Saturday 9 July 2016

Westminster's Monuments to War

As regular readers of this blog will no doubt be aware, I have accumulated over the years a fairly vast collection of photographs recording London's 'footprints' of her wartime past. These take the form of signs for air raid shelters, emergency water supplies and occasionally the shelters themselves and other surviving wartime relics, such as shrapnel scarred buildings and wartime graffiti. Back in May 2013 I ran a short series of articles on this blog running through to August of the same year which detailed many of these and hopefully many Londoners and visitors to the capital have managed to discover at least some of these, perhaps by coming on one of our walks, or by exploring for themselves. The City of Westminster is home to some of these and walkers will have an opportunity to see some of them on September 18th 2016 when I shall be guiding a walk around the area's wartime past - booking details can be found on the main website.

Eagle Squadrons Memorial in Grosvenor Square (author's photo)

There are also many memorials and plaques to notable wartime events and personalites located across London. Many of these are sited in high profile locations and are probably well known to both Londoners and visitors alike but there are also many that are tucked away in lesser known places and today, we are going to explore some examples of both types of these.

St Clement Danes Church is well known today as the Central Church of the Royal Air Force, although it could be argued that the building itself is a monument to the Blitz, as it was destroyed in an air raid on the night of 10/11 May 1941. It certainly carries it's own 'honourable scars' in the form of some heavy duty shrapnel marks in the masonry at the Law Courts side of the building.

Shrapnel scars at St Clement Danes (author's photo)

In addition to the shrapnel scars, there are two statues commemorating key figures in the RAF's history standing guard outside the church. The first is of Air Chief Marshal Baron Dowding of Bentley Priory, who as Sir Hugh Dowding was one of the architects of British victory in the Battle of Britain in 1940, the first German defeat of the war and one which ensured that the RAF retained control of the skies over the British Isles, thus avoiding any serious prospect of a German invasion of this country. Born in 1882, Dowding who was nicknamed 'Stuffy' as a result of his seemingly somewhat aloof manner (in reality more down to shyness), was the first Air Officer Commanding of RAF Fighter Command and oversaw the introduction of an integrated system of radar backed up by human observers, raid plotting, radio vectoring of fighters, interlocking groups and sectors designed to reinforce one another as well as ensuring the introduction of modern, eight gun fighters in the form of the Spitfire and Hurricane. He also saw off challenges from others who tried to foist upon him  inferior aircraft such as the Defiant, making himself somewhat unpopular with some of his contemporary senior officers in the service. He was coming towards the end of his tenure at Fighter Command on the outbreak of war but fortunately for the country, was given an extension of service until late 1940, which ensured the British victory. His service rivals finally ensured that he was dismissed in November 1940 and after a brief and unhappy appointment to the USA on behalf of the Ministry of Aircraft Production and the production of a study into RAF manpower, he retired from the service in July 1942.

Baron Dowding's statue at RAF St Clement Danes (author's photo)

