Monday, 5 April 2021

Looking Out for Gothas

Gotha bomber (author's collection)

Perhaps less well-known than the Zeppelin raids on London during the First World War were the raids carried out by conventional aircraft, most notably by Gothas, large twin engine bombers that could carry a sizeable (for the time) bomb load of fourteen 25 kg bombs. The aircraft's range was also impressive for the time; at 840 kilometres, this meant the Gotha could easily reach London and return to their bases located around Ghent in German-occupied Belgium.

The threat posed by Zeppelin raids on London appeared to have been largely defeated, for the time being at least by the late autumn of 1916 and although raids continued sporadically until October 1917 and the threat of enemy air attack was still clear, the British took a remarkable decision to reduce London's anti-aircraft defences in order to redeploy the available manpower to the Western Front. Anti-aircraft gun defences were reduced in number and two fighter squadrons were redeployed to France. Furthermore and even more remarkably, anti-aircraft guns were ordered not to open fire - even if aircraft were confirmed as hostile - except for specified guns at coastal locations.

It was against this background of reduced British defences that the first Gotha raid on London was planned by the Luftstreitkrafte (Imperial German Air Service) for the 25 May 1917. Twenty three Gothas set off, led by Hauptmann Ernst Brandenburg but thick cloud cover saved the capital on this occasion and the formation was forced to turn back for home, although some secondary targets in Kent were bombed instead. Folkestone and an Army camp at Shorncliffe were the main recipients of the bombs originally planned for London and some 95 people were killed, with a further 195 seriously injured.

Given the reductions in the anti-aircraft defences and the apparent complacency that the German aerial threat had been defeated,the British response to this first raid was predictably confused and ineffective. Only some of the specified coastal anti-aircraft guns had opened fire and although some seventy fighter aircraft had taken to the air, only one got close enough to engage the enemy - without success. Royal Navy aircraft based in the Dunkirk region did manage to intercept the raiders as they returned home and claimed one Gotha shot down into the sea, whilst another crashed on landing near to Bruges, with the loss of the crew.

The British public were outraged by this muddled response and makeshift arrangements were put in place to ensure that training squadrons and experimental units made aircraft available and anti-aircraft observers were placed on lightships in the Thames Estuary to give a measure of early warning. Discussions about introducing an air raid warning system took place but at this stage were inconclusive. During the Zeppelin raids, no warning system had been in place in London and during this period, humorous postcards had circulated, with place names altered to suit the localities concerned that showed members of the public on the look out for the raiders.

Looking for Zeppelins at WOOLWICH (Royal Arsenal History Group)

Updated versions of these now appeared, with the word "Zeppelin" substituted by "Gotha" but with the same message.

Looking for Gothas at PLUMSTEAD (Deborah O'Boyle)

A second raid was attempted on 5 June but was once again thwarted by the weather. The British response was largely similar to the first raid; fighters despatched to intercept struggled to reach the raiders in time, although the anti-aircraft guns around Shoeburyness and Sheerness did manage to bring down one Gotha, which crashed into the Thames Estuary, with the loss of all but one of the crew.

It was inevitable that a Gotha raid would succeed in reaching London sooner or later and on 13 June 1917, it was to happen. Twenty aircraft originally departed from the airfields around Ghent but two were to turn back with engine problems. The remainder continued, with one aircraft peeling off to bomb Margate, on which it dropped five bombs before returning to base, whilst a further two diverted to Shoeburyness where they dropped six bombs, before they too headed home. Yet another aircraft followed the Thames towards Greenwich on a photo reconnaissance mission, whilst the remaining fourteen continued towards London. 

Although the anti-aircraft batteries had by now been given permission to fire, locating the targets in the hazy morning skies proved difficult and shortly after 11:30, the first bomb fell harmlessly on an allotment in Barking. Further bombs fell in East Ham, with one in Alexandra Road damaging 42 properties and more importantly, killing four people and injuring a further eleven. Another bomb fell by the Royal Albert Dock, where eight dock workers were killed.

PC Alfred Smith remembered at Postman's Park (author's photo)

Bombs fell on Liverpool Street Station, where sixteen were killed and a further fifteen injured. Not far from here, in Central Street, PC Alfred Smith was able to save the lives of several female factory workers by preventing them from rushing into the street to witness the commotion. Sadly, at the moment he was urging the women to remain inside, a bomb exploded in the street and killed him instantly. PC Smith is today remembered on the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice at Postman's Park, in the City of London, as well as on a commemorative plaque in Central Street at the site of the original incident.

PC Alfred Smith plaque in Central Street (author's photo)

As the aircraft turned for home, those with bombs still onboard unloaded them over the East End and it was at this time that the most tragic incident from this raid occurred; a 50kg bomb fell on Upper North Street School in Poplar, killing eighteen children, most of whom were under six years of age.

Again, the British response had been ineffective; 94 aircraft had been launched to intercept the raiders, of which just eleven made contact, all without success. The anti-aircraft guns had opened fire but again without hitting anything. All of the Gothas returned safely to their bases, leaving behind them 162 dead and a further 426 seriously injured - the highest casualty total of any raid during this war.

