Monday, 5 October 2020

A George Medal Hero in Charlton

During the lockdown forced upon us by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, I passed the time by writing up and producing a series of "virtual" Blitz Walks on Twitter, one of which covered my own local area of Charlton in Southeast London. One of the stories that came out at the time was that of Albert William Brittan, of the Greenwich Rescue Service, who was awarded a George Medal for his bravery in releasing victims trapped in a bombed house in Charlton Lane on 8 December 1940.

I had previously searched for a photograph of Albert at the National Archives and online but to no avail but was delighted recently when I chanced upon an edition of The Antiques Roadshow on BBC Television - not a programme I regularly watch - and saw an image of him appear, together with his medals, courtesy of his daughter who proudly told his story. As a result of this, I was able to take a screengrab of the photograph and can now tell his story a little more fully.

To begin with, we need to find out a little more about our hero; Albert William Brittan was born in 1904 to Amy Brittan (nee James) and her husband Joseph Brittan, a demolition worker. They lived at the family home in 41 Hamilton Street, Deptford. It was a large family, with Albert being one of five sons and with two sisters also living at home. Albert doesn't feature on the 1939 Register at that address, as he had married Emma Rose Roberts in 1929 and somehow seems to have slipped under the radar when the census was taken but three of the family are still at Hamilton Street; parents Joseph and Amy together with one of Albert's younger brothers, Sidney who is also listed as a demolition worker. This was obviously a family concern, for Albert's medal citation also shows this as his civilian occupation.

Albert William Brittan (centre) (screengrab from BBC Antiques Roadshow)

On the night of 8/9 December 1940, at approximately 02:40 close to where a level crossing takes the railway line from Woolwich Dockyard towards Charlton Station, two high explosive bombs fell on a terrace of houses located at 19/27 Charlton Lane. The incident log records "PEOPLE TRAPPED, 4 FATAL CASUALTIES, 6 TO HOSPITAL, 16 TO FIRST AID POST". 

It has to be remembered that this rather cold description was written in the heat of the moment, as were all such incident logs and is in fact, inaccurate in so far as five people lost their lives in this incident.

Albert Brittan's George Medal citation (author's image)

Shortly after the bomb fell, local Air Raid Wardens would have ascertained that persons were trapped in the ruins and it wasn't long before the Rescue Squad, under the command of 36-year-old Albert Brittan arrived on the scene. By this time, Albert was recorded as living at 14 Oxenham House, Benbow Street, Greenwich and had joined the Rescue Service soon after the outbreak of war. His experience as a demolition worker would no doubt have been of great benefit, given his knowledge of the construction of buildings.

On arrival at the scene, Brittan was informed that five people were trapped in the ruins of number 25 and soon worked out that they were trapped in the remains of the kitchen. He quickly set his squad to clearing as much of the debris as was safely possible and then entered the building himself. He was soon able to rescue a baby and after passing the infant to his colleagues, he went back into the ruins and after moving a door and beams obstructing his passage, he was able to rescue the baby's mother and carried her out of the building. Returning inside, he next freed a young girl and also recovered the body of an elderly lady. Shortly after re-entering the building yet again, the roof partially collapsed and almost trapped Albert but he persisted in his work, all the time whilst other bombs were falling and anti-aircraft shell fragments were falling in the vicinity.

After some five hours in the ruined house, he was finally able to rescue the final trapped person, a man who had been pinned down by floor joists. Once he rescued him, only then was Brittan satisfied that all of the occupants had been rescued. His hands were cut and bleeding and needed to be dressed by a doctor from a nearby First Aid Post, who happened to be Dr John Montgomery, Club Doctor of  Charlton Athletic Football Club, as well as being the Company Doctor at Siemen's (a large local employer at that time) and a future director at The Valley. Montgomery was one of the witnesses to Albert Brittan's recommendation for an award and was well qualified to do this, having no doubt witnessed his efforts at first-hand. 

Recommendation for Albert Brittan's award (author's image)

In total, thanks to the efforts of Albert Brittan and the other members of his Rescue Squad, seven of the twelve people they rescued between them came out alive and all subsequently survived. The five that lost their lives are listed at the bottom of the article.

Dr John Montgomery (centre in wing collar) (Charlton Athletic Museum)

Brittan was recommended for a George Medal by the London County Council, with the recommendation endorsed by Mr Tinslay, Officer in Charge of the Greenwich Rescue Service and by Dr John Montgomery of the Valley First Aid Post, with the award confirmed and gazetted in the London Gazette dated 25 April 1941. The citation concludes thus:

"Brittan was under the debris for five hours without relief and displayed initiative, resource and a high courage. Through his exertions, four persons were rescued alive."

The site of the bombed houses in Charlton Lane (Paul Chapman)

The bombed terrace of houses in Charlton Lane were never rebuilt after the war and today the site forms part of the grounds of Pound Park School but in a way, this is an apt memorial to the five who perished here as well as to the heroic efforts of Albert Brittan and his Rescue Squad who ensured that seven others lived to tell the tale.

I haven't yet been able to ascertain any real details of what Albert did subsequently but he appears to have died, aged only 46, on 31 October 1952 in Greenwich, leaving Emma Rose as his widow. One can only speculate whether his early death was due in some way to his dangerous work as a demolition contractor in an era when health and safety practices were largely absent in the workplace.

