Thursday 15 February 2024

From Doodlebugs to Devon - by Sarah Shaw

From Doodlebugs to Devon cover (author's photo)

Sarah Shaw's latest book "From Doodlebugs to Devon" is subtitled "one year..." and is very much a personal journey for the author, for the "one woman" mentioned in the title happens to be Sarah's mother, Yvonne Shaw, whose letters to her husband form the basis of this book.

I have to declare an interest in this book now because during the various Covid lockdowns and the periods in between, I assisted Sarah in a very small way by checking and verifying the various BC4 Bomb Census reports for some of the V-1 and V-2 incidents that are referred to in this book, both in Yvonne's letters and in the narrative that the author skilfully weaves around them, which help provide context to the letters and help the reader get a real idea of what was happening in the wider world of the British "Home Front" at this later stage of the Second World War.

Yvonne Shaw and her four-year-old son, Oliver begin the period covered in this book living in Foxley Lodge, a Victorian detached house in the outer London suburb of Purley, to the south of Croydon and at that time, still in the county of Surrey. Yvonne is almost 33 and her husband Clem, is an army officer stationed in Scotland. His work is something of a mystery to Yvonne but we soon learn in the author's narrative that he is actually working with the Home Guard in Scotland.

The first letter to him we read is dated 1st April 1944 and apart from mention of an air raid late in the preceding month (one of the last such raids by manned Luftwaffe aircraft), most of these early letters cover the relatively mundane life of a young wife with a husband serving in the armed forces, somewhat struggling to make ends meet and finding life in wartime London fairly boring.

It is when the Doodlebugs mentioned in the book title start falling that the tone of the letters suddenly change. As most people know, "Doodlebug" was one of the nicknames given by the British people to the V-1, the first of Hitler's so-called "Vengeance Weapons", a pilotless aircraft as they were somewhat quaintly called initially by the British Civil Defence service, before they were given the name of "FLY" for "Flying Bomb", which is essentially what these weapons were - an early form of cruise missile.

Croydon was to become the most "Doodlebugged" borough in London. This was not due to any particular singling out of the citizens of the south London suburbs but more due to subterfuge on the part of the British, who had double agents on the ground whom the Germans were convinced were providing them with accurate information regarding the fall of shot of the V-1s. Whereas in fact most of them were initially falling as intended on the central area of the capital, false information fed to them by one agent in particular, Juan Pujol Garcia, better known as Agent Garbo, persuaded the Germans to adjust the targeting of these devices downwards, so that they would fall on what in 1944, were the much more lightly populated areas of outer suburban London, rather than the densely packed inner London.

It was a terrible decision by the authorities to have to take, for whichever option ensured that people would die. In the end, it was just about numbers and sadly, Croydon became the recipient of 141 these weapons. 

Yvonne's growing anxiety is reflected in her letters to Clem and she reports some very close calls nearby which although they do not directly impact the family home, happen to be far too close for comfort and it is clear from the tone of her writing that the mental strain is growing, as well as concern for the well-being of young Oliver.

As a result of this and a phone call from her uncle in Exmouth, Yvonne and Oliver decamp to Devon, at first staying with her Uncle Dudley and family but later moving to Budleigh Salterton and enduring something of an odyssey of moves and re-locations to various parts of that delightful seaside town, although doubtless in 1944, it was somewhat different to the Budleigh Salterton that I am quite familiar with today.

The letters home, which sometimes cover seemingly quite mundane matters, actually provide an interesting window of this important period of British history and the author's accompanying commentary and explanations, provide a fascinating context.

The book ends with a chapter which tells us about the family from 1945-1973, which sadly doesn't provide us with a particularly happy ending to the story - but there will be no further spoilers from this reviewer!

Sarah Shaw has produced a delightful social history of wartime Britain which I would thoroughly recommend to you.

