He177, an attempt to produce a heavy bomber with a comparable bomb load to the British and American 'heavies' but a design which suffered many teething problems with it's engine design and which did not appear in sufficient numbers to make any difference to the outcome of the war. The final factor in the failure of Steinbock were the great developments made in the British night fighter network, with all aircraft radar equipped and vectored onto their targets by a well drillled network of controllers and the anti aircraft guns by now equipped with the new proximity fuse.
John Conen begins his book with a chapter devoted to putting the Little Blitz in context which gives a brief run down of the Luftwaffe's previous attacks on British cities before getting down to a month by month breakdown of the Steinbock raids. As the author states, the first raid on the night of 21st/22nd January 1944 was an inauspicious start to the campaign, with only around 40 of the 200+ bombers despatched actually managing to reach London. Of the 500 tonne bomb load, only 268 tonnes fell on land and of this, only 32 tonnes actually hit anything in London. Bombs were scattered all across southeastern England. From a German point of view, things had gone badly wrong and a combination of poor navigation, effective British counter-measures and bad weather were all reasons put forward for this ignominious failure.
The author goes on to describe each raid in some detail and although these raids were nowhere near the scale of the 1940-41 attacks, much death and destruction was caused and as well as the many tons of High Explosive dropped, there seemed to be a greater emphasis on incendiary bombs than previously - perhaps in some measure retaliation for the vast quantities dropped almost nightly on German cities by the RAF.
One incident in the Little Blitz was comparable to anything that happened in the 1940-41 raids and was indeed the worst wartime incident in Chelsea, despite this borough being the third most bombed in London. This was the 'Guinness' incident of the night of 23rd/24th February 1944, so called because the bomb devastated a block of flats belonging to the Guinness Trust. This incident was recounted in the February 2012 edition of this blog and resulted in the award of the George Cross to Tony Smith, a member of the Heavy Rescue squad, who rescued several people from the flooded basement ruins of the building. Despite Smith's heroism, 59 civilians were killed on this terrible night.
The raids petered out in April 1944, with what proved to be the last bomb dropped on London from a conventional aircraft in the early hours of the 19th of that month. Operation Steinbock lingered on with further desultory attacks on southern coastal targets and came to an end on 30th/31st May with attacks on Falmouth and Portsmouth.
Operation Steinbock had no adverse effect on Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Europe which began just six days after the final raid on Falmouth. To the contrary, Steinbock helped the Allies; at the start of Steinbock, the Luftwaffe had 695 serviceable bombers to call upon in Western Europe but the heavy losses incurred meant that by D-Day, they could only muster 133 bomber aircraft, against which were ranged some 45 squadrons (over 800 aircraft) of Air Defence of Great Britain (ADGB) plus the huge Tactical Air Forces at Eisenhower's disposal.
John Conen has produced an excellent and very detailed summary of Operation Steinbock and The Little Blitz is to be commended. At £14.99, the price is perhaps a little steep for a book of only 128 pages but by shopping around online, it is quite easy to obtain this book for considerably less.
All of the books reviewed above are well recommended and are a worthy addition to the libraries of either the serious historian or anyone with an interest in the Second World War.
Being Silent They Speak - David J B Smith - Stand Easy Books, 2012. ISBN 9780957392502
The London County Council Bomb Damage Maps 1939-1945 - Laurence Ward - Thames & Hudson, 2015. ISBN 9780500518250
The Isle of Dogs During World War II - Mick Lemmerman - self published 2015. ISBN 9781507746110
The Little Blitz - John Conen - Fonthill Media, 2014. ISBN 9781781553084