In remembrance of those who died here on the night of 8/9 December 1940:

Rachel Miekle Cumming, aged 72, of 27 Charlton Lane
Sidney Martin, aged 32, of 27 Charlton Lane
Florence Lilian Maud Budden, aged  37, of 25 Charlton Lane
Gertrude Budden, aged 59, of 25 Charlton Lane
Desmond Charles Lambert, aged 17, of 23 Charlton Lane

Postscript - 26 October 2020 - I have now been contacted by Keith Budden, aged 81 who was one of those pulled from the ruins of 25 Charlton Lane by the Rescue Squad, although in his case not by Albert Brittan. Keith too saw the Antiques Roadshow and was alerted to my blog post by a friend. Keith tells me that Barry Martin, then just seven months old and who was the baby rescued by Albert Brittan, is also still with us, aged 80. Both men subsequently married and have children and grandchildren, none of which would have been possible without the heroism of Albert Brittan GM and his rescue squad.

Both the Budden and Martin families, who counted amongst those rescued, as well as victims, are inextricably linked with the early history of Charlton Athletic FC and indeed a future Charlton legend, Brian Kinsey was related via marriage to the Budden family and was one of those rescued from the ruins of 27 Charlton Lane. 


Published Sources:

The London Gazette - dated 25 April 1941


Unpublished Sources:

Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich Civil Defence Incident Log 1939 - 1945
Home Office Inter-Departmental Committee on Civil Defence Gallantry Awards, Case No. 843 - HO 250/19/843 - UK National Archives, Kew






Monday, 14 September 2020

The First Day of the Blitz in Greenwich

Luftwaffe reconnaissance photo taken in the early evening of Saturday 7 September 1940 (author's collection) 

The above photo was taken from a Luftwaffe aircraft during the early evening of Saturday 7 September 1940 - "Black Saturday" as Londoners came to call it - the first day of the London Blitz and an afternoon and evening never to be forgotten by anybody who experienced it. The annotations are mine as I wanted to mark some local landmarks to the image as 7 September was a day that impacted upon my family, as it did on many thousands of people across the eastern half of London, on both sides of the Thames.

My late Mother was one of those affected by the events of the day, in so far as she had been working at Woolwich Arsenal until lunchtime in her job at the Pay Office there. Although a half day on Saturday was the normal order of things, she quite often had to work a full day but fortunately on this day, her work was completed in time for a scheduled departure at 13:00. Had she left later in the afternoon, she could well have been caught up in the events there later.

In the Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich, the first incident was recorded at exactly 17:00 at 38, 59 and 61 Basildon Road, Abbey Wood, with a High Explosive (HE) bomb as well as a Delayed Action device (DAB) reported. Nos 59 and 61 were reported as completely demolished and a large fire burning out of control, although happily with no casualties. The LCC Bomb Damage Map for Basildon Road confirms that the two houses towards the top left of the road (between the 'L' and 'D' on the map) were damaged beyond repair and a look at Streetview today confirms this, with a much newer property (no. 61) in the space left by the two destroyed houses. This much more modern building coupled with the fact that the house numbers jump from 57 to 61 without a no. 59, tells the present-day looker what happened here.

LCC Bomb Map for Basildon Road (author's image)

The "new" no. 61 Basildon Road fills the space left by the destroyed 59 & 61 (Google Streetview)

Things soon began to deteriorate in the borough and by 17:50 buildings in the Woolwich Dockyard were well on fire. This is the huge column of smoke that can be seen at the top centre of the photograph at the head of this page. The Incident Log tells us "Major Fire, 30 pumps in service, one casualty dealt with locally. Commonwealth Buildings - three buildings on fire, only 2 pumps on spot." Clearly a dangerous situation as the Dockyard was by then being used by the Woolwich Arsenal for the storage of ordnance, amongst other things. Fortunately, this fire was brought under control before things got out of hand, although the fires at Commonwealth Buildings were still alight at 21:00. Elsewhere in the borough, casualties began to mount - two mortuary vans were required for an incident in Plumstead High Street at 17:52, whilst a direct hit on a shelter in Wickham Lane, near the 'Foresters Arms' pub saw two women, together with a boy and a girl killed. There was no let-up as the evening progressed and the raiders returned; four further fatalities were reported at Lakedale Road, including an AFS Station Officer, Frederick Tierney.

So it continued, throughout the early hours of the 8th with no respite - in total 92 incidents appear in the log for the night of 7/8 September, whilst across the borough boundary in Greenwich a similar story was developing.

In Greenwich, the first incident was not reported until 17:50 in Ordnance Crescent with "many IBs" (incendiary bombs) being the terse comment on the log. At 18:00 in Kidbrooke Grove (initially wrongly reported as Kidbrooke Gardens) we see the words "RAF parachutist badly injured" - this is Flight Lieut Richard Reynell who sadly was dead following the non-deployment of his parachute and whose story has been covered in this blog on several occasions, most recently in August 2017.

As in Woolwich, events intensified as the evening progressed - the first civilian fatality was reported at Armada Street in Greenwich at 18:15, whilst four minutes later, there is a report of an "aeroplane down" in Victoria Way, Charlton although I haven't yet been able to glean any further details of this, including whether it was a friendly or an enemy machine. At 22:56, the Johnson & Phillips cable factory in Victoria Way is also reported hit, with one building in danger of collapse, which seems to have occurred later when looking at the photographs taken later the following morning.


Damage to the Johnson & Phillips cable factory in Charlton (Greenwich Heritage)

Collapsed building at Johnson & Phillips (Greenwich Heritage)

The raid continued into the early hours, although in Greenwich there were slightly fewer incidents,  with 64 recorded by the local ARP Service. Fatal casualties in Greenwich amounted to 25, compared to 69 across the borough border in Woolwich. It was a bad night for London with some 400 civilians killed and was the precursor of fifty seven consecutive nights when London was bombed and of a wider Blitz across all major British towns and cities which would last until the spring of 1941.


