Wednesday 29 December 2010

Dr Johnson's House and The Second Great Fire of London

This week's guest blogger is Blitz historian and fellow Blitzwalker Neil Bright.

Christmas 1940 had passed without incident. However, Hitler had spent the Yuletide with his senior staff in Boulogne questioning why Britain had not come to the peace table following the Blitz on British cities, particularly London during the autumn and winter months of 1940.

The less than festive atmosphere in Boulogne prompted the now famous attack on the City of London carried out by aircraft of Luftflotte 3 and Luftflotte 2 which was to become known as the “Second Great Fire of London.” It is well documented that the Thames was subject to a neap tide and because of the Christmas break and with the attack being carried out on a weekend, there was a skeleton fire-watching staff across the capital.

Some 136 bombers were involved in the raid and approximately ten and a half thousand incendiary bombs rained down on the City in the opening of the attack and by the time the last bomb was dropped some one hundred fires were raging on both sides of the Thames. The wind was particularly high whipping sparks from building to building and temperatures of the fires reached 1,000 degrees. Fortunately bad weather made any further raiding that night impossible.

Many of the City’s famous and historic buildings were razed to the ground or severely damaged. Among the casualties were nine livery company halls including the Haberdashers, Coachmakers, Girdlers and Barbers Halls. Among the City churches, St Giles was gutted along with St Lawrence Jewry and St Alban Wood Street to name but a few. The historic Guildhall lost its Courtroom, the statues of Gog and Magog were lost along with some 25,000 books from the Library. The book industry around Paternoster Square was devastated.

One famous building which has a remarkable story to tell was Dr Johnson’s House in Gough Square. Dr Samuel Johnson was the renowned compiler of the famous dictionary as well as playwright, author and wit. Phyllis Rowell was the curator of the house, which had been restored and re-invigorated by the Harmsworth family some years before.

Mrs. Rowell opened the house as a rest centre for the Fire Services and as Harry Stone, one of the firefighters to benefit recalled, Mrs. Rowell “was never without a tea-pot in here hand, providing practical comfort to her local firemen.”

Musical evenings, concerts and readings were arranged. There was even a string quartet (pictured) formed by members of the service who had been members of the London Symphony Orchestra. On numerous occasions there was standing room only as the music of Dvorak and Mozart seeped into the rafters. The quartet even performed at 10 Downing Street, although their esteemed host nodded off during the performance. Celebrated poet and firefighter, Stephen Spender also gave a stirring talk on Scandinavian poets and the actor Felix Aylmer reminisced on his long career. One of the Fire Fighters, Edward Gathergood, even married Mrs. Rowell’s daughter, Betty.

Dr Johnson’s House had come through the Blitz unscathed until 29 December 1940. but now Phyllis Rowell recalled how “all Hell let loose around 6.15pm as incendiaries rained down.”

Their cottage next to the house received the first strikes of incendiary bombs just as her family was sitting down to dinner. Betty busied herself by climbing a ladder and pushing off the bombs with a broom, but many had lodged in unreachable places. Gough Square was now ablaze, but Dr Johnson’s House had not yet been hit.

The water main had been struck and it was apparent that the area had to be evacuated with the family being ordered to the Daily Mirror Shelter in Fetter Lane. The family collected up Dr Johnson’s letters from the house together with part of the china plus some personal effects.

The journey was fraught with danger as masonry and other debris was falling at a rapid rate, plus the air was full of sparks. To make matters worse, Mrs. Rowell’s mother had a mild heart attack during the hazardous journey.

A rumour went around that Dr Johnson’s house was in flames, but fortunately the firefighters had found a large water tank in the area from which water was transported in canvass tanks to Gough Square and a jet of water was directed on to the roof of the house and more water was relayed up the stairway into the attic. Oil from a nearby factory had earlier compounded the situation.

The damage was remarkably little; some paintings were water-damaged and some furniture was destroyed.

Further damage was sustained later in the War by flying bombs landing in the proximity and sadly the Firemens’ rest centre had to be closed down.

Today, the House is open Monday to Saturdays and it is very much worth a visit, with a very knowledgeable and friendly staff. There is also an excellent gift shop.

Published Sources:

The Blitz Then and Now Vol. 2 - editor Winston Ramsey, After the Battle 1988
Dr Johnson’s House and the National Fire Service during the War - Harry Stone
Dr Johnson’s House during the War - Phyllis Rowell

Oil painting by Reginald Mills by kind permission of Dr Johnson’s House

Saturday 18 December 2010

The Angel of Cable Street

This week's blog is guest written by my fellow Blitzwalker, Neil Bright, who tells us about one of the heroines of the Blitz.

Barnet and Millie Billig were a young Orthodox Jewish couple who had escaped the Pogroms which occurred in Russia and other parts of Europe at the turn of the late 19th century and having fled to England, settled above a newsagent’s in Hanbury Street in London’s East End. Not long after their arrival the first of the couple’s children, Esther was born. There followed Levi, Hannah, David, Miriam and Rebecca. Two further children died at a very young age.

Barnet worked extremely hard to provide for his young family; initially as a Newsagent and later as a cigarette and a cigar maker. Barnet was keen that his children study hard and it was evident at an early age that the children were gifted. Barnet bought many books for his family and in no time the living room resembled a library. The Billig children were not allowed to play out in the street with the other children of the area but instead they were encouraged to read. Barnet’s insistence that the children diligently adhered to their books and studies paid off. Four of the children became doctors - Hannah, David, Miriam and Rebecca.

Hannah was born on 4 October 1901. In 1912 at the age of 11 she won a scholarship at Myrdle Road Central School. Her hard work at the school brought her a scholarship to London University. Following graduation she went on to the Royal Free Hospital where she qualified as a doctor in 1925. This type of profession for a woman was still very much scoffed at in the 1920s as it was thought to be a waste of time for a woman to put in a great deal of work only to give it up only to get married and have children. However Hannah was offered a position at the Jewish Maternity Hospital in Underwood Street.

After two years at the hospital, Hannah thought it was time to strike out on her own and she opened a small surgery at Watney Street in Shadwell, where her caring nature made her extremely popular with her patients. It must be remembered that there was no National Health Service in the 1920s and 1930s and therefore patients had to pay for treatment and medicines. Hannah treated everyone who came to her whether they could pay or not. She would often be seen riding around Wapping and Shadwell on her bicycle late into the evening to go and see housebound patients. Often she would pick up a prescription herself and ride back to the patient’s house with it.

She moved to a bigger surgery at 198 Cable Street in Shadwell in 1935 and about this time her rounds were also made easier by the purchase of a Morris Cowley. Hannah’s popularity increased as the years passed, particularly with children, who she would often take for a ride in her car when picking up prescriptions. In addition to her long surgery hours, which started early in the morning and finished often at 10 o’clock in the evening, she was on call as a Police Doctor.

As war broke out in 1939 Hannah became busier and busier. She was in charge of all the air-raid shelters in Wapping. Her bravery was unsurpassed as she would go out to tend her patients as the bombs were dropping.

Hannah was called out to tend to the injured at a blast at Orient Wharf in Wapping on 13 March 1941. As she was working another blast blew her off the steps of the shelter. As she tried to get up she realised that one of her ankles was badly injured. Unperturbed she bandaged it and carried on tending to the injured. She carried on for four hours until all of the injured were taken hospital. One further bomb only landed twenty yards from her. It was only later that it was discovered that the ankle was broken. For her bravery at Orient Wharf, Hannah was awarded the George Medal by King George VI. She was a local heroine and it was now the people of Wapping and Shadwell gave her the title of “The Angel of Cable Street.”

In 1942 Hannah joined the Indian Army Medical Corps with the rank of Captain. She spent much of the early part of her time in Assam treating the wounded and sick soldiers who had retreated following the Japanese Army’s advances in Burma. As well as wounds there were diseases such as Malaria and Typhoid to be dealt with. She didn’t only devote her time to the Army, but also to the local victims of the war and the multitude of refugees fleeing the conflict. One respite for Hannah was that she was able to meet up with brother David and sister Rebecca who were also both with the RAMC in India.

