Friday 19 April 2013

St Alfege's, Greenwich and The Fuhrer's Birthday Present

St Alfege's Church in 2013 (author's photo)

April 19th is St Alfege's Day and to paraphrase Michael Caine it is probably true to say that "not a lot of people know that." The following day is perhaps better known, at least to Second World War historians as being the birthday of Adolf Hitler and whilst one would not normally mention two such opposite men in the same breath, let alone the same piece of writing, perhaps on this occasion an exception can be allowed as there is a connection between the two, albeit a slightly tenuous one.

Bishop Alfege was born in the year 954 in Weston, on the outskirts of Bath into a wealthy family. Despite his family's priveliged position in Anglo-Saxon society, he eschewed their wealth in order to enter a monastery. After becoming Abbot of Bath, he became Bishop of Winchester in 984 and in 1006, Archbishop of Canterbury. Alfege was a great church reformer and it was said of his time at Winchester that "There were no beggars in Winchester whilst Alfege was bishop."

During Alfege's time, Danish Vikings were regularly raiding the English coast and in the year 1011, they moved inland to sack Canterbury, pillaging the cathedral and massacring the local populace. In an attempt to restore peace and save innocent lives, Alfege offered himself as hostage and was taken in chains to Greenwich. On April 19th 1012, the Danes demanded 3,000 gold marks be paid in order to release the Archbishop but Alfege immediately let it be known that he would refuse to allow anyone to ransom him. As a result, the enraged Danes bludgeoned him to death with meat bones and stones and threw his body into the Thames. Alfege was the first Archbishop of Canterbury to die a violent death and following this outrage, the oar of a boat near to his body on the Thames foreshore reputedly blossomed into leaves and flowers. As a result of this miracle, the Danes allowed his body to be transferred to St Paul's Cathedral, where it remained for some eleven years before being moved to it's final resting place at Canterbury. Alfege was canonised in 1078 by Archbishop Lanfranc.

The site of Alfege's murder became a shrine and whilst it is not known exactly when the first church appeared on the site, it is fairy certain that a church of sorts was established fairly soon after his death. The present church is thought to be the third built on the site and was erected between 1712-1714 and is the work of the celebrated architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. There was a delay in consecration due to the parishioners' objections to the requirement of a 'seat of distinction' for the Royal Family. This opposition was eventually overcome and the church was duly consecrated in 1718. There are several famous people buried in and around the church, arguably the most famous being General James Wolfe, a Greenwich resident and victor of the Battle of Quebec in 1759, who died in that same battle and was returned home to Greenwich aboard HMS Royal William to be interred in the crypt of the church.

We now move forward nearly 200 years to the Greenwich of the Second World War during early 1941. The Blitz had been raging on London since the previous September and Greenwich, along with the rest of the capital city had been pounded mercilessly. Whilst the industry then prevalent along the river and in East Greenwich had undoubtedly been the main target, the historic buildings of Greenwich Town Centre had not been spared either. This 'collateral damage' to coin a modern phrase had included the Royal Naval College, damaged on 8th September 1940, which elicited a visit from no less a personage than Winston Churchill himself. Three months later came the turn of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich Park, grievously wounded in December 1940 and in between these incidents, even General Wolfe's statue had been pockmarked by shrapnel, the wounds showing to this day. Despite all of this, St Alfege's remained unscathed, looking watchfully over Greenwich.

By March 1941, apart from two minor incidents on the 9th and the 15th, the first eighteen days of the month passed without a major raid on London and some Londoners were beginning to become cautiously optimistic. The raids were no longer coming nightly as in the dark days of the autumn and winter of 1940-41 and perhaps the worst really was over. Unknown to Londoners, Hitler was turning his eyes eastwards towards Russia, then allied to Germany but whose vast expanses of land were already being looked at with envious eyes for the lebensraum he so coveted for the German people.

