Friday 27 June 2014

Exploring Wartime Blackheath & Greenwich

The walk starts outside All Saints' Church (all photos courtesy Sam Dorrington, Everlasting Moments)

The spring and summer months, hopefully blessed with better weather, tend to be the busiest time for guiding our Blitz Walks and so far, this year has proved to be our busiest yet. Neil has been actively engaged with his City of London and Mayfair walks, whilst yours truly has been fully occupied with private walks covering Chelsea, Westminster and earlier this month, around my native Greenwich.

Back in the late winter, I was contacted by Janet, who wished to organize a surprise birthday walk for her history loving husband, who also happened to have been born in Blackheath. Our Blackheath & Greenwich walk fitted the bill and the walk was duly booked for 9th June. 

Whilst our clients are always good company, linked through a common interest in our wartime past, it is always one of the joys of guiding to find out exactly how much any particular walker, or groups of walkers know about their subject and I was delighted to discover that my client on this occasion was the legendary DJ, Robbie Vincent. Both Robbie and Janet are passionate about London's history and it's wartime past and were delightful company throughout the walk.

It just so happened that on this particular day, I was being accompanied by my very good friend and professional photographer, Sam Dorrington of Everlasting Moments Photography who had kindly come along to take some shots in order to update our main website, which he also designed. With all of these factors in place, it seemed a good idea to write a short piece for this blog about the day, which will also hopefully give the prospective walker some idea as to what to expect on one of our walks.

The Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich, as it was known during the war, like the rest of our capital, suffered it's share of punishment during the Blitz of 1940-41 and once again during the onslaught of the V-1 and V-2 'Terror Weapons' in 1944-45. Our walk of the area, like all of those that we guide, is designed to commemorate those times and to honour the people that lived through (and all too often did not survive) those dark days. There are still scars to be seen and clues as to what happened all those years ago and thanks to the excellent Greenwich Heritage Centre which has an extensive photographic record of many of the incidents, we are able to bring a 'then and now' perspective to many aspects of the walk.

Our walk started outside All Saints' Church, a well known Blackheath landmark and after setting the scene for the Blitz and it's implications for the area, we set off on our tour. Perhaps fittingly in this, the centenary year of the outbreak of the Great War, our first port of call highlighted the impact of this earlier conflict upon the area. This first stand was the former church hall for All Saints', now the Mary Evans Picture Library. Although a delightful building in it's own right, the reason for it's existence is due to a Zeppelin raid of 1916 which devastated the original terraced housing that once occupied the spot. The Zeppelin raids were an ominous reminder to Londoners that modern warfare was no longer a distant affair that did not affect civilians and that in the 20th Century, the populations of major cities, even those a long way from the front line, were just as much in the firing line as the servicemen directly facing the enemy.

Examining the scene of an earlier conflict

Our next stand took us around the corner to Collins Street, where we examined a now familiar colour scheme for street furniture but discovered how the black and white stripes came into their own during the Blackout. We also learned of the work of the Air Raid Wardens, how our latter day perception of them as being similar to Mr Hodges from the Dad's Army series was originally not too different in 1940 and how this was all to change once the bombs started to fall. It was at this location that the first of my 'props' came out, which as well as the archive photos, really help to bring the experience alive for our walkers.

Steve shows a once-familiar piece of headgear

Moving on from Collins Street, the next stand highlighted our first actual Second World War incident, when we paused at Wemyss Road, the scene of a V-2 Rocket incident dating from March 1945, some two months before the end of the war in Europe, which demonstrated again that the people of London were in the front line almost right until the end of the war.

We then moved around to The Paragon, which despite today being an oasis of peace, was the target of some of the worst of the Blitz on the night of 16th/17th April 1941, a raid so fierce that it became ingrained in London Blitz folklore as 'The Wednesday.' Fortunately, The Paragon and it's adjoining buildings were largely rebuilt after the war and deservedly won a Festival of Britain Award for architecture in 1951 for this work. However, the scars are still there to be seen and with some help from the archive photos and the ARP Incident Log, it is possible to piece together what happened on that night.

Steve explains an incident to Robbie at Paragon House
Robbie and Janet spot a 'then and now' similarity at The Paragon

Our walk then moved across Blackheath itself, where we discovered how the heath was the site of anti-aircraft defences in the form of guns, barrage balloons and for a short while, rockets and how before these all appeared, how obstructions appeared on the heath in an effort to thwart any prospective airborne invasion. Once we reached Greenwich Park, we were able to see surviving evidence of Home Guard defences and how they would have tried to exact a heavy price on any German advance into Central London. This evidence takes the form of 'loopholes' or firing positions cut into the wall surrounding the park and whilst most of them have been filled in, there are some survivors. Far from being the buffoons portrayed in Dad's Army, the Home Guard were a brave group of men, mostly of a 'certain age' who despite their early lack of equipment, would have sold their lives dearly in an attempt to halt a German invasion.

