|Neil Bright guiding in Westminster during 2010 (author's image)|
Wednesday 15 November 2023
Tuesday 31 October 2023
|Cover of Streatham's 41 (author's image)|
In mid-June 1944, Londoners could perhaps have been forgiven for thinking that the days of attacks on them from the air were a thing of the past but on 13 June, a new threat to their safety appeared in the form of the V-1, the first of Hitler’s Vergeltungswaffen or “Vengeance Weapons”. In excess of 2,400 of these early cruise missiles were to fall upon London in a campaign that was to last until early September 1944, in which the various neighbourhoods of south and southeast London bore the brunt,
The original edition of this account was written by Kenneth Bryant, Senior District Air Raid Warden of the Metropolitan Borough of Wandsworth and appeared in 1946 as a basic record of the forty-one flying bombs that fell upon the south London suburb of Streatham. In 2019 an updated and expanded edition was produced by the Streatham Society to mark the 75th anniversary of the campaign and which has recently been re-issued once again.
This attractive A4 softback booklet provides a detailed analysis of each of “Streatham’s 41” flying bombs, each one accompanied by a map, as well as personal accounts from those affected by each incident and where available, contemporary photographs of the aftermath of each bomb.
In addition, there are useful and informative chapters on the organisation of the ARP (Air Raid Precautions), later the Civil Defence Service in general and in particular within the Borough of Wandsworth. There is also a brief history and timeline of the V-1 offensive and the counter-measures put in place, as well as an interesting chapter covering the human cost of the campaign and financial cost of rebuilding in Streatham, most notably the “pre-fabs” that sprung up across London as a temporary solution to re-housing those who had been rendered homeless.
There is also a chapter on the design of the V-1, which leads to my only minor gripe with the book, in so far that the authors describe the propulsion system as a ram jet, whereas in fact the V-1s were propelled by a pulse jet system, which gave rise to the peculiar rasping sound made by the engine.
Overall though, this is an excellent local history publication which should be of interest to Home Front historians as well as those with a love of our capital city’s history.
Streatham's 41: The V-1 Flying Bomb Offensive as experienced in Streatham
Author: Kenneth Bryant (updated edition prepared by John W Brown)
Published by The Streatham Society (www.streathamsociety.org.uk)
Softback, pp 90
Tuesday 20 June 2023
|The order of service for the ceremony (author's photograph)|
|The original plaque, now obscured from public view (author's photograph)|
|Old Palace School before the war (Firemen Remembered)|
|The grim task of recovery (Firemen Remembered)|
|Stephanie Maltman and the Rev'd Cathy Wyles (author's photo)|
|Fire Brigade guests, past and present (author's photo)|
Monday 8 May 2023
One of the many joys of guiding is the "surprise factor" brought to the party by our guests - when starting out with a group, whether it be from the Army, RAF, a school or college group, overseas visitors or a home-based group of history lovers, one never knows what to expect and this certainly helps to keep me as the guide, on my toes!
|The Hungerford Bridge parachute mine made safe (author's collection)|
A recent walk with a London-based group of history enthusiasts brought one of the biggest and most pleasant surprises in my thirteen-year guiding "career".
The group's organiser had requested a bespoke walk starting at Hungerford Bridge, which for non-Londoners is a bridge that carries the railway from Charing Cross Station across the Thames and which also doubles up as a footbridge. To be brutally honest, this isn't the most picturesque part of London but is one which has a wartime history, so I had a suspicion that at least one member of the group might have a connection in some way.
So when the group met on a dank Sunday morning in March, I began by explaining the wartime history of Hungerford Bridge, which began on the night of 16/17 April 1941, when a parachute mine settled on to the tracks just outside the station. Incendiary bombs were also falling and had started a major fire in the signal cabin at the end of platform one, with the flames creeping towards the mine, which had failed to explode.
|Lieut. Cdr. Ernest Oliver "Mick" Gidden GC, RNVR (fotostock)|
As parachute mines were adapted anti-shipping weapons, they were always dealt with by the Royal Navy who had the necessary expertise to deal with them and accordingly, a team led by Lieutenant Commander Ernest "Mick" Gidden RNVR.
