Monday 26 May 2014

A - Z of the Blitz (C)

After a short break, we resume our occasional series with a look at the letter 'C' which amongst other things, stands for Cabs.

At this point, readers might be wondering, not for the first time whether this writer has lost his marbles and what relevance cabs had to the Blitz, apart from providing a means of transport to those with a little more money to spare and one, which like every other mode of transport in London 'carried on' despite the worst that the Luftwaffe could throw at them.

AFS firemen with taxi at Gordonbrock Road (Blitzwalkers)
A glance at our main website helps to provide the answer but for ease of reference, the photo is reproduced here, showing some of the lads of the AFS at Gordonbrock Road School, Brockley proudly standing in front of their 'new' fire engine, which is a requisitioned London cab, complete with roof rack carrying a ladder and also towing a trailer pump. It is not clear from the photograph whether one of the three fire fighters is in fact a taxi driver taking his vehicle to war, but this is quite possible. 

In his excellent book 'London Taxis at War', Bill Eales explains that on many occasions, the cabs arrived at the scene of a fire long before the large fire engines simply because the drivers knew all of the short cuts, which become known to London cab drivers over years of experience and through passing 'The Knowledge', that tough examination that every licensed London cab driver has to pass before he is allowed out on the streets to ply his trade.

Whilst some cabs removed their meter and substituted a small bell in it's place, thus becoming full time 'fire engines', others doubled up and continued their usual duties during the daytime but during a raid, in addition to the ladder and trailer pump, the cabs would carry buckets of sand (for smothering incendiaries) as well as stirrup pumps that could deal with small fires. The drivers would wear a tin hat and except when the bombs were falling from directly overhead, would usually remain with his cab through thick and thin. Other cabs were converted into ambulances, whilst further vehicles were used by the Army as personnel carriers in the event of an invasion.

For those cab drivers still working 'For Hire' the pickings could be rich indeed, for when raids were at their height, they were quite often the only form of public transport still moving. Later in the war, when the American servicemen arrived, they were often accused of hogging the available cabs as they were the only ones who could afford them! 

A slightly apocryphal story perhaps but Americans on leave in London, were very prone to using cabs, although in 1944-45 when the Vengeance Weapons were falling on London, it could be a dangerous form of transport. One group of American airmen were in a cab passing Smithfield Market when a V-2 rocket exploded very adjacently to the taxi. Although all survived unscathed, including the cab, when they eventually arrived back at Liverpool Street Station to catch their train back to their airbase in East Anglia, one of the flyers was heard to comment "Gee, it's much safer up there in the plane! 

One final story relating to flyers, this time RAF boys during the Battle of Britain is worthy of note. One evening in Park Lane, two RAF flyers hailed a cab and asked whether more were available as there were many of the colleagues needing to get back to Biggin Hill after a function at one of the big hotels. Soon, some thirty cabs were lined up waiting and transported the flyers back to Biggin free of charge. The drivers thought that this would be the last they heard of it but a week or so later, some of the same lads who had been driven back to base managed to seek out the drivers and informed them that no less an RAF personage than 'Sailor' Malan had arranged for two RAF trucks to take the cabmen down to Biggin Hill for a 'thank you' celebration at the mess and after a convivial evening, the same trucks brought the drivers back to central London. After that, the boys of Fighter Command could do no wrong!

Cross of Nails from Coventry Cathedral now at the Mahnmal St Nikolai in Hamburg (author's photo)

'C' also stands for Coventry and a new word that was introduced into the vocabulary at this time - 'Koventrieren' was originally used by the Germans but soon entered the English language as to Coventrate, i.e. to devastate a target through the means of heavy bombing.

Although towns and cities other than London had been severely bombed in the Blitz, notably Portsmouth, Plymouth and Liverpool, the bombing of Coventry on November 14th 1940, marked a change in the Luftwaffe's tactics, beginning a concerted effort to attack targets in the industrial Midlands. The raid was carried out by 515 bombers and in it's own way, was a precursor to the RAF attacks on German cities later in the war. An initial small wave of target marking bombers, guided by the Knickebein radio beams, accurately dropped marker flares for the follow up wave of aircraft to drop their high explosive bombs. These rendered many roads temporarily impassible and also ruptured water mains, thus making it nigh on impossible for the fire services to reach the fires and then effectively fight them once they did arrive. A third wave of bombers carried a mix of high explosive and incendiary bombs and started many fires which burned uncontrollably.