One of the tragedies caused by the war in this part of the world was a rice crop failure in 1944. The local farmers would sell their rice crops without keeping any back for themselves. The failure meant that the government had no reserve stock and the people starved. Hannah and her medical colleagues worked tirelessly with the many illnesses that the starvation brought

Hannah was awarded the MBE in the 1945 honours list. She wrote to the Palace explaining that she was too busy to come along and collect the award and asked that they post it to her.

Hannah returned to her practice in Cable Street in 1946. Times were still hard with rationing still in force. However the birth of the National Health Service in 1948 did bring some relief to the long-suffering poor of the country.

Hannah harboured no secret of her desire to retire to her spiritual home, Israel. Brother David had retired there and having bought a plot of land in Caesarea, Hannah retired there herself in 1964. This followed a farewell party for Hannah at the Bernhard Baron Settlement on 24 March 1964 and the presentation of a cheque to spend in her new country.

Once settled in Israel Hannah became restless and started work at the clinic at Baka-el-Garbiya near her home; treating Arabs and Jews alike. She worked on for another twenty years before ill health caught up with her. Hannah died peacefully in a retirement home on 11 July 1987. She is buried in Hadera Cemetery.

Published Sources:

Hannah Billig, The Angel of Cable Street, Rosemary Taylor - Privately Published 1996
British Medical Journal - Volume 295
Hackney Gazette - numerous issues
East London Advertiser - numerous issues

Sunday 28 November 2010

London Transport Carried On

The current cold snap that we are experiencing brings to mind last year's snow which paralysed public transport in London and led to hysterical headlines in some of the tabloids that a few centimetres of snow had achieved what Hermann Goering had failed to do in 1940 - i.e. to stop London's buses!

Taking aside the usual hysteria associated with certain parts of the tabloid press, on this occasion they did have a point, because during the entire period of the Blitz, the Luftwaffe never managed to completely stop London's transport system, although naturally on occasions severe dislocation and disruption did take place.

In 1940, public transport in London was administered and operated by London Transport, a nationalised body responsible for London's buses, tubes, trams and trolleybuses. The suburban railways were run by the so called 'Big Four' railway companies - the Southern, Great Western, London Midland & Scottish and London and Northeastern Railway Companies - although in wartime they were effectively nationalised under the Railway Executive Committee's aegis. For the purposes of this article, we shall concentrate on the services operated by London Transport and how they were affected by enemy action and how they rose to the challenges posed by the war.

The first precautions taken actually came during the Munich Crisis of 1938 when minds were quickly concentrated by the prospect of war and the danger posed by enemy bombing. It was quickly realised that the tube tunnels under the River Thames were vulnerable to bombs and that a single lucky hit on any one of these tunnels could flood half of the Underground system. As a result of this realisation, a network of flood gates was designed and installed at all of the strategically placed tunnels under the Thames and were in place in time for the commencement of the Blitz in September 1940. These gates could be operated manually from each of the actual locations but were more normally controlled from a Central Control Room at Leicester Square Station, from where it was also possible to monitor the state of the tides so that it was not always necessary to close all of the gates when an alert sounded. When the gates were closed during an alert, signals were automatically changed to danger to stop trains being trapped and a replacement bus service was operated wherever possible to link the cross river sections closed off. During the entire war, only one of the under river tunnels was breached by a German bomb and this was a disused tunnel on the Hampstead Branch of the Northern Line at Charing Cross. Fortunately, nothing had been left to chance and this particular tunnel had been sealed with concrete before war was declared.

Despite their depth, even the tubes were not invulnerable to bombing and we have covered the use of London's Tube stations as shelters within a previous article on this blog but suffice to say that Bank, Balham, Bounds Green, Moorgate and Sloane Square Stations were severely damaged with serious loss of life. On many other occasions, stations were near missed and lines were blocked but despite the damage and loss of life, services were always restored, sometimes within hours, sometimes within weeks but even in these extreme cases, alternatives were always available and disruption was kept to a minimum.

All of this seems improbable in today's health and safety obsessed culture, when even a light snowfall can cause all of London's buses to be taken off the road, so perhaps it seems even more improbable to observers seventy years on to note that during Air Raid alerts in 1940, it was left to the bus or tram driver's discretion whether to carry on or not. What would normally happen when the Alert sounded was that the driver would give his passengers the opportunity to disembark but would then normally continue unless the bombing became very adjacent, at which time he would stop at the nearest public shelter to disgorge his passengers until the bombers had passed. Occasionally though, the drivers would heroically press on regardless of the bombing and one of these occasions was reported by Stan Collins, a tram driver who recounted his experiences in his book 'The Wheels Used to Talk To Us.'

"We were at Kennington on the 18s when bang went the sirens, so I stopped the tram and turned around and said 'Ladies and Gentlemen, the sirens are going. Anyone who wants to go down the shelter, there's one just up the road.' One old boy asked me if I was going down the shelter. 'I am not,' I said, 'I am going to fight my way home.' 'Good, the driver's going on, the driver's going on.' he told everyone. He was ever so excited, just like a little schoolboy. Nobody got off, so we tootled along Brixton Road, dropping them off, dropping them off. When I stopped at the bottom of Brixton Hill, the old chap asked me if he could get out of the front door. He wasn't supposed to in the blackout but the tram was still full and he couldn't get through the back, so I opened the air door and let him off the at the front. Just as he's getting off he puts a pound in my hand and says 'There you are driver, this is for a drink and thank you for getting me home.' When we were reversing at the end of the journey, I told Alf (my conductor) and gave him half but Alf told me that the old chap had run around the back and given him a pound as well. They used to be pleased to get home."

Despite this effort, Collins also recounted another occasion when things didn't go quite so smoothly when he was driving a tram during another air raid in the Battersea and Clapham areas.

"I took it very steady. I'd got the wind up, little butterflies in my stomach and very gently we came around the curve (into Cedars Road.) We took it very gently up Cedars Road in case the switches blew out and onto the level. I said to old Alf, 'Thats it, we're in the clear now' but halfway along Long Road, we came up behind a string of trams, about ten of them, right upto Clapham, so we were stuck. There was nothing we could do, we couldn't go back, we'd have to see it out. I could have cried. Anyway, we walked along this line of trams but couldn't see any drivers or conductors until we came to the cafe at the Plough which was open all night. By then it was getting on for 2 a.m. and we were stuck there until the All Clear went at about 5 a.m. that morning."

There were countless similar stories both above and below ground level, some heroic and some more mundane but all of them showed London Transport's workers, both male and female to be truly dedicated towards helping keeping London moving despite the worst that could be thrown at them. London Transport truly carried on.

Published Sources:

London Transport at War 1939-45 - Charles Graves, Almark Publishing 1974
The Wheels Used to Talk To Us - Stan Collins and Terence Cooper, Tallis Publishing 1977
Routes to Recovery - Ken Glazier, Capital Transport, 2000

Monday 18 October 2010

A Perfect Lady

On 6th March 1936 a small patchwork painted fighter aeroplane took off from Eastleigh Aerodrome in Hampshire for its first short test flight. At the controls that day was test pilot Joseph ‘Mutt’ Summers. When he landed the pretty little fighter after just fifteen minutes flying, he taxied it over towards the hangar, climbed out of the cockpit and said to those assembled “I don’t want anything touched.” This comment has subsequently become misinterpreted over the years, because as good as this fighter later proved to be, what Summers really meant was that the first flight had been a success and that there were no faults apparent which needed correcting before his next flight.

This little fighter numbered K5054 was the prototype Supermarine Spitfire and following this first tentative test flight, many months of further testing were to follow before the design was put into production in 1938, ultimately becoming the RAF’s standard fighter aircraft during the Second World War.

Much of this gruelling programme of test flying was done by Jeffrey Quill, another of Supermarine’s test pilots. Quill recalled in his book ‘Spitfire – A Test Pilot’s Story’

“’Here’, I thought to myself, ‘is a real lady.’”

