Tuesday, 10 May 2022

Book Review: Zeppelin Inferno: The Forgotten Blitz by Ian Castle

This is the second book in a planned trilogy by author Ian Castle and is a detailed study of the German air offensive against Great Britain during 1916.

As with the previous volume which covered the years 1914-1915, the author deals with each individual raid in some detail, whether it was carried out by conventional aircraft, or as was more often the case, by airships either the lesser-known wooden-framed Schütte-Lanz type, or those constructed by the Zeppelin Company, which give the book it’s title. The descriptions of these raids are enlivened by eyewitness personal accounts by those on the ground and in the air, as well as reports from contemporary newspapers.

As well as describing each raid, the author also deals with the countermeasures introduced by the British such as the improvement of the anti-aircraft defences on the ground and the work done to bolster the squadrons devoted to home defence. We also learn about the work done to develop and introduce into service incendiary ammunition for the fighter aircraft that was capable of bringing down the hydrogen-filled airships.

We also read about the personalities on the German side, vilified by the British press as “Baby Killers”, such as Joachim Breihaupt, Heinrich Mathy and Peter Strasser, the commander of the Imperial German Navy’s Airship Division. We also learn about the development and introduction into service of the “R” Class Zeppelins, known to the British as the “Super Zeppelins”, impressive machines that were 198 metres long, with a diameter of 24 metres, capable of carrying a bomb load of up to four tons.

Although the British had brought down their first Zeppelin on 31 March 1916, it had crashed into the sea off the Kent coast. The British public had to wait until 3 September before an airship was shot down over British soil, when the SL-11 was brought down by the guns of a B.E.2c aircraft piloted by Lieut. William Leefe Robinson, who was awarded a VC for his work. The fact that this was a Schütte-Lanz airship rather than a Zeppelin was kept from the public as this stage of the war, as it was felt that this might detract from the achievement!

This was a portent for the future and during the remainder of 1916, the German side lost a further five Zeppelins and although the British weren’t to know it at this stage, 1916 marked the peak of the Zeppelin offensive against the United Kingdom; the majority of future air attacks against this country would be made by conventional aircraft.

The book is well illustrated and also contains many useful maps charting the location of German airship bases in 1916, Air Raid Warning Districts, the penetration of the various Zeppelin raids during the year, location of RFC Home Defence squadrons, and tracks of the final flights of many of the destroyed airships. There are also several useful appendices, which explain the airship numbering systems used by both the German Navy and Army, lists of airship and conventional aircraft raids in 1916, which give the numbers of casualties and the values of material damage caused. The final appendix follows the pattern introduced by the author in the first book, by providing a list of the names of those killed in Britain by enemy air attacks during the year in question. Unlike the later Blitz, there is no central register as such and Mr Castle has done a considerable amount of detective work to identify all but six of the 300 British deaths on the ground in 1916.

As one would expect from this author, this is a superbly-researched and well-written work that will interest anyone who wishes to discover more about this sometimes overlooked aspect of the air war in 1914-1918 and I have no hesitation in recommending it to you.

Published by Frontline Books

RRP £25.00

hardback, pp 382

Sunday, 27 March 2022

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

Thursday, 17 February 2022

Battle of Britain Day, Churchill and The Few

"Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed, by so many, to so few."

Winston Churchill was a master of the use of the English language, whether in it's written or spoken form but of all of his inspirational wartime speeches, his address to the House of Commons on August 20th 1940, in which the above passage formed a part, is arguably his most famous. Certainly the phrase 'The Few' which was how Churchill described the RAF's pilots and aircrews, passed immediately into folklore.

The origins of this phrase go back to a few days before Churchill made this speech to the House and appears to have been the result of a spontaneous piece of emotion on the Prime Minister's part. During the Battle of Britain, Churchill, always wanting to be close to the action, made a habit of calling into the Uxbridge Operations Bunker of Number 11 Group, RAF Fighter Command to see the battle developing. Uxbridge was conveniently en route from London to Chequers. His first visit came on August 16th and he was accompanied by his Chief Staff Officer, General Sir Hastings Ismay. As the afternoon's battle developed, the two watched Keith Park, AOC 11 Group, deploying his forces and seemingly having no reserves to spare. What the 'plot' in the Uxbridge bunker did not show, was that Park did in fact have reserves to call upon from the neighbouring 10 and 12 Groups. This was the strength of the defensive system perfected by Dowding and Park but all Churchill could see was that all forces had seemingly been committed. He was also very conscious of the fact that just a few weeks previously, before the fall of France, he had asked General Gamelin about the location of his strategic reserve, only to receive the terse answer "Aucune", meaning "None."

It was perhaps with this experience still fresh in his mind and unknowing of some of the other factors involved in Park's deployments, such as the neighbouring Groups' reserves, sizes of raids and the turnaround times on the ground of the RAF's fighter squadrons, that Churchill and Ismay departed by car for Chequers. The first thing Churchill said to Ismay was "Don't speak to me; I have never been so moved." Then about five minutes into the journey, he leant across and said to Ismay: "Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few." Ismay was so struck by this comment that he repeated the phrase to his wife upon his return home.

