Wednesday 13 April 2011

The Wednesday, Chelsea Old Church and a heroine from Canada

This weekend marks the seventieth anniversary of one of the largest as well as one of the last raids of the London Blitz. So heavy and destructive was the raid of the night of the 16th/17th April 1941 that it became known to Londoners as 'The Wednesday'. Whilst most parts of London were affected by this raid, on this occasion it was the western side of the capital that suffered most and large swathes of Chelsea, the West End and St Marylebone were pounded with many lives lost and famous old buildings destroyed. It was also the night that the singer Al Bowlly was killed as he slept in his flat in Jermyn Street, having eschewed the offer of a hotel in High Wycombe after having played a concert there for the comfort of his own bed.

Although Londoners were not to know it at the time, the First Blitz was drawing to a close; Hitler was about to turn his attention eastwards and would require his Luftwaffe resources for Operation Barbarossa - the attack on the Soviet Union and the quest for lebensraum or living space for the German people. Despite this impending attack, a large proportion of the German air force would remain in the west but Hitler had decided against further attacks on London once his onslaught against the Russians had started and no amount of entreaties by the head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goring and his senior commanders, Sperrle and Kesselring could change his mind.

This was still in the future though and before the attack to the east, the Fuhrer's 53rd birthday on 20th April was approaching and needed to be celebrated in style. Goring decided on staging two huge raids on the capital, perhaps to flatter Hitler but also to demonstrate to him once and for all that given a free reign, his Luftwaffe could indeed flatten London.

So it was that the two raids on 16th/17th April and then on 19th/20th April were the two heaviest raids thus far of the Blitz and would only be surpassed by what proved to be the last raid on the night of May 10th/11th 1941. As mentioned briefly earlier, the west of London suffered the most in this raid; no area more than the Metropolitan Borough of Chelsea as it then was and inspecting the Civil Defence Incident Log today, one is struck by the number of times that 'The Wednesday' recurs when taking stock of the damage inflicted on the borough by enemy action and indeed, when walking the borough today, there are several memorial plaques located here and there for those in the know that confirm the record.

The Royal Hospital, home of the Chelsea Pensioners, was devastated this night when the Infirmary was destroyed by a Parachute Mine that detonated in the road outside and caused the deaths of fifteen pensioners and hospital staff. Amongst those killed was 101 year old Henry Rattray, a veteran of the 24th Regiment of Foot and survivor of many earlier campaigns.

The Infirmary itself had been an 1809 addition to Wren's original Royal Hospital buildings and had been designed by Sir John Soane. Although heavily damaged, there was arguably enough left of the building to warrant rebuilding but sadly the remains were demolished, with the site today being occupied by the National Army Museum.

Further along Royal Hospital Road was Station 6W of the Auxilary Fire Service or AFS, located in the garages of Cheyne Place. A clue to the location of this station can still be seen today in the form of a large '6W' carved in the stone wall in front of the apartments that now stand on the site. Another Parachute Mine detonated here, killing three Auxiliary Firemen, whose names are recorded on a memorial plaque, erected by the charity 'Firemen Remembered' at the present day Chelsea Fire Station in the King's Road. Another bomb, this time one of the conventional High Explosive variety caused the deaths of a further four AFS men at the Brompton Fire Station, located in Chelsea Square and these men too, are remembered on the plaque at King's Road.

Nor had the night finished with the men and women of the AFS, for when we reach the site of Chelsea Old Church in Cheyne Walk, we can discover perhaps the most poignant story of them all, which concerns a visitor from Canada whose story deserves to be told.

Yvonne Marie Green was a 30 year old thirteenth generation Canadian from Montreal who had recently been divorced from Tyrou Nichol, a British actor. She had re-married, this time to Leonard Green, an officer of the Canadian Army who had been posted on attachment to the Royal Tank Regiment shortly after the outbreak of war. The family home was at 24 Old Church Street, Chelsea but like all worried husbands who were in a position to do something about it, Leonard had tried to move Yvonne to the relative safety of the country and for a while, she dutifully lived with him near his barracks at Farnham in Surrey but being the fiercely independent and fiesty character she was, Yvonne was having none of this and soon moved back to London and later joined the AFS as a Firewatcher based at Chelsea Old Church.