Published Sources:

The London County Council Bomb Damage Maps 1939 - 1945, editor Laurence Ward - Thames & Hudson 2015

Unpublished Sources: 

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


Sunday, 2 August 2020

Splinters, Shrapnel and London's 'Honourable Scars'

Steve pointing out the splinter damage on General Wolfe's statue (Sam Dorrington, Surrey Photographer)

For clients taking one of my 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 artefacts 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 understanding 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 splinter and 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 eighty years ago and sometimes from the First World War too.

The author's shrapnel fragments from a British anti-aircraft shell (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 General Henry Shrapnel, of the Royal Artillery, perfected what he called "spherical case" ammunition, which was basically a hollow cannon ball, filled with musket balls 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 by the Second World War, Henry Shrapnel's surname had become the generic description for any bomb or shell fragments.

This writer is lucky enough to possess several such 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 many forms; first we have the shell fragments, which in this case come from the driving bands of British 3.7" anti-aircraft shells. Modern gun barrels are "rifled" with helical grooves that are machined on the interior bore of the gun barrel and at the base of a shell is a brass or copper alloy band with corresponding grooves that engage with those inside the gun barrel, thus causing the shell to rotate upon firing.

People sometimes overlook the fact that apart from the fragments from 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 splinters, 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)

Another similar 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 but still represented a major defeat for the Luftwaffe. Combined with earlier heavy losses, the German 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 Bright's bomb splinter (Author's photo)

Then of course, we have the pieces that come from German bombs, more correctly described as splinters rather than shrapnel. Neil Bright, formerly of this parish, 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. There are many similar pieces on display in museums, at home and abroad. The church of St Edmund, King & Martyr is perhaps unique in containing splinters from a bomb that was actually dropped on the building by a German Gotha aircraft in 1917 and which fell through the roof. Not only are pieces of the bomb still on display inside the church but the entry point was converted into a window, located in the roof!

Bomb fragments at St Edmund, King & Martyr Church in the City of London (author's photo)

The entry point of the bomb at St Edmund, King & Martyr (author's photo)

The museum at the Royal Hospital Chelsea goes one better by having a complete bomb on display, in this case a 250 kg HE bomb which was one of three that fell in the grounds of the Infirmary on 16 October 1940, all of which failed to explode.

Unexploded 250 kg bomb on display at Royal Hospital, Chelsea (author's photo)

In Hamburg, two museums in that city display bomb splinters of impressive proportions; the Bunker Museum at Hamm has a substantial fragment of a British 250 lb bomb found in the immediate area when clearing the ground prior to the opening of the museum. The thought of this scything through the air is truly frightening. The museum in the crypt of the Nikolai Kirche also has some large splinters on display, as well as some complete bombs, again of the unexploded variety.

British 250 lb bomb fragment at Hamburg Bunker Museum (author's photo)

Bomb fragments at the Mahnmal St Nikolai, Hamburg (author's photo)

Unexploded RAF 250 lb bomb at the Mahnmal St Nikolai (author's photo)

Today, many buildings in London still display the "Honourable Scars" of their Wartime past, amongst them General Wolfe's statue in Greenwich Park, St Bartholomew'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 splinter damage 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)

Damage to the base of Lord Clyde's statue in Waterloo Place (author's photo)

All of these, as well as others serve to remind present day civilians here in London and elsewhere what our forebears had to endure during the dark days of the Second World War.



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


Monday, 1 June 2020

Another Aircrew Remembered


The postcard that started it all (author's photograph)

This piece originally appeared in January 2016 and as with all of my posts of this nature, I appealed for assistance at the end of the article, as at that time, I had no photographs of the aircrew involved. This has now been rectified thanks to the good offices of Wayne Buck, whose wife Jane's Grandfather, Eric Arthur Charles, had been the mid-upper gunner of EF364 and therefore one of the crew members who were lost on the night of 29/30 July 1943. Thanks to Wayne and Jane, we now have photographs of the entire crew, plus one or two more poignant mementos. I am indebted to them for this additional information and the photographs are now reproduced here with their kind permission.

The origins of my search for this particular Bomber Command aircrew began with the simple postcard shown at the top of this page, which was found in the archives of the now defunct Southall Cricket Club. The postcard makes heart rending reading and is a simple message of thanks from the parents of 21 year old Sergeant Raymond Bowyer RAFVR, who had been posted missing from an Operational Flight over Germany on the night of 29/30 July 1943. Ray's grieving parents had obviously been overwhelmed with messages of sympathy and support from the members of the cricket club of which he had been a playing member in peacetime and in those dark days, a simple 'thank you' postcard was the best method of conveying gratitude.

The aircrew of EF364 minus the pilot, Allan Forbes. Here we see (from left to right) Frederick Webb, Eric Charles, Dale Pushor, Ray Bowyer, Frederick Webb, Arthur Pyrah (Photo courtesy Wayne & Jane Buck)

The details on the card were for reasons of wartime security, scant and it is likely that Ray's parents would have been told nothing more than they had shared on the card but with the benefit of modern day research, we have been able to learn a little more about Ray's final mission.

Ray had joined the Royal Air Force in 1942 as a volunteer for aircrew duties - throughout the war, the RAF was able to rely on an all-volunteer intake for aircrew. After his basic training, he was posted to Bomber Command as an Air Bomber (Bomb Aimer) and after his Operational Training, was posted to 1651 Conversion Unit at RAF Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire in order to become accustomed to flying as part of a seven man crew on one of the four engine heavy bombers then becoming the backbone of Bomber Command's force. It was here that he would have "crewed up" with the men that he would serve with for the rest of his life. These men would rely on each other's skills to survive and would often become lifelong friends - it is clear from the photos of the crew that these men are good mates.