Available from

RRP: £11.99

softback, pp 227 (also available as an e-book)

Monday 22 January 2024

Book Review - "Unbroken Glory" The Great War Story of Anson Battalion, The Royal Naval Division by Dr Robert Wynn Jones


This is Dr Jones’ second foray into the world of military history and as with his first book, “Soldiers and Sportsmen All”, the subject matter has a definite family connection for the author, as his paternal grandfather, Able Seaman Francis Wynn Jones served in both the Nelson and Anson Battalions of the Royal Naval Division, spending the final eight months of the war in captivity, having been captured on 23 March 1918, during the German Spring Offensive.

The author begins by explaining the raison d’etre of the Royal Naval Division and telling us something of his paternal grandfather, who in normal life was a Post Office clerk in London, although he hailed from Llandrillo in North Wales.

The book charts the formation of the Royal Naval Division, which immediately became known to some as “Churchill’s Private Army” or perhaps worse as the “Tuppeny untrained rabble” and explains the makeup of the various battalions, all named after Royal Navy heroes of the past and how, perhaps confusingly to those on the outside, the men all retained their naval ranks, ensuring that Able Seaman, Leading Stokers and Chief Petty Officers could be found far away from their usual maritime locations!

We hear about the training process for war, something that is vividly illustrated by letters written by Rupert Brooke, himself a member of Anson and later Hood Battalions and includes a hilarious description of the latter Battalion’s Christmas celebrations in 1914 at Blandford Camp.

A wider description of the war on the Western Front follows, with interesting comparisons of the arms, equipment and organisation of the combatant nations involved, as well as a good description of how life on the Western Front would have been for the typical British soldier in the dugouts and trenches along the front line – “either frightened to death or bored to tears” – as one contemporary account succinctly put it.

The bulk of the remainder of the book is taken up with descriptions of the various actions that the Division were involved with starting with the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to defend Antwerp, followed by the Gallipoli and Salonika Campaigns, before we return to the various campaigns on the Western Front that occupied the Division for the remainder of the war, culminating in the German Spring Offensive of 1918 and the Allied “Hundred Days” Offensive that resulted in the ultimate German collapse. The author vividly describes not only the Anson Battalion’s involvement but also the battles in the wider context of the war and has drawn not only from War Diaries but also from contemporary publications and letters from those involved.

The author has visited many of the battlefields himself and as any of us who have trodden the ground can testify, has found it often to be a profoundly moving experience.

The book concludes with an extensive and comprehensive series of maps, photographs and biographical sketches of men from the Anson Battalion, as well as a chapter covering the life of the author’s paternal grandfather (or “Taid) Francis Wynn Jones. Without wishing to give away too many “spoilers”, we last heard of Wynn, as he was universally known, ending the war in captivity but before this was confirmed, he had in fact been posted as “missing” on the Flesquieres-Havrincourt Salient on 23 March 1918 and it was not until over a month later on 25 April, that word was received that he was still alive and was being held in captivity.

The author’s description of his grandfather as an elderly man, whom he regularly met during his childhood in the late 1960s, is heart-warming and ends this book on a suitably optimistic note.

As with this author's previous military history volume, this is a well-research and fascinating read which I have no hesitation in recommending to you.


Available from 

RRP £9.99

softback, pp 314

Wednesday 15 November 2023

In Memoriam: Neil Bright 1958 - 2023

Neil Bright guiding in Westminster during 2010 (author's image)

Last week, I received the sad news that Neil Bright had passed away following a short illness. Neil was one of the co-founders of Blitzwalkers in 2010 and although he and I had gone our separate ways in recent years, the news of his passing came as something of a shock. In recent times, Neil had stepped away from guiding walks in favour of writing but most recently had been a volunteer guide for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and could be found most Saturday mornings at the Merchant Navy Memorial at Tower Hill.

My condolences go to Neil's widow Tracey, as well as to his family and friends at this sad time. 

Tuesday 31 October 2023

Book Review: Streatham's 41

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 (

RRP £11.00

Softback, pp 90

Tuesday 20 June 2023

Old Palace School - the largest Fire Service tragedy on British soil

The order of service for the ceremony (author's photograph)

Towards the end of last month, I was honoured to be invited to the dedication and unveiling of the latest commemorative plaque placed by the charity Firemen Remembered, at the Old Palace Primary School in Bow, in London's East End.