The Spitfire was designed by RJ Mitchell, Chief Designer at Supermarine, in response to the Air Ministry specification F36/34, later modified to F10/35 which was written around the prototype. The original Air Ministry specification also covered the Hawker Hurricane, designed by Sydney Camm but whilst the Hurricane was of a traditional wooden framed, fabric covered design, the Spitfire was something altogether different, being of a then radical all metal design. This led to problems - the Hurricane was much simpler to produce and easier to repair and indeed, during the Battle of Britain, there were far more Hurricanes in Fighter Command’s service than there were Spitfires but the design of the Spitfire meant that it could be developed almost infinitely, with larger engines, bigger armaments and many other refinements added over the years of production. Indeed, the Spitfire was the only Allied fighter of the War to be in production from the first day of the war to the last, with the last of the 20,351 aircraft to be built not rolling off the production line until February 1948. This last Spitfire, the Mark 24 was a very different creature to the prototype, being capable of a top speed of 452 mph as opposed to the 348 of the prototype and being armed with four 20mm Hispano cannons instead of eight Browning .303” machine guns and powered by a Rolls Royce Griffon engine rather than the original Merlin. The Mark 24 was also twice the weight of the prototype, which truly demonstrates the genius and potential of the original design.

However, we are jumping ahead in time too quickly and should return to the events of 1936. Mitchell’s design was a logical development of his work on the various Supermarine floatplane entrants for the Schneider Trophy during the late 1920s and early 30s, culminating in the brilliant S6B of 1931 which also broke the World air speed record in reaching 407.5 mph. These aircraft were powered by various marks of Rolls Royce ‘R’ engines, which would ultimately be developed into the famous Merlin engine.

When Mitchell started work on the fighter that was to become the Spitfire, it was originally titled somewhat unimaginatively, ‘The Supermarine Fighter’ and was at one stage destined to become the ‘Shrew’ before the name ‘Spitfire’ was given to the new fighter. The name was reputedly given by Sir Robert McLean, the Chairman of Vickers Supermarine and when told about it, Mitchell, never an emotional man simply replied that it was “Just the sort of bloody silly name they would give it!”

By this stage, Mitchell was a very sick man who was dying from cancer. When this happened in June 1937, his erstwhile Chief Draughtsman, Joe Smith was promoted and under his guidance, the Spitfire was seen into production, development and evolution that would last throughout the War and beyond.

The Spitfire had an immediate impact and effect upon all who flew it. Pilots found it a wonderful aircraft to fly with no obvious vices and it is interesting to compare the views of three of the RAF’s Battle of Britain ‘aces’ with regard to their experiences with the fighter. Firstly, ‘Sailor’ Malan:

“The Spitfire had style and was obviously a killer….Moreover, she was a perfect lady. She had no vices. She was beautifully responsive. You could dive until your eyes were popping out of your head, she would still answer to a touch.”

Like Jeffrey Quill and ‘Sailor’ Malan, Bob Stanford-Tuck also saw the Spitfire as undoubtedly female and recalling his first flight, wrote:

"If it comes to war, this is the girl for me!"

Bob Doe was a little more unemotional, but his love for the aircraft was still evident when he spoke to Stephen Bungay:

“It became a part of you, it was an absolute joy.”

So we can see then, that the Spitfire very quickly won over all those who came into contact with her – certainly on the British side and there were also some Germans who wanted her as well. Adolf Galland famously fell foul of Hermann Goring when he replied to the Reichsmarschall’s question as to what he could provide to help Galland and his pilots win the Battle of Britain. He simply answered “I should like an outfit of Spitfires for my squadron.”

Although this statement was somewhat misunderstood when it became public – Galland was simply requesting that a more agile German fighter be available – his comments showed the deep respect with which the Luftwaffe held the Spitfire – and the men that flew them.

In 1941 with the Battle of Britain safely won, RAF Fighter Command, under a new commander, William Sholto Douglas, could afford the luxury of a more aggressive policy than had been possible during the Battle, using their new Spitfire Mark Vs on fighter sweeps over occupied France known as ‘Rhubarbs.’ In hindsight, the wisdom of these sweeps has been questioned as many aircraft were lost, as were their pilots, many of whom had previously survived the Battle of Britain. This was a curious reversal of fortune for the RAF, who now found themselves in the same situation as the Luftwaffe in 1940 – being shot down over enemy territory and with every chance that the surviving pilots would fall into captivity. It was also during these fighter sweeps that a new adversary emerged for the Spitfire, in the form of the FW190 which outclassed the Spitfire V in almost every way. It was now that the Spitfire’s almost infinite capability for development became apparent with the appearance of the Mark IX with the new two-stage supercharged Merlin 61 engine which transformed the fighter's performance and made it capable of taking on the best of Luftwaffe’s fighters once again. The Mark IX had the advantage of being almost indistinguishable from the earlier Mark V to the Germans, thus making every Spitfire they saw a potential Mark IX and deserving of appropriate respect.

So it continued for the Spitfire – as well as the classic interceptor fighter role, they were used as ground attack aircraft, ‘tropicalised’ for use in the desert and the Far East, high altitude interceptors, carrier borne as the Seafire and for photo reconnaissance purposes (PR) at high altitude. It was PR Spitfires that discovered the "Bismarck", provided the first photographs of the German ’Freya’ and ‘Wurzburg’ radars at Bruneval, uncovered the V-1 launch sites in France and Holland and found the vital evidence of the German V-2s at Peenemunde. It seemed that there was almost nothing that the Spitfire couldn’t do and that they would continue forever.

However, it was not to be – the advent of the jet engine saw to that and with the war nine years over, it was on 1st April 1954 that the last operational Spitfire flight was undertaken by a PR Mark 19 (the RAF had changed from Roman to Arabic numerals in 1948) from RAF Seletar in Singapore and the last non-operational flight was flown by another PR Mark 19 of the Temperature and Humidity Flight based at RAF Woodvale, near Southport on 9th June 1957.

Thanks to the work of the RAF’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and many private preservationists, we can still see and hear the Spitfire flying today at air shows and flypasts and are able to witness for ourselves the perfect lady in her true element.

Published Sources:

Fly For Your Life: The Story of Bob Stanford Tuck - Larry Forester, Cerberus Publishing 2002
The Most Dangerous Enemy - Stephen Bungay, Aurum Books 2000
Spitfire: A Test Pilot's Story - Jeffrey Quill OBE, AFC, FRAeS, Arrow Books 1983

Tuesday 21 September 2010

The Defender of London

Last week, on Battle of Britain Day, a statue of Sir Keith Park was unveiled in London, finally ensuring belated recognition for the man the Germans called ‘The Defender of London.’

Keith Rodney Park was born in Thames, on the North Island of New Zealand on 15th June 1892, the son of a Scottish geologist. He was educated at King’s College, Auckland and later Otago Boys’ High School, Dunedin, where he also served in the Cadet Force. He later joined the New Zealand Territorial Army in the Field Artillery but in 1911 at the age of 19, joined the Merchant Navy as a Purser.

On the outbreak of war in 1914, he left the Merchant Navy and joined his Artillery Battalion, serving at Gallipoli, going ashore at Anzac Cove in April 1915. In July of that year, he was advanced to Second Lieutenant and was involved in the attack on Suvla Bay in August 1915. At about this time, he took the unusual decision to transfer to the British Army, joining the Royal Horse Artillery. Park was evacuated from Gallipoli in January 1916 and was both physically and mentally exhausted by the experience. However, the ANZAC commander, Sir William Birdwood had made a great impression on Park, who admired his leadership style and attention to detail.

After Gallipoli, Park’s battalion was shipped to France, where he took part in the Somme Offensive. It was here that Park first became aware of the value of the aeroplane, noting how German aircraft were used for reconnaissance purposes to spot Allied artillery positions. It was on 21st October 1916 that Park was wounded after having been blown off his horse. He was evacuated back to the UK and was pronounced ‘unfit for active service.’ After a period recuperating at Woolwich Barracks in London, he decided to transfer to the Royal Flying Corps in December 1916.