The other 'gate guardian' at St Clement Danes is an altogether more controversial figure and remains so to this day. Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris, known to his friends as 'Bert', to his Bomber Command crews as 'Butch' (short for Butcher) and to the wider world as 'Bomber' was the Air Officer Commanding of RAF Bomber Command from 1942 until 1945 and as such, oversaw the area bombing campaign of German cities. A long time proponent of aerial bombing, Harris was at first given command of 5 Group in September 1939 and took command of Bomber Command in February 1942 when it was at a low ebb. Early attempts at daylight, unescorted precision bombing had been disastrous and having switched to night bombing, navigation was found to be lacking, with only one in three aircraft getting within five miles of their intended targets. Harris reinvigorated his new command, placing greater emphasis on night flying techniques and pushed for the introduction of electronic navigation aids such as 'Gee' and 'Oboe' as well as improved radars. Harris also recognised that precision bombing at night was next to impossible, so resorted to Area Bombing of large cities, starting with a trial run on Lubeck in March 1942 and achieving a major publicity coup in May 1942 with Operation Millenium, a huge 1,000 bomber raid upon Cologne, in which he successfully gambled the entire force at his disposal to demonstrate his area bombing techniques. These culminated in Operation Gomorrah, a series of raids over seven days and nights in which the city of Hamburg was more or less erased from the map, with the loss of some 42,000 civilian lives. The destruction of Dresden in February 1945 with the loss of a further 25,000 lives was arguably the most controversial raid of the war and saw Churchill attempting to distance himself from the policy of area bombing, even though he had ordered the raid himself in order to assist the Russians in their advance from the east. Harris remained unapologetic about the policy and rightly considered the post war government's refusal to issue a campaign medal to his 'old lags' as he called his men, an outrage and refused to accept any peerage or higher honour himself as a protest. Bomber Command lost 55,573 men during the Second World War, the highest losses for any arm of the British Armed Forces. Harris was fiercely loyal to his men and despite the losses, they reciprocated the loyalty with interest. The controvery surrounding Harris continues to this day and when his statue was unveiled in 1992 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, it was vandalised within a day or so by someone throwing red paint over it. The statue has been defaced several times since but thankfully in more recent years, it has remained untouched.

Sir Arthur Harris's statue outside RAF St Clement Danes (author's photo)

There is also another figure from the wartime RAF commemorated not too far from St Clement Danes, who whilst not as controversial a figure today, certainly divided opinion within the Service at the time, although today almost all historians now believe his tactics were correct and indeed Lord Tedder, a former Chief of the Air Staff stated "If any one man won the Battle of Britain, it was him."

The "him" in question was Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park, AOC of 11 Group, RAF Fighter Command for the whole of the Battle of Britain. A New Zealander, Park was much beloved by his subordinates, having no 'side' to him at all, but was perhaps less loved by some of his contemporary senior officers. Maybe this was down to his being seen as a mere 'colonial' and maybe it was Park's straight talking and inability to suffer fools that caused this friction but there is no doubt that he did not see eye-to-eye with his counterpart in neighbouring 12 Group, Sir Trafford Leigh Mallory. The two men had diametrically opposite views on fighter tactics; Park believed in intercepting enemy formations as far forward as possible, using relatively small formations of fighters, whilst Leigh Mallory, encouraged by subordinates like Douglas Bader, was an advocate of the so-called 'Big Wing' in which as many as seven or eight squadrons would be formated together to attack in large numbers. Park had already experimented with large formations during the Dunkirk operations and had found them to be unwieldy. It took time to gather together such a large number of aircraft and by the time they had done so, the attacking bombers had often discharged their loads and were on the way home. Furthermore Bader, although undoubtedly a brave man, was something of a loose cannon and would often ignore instructions given to him by the ground controllers, preferring instead to look for the enemy where his 'gut instinct' told him they would be. Thus, when Park called upon 12 Group for assistance, as was their function, they would often not be in the right place, or sometimes not turn up at all. As a result of this, Park didn't trust Leigh Mallory, told him so and more importantly told Dowding so into the bargain.

Unfortunately for Park, Leigh Mallory was also jealous for control of 11 Group and his friend Sholto Douglas had envious eyes towards Dowding's position. Sholto Douglas was also used to the machinations of the Whitehall machine and used his political connections to make sure that the two men got their own way, with the result that with the Battle of Britain won, Park's reward was to be effectively sacked and relegated to Training Command. His replacement was Leigh Mallory, with Douglas manouvering himself into the top job upon Dowding's enforced retirement. Park was later moved to Malta, where using the same tactics as he used in the Battle of Britain, transformed the situation and stopped the air raids on the beseiged island within weeks of his arrival and later still in the war, commanded the Allied Air Forces in the Far East, replacing Leigh Mallory who had been killed in an air crash.

Sir Keith Park's statue in Waterloo Place (author's photo)

We continue the Royal Air Force theme for the moment and now look at a memorial that will only be seen by cricket lovers, located as it is at Lord's Cricket Ground but even so, it may be that many visitors to the Home of Cricket will have passed by without the unobtrusive bronze plaque on the famous Lord's Pavilion that tells us the ground was used by the Service as an Air Crew Reception Centre during the Second World War. Many of these men subsequently gave their life on operational service and the simple plaque reminds us that our continued enjoyment of cricket reflects their sacrifices.