In many ways, this represents a full circle for the charity as the first commemorative plaque ever placed by the charity was at Old Palace School in 1997. Whilst this plaque is still in situ, it is no longer visible to the public and although the names were known at the time, they were not listed on original blue plaque and so it was right that the story was brought up to date.

The original plaque, now obscured from public view (author's photograph)

In common with many London schools, whose pupils had largely been evacuated out of the capital, Old Palace School, in St Leonard's Road was taken over by the Auxiliary Fire Service to serve as Sub-Station 24U, under the control of the erstwhile Brunswick Road Fire Station. It had served throughout the Blitz, including the dark days of "Black Saturday" on 7 September 1940, the great fire raid of 29 December 1940 and countless other raids affecting the East End of London. 

Old Palace School before the war (Firemen Remembered)

By April 1941, although Londoners didn't know it at the time, the Blitz was drawing to an end. Hitler was about to strike east at the Soviet Union and despite the misgivings of senior figures within the Luftwaffe such as Hugo Sperrle, the majority of the Luftwaffe's bomber forces were redeployed east. 

Despite the impending changes, bombing on London continued for the time being, with another particularly heavy raid being mounted on the night of 16/17 April 1941, a raid which became known to Londoners simply as "The Wednesday".

Three days later, on the night of 19/20 April came another heavy raid, said by some to coincide with Hitler's 53rd birthday and again, it was a sufficiently heavy and devastating raid to be given the simple label "The Saturday" by those that experienced it.

One of the purposes of the Auxiliary Fire Service was for the various units to act as a mobile reserve to be deployed wherever the need was greatest and on this night, as all of the local crews had been called out to fires in the local area, the call went out to Beckenham Fire Station for reinforcements. The twenty one Beckenham Firefighters arrived at 01.30 on Sunday 20th April and were mustering for orders alongside fellow crews from Homerton and Bow, when at 01:53 a high explosive bomb scored a direct hit on the school, demolishing a large part of it and setting the remainder on fire.

The results were catastrophic; all thirty two Firemen at the school as well as two Firewomen (1941 ranks used) were killed outright. It was - and remains - the largest loss of Fire Service personnel in a single incident in British history.

The grim task of recovery (Firemen Remembered)

The ceremony was presided over by Stephanie Maltman of the charity Firemen Remembered and the Rev'd Cathy Wyles; it was attended by Steve Dudeney, the former London Fire Brigade Borough Commander for the area when the original plaque was unveiled, as well as members of the present day Beckenham and Bow Fire Stations. As always, it was an extremely moving ceremony, especially as the names of the fallen were read.

Stephanie Maltman and the Rev'd Cathy Wyles (author's photo)

Fire Brigade guests, past and present (author's photo)

After the ceremony, we repaired to the school for tea and cakes but before we did, the School Caretaker invited us to the rear of the school buildings, where he showed us the splinter-strewn car park walls, the only part of the original school still standing, mute witnesses to an appalling horror. The walls had been slated for demolition a few years ago, he told us but the-then Head Teacher had mounted a campaign to save them, which ensured that they are now listed and saved for future generations to see.

Splinter strewn wall at Old Palace School (author's photo)

Splinter strewn walls (author's photo)

Thanks are due, as always to Stephanie Maltman and Bill Hickin of Firemen Remembered for organising the ceremony and for inviting yours truly to attend.

The new plaque in situ (author's photo)

Monday 8 May 2023

The Joys of Guiding

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)

After the walk, the group kindly invited me to join them for a curry and as mentioned above, email addresses were exchanged. I was able to obtain Alf's Fire Service record card from the London Fire Brigade archives, as well as his British Empire Medal citation. In return, Kevin sent me some copies of letters that Alf had received from his then employers informing him of his impending medal award and perhaps rather sadly, a letter informing him of his release from the Fire Service in early 1945. After the war, Alf returned to his old occupation and passed away, aged 73 in 1982.

Alf's letter of release from the Fire Service (Kevin Ireland)

I am indebted to Kevin Ireland and indeed to the rest of the group for a memorable afternoon and for providing me with yet another reason to love the job that I do.

Tuesday 7 March 2023

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