In the RFC, Park learned to fly and became an instructor from March until June 1917, when he was posted to France and joined 48 Squadron flying the newly introduced Bristol Fighter. It was not long before he enjoyed success in shooting down two German aircraft and was awarded the Military Cross for this deed in August 1917 and promoted to Captain shortly afterwards, in September 1917. After a break from flying, he returned to France to command 48 Squadron in the rank of Major and by the war’s end, his final ‘tally’ was 5 destroyed and 14 shared. He had also been shot down himself twice during this period. The end of the war found Park physically exhausted but he found time to marry London socialite Dorothy Parish, forever known to Park as ‘Doll.’

The interwar period saw Park offered a permanent commission in the newly formed Royal Air Force as a Captain, which when the specialised RAF ranks were introduced in 1919 translated to Flight Lieutenant. He served as a flight commander in 25 Squadron from 1919 to 1920 before being selected to attend the RAF Staff College in 1922. Following this, he commanded various RAF Stations and was an instructor before being promoted to the rank of Air Commodore and an appointment as Senior Air Staff Officer (SASO) to Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding at Fighter Command in 1938.

This was the beginning of the partnership that was to reap such rewards during the Battle of Britain and which was also, due to petty jealousies within certain quarters of the service, to lead to both men’s dismissal shortly after the Battle had been won.

Promoted to the rank of Air Vice Marshal, Park was appointed to command 11 Group of Fighter Command in April 1940 and as such was responsible for the defence of London and the Southeast of England, during which his command bore the brunt of the Luftwaffe’s attacks.

Keith Park was an astute commander who believed in deploying his squadrons carefully in pairs in order to meet the enemy well forward of their target rather than the ‘Big Wing’ tactics favoured by his fellow group commander, Trafford Leigh-Mallory at 12 Group. Leigh Mallory was somewhat jealous of Park’s command and wanted it himself, together with a share of the glory. It is fair to say that if Leigh Mallory’s tactics had been used by 11 Group during the Battle, then the outcome would have been disastrously different. These large formations took too long to organise, so that by the time they were ready, the target airfields of 11 Group would have been pulverised. Unfortunately, in the long run, Leigh Mallory had friends in the Air Ministry who ensured that Park and Dowding were removed just as the Battle had been won.

To sum up Park’s contribution to the Battle of Britain, I can do no better than to quote directly from Stephen Bungay’s excellent book, ‘The Most Dangerous Enemy:’

“Park’s performance was extraordinary. In the way in which he anticipated and countered every move of his opponent, it has many parallels with Wellington’s at Waterloo; but whereas Wellington sustained his concentration and bore the strain for some five hours, Park ran the Battle for five months. He consistently showed complete mastery of his weapon, of events and of his opponent. Even today, with hours of leisure to ponder decisions he took in minutes, and with full knowledge of hindsight and what was happening on the other side, it is difficult to find ways of improving on his conduct of operations.”

Following his removal from 11 Group in December 1940, Park was posted to Flying Training Command and gave this operation a thorough shake up before again being posted in July 1942 - this time to Malta, which at that time was an island under siege and being bombed day and night by the Luftwaffe. He again faced one of his old opponents in the form of Albert Kesselring and gave him another beating, using the same tactics that had served him so well during the Battle of Britain, using pairs of squadrons to intercept the enemy well forward. Within a fortnight of Park’s arrival, the bombing of Malta had stopped and by November, the first unmolested convoy reached the Island and the siege was over. From this time, Park took the offensive in supporting the Allied landings in Sicily, where the Allies established air superiority.

He served in Egypt for another spell but when his old rival Leigh Mallory was killed en route to taking up his position as Air Officer Commanding of South East Asia Command in 1944, Park was appointed in his stead and was a resounding success in this role, being present when Mountbatten accepted the formal Japanese surrender in September 1945.

He was retired from the RAF in 1946, when Arthur Tedder, the new Chief of the Air Staff informed him that there was no suitable position for him in the peacetime RAF. He went home to New Zealand with Doll, where he embarked on a career in civil aviation, before eventually passing away in 1975.

However, Tedder made amends when in 1947 he made a speech at the annual dinner of the New Zealand Society in London in which he said:

If ever any one man won the Battle of Britain, he did. I do not believe it is realised how much that one man, with his leadership, his calm judgement and his skill, did not only to save this country, but the world.”

Praise indeed and justifiably so but perhaps the final word should go to a German appraisal of some of their opponents, obtained by the Air Ministry in 1944. Park, they said, was regarded as efficient with staff work but was also a courageous man of action. He had earned, they said, the title ‘The Defender of London.’

Never have truer words been spoken.

Published Sources:

The Most Dangerous Enemy – Stephen Bungay, Aurum Books 2000

Park: The Biography of Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park, GCB, KBE, MC, DFC, DCL – Vincent Orange, Grub Street 2001

Dowding of Fighter Command: Victor of The Battle of Britain – Vincent Orange, Grub Street 2008

The Narrow Margin – Derek Wood with Derek Dempster - Hutchinson 1961

Friday 3 September 2010

Black Saturday and the first day of The Blitz

Saturday 7th September 1940 was a beautiful late summer's day, sunny with some haze but the sort of day that Londoners would try and make the most of because autumn was on it's way and with it, the threat coming from the now occupied continent across the English Channel. As always, most Londoners tried to get on with their lives. There was even football for those that were interested. Although the regular leagues had been abandoned on the outbreak of war a year ago, there was an emergency wartime league and on September 7th, West Ham were playing Spurs at Upton Park. At about 4.30pm, with Spurs winning 4-1, the sirens sounded and the referee, in accordance with standing instructions, blew his whistle and abandoned the match. As the crowds began to drift home, they could hear the sound of approaching aircraft.

This was the first time that London had been subject to a mass raid. London had first been bombed in this war on August 24th, when due to a navigational error a squadron had mistakenly dropped their bombs on the City of London instead of on Thameshaven. This error, was in part the reason why the Germans were coming back in force today. Churchill had ordered a retaliatory raid on Berlin and although the damage and casualties caused by this incursion had been light, the loss of face amongst the Nazi leadership had been huge. After all, Goering had boasted that "No enemy aircraft shall fly over Reich territory" so with characteristic fury, Hitler had ordered the Luftwaffe to switch it's attacks from the RAF's airfields and the Channel convoys to London.

So it was on this sunny afternoon that the first wave of German bombers headed in from the Channel towards the Thames Estuary. Some dropped their bombs on the oil refineries at Thameshaven and re-stoked the fires already burning there but the vast majority of the force pressed on, following the Thames and heading towards London. Their targets were the docks north and south of the river, Woolwich Arsenal, Beckton Gasworks and the various power stations and industries strung out along either bank of this then busy artery. The bombs began to fall, not just on these targets but on the rows of houses and tenements that surrounded them. Vast areas of Poplar, Woolwich, Limehouse, Millwall, Stepney, Rotherhithe and many other areas soon became a raging inferno - none more so than the area surrounding the Surrey Docks, centre of London's timber trade, where over a million tons of hard and softwoods literally went up in smoke overnight. "Send all the bloody pumps you've got, the whole bloody World's on fire!" was the message sent out by Station Officer "Gerry" Knight of the London Fire Brigade to his controller when faced with this hellish scene at Quebec Yard. Twenty four hours later, Knight would be dead too - all that was found of him was his boots and some smouldering remains. This was truly a baptism of fire for the London Fire Brigade and most of all for the Auxiliaries. Most of these AFS men had had no experience of fighting any sort of fire, let alone anything on this scale and no amount of training could have prepared them for it.

Up above, the RAF were trying their hardest to tear into the daylight raiders and the Germans certainly didn't have everything their own way. Air Vice Marshall Leigh-Mallory's 'Big Wing' tactics had been the subject of much criticism from Keith Park and other senior RAF commanders but on this day, the Duxford Wing led by Douglas Bader in 242 Squadron had shot down several raiders, as had 303 Squadron, the Poles based at RAF Northolt, who had waded into a formation of forty Dorniers and shot down or badly damaged about a quarter of them.

