Monday 16 December 2019

Book Review: Little Ship, Big Story: The adventures of HMY Sheemaun and the amazing stories of those who have sailed in her by Dr. Rodney Pell

The latest book to land on the doormat at Blitzwalker Towers is this fascinating account of the life and times of one of the many "little ships" that served, not in this case at Dunkirk but one which took part in another equally important, although perhaps unsung role as part of the Royal Naval Auxiliary Patrol on the River Thames and it's estuary. 

The book is entitled "Little Ship, Big Story" and to quote directly from the cover, it tells of "the adventures of HMY Sheemaun and the amazing stories of those who have sailed in her." It is written by Sheemaun's current owner, Dr. Rodney Pell and his obvious affection for this doughty vessel is apparent on every page.

The author has taken a novel and quite clever approach to telling Sheemaun's story and rather than just writing a standard account of the vessel's building and subsequent service in peace, war and peace once again, which could appear somewhat "dry" to the general reader, he has told the story by skilfully interweaving the history of the Sheemaun through the eyes of those who have owned her, sailed aboard her and those whose lives have been affected in one way or another by her. Not content with that aspect alone, Dr Pell expands on the life stories of her various owners, telling us what they did before and after Sheemaun came into their lives. In the case of some of the other characters who feature in the Sheemaun story, a few names have been changed in order to "protect the innocent" as the saying goes!

The story is all the better and more entertaining because of this approach and to give the reader further perspective, the author writes the story in a logical, year-by-year basis with a timeline added at the end of each chapter so that the reader can look at Sheemaun's history against the wider background of what was going on at any given time in the rest of the world.

Sheemaun came into this world in 1934 in a place that is just about as far from the sea as it is possible to get in the United Kingdom - Matlock in Derbyshire. She was the dream of one Ernest Richards, manager of the local branch of the erstwhile Williams Deacons Bank, later to become part of Williams & Glyns Bank and nowadays a constituent part of the Royal Bank of Scotland group. Richards had a love of the sea and of sailing and indeed was the owner a motor boat called the Gypsie, which fulfilled his dream up to a point but which rolled uncomfortably when at sea and was somewhat cramped for the needs of his family. Ernest, perhaps with an eye on his future retirement, decided to commission something altogether more suitable for his needs and approached a company of naval architects, Messrs GL Watson & Company in Glasgow to design a 25 ton auxiliary ketch rigged yacht. She was to be built from pitch pine and larch on sturdy oak frames and had a comfortable teak deck house to boot. 

The new yacht was to be built at the yard of James Noble & Company in Fraserburgh, some 450 miles north of Ernest Richards' home in Matlock. She was Yard No. 561 (all ships are initially known by their Yard Number) and was of a sturdy construction typical of this yard. A ship might have a predestined name but is only christened at launching, or when substantially complete. The idea for the name of Yard No. 561 came to Ernest Richards from his then fourteen-year-old daughter Helen as she sat at home one evening reading aloud Henry Longfellow's poem, "The Song of Hiawatha"  which refers to Cheemaun, a war canoe. Helen loved the name and it was quickly decided upon, with the proviso that the spelling was amended by substituting the 'C' for an 'S', giving the softer spelling of the name that the ship carries to this day. She was launched in spring of 1935 and christened by Helen with a bottle of white wine.

Following successful completion of sea trials, Sheemaun was delivered to her owner by the shipyard to Colwyn Bay, the nearest convenient port for Ernest Richards but one which was still some 75 miles distant, a daunting prospect, especially as Richards did not drive. The realities soon hit home to Mr Richards and reluctantly, in September 1935, after just one summer of enjoying Sheemaun, he decided to put her up for sale. It was inevitable that such a fine new yacht would find a new owner and sure enough, after being on the market for about one month, she was purchased by a Mr LSL Saunders for £1,100.00, which ensured that Ernest Richards had at least made a modest profit on the amount he had paid for the initial construction. Incidentally, £1,100 in 1935 equates to around £72,500 at today's values, so we can see that the commissioning and building of a yacht such as Sheemaun, was not something to be taken lightly.

From these beginnings, Sheemaun has gone on to lead an eventful life in wartime and in the subsequent peace. Today, she is part of the National Register of Historic Ships, a similar accolade to a Grade One Listed Building on land and as such, rubs shoulders (or perhaps rubs gunwales) with vessels such as HMS Victory, HMS Warrior HMS Belfast, the surviving 'Little Ships' of Dunkirk and many others, all of which are listed online on the National Historic Register's website.

Rodney Pell has owned Sheemaun since 1987 and thus was her custodian when she was included on the National Register in 2003 and when she took part in the Grand Thames Pageant for HM The Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 2012 and acted as Flagship of the historic vessels taking part that day.

I've given some modest details above of the birth of Sheemaun as well as some of her more recent highlights; in between, there are many fascinating tales of the ship herself and of the many characters who have owned her and featured in her life, as well as the sometimes world-shaping events that she has witnessed, which Rodney Pell has very skilfully interwoven in this fine book. Unfortunately, in the edition sent to me, there were one or two very minor errors of omission and commission in the text, which was down to the absence through illness of the original editor of the book. These have been corrected in a subsequent edition, so further mention is pointless and in any case did not detract from my enjoyment of this book, which I most highly recommend to you.

