Saturday 8 November 2014

Remembering them all

The Charlton Athletic FC memorial (author's photo)

Last weekend, this writer was lucky enough to be present at The Valley, home of Charlton Athletic Football Club, at the unveiling of our Club's war memorial to the fallen of this famous old football club.

Fittingly, whilst this memorial was unveiled during the year marking the centenary of the outbreak to "The War to end all wars", Clive Harris, the military historian and Charlton fan who has been the driving force behind this project, was quick to point out in his brief but moving speech during the ceremony, that this memorial was for everyone associated with the club, whether they be players, officials or supporters and whatever conflict, or facet of the war they were involved in, whether military or civilian, as Charlton with it's close proximity to the Thames, was at the heart of the Blitz in 1940-41.

So perhaps with this in mind and at this remembrance weekend, perhaps now is a good time to remember those civilians and civil defence workers who lost their lives, either as innocent victims of bombing, or in the case of Civil Defence workers, trying to protect the citizens of their localities, whether in London, Coventry, Liverpool, Plymouth, or wherever in the UK that Hitler's bombs fell.

The statistics tell us that overall, some 30,000 civilians died in London during the Second World War due to enemy air attacks and the 'Vengeance' Weapons campaign of 1944-45. What mere statistics do not necessarily convey is the sheer awfulness of the reality of these figures; a glance at a typical incident log will impart some more detail - entire families wiped out, children and babies killed (the youngest this writer has seen mentioned was 9 hours old), groups of people in pubs and church congregations alive one moment and gone the next - nobody was immune. Even Armistice Day itself brought terror in wartime; on November 11th 1944, the Brook Hotel, a public house on suburban Shooter's Hill was obliterated by a V-2 rocket, the toll of 29 dead, including some on a passing bus, warranted 'major incident' status but probably had to be seen to realize the true horror of the aftermath.

Woolworth's V-2 memorial (author's photo)
The worst V-2 incident in London came just a few short miles along the A2 from Shooter's Hill, in New Cross, at a busy Woolworth's store. This time, everything that could go wrong, did - the 25th November 1944 was a busy pre-Christmas Saturday - the rumour had gone around that the Woolworth's store had received a consignment of saucepans, which had become something of a rarity in the austere conditions prevailing in the sixth year of the war and the store was busy with shoppers literally from all across London in search of one of these rare finds. In addition, the store was busy, as usual, with children eager to spend their pocket money (and 'personal points' under the rationing scheme) on sweets. At 12:25, the missile struck and what had been a bustling and busy high street was instantly turned into a scene of utter devastation and carnage as the Woolworth's store and the next door Co-op were destroyed. As with the Shooter's Hill incident, passengers on a passing bus were also victims and when, two days later, the final victims were retrieved by the rescue services, the final death toll was an appalling 168, with almost as many seriously injured, many of whom required amputations. There were few people indeed in south-east London who did not know a victim of this terrible incident.

So much for the civilians, but we should also not forget the work done by the Fire and Ambulance Services, Police, Rescue Squads, ARP Wardens and all of the other Civil Defence services, male and female, including the WVS, whose members, mainly ladies of a 'certain age' provided refreshments for those working during the Blitz, often placing themselves in as much danger as those doing the rescuing!

Wartime Civil Defence badges, from left WVS, ARP Wardens, AFS (author's photo)

The Firefighters' Memorial, appropriately sited opposite St Paul's Cathedral records the names of 1.027 men and women of the Fire Services who lost their lives during the Second World War, the London Ambulance Service lost 36 members of staff during the Blitz and the Metropolitan Police lost over 100 killed both on and off duty during the Blitz.

Apart from the casualty figures, a good indication of the bravery involved amongst the Civil Defence services, is the number of bravery awards made for services above and beyond the call of duty. We have already looked at the story of Anthony Smith GC in a February 2012 post on this blog but another example of a George Medal award is typical of those made during the Blitz.

Join the AFS (author's collection)
On the night of 19th/20th October 1940, the Red Lion public house just off Shooter's Hill was hit by a High Explosive bomb; there were thirteen fatal casualties both in the pub and in adjoining houses which had collapsed but there were also survivors trapped in the ruins. Without a thought for her own safety, Nurse Mary Thomas, whose job was to tend to the injured after they had been extracted, decided to crawl into the rubble to reach two trapped survivors and tended to their injuries whilst they were awaiting rescue. The survivors were eventually rescued and went on to make a full recovery. As a result of her bravery Nurse Thomas was awarded the George Medal.

Apart from their work with Blitz victims, the Ambulance services were often required to assist with transporting wounded soldiers who had been repatriated from the front line en route to hospitals back in the UK. The ambulance staff would always put on a brave and cheerful face for the soldiers, some of whom were suffering from appalling injuries. In Angela Raby's excellent book, 'The Forgotten Service', Babette Loraine recounted being sent to Paddington Station to collect wounded being returned from North Africa. Even her normal composure was rattled at the sight of a soldier, who had neither arms or legs and was also blind. Not surprisingly, she was temporarily taken aback but recovered sufficiently to ask the soldier the standard fall back question, if he would like a cup of tea. The soldier cheerfully replied "Can a duck swim?" Babette got the soldier his tea and gladly assisted him to drink it.

Perhaps the final word should go to an anonymous Firewoman, ostensibly operating the switchboard at Redcross Street Fire Station on the night of 29th/30 December 1940, the great City Blitz. The appliances had all been ordered out early in the raid and in the meantime, the fires were gradually creeping ever closer to the Fire Station. Senior Officers were debating whether to evacuate when an ARP Warden burst in, yelling "Hey! Your bloody roof is on fire!"

"Whoopee!" cried a Firewoman and grabbed a stirrup pump before making for the stairs followed by her colleagues armed with buckets of water. At last they had a chance to prove themselves equal to the men and made an expert job of extinguishing the fires. The Fire Station, along with the Whitbread Brewery, was one of the few buildings to survive in an area which was devastated by fires.

Such was the spirit of both civilians and Civil Defence workers.

Whatever you are doing this Remembrance Day, remember them all.

Published Sources:

Hitler's Rockets: The Story of the V2s - Norman Longmate - Frontline Books, 2009
The Forgotten Service: Auxiliary Ambulance Station 39 - Angela Raby - After The Battle 1999
The London Blitz: A Fireman's Tale - Cyril Demarne OBE - After The Battle 1991

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