But as darkness fell on this Saturday evening, the next waves of bombers were already heading in - more or less unhindered by the RAF as their night fighting capability at this time was negligable. Their task was easy, just aim for the already raging fires and drop their bombs. By midnight, the London Fire Brigade had nine fires raging in the capital that required a hundred pumps and there were several notices pinned to incidents stating that the fire was out of control. In these night raids 247 bombers dropped 330 tons of High Explosive Bombs and 440 incendiaries. Many areas, especially in the East End were reduced to rubble and in some cases wiped from the map. To add to the confusion, many thought that the invasion had come and the code word 'Cromwell' was issued at 8pm - this signified that the invasion had begun and many church bells were rung to announce this to the already terrified population. The Home Guard erected road blocks and patrolled the countryside around the south and south east of London with loaded rifles.

When dawn came and the all clear eventually sounded, there had been no invasion but over 430 Londoners were dead, 1,300 more seriously injured and vast swathes of the East End rendered uninhabitable. Three of London's main line railway termini - London Bridge, Waterloo and Victoria were out of commission and as Londoners picked their way through the rubble they would see the rescuers still hard at work and the Fire Brigade still tackling the many fires that were raging. This was London's first and last major daylight raid by the Luftwaffe - the price they had to pay for these operations was too high - but it was the first of 57 consecutive nights when the capital would be bombed and this period, known as the First Blitz or Night Blitz would last right through until May 10th/11th 1941 when Hitler would at last turn his attentions eastwards towards the Russians. In the meantime, a long winter and spring lay ahead for Londoners.

Published Sources:
Backs to the Wall - Leonard Mosley, Weidenfeld & Nicholson 1971
Carry on London! - Ritchie Calder, English Universities Press 1941
London at War - Philip Ziegler, Sinclair Stevenson 1995
The Narrow Margin - Derek Wood with Derek Dempster, Hutchinson 1961
The London Blitz, A Fireman's Tale - Cyril Demarne OBE, After the Battle 1980
The Shelter of the Tubes - John Gregg, Capital Transport 2001
Unpublished Sources:
Author's family recollections

Wednesday 18 August 2010

On this day - 18th August 1940

Sunday August 18th 1940 dawned a typical late summer's day - fine and hazy with the haze burning off as the morning went on. The Battle of Britain was at it's height with the Luftwaffe attempting to destroy the RAF as a prelude to a land invasion of Great Britain that was tentatively planned for the middle of September. The RAF's airfields had been the main targets, along with the radar stations along the south coast and attacks on convoys in the English Channel. There were also raids on the oil refineries in the Thames Estuary and on Bristol, Portsmouth, Liverpool and South Wales but these were not the main focus of the Luftwaffe's attentions - the RAFs airfields and the disablement of Fighter Command was the main prize.

On this beautiful Sunday morning as the haze cleared, the radar plots picked up massed formations of German aircraft heading for England. Sixty Heinkels attacked RAF Biggin Hill and a further 48 Dorniers and Ju88s attacked Kenley. This was just the beginning - the fighter stations at Croydon, Hawkinge and West Malling were also attacked. All of these airfields were defended stoutly - 64, 111 and 615 Squadrons from Kenley defended their own airfield as well as Hawkinge. Whilst they were engaging the enemy, over 100 bombs fell on Kenley, temporarily putting it out of action so that some of the defenders were diverted to land at Croydon whilst repairs were carried out, although 64 Squadron managed to get down at their home airfield due to an improvised landing strip being marked out between the bomb craters. Croydon Airport had itself received some attention, with 19 bombs damaging hangars and outbuildings.

The attack on Biggin Hill was also stubbornly defended but here 32 and 610 Squadrons were scrambled on the initiative of the Station Commander, Group Captain Grice. This was due to the radar plots being overwhelmed with the sheer numbers of attackers but although the defending squadrons were ordered into the air at relatively short notice, they destroyed ten of the attacking German bombers which on this occasion merely added further craters to the airfield without destroying any aircraft on the ground.

The next assault on this day came in the early afternoon when the RAF airfields at Thorney Island and Gosport were attacked by Stuka dive bombers as was the Fleet Air Arm station at Ford, in Sussex and the radar installation at Poling, near Arundel in Sussex. This time the cumbersome Ju87 Stukas were routed by the defending RAF fighters of 43, 152 and 234 Squadrons, which destroyed seventeen out of the twenty five attacking aircraft. This was the final time that the Stukas took any meaningful part in the Battle of Britain - they had been suffering alarming levels of losses and had become a liability for the Luftwaffe, as well as a death trap for their crews.

The final attacks of the day came in the late afternoon when Croydon was attacked once again and twelve Me1o9s attacked RAF Manston from beneath the radar and destroyed two Spitfires on the ground as well as killing an airman and injuring fifteen others. The night saw bombing raids on Bristol and minelaying operations in the Thames Estuary and Bristol Channel.

So ended Sunday 18th August 1940; the Luftwaffe had lost a total of sixty nine aircraft against the RAF's thirty four plus another twenty nine on the ground. Whilst this meant the losses were about equal, when it came to air combat the losses were about 2:1 in the RAF's favour. Destroyed aircraft could be replaced quickly but pilots and aircrew could not and this was where the advantage remained with the British - the RAF's pilots who were not killed could bale out and be rescued over home territory whilst those from the Luftwaffe were either killed outright or taken prisoner.

This was a battle of attrition which the RAF was winning but the sheer numbers of the attackers meant that it would be a near run thing and it would take a blunder by Hitler when he ordered the switching of attacks from the RAF's airfields to London, to make the outcome certain.

On the 18th August 1940, this was all still in the future but this date will be remembered as the day when both sides in the Battle of Britain suffered the most material damage. As Alfred Price called his excellent book on the subject, this was The Hardest Day.

Published Sources:

The Most Dangerous Enemy, Stephen Bungay - Aurum Press, 2000
The Hardest Day, Alfred Price - Arms & Armour Press, 1979
The Narrow Margin, Derek Wood with Derek Dempster - Hutchinson 1961

Thursday 22 July 2010

The worst attack was the last

So said Winston Churchill of the Luftwaffe's raid on London on the night of 10th/11th May 1941. Of course, this was not the last raid on London but it did prove to be the final raid of the 'First Blitz' as Hitler was turning his attention towards the east, towards his attack on the Soviet Union and he would need all of his resources for that ultimately self-destructive campaign.

The Luftwaffe never completely left London alone either, for although there was a welcome respite from the mass raids, there was always the threat of the 'lone raider' sent over to keep people's heads down and to test the air defences. The massed raids didn't start again until early 1944 and then were nowhere near the intensity of the great raids of 1940 and 1941, so much so that Londoners soon nicknamed these raids the 'Little Blitz' or 'Baby Blitz' hardened as they were by that time to air attack and all that came with it.

However, to return to May 10th/11th, this was the heaviest raid on London both in terms of the amount of bombs dropped and the intensity of the attack. The sirens sounded the alert at 11 p.m. and the final bomb was logged as falling at 5.37 a.m. and in that period of about 6 1/2 hours, something in the region of 700 tons of high explosive bombs and parachute mines plus 86 tons of incendiaries were dropped on London.

By the time the 'All Clear' sounded 1,436 Londoners were dead and 1,800 were seriously injured; nearly 2,200 fires were started, some 5,500 homes were destroyed with a similar number damaged beyond immediate repair and 12,000 people had been rendered homeless. From the attackers, 14 aircraft were shot down, a seemingly modest figure given the number of bombers involved but a foretaste of things to come for the Germans when they tangled with the always improving British defences on future raids.

However, mere statistics cannot convey the sheer terror and destruction this raid brought to London, neither can the words of a writer nearly 70 years down the line but perhaps the words of someone who was there at the time can; Reg Matthews was a General Post Office telecoms engineer who was there at the time and had been through all of the big raids - "There never was a raid like it. Another one like that and they'd have had us on our backs."