The crew was formed of Flying Officer Allan Forbes (Pilot), a 20 year old Canadian from Maple Creek, Saskatchewan. Another Canadian was Flying Officer Dale Pushor (Navigator) age 21, from East Coulee, Alberta, whilst the remainder of the crew were English. These were Sergeant Frederick Webb (Flight Engineer) age 22 from Fetcham, Surrey, Pilot Officer Douglas Pool (Wireless Operator/Air Gunner) age 21, nicknamed "Joe" from Surbiton, Surrey, Sergeant Ray Bowyer (Air Bomber) age 21 from Norwood Green, Middlesex, Sergeant Eric Charles (Mid-Upper Gunner) age 21 from Sheffield and Flying Officer Arthur Pyrah (Rear Gunner) age 29, by far the oldest of the crew and therefore nicknamed "Pop" - from Tingley, Yorkshire.

The crew's signatures minus that of the pilot Allan Forbes and that of Eric Charles (Wayne & Jane Buck) 

On completion of their training with 1651 Conversion Unit, the crew were posted to 15 Squadron at RAF Bourn, Cambridgeshire on 30 March 1943 but would soon move with the squadron to a new base at RAF Mildenhall. Their time with 15 Squadron was to prove short-lived, as after flying just three missions, they were posted to 7 Squadron at RAF Oakington, part of the elite Pathfinder Force on 23 April 1944.

It is possible that Forbes and his crew were "poached" by a member of the Pathfinder Force, quite possibly Group Captain Hamish Mahaddie, who had recently been posted out of 7 Squadron to 8 Group Headquarters after completing 58 missions and who despite his title of Group Training Inspector, was very much a "talent spotter" who would lure promising crews across to the newly formed force. A posting to the Pathfinders meant an increase in one's operational tour from 30 missions to 45 but such was the attraction of serving in what was seen as an elite force, many crews jumped at the chance.

As with the crew's previous posting, 7 Squadron was still flying the RAF's first four engine heavy bomber, the Short Stirling, although they were on the verge of converting to the more modern Avro Lancaster. The Squadron motto is "Per Diem Per Noctem" which translates into "By Day By Night" but it would be fair to say that by July 1943, it was the "Per Noctem" part of the motto which was relevant to 7 Squadron's activities and indeed, to Bomber Command as a whole. The Pathfinder Force was under the overall command of Air Vice Marshal Don Bennett, a no-nonsense Australian and it was their job to reach any target first, often under heavy fire and to mark the target accurately with marker flares of various colours, known as Target Indicators or 'T.I.s'. The Main Force following up, would be briefed beforehand to know what each of the different colour T.I.s referred to and therefore, which ones to aim at. Despite the initial misgivings of Bomber Command's Commander in Chief, Sir Arthur Harris, the system began to pay dividends and bombing accuracy did show a marked improvement.

7 Squadron crest
By July 1943, Bomber Command were beginning to hit German cities hard and Harris felt the time was right to provide another demonstration of the awesome hitting power of his force by effectively wiping one German city from the map, thus showing the citizens of the Third Reich that there was no effective defence against the RAF's heavy bombers and that it was only a matter of time before all the major cities and centres of war production went the same way. The Hanseatic port city of Hamburg was chosen as the target for the raids, which were ominously code-named 'Gomorrah' and for the first time, the USAAF was to join the party in a series of coordinated 'round the clock' raids that would give the population no respite and which would reduce Hamburg to a smouldering ruin, with tens of thousands dead and an estimated 1.2 million refugees fleeing the city.

The first raid came on the night of 24/25 July 1943 when 791 British heavy bombers set off from their bases. Confusion amongst the German defenders was sown by the British use of a radar countermeasure known as "Window" for the first time. It comprised of aluminium foil, painted opaquely on one side and cut in strips that were the same length as the wavelength used by the German radar, which effectively 'blinded' the Luftwaffe's radar system, creating thousands of false reflections. The RAF had had this for some time but had hesitated to use it for fear of it being copied by the Luftwaffe side and thus similarly paralysing the British radar system. In fact, the Germans had also developed the same countermeasure, named by them as "Doppel" ("Double") but had also been reluctant to use it for fear of it being imitated by the British!

The RAF dropped 2,300 tons of bombs, both High Explosive and Incendiary, mostly on the western and north western side of the city. The raid was compressed into just about an hour, which would have provided a terrifying amount of bombs to fall in such a short amount of time. Allan Forbes and his crew mates took part in this raid, dropping their bomb load and returning to base safely. They were in action again the following night, taking part in a large raid on Essen.

It is thought that the Pilot, F/O Allan Leighton Forbes is in the centre of the front row (Wayne & Jane Buck)

The USAAF followed up in Hamburg with a daylight raid on 25 July, concentrating on the shipyards and industrial areas in the Wilhelmsburg area south of the River Elbe. Although this raid was much lighter than that of their British allies, it would have meant that fire crews and civilians alike, dog tired from the night previously, would have no respite. 

The night of the 25th saw a 'nuisance' raid by six RAF Mosquito light bombers, which would have set nerves further on edge. A further USAAF daylight raid followed on the harbour district during the 26 July, followed by another 'nuisance' raid by RAF Mosquitoes the same night. The daytime of 27 July must have been a day of panic in Hamburg, as successive false alarms set off the Air Raid Sirens and nerves would have been jangling by the time the sirens sounded again at 23:40 that evening, for what was to prove the knockout blow, a raid in which Forbes and his crew once again took part and from which they bombed and returned without incident.

