Friday 25 April 2014

A - Z of the Blitz (B)

Apart from Blitz, B is for Barrage Balloons. these bulbous, ungainly creatures have become one of the stock images of the Second World War, usually sitting passively as if waiting in vain for something to happen, the balloons actually served as a lethal deterrent to low flying aircraft and indirectly saved many lives during the war. 

The balloon barrage in Eltham, SE London (Greenwich Heritage Centre)

Tethered to the ground by steel cables, the purpose of the balloons was mainly to deter low flying aircraft, especially at the start of the war, the dreaded Stuka dive bombers, which had caused so much havoc during the Blitzkrieg attacks on Poland and later France and the Low Countries. In reality, the Stukas were of little use to the Luftwaffe in attacks over the UK; against determined opposition equipped with modern single engined fighters such as the Spitfire and Hurricane, the Ju-87 Stukas were easy meat and they were soon withdrawn from attacks on the UK during the Battle of Britain and took no part in the Blitz. The balloons however, continued to be useful cogs in the defensive machine. Because the height of the tethering cables could be adjusted, they served a useful purpose, along with the anti-aircraft guns in forcing the German bombers to fly at higher altitudes, thus reducing their accuracy. Barrage balloons could also be mounted in a more mobile role, fixed to trucks which enabled them to be deployed to different areas much more quickly than the conventional, ground tethered variety. Balloons were also used in great numbers at sea and footage of the great Allied invasions such as Salerno and Normandy sees the ubiquitous balloons tethered to landing craft and other vessels in an effort to deter low flying fighters from strafing the Allied vessels. 

Back on land, the balloons once again came to the forefront of British defences during the V-1 Flying Bomb attacks of 1944. Hurriedly redeployed to a ribbon of defences inside the coast, the balloons were ranged at a suitable altitude to bring down the V-1s, which being pilotless, tended to fly at a fixed course and height. They were thought to be responsible for bringing down some 230 Flying Bombs, although the Germans did counter this by fitting wire cutting devices to the leading edges of the V-1's wings. Even so, the balloons in their own small way helped slow the onslaught of these weapons on the capital.

Occasionally, these usually inert monsters broke loose from their moorings and the various Civil Defence incident logs reported damage to chimneys and other property caused by these cables becoming wrapped around protruding brickwork and already partially damaged houses and no doubt causing some light relief for their Army 'crews' from Balloon Command who were responsible for looking after them.

B also stands for Bombs and Bomb Disposal. We shall examine the various types of bombs when their turn comes in the alphabet, suffice to say that the Luftwaffe used high explosive bombs of various sizes, ranging from small 100 kgs, right up to the 1000 kgs 'Hermann', so called by the British because of it's portly appearance, said to be reminiscent of Hermann Goring. They also used the small 1 kg incendiary bomb and the much larger 500 kgs and 1000 kgs Parachute Mine, adapted from naval mines into fearsome airburst weapons.

A German 500kg bomb at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea (author's photo)

Disposal of the large numbers of 'dud' bombs or UXBs as they became known took a special kind of courage and many examples of heroism occurred during the Blitz by various members of the Bomb Disposal teams, many of whom paid the ultimate price. The disposal and defusing of most bombs was the responsibility of the Army's Royal Engineers, whilst the Parachute Mines, with their naval heritage, became the job of the Royal Navy to deal with. Perhaps two of the most famous pieces of bomb disposal came at St Paul's Cathedral in September 1940, which was described in the September 2011 edition of this blog, whilst and example of the Senior Service's efforts was described in June 2010 when we learned of the exploits of Sub Lieut. Jack Easton RNVR and his assistant Ordinary Seaman Bennett Southwell for their part in attempting to defuse a parachute mine in Hoxton, East London in October 1940. Both of these incidents earned the bomb disposal teams well earned George Crosses, in Southwell's case, posthumously.

B is for Blackout and one of the major raisons d'etre of the Air Raid Wardens described in the previous edition of this blog. On the outbreak of war, an immediate blackout was imposed across the whole of the United Kingdom. This effectively meant the extinguishing, or covering of every exterior light, or interior light that could be seen through an unguarded window. Today, even those of us who live in the country and are used to 'proper' darkness without street lighting, cannot really imagine what it is like to have absolutely no lights visible outside, for even in the countryside towns and villages, we are now used to seeing interior lights spilling over into the darkness. In 1939, all this stopped; windows had to be covered with thick blackout curtains, or even painted over; streetlights and traffic lights were extinguished and those few of the latter which were allowed to remain were so hooded as to be almost invisible to those few vehicles still on the road. Vehicle headlamps were masked and covered to such an extent as to almost useless and interiors lights on buses and trains were removed and replaced with tiny blue lights, laughably known as 'reading lamps' which in reality were next to useless. The glazed roofs of railway stations were painted over and lights extinguished, whilst steam trains and electric locomotives and trams equipped with spark arrestors to try and cut down on the tell-tale sparks visible from the air. To add a measure of compensation, kerbstones, traffic bollards, lamp posts and even tree trunks were painted with black and white stripes to try and reflect what little light there was available from either the Moon or from the reduced lighting from the few vehicles on the road. 

ARP Notice & Lighting restrictions (author's photo)

The result of all this was chaos. Before the onset of the Blitz, there were more casualties caused by road traffic accidents than by German bombs and during the so called Phoney War period, the stock of the Air Raid Wardens dipped in the eyes of the British public as the Wardens were quick to pounce on anyone forgetful enough to put in place their Blackout curtains, or to open a door without first extinguishing the light inside the house. The familiar cry of "Put that light out!" now made immortal by Mr Hodges of Dad's Army was not wholly the stuff of comedy fiction. The British public endured the Blackout for 5 long years, until it was replaced on September 17th 1944 by the less stringent 'Dim Out', which recognised that the threat from manned German bombers was all but over but which also acknowledged that the V-1 and V-2 were no respecter of the Blackout

B is also for 'Black Saturday.' This was the name given by Londoners to Saturday, 7th September 1940, which is seen as being the first day of the Blitz on London. Up until this point in time, although London had been brushed by German bombs, these had mainly been in the outskirts of the capital and for the most part incidental to attacks on industrial targets or RAF airfields in the London suburbs. All this began to change when on the night of 24th/25th August, a flight of German bombers, supposedly due to a navigational error, dropped bombs on the north of London and the City, with the first bomb falling in Moorgate at around 12:15 a.m. on the 25th August. Churchill immediately ordered a retaliatory attack on Berlin and although the RAF at that time were ill equipped to launch a meaningful attack on the German capital, the resulting minor damage caused by two raids was sufficient for Hitler to order the Luftwaffe to switch it's attacks from the RAF's airfields to London.

Fires from the burning Surrey Docks - 7th Sept 1940 (National Archives)

When the sirens sounded a little after 4.30 pm on September 7th, it was the precursor of  57 continuous nights of bombing and a Night Blitz that would last, for London, until the night of 10th/11th May 1941. On that first afternoon of the Blitz, the RAF was initially but on this rare occasion, caught off guard and nearly one thousand bombers and fighters found their targets, mainly in the East End but also causing grievous damage to the Woolwich Arsenal and devastating the Surrey Commercial Docks, some parts of which were never fully utilised again. The bombers returned that evening, guided by the fires lit by their earlier sorties. Casualties were high amongst the civilian population, with some four hundred being killed with many more wounded.

Although these initial attacks were focused on the eastern side of the capital, gradually the attacks crept westwards, until eventually no part of London was left untouched.

Next time, we shall look at the letter 'C' including Cabs, Coventry and Churchill.

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