Home Guard firing position

Moving away from the traffic's roar of the main A2 trunk road, we moved into the peace and quiet of Greenwich Park and after pausing at the Ranger's House to discuss it's wartime use as an Auxiliary Fire Station, we moved along to the General Wolfe statue, which still bears it's honourable scars caused by shrapnel from a nearby high explosive bomb blast in October 1940. It was here that another of my 'props' appeared, a collection of shrapnel collected from the Thames foreshore at Greenwich by Nicola White of Tideline Art which graphically demonstrates the damage that these lethal chunks of metal can cause. It was at this point many years ago as a small boy, that I can honestly say that my interest in history began and to those of you taking this walk, I will produce photographic evidence of this fact!

Robbie & Janet examine General Wolfe's wartime scars

We then walked down to the Park Row gate and exited the Park, pausing on the corner of Park Row to examine the former site of Greenwich Police Station, destroyed by a V-1 Flying Bomb, almost exactly seventy years ago, before entering the Old Royal Naval College and standing in the footsteps of our wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who came to inspect bomb damage here on the second day of the Blitz, 8th September 1940.

Standing in the footsteps of Churchill at the ORNC

Our final stand on this walk was at St Alfege's Church, in the heart of Greenwich Town Centre. This classic piece of Hawksmoor church architecture was laid waste by a German incendiary bomb on the night of 19th March 1941 and although painstakingly restored in the 1950s, is a graphic demonstration that area bombing has no respect for historic buildings. It was at this stage that my final 'prop' appeared in the form of a Defence Medal, the nearest thing to a campaign medal ever issued to the men and women of the Civil Defence services.

The Defence Medal

It was at this point that we bade our farewells to Robbie and Janet, who had to return to their car in Greenwich Park, before Sam and I repaired to the nearest pub for a well deserved pint!

I make no apologies for being deliberately vague about the detail of the walk as well as omitting many of the stands and 'props' used. There are two reasons for this - firstly, if I were to include everything, then this article would be about three times it's current length and secondly, there would be no incentive to come along on the walk if prospective walkers knew everything in advance!

There is nothing like walking the ground, so I hope that from this aperitif, readers of this article will decide to book up on the next Greenwich walk, which is scheduled for Sunday August 31st. Details will appear on the Next Walks page of the main website as well as on my Twitter page @Blitzwalker. As an alternative, our private walks for a small group of friends or family, as with the walk described above, are very popular and won't break the bank.

Thanks are once again due to Robbie and Janet Vincent for being such good company on the walk and to Sam Dorrington for taking such a great set of photos, a mere sample of which have been on display here.

Saturday 7 June 2014

Operation Gambit: Preparing for D-Day.

Gambit: Chess opening in which player sacrifices pawn or piece to secure advantage (Concise Oxford Dictionary)

HMS X-23 (with George Honour amidships) returns after D-Day (

Following on from yesterday's immensely moving commemorations for the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, perhaps today is a good time to remember one of the lesser known but vitally important aspects of the operation; that of marking the beaches and clearly defining the extreme limits of the assault zone for the British and Canadian forces.

The task was given to the Royal Navy's midget submarines, the underwater answer to the British propensity for 'messing around' in small boats, although the missions for the X-Craft, as these cramped vessels were officially known, consisted of anything but messing around. Six months previously, six of these tiny vessels, powered by the same diesel engines normally used to propel London buses, had attacked the German battleship, Tirpitz, at her Norwegian fjord anchorage. The attack was a brilliant success with the giant battleship being crippled until the following April, but the cost was high. Out of the six craft sent into the attack, four had been lost or scuttled by their crews and those that had survived were to spend the remainder of the war in German POW camps. In April 1944, another submarine, X-24, attacked the Laksevag floating dock in Bergen, Norway but mistakenly placed her charges beneath a German merchant vessel, the Barenfels, which was alongside the dock at the time. The charges sank the merchant ship but only caused minor damage to the floating dock, which was capable of docking the Tirpitz and other large German warships. The operation was repeated in September 1944, again by X-24 but with a fresh crew. This time the operation was an unqualified success and the floating dock was sunk. X-24 returned safely, having been undetected by the enemy and survives to this day.

HMS X-24 preserved at Gosport (Geni)

When it came to the meticulous planning for Operation Overlord, as the Normandy invasions were officially named, it was almost inevitable that the X-Craft would be involved in those preparations. Starting in January 1944, X-20, under the commanded by Lieut. KR Hudspeth RANVR, together with Sub Lieut. Enzer RNVR and the Combined Operations Pilotage Party comprising of Lt. Cmdr. Nigel Willmott RN along with two divers, Major Logan and Sergeant Ogden-Smith of the Royal Marines, was tasked with providing sand samples in order to gauge the suitability of the various beaches for landing troops, tanks and the myriad of vehicles required to make a successful invasion. Each night, for four nights, the divers went ashore on what were to become Omaha and Sword beaches to conduct their surveys, literally under the noses of the Germans. The soil and sand samples were meticulously logged, so as to record which part of the beaches they were removed from, placed into condoms and returned to the submarine. X-20 returned with the booty on January 21st 1944 and from the samples obtained and the surveys conducted, two scale models of the beaches were constructed as well as a partial full scale reproduction so as to test the suitability of the beaches. The operation was a hugely risky one; discovery would have compromised the whole Allied plan but it's success was to assist in making Overlord arguably the best planned Allied operation of the entire war. For his actions in gathering this invaluable intelligence, Lieut. Hudspeth was awarded a bar to his already awarded DSC.