So, the phrase that would mythologise the RAF's fighter pilots was born, but when Churchill made his speech just four days later, he spoke of the RAF as a whole when he said:

"The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. All hearts go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day, but we must never forget that all the time, night after night, month after month, our bomber squadrons travel far into Germany, find their targets in the darkness by the highest navigational skill, aim their attacks, often under the heaviest fire, often with serious loss, with deliberate, careful discrimination, and inflict shattering blows upon the whole of the technical and war-making structure of the Nazi power. On no part of the Royal Air Force does the weight of the war fall more heavily than on the daylight bombers who will play an invaluable part in the case of invasion and whose unflinching zeal it has been necessary in the meanwhile on numerous occasions to restrain…"

It was clear that the Prime Minister was speaking equally of the RAF's bomber squadrons, who were committed to attacking the German invasion barges and targets in Germany and their occupied territories. But to the British public, who could see the battles developing overhead on a daily basis, the phrase of 'The Few' struck a chord; it was the fighter pilots who were the saviours of the country. Whilst this was undoubtedly true, the men of Bomber Command felt somewhat hard done by that their equally vital work was going unnoticed by the British public and was summed up eloquently, although with natural overstatement by one Bomber Command veteran and quoted in Stephen Bungay's excellent work, The Most Dangerous Enemy:

"There was no fighter Battle of Britain. I was at Lympne in light bombers in 1940. There was some fighter activity overhead but no more than you would expect. We went out every night, destroying the German invasion barges in the Channel Ports. That was why the Germans never came. We fought the real Battle of Britain."

Despite this, the fighter battle continued and on Sunday September 15th 1940, whilst having breakfast at Chequers, Churchill decided once again to visit Uxbridge. By now, the Blitz on London had started and the Premier had decided that the weather being fine, that it was a "Blitzy Day" to use his own phrase. At just after 11 a.m., the British Chain Home radar at Dover picked up the first raid of the day forming up over Calais. During the day, some 1,120 German fighters and bombers would be pitted against 630 Hurricanes and Spitfires of Fighter Command. 

Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory (IWM)
As the first raid approached the Kent coast, Keith Park deployed his forces with his customary skill and this time because of the numbers approaching, he requested 12 Group's involvement and ordered the Duxford Wing to patrol over Hornchurch. Leigh-Mallory and Park had clashed over tactics during the Battle of Britain. The New Zealander Park was anxious to hit the attackers with smaller numbers of squadrons and break up the enemy formations before they reached their targets, whereas Leigh-Mallory believed in attacking in large numbers and it was irrelevant to him whether or not the bombers had reached their targets. In reality, Park's tactics were the correct ones - the 'Big Wing' frequently took too long to assemble and then had to climb to reach it's designated height and often being led by the brave but maverick Douglas Bader, the Wing would frequently not patrol where ordered, but would go where Bader felt the action should be. 

The bottom line was that Park did not really trust Leigh-Mallory and although Park's tactics would win out in the Battle of Britain, in the longer term, his 12 Group counterpart would be the winner. Because of his closeness to Sholto Douglas at the Air Ministry, Leigh-Mallory would replace Park at 11 Group and eventually indeed, take the top job of AOC Fighter Command. All this was in the future but it was just as well for Britain and the RAF that he was a more peripheral figure at this stage of the Battle.

Sir Keith Park (IWM)
To return to September 15th, Churchill watched as it became clear that the Luftwaffe formations were indeed heading towards London. This was the day of Sergeant Ray Holmes' collision with what turned out to be an abandoned German bomber, a fact obviously unknown to him at the time. The attacking force, whilst not exactly routed, suffered heavy losses all the same; eighteen German aircraft had been shot down, representing 12.5% of their strength. However, due to massive overclaiming on the part of the RAF, especially the Big Wing, the claims had been for eighty one aircraft. The bomber brought down in the collision with Ray Holmes' Hurricane had been claimed nine times! This overclaiming was not deliberate but was understandable in the melee of a pitched battle. Dowding and Park realised this and had previously sought to take a more measured approach when dealing with claims - matching claims against wrecks of crashed aircraft was one way of doing this for example. Leigh-Mallory and his Air Ministry friends realised it too but on this occasion chose to ignore the overclaiming, partially for propaganda purposes but also to further their own ambitions to oust Dowding and Park for their own ends. The afternoon's air fighting saw similar overclaiming and by the end of the day, the RAF had claimed an incredible 185 German aircraft for the loss of 28 RAF machines. The actual German losses were 56 - still a resounding defeat but hardly decisive. 

Park was furious when he learned that these inflated figures had been released. He understood as well as anyone the need for maintaining the morale of the British public but he also knew what else lay behind these figures; of the 185 claims, no fewer than 105 of them came from the Duxford 'Big Wing!' 

When Churchill spoke to Park upon leaving the Uxbridge bunker, he was once again profoundly moved - he had seen the RAF's fighters handled with great skill by Park and his controllers and with great bravery in the air by the pilots. Park explained to Churchill that he was still not satisfied with the outcome and that he was disappointed that the German bombers had reached London. That was not good enough for Park but Churchill was impressed, especially with the claims from the Big Wing. They were beginning to be noticed.