Gidden worked on the mine for over six hours, breaking it free from the live rail, from which it had welded itself and forcing it back into some sort of shape with a large hammer, so that he could unscrew the fuse from the weapon and in doing so, earned himself a George Cross into the bargain. While Gidden was working on the mine, he was aware of the large fire burning in the signal cabin and noticed that two Auxiliary Firemen were tackling the fires, seemingly oblivious to their own safety - he later spoke of these men thus:
“When I arrived at the incident on Hungerford Bridge I found about half a dozen firemen working within 15 feet of the unexploded mine. This had already lost its filling plate, exposing the explosive to the naked fire should it have reached it. Luckily for the bridge and several important Government offices the firemen were able to prevent this happening. I warned the men of their imminent peril but they seemed not to care a jot and I had to order them away. They left with great reluctance.”
The two firemen in question were Station Officer George Watling, a London Fire Brigade "regular" with 21 years service and Auxiliary Fireman Alf Blanchard, a chef in civilian life, who had joined the Auxiliaries shortly before the outbreak of war in 1939. The men were based at Holloway in North London and in keeping with the work of the Auxiliaries, had been summoned down from their usual base of operations to assist in Westminster.
|Auxiliary Fireman Alfred Blanchard BEM (Kevin Ireland)|
For their work on the night, Blanchard and Watling were awarded the British Empire Medal, which was gazetted on 3 October 1941.
After explaining this incident to the group and the subsequent near-destruction of the bridge in a V-1 incident in July 1944, one of the group stepped forward and informed me that he was Alf Blanchard's grandson and had some mementos of his late grandfather to show me.
Alf's grandson was called Kevin Ireland and produced Alf's B.E.M. as well as a souvenir that his grandfather had secured for himself once the mine had been made safe - this was a piece of one of the cables that suspended the mine from the parachute. For once in my life, I was speechless!
|Kevin Ireland with his grandfather's souvenirs (author's photograph)|
To say that I went into geek mode would be an understatement and many photographs were taken at the time and after the walk, when e-mail addresses were also exchanged.
|Close up of Alf's BEM (author's photograph)|
|Close up of Alf's BEM (author's photograph)|
|The section of parachute cable (author's photograph)|
|Alf's letter of release from the Fire Service (Kevin Ireland)|
Tuesday 7 March 2023
|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.
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
Fireman Flower - William Sansom, Hogarth Press 1944
The London Blitz: A Fireman's Tale - Cyril Demarne OBE, After The Battle 1991
1939 Register - UK National Archives
Saturday 31 December 2022
It is probable that most people around the world will be aware of the tragedy that befell the residents of Grenfell Tower in 2017 but fewer will know the area in which the 1974-built block is located. Grenfell Road, on which the tower stands, is today part of the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, a product of the reorganisation of London's local government in 1965. Prior to this date, Grenfell Road had formed part of the Metropolitan Borough of Kensington, a solidly working class area known as Notting Dale and as we can see from the extract from the 1939 A to Z atlas, a warren of smaller roads running to the east of Latimer Road Station, which was then part of the Hammersmith & City Branch of the Metropolitan Line.
|The impact area (arrowed) on the 1939 A to Z (author's image)|
As Christmas 1944 approached, the war-weary residents of the area, along with all Londoners were hoping for a quiet Christmas and perhaps had begun to have thoughts about the end of the war in Europe being on the distant horizon. Since September 1944, London had been under attack from the latest of Hitler's vengeance weapons, the V-2 rocket but on the evening of 12 December 1944, the residents of Notting Dale were hoping for a peaceful night - there had been no nearby incidents since 6 December, when the "Red Lion" pub in Marylebone had been destroyed by a direct hit but at 22:40, the silence was shattered by an explosion in the area between Treadgold Street, Lancaster Street and Grenfell Road.