This raid on the night of 27/28 July saw 787 RAF heavy bombers leave their bases in eastern England from 22:00 and this time it was the eastern side of the city, home to many of the poorer working class citizens that was to suffer. Once again, the raid was compressed into less than an hour, with a tremendous concentration of bombs falling in the suburbs of Hammerbrook, Borgefelde and Hamm. Soon, the fires started by the incendiary bombs began to suck in vast amounts of oxygen and created a phenomenon known as a firestorm. The winds created by this were so strong that people were lifted bodily into the flames and those that were strong enough to resist it, could only crawl along on their hands and knees. It must truly have been a hellish spectacle for anyone fortunate enough to survive it.

The following day, the Nazi Gauleiter of Hamburg, Klaus Kaufmann ordered the evacuation of all women and children from the city and some 1.2 million people began their exodus into the countryside and eventually to other parts of Germany, some never to return to their old neighbourhoods.

Extract from 7 Squadron Operational Record Book (author's image)

A further nuisance raid by Mosquitos followed on the night of 28/29 July before a further massed raid set off for Hamburg on the night of 29/30 July, which again included the crew of Allan Forbes and their fellow members of 7 Squadron and which formed part of a greater force of 777 aircraft.

For this raid, they were assigned to Stirling aircraft serial number EF364, codenamed "MG-X" and the Operational Record Book for 7 Squadron tells us that they took off from Oakington at 22:12 with a load of 5 x 500 lb HE bombs, as well as 1 x Red Target Indicator, 5 x Green Target Indicators and 1 x Red Flare.

Sgt. Eric Arthur Charles (Wayne & Jane Buck)

The exact fate of Stirling EF364 was unknown and the aircraft is merely reported as 'missing' in the Squadron Records. No trace was ever found of the bomber or its crew, so one can only surmise that they were probably shot down by a night fighter over the sea on their northerly approach to the city. This aircraft was one of 31 lost on this raid, with 176 air crew killed or missing, with a further 17 being taken prisoner. The crew of EF364 were flying their thirteenth operational mission with 7 Squadron, although as has been mentioned previously, they had already flown three raids with 15 Squadron prior to their posting to the Pathfinder Force.

The raid itself caused another firestorm, this time centred on the north eastern suburb of Barmbek and once again, the raid was concentrated into around forty five minutes and was deemed a success.

There was one further raid in the "Gomorrah" sequence, on the night of 2/3 August, when a further 740 RAF bombers looked to hit Hamburg another massive blow. This time, the weather intervened and a massive thunderstorm scattered the attack all across northern Germany. Some bombs did fall on Hamburg but the raid was disorganised by previous standards and little further damage was caused. The all clear sounded at 03:30 and for those few people remaining behind, the task of extinguishing the fires, recovering the thousands of dead and tidying the rubble laid ahead.

Eric Charles's final letter home (Wayne & Jane Buck)

Hamburg was a shadow of its former self and would not recover until many years after the war had ended. Following the short series of raids by the RAF and USAAF, some 42,000 of the population were dead and many more were wounded or mentally scarred by their experiences. The RAF had dropped approximately 7,800 tons of bombs on the city and out of a total of 3,095 sorties that had been mounted, some 87 aircraft were lost. When one compares the tonnage of bombs dropped in four raids to those dropped on London (18,291 tons) in the entire war, and the London casualties for the same period (approximately 30,000), the Hamburg statistics make grim reading indeed.

As well as the photos of the crew, Wayne provided a copy of Eric Charles' final letter home, which makes poignant reading indeed and which is reproduced above, with permission.

Ray Bowyer remembered at Runnymede (author's photograph)

Bomber Command suffered a staggering 55,573 killed during the war, which was the highest loss rate of any single arm of the British Armed Forces during that conflict. This particular crew are commemorated on the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede in Surrey that is dedicated to the 20,456 men and women from the British and Commonwealth Air Forces who were lost during the Second World War and who have no known grave.

We should remember them all; the bomber crews as well as the civilian victims on the ground and must fervently hope that we shall never again see the like of Operation Gomorrah.


In Memory of the crew of Stirling EF364

Flying Officer Allan Leighton Forbes RCAF (Pilot & Capt) - Maple Creek, Saskatchewan, Canada
Flying Officer Dale Ernest Pushor RCAF (Navigator) - East Coulee, Alberta, Canada
Pilot Officer Douglas Leonard Arthur "Joe" Pool RAFVR (Wireless Operator) - Surbiton, Surrey
Sergeant Frederick Herbert Webb RAFVR (Flight Engineer) - Fetcham, Surrey
Sergeant Raymond Marshall Bowyer RAFVR (Air Bomber/Front Gunner) - Norwood Green, Middlesex
Sergeant Eric Arthur Charles RAFVR (Mid Upper Gunner) - Sheffield, Yorkshire
Flying Officer Arthur "Pop"  Pyrah RAFVR (Rear Gunner) - Tingley, Yorkshire



Published Sources:

The Battle of Hamburg - Martin Middlebrook - Allan Lane, 1980
The Bomber Command War Diaries - Martin Middlebrook & Chris Everitt - Pen & Sword, 2014 
Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg 1943 - Keith Lowe - Penguin Viking, 2007


Unpublished Sources:

7 Squadron Operational Record Books - UK National Archives Documents AIR 27/100/1 - 13
15 Squadron Operational Record Books - UK National Archives Documents AIR 27/203/17 - 56







Sunday, 10 May 2020

Lilliput, The Blitz and Mickey the Midget

Mickey Davies aka Mickey the Midget and a family friend (Author's collection)

Regular readers will remember that this article first appeared in March 2016 and was one of those stories that immediately caught people's imaginations. Therefore, last week I was delighted to receive feedback and a subsequent e-mail from Mickey's daughter, Simone Davies, in which she pointed out one or two inaccuracies which had crept into my original story and also kindly gave some more insights to her late father's life.

