Tuesday 3 October 2017

Exploring Wartime Woolwich

LCC Bomb Damage Map for the area of the walk (author's image)

Last month, we looked at the classic British war movie Battle of Britain, in advance of the special open-air screening of this film as part of the 2017 Charlton and Woolwich Free Film Festival. The evening was a great success and although it has to be said that the weather was not particularly kind to us, some quick thinking on the part of the organisers, coupled with some judicious examination of on-line weather forecasts, ensured that the hardy souls who did brave the rain were able to sit under cover in order to enjoy the film.

One of the supporting events for the film was a short guided walk of the local area to give people a taste of what the people of Woolwich had to endure not only during the Battle of Britain/Blitz period but during the whole of the Second World War. As this walk is unlikely to be repeated in the immediate future, it seems a good idea to give readers the chance to undertake a 'virtual' walk of Wartime Woolwich without having to get wet!

Postcard view of a Church Parade in Victorian times (author's collection)

Needless to say, the walk started and finished at the event venue, the Royal Garrison Church of St George, which as it's name suggests was originally built for the soldiers of the adjacent Royal Artillery Barracks. The church was built between 1862-63 on the orders of Lord Herbert, the Secretary of State for War in order to provide "moral well-being for soldiers of the Royal Artillery" and which was part of a more general response to the criticism aimed at the government of the day following the Crimean War, when the lack of modern facilities for the British Army was brought to the attention of the public. The church was designed in an Italo-Romanesque style and was very similar to Lord Herbert's own parish church in Wilton, Wiltshire, although built on a much larger scale. The church was the work of the architect Thomas Wyatt, assisted by his brother, Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt.

Pre-WW2 postcard view of the Garrison Church (author's collection)

The church served the Royal Artillery faithfully for many years, with Sunday church parades becoming a regular feature of Woolwich life. The building suffered blast damage from a Zeppelin raid in the First World War and in the following conflict, was initially damaged on the night of 9 March 1941, when a High Explosive bomb caused damage to the north-western corner of the church and left shrapnel damage to the marble entrance pillars that can still be seen to this day. This was one of no fewer than seven bombs that fell in the immediate area on that night but the real killer blow came some three years later when the church was struck by a V-1 Flying Bomb on Thursday 13 July 1944, causing the building to lose it's roof and upper levels. The church can be seen on the extract from the LCC Bomb Damage Maps above, at the bottom right-hand corner of the page. The church is coloured in light red, which indicates that it was thought that repairs were possible but as will be seen below, this proved not to be the case.

Shrapnel damage still visible (author's photo)
The Garrison Church as it is today (author's photo)

Once the rubble was cleared, the church remained in limited use, with occasional open-air services. A rebuilding was mooted in the early 1950s but a road widening scheme, coupled with the general shortage of funds for defence-related matters put paid to that plan. The ruins were further stabilised in the 1970s, with the remnants of the upper walls removed and more recently, a modern canopy was erected over the altar area to replace the unsightly corrugated iron structure previously installed there. This permitted restoration and stabilising works to be undertaken to the fine mosaics at the altar and which should ensure the future of the building going forward. In 2011, the ownership of the church was transferred from the Ministry of Defence to a Trust and today, the building seems to have an assured future as a venue for a variety of events.

From the Garrison Church, the group crossed the strangely quiet South Circular Road and began to walk along the footpath which traverses Woolwich Common adjacent to the magnificent frontage of the Royal Artillery Barracks, built between 1776 and 1802 which at 329 metres, represents the longest continuous architectural frontage in London and which today is Grade 2* Listed. This pathway can be seen running across the bottom of the map reproduced above but perhaps because the barracks were still a relatively secret establishment during the wartime years, no bomb damage is recorded on the map. The Luftwaffe had scant respect for historic buildings however, and the barracks suffered serious blast damage from the seven High Explosive bombs dropped on 9 March 1941 mentioned above as well as receiving fire damage from German incendiaries dropped on 19 April 1944, in what proved to be the final Luftwaffe raid (as opposed to V-Weapon attack) on the borough of the entire war.

Pointing out bomb damage to the group at the RA Barracks (Paul Chapman)

The rain was by now beginning to fall more heavily as the group continued across the footpath and turned right into Repository Road, which is shown on the LCC map as running to the immediate left of the main barrack block. Finding shelter beneath some trees, the group next paused adjacent to the main gate of the modern Woolwich Barracks, now home to the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, where we discovered a simple memorial to one of Churchill's 'Few' from the Battle of Britain. Given that we were walking on 15 September, Battle of Britain Day and given the subject matter of the film that we were about to watch, this was the most poignant moment of the walk and this fact was not lost upon the group.