The resulting devastation destroyed or seriously damaged twenty one important factories, twelve of them involved in the aircraft industry. Hundreds of shops were destroyed and approximately one third of it's houses were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable. More importantly, 554 people were killed. Today, the most tangible sign of the Coventry Blitz is the ruined cathedral, gutted by incendiary bombs and never rebuilt, which still stands as a memorial to those killed and as a mark of reconciliation. 

The damage to Coventry was serious but not terminal. Many of the industries whose factories were devastated that night had already partially relocated to 'shadow' factories carefully located away from the city centre into the relative safety of the suburbs or the countryside unknown to German intelligence. It was one thing to destroy an ancient monument such as Coventry Cathedral and to wreck the shopping centre but the aircraft industry was harder to pin down.

The target marking techniques employed by the Luftwaffe that night were carefully studied by RAF Bomber Command, and in particular by Sir Arthur Harris, at that point commanding No. 5 Group, who had been practicing the concept of target marking for some years. The tactic was tried on a small scale on 16th December 1940 when Mannheim was bombed in retaliation and it could be said that the attack on Coventry precipitated the change in the RAF's tactics from precision attacks on military targets (which had failed dismally) to area bombing of entire cities, a tactic which under Harris's direction, using radio beams to reach their targets and employing target marking techniques, was to reap spectacular, if horrifying, results on almost every major German town and city for the remainder of the war. Our photo shows a cross of nails taken from the gutted Coventry Cathedral, now on display at another devastated place of worship, the St Nikolai Kirche in Hamburg, now like Coventry Cathedral a place of reconciliation and remembrance of the horrors of area bombing.

Sir Winston Churchill (Library of Congress)

Our final 'C' is one who visited Coventry in the immediate aftermath of the raid and is Winston Churchill. From the moment that the first bombs fell on London on 7th September, Britain's Prime Minister was everywhere. Whenever a major incident occurred, the odds were that Churchill would want to inspect the damage, to be seen by the population, partially because he did not want to be thought of as taking refuge safely in a shelter whilst others suffered and partially because he genuinely did care about what was happening. On one occasion whilst visiting the East End of London after a bad raid, Churchill was visibly moved to tears at the plight of the people, having seen the aftermath of a direct hit on a shelter. Seeing Churchill's reaction, one elderly lady was heard to say "You see, he really cares, he's crying." The Prime Minister quickly pulled himself together and continued his breakneck tour of the damage but his reaction was far from untypical of the man.

Churchill was utterly fearless to the point of recklessness. He would frequently sit on the roof of 10 Downing Street during a raid so he could watch what was happening and on another occasion when he did this was informed that the building below was rapidly filling with smoke; it turned out that the Prime Minister had perched himself comfortably sitting on a chimney!

At a time when invasion of this country was a serious proposition, Churchill refused to countenance any possibility that he might be evacuated away from danger - "If at last this long story is to end, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood" - was his response to any suggestions of surrender or evacuation.

Of course, underground accommodation did exist for Churchill in the form of the Cabinet War Rooms, which from 21st October 1940, was the Prime Minister's main base. Referred to as the 'No. 10 Annexe', many Cabinet and Chiefs of Staff meetings were held here, although Churchill continued to hold meetings and to sleep at the 'real' No. 10 whenever possible. A more secure location was also constructed at the disused Tube Station at Down Street, near Piccadilly but this was only used on a handful of occasions.

Despite all of these secure locations from which to sit out the Blitz, Churchill was rarely, if ever, content to do this. On 15th September, the day we now commemorate as Battle of Britain Day, he was at the Uxbridge Headquarters of 11 Group, RAF Fighter Command, watching the battle unfold as Keith Park deployed his forces. Deeply moved after watching this drama, it was in the car returning to Chequers that Churchill began to compose his "Never in the field of human conflict" speech, which still resonates to this day.

Winston Churchill was at this time, at the very beginning of his wartime Premiership and victory could not be assured but fortunately for the British people and for civilisation, an inspirational figure had come to the fore at precisely the right moment.

Printed Sources:

Churchill - Roy Jenkins, Pan 2001
London Taxis at War 1939-1945 - Bill Eales, Privately Published 1985
The Myth of the Blitz - Angus Calder, Pimlico 1992