These words were echoed by countless Londoners who had been through what they hoped had been the worst of it - 'Black Saturday' September 7th 1940, December 29th 1940 when the City of London had burned and the two big raids in the Spring of 1941 to mark Hitler's birthday - 16th/17th and 19th/20th April. All of these raids had been bad enough and almost every other night there had been other attacks - 57 consecutive nights from 'Black Saturday' and precious few nights off subsequently.

Apart from the civilian deaths, many famous old buildings that had hitherto survived the Blitz were destroyed that night - The Queen's Hall in Langham Place famous for being the venue of the first Promenade Concerts in 1895 was lost forever. Cannon Street Station lost it's ornately glazed roof and station hotel. The House of Commons Chamber was burned and destroyed (today's version is a careful reconstruction) and Westminster Abbey badly damaged. The Royal College of Surgeons building in Lincolns Inn was hit and presented the rescuers with the strange task of rescuing parts of bodies preserved in alcohol. For every famous building hit, there were many other less well known but no less important buildings destroyed - the homes of scores of Londoners, resulting in the homeless figures mentioned previously. Another well known building to be bombed that night was St Clement Danes Church, one of Wren's masterpieces which was burned to a shell, although later restored as the Central Church of the RAF.

Today, outside St Clement Danes alongside the statue of Air Chief Marshal Dowding, Head of Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain, stands another likeness. This is of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris, who in May 1941 was soon to become head of Bomber Command and charged with taking the war to the Germans. On the night of 29th December 1940, the night of the 'Second Great Fire of London,' Harris had stood on the roof of the Air Ministry with the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal and had said quietly to him "They are sowing the wind, now they shall reap the whirlwind." This was the only occasion, Harris wrote afterwards, that he felt vengeful but whether it was the only time or not, Harris was true to his word. When he took over at Bomber Command in February 1942, he was soon to build a force capable of making the events of May 10th/11th look minor in comparison to the whirlwind unleashed on Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden and so many other German cities.

Published Sources:

The City That Wouldn't Die - Richard Collier, Collins 1959
Westminster in War - William Sansom, Faber & Faber 1957
Backs to the Wall - Leonard Mosley, Weidenfeld & Nicholson 1971
Bomber Harris, His Life and Times - Henry Probert, Greenhill Books 2003

Thursday 8 July 2010

Enemy Aliens, Internees and the Arandora Star

One aspect of the Home Front of the Second World War that today is often forgotten is the internment of all so called 'Enemy Aliens' at the commencement of the War. At the outbreak of war, there were in the region of 80,000 potential enemy aliens in Britain, who it was feared could be potential spies or be willing to assist our enemies in the event of an invasion.

Therefore, all Germans and Austrians over the age of 16 were interviewed by special tribunals and afterwards placed into three categories - Category 'A' high security risks, numbering about 600 who were immediately interned. Category 'B' numbering about 6,500 were 'Doubtful Cases' who were supervised and subjected to restrictions. Category 'C' numbered about 64,000 who were deemed to be no security risk and of whom about 55,000 were Jewish refugees from Nazi oppression who had escaped from Europe.
The situation was further compounded in the Spring of 1940 with the combination of Italy's entry into the war and the failure of the Allied campaign in Norway, which led to agitation amongst certain elements of the press for more alien internment. Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered that all of the 19,000 Italians in this country be interned even though many of these people had lived in this country for ages. Many of the additional Germans and Austrians rounded up were the very same Jewish refugees who had months earlier been deemed to have been no threat. Many of these internees were held on the Isle of Man as they had been during the Great War and in one camp on the island, over 80 per cent of those held were Jewish refugees. An outcry in Parliament led to the first releases of internees in August 1940 and by the summer of 1941, only 5,000 of those deemed genuine security risks were left in internment camps.

Apart from those detained in this country and the Isle of Man, over 7,000 internees were deported. Some of these were sent to Australia, where those sent on the s.s. Dunera suffered from appalling conditions and also the humiliation of having their personal possessions either stolen or thrown overboard by the British military guards. The vast majority of those deported were sent to Canada and it was on board one of the vessels destined for that country, the s.s. Arandora Star that tragedy struck.

The Arandora Star was a passenger ship owned by the Blue Star Line which had been built by Cammell Laird of Birkenhead in 1927. Before the war, she had operated mainly in the luxury cruise market to such destinations as South America, Norway, Florida and the West Indies.
Requisitioned as a troopship on the outbreak of War, she had sailed from Liverpool on 1st July 1940 carrying a total of 1,673 people of whom 1,299 were male German and Italian Prisoners of War and internees broken down as follows - 174 Officers and crew of the Arandora Star, 200 British Military Guards, 565 Germans, of whom 86 were military POWs of 'bad character' and 734 Italian civilian internees. The vessel was not marked with a Red Cross, nor had the Admiralty requested 'free passage' for her and to compound the error, she was sailing without an escort.

At 06.15 on the 2nd July, barely one day out of Liverpool, she was torpedoed by the German U Boat U-47, commanded by Gunther Prien, one of the 'Ace' U Boat commanders. Prien supposedly mistook the vessel for an Armed Merchant Cruiser but in all probability thought that he was sinking a loaded troopship, which he was, but not loaded with the cargo he had thought. The Arandora Star sank after less than an hour but in that time, did manage to transmit a distress signal, which guided a Sunderland flying boat to the scene, which in turn guided HMCS St Laurent, a Canadian destroyer which had been escorting the battleship HMS Nelson, to the scene of the sinking.

The St Laurent reached the site of the sinking in the early afternoon and found that the doomed vessel had managed to launch 10 lifeboats and scores of rafts. There were also many survivors in the water, clinging to pieces of wreckage, many of whom were coated in oil and unable to help themselves. In a remarkable rescue, the St Laurent managed to pick up all of the survivors in the boats and rafts, together with all those that could be found in the sea. The numbers saved included 322 Germans, 243 Italians, 163 Military Guards and 119 of the Officers and Crew of the Arandora Star. This left a total of 826 who perished, including the vessel's master, Captain Edgar Moulton and over 470 of the Italians, who bore the brunt of the casualties

Memorial to Captain Edgar Moulton at his home village of Broadhembury, Devon (author's photo)

Once the survivors were picked up, many tales of heroism emerged - Captain Edgar Moulton was posthumously awarded Lloyds War Medal for Bravery at Sea and a German Merchant Navy prisoner, Captain Otto Burfiend was posthumously cited for his heroism in the rescue attempt for staying aboard the sinking ship supervising the evacuation. Commander Harry De Wolf of HMCS St Laurent received a Mention in Dispatches for his supervision of the rescue operation.

When U-47 returned home to Wilhelmshaven, Prien discovered the truth about what he had unwittingly done. Needless to say, the fact the he had been responsible for the death of 713 Germans and their Italian allies on the Arandora Star was kept from the Axis public. Prien himself was lost along with U-47 and the rest of his crew on March 7th 1941, depth charged by HMS Wolverine in the North Atlantic.

The memorial pictured is located at St Peter's Italian Church in Clerkenwell Road, London.

Published Sources:

Engage the Enemy More Closely, Correlli Barnett - Hodder & Stoughton 1991
Hitler's U-Boat War; The Hunters 1939-42, Clay Blair - Weidenfield & Nicholson 1996
The Battle of The Atlantic, John Costello & Terry Hughes - Collins 1977

Friday 18 June 2010

The Navy was here too.....

Bomb Disposal Officers were and are a special breed. It takes a special kind of courage to work calmly and quietly on an unexploded bomb knowing that one false move could mean disaster. It was during the Second World War that these men really came into the public consciousness with some acts of outstanding bravery coming to light.

It is perhaps not widely known that during the War bomb disposal in Britain was undertaken by both the Army and the Royal Navy. Apart from the usual mix of High Explosive (HE) and Incendiary (IB) bombs, the Luftwaffe also had in their armoury another lethal weapon - the Parachute Mine. As with all bombs, a fair number of those dropped were 'duds' to use the terminology of the time and these 'UXBs' had to be dealt with by the Bomb Disposal Squads. The conventional bombs were dealt with by the Army's Corps of Royal Engineers but the Parachute Mines, being identical to naval mines dropped at sea were dealt with by the Royal Navy.