As Stephen Bungay says, Fighter Command did not win the Battle of Britain on September 15th - it had done that already. It had won because it had endured the battles in August when it's airfields were attacked by repairing damaged machines, filling in craters on airfields and because of the faulty tactics of their enemy. It had won because it had enough brave pilots who overcame their own fears and doubts and it had won because of leaders like Keith Park and Hugh Dowding, who would soon be shamefully replaced by Trafford Leigh-Mallory and Sholto Douglas.

September 15th merely encapsulated this victory that had already been won - forgetting the overclaims, the appearance of the Big Wing over London, whilst not an effective military weapon in it's own right, made a massive psychological impact on the Luftwaffe's crews. They had been led to believe that the RAF was on it's knees and down to it's last fifty Spitfires. On the contrary, they had appeared stronger than ever and as the Luftwaffe could not master the skies over Britain, the proposed invasion of this country was never going to be a viable prospect. Operation Sealion was postponed indefinitely on September 17th 1940, just two days after the day we now commemorate as Battle of Britain Day.

For this reason if for no other, The Few deserve to be mythologised. Lest we forget.

Published Sources:

Churchill - Roy Jenkins, Pan Macmillan 2001
Dowding of Fighter Command - Vincent Orange, Grub Street 2008
The Most Dangerous Enemy - Stephen Bungay, Aurum Press 2001
The Narrow Margin - Derek Wood with Derek Dempster, Tri-Service Press 1990
Park - Vincent Orange, Grub Street 2001

Monday, 3 January 2022

Book Review: "Richard Eager" - A Pilot's Story from Tennessee Eagle Scout to General Montgomery's Flying Fortress

Richard Eager cover (author's photograph)

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that starting back in 2014, we began to tell the story of Captain Richard E Evans who became the pilot of Bernard Law Montgomery's personal B-17 Flying Fortress, that Monty had "won" in a bet with General Eisenhower's Chief of Staff, General Walter Bedell Smith concerning the capture of of the Tunisian city of Sfax.

I was already aware of this bet and how by claiming his winnings, Monty had managed to upset pretty much everyone from Bedell Smith (who had wrongly assumed that Monty was joking) to the British Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Alan Brooke, one of the few who could normally keep Monty under some sort of control. It was left to Ike to smooth things over and despite his annoyance at having to kow-tow to Monty, he recognised the importance of keeping him happy and so authorised the use of a Boeing B-17, complete with American crew to satisfy the British general's ego.

However, in December 2014, I had the honour of guiding Barbara (Bobbie) Kinnear and her husband John on a wartime walk around Westminster but before we had met, Bobbie had mentioned that her late father had been Monty's pilot. Bobbie expressed a certain amount of surprise that I was aware of this particular wartime oddity and when we did finally meet before our walk, I was delighted that she had brought along some copies of photos of her dad, proudly standing alongside a genial looking Monty. This photo, Bobbie explained, was one that her dad had unofficially entitled "Friends at Last" after a series of mishaps, mostly born of bad luck and the occasional misunderstanding, had threatened to sour the relationship between the two men.

"Friends at Last" (courtesy of Bobbie Kinnear)

Following our walk, we parted as friends and promised to keep in touch. Bobbie and John were as good as their word and apart from continuing in email contact, we have managed to meet up on their every subsequent visit to London in those pre-Covid days, with the friendship extending to John and Bobbie's wider family.

Before he passed away aged 87 in 2006, Colonel Richard E Evans (as he had become) began writing the story of his very full life but sadly, the work was not completed by the time of his death. Fortunately for us, Bobbie decided to complete the work but writing and editing isn't always an easy process, especially when one is trying to juggle it around work, family matters and life in general!

It is difficult to review a book of this nature without giving away too many spoilers but suffice to say, this is a well-researched and well written story that alternates between stories of Richard's childhood and growing up in the Tennessee Valley and Great Smokey Mountains and of his service in the USAAF and in particular, of his time as Monty's personal pilot, as well as his post-war service with Strategic Air Command.

The book is well illustrated with photographs both from the family collection as well as from the Imperial War Museum and other archives. There are also copies of some remarkable - and very sincere - personal correspondence between Monty and the then Captain Evans, which form part of an irreplaceable family archive.

From my own point of view as a military historian, the chapters covering Richard's service during the Second World War are of the most interest but those dealing with his young life in Tennessee are fascinating and give an insight to a life that this "Limey" can only imagine but which in some ways echo my own father's young life growing up in rural England before the war.

I commend this book to anyone with an interest in family or in military history, or for anyone interested in the often overlooked "human" side of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. 

And why is the book called Richard Eager? Well, you'll have to buy it to find out!

I should point out that I did have a very small role in assisting with some of the research for this book but the writing and the editing is the work of Colonel Richard Evans and Barbara Evans Kinnear and theirs alone.