The main error was in the spelling of Mickey's surname - I had used three main sources for the article - two pieces by the journalist Ritchie Calder and a further article that appeared in Optical Connections magazine. Two out of the three spelled his name 'Davis' whilst the original Ritchie Calder chapter from his book 'Carry on London!' had what turned out to be the correct spelling of 'Davies.' Unfortunately, I took the majority view and decided upon the wrong version but am happy to correct the spelling. The other main problem was the identity of the lady in the above photo, which again in two out of the three source pieces, identified her as being Mickey's wife, whilst in 'Carry on London!' she was not identified in any way. Simone pointed out that the lady in question was a family friend who just happened to be in the shelter when Calder was visiting. Apparently, at some point she was wrongly identified as being Mickey's wife and the story gained legs. Once again, I am happy to put the record straight. The other inaccuracy that I perpetuated was the question of Mickey's height - the story of him being only 3 feet 6 inches tall is another urban myth that has been repeated over the years, when in fact he was a foot taller than this, so as with the other issues, I've set the record straight below.

With Simone's permission, I'm happy to repeat her email below - it clearly (and rightly) shows the pride in her Dad's achievements and offers some fascinating insights into what sort of man he was:

"Anyway, the lady in the picture was a family friend who happened to be in the shelter at the time when the journalist did the story - when and how she got mistaken for my mother I don't know. Also, my father was about four feet four, not three foot four, which is another error that has followed the story for years. I do have my parents wedding photos but most photos, i.e. the Boys' Club etc., and other bits have been given to my nephew who is now the keeper of all the family photos/papers/history etc.

I was very young when my father died but have loads of really nice and also some funny stories told by my mother to me and my sister of my father, the shelter and both of my parents parts in the war (she was in the Local Control, so sending out Ambulances and Rescue Teams to local bombings.) Also the Boys' Club (which wasn't basic but as you can imagine with anything organised by my father, well equipped and very nice.) His political and social work following the war. His Optician 'Shop' was relocated to his study at our home. He was a very much loved and respected man. His shelter visited by people from American ex-Presidents to Clementine Churchill (all signed his visitors' book) and counted amongst his friends following the war were people from Peter Rowntree to the leader of the Labour Party.

By the way, my father was only 43, not 46 when he died.

I hope these give you a tiny bit more insight into my father's life."

The original article, duly corrected and updated, is repeated below. I'm hoping to receive some more stories about Mickey and his life from Simone and if so, I will make a further update so as to share this information.

One of the many pleasures of my job (if you can call it a job) is that friends and acquaintences often become part of an extended detective network, alerting me to finds they have made that are of interest to my Second World War hobby that has now become a substantial part of my living. Such a find came to light recently, when a friend presented me with a delightful little book called Lilliput Goes to War, an anthology of articles, photographs and drawings that appeared in the pocket magazine Lilliput during the wartime years of 1939-45.

I have to confess to previously being only vaguely aware of Lilliput, as it had gone out of print in August 1960, before I was two years of age!

For those completely unaware, Lilliput was one of the many magazines and pictorials published in the pre television and internet age, when the printed media, along with radio and cinema, were the only forms of mass media available to the public. Lilliput was founded in 1937 by the photo journalist Stefan Lorant as a small format, pocket sized monthly journal of the arts, humour, photography and short stories. Apart from Lorant's own work, it was soon able to attract contributors of the calibre of Ernest Hemingway, Osbert Sitwell, HE Bates, John Pudney, Arthur Koestler, Robert Graves and Walter Trier, who illustrated many of the early covers. The magazine soon gained a reputation for its lively articles, illustrations and photographic jokes, which often took the form of juxtaposed or double photographs with humourous captions. It was also known for occasionally publishing what were for the time, quite daring photographs of female nudes.

In some ways, Lilliput became a victim of its own success, for by early 1939, the print runs had become so substantial that paying for them presented a serious cash flow problem for Lorant and he was simply unable to afford to continue printing the magazine. Fortunately, Sir Edward Hulton, publisher of another of the great pictorial magazines, Picture Post, stepped in and purchased Lilliput, which was able to continue publication with the existing editorial staff.

It was whilst thumbing through this charming anthology of wartime journalism that I happened across an article by the journalist Ritchie Calder about a wartime character called Mickey the Midget. This sparked something in my memory as I remembered reading about Mickey in another work by Calder, a 1941 book called Carry on London! which carried a longer piece about Mickey and his work in organising a shelter in London's Spitalfields Market.

The London Fruit & Wool Exchange Building (author's photo)

Mickey Davies, for that was his real name, was an optician in his late twenties, whose shop was reputedly located somewhere close to Spitalfields, in what we now know as the Borough of Tower Hamlets but which in 1940, formed part of the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney. Strangely perhaps, there are no records in local trade directories as to where this business was actually located but according to Mickey himself, it was destroyed by a German bomb on 13th September 1940. Mickey was only 4 feet 6 inches tall and with a mis-shapen back, hence his somewhat politically incorrect nickname but the destruction of his shop enabled him to devote time to helping those in the Spitalfields Shelter. In addition to his optician business, Mickey was also a local social activist and indeed was later to become a Stepney borough councillor and briefly, Deputy Mayor before his death in the 1950s. His activism was very much geared towards helping people in his local community and in wartime, ensuring that their shelter facilities were safe, sanitary and the equal of anything for those provided to the wealthier citizens of London in the West End.