The British public were once again outraged at the lack of response and there was also a clamour for reprisal raids on German cities. Major General Hugh Trenchard, commander of the Royal Flying Corps on the Western Front, agreed to detach two front line squadrons to home defence but attempts by Lt. Colonel Simon, in command of London's anti-aircraft defences, to bolster his batteries by an additional 45 guns were rejected because neither the guns or the men to provide the crews were available!

The second daylight raid on London came on Saturday 7 July 1917 and consisted of 22 Gothas, commanded by Hauptmann Rudolph Kleine. Observers on board the Kentish Knock Light Vessel were able to transmit a warning, which enable fighter aircraft to be airborne in time to intercept the raiders but none were able to cause any serious problems to them. On the ground, observers likened the large enemy formation to a flock of birds, moving slowly across the skies.

The anti-aircraft guns opened fire at 10:21 but despite what appeared at least to onlookers on the ground as an impressive barrage, the Gothas emerged unscathed, although their previous tight formation was opened up as the bombers began to evade the gunfire. The first bomb fell on Chingford, without causing casualties, as was also the case in Edmonton and Tottenham. The first human casualties occurred in Stoke Newington, where ten people were killed, including a 12-year-old boy and ironically, a naturalised German baker and his wife, who died whilst working in their shop. More bombs fell on the City of London, most notably on the roof of the Central Telegraph Office in St Martin-le-Grand and also around Leadenhall Street, Fenchurch Street and Billingsgate Fish Market.

St Edmund King & Martyr (author's photo)

Evidence of this raid can still be seen in the Square Mile at the church of St Edmund, King & Martyr, which in its present incarnation dates from 1670-79 to the design of Sir Christopher Wren. The church today contains a peculiar square window in the roof which is out of square to the remainder of the building. This marks the entry point of a bomb from the raid of 7 July, which fell through the roof but which failed to explode fully. Fragments of the bomb are on display beneath the altar in what is probably the only place in London where remnants of a bomb can still be found in the building on which the bomb was originally dropped.

Entry point of the bomb, now an unusual window (author's photo)

Fragments of the bomb beneath the altar (author's photo)

Another bomb exploded at Tower Hill outside an office building, inside which some eighty people were sheltering. The blast from the bomb killed eight and injured fifteen of those inside as well as injuring three horses outside in the road. In what must have been horrific scenes, a fireman used his axe to put the horses out of their misery. The final bombs fell at 10:40 in Whitechapel and when the dust had settled, another 54 Londoners had died as well as another 190 injured. The raiders didn't have things all their own way on their way back to base though; one Gotha was brought down in the North Sea by an aircraft from 50 Squadron piloted by Lieut FAD Grace, whilst another was forced down on to the beach at Ostend. Three others were wrecked on their airfields due to a combination of battle damage from British fighter aircraft, lack of fuel and strong winds.

Reaction amongst the British public to the raid was strong, especially when it became apparent that the two squadrons that had been temporarily detached by Trenchard had in fact returned to the Western Front hours before the raid commenced and further frustration was expressed at the continued lack of effectiveness of the anti-aircraft guns, shells from which had fallen on the city, adding to the list of civilian casualties.

A committee was therefore formed to consider revised Home Defence arrangements under the chairmanship of Lieut. General Jan Christian Smuts, who effectively dominated the entire committee. Having interviewed all of the senior figures involved, he produced a report after only eight days which recommended that a single officer be placed in command of all facets of air defence for the London area, bringing the RFC, anti-aircraft guns and observers under a unified command. The question of providing an air raid warning was finally addressed, when it was decided that maroons would be fired to warn of incoming daylight raids, together with police alerts which would be provided at all times. The man chosen to command the new London Air Defence Area (LADA) was Major General Edward Ashmore, a former senior officer in the RFC.

Fortunately for Ashmore, the English weather provided an opportunity for him to reorganise London's defences; the remainder of July into August saw rain and high winds, which effectively ensured that enemy raiders could not reach the capital. A raid attempted against Chatham on 12 August ended with one Gotha shot down into the sea, another forced down near Zeebrugge and a further four wrecked in landing accidents. A further attempted raid on 18 August against coastal towns in southeast England resulted in nine aircraft being lost to a combination of Dutch anti-aircraft fire (when high winds drove them over that neutral country), shortage of fuel and crash landings. A further similar raid on 22 August by the remaining fifteen Gothas saw three of them shot down by the British coastal anti-aircraft guns, with the remainder driven back by a determined defence by Royal Naval aircraft.

As a result of these failures, it was decided to switch to night bombing and an attack on Margate, Sheerness and Chatham on the night of 3/4 September yielded spectacular results for the Gothas. Two bombs fell on a drill hill at the Chatham Royal Naval Barracks, killing 138 ratings. Eleven Gothas returned to London the following night and evidence of this raid can still be seen to this day. At around midnight, a 50 kg bomb exploded in the roadway at Victoria Embankment by Cleopatra's Needle, just as a late night tram was passing. The blast killed the tram driver, Alfred Buckle and two passengers, whilst throwing the conductor Joseph Carr from one end of the tramcar to the other.