All profits from the sale of this book are being donated by the family to the Air Force Aid Society and copies can be purchased online from www.richardeagerbook.com 

Sunday, 21 November 2021

Honouring our wartime firefighters

The newly unveiled plaque at Lansbury Lawrence School (author's photo)

A few weeks back, I was lucky enough to be invited to the Lansbury Lawrence Primary School in Poplar to attend the dedication ceremony for the latest of the memorial plaques placed by the Firemen Remembered charity. This particular plaque had been unveiled back in 2006 at the school but due to an impending major refurbishment of the school buildings, a permanent site was not fixed at that time. More time passed and the pandemic then delayed matters even further and it was not until November this year that the plaque could finally be installed and properly dedicated.

The origins behind the plaque go back even further to July 2006, when Stephanie Maltman of the charity was contacted by an elderly lady, Cis Keefe who asked Stephanie whether she could arrange to get a plaque placed for her friend "Joanie" as she called her. Joanie turned out to be Auxiliary Firewoman Joan Ridd, who lost her life whilst serving at Ricardo Street School, as the school on the Lansbury Lawrence site was then called, on 1 November 1940.

Cis, Joan and another young lady named Hilda Dupree, were best friends from Poplar who decided to join the Auxiliary Fire Service in 1939. Hilda was to sadly lose her life at the Old Palace School in Poplar when this was bombed on the night of 19/20 April 1941 in what was to prove to be the largest single loss of Fire Service personnel in our history. Cis had seen this plaque and rightly wished for her other AFS friend to be duly honoured.

Old Palace School plaque (author's photo)

Once the connection became established, it was only a matter of time for the new plaque honouring Joan and her colleagues who perished with her on that November night, then almost eighty years ago. In July 2006, the plaque was unveiled at the school with Cis in attendance but as mentioned at the start of this piece, the plaque then went into storage until such time as it could be permanently displayed once the refurbishment of the school had been completed. Sadly, Cis was to pass away just two months after the original unveiling and so did not live to see her friend "Joanie" and her colleagues honoured but I'm sure that she would have been very pleased.

Cis Keefe (to right of plaque) at the original unveiling in July 2006 (Firemen Remembered)

Joan Ridd was a local Poplar girl, born in 1920 and worked at Hope Brothers in Ludgate Hill, a clothing shop that specialised in school uniforms but on joining the AFS, she was posted to Ricardo Street School, which like many such school premises in London, whose pupils had been evacuated to the relative safety of the countryside, had been requisitioned by the Auxiliary Fire Service. In this case, the school became known as Station 24Z and was under the control of Brunswick Road Fire Station, in "C" District of the London Fire Brigade.

Joan Ridd (Firemen Remembered)

Joan's duties would have been as a telephonist and as such, on the night of 1/2 November 1940, she was on duty at the station, together with many of her male colleagues. The school was devastated when it was struck by a high explosive bomb, which trapped many of those inside the building. Some were freed but sadly, Joan and four of her male colleagues were killed.

LCC Bomb Damage map for the Ricardo Street area (author's image)

As well as the damage to the school buildings, the entire area was to be ravaged by the Blitz and the subsequent V-Weapons campaign of 1944/45 and in the years immediately after the war, the entire area was cleared to make room for the Lansbury Estate, intended to be a showpiece built by the then London County Council to show what could be achieved when areas destroyed by the Blitz were redeveloped. The estate was built on the philosophy that it should comprise distinct neighbourhoods, rather than a bland "one size fits all" approach and contain everything within a neighbourhood that a community required - flats, housing, churches, schools, pubs, open spaces, shops and a covered market. The estate deliberately eschewed high-rise blocks and sought to retain the community feel of the old East End that it replaced, using many traditional materials such as the distinctive clay-coloured London Stock bricks and Welsh slate. Many of the new buildings were the work of architects such as Frederick Gibberd, who created the covered Chrisp Street Market and Adrian Gilbert Scott, whose St Mary and Joseph Roman Catholic Church is now listed Grade II by English Heritage.

FBU Plaque at Lansbury Lawrence School (author's image)

The informal but still very moving ceremony on 1 November was attended by pupils from the present day Lansbury Lawrence School, as well as member of the family of Fireman Arthur Wenborne, another of those who died here in 1940. Arthur lived close by in Brabazon Street and in peacetime worked for a furniture supply company. Also in attendance were re-enactors Neil Bloxham and Dave Porter, as well as modern firefighters from Bow Fire Station and representatives of the Fire Brigade Union, who had also placed a memorial plaque at the site. Another guest was historian Peter Quilter, whose grandfather Ernie Quilter had served in the London Fire Brigade from 1919 to 1948, initially at Bow and subsequently as a Divisional Officer at Brunswick Road Fire Station. Peter had researched the history of those who died here in 1940 and in addition to Joan and Arthur, told us about Walter Hart, born in Hackney in 1914, whose father had died during the Great War. Frank Wingfield was another local lad from Bow and Ernest Hyde had lived very close by in Ettrick Street. 