Yvonne had left her baby daughter Penelope, in the safety of Canada with her mother and from her regular correspondence to 'Maman Cherie' which survive in the archives of the Imperial War Museum, we can see just how independent this remarkable lady was. Her letter dated 8th October 1940 demonstrates exactly what she thought of life in the country:

'Here I am back in London again, to your honor and my satisfaction. Honestly, Farnham was a simply dire place and I'd rather face Goering's worst than die from pernicious boredom. I take no chances, believe me, and when I'm not on duty I sleep downstairs very snugly in the basement. Don't alarm yourself when you don't hear from me because I have given instructions that if anything should happen to me you should be informed - so no news is good news - remember that.'

Yvonne's letters are all like that - newsy, common sense, matter of fact and with an unshakeable belief in the final victory of the British Empire and her Allies. By 23rd February 1941, she was writing home to report on her first night stationed at the top of the tower of Chelsea Old Church:

'I had quite an exciting experience on Wednesday night - my first night as a fire watcher. I was as high as one could get in Chelsea Old Church tower being shown around; where the buckets of sand, stirrup pumps and water were. And the bombs dropped! The first we'd seen in our district since September. I tell you, I have never descended a spiral staircase as fast in all my life! It was only a stick of three bombs in the next street which luckily did little damage and only one man hurt-a broken leg. So my experience was not disastrous luckily, but its going to take a lot to inveigle me up to the top of that tower again while a Blitz is in progress. I have never had a head for heights anyway.'

Chelsea Old Church dates from 1157 and includes Sir Thomas More's private chapel that was added in 1528, with the nave and the tower that Yvonne took a dislike to being added in 1670.

On the night of 16th/17th April 1941, Yvonne was not originally meant to have been on duty but had swapped shifts with one of her colleagues. At about 1.00 a.m., whilst the raid was at its height, she and five of her Fire Watching colleagues set off on a patrol along Chelsea Embankment. Whilst one of the team, a Mr Mallett was examining some shell fragments in the road, he became aware of something floating down behind him. He quickly realised that this was a Parachute Mine and shouted at the others to run. His colleagues were about twenty feet away from him and began to run towards Chelsea Old Church. Mr Mallett was running too quickly to turn the corner and follow them, so instead ducked for shelter behind a fire alarm cover. At about the same time, a second Parachute Mine descended between the still running group of five Fire Watchers and the Church. This mine exploded, also setting off the first and in the resulting blast, most of the Church was destroyed and five out of the six Fire Watchers were killed, the only survivor being Mr Mallett.

One of those killed was Yvonne Green, the visitor from overseas known as 'Canada' to her colleagues and 'Papoose' to her Mother. She had written what proved to be her last letter home barely two days previously, on 15th April 1941:

'The Blitz hasn't affected London for some days now or nights. I should say now but I think it is a fair assumption to say that it is purely temporary and we'll be getting it again soon - maybe. Adolf has a little too much on his hands now though to try and defeat civilian morale as well as coping with the armed forces of Greece, Yugoslavia, Australia and us (not forgetting the Free French).'

Yvonne's mother would no doubt have received this final letter after she learned of her daughter's death. Yvonne is remembered today, along with her four colleagues killed on that tragic night by a plaque inside the rebuilt Chelsea Old Church, whilst Yvonne as the only member of the AFS amongst the group, has another plaque dedicated to her outside the church and installed by the excellent 'Firemen Remembered' charity which does so much to keep alive the memory of the men and women of the wartime fire services.

Yvonne's daughter, Penelope Nichol along with her daughter and grandson came over from Canada to unveil the plaque in 2007, providing a wonderful family connection with a heroine from overseas. Yvonne herself is buried at West Hoathly in Sussex.

Published Sources:

Blitz - M J Gaskin, Faber & Faber 2005
London at War 1939-45 - Philip Ziegler, Sinclair Stevenson 1995

Unpublished Sources:

Imperial War Museum Archives
Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea Archives

Tuesday 5 April 2011

I am the Boiler Man

Last week's Blog closed on a note of classic British 'stiff upper lip' and an absolute determination to remain calm in the face of adversity, so perhaps now is a good time to take this facet of the British personality a step further and examine how we managed to keep our sense of humour during the dark days of the Blitz and wartime in general.

Whilst everyone surely agrees that war is a grim experience for everyone, it is also a fact that wartime conditions can bring out the absolute best in people as well as the absolute worst. Among the better aspects of human nature is a sense of humour and even during the darkest days of the Second World War, there are examples of humour - sometimes from a senior officer in the face of adversity to demonstrate to his men that things aren't actually that bad, sometimes what we now call 'gallows humour' and more often than not, simply because the person concerned was a naturally cheerful person and war wasn't going to change anything.