Cleopatra's Needle showered with splinter damage and an explanatory plaque on the plinth (author's photos)

Again though, the Gothas hadn't had things their own way; of the eleven originally despatched, two had already returned with engine trouble, whilst another was shot down by an anti-aircraft gun near Rochester and crashed into the Thames Estuary. Of the eight survivors, it was thought that only five actually reached London to drop their bombs. Apart from the Victoria Embankment, other bombs fell in West Ham and Stratford, Greenwich and Woolwich as well as the Strand and near Oxford Circus.

The next raid came on the night of the 24 September when sixteen Gothas set out for London. As usual, the inevitable engine problems saw three of the bombers turn back but the remaining thirteen crossed the English coast between Orfordness and Dover. Some thirty RFC aircraft were sent up to intercept and although they did not succeed in bringing any raiders down, perhaps they acted as something of a deterrent as only three of the Gothas actually reached London, with the remainder dropping their bombs in Dover and other coastal targets in Kent and Essex. One Gotha dropped its bombs in Poplar, before crossing the Thames to drop four more on Deptford and Rotherhithe before heading for home. Onlookers on the ground were impressed by the intensity of the new anti-aircraft gun barrage and it was probably this that caused the raider to drop its bombs early. Of the two that reached Central London, we can again see evidence of their presence today.

Plaque outside the Bedford Hotel, Southampton Row (author's photo)

A bomb that fell by the Bedford Hotel in Southampton Row killed thirteen and injured a further 22. In total fourteen Londoners lost their lives in this raid and 49 were injured. One of the Gothas that reached London crashed on landing in Belgium and combined with those that had been driven back earlier, it was looking as if the improved defences were beginning to make a difference.

Fifteen Gothas returned the following night, 25 September and this time there was only one drop out due to technical issues. Most settled for targets along the coast, such as Folkestone and Margate, with only three reaching south east London. Bombs fell on Blackheath, Charlton, Deptford, New Cross and the Old Kent Road. Four people were killed and a further fifteen injured but once again, the improved defences had appeared to make the difference.

The raids would continue for the remainder of 1917 but from 29 December, a new type of aircraft - the RV1 "Giant" would enter the fray and we shall take a look at these next time.


Published Sources:

The First Blitz: Bombing London in the First World War - Ian Castle, Osprey, 2015
The Lost Treasures of London - William Kent, Phoenix, 1947

Unpublished Sources:

London Fire Brigade Reports 1915 - 1918













Saturday, 27 February 2021

The Last Rocket: The Tragedy of Hughes Mansions

One block of Hughes Mansions as built in 1929 (Evening News)

As we head into March and a new spring, perhaps we should cast our minds back to the early spring of 1945; Germany was in its death throes, assailed on all side by the Russians in the east and by the British, Americans and Canadians in the west. In Berlin, Hitler was already in the bunker where he would soon meet his end but lived in a fantasy world where he still spoke of some miraculous final victory.

In the capital of arguably the biggest thorn in Hitler's side, war-weary Londoners were still under fire from the most technically advanced of his so-called Vergeltungswaffen or  "Vengeance Weapons" which still fell upon their familiar streets, as well as on eastern England and across the North Sea in Antwerp with disheartening regularity.

The other day, I paid a visit to the site of where the very last of these missiles to hit central London impacted, on a now quiet estate in Whitechapel, in the inner eastern suburbs. 

The surviving original block of Hughes Mansions on Vallance Road (author's photo)

Hughes Mansions, on Vallance Road consisted at that time of three roughly similar apartment blocks which contained 93 flats spread over the three buildings. They had been completed in 1929 and were regarded as a welcome improvement on the old "back to back" slums that had once stood here. The blocks were named after Mary Hughes JP, a Quaker philanthropist and erstwhile member of the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney's Housing Committee.

Born in Mayfair in 1860, Mary, or "May" as she was often known, was the daughter of Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown's Schooldays. She had left home in 1883 to become her uncle John Hughes's housekeeper in Newbury, where he was a vicar and had soon become involved on the Board of Guardians at the local workhouse, where she soon caused a stir by insisting on better conditions for the paupers who lived there. Upon her uncle's death in 1895, she moved to Whitechapel to live with her sister, who was married to the Rev. Ernest Carter and whilst there, continued her work as a Poor Law Guardian, as well as becoming a volunteer visitor to the local hospital and children's home. She had joined the Quakers in 1918 and in 1926, purchased a former pub in Vallance Road, which she renamed the Dewdrop Inn (a play on the words "Do Drop In"), which she turned into a community centre and refuge for the homeless.

Blue Plaque to Mary Hughes in Vallance Road (author's photo)

Mary was an indomitable character, who had once been run over by a tram. Before being taken to hospital, she had insisted on writing a note stating that the tram driver was not to be blamed for the accident and when she was in hospital and told that she was recovering faster than expected, she apparently sat up and shouted "Three cheers for vegetarianism and teetotalism!" 

She had died, aged 81 in 1941 but today is commemorated by a blue plaque on the former Dewdrop Inn building in Vallance Road, which stands opposite the blocks that bear her name. Mary would doubtless have been appalled at the terrible fate which would befall Hughes Mansions just four years after her passing.