Neil Bloxham & Dave Porter in their 1940s uniforms (author's image)

Peter explained to the children present that these stories needed to be told and that be passing them on to the children, they were now their stories to tell and to likewise keep alive. Readings from the pupils then followed, as did some excellent questions from them. Our two re-enactors then explained something about the 1940s uniforms that they were wearing, which differ greatly from those worn by modern firefighters, many of whom took a great interest in the clothing that their counterparts from eighty years ago would have worn.

Members of Arthur Wenlock's family in front of the plaque together with Stephanie Maltman (second from right) and Peter Quilter (right) (author's image)

Firefighters old and new, together with FBU representatives (author's image)

The ceremony closed with some comments from Mr Owen O'Regan, the Head Teacher of Lansbury Lawrence School, who spoke of his genuine interest in this aspect of the school's history and who assured all those present that the memories of those who died here would be cherished and remembered so that future generations would continue to learn of them.

Please note that all of the colour images in this piece are the property of the author and they may not be reproduced under any circumstances without the express written permission of the author. 

Monday, 16 August 2021

Firemen Remembered: Harry Errington and the George Cross

The Invicta Road plaque remembrance ceremony in 2018 (author's photograph)

Since taking up guiding some twelve years ago, I have met some delightful people who have helped and encouraged me and frequently collaborated on various projects. One of my very earliest such contacts was Stephanie Maltman, the moving force behind the Firemen Remembered charity, an independent organisation that is dedicated to recording and remembering those firemen and women who served in the London Civil Defence Region during the Second World War and which commemorates those who died whilst serving.

Observant Londoners will have spotted the distinctive white, oval shaped plaques at various locations across the capital upon which the names of firemen and firewomen (the rank of "Firefighter" was not introduced until the late 1980s) are recorded, sometimes along with the names of other Civil Defence workers who died alongside them. Thanks to Stephanie, I have been fortunate enough to have been invited to a number of unveiling and dedication ceremonies of new plaques and on one occasion, worked with her to get a plaque installed at Invicta Road School, the scene of a tragic loss of fire service lives in November 1940.

The most recent plaque to be installed was of necessity, unveiled without ceremony due to Covid restrictions in 2020 but commemorates seven Auxiliary Fire Service members who died at the former Jackson & Allum's Garage at Rathbone Street, in the area of London's West End that we now know as Fitzrovia. The garage was then in use as an annexe of AFS sub-fire station 72Z but on 17 September 1940, received a direct hit from a high explosive bomb that killed the seven firemen, as well as nineteen civilians who were using the basement as a shelter. 

Firemen Remembered plaque at 7-9 Rathbone Street, London W1 (author's photograph)

However, as the plaque informs us, apart from the tragic loss of life, Jackson's Garage was the scene of an act of great bravery that saw the only George Cross awarded to Harry Errington, the only member of the London Fire Service to be so awarded during the Second World War.

Harry Errington was born on 20 August 1910 in a small, two roomed flat at 47 Poland Street, Westminster. He was one of four children born to Yiddish speaking, Jewish immigrants from Poland, Solomon and Bella Ehrengott, who were tailors originally from Lubartov, near Lublin. They had come to England in 1908 in order to flee the pogroms and had changed their name to Errington shortly before Harry's birth. He was educated at the Jewish Free School in Westminster and had vague memories of the Zeppelin raids of the First World War, when with his school friends, he remembered collecting pieces of shrapnel from the streets after each raid.

Upon leaving school, Harry initially trained as an engraver but the fumes from the nitric acid used in the process affected his chest and so instead, he went to trade school and became a tailor working for his uncle in Savile Row. His job at this time was to take finished articles of clothing to other Savile Row shops and bring back other work for his uncle. After completing his training as a cutter, he got his first job with a famous Dutch tailor called Sholti but as soon as he discovered that Harry was Jewish, sacked him in a move that would be illegal today but was typical of the widespread anti-Semitism of the time.

The site of Jackson's Garage in 2018 (author's photograph)

Harry eventually obtained another job in 1936 with the famous tailors Simpsons of Piccadilly but in August 1939, three weeks before the declaration of war, he volunteered to join the AFS full time, along with three friends at Shaftesbury Avenue Fire Station. Harry was highly motivated in his desire to help defend his local neighbourhood, as he had numerous relatives still living in Poland, all of whom he later learned were murdered in the Holocaust.

His first base was at his former school at Hanway Place, which was the main Station 72Z and as this was during the period known as the "Phoney War", they saw little action and were able to concentrate on training. Harry and his crew of four had the typical equipment of the time - a requisitioned taxi and a trailer pump. Harry recalled that morale was high and that as they had several chefs amongst their number from West End restaurants, the food was excellent.

In early 1940, he was transferred to Jackson & Allum's garage in Rathbone Street, which for Harry was a bonus as it meant that he could now walk to work from his home in Poland Street. This station had five crews and larger purpose built wagons for towing the trailer pumps. One of the main raisons d'etre of the AFS was to act as a mobile reserve to reinforce other areas and on the first night of the Blitz, 7 September 1940, Harry and his colleagues found themselves tackling fires a long way from their usual "manor" in places as far-flung as the Surrey Docks, Peckham, Camberwell and the Woolwich Arsenal.