Memorial to Robin McGregor 'Bubble' Waterston (author's photo)

The memorial is one of several placed by the excellent Shoreham Aircraft Museum in Kent, commemorating members of 'The Few' who lost their lives within a short radius of the museum. The airman in question on this particular memorial is Flying Officer Robin McGregor 'Bubble' Waterston, aged just 23 in 1940 and whose Spitfire X4273 was shot down in a dogfight over the streets of Southeast London during the early evening of 31 August 1940. As his name might suggest, Robin was a Scot, who served with 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron based at RAF Hornchurch in Essex. The squadron had only moved down from Dyce, Scotland on 27 August as part of the ongoing rotation of squadrons in order to reinforce those defending London and the Southeast during the Battle of Britain. Robin had gained his nickname due to his reputed likeness as a youngster to the young boy who was the subject matter of Millais' still life painting which was later used as an advert for Pears Soap. Robin was a very well-liked personality within his squadron who would think nothing of rolling his sleeves up during his off-duty periods in order to help his ground-crew service his aircraft.

Robin Waterston (right) holding a beer (Photo supplied to me by John Duncan www.newbattleatwar.com - also David Ross collection)

Robin became one of the victims of a major air battle that took place above Woolwich during that early evening and was still inside his Spitfire when it crashed opposite to where the memorial is now placed, close to the junction of Repository Road and Hillreach. During the same battle, a Messerschmitt Bf109 flown by Oberleutnant Walter Binder of 4.KG76 was also shot down. This aircraft crashed in nearby Ann Street in Plumstead and like Robin, the German pilot was also killed in his aircraft. It was thought that he was shot down by Sergeant Stokoe, also from 603 Squadron but it is not known whether the German officer was the pilot responsible for shooting down 'Bubble' Waterston.

The rain was now falling steadily as the group turned sharp right into Artillery Place and proceeded along this road, which can be seen on the map running from left to right almost at the dead centre of the image. We paused briefly opposite the garage and car dealership, which amazingly in 1940 also served as a garage and which saw some drama on the night of 17 October 1940 when it was the scene of an unexploded bomb, which was successfully dealt with by the Royal Engineers Bomb Disposal Squad and in the rain, we talked briefly of the work undertaken by these extremely brave men.

Moving along Artillery Place, we next paused on the corner as the road bears left opposite a small side street named Belford Place, which can be seen on the LCC map as a plethora of dark shades, indicating total destruction of buildings and those damaged beyond repair. Four houses in Belford Place were destroyed on the night of 19 March 1941 by a Parachute Mine, which also caused severe damage to Mulgrave Place School, then in use as Auxiliary Fire Station 42W. Seven lives were lost from amongst the residents of the destroyed houses, including a 6 year old boy named Peter Harding, who was killed along with his father. The school, already heavily damaged, was then almost completely destroyed on the night of 20 April 1941 when a High Explosive Bomb detonated, causing the deaths of three AFS Firefighters, including Auxiliary Firewoman Lillian Baker, as well as an 18 year old AFS Messenger, Francis McDonough and Station Officer Charles Burden. This raid coincided with Adolf Hitler's birthday and was thought at the time be some sort of bizarre birthday gift for the Fuhrer.

The War Artist Bernard Hailstone was a member of the AFS who was stationed at Mulgrave Place for a while and his painting of the ruined school buildings now forms part of the collection of the Greenwich Heritage Trust. Not surprisingly, the ruins were demolished and replaced by a new school building post-war.

Bernard Hailstone's painting of Mulgrave Place School (author's photo from original at Greenwich Heritage Centre)

The group now headed down the gentle slope to the junction of John Wilson Street, which in 1940 did not exist and was then a narrow footpath called St John's Passage which can be faintly seen on the right of the LCC map running immediately to the right of the main Barrack block. The junction of this pathway with Artillery Place was in 1940 the location of St John's Church, which had already closed as redundant in 1939. The empty building was damaged by incendiary bombs on the night of 11 September 1940 and further damaged by the blast from the V-1 that caused such heavy damage to the Garrison Church on 13 July 1944. The ruins were demolished in 1948 and any trace of the footprint of the church was subsequently lost beneath the newly constructed John Wilson Street in the late 1960s so that today no trace of it's existence can be discovered.

St John's Church Woolwich (author's collection)

A now distinctly damp group now headed back to the relative dryness of the Garrison Church to take on some liquid refreshments before settling down for the main event of the evening. Despite the efforts of the weather, the evening was a great success and thanks are due to all of those who braved the rain and attended the film and the walk beforehand, the re-enactors who came along, Neil from the London Beer Factory who supplied us with light refreshments as well as to the Garrison Church Trust who permitted us to use their wonderful venue once again. Hopefully the weather will smile on us for next year's events at the Garrison Church!