Friday 19 July 2013

Footprints of The Blitz (4)

In the last edition of this occasional series, we took a look at the surviving air raid shelters that can still be found in London, whilst previously we have examined shelter signs that are still extant more than seventy years after they were first painted. Today, we return to the subject of signage as well as those buildings in London which still bear the 'honourable scars' of war in the form of shrapnel damage, which act as a lasting reminder of the deadly nature area bombing; if shrapnel could damage solid masonry in such a spectacular fashion, the prospect of what it can do to the human body does not bear thinking about.

Apart from shelter signs, one aspect of wartime London that can still be found by the patient detective, are the 'EWS' Signs, signifying the one time site of an Emergency Water Supply. These were effectively temporary dams to augment the supply of water to the fire services and proved invaluable in the event of water mains being severed by bomb damage, as frequently happened during the Blitz. These emergency supplies took three basic forms - firstly from natural or man-made waterways such as rivers or canals, or even swimming pools, of which both abound in London. This first sign which still survives on the Albert Embankment, alongside the Thames is simply adjacent to a small inlet of the Thames which actually stretches beneath the main road and allows hoses to be dipped into the river at high tide and across a short section of the foreshore at low tide. A mud filter would have been required to stop the supply silting up but apart from that precaution, a ready made supply was always available.

EWS at Albert Embankment (author's photo)

The second location for these emergency supplies was in the basements of bombed out buildings, of which by the winter of 1940-41, there were plenty to be found. These basements were exposed after the rubble of the bombed building had been removed and were then sealed with bitumen, concrete or other suitable material and following this work, all that was required was to fill the space with water and the fire services thus had immediate access to a large capacity supply. One such supply was to be found at the site of the former Surrey Theatre, a former well known Music Hall venue at St George's Circus, near the Elephant & Castle. On the night of May 10th/11th 1941, the last night of the Blitz but also the heaviest raid of the entire war, this EWS was the scene of one of the worst tragedies to affect the wartime London Fire Service. The raid started with a heavy fall of both HE and incendiaries at the Elephant and the immediate surrounding area. Soon, the fires were out of control and the hard pressed firefighters on the scene were faced with what was known in the trade as a conflagration. Shattered water mains made their task even harder and hose relays were started from Manor Place Baths, the Surrey Theatre and also another nearby 5,000 gallon dam. All of these required relays of hoses to run a distance of around 800 yards along the streets to the scene of the main fires at the Elephant & Castle and not only required firefighters at the 'business end' tackling the flames but also needed men on the spot to ensure that the supplies remained uninterrupted. Such was the intensity of the fires and the number of hoses being used, that the 5,000 gallon supply was exhausted inside five minutes, which brought the firefighting to a temporary standstill until fresh supplies could be connected. Just as the pumps were being connected at the Surrey Theatre, a bomb fell here too, killing seventeen firefighters from the London Fire Brigade, as well as from the London and Mitcham Auxiliary Fire Service. Today, the Surrey Theatre is but a distant memory but a plaque erected at the site by the excellent charity Firemen Remembered, acts as a permanent reminder of the ultimate sacrifice made by these seventeen men in the dark days of the Blitz.

Plaque at the site of the Surrey Theatre EWS (author's photo)

The third type of EWS were large man made coffer dams usually erected in existing open spaces, such as parks, school playgrounds or later in the war on cleared bomb sites. Once again, some of these signs are still extant and can be seen by the discerning eye. One such group of signs can be found in Camberwell Church Street, where there are the remnants of three such signs, although one of these is extremely faded nowadays. Closer inspection of the best survivor of these signs shows in the top quadrant, the capacity of the former dam as being 5,000 gallons.

EWS Sign Camberwell Church Street (author's photo)

In case anyone is wondering what one of these Emergency Water Supplies looked like, here is a shot of one in action located to the north of Blackfriars Bridge, in New Bridge Street. This one is a coffer dam example and is being simultaneously filled with fresh supplies of water whilst at the same time as feeding hose branches being used to fight a fire.

EWS New Bridge Street (author's collection)

From signs we move to scars - the scars left on London's buildings left by the ravages of war. Hitler's bombs did not respect the importance of buildings or structures. Those scars are today borne by noble buildings such as St Paul's Cathedral and other Wren designed places of worship, places of leisure and culture such as the Victoria & Albert Museum, statues of figures from Britain's mililtary past such as General James Wolfe and Lord Clyde to more humble but no less important edifices such as railway bridges, hospitals and railway offices. What links all of these structures is their having survived the worst that the Luftwaffe could throw at them. 

Some of the most vivid examples of shrapnel damage can be found at St Clement Danes Church, now the Central Church of the RAF but in 1941 a normal, if slightly grand, parish church on the edge of the City of London. Since 1910, it had been under the rectorship of the splendidly named Horation Pennington-Bickford and had survived the early stages of the Blitz relatively unscathed. On the night of 10th/11th May 1941, it's luck ran out and apart from a near miss from a high explosive bomb, Wren's beautiful 1685 church was soon ablaze from the incendiaries that rained down upon it. Across the road, Pennington-Bickford watched in tears as his beloved church burned and within a month, the old rector was dead, some said from a broken heart but undoubtedly due to the stress of seeing the destruction of his beloved church. In 1957, the church was rededicated as the Central Church of the RAF and is today a shrine to the RAF as well as the Commonwealth and Allied Air Forces, including the USAAF.

St Clement Danes (author's photo)

Similar damage can be found on many buildings across London and is not confined to the City centre. The statue of General James Wolfe, victor of Quebec in 1759 has stood overlooking the Thames and his beloved Greenwich since 1930. The plinth of his statue bears the scars of a German bomb which exploded nearby in 1940. Some members of the Greenwich Park staff peddle an urban myth that the damage was caused by a German fighter strafing the roadway. This story, although swallowed over the years by many a tourist and not a few locals, is utter twaddle - the nearby heath was the site of a large battery of anti-aircraft guns as well as a balloon barrage and it would have taken a brave or foolhardy pilot to risk his life by recklessly flying low merely to machine gun a statue!

General Wolfe's plinth (author's photo)

There are many other examples of shrapnel damage to be seen across London and next time we shall take a look at some more of these as well as some other reminders of our capital's wartime history.

Published Sources:

The London Blitz: A Fireman's Tale - Cyril Demarne OBE, After The Battle 1991
The Lost Treasure of London - William Kent, Phoenix Press 1947