On 17 September 1940, Harry and some twenty colleagues were awaiting their next "shout" in the basement of Jackson's Garage, along with around thirty members of the public who were sheltering there. At 00:14, the floors above crashed into the basement as the building received a direct hit from a high explosive bomb. The garage petrol store was also located above the basement and the burning fuel created a fireball that swept through the basement. Harry was blown across the floor and knocked unconscious but quickly awoke to find himself unhurt but stunned. The cellar was burning and smoke-filled and although the main exit was blocked, he was able to make his way to the emergency exit but on his way, heard screams for help; he saw his friend John Hollingshead laying face down in great pain with his legs trapped by masonry. Without hesitation, Harry found a blanket and placed it over his head to try and get a measure of protection from the flames and returned to help his friend.

Harry Errington GC (author's collection)

Harry was able to scrape away and lift the rubble with his bare hands, seriously burning and cutting them in the process. Freeing Hollingshead, he then carried him out into the street but on his way, noticed another friend, John Terry, trapped beneath a heavy radiator. Having taken Hollingshead to safety, Harry then returned into the burning basement, by then in danger of imminent collapse and freed Terr, dragging him out of the building.

Harry was by this time in serious pain from his cut and burned hands, which he must have surely known could end his peacetime livelihood. The injured men, including Harry were taken to the nearby Middlesex Hospital for treatment but later transferred to the relative safety of a hospital in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire. It was whilst recovering here that he recalled being given copious supplies of beer, courtesy of some Canadian soldiers who were also patients here. The Canadians didn't think much of English beer and so were happy to give it away to the English firemen!

Harry was eventually discharged by the AFS as his wounds failed to heal in the thirteen weeks allowed by the Civil Injuries Act and as his parents had moved to Bromsgrove, near Birmingham, he moved there and got a job working at Austin Aero, which manufactured Lancaster bombers. He also attempted to join the Army at this time but was refused as medically unfit due to his injured hands. Harry later re-joined the now-nationalised National Fire Service in Bromsgrove as a part-timer and remained with them until the end of the war.

Harry's George Cross was gazetted on 8 August 1941 based on the recommendation of Hollingshead and Terry, the two men he had rescued, who had reported his actions to a senior officer. Despite his injuries (he had third degree burns to his hands and arms), Harry had modestly not mentioned his act of rescue to his superiors. His GC was awarded to him in October 1942 by the King in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace.

After the war, Harry returned to Simpsons but eventually established his own tailoring business, Errington & Whyte in Sackville Street, which he ran until his retirement in 1992. In his youth, he had been a keen basketball player and after the war coached the Regent Street Polytechnic team and later still became Vice Chairman of the UK Amateur Basketball Association. He was heavily involved with the Great Britain basketball team at the 1948 London Olympics and travelled around the world with the British team. Harry was also an active member of AJEX - the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen, which have also placed a plaque in Harry's memory at Rathbone Street.

AJEX plaque honouring Harry at Rathbone Street (author's photograph)

Stephanie Maltman, who met Harry on several occasions, describes him as having been a "gentle and self-effacing" man. In his retirement, Harry was a welcome visitor to Soho Fire Station in Shaftesbury Avenue, who gave him a splendid 90th birthday party in 2000 and he was particularly honoured to have a road named after him at the Fire Services College at Morton-in-Marsh.

In 2002, Harry became a resident of the Nightingale Jewish Old Age Home in Wandsworth and died in 2004 at the age of 94, His medals are now on display at the Jewish Museum in Camden Town, having been gifted by his family.

Published Sources:

Jewish Participation in the Fire Service in the Second World War - Martin Sugarman - Valentine Mitchell, 2016
The London Gazette - 5th August 1941
The Salamander, Journal of the Worshipful Company of Firefighters, Issue 7, April 2006

Unpublished Sources:

Metropolitan Borough of St Marylebone Civil Defence Incident Log


Saturday, 24 July 2021

A step back in time: The Hamburg Air Raid Shelter Museum

This article first appeared on the blog in February 2013 but to mark the 78th anniversary of the beginning of the "Gomorrah" raids, we have slightly updated the piece slightly to present it to you once again.

I first visited Hamburg's only Air Raid Shelter Museum in February 2013 and have returned twice since to this fascinating but still relatively little-known museum located in the eastern inner suburbs of Germany's second largest city.

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the war will be aware that between 24th July and 2nd August 1943, Hamburg was laid waste by a series of  RAF and smaller USAAF air raids with the macabre codename Operation Gomorrah, that peaked, if that is the correct word, on 27th July with a vast firestorm that devastated the districts of Hamm, Hammerbrook and Borgfelde causing casualty figures that are difficult to comprehend even today and which left a generation of survivors scarred with mental images of the hellish scenes that they had witnessed. 

We have already covered the raid in the February 2011 edition of this blog but before one of my regular visits to Hamburg, I learned of the Air Raid Shelter Museum located on the Wichernsweg in the Hamm district, one of the hardest hit areas of the 1943 raids. The opportunity to visit such an important piece of wartime history was too good to miss and after a brief exchange of emails, a guided tour was arranged for myself and the group of friends who were visiting with me.