Hughes Mansions on the bomb damage map, showing the two blocks marked in purple at the top, centre (author's photo)

On Tuesday 27 March 1945 at 07:12 GMT in the Haagse Bos area of Den Haag in The Netherlands, Battery 3/485 fired a V-2 rocket in the direction of London and just nine minutes later, reports came in to the Stepney Borough Civil Defence Control of a major incident at Hughes Mansions. The missile had scored a direct hit, on the very centre of the three blocks, making a crater some 30 feet by 10 feet and totally destroying the centre block in the process. The block immediately to the east was almost completely destroyed, whilst the rear of the western block, which faces on to Vallance Road was severely damaged. 

The impact crater and aftermath of the V-2 (UK National Archives)

Some victims were never found, vaporised by the blast whilst many others were trapped where the blocks had collapsed. Rescue work continued apace, with sixteen heavy rescue teams and five cranes on the scene, as well as eleven light rescue squads and over seventy National Fire Service personnel assisting in the work. The last survivor was extricated at around 22:00 that night, after which the squads concentrated on the grim task of recovering the victims. Many of the rescuers were veterans of the Blitz but found this particular job, especially at this eleventh hour of the war, the hardest they had ever encountered.

The Hughes Mansions site after clearance (Evening News)

Hughes Mansions, in common with much of the East End of London at this time, was home to a considerable Jewish population and so no doubt Hitler with his twisted mind, would have been extremely pleased had he known that what proved to be his penultimate missile fired at London had taken 120 Jewish victims out of the total of 134 people who perished in their own homes that morning.

Hughes Mansions was rebuilt after the war and ironically, some of those who survived the V-2 incident were rehoused here. Today, the demographic of the area has totally changed and the residents here are overwhelmingly from London's Asian community.

The replacement block at Hughes Mansions (author's photo)

There is a very modest memorial to those who died here in the garden area of the rebuilt portion of the estate; so modest in fact, many of the local residents appear to be unaware of what happened here. Whilst I was taking my photographs, I was challenged by a resident and asked what I was doing - when I pointed out the memorial, showed him some of the archive photos and told him what had happened here almost 76 years ago, he was visibly shocked and thanked me for informing him. Perhaps this will lead to the memorial being better cared for, or perhaps supplemented by something more fitting.

The memorial plaque at Hughes Mansions (author's photo)

At 16:48 the same Tuesday, one further rocket was fired which impacted a few minutes later at Kynaston Road in Orpington in suburban Kent, killing 34-year-old Ivy Millichamp in her own kitchen and seriously injuring twenty three other people. These proved to be the final civilian casualties in Great Britain of the war, some six weeks before the end of the war in Europe.


Published Sources:

Hitler Passed This Way: 170 pictures from the Evening News - Evening News, 1945
Hitler's Rockets - Norman Longmate, Front Line Books, 2009

Unpublished Sources:

HO 182/808, Ministry of Home Security, Air Raid Damage Region No. 5 London (Stepney) - UK National Archives, Kew



Wednesday, 27 January 2021

The tragedy of Krystyna Skarbek and the George Smiley connection

Christine Granville, aka Krystyna Skarbek blue plaque in Lexham Gardens (author's photo)

As all our readers will know, 2020 was a year that for most of us was like no other. Although I personally haven't lost any family or friends to COVID-19, the pandemic has had an impact upon us all to a greater or lesser degree. Apart from some groups at the start of the year before the restrictions reached the UK, my work this past year has been limited to online lectures and "virtual" walks plus a handful of small groups that I was able to guide during that brief window in the late summer and autumn when it looked as if we might be returning to some sort of normality. Alas, that was not to be and we now find ourselves back in lockdown and not able to venture outside for exercise unless it is strictly in our local area.

Before the latest restrictions kicked in, I have been able to take some very long walks exploring a potential new walk for later this year, which will be revealed in due course and also researching for a couple of other new projects which will also hopefully come to fruition later in the year. 

On my travels, I have also been busily taking photographs of anything vaguely related to London's wartime history and one such image that I captured was of a recently unveiled English Heritage blue plaque at 1 Lexham Gardens, which lays just off the busy Cromwell Road, to Christine Granville, born Krystyna Skarbek, an SOE agent whom Winston Churchill once described as his "favourite spy".

Krystyna Skarbek at about the time of her second recruitment into SOE (unknown photographer)

The world of SOE agents is a little outside my usual comfort zone but I wanted to find out more about this remarkable lady and what proved to be a tragic ending to her life in 1950s London.

Krystyna Skarbek was born on 1 May 1908 near to Warsaw, Poland to Count Jerzy Skarbek and his Jewish wife Stefania (nee Goldfeder), who came from a wealthy banking family. She had received a considerable dowry from her family and this went some way to ensuring Count Jerzy could continue to live in the style to which he was accustomed. Krystyna was a beautiful, graceful woman with brown eyes and dark hair and whose personality echoed that of her father, to whom she was very close. She became an accomplished horsewoman, as well as an expert skier and was something of a tomboy.