The shelter in question was located beneath the London Fruit and Wool Exchange in Brushfield Street, Spitalfields. The interior of this building has now sadly been demolished to make way for a new development as part of the area's gentrification but the facade still remains. The original market building comprised a cavernous basement, which was capable of holding some 2,500 people in relative safety, although in practice, over twice that number frequently crammed into the space. 

To begin with, conditions were appalling, with almost non-existent sanitation, no proper bedding (people initially slept upon bags of rubbish) and minimal lighting. The floors soon became awash with urine, faeces and other filth. Mickey Davies was appalled by what he found and by the apparent lack of interest, or at best, will from the authorities to get things better organised. Davies was highly intelligent and more importantly, a superb organiser and he quickly became invaluable to the shelterers and a thorn in the side of the local authority in his efforts to improve the conditions for those using the shelter.

Firstly, he set about improving the sanitary conditions in the shelter as well as providing education about hygiene and establishing disease prevention practices in the shelter. He then began to get shelter users themselves to provide First Aid and Medical supplies by organising collections to purchase what was needed. Trained in First Aid himself, he then persuaded local Stretcher Parties to give up their off duty time to tend to the sick and injured in the shelter. He also built up a card index system recording the medical history of each person using the shelter and created what he called a "Passport to Health" amongst the shelterers. Using his many contacts in the profession, he also procured the services of a GP to visit the shelter every night. Proper steel bunk beds were also installed, which ensured that shelterers could get a decent night's sleep.

Lilliput Goes to War (author's image)

He also negotiated with a local Marks & Spencer branch to donate food in order to run a canteen in the basement, the proceeds of which were used to provide free milk for the children using the shelter. Under Mickey's stewardship, the Spitalfields Shelter was transformed and became a coherent community in it's own right, with his medical innovations pre-dating the introduction of the NHS by some eight years.

According to Calder, Mickey's form of common sense community socialism was seen by some, including some of the 'casual' (i.e. non regular) shelterers themselves as "Communism" and these concerns were raised to Calder, himself a sometime user of the shelter. When told that there were "Communists" amongst the Shelter Committee, he replied that "There may be bigamists amongst them for all I care!"

Calder's point being that the accusations of "Communism" were not only absurd but also irrelevant. Provided the shelter was being run correctly and was an improvement on what went before, which it certainly was, then any such accusations could rightly be seen as being largely based on petty jealousies touted by some in local government who should have known better. To be fair, others in government and local government never really regarded Communism as being a realistic menace at this time and saw these innovations by local people as being healthy manifestations of a community spirit.

Perhaps shamed by the actions of Mickey Davies and many other people like him elsewhere, the government instructed local authorities across the country to appoint official Shelter Marshals to control air raid shelters and to ensure that conditions were improved. On the face of it, this instruction made Mickey redundant but the Shelter Committee were having none of this and unanimously elected Davies as their Chief Shelter Marshal. To his eternal credit, the Civil Defence Controller of Stepney, a Mr Eric Adams, acquiesed to the Shelter Committee's wishes and confirmed Mickey in his 'new' official position, which importantly for Davies, without the income from his now destroyed business, was a salaried position.

Under Mickey's direction, a second canteen was established in the shelter, with all profits being re-invested in improving facilities such as the installation of a better lighting system. The shelter became largely self-policing, with shelterers becoming responsible for keeping their own parts of the shelter clean and tidy and for ensuring correct standards of behaviour amongst the shelter community.

Not for nothing did Ritchie Calder describe Mickey Davies as being "Three feet six inches (sic) of reckless unconcern and tireless energy."

After the war, Davies continued to live in the area and was elected as a councillor of Stepney Borough Council in 1949. In 1956, he was elected Deputy Mayor but sadly died later that same year, at the very young age of 43 before he was able to take up the post of Mayor, which would normally have become his the following year.

Lilliput magazine continued, latterly under the editorship of Jack Hargreaves, later of TV's "Out of Town" and "How" fame, until August 1960, when it was purchased and amalgamated into Men Only magazine, before that particular publication became better known for it's soft porn content.


Published Sources:

Carry on London! - Ritchie Calder, English Universities Press, 1941
Lilliput Goes to War - editor Kaye Webb, Hutchinson, 1985





Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Book Review: The Thames at War, Saving London from The Blitz by Gustav Milne



The Blitz remains a defining moment in the more recent history of our capital city, a time when Londoners found themselves under almost nightly attack from September 1940 to May 1941 and following a welcome intermission in the second half of 1941 and 1942, were once again under fire during the Little Blitz of late 1943 to early 1944 and rounded off by Hitler's so-called "Vengeance Weapons" from June 1944 right up until late March 1945, barely six weeks before the Nazi capitulation signalled the end of the war in Europe.

This new book by Gustav Milne and the Thames Discovery Programme, a community based archaeological project that surveys the Thames and it's foreshore, tells the story of the London County Council's Thames-Flood Prevention Emergency Repairs Service, or "T-F" for short, one of the lesser known facets of London's Civil Defence organisation during those wartime years, which was largely the creation of Sir Thomas Pierson Frank, the LCC's Chief Engineer from 1930 to 1946 - a classic case of "Cometh the hour, cometh the man" if ever there was one.

The River Thames is London's raison d'etre and then as now, feeds a major port, which during the Second World War was the largest and busiest in the world. But whilst acting as London's life blood, an enemy bomb, doodlebug or rocket could breach the river's embankments at high tide, or fracture one of the many tunnels running beneath it and instantly turn the Thames into a terrifying monster which could kill thousands, paralyse the capital's services and cripple a major part of the British war effort.