Plaque outside the Lord's Pavilion (author's photo)

The Senior Service is also well represented in London and one of the most impressive reminders of their sacrifice is the Submariners' Memorial located on the Victoria Embankment. This takes the form of a large bas-relief which depicts the interior of a submarine, on either side of which is a plaque, one of which lists the submarines lost in the First World War and the other which lists those lost in the 1939-45 conflict. Submariners are a special breed and in wartime especially, worked and fought in incredibly difficult circumstances with little chance of escape should their vessel be sunk. Perhaps in recognition of this, the submariners hold their own special Memorial Walk and wreath laying service on the Sunday preceeding the country's main Remembrance ceremonies.

The Second World War panel on the Submariners' Memorial (author's photo)

Close to the Submariners' Memorial is another reminder of the Second World War, in the form of HQS Wellington, formerly His Majesty's Ship of the same name. Now the floating livery hall for the Honourable Company of Master Mariners, HMS Wellington was launched in 1934 at Devonport Dockyard as a Grimsby Class Sloop and during the War escorted many Atlantic and Gibraltar convoys, sharing in the destruction of a single U-Boat, as well as assisting in the evacuation of Allied troops from Le Havre in June 1940. Decommissioned following the end of the War, she was converted for her new role at Chatham Dockyard, which included the removal of all her machinery spaces, which were converted into the main livery hall area of the vessel. A drydocking and refurbishment in 1991 means that her existence should be assured for the forseeable future and we can only but wonder how many people driving, cycling or jogging past the smart, white painted ship realise that they are passing a veteran of the Battle of the Atlantic.

HQS Wellington at her berth on Victoria Embankment (author's photo)

Just downstream from HQS Wellington there was until quite recently, another veteran from the war at sea, this time from the previous conflict, in the shape of HMS President, formerly known as HMS Saxifrage, a Flower class sloop dating from January 1918 and which saw active service escorting Atlantic Convoys. She was also known as a 'Q Ship', and was superficially disguised to look like a merchant ship, with her guns hidden from view. The idea was that German U-Boats would surface to engage with guns what was thought to be an easy target, only for the Q Ship to then reveal her true identity and use her overwhelming fire power to sink the submarine. In this guise, the ship's log of the Saxifrage records that she engaged nine U-Boats in her wartime career. Being completed right at the end of the war, HMS Saxifrage's service was brief and she was of little use to the peacetime Royal Navy. In 1922, she was moored permanently on the Victoria Embankment, renamed President and used as the Drill Ship for the London Division, Royal Navy Reserve, a role which she fulfilled until 1988, when she was decommissioned upon the opening of a shore establishment by the same name located slightly further downstream at St Katherine's Dock. The vessel was until recently used as a wedding and corporate venue, being latterly painted in a frankly awful approximation of a wartime 'dazzle' camouflage scheme but earlier this year, she was towed down to Chatham Dockyard pending a refurbishment which will hopefully see her return to a berth in the capital in time for her centenary in 2018 and also we must hope, in a more appropriate colour scheme.

HMS President at her former berth on Victoria Embankment (author's photo)

Apart from the Senior and Junior Services, the British Army is also well represented in Westminster in the form of numerous plaques and statues, covering all aspects of the service from the early days of defeat and evacuations, through to the winning years of 1944-45.