Before invading the Soviet Union though, a final series of raids was planned to perhaps finally smash Britain out of the war and leave the Nazis masters of Europe. Hitler's birthday was also approaching and there were some in the Nazi Party, such as Luftwaffe Chief and Reichsmarshall Hermann Goering, who ever the sycophant, saw these raids as a way of currying favour with the Fuhrer and celebrating his birthday with a major air raid. This new series of attacks, although not on a nightly basis were to culminate in the heaviest raids unleashed on the capital.

The ruins (Greenwich Heritage Centre)
The sirens sounded over London a little before 9pm on 19th March and it was not long before the high explosive and incendiary bombs were raining down upon London. As before, Greenwich was taking it's share of the punishment. The incendiaries, especially seemed to pour down on Greenwich and the old Town Centre around Trafalgar Road was soon in danger of being inundated. An hour into the raid, the incendiaries reached St Alfege's and a number of them penetrated the roof. The hard pressed Fire Brigade were unable to help and in an alarmingly short time, a blazing mass of timbers and molten lead from the roof collapsed down into the nave of the old church. At first sight, the destruction of the church seemed total but fortunately, the walls and clock tower remained intact. Despite this ray of hope for a future rebuilding, for the time being at least, St Alfege's Church was ruined. By a strange quirk of history, the destruction of the church had taken place one month to the day short of the 929th anniversary of Bishop Alfege's murder at the hands of an earlier pack of barbarians.

Following this great raid of 19th March, the remainder of the month saw no Luftwaffe activity over London. The next major attack came on the night of the 16th/17th April and such was the intensity of this raid that Londoners remembered it in years to come simply as 'The Wednesday'. This was the day when, elsewhere in London that crooner Al Bowlly was killed in his Piccadilly apartment and also when Chelsea Old Church joined the list of historic London places of worship to succumb to the Luftwaffe. Another short lull followed until the day of Hitler's birthday itself - the 19th/20th April. Another intense raid followed and once again Greenwich suffered grievously, as did the remainder of London. This raid also passed into folklore as 'The Saturday' and saw death and destruction raining down upon Greenwich once again.

The remainder of April 1941 passed without further incident but one further raid was to strike a terrible blow at London; the night of 10th/11th May, covered in this blog in July 2010, was to prove the heaviest raid ever mounted on the capital, when almost 2,200 fires were started and some 700 tons of bombs were dropped, leaving over 1,400 Londoners dead and another 1,800 seriously injured. From the guarded optimism of two months previously, the citizens of London began to fear for the worst and what the consequences of another raid like May 10th/11th might be.

Devastated Greenwich in 1945 (Greenwich Heritage Centre)
And yet the bombers failed to return. Hitler's will was to prevail as it always did and the attack would turn east. For the assault on the Soviet Union, the Luftwaffe would naturally be required to support the Army and as a result, units were transferred east despite the entreaties of senior Luftwaffe figures such as Milch, Kesselring and Sperrle to continue with the attacks on British cities. This would certainly have been possible as one complete Luftflotte - no. 3 under Hugo Sperrle was to remain in France in considerable strength and would have been quite capable of continuing the Blitz. Fortunately, it was not to be and the strength of the Luftwaffe was to be gradually depleted on the Eastern Front, in Italy and repelling British and from mid 1942, American air raids upon Germany and occupied Europe. An ill advised attempt to revive the air raids upon London in January 1944 only depleted the Luftwaffe's strength even more and the 'Baby Blitz' as it was somewhat contemptuously named by the British, petered out by May 1944 by which time the Luftwaffe was a shadow of it's former self and ill-equipped to counter the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944.

The coming of peace in May 1945 saw St Alfege's Church still in a ruined condition but plans were quickly put in hand for it's rebuilding. Work began in 1946 under the direction of architect Sir Albert Richardson, who was determined to preserve as much of Hawksmoor's work as possible. Each surviving fragment of cornice work, plaster mouldings and carvings were collected from the ruins and full scale drawings made of all of them. Some original materials were also reinstated and the painstaking work of combining the old with the new and restored was not to be completed until 1953, when the church was finally rededicated on St Alfege's Day.