When the time came for the invasion proper, Hudspeth and the X-20 was to return to Normandy along with one of her sister vessels, X-23 way ahead of the main invasion fleet in the early hours of June 4th 1944, as part of the ominously named (for those taking part) Operation Gambit, the marking of the extremities of the British and Canadian landing areas. At the time of their sailing, D-Day was planned for June 5th and the prospect of spending the best part of two days submerged in the incredibly cramped and foetid conditions unique to a midget submarine was bad enough, but when X-23 surfaced at 01:00 on June 5th expecting to prepare for her marking duties, her commanding officer, Lieutenant George Honour RNVR, was dismayed to receive a coded radio message informing them that the invasion had been postponed for 24 hours and that he and his four man crew would have to submerge to spend a further day waiting for their task to begin, hoping that they would not be discovered in the meantime. In case of disaster, those manning the two X-Craft were all equipped with falsified French identity papers that would hopefully allow them to get ashore undetected by the Germans, evade capture and link up with the French Resistance.

All this was furthest from Honour's and Hudspeth's minds when they received their orders to wait. Once the word came that the invasion was on, their task was to surface, erect an 18 feet tall telescopic mast to which was attached a flashing searchlight shining seawards to the invasion fleet. If the approaching ships saw a green light, it meant that they were on target, if red, then they were not. Each submarine also carried a radio beacon that would be switched on the moment they surfaced as well as a sonar signal that could be homed onto by the approaching fleet. Furthermore, each submarine was to launch dinghies, each with a man in it which would mark the individual assault beaches. As a final visual aid, each X-Craft was to fly a large yellow flag, which would make them highly visible to the enemy as well as to the Allies!

George Honour was prepared for all of this but in addition to being a target for the enemy, he did not want to become an unwitting target for friendly vessels, so in addition to the yellow flag, he planned that X-23 would fly an extra-large White Ensign, of the size more usually flown by battleships or cruisers.

Aboard X-23, the delay was an opportunity to check and double-check that they were indeed in the correct position. The navigator, Lieut. 'Thin' Lynne took a series of bearings and quickly identified several local landmarks including Ouistreham Lighthouse, the local parish church, as well as the spires of two other churches in Langrune and St. Aubin sur Mer. Lynne's navigation had been faultless and X-23 was almost spot on her allotted position.

After what must have seemed an interminable wait throughout the long daylight hours of June 5th in conditions that were becoming steadily more uncomfortable, the two X-Craft surfaced in the early hours of June 6th to learn that the invasion was on and at 04:30, X-23 erected her mast and prepared to begin sending out her signals to the soon to be approaching armada. At 05:00, her ship's log recorded 'Commenced flashing green light.'

Later that morning, with the invasion successfully under way, the mines swept, bombardment ships in their allotted anchorages and with all manner of craft busily going about their business, the duties of the X-Craft were done. Off Sword Beach, as Lieutenant Honour conned his midget submarine through lines of landing craft streaming inshore in the heavy seas, all that could be discerned from passing vessels was the bizarre sight of what appeared to be two large flags flying apparently unsupported but moving steadily through the water. Honour took the X-23 out to the headquarters ship HMS Largs, there to await a tow back to Portsmouth and after 64 hours submerged off the French coast, no doubt for some breakfast as well as a very welcome shower followed by some equally welcome sleep!

George Honour was awarded the DSC for his part in the operation and after the war, returned to civilian life in Bristol, passing away in 2002 at the age of 84.

The X-Craft were to have one further brilliant success in the Far East, when two further craft, XE1 and XE3 successfully attacked the Japanese heavy cruiser Takao in Singapore Harbour in August 1945. This feat of arms earned Victoria Crosses for Lieutenant Ian Fraser RNR and Leading Seaman James Magennis into the process.

The two midget submarine stars of this story, X-20 and X-23 had a short life; built in late 1943, both were ignominiously scrapped in 1945 and after some brief experimental work, the remaining midget submarines, being essentially a wartime expedient, at least as far as the Royal Navy was concerned, passed into history.

Today, two wartime midget submarines are preserved; XE-8 forms part of the display at Chatham Historic Dockyard in Kent, whilst the battle honoured X-24 is on display at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport. These survivors are testament to the brave men who fought aboard these vessels, which were once described by the Royal Navy's official wartime historian, Captain Stephen Roskill as being the "direct descendent of the Elizabethan fireship."

Published Sources:

D-Day - Anthony Beevor, Viking 2009
The Longest Day - Cornelius Ryan, Simon & Schuster 1959
The War at Sea - edited by John Winton, Hutchinson 1974
Warships of World War II - HT Lenton & JJ Colledge, Ian Allan 1973