The depression of the late 1920s left the family's finances in ruins, with them having to sell the country estate and move to Warsaw. Her mother's family finances had similarly collapsed and when Count Jerzy died in 1930, the 22 year old Krystyna decided that she should strike out on her own so as not to be a financial burden on her now widowed mother. She took a job working at a car dealership in Warsaw but became unwell as a result of the exhaust fumes in the showroom and workshops. A chest x-ray taken at a medical examination revealed a shadow on her lung, which was initially diagnosed as tuberculosis, the disease which had killed her father. This turned out to be a misdiagnosis but before this became known, she received financial compensation from her former employer's insurance company and was advised by her doctor to lead an outdoor life, as much as possible.

Krystyna had married a young businessman Gustaw Gettlich in 1930 but they had proved incompatible and soon divorced, without any ill-feeling but it was the instruction to lead an outdoor life which led Krystyna to meet her second husband, Jerzy Giżycki.  One day, whilst skiing at Zakopane, Krystyna had lost control on the slopes but her descent had been stopped by Giżycki, a massive man who stepped into her path, thus probably saving her from a serious injury. 

They married in November 1938 in Warsaw and shortly afterwards, the couple departed for Ethiopia, where Giżycki had been appointed as Polish Consul-General. Following the German invasion of Poland, the couple managed to reach London, where they arrived in October 1939. She offered her services to the British SIS and although she was initially rejected, the British were convinced after one of her acquaintances, the journalist Frederick Voight, spoke up for her. Her personnel file in December 1939 mentions her as being "absolutely fearless" and "a flaming Polish patriot, expert skier and great adventuress."

She was taken on by Section D of the SIS (a precursor to the Special Operations Executive or SOE) and after training, was sent on her first mission, which was to Hungary, at that stage still a non-combatant nation but one with distinct sympathies towards Nazi Germany. As an accomplished skier, she persuaded Polish Olympic skier Jan Marusarz to escort her across the Tatra Mountains into occupied Poland and once back in Warsaw, worked with a former Polish Army officer, Andrzej Kowerski to exfiltrate Polish and Allied military personnel to Hungary. At the request of the SIS, they also organised surveillance of rail, road and river traffic on the borders with Romania and Germany, including intelligence on oil transport from the Romanian Ploiesti oilfields.

She spent 1940 travelling between Poland and Hungary, managing to remain undetected whilst doing so but in January 1941, she and Kowerski were arrested by the Hungarian Police and questioned by the Gestapo. Thinking quickly during the interrogation, she bit her tongue until it bled and a follow-up x-ray revealed the same scars on her lungs that had gained her compensation from her employers in pre-war Warsaw. A Hungarian doctor incorrectly diagnosed her with terminal tuberculosis and the couple were quickly released. They fled Hungary with help from the British Ambassador in Budapest, who issued them with British passports. Kowerski became “Andrew Kennedy” whilst Krystyna became “Christina Granville”, the name she would use for the remainder of her life.

After being smuggled out of Hungary into Yugoslavia in the boot of the Ambassador’s car, Skarbek/Granville reached Belgrade, whilst Kowerski/Kennedy made the same journey in his Opel car. Reunited, the pair then travelled together in the Opel to Sofia in Bulgaria, where they called at the British Legation, which they reached in February 1941. They passed rolls of microfilm which had been passed to them by a Polish intelligence organisation known as The Musketeers. The microfilm contained photographs of a massive German military build-up close to the borders with the Soviet Union, which indicated an impending invasion. When this information reached Churchill, he was initially dubious but the intelligence was later corroborated by other sources and of course, their intelligence was proved correct beyond all doubt when the Soviet Union was duly invaded in June 1941.

Despite this, when the couple eventually reached Cairo, via Istanbul, Syria and Lebanon in May 1941 having driven all the way in the trusty Opel, doubts were cast upon the couple’s loyalty. This was partially because Kowerski/Kennedy had not reported for duty with the Polish armed forces as he had been allegedly ordered but was also because of the seeming ease with which Skarbek/Granville had managed to obtain the required travel documents from Vichy French officials in order to transit Syria and Lebanon. As a result of this, the couple were formally dismissed from SOE in June 1941, although kept on a miniscule retainer. It was around this time that Skarbek informed her husband that she was in love with Kowerski, although they were not formally divorced until 1946.

Kowerski/Kennedy was quickly able to clear his name and resume intelligence work but for the remainder of 1941 and throughout 1942 and 1943, Skarbek/Granville was given only menial intelligence gathering tasks in Egypt and Syria. She was eventually recruited into the FANY to be reinstated with SOE and parachuted into France in July 1944. There, she worked with the “Jockey” network and operated with great daring and courage in southern France until she returned to London in September 1944. On her return, she transferred to the WAAF as a Flight Officer, where she served until the end of the European War, being demobbed in Cairo on 14 May 1945.

Christina was awarded the OBE and the George Medal for her services, as well as a Croix de Guerre in recognition of her services towards the liberation of France.

After the war, it must be said that Christina was poorly treated by her adopted country, whom she had served so fearlessly. Upon demob in Cairo, she was given a month's money and basically left to fend for herself, although she was able to apply for the protection of a British passport, confirming the arrangements which had been made in Hungary. This was essential, for following the betrayal of the Poles by the British and Americans at Yalta, Christina was unable to return to her now communist controlled homeland and without the protection of a British passport, would have essentially been stateless. 