These mines were truly terrifying weapons which being dropped by parachute, often descended quietly and then, being entangled in trees, overhead cables or street lamps exploded with a tremendous airburst effect, causing a huge amount of blast damage over a very wide area. Unlike conventional UXBs which were usually to be found at the bottom of a crater, unexploded parachute mines were often to be found draped in the most inaccessible places, hanging from trees, chimney pots, telephone wires and on one occasion, welded to the live conductor rail of a railway line. This particular mine, located on Hungerford Bridge just outside Charing Cross Station and over the River Thames, was successfully defused on 17th April 1941 after a six hour struggle by Lieutenant Ernest Giddens RNVR, who deservedly won a George Cross for his efforts, some of which entailed hitting the mine with a hammer and chisel in order to remove it from the live rail to which it had welded itself, so as to access the fuse.

Another two George Crosses were awarded to Sub Lieutenant Jack Easton RNVR and his assistant, Ordinary Seaman Bennett Southwell for their efforts in attempting to defuse a mine in Clifton Street, Hoxton on 17th October 1940. The outcome here was very different to that of the mine on Hungerford Bridge although the award of the medals was no less deserving.

Easton and Southwell were called to the scene and found the mine suspended through a hole in the ceiling of a house, with one end of it within about six inches of the floor. Easton looked up and saw that the parachute was partially wrapped around a chimney pot and also partially around an iron bedstead in the bedroom above. The two men set to work, having first plotted an escape route should the mechanism of the mine start to tick again, for if this were to happen, they knew that they had a mere twelve seconds to try and escape.

To make matters worse, when Easton started to work on the mine, he found that the fuse housing had been damaged as it crashed through the house and try as he might, he could not unscrew the the 'keep ring' beneath which was located the fuse. Suddenly, as he was trying to detach this ring, the mine slipped as the chimney above collapsed and above the sound of the falling brickwork, Easton heard the whirring of the mine's mechanism - it had come back to life.

He bellowed at OS Southwell to run and then ran himself. As he left the house, Easton briefly saw Southwell running up the street as he threw himself behind the structure of a brick and concrete surface air raid shelter. Easton heard no explosion but was briefly blinded by the flash of the detonation but that was all he experienced. The next thing he knew was that he was buried deeply beneath bricks and mortar; his head was between his legs and he thought that his back was broken but he could not move an inch as he was totally embedded beneath the rubble.

Easton later said; "To this day, I do not know how long I spent in my grave. Most of the time I was unconscious. The conscious moments were of horror and utter helplessness."

He was eventually dug out by the Rescue Squad and spent the next twelve months in hospital whilst his two broken legs, fractured pelvis and skull slowly healed. His assistant, Bennett Southwell was not so lucky - his decapitated body was eventually discovered and dug out six weeks later. The blast had destroyed Clifton Street and six adjoining streets and left a scene of utter devastation.

In January 1941, as he lay in his hospital bed, Easton was surprised to receive three cases of champagne sent to him by the Admiralty and was advised to listen to the radio at 9 p.m. that evening. It was then that he learned of his award of the George Cross. Bennett Southwell was also given the same award posthumously. Jack Easton eventually received his decoration from King George VI and Bennett Southwell's widow received her late husband's medal at the same investiture.

Jack Easton later returned to mine clearance - this time at Dartmouth, where he was appointed to motor minesweepers, eventually taking command of MMSs 6 and 22. He led a minesweeping flotilla on D-Day, when he was again injured by a German mine exploding beneath his ship.

After the war, Easton returned to his peacetime occupation as a solicitor with the family firm, William Easton's in London and died in 1994, aged 88.

Published Sources:

Navy News - October 2007
The War at Sea - John Winton, Hutchinson 1967
The London Gazette - 23rd January 1941

Wednesday 26 May 2010

Is Your Journey Really Necessary?

This was the question asked of all potential travellers during wartime before they set out on their journey. During the Second World War, the British public transport network was hard pressed as never before or since. Whilst the railway network was far larger than that of today, the companies were under manned having lost many men to the fighting services and as the 'Phoney War' period progressed into the Blitz, the network was frequently disrupted by enemy action with railway and tram lines blocked, stations bombed and bus routes diverted or suspended. But our railway and bus companies rose magnificently to the challenge time and time again and in this article, we shall examine one or two examples as to how they coped.

The 'Big Four' railway companies, the Southern Railway, Great Western (GWR), London & North Eastern (LNER) and the London, Midland & Scottish (LMS) together with the London Passenger Transport Board were all effectively nationalised on 1st September 1939 when they were placed under the control of the Railway Executive Committee. In practice, the day to day management of these companies remained under their own control with the Committee basically forming a co-ordination role ensuring that the companies made the greatest possible contribution to the war effort.

The first contribution came on the same day as the formation of the Railway Executive Committee, when the mass evacuation of schoolchildren was put in place. In the space of four days, over half a million people, mainly children but also expectant mothers, the blind, the mentally ill and the disabled were moved out of London. Many of them by double decker buses and Green Line coaches but many more by train. Some were moved only relatively short distances. For example, many Bermondsey schoolchildren were evacuated to Worthing in Sussex, with those from Greenwich and Woolwich being sent to Reigate in Surrey. Some went much further afield to places such as Torquay and Newton Abbot in Devon where life to the children must have seemed strange indeed in comparison to the crowded and noisy streets of London. There was even a scheme to evacuate children to Canada by sea but this was stopped abruptly when one of the evacuation vessels, the 'City of Benares' was torpedoed and sunk with heavy loss of life. This particular method of evacuation falls outside the scope of this article but perhaps we shall return to it at a later opportunity.

The next logistical challenge came in May 1940 with the retreat of the British Expeditionary Force and their French allies to the Channel ports. The German advance had occurred so rapidly that the Allies had fallen back, at times in some disorder to Calais, Boulogne and once these ports had fallen, to Dunkirk. There were also later evacuations from ports further south such as St Nazaire, Brest and Le Havre but it is the evacuation from Dunkirk that has become etched in history.

On 21st May 1940, the Southern Railway's Operations Superintendent had attended a meeting at which he was asked to make provision for the movement of 300,000 troops to be disembarked at various South Coast ports. As a result of this meeting, all four of the railway companies were asked to provide 186 ten coach trains for the purpose of moving these troops. The Southern provided 55 of these trains and all of them were carefully marshalled onto the down lines to the south and southeast of London. The movement of troops began on the 21st May on a modest scale when 24,000 soldiers were moved using the initial 55 special trains but it was on the 27th May that 'Operation Dynamo' as the evacuation was called began in earnest. It was to continue for another nine days and the troop movements involved make truly staggering reading. Instead of day trippers, the station at Margate handled 38,000 soldiers with Ramsgate dealing with 43,000 and Folkestone taking 35,000 troops and 9,000 civilian and other evacuees. However, it was Dover which bore the brunt, despatching an amazing 181,000 soldiers in 327 special trains. All of these trains were stopped alternately at either Headcorn or Paddock Wood where the soldiers were fed, watered and provided with additional clothing. This was a remarkable effort; the Southern Railway had helped to rescue an army.

The fall of France brought London within range of the Luftwaffe's bombers and once the Blitz started, the railway companies and London Transport faced new problems and new dangers in keeping their services running. The use of London Transport's Underground stations as public shelters is now well known but perhaps less well known is the fact that the Government had originally intended that the Tube should not be used for public air raid sheltering purposes at all. In the event, it was sheer common sense on the part of the general public that dictated that they should seek to use the system and faced with overwhelming numbers of Londoners seeking refuge, the authorities could do nothing to stop them. Faced with this situation, the Tubes were quickly adapted as shelters, with 79 stations being used for this purpose as well as disused parts of the system and also extensions that had not yet opened for use. These shelters were equipped with chemical toilets, bunks, medical facilities and canteens and proved very popular with the locals. An early problem and one which showed human low life at its very worst was the appearance of ticket touts, who purchased tickets for the shelters and then tried to sell them on to the genuine shelterers at vastly inflated prices. These people were dealt with harshly when caught but the problem was never fully suppressed. The Tube was not completely immune from bombing - Bounds Green, Trafalgar Square and Balham Stations were all hit with some loss of life - but for the most part the Tubes were safe and secure refuges for Londoners.