As we learn from this book, the embankments were breached on numerous occasions, as were at least two of the tunnels running beneath the Thames but thanks to the superb work of the T-F teams, coupled with a certain amount of good fortune, a major flood disaster in the capital never followed.

The book begins by telling us something of the history of the various floods to affect London in the years prior to the Second World War and of the establishment of the T-F Service. A detailed summary of the works undertaken by the various Rapid Response Teams of the T-F Service then follows, which explains how their work was undertaken of necessity always with one eye on the clock and the state of the ever changing tides. We then learn something of the other emergency services on the river, such as the Auxiliary Fire Service and the Thames Division of the Metropolitan Police, as well as the efforts to keep London's river crossings open throughout the Blitz and the running repairs that were frequently required following heavy raids. We also learn of the work of the various engineers and labourers who worked for the T-F Service, many of whom remain anonymous to this day. Of course, the Port of London would be meaningless without the shipping that served it and the book finishes up with a section devoted to the ships lost on the river and in it's estuary, as well as examining the role played by the Thames during two pivotal operations of the war, DYNAMO and OVERLORD, both of which were crucial to the ultimate Allied victory.

I have one very minor complaint - the author insists on calling the V-1 Buzz Bombs "Rockets" - this is not correct, they were "Flying Bombs" which were not rocket powered (they were propelled by a pulse-jet engine) and I suspect that he has perhaps got them slightly confused with the subsequent V-2 weapons, which were indeed rockets designed by one Wernher von Braun and his team.

However, this is a minor gripe which did not detract from my overall enjoyment of this well-written, profusely illustrated and meticulously researched book and I have no hesitation in commending it to you, whether you are a guide like me, or have a more general interest in London's wartime history.



THE THAMES AT WAR: Saving London from the Blitz
By Gustav Milne

RRP: £19.99
Hardback, pp208





Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Book Review: City of London at War 1939 - 45 by Stephen Wynn


The latest in Pen & Sword Military's excellent series of "Your Towns & Cities in World War Two" covers the City of London, the "Square Mile" that was and remains the financial and business heart of the United Kingdom and comes from the author Stephen Wynn, who has contributed many books to this series.

Several books have been written on the subject of the City of London during the Blitz, concentrating on specific raids, more usually the great fire raid of 29 December 1940, which became known as "The Second Great Fire of London" but in this new offering, Mr Wynn has sensibly decided to look at all aspects of the Square Mile during the conflict and does so in a chronological, year-by-year basis and covers such events as the establishment and organisation of the Civil Defence Services in the City and the Home Guard, as well as Parliamentary and local authority representation. The book also looks at how various establishments and institutions fared during the war, such as the Tower of London and St Bartholomew's Hospital.

As we travel through the years to 1940 and 1941, the focus inevitably shifts to the Blitz and it is with this aspect of the book that I have some issues. For example, in several of the larger raids, the author details the casualties but rather than just providing us with a list of those who lost their lives and perhaps their ages, Mr Wynn feels the need to attempt to provide details of each person; this is fine where the individual has an interesting past or has an intriguing story behind them but merely repeating "the author has been unable to confirm exactly where he/she was buried" becomes tedious in the extreme after in excess of fifty repetitions. Surely it would have been better just to list the names in an appendix and just mention some of those individuals in the main text whenever they had an interesting story to tell.

Another gripe - and one that suggests more than a little laziness in the author's research process - concerns the terrible incident at Bank Station, when he mentions a casualty who was serving with the Women''s Voluntary Service which warrants the comment from the author "This also suggests that the Bank Underground Station was being used as an air raid shelter at this time." This statement beggars belief as even a cursory check with the London Transport Museum or of the official London Transport wartime history would have revealed this to be a fact and indeed, it was the fact that the station was being used as a shelter which accounted for the high casualty figures.

A fault in the research process is also suggested when the author mentions another casualty, this time at Cannon Street, when he mentions "William worked as a fireman and in the circumstances, it was more likely that he was at Cannon Street working rather than just passing through at the time." Once again, this shows a lack of proper research, as an inspection of the London Fire Brigade Roll of Honour, which is readily and easily accessible, reveals that the person in question was indeed on duty. Incidentally, the author speculates over this particular fireman - William Frederick Knight - but then completely overlooks his colleague Stanley Thomas Conniff - who died with him at the same location on that same night. At least one other London fireman who died in the Square Mile on the same night, albeit at a different location completely fails to warrant a mention, so one has to wonder at the completeness of the casualty lists that the author provides.

My final complaint concerns one of the photographs, which is captioned incorrectly; a photo that purports to be The Guildhall is clearly the Mansion House and should be corrected.

Notwithstanding these shortcomings, the author relates many interesting anecdotes and facts during the narrative, which leads us through the slightly quieter years of 1942 and 1943, before we reach the momentous events of 1944 and 1945 which set the country firmly on the road to victory, against a home backdrop of the Vengeance Weapons campaign of those years, both of which affected the Square Mile, although curiously, the author fails to mention the V-2 attack on the City of London Corporation owned Smithfield Market of 8 March 1945, which caused heavy loss of life.

This book is an interesting resource which should appeal to the general reader but which in this reviewer's opinion, requires a carefully revised and updated second edition.


Published Sources:

London Fire Region Deaths on Duty During the Second World War - WF Hickin, The Watchroom 2006
London Transport at War 1939 - 1945 - Charles Graves, London Transport 1974
The Shelter of The Tubes - John Gregg, Capital Transport, 2001