Some of the best examples of the former seem to come from the Royal and Merchant Navies, such as this splendid example from Admiral Sir James Somerville (pictured), newly appointed in command of the Eastern Fleet in 1942 and flying his flag in HMS Warspite. His fleet was largely an ageing and obsolescent one and they were steaming towards very possible destruction at the hands of the Japanese but he still found time to send the following memo to his Executive Officer, Commander Sir Charles Madden, who was a Baronet, which read:

'Dear Charles, I am well aware that as a Baronet you are indifferent to the suffering of mere Admirals, but would you mind having my lavatory unblocked?'

Somerville knew that this message would do the rounds of the messdecks and whilst it made him the butt of his own joke, it demonstrated to the men of his fleet that if he could be unconcerned about the Japanese threat to them, then why should they worry?

Strangely, some of the best examples of gallows humour came from the German side, especially towards the end of the war, when defeat was inevitable. Wehrmacht soldiers in the Western Front were becoming used to the overwhelming Allied air supremacy, with all the discomfort that this brought and soon the saying was doing the rounds:

'If planes show up painted in camouflage markings, then its the RAF. If they show up painted silver, then its the Americans. And if they don't show up at all, then its the Luftwaffe!'

A great example of the third type of humour, that of the genuinely cheerful and cheeky person comes from Angela Raby's excellent book about the London Auxiliary Ambulance Service, 'The Forgotten Service' and concerns Eileen Lamb, a shift leader at Station 39 in Weymouth Mews:

'Eileen was a glamourous society girl with her own flat. Her father was in the Royal Navy and her mother was on the Queen's Working Party at the Palace. While going on leave, Eileen was travelling in a railway carriage alongside an airman who asked to use her lighter. As she lit his cigarette, she accidentally set fire to his magnificent handlebar moustache. She apologised profusely and he was gracious enough to reply that everything was "O.K." However, she made the mistake of lending him her mirror. On seeing with horror the remains of his moustache, he rounded on her: "That's all your fault," to which Eileen replied, "Not so. You're the one who should know about wind direction."'

Winston Churchill, despite the enormous pressures of leading the country in wartime, with all of the trials and tribulations never lost his sense of humour, which could surface at the most unexpected times. After a particularly fraught conference with General De Gaulle, who was never the easiest of allies to get along with, Churchill suddenly turned to General Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff and said to him "How can one do business with a man who looks like a female llama who has just been surprised in the bath?" Brooke, who was well used to the darker side of Churchill's moods struggled to control his laughter.

If some of the humour seems a little strained by today's standards, we shouldn't forget that the British public were trying to put a brave face on very trying times but the Londoner would always try and have the last word, such as these hecklers at Speakers' Corner, where the speakers in question must have known they were on to a loser from the start:

'What are we fighting for?' cried a speaker.
'Spam!' replied someone in the crowd.

'Who are the two greatest men in the World?' asked another orator.
'Flanagan and Allen' said the voice in the crowd.

Some of the very best humour was unintentional and perhaps we should close with this farcical situation being reported in Westminster during the height of the Blitz.

'Mr Kimmett, Chief Warden's Liaison Officer was conducting a reconnaissance at the Art Metal Company during the Hugh Street incident and asked a man at the door if there was anybody in the building when the bomb fell. The man replied "Only the Boiler Man." Mr Kimmett found out from him where the Boiler Room was and set off to make a search. The building was flooded at the time and though he searched diligently, waist deep in water, he could find no sign of a floating corpse. So he returned to the man at the door and enquired as to the whereabouts of the Boiler Man. The reply he received was "I am the Boiler Man!"'

The reply of Mr Kimmett, or indeed what he thought of the Boiler Man in question probably couldn't be printed here!

Published Sources:

Backs to the Wall - Leonard Mosley, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1971
The Fighting Admirals - Martin Stephen, Leo Cooper 1991
The Forgotten Service - Angela Raby, After The Battle 1999

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

Make a Signal - Capt Jack Broome DSC, RN, Putnam 1955

War Diaries 1939-45 - Field Marshall Lord Alanbrooke, editors Alex Danchev & Daniel Todman, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2001

Unpublished Sources:

City of Westminster Archives