Above ground, there were many tales of heroism from railwaymen and women. The night of 10th/11th May 1941 saw the last big raid on London and also the heaviest. At Bricklayers Arms Depot in southeast London, Driver Len Stainer and his Fireman, Jim Foote had just signed on for duty to take the 12.53 am train from Cannon Street to Dartford. En route to Cannon Street, they had stopped their engine at Borough Market Junction in order to clear incendiary bombs from the line before proceeding. If this wasn't enough, they then continued into Cannon Street and arrived just as bombs began to fall on that station. A large fire was started and Driver Stainer and Fireman Foote, together with the crew of another locomotive decided to pull out of the station in an attempt to save their trains from catching fire. As they moved onto the bridge over the River Thames, the men heard the sound of even more bombs coming down and the men instinctively ducked for cover on the footplates of their engines. It transpired that a bomb had struck the boiler of the other crew's engine, turned part of their train over and blasted their own engine. Fortunately, the crew of the other engine were unhurt but in an act of incredible bravery, Len and Jim then tried to extinguish the fire on their own train before being beaten back by the intense heat. Len Stainer then uncoupled his engine from the burning train and pulled back across the bridge to the south side, where the four men watched the station burn until dawn. To quote Len Stainer "It was just as if Hell had been let loose."

Later in the war, although the bombing had diminished, the railways played their part in the invasion of Europe by running troop trains galore and transporting all manner of ammunition and equipment to the Channel ports in preparation for for D-Day. Even after the invasion, locomotives and personnel were sent across the Channel to France to get the ruined French rail network up and running once again.

Even then, it was still not quite all over as the Terror Weapons in the shape of the V-1s and V-2s caused further death and disruption, especially in London and the Southeast but finally victory came in May 1945.

It should be remembered that even on VE Night, there were still over 12,000 people sheltering in London's Tube stations and the Deep Level Shelters but the final happy duty for the beleaguered transport system was to bring home the evacuated schoolchildren from the country back to London. The war was over and a long period of rebuilding and re-equipping was to follow.

Published Sources:

London Transport at War, Charles Graves - LPTB 1947
SR150 The Southern Railway, David St John Thomas & Patrick Whitehouse - David & Charles 1988
The Great Western Railway, Patrick Whitehouse & David St John Thomas - David & Charles 1984
War on the Line, Bernard Darwin - The Southern Railway Company 1946
By Rail to Victory, Norman Crump - The London & North Eastern Railway Company 1947

Tuesday 18 May 2010

The Dreaded Telegram

Despite living in southeast London, I am a member of a cricket club in Middlesex. I won’t bore you with the reasons for this self-imposed weekly commute across London but suffice to say, my history hobby has crossed over into my sporting leisure time as well.

Inside the pavilion of Ickenham Cricket Club is an unassuming brass memorial plaque to the five members of the Club who laid down their lives during the Second World War. Soon after joining the Club I began to think a bit more deeply about these men; who they were, the circumstances of their deaths and how the awful realisation of this must have affected those left behind – the parents, wives, girlfriends, team mates and friends. Although I didn't realise it at the time, this interest in the men behind the names on the plaque was shared by the Club Chairman, so between us over the past year or so, we have tried to delve into the past to discover who these men were and how they ended up making the ultimate sacrifice.

Apart from the everyday stress of living through the Blitz, many Londoners and many civilians from every part of the United Kingdom shared with civilians on both Allied and Axis sides the additional torment of having a loved one serving in one of the fighting services. These parents, wives and girlfriends would go about their everyday lives with the secret dread of receiving a telegram or letter that began in the case of British service personnel with the words “The Secretary of State for War regrets……”

Of the five names on the Ickenham plaque, four of them were flyers – one with the Fleet Air Arm and three from the RAF whilst the other, despite misleading information on the plaque was a Corporal in the British Army who died at El Alamein. For the purposes of this article, we shall concentrate on just one of those names, although this is in no way meant to detract from the other four men who perhaps we shall return to at a future opportunity.

Dennis Stephen James was born on 26th August 1922, the son of Mr & Mrs Frank James of Uxbridge, Middlesex. He was educated at Bishopshalt School, Hillingdon from 1934-39 and was a keen sportsman who played football and cricket for his school and was subsequently a member of Uxbridge and later Ickenham Cricket Clubs, for whom he was described as a very good middle order batsman.

Aeroplanes and flying always seemed to fascinate him. His mother recalled him seeing a plane flying over the family home when he was about 4 years of age and Dennis saying to his mother, “One day, Mummy, I shall drive one of those!”

This interest in flying increased and whilst at school, he made a study of the subject and also that of aircraft recognition and read every book on the subject that he could get hold of.

It was no surprise that the day after his 18th birthday he volunteered for the RAF and was called up for service in September 1940 and after his basic training was sent to Southern Rhodesia for his flying training and where he also gained his Sergeant’s stripes. Although he originally qualified as a bomber pilot, he volunteered to make the switch to fighters and had been the youngest member of every squadron to which he was posted.

By July 1942, Dennis was serving with 122 (Bombay) Squadron, based at RAF Fairlop as part of the famous Hornchurch Wing under the overall command of Wing Commander Brendan ‘Paddy’ Finucane, who was one of the ‘Few’ from the Battle of Britain and one of the RAF’s aces with 32 kills to his name.

In 1942, RAF Fighter Command was on the offensive, making fighter sweeps known as ‘Rhubarbs’ over German occupied Northern France and on 15th July, 122 Squadron was part of a very large scale ‘Rhubarb’ against a German Army camp near Etaples in the Pas de Calais along with 81 and 154 Squadrons. Sergeant Pilot James was flying Spitfire Vb BM329 when it was brought down by flak near Boulogne. The Squadron’s War Diary reports that his colleagues did not see what happened to Dennis’s aircraft but he did not form up at the rendezvous point prior to returning to England.

It was subsequently discovered that Dennis’s Spitfire was hit by flak but unfortunately he had crashed without having baled out. He is buried at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Boulogne Eastern which is the final resting place for 5,743 British & Commonwealth casualties from both World Wars.

Two other Spitfire pilots were lost during the same operation, including Dennis’s Wing Commander, Paddy Finucane who crashed into the sea and of whom Dennis was intensely proud to serve under. Indeed in one his last letters home, Dennis had written an enthusiastic letter in which he stated his pleasure at serving under such an illustrious commander.

One can only imagine the anguish that Dennis’s parents felt when they received the dreaded telegram. They also received a letter from his Squadron Leader stating how proud of him he was and how he and all his friends missed him.

Squadron life went on. The day after the operation over Etaples, 122 Squadron moved from Fairlop to Hornchurch and a party was held to celebrate the fact at which no doubt a glass or two was raised to Dennis’s memory and to the others lost. According to the Squadron War Diary "It was – in so far as this chronicler can remember – an excellent party!”

No doubt it was an excellent party – squadron colleagues couldn’t afford to get too close or too sentimental otherwise they wouldn’t be able to function. It would be a case of ‘Old so and so bought it’ and then they would get on with the grim business of prosecuting the war knowing full well that they could be next but trying not to think about it too closely.

Dennis Stephen James’s parents would not have known or cared about any of this – they had lost a son, in common with so many other parents in this long and terrible conflict.

Published Sources:

Uxbridge Gazette 24th July 1942
Commonwealth War Graves Commission Official Website
Aircrew Remembrance Society Official Website

Unpublished Sources:

122 Squadron Operations Record Book "War Diary" - Public Records Office, Kew