George Smiley arrives in Lexham Gardens (author's screengrab)

Is this the same location? The railings have changed and the wall has been stuccoed but the pillars look right (author's photo)

A trip to Kenya to seek employment soon ended as the colonial government there refused to grant her a work permit and so she returned to England, where she had a succession of jobs as a telephonist, a waitress and a sales girl before finally gaining employment as a cabin steward in the Merchant Navy. She initially worked for the New Zealand Shipping Company on board their ship Ruahine and as such,  was required to wear her medal ribbons on her company uniform. Granville’s impressive array made her an immediate favourite with the passengers but sadly, a target of envy as well as sexist and racist abuse from some of her crewmates, who accused her of lying about her medal entitlement. At this time a male steward, Dennis Muldowney came to her defence and the two became lovers.

Extract from Daily Express report of Muldowney's trial (screengrab from British Newspaper Archive)

It was a doomed relationship, however and Christina soon broke off with him as she found him “Obstinate and terrifying”. In May 1952, she changed jobs and joined the Union Castle Mail Steamship Company which operated services to destinations in Africa. On 14 June 1952, after competing a voyage on board the Winchester Castle, Christina checked into the Shelbourne Hotel in Lexham Gardens, which was Polish-owned and offered cheaper accommodation for those in London's sizeable Polish community.

However, the following day, she was brutally attacked in the hotel and stabbed to death by Dennis Muldowney, the man who had become obsessed with her on the Ruahine and who was now working as a porter at the Reform Club. After being convicted of her murder, Muldowney was hanged at Pentonville Prison on 30 September 1952. It was a tragic end to the life of an incredibly brave woman.

Christina is buried at St Mary's Roman Catholic Cemetery at Kensal Green with Andrzej Kowerski, her partner, briefly in life and in wartime SOE service.

Krystyna Skarbek's grave at Kensal Green (Dobry77 via wikimedia)

There is an interesting aside to this story, as some years later Lexham Gardens features in John Le Carre's classic 1974 spy novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. In the novel and the subsequent BBC adaptation starring Sir Alec Guinness, the central character George Smiley arranges a meeting at a safe house with Toby Esterhase (played in the TV version by Bernard Hepton), who at the time is one of those suspected of being the "mole" giving away secrets to the Russians. The location of the safe house is in Lexham Gardens, which features clearly in the location shoot.

Under his real name David Cornwell, John Le Carre had served with SIS in the 1950s and early 1960s and so must have known the connection between Lexham Gardens and the former employment of Christine Granville. I did try and match the exact location where George Smiley heads for his rendezvous but the passing of over forty years since the series was shot has meant that many of the buildings have seen subtle changes, as have most of the street signs in the area.


Printed Sources:


The Heroines of SOE: Britain's Secret Women in France - Squadron Leader Beryl Escott, The History Press - 2010

They Fought Alone - Maurice Buckmaster, Odhams 1958





Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Sidney Alfred Holder, The Wall and the Unknown Soldier

Firemen Remembered Plaque to Sidney Alfred Holder in Shoe Lane (author's photograph)

This post was originally written in August 2011 but since then, one or two discrepancies in the original story as recounted to me have come to light. These corrections have now been incorporated into the text, which is updated accordingly.

On Thursday 11 August 2011, I was lucky enough to be invited to the unveiling ceremony of one of the memorial plaques to be erected by the charity 'Firemen Remembered' which does so much excellent work in preserving and honouring the memory of the firefighters of the Second World War, who went from being described as "£3-a-week Army Dodgers" according to some of the more unscrupulous organs of the press, to receiving a ringing endorsement from Prime Minister Winston Churchill no less, who described them as "Heroes with grimy faces."

This particular plaque is located close to the scene of the incident at Shoe Lane, just off London's Fleet Street and commemorates a tragedy that was immortalised on canvas by the War Artist Leonard Rosoman R.A., who at that time was a member of the Auxilary Fire Service and who witnessed the event at first hand. Deeply troubled by what he had seen, Rosoman created a powerful image, which he found himself painting and re-painting, as if trying to exorcise what he had witnessed from his own consciousness. The artist subsequently stated that he was never entirely happy with the work and at first thought it was too raw for public consumption but it is today recognised as one of the iconic images of the Blitz. The image entitled 'The Falling Wall' by the artist but for some reason re-titled by the Imperial War Museum as 'A House Collapsing on two Firemen, Shoe Lane, London EC4' is reproduced below, courtesy of the IWM. The original is currently on display at the IWM North in Manchester, although perhaps would be better located in London, given that is where the incident occurred.

"The Falling Wall" by Leonard Rosoman (IWM collection)

On the night of 29th/30th December 1940, some 140 medium bombers of the Luftwaffe dropped some 24,000 incendiary bombs concentrated on the City of London in a raid that became known as "The Second Great Fire of London". The raid had been carefully planned to coincide with an exceptionally low tide on the River Thames, which once the water mains had been damaged by the high explosive bombs which were also dropped on the Square Mile, made it nigh on impossible for the beleaguered firefighters to obtain emergency supplies of water from the river. The spread of the fires was further compounded by the fact that many nightwatchmen and fire watchers employed by the various businesses in the City, had taken advantage of the Christmas and New Year holidays to sneak away for a long weekend, so leaving fires to spread unchecked. This failing was the subject of an official Government Enquiry after the event, the result of which was to compel companies to provide full-time fire watches on their premises.