Honourable Scars (author's photo)
Today, the famous old church remains watching over Greenwich and is well worth a visit, whether for a service, one of the classical concerts that are often staged there, or purely for sightseeing. The church contains a number of fascinating military memorials from both World Wars, perhaps most notably that of the London Territorial Field Ambulance from 1914-18 as well as several other standards and pennants 'laid up' in the church. General Wolfe's tomb, safe in the crypt, survived the bombing and remains in situ, resting in his home town. Outside, the building retains some honourable scars from the Blitz to rightly remind us of the troubled past of this centre of Britain's maritime history.

Published Sources:

A Wander Through Wartime London - Clive Harris & Neil Bright, Pen & Sword 2010
The City That Wouldn't Die - Richard Collier, Collins 1959
The Parish Church of St Alfege (handbook and guide) - Privately Published

Unpublished Sources:

Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich - Civil Defence Incident Log 1939-45

Friday 12 April 2013

The End of Hitler and other odd Wartime memorabilia

A match for Hitler! (author's photo)
In a previous edition of this blog, we looked at the cult wartime BBC radio show, ITMA and touched on how despite everything, the British sense of humour generally prevailed during the wartime years. It was not only ITMA and other radio shows that helped keep people smiling and a recent search through through some of my photo archive (looking for something else, of course) brought to light some of the more bizarre, if not downright tacky pieces of wartime memorabilia, which somehow typified the defiant British attitude towards the Nazis during the wartime years. 

The first item that came to light was at first sight a fairly unremarkable book of matches, which on one side shows the simple slogan "A match for Hitler!" When the book is reversed, we see staring out at us a likeness (not a very good one, it has to be said) of Winston Churchill, complete with trademark cigar. Not exactly side splitting humour but perhaps a surprising piece of trivia and one which may have caused the odd smile on the way to work, or in the pub.
Churchill! (author's photo)

The next item that came to light can only be described as a simple novelty item along the lines of "What the butler saw" which has a "pull-out" section. Simply described as "The End of Hitler" the item is shown in it's final pulled out format and probably needs no further description!

It is unclear if this item was sold as a novelty or some sort of 'give away' item and if it were sold, then it is unclear just who would buy something like this. The humour can only be described as basic but leaves one in no doubt as to the true feelings towards The Fuhrer.

The End of Hitler! (author's photo)

Another piece on similar lines was what appears to be a simple two sided card which again featured Adolf Hitler but this time with his likeness superimposed on the rear end of a pig. Unkind to the pig perhaps but the humour of the captions "A CHARACTER STUDY" and "Why HITLER is not at the Front" although more than a little strained, makes clear the feeling at the time. Once again, it is unclear whether this card was sold as a novelty item, or whether it was part of some kind of give away perhaps in a newspaper.

A Character Study (author's collection)

If the humour on the front of this card appears strained, then that on the rear is bordering on the puerile. It consists of a list of Hitler and his henchmen, with the names of Hitler, Goering, Goebbels and Ribbentrop presented as acronyms, with a fresh insult against each letter of their names. The final part of the 'joke' is explained on this side of the card as to why Hitler is not at the Front. The answer is that he was at the Rear!

Hitler and his gang (author's photo)

The final piece of humour on display here is a Christmas novelty item of the 'pull out' variety and is illustrated below in both formats. What starts off as an innocent enough looking little ditty 'To Adolf, from Tommy' pulls out to reveal a quite risque (for it's time) image of a First World War style 'Tommy' with the message 'Kiss My Aunt' pinned to his backside!

To Adolf (author's photo)

From Tommy (author's photo)

Perhaps these novelties were aimed at the lowest common denominator in British humour but even with the benefit of some seventy years distance from when they were issued, it is unclear how much appeal they would have had and who exactly they were aimed at. This writer has never seen these or anything like them anywhere else and we are to be grateful to the excellent Greenwich Heritage Centre who have preserved these items in their archives.

Propaganda takes many forms and despite the crudity and poor standard of much of this humour, it has to be said that this innocent 'end of the pier' version of anti-Nazi propaganda is much more preferable to the more sinister variety practiced by Dr. Goebbels and his Ministry.

Unpublished Sources:

Material from Greenwich Heritage Centre