The steps to safety (author's photo)

We arrived at the entrance to the Shelter promptly at 11:00 and were greeted by Gunnar Wulf, our friendly and knowledgeable guide for the tour. A brisk descent down in excess of twenty steps took us out of the chilly Hamburg weather down into a subterranean world, which in the summer of 1943 would have represented the best hope of surviving the horrors about to rain down on the city. The shelter was built between April 1940 and April 1941 as part of a country wide scheme of shelter construction in anticipation of British air raids following the outbreak of war in September 1939. The shelter was built approximately five metres underground from reinforced concrete with walls one metre thick. This substantial construction provided protection from everything except a direct hit. 

At the bottom of the stairs, we entered a chamber, which during the war would have acted as a gas-proofed airlock area, from which we saw four parallel tunnel like chambers, which formed the actual shelter part of the bunker. Each tunnel is 17 metres long and has a headroom of 2.25 metres, which allows even the tallest amongst us to stand upright, which as Gunnar explained later was very important in 1943. Each chamber had bench type seating for 50 people as well as shelves for personal belongings. Each tunnel is interlinked with a small passageway into the adjoining chamber as well as being served by an emergency exit at the opposite end to the main stairs so as to allow speedy evacuation in case of a bomb breaching the shelter or blocking the entrance.

The Gas-tight entrance or Gasschleuse (author's photo)

We were then led into one of the tunnel-like chambers, now in use as a small lecture theatre where after sitting down, Gunnar formally greeted us and introduced us to Timothy Hulme, a post-graduate military history student from Wales who had been enlisted to assist with translating any technical terms. The introduction started by explaining the different types of shelter used in Germany during the wartime years. In Hamburg, there were two types of above ground shelter as well as the underground type that we were visiting. The above ground shelters consisted of the brick clad shelters, looking rather like overgrown pepperpots, which were often located close to main railway stations and of which several still survive in Hamburg. The other type of above ground shelter were the Flakturm or Flak Towers, which doubled as anti-aircraft gun emplacements and fortresses as well as shelters. These huge reinforced concrete structures have often proved impossible to destroy and one of these towers survives in the St Pauli area of the city, close to the Millerntor Stadion, home of St Pauli FC.

This is Wichernsweg in 1940 - the shelter entrance was to the left of the church (Stadtteilarchiv Hamm)

Going back to 'our' shelter, we then moved to an explanation as to who was allowed to use the shelter and Gunnar described how local residents were registered with the Shelter Warden as being permitted to use this particular shelter. Residents were expected to make their whereabouts known and if a person was travelling and unable to use a shelter for a particular length of time, he or she was under instructions to inform the Warden of their non-attendance; failure to do this and not to attend for three consecutive nights, meant that permission to use a particular shelter could be withdrawn. Most of the shelter residents were the very young and the elderly; the majority of the younger men were in the armed forces and many of the younger women by 1943, were involved in some form of war work. The unpalatable truth concerning the fate of Jewish would-be shelterers was also touched upon and Gunnar explained that the Nazis simply would not permit people of that faith to use the public shelters. Jews who by 1943 had not been shipped off to one of the death camps were expected to remain in their homes, not to take shelter and basically take their chances. The Allied bombers could do the Nazis' job for them without the expense of shipping these people away.

Elderly male shelterers pass the time with a card game (Stadtteilarchiv Hamm)

We then moved to what for me was the most striking part of the entire tour. We were played a recording, some of which was taken during an actual raid. For this recording, the lighting in the shelter was extinguished and we listened in complete darkness, in much the same way as if a nearby bomb falling had extinguished the lighting, as happened frequently. The recording started with a radio broadcast; the ticking metronome sound being interrupted by a voice telling us that enemy raiders were approaching and instructing the listeners to take shelter, followed by the haunting sound of the air raid sirens. We then heard the sound of approaching bombers and the steady drone of the engines of 800 plus Lancasters and Halifaxes. Up until now, I have always considered the noise of the Merlin engine to be a friendly, reassuring sound but sitting in the total darkness waiting for the bombs to start falling, even in a simulation like this, it was anything but friendly and oozed menace. Next we heard the sound of bombs falling, including one or two that must have been very close to the person making the original recording and finally we heard the somewhat distressing sound of people screaming and crying; quite possibly the sound of people being killed.

At this point, the recording finished, the lights were raised and we moved to the next stage of our tour. On the way out of this chamber, we examined the many photographs, taken unofficially at the time of various groups of shelterers; many were elderly and they made poignant viewing of people playing cards, knitting, chatting or just trying to get some sleep. These were ordinary people and looked no different to their counterparts in London, Coventry or any other city under fire.