As part of the ceremony, the redoubtable Stephanie Maltman, one of the leading figures behind the charity, explained what to the best of our knowledge today, had happened on this night in Shoe Lane and how Auxiliary Fireman Sidney Alfred Holder and a now unknown helper who had simply been passing by had come to perish beneath fifteen feet of white hot bricks and masonry.

The programme cover for the unveiling event (author's photograph)

Sidney Holder, Leonard Rosoman and the future travel writer and novelist William Sansom were part of an AFS squad from Station 13 at Belsize Park, detailed to fight a major fire in Shoe Lane, just off Fleet Street, adjacent to the Daily Express building. The three men were controlling a branch directing water onto the blazing building and although it looked a hopeless task, stuck bravely at their task. Amazingly, but not uncommonly during a major raid, there were still passers by going about their business and the firefighters were joined by an off duty soldier and an RAF airman, who offered to help. During the course of their toils, a more senior AFS Officer appeared on the scene and instructed Rosoman to leave the branch to the others and accompany him on a recce from an adjacent building to see if they could find another spot from which to direct their branches at the by now out of control fire. As they surveyed the scene, Rosoman heard the ominous crack of the wall crumbling under the heat and collapsing onto the men below, one of whom was Rosoman's close friend, William Sansom.

Incredibly, Sansom and the RAF man survived the incident by dint of good fortune; the wall had collapsed almost as a solid slab of masonry but they had had the luck to be standing more or less in line with a window aperture which framed them as the wall collapsed. The two men were showered with masonry but were not seriously injured and were quickly able to free themselves in order to clamber to where Holder and the soldier had been directing their branch. The two men tore at the red hot bricks with their bare hands, severely burning themselves at the same time. They were quickly relieved by a Rescue Squad and it was only when they were taken aside, that Sansom and his colleague realised the extent of the injuries to their hands.

Wreath laid at the unveiling ceremony (author's photograph)

The rescuers eventually reached the two buried men; the soldier was dead when they found him. His steel helmet had been crushed almost flat and he was burned beyond recognition. Although the details are sketchy, history tells us that Sidney Alfred Holder was alive when pulled from the rubble; the Commonwealth War Graves Commission tells us that he died 'near to St Bartholomew's Hospital' which suggests that he died in an ambulance whilst being taken to hospital.

Sidney Alfred Holder was born on 21 April 1907 and lived at 69 Denmark Road, Hendon, with his mother, Emily. His peacetime job as shown on the 1939 Register was a Temporary Railway Porter but he had obviously joined the Fire Service at some point after this. Despite fairly extensive research by Stephanie and her colleagues at Firemen Remembered, the identity of the soldier who heroically offered to help on that fateful night has never been established and he remains 'known unto God' but to us mere mortals, one of the many 'unknown soldiers.'


Dark City alleyways and passages,
curtained for a century by tall walls,
exchanged their twilight gloom for
a flood of yellow light in one
theatrical moment...

                         William Sansom                                                       



Published Sources:

Fireman Flower - William Sansom, Hogarth Press 1944

The London Blitz: A Fireman's Tale - Cyril Demarne OBE, After The Battle 1991


Unpublished Sources:

1939 Register - UK National Archives

Friday, 20 November 2020

The Art of Persuasion: The Genius of Abram Games

"Roof Over Britain" cover designed by Abram Games (author's photo)

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am an avid collector of the various HMSO booklets published during the Second World War that covered every subject imaginable from the Arctic War to Queen Wilhelmina’s Navy and from The Australian Army at War to United States Eighth Air Force and just about every subject in between. Regular readers will also know that I have some very kind friends that look out for me and surprise me from time to time with items that they have discovered on their travels.

This happened recently when good friend and designer of my website, Sam Dorrington presented me with another of the series, in the form of a copy of “Roof over Britain”, the official story of Britain’s Anti-Aircraft defences from 1939-1942.

This cover features the distinctive artwork of the graphic designer and prolific poster artist Abram Games. Sam is himself a talented graphic designer, so perhaps it was the design of the cover that subconsciously drew him to the booklet, the cover of which (shown above) features a determined looking, steel helmet-clad figure looking towards the skies, which are illuminated with searchlight beams and pockmarked with shell bursts.

Abram Games with his "Blonde Bombshell" poster (NAM London)

Abram Games and his wartime poster work was the subject of a major exhibition at the National Army Museum in Chelsea last year, in which many original posters from the museum's own collection were on display alongside many items on loan from the Games family.

Abram Games was born on 29 July 1914 in Whitechapel and was the son of Joseph Gamse, a Latvian photographer and Sarah (nee Rosenberg), a seamstress born in Poland. Abram’s father, who had come to Britain in 1904, anglicised the family name to Games when Abram was 12 years old. Abram himself left school when he was 16 to attend Saint Martin’s School of Art in Charing Cross Road but left after two terms, due to a combination of being disillusioned with the standard of teaching there and also the expense of studying there. He took a job as a “studio boy” for a commercial design company in London between 1932 and 1936 and whilst there, attended night school classes in life drawing and during this time, won a poster competition staged by the London County Council. From 1936, he became a freelance poster designer and after he featured in an article for the influential trade journal Art & Industry in 1937, he won several commissions for high profile clients such as London Transport, the Post Office and Royal Dutch Shell, which cemented his reputation.