Lord Gort's Blue Plaque at 34 Belgrave Square (author's photo)

John Standish Surtees Prendergast Vereker, perhaps better known as Lord Gort, was the Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force in France in 1939-40. He was undoubtedly a brave man, as the award of a Victoria Cross at the Battle of Canal Nord in 1918 testifies but as a commander, he was not possessed of the greatest brain power. Gort had reached the pinnacle of the British Army, being appointed it's professional head, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff in late 1937. In normal times of peace, it would have been his final appointment before an honourable retirement but on the outbreak of war in 1939 and the formation of an Expeditionary Force to fight alongside the French, as was the custom, the command of this formation went to the CIGS. Gort's command position was not the easiest, being under the orders of the numerically superior French but in time of crisis, still having the latitude to act as he thought best in accordance with the British national interest. This came to a head in May 1940, when the French Army and political leadership, largely paralysed through defeatism, seemed incapable of mounting a counter attack. The truth was that both armies were largely living in the past and seemed to think that the war in 1940 would take a similar shape to the previous conflict. Nevertheless, Gort displayed great moral courage in ordering a withdrawal to the sea and aided by skillful generalship and cool heads from the likes of Generals Brooke, Montgomery and Alexander, as well as other up and coming younger Generals, the BEF were able to extricate the majority of it's manpower (although not much of it's equipment) through Dunkirk and the other Channel ports in a series of evacuations. Gort was never given another field command after Dunkirk; Churchill tentatively put his name forward as Auchinleck's successor in North Africa but the CIGS, by now General Alan Brooke and who had served under Gort in France, was having none of it and vetoed the idea. Instead a succession of Governorships followed, first Gibraltar from 1941-42, then Malta from 1942-44 where his leadership during the siege made a great impression on the Maltese people. His final appointment was as High Commissioner for Palestine and Transjordan. It was during this tenure that he first displayed symptoms of an illness which turned out to be liver cancer. It was not diagnosed correctly on a visit to the UK in early 1945 and it was not until he returned to England permanently that he was admitted to Guy's Hospital, where his condition was finally diagnosed, by which time it had become inoperable. He died at Guy's on 31 March 1946. The English Heritage Blue Plaque pictured above is located at his former home at 34 Belgrave Square in London SW1.

The Guards Memorial with it's 'honourable scars' in Horse Guards Parade (author's photo)

A more general memorial exists in Horse Guards Parade, where it must have been seen by hundreds of thousands of people since it's unveiling in 1926. The 'cenotaph' feature was designed by H Chalton Bradshaw, whilst the bronze figures of Guardsmen were designed by Gilbert Ledward. Each figure represents one of the Guards Regiments, the Grenadier, Coldstream, Scots, Irish and Welsh Guards and each figure was modelled on a serving guardsman of the time. So from left to right we have Sgt R Bradshaw MM of the Grenadiers, Lance Cpl JS Richardson of the Coldstream, Guardsman J McDonald of the Scots, Guardsman Simon McCarthy of the Irish and Guardsman A Conley of the Welsh Guards. There are some who think that the Household Division are merely ceremonial troops but the memorial serves to remind us that they were and remain an integral part of the fighting strength of the British Army and their losses in two World Wars as well as subsequent conflicts upto and including Afghanistan are due testament to that fact. The memorial itself has it's own 'Honourable Scars' inflicted by shrapnel damage from a High Explosive bomb falling nearby in October 1940 which are clearly visible to this day.