The Shelter Wardens' Area (author's photograph)

In the next chamber, we visited the area which would have been used by the Shelter Warden and saw some artefacts from the shelter's wartime past, including a noticeboard, a shelter telephone and an air raid siren, which obviously was not originally located in the shelter but was there for display purposes. We were also showed the location of the emergency exit at the other end of the tunnel, which could be reached from the other three by means of connecting passageways between the four chambers. Also included in this area were a series of photographs from the Holborn area of London following damage inflicted by the Luftwaffe in the Blitz of 1940-41, as well as several personal accounts of Londoners during this time. Gunnar explained that he always went to great lengths to explain to visiting school groups that London was bombed first, in 1940 and that what subsequently happened to Hamburg and other German cities was a direct result of this. He also mentioned that he frequently showed school groups the Holborn photographs without captions and that the children often confuse them with photos of Hamburg. As Gunnar pointed out, one bombed city looks much like another.

Re-creation of how shelterers' luggage was stored (author's photo)

We then moved into the third chamber, the layout of which has been recreated as the shelter would originally have been in 1943. This included bench type seating on one side, with wooden luggage racks on the opposite side. Today, these racks were filled with suitcases and luggage of the period, including some donated by Gunnar's Mother. He explained that each shelterer was issued with a list of what they should bring with them. This included a change of clothing, washing things, knives and forks - basically what one would take on an overnight stay or a short camping trip. This part of the shelter also contained the toilet - a dry chemical type - and the First Aid area, which contained the only beds to be found - a bunk bed arrangement for anyone who was taken ill during the night, or who was unable to sit or stand. We also saw the air filter, designed to provide a source of 'fresh' air into the shelter and which in theory could help filter out poison gas. The outside chamber leading into the main entrance stairs was also used as a Gasschleuse or airlock, where poison gas, being heavier than air would roll down the stairs and dissipate on the floor, with the main shelter chambers being sealed by large blast and gas proof steel doors. Mercifully, neither side used poison gas during the Second World War, so this was never put to the test. However, the filter could not keep out smoke and during the raids of 1943, when fires were burning out of control up on the surface, the filter had to be switched off in the hope that the shelterers would have enough air to see the raid out.

The Air Filter with the only two bunk beds visible in the background and the toilet behind them. The emergency exit is at the far end of this area (author's photo)

Gunnar described how, although the shelter was designed for 200 people, during the great raids of 1943 anyone and everyone was allowed in. He related one story told to him by a shelterer of the time that during the firestorm raid of 27th July 1943, so many people were crammed into the shelter that it was impossible to move from one end of the tunnel to the other and consequently toilet visits were impossible. Combined with being in near darkness, the sound of bombs falling and the air fetid with smoke and unwashed bodies, the conditions do not bear thinking about. Despite this, everyone who sheltered here during the raids of 1943 survived to tell the tale; many others elsewhere were not so lucky. 

Bottles twisted into fantastic shapes by the intense heat of the Firestorm (author's photo)

This room also contained many other artefacts of the wartime years, including a misshapen bottle found buried outside the shelter. The bottle was intact but had assumed a very peculiar shape. Hamm was in the centre of the firestorm and this bottle had been partially melted and it was explained to us that the temperature required to achieve this was between 800 - 1200 degrees Celsius. Obviously people could not survive outside in these conditions and eye witness accounts tell us of people seeing what they thought were 'tailors dummies' lying around on the streets, including the nearby main thoroughfare, the Hammer Landstrasse. These 'tailors dummies' were human bodies, charred often beyond recognition. Usually though, there was even less left to find - the official death toll is usually shown in the region of 42,000 to 45,000 but the true human cost of these terrible nights will probably never be known.

Knives and Forks suffered the same fate in the heat (author's photo)

For the final part of our tour, Gunnar took us to a part of the bunker that is not usually open to the public but which is used for storing artefacts not normally on display. These included more partially melted bottles which had assumed crazy shapes, knives and forks also twisted in the firestorm as well as many items of wartime ephemera unearthed from the ground around the area. In the main entrance hall as we gathered to leave the shelter was a large piece of shrapnel from a British 500 lb bomb, also discovered close by.

A large piece of shrapnel from a British bomb (author's photo)

After bidding our farewells, it was a somewhat more reflective group which climbed the stairs back to the surface and as we crossed the Hammer Landstrasse on our way back to the U-Bahn Station, it was hard to imagine that this was the same road, that almost seventy years ago was strewn with 'tailors dummies' and a scene of unimaginable hell on Earth.

Thanks are again due to Gunnar and Timothy for guiding us so expertly around the shelter and for making us so welcome. A short article of this nature cannot possibly compare with making a personal visit and if visiting the city of Hamburg, this is to be recommended. The museum is open to the public on Thursdays but private visits for groups of upto thirty in number can be arranged by prior appointment and this can be arranged via the museum's website.

Finally, apart from the February 2011 blog post linked earlier, for further in depth reading of the 'Operation Gomorrah' raids, I can thoroughly recommend 'Inferno - The Devastation of Hamburg 1943' by Keith Lowe, published in 2007 by Penguin Viking, which is a superbly written study of the raids dealing with the background, the planning, the raids themselves both from the viewpoint of the airmen and those on the ground and also dealing with the aftermath.

Lest we forget.

Published Sources:

Bomber Boys: Fighting Back 1940-1945 - Patrick Bishop, HarperPress 2007
Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg 1943 - Keith Lowe, Penguin Viking 2007