Abram Games designed poster for Shell (author's collection)

In 1940 with Britain at war, he was conscripted into the British Army and served as an infantry Private for one year but in 1941, he was approached by the War Office to act as a graphic designer for a recruitment poster they wanted for the Royal Armoured Corps. The success of this commission led to his appointment as an official War Artist and the production of over one hundred posters.

Royal Armoured Corps recruiting poster (NAM London)

Commissioned as a Captain, he was permitted a great deal of artistic freedom, which sometimes led to clashes with officialdom. His striking poster for the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) depicted a stylised image of an attractive young woman in uniform. This was quite deliberate on Games’ part as he wished to challenge the ATS reputation for being a somewhat drab assignment and it led to the image on the poster being known as “The Blonde Bombshell”. This drew criticism from Conservative MP and feminist Thelma Cazalet-Keir, who objected to the lipstick and felt that “Our girls should be attracted into the Army through patriotism and not glamour” but although many others, including senior figures in the Army felt the poster was fine, it was nevertheless withdrawn and the majority of the posters destroyed, much to Games’ dismay. A replacement poster designed by Games which featured a less “sexy” image also drew criticism from no less a figure than Winston Churchill who felt the new poster to be “too Soviet” in its design!

The "Blonde Bombshell" ATS poster which proved controversial (NAM London)

The replacement ATS poster deemed "Too Soviet" by Winston Churchill (NAM London)

Another of Games’ posters which attracted the ire of the Prime Minister was one of a series entitled “Your Britain – Fight for it Now” and featured the newly designed Finsbury Health Centre superseding a bombed out building in the shadows, which also contained a child apparently suffering from rickets. Churchill ordered the poster to be taken out of circulation and pulped as he considered it a libel on the conditions in British cities.

The "Your Britain" poster which attracted the disapproval of Winston Churchill (IWM)

Despite these clashes with authority, Abram Games’ wartime work is striking in the directness of the imagery and the message that it conveys; Games emerged from the Second World War with his reputation enhanced and returned to commissions from his pre-war clients as well as many other new customers, such as Guinness, the Financial Times, BEA and BOAC (the predecessor airlines to British Airways), as well as El Al, the state airline of the fledgling State of Israel. He also branched out in to the world of stamp design and designed postage stamps for the Royal Mail, Ireland, Israel, Jersey and Portugal.

Fading "Festival of Britain" Logo at Blackheath (author's photograph)

Festival of Britain poster for 1951 (NAM London)

A new departure was to design paperback covers for Penguin Books and in 1951 he won the competition to gain the prestigious commission to design the logo and poster artwork for the Festival of Britain, which can still be seen on various sites across the country to this day. His work for London Transport continued beyond the world of publicity posters and commuters on the Victoria Line using Stockwell Station can see his work every day in the shape of the swan motif that adorns the Victoria Line platforms – which came from the name of a famous local landmark pub.

London Transport poster (NAM London)

Games had been one of the first Britons to see first-hand evidence of the atrocities committed at the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, when photographs arrived at his office in the War Office. As a Jew, he was especially deeply affected by what he saw and produced a poster entitled “Give Clothing for Liberated Jewry” and subsequently would often work in support of Jewish and Israeli organisations.

Give Clothing for Liberated Jewry (NAM London)

Games also ventured into the world of industrial design and indeed his design for the Cona vacuum coffee maker from 1959 is now considered a design classic, still in production today with very little changes.

When given a commission from a client, Games would fill a layout pad with as many as two to three dozen ideas for a potential poster. Sometimes, two of the images would eventually be combined to produce a third image and these would be circled on the pad. Once he had selected a final design, he would circle the thumbnail on the pad and present the idea (or ideas) to the client. He only ever showed them thumbnail sketches as he felt that posters were designed to be seen from a distance and thus avoided unnecessary detail. “I never work large because posters seen from a distance are small. If ideas don’t work an inch high, then they will never work.”

Once he had finished the final artwork for a poster, he would sign it “A. Games” in one corner. It would then hang on his studio wall for a week, inviting criticism from family, friends and colleagues and once he was satisfied, he would then add a full stop after his name.

English Heritage Blue Plaque outside Abram Games' former home in Golders Green (author's photo)

Abram Games' "Swan" motif for Stockwell Tube Station (author's photo)

Abram Games had married in 1945 to Marianne Salfeld, the daughter of German-Jewish emigres and in 1948, moved to Golders Green in North London, where they lived and worked for the remainder of their lives, raising two daughters and a son. Marianne passed away in 1988 and Abram in 1996, although through his work, his name will live on for many more years to come.


Published Sources:

Abram Games website 

National Army Museum - The Art of Persuasion







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 although he was not present in Charlton Lane on the night in question, as at that time he was living in nearby Priolo Road.


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