As we might expect, our Allies during the Second World War are also well represented in London. General Wladyslaw Sikorski had been an integral part in the formation of a free and independent Poland during the Polish-Soviet war of 1918-1921 and had become an almost legendary figure amongst the Polish people for his exploits during that conflict. He had subsequently briefly been Primer Minister in 1922-23 and had also played a large part in the organisation of the Polish Army. Following the coup organised by Josef Pilsudski in 1926, Sikorski declared his opposition and was susbequently relieved of his Army command in 1928 and went into retirement and semi-exile in Paris. Following the German invasion in September 1939, Sikorski pressed unsuccessfully for a command and escaped back to Paris via Romania, where he formed a Government in Exile with Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz as President and Stanislaw Mikolajczyk. Sikorski was invited by the President to become Prime Minister. Despite their defeat, the Poles still commanded considerable forces that had escaped to France and Great Britain. Almost the entire Polish Navy had escaped, as had large numbers of airman and several divisions of the Polish Army. Following the fall of France in June 1940, Sikorski rejected a proposal by Marshal Petain that Poland should capitulate along with the French and the Government in Exile, followed by many thousands of Polish servicemen, escaped to Great Britain. Following the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, tens of thousands of Polish prisoners were released and made their way to British controlled North Africa, where they fought with great distinction. The Soviet change of heart came too late for the 20,000 Polish Army officers who had been murdered by the Soviets and buried in the Katyn Forest. This atrocity by the Soviets would weigh heavily on Sikorski's heart as well as upon future Soviet-Polish relations. Sikorski himself died in an air accident when his Liberator bomber crashed on take off from Gibraltar. He had been returning from an inspection of his troops in North Africa and his death remains controversial to this day; the Soviets had broken off diplomatic relations with Sikorski's Government in Exile and conspiracy theories abound about his possible assassination by the Soviets. Nothing was ever proved although his death had a profound effect on Allied-Polish relations, with no subsequent Polish leader having anything like Sikorski's influence with the Americans and British. Sikorski was buried at the Polish War Cemetery at Newark on Trent, although with the formation of a free and democratic Poland following the collapse of the Soviet Union, his remains were exhumed and transported to a new grave at Wawel Castle in Kracow. His statue pictured below is in Portland Place and was unveiled in 2000.

General Sikorski's statue in Portland Place (author's photo)

No collection of War Memorials in Westminster would be complete without mention of our American Allies. There are too many to mention here but one of note is located outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square. Many readers will be aware that the embassy is scheduled to move to a new location at Nine Elms, south of the Thames at some point in 2017 and it is unclear whether the various memorials outside the current embassy, including statues of President Franklin D Roosevelt and General Dwight D Eisenhower, will move with the embassy. The one pictured at the top of the page is that to the American Eagle Squadrons, formed in 1940 in Great Britain. This was prior to America's entry into the war and although too late to serve in the Battle of Britain, they served with great distinction as part of the RAF until formally turned over to American control in September 1942. Only 244 Americans actually served with the Eagle Squadrons and although they never renounced their American citizenship, they wore RAF uniform and rank insignia with an Eagle Squadron emblem proudly displayed. Some of the recruits had already been rejected by the USAAF as unsuitable for flying duties and took great pleasure in proving this decision wrong, whilst others had intended to initially fight for the Finns against the Soviets or for the French against the Nazis. They all eventually gravitated to England and some of the stories of how they reached this country were quite epic in their own right.

Eagle Squadron insignia (author's collection)

71 Squadron was the first of the Eagle Squadrons to be formed, in September 1940 but was not declared operational until February 1941 at RAF Church Fenton. The second unit was 121 Squadron at RAF Kirton-in-Lindsay in February 1941, with the final one, 133 Squadron being formed in July 1941 at RAF Coltishall. Upon transfer to the American Eigth Air Force in September 1942, the squadrons were re-numbered as the 334th, 335th and 336th Fighter Squadrons respectively, initially retaining their Spitfires until re-equipped with P-47 Thunderbolts in January 1943. During their time with the RAF, they had earned twelve Distinguished Flying Crosses and one Distinguished Flying Order. At the insistence of the men themselves, all of the original RAF Eagle Squadron pilots continued to wear their RAF pilot's 'wings' alongside their new American insignia. Of the original thirty four pilots from 1940, only four of them were able to transfer to American control. The remainder had either been killed or captured.

There are many other statues and memorials in Westminster commemorating our other staunch allies, including the Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders as well as the French and the Dutch, as well as many memorials to our own various arms of the Civil Defence Services. There are also many others outside Westminster and in our next article will try to cover some more of these.

Published Sources:
Bomber Harris: His Life and Times - Henry Probert, Greenhill Books 2003
Dowding of Fighter Command - Vincent Orange, Grub Street 2008
Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man - High Sebag-Montefiore, Viking 2006
Park - Vincent Orange, Grub Street 2001 
Sloops 1926-1946 - Arnold Hague, World Ship Society 1993
War Diaries 1939-1945; Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke - editors Alex Danchev and Daniel Todman - Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2001