As was usual with these weapons, destruction was widespread and not limited to the immediate area of impact. As we can see from the extract reproduced below from the LCC Bomb Survey, many buildings were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable but remarkably, just two people lost their lives in the incident; 61-year-old Edith Bryant of 21 Grenfell Road and 39-year-old Edith Ryell of 9 Grenfell Road. The BC4 report held at the National Archives in Kew informs us that 30 people were seriously injured, with another 20 "lesser injuries". The missile had been fired just minutes earlier from Battery 444 at Scheveningen, in the Netherlands and was one of ten fired by this particular battery on the day and one of twenty two in total fired on that day.
|Extract from BC4 Report held at the UK National Archives (HO198/106)|
The National Archive file connected with this incident also contains some useful sketch maps and photographs, with which it is possible to compare some of the views with a "then and now" perspective, although such was the level of damage incurred not only as a result of this incident but also due to earlier damage in the Blitz, that when the London County Council began the post-war redevelopment of the area, the local geography of the road network was changed, further compounded by the construction of the Westway in the 1960s and 70s, which submerged many of the roads in the north of the area seen on the 1939 map.
|The 1944 map drawn immediately after the incident (HO198/106)|
|Google Maps view of the comparable area today (author's screen grab)|
We can see above some of the changes on the geography by comparing the BC4 map drawn immediately after the incident, with the Google Maps view of the comparable area today. For example, Lancaster Road no longer exists, apart from a short section of it which has now been renamed Whitchurch Road and Grenfell Road today continues north on a new alignment, crossing the site of Lancaster Road, at the end of which lies the ill-fated Grenfell Tower.
|Photograph Plot from BC4 Report (HO198/106)|
There is also a useful map in the file which references where each of the bomb survey photographs were taken and using this map, it is fairly easy to use Streetview to take a comparable view of the same scene today. In the first comparison shots below, we see image #1, which is the view from Bomore Road, looking towards Grenfell Road, compared with the similar view today.
|This is image #1 from 1944 looking from Bomore Road towards Grenfell Road (HO198/106)|
|The same view taken in 2020 (author's screen grab from Google Streetview)|
Whilst in the views below, we see 1944 images #3 and #4 which show Treadgold Street forking off to the right, with Grenfell Road bearing left. The modern image has been incorrectly labelled Barandon Walk by Google Maps, when this is actually a public walkway in the Lancaster West Estate which is out of sight behind the camera operator.
|Treadgold Street on the right with surface air raid shelter, with Grenfell Road bearing left (HO198/106)|
Next, we see 1944 photographs #8 and #9, taken from the corner of Treadgold Street looking into Grenfell Road. We can see in the modern comparison view that the Victorian houses in Grenfell Road have been totally demolished and replaced by the Lancaster West Estate.
|Photos #8 and #9 looking from Treadgold Street into Grenfell Road (HO198/106)|
|The comparable view today looking towards the Lancaster West Estate (author's screen grab)|
The final view is a montage of photographs #10, #11 and #12, which is impossible to compare with a modern view as the houses in the photograph have been demolished but it does demonstrate the level of blast damage caused to the houses in Grenfell Road.
|Images #10, #11 and #12 taken from the rear of Lancaster Street, looking towards Grenfell Road (HO198/106)|
This then is Grenfell Road, like many parts of London, an area who's modern geography is framed by events of almost eighty years and ago and which has seen tragedy in war and more recently.
HO198/106 - Region 5: London Headquarters Forms BC4 12 Dec 1944 to 1 Feb 1945 - UK National Archives, Kew
Monday 26 September 2022
I've been guiding regularly now since 2010 but have been interested in our wartime history for as long as I can remember and in that time, have come to appreciate that as well as the formal memorials and plaques commemorating incidents and events from the Blitz and beyond, there are so many more reminders that can be seen, often hiding in plain sight.
We've covered some of these in previous posts, such as surviving signage, bomb splinter damage and air raid shelters but today we're going to look at some of the quirkier and perhaps more subtle reminders of our wartime past.
We start at St Margaret's Church, adjacent to Westminster Abbey, a 12th Century place of worship that is sometimes called "The parish church of the House of Commons".
|Scorch marks still apparent on Pew 38 (author's photos)|
|Rubble from the Thames embankment wall now on the beach below the Victoria Tower Gardens (author's photo)|
|Sir Thomas Peirson-Frank green plaque (author's photo)|
|The battle-scarred walls of Victoria Station (author's images)|
Please note that all photographs in the above article are the property of the author and may not be used elsewhere without my express written permission. Offenders will be pursued ruthlessly!