Little Ship, Big Story by Dr Rodney Pell is published by Conrad Press at £9.99 and is available at all good bookshops and also direct from the author via his website as per this link.

Wednesday 13 November 2019

Two Villains and a Hero in Wartime London

The original version of the article below first appeared on this blog in June 2010 but as we approach the seventy-fifth anniversary of this notorious wartime crime, it seems a good time to revisit this piece, which has been updated to take into account some corrections and additional information that has come to light.

Memorial Plaque in Birchin Lane (Author's Photo)

During 2019, we have seen the seventy-fifth anniversary of some significant events during the Second World War, such as D-Day, Operation Market Garden and the advent of the German Vergeltungswaffe or V-Weapon attacks on London and other towns and cities across the United Kingdom, as well as parts of Europe that had then been recently liberated by the Allies. The anniversaries of these events have all been rightly commemorated and will no doubt continue for the remainder of the year.

However, there is another far more sinister anniversary approaching that will almost certainly not make the headlines and so should be mentioned here. It is easy to look back on life in London during the Second World War through slightly rose-tinted spectacles and imagine that the populace were as one, all pulling together with the sole aim of defeating the common enemies and returning to more peaceful lives. Despite this somewhat romanticised image, it has to said that by 1944, the citizens of the United Kingdom were becoming distinctly war weary, although most people continued to abide by the law. There was also a much shadier side to London and our other large towns and cities in the form of a significant criminal population, which due to the sheer size of the capital city, was perhaps much more prevalent in London than elsewhere in the country. It is sometimes forgotten that 'normal' crimes took place in wartime Britain but in fact, it was a real problem, made easier for the criminal fraternity by many factors, the blackout, the depleted size of wartime police forces with many war reservists filling the positions of younger men serving with the forces, rationing which helped the so-called 'Black Market' to thrive and an influx of many overseas service personnel were just some of the factors that made life easier for criminals.

One particularly notorious wartime crime in December 1944 made the headlines in both the national and local newspapers and horrified the law abiding citizens of London in particular. Today, in Birchin Lane in the City of London, many people must have walked past the unassuming black plaque on the wall of what is now a sandwich shop without giving it a moment's thought. Closer examination of the plaque reveals that it marks the scene of one of London's most notorious wartime crimes and celebrates the memory of one of the heroes of wartime London, a Royal Navy officer who died not in action with the enemy but in trying to thwart this violent crime.

Capt Binney pre-war wearing the uniform of a Commander, RN (Caroline Brodrick)

Ralph Douglas Binney was born in Cookham, Berkshire on 14th October 1888 and joined the Royal Navy as a Midshipman in 1903. Promoted to Sub-Lieutenant in 1907, he served in the Great War most notably as Gunnery Officer in the battleship HMS Collingwood and postwar in the battleship HMS Royal Sovereign before eventually taking his first command, the monitor HMS Marshal Soult in 1930. In 1934, on the completion of a final shore appointment at The Admiralty he was promoted to Captain and placed on the retired list, marking what seemed the end of an honourable career in the Royal Navy. From 1934-39, he served on secondment to the Colombian Navy and was instrumental in the setting up of their naval cadet and officer training system. He was extremely well thought of in Colombia and indeed today there is still an annual "Binney" Class within the Escuela Naval Almirante Padilla's intake of cadets.

A portrait of Captain Binney (Caroline Brodrick)

On the outbreak of war in 1939 in common with many retired officers, he was recalled to the Royal Navy and on 9 June 1940, was appointed as Flag Captain of HMS Nile, the naval base at Alexandria. On 11 June 1942, he was appointed CBE in the King's Birthday Honours List and by late January 1943 was back in the UK serving as Chief of Staff to the Flag Officer in Command of the London Area.

So it was on 8 December 1944 whilst turning into Birchin Lane from Lombard Street, perhaps on his way to or from a meeting with one of the many merchant shipping companies then located within the Square Mile, the 56-year-old Captain Binney came across an armed robbery in progress at Thomas Wordley's jewellery shop. A man had swung an axe, smashed the shop window and was rushing across the road to a waiting getaway car carrying a tray of jewellery worth £3,795 at 1944 values (approximately £167,000 in 2019), including a pearl necklace valued then at £1,700. As the car pulled away, Binney ran into the road in an attempt to jump on the running board to stop the getaway but instead of stopping, the driver merely accelerated, running over the Captain. Onlookers said that the car momentarily reversed but by this time, a member of the public had blocked the road behind them with another vehicle, so the desperate men drove forwards again with Binney caught under the car as it turned left into Lombard Street. As it sped away, horrified onlookers could hear the Captain calling for help but he remained trapped beneath the car until after it had crossed London Bridge, when he was thrown free of the vehicle as it swerved left into Tooley Street, on the south side of the bridge. Taken to nearby Guy's Hospital, Captain Binney died three hours later from multiple injuries but before he died, the getaway vehicle was found abandoned further along Tooley Street.

How the Daily Herald reported the story on 9 December 1944 (author's collection)

The Police launched a massive operation to apprehend the perpetrators and felt certain that the robbers were local men and after a three week manhunt, during which some two hundred criminals had been hauled in for questioning, they arrested two local men. Thomas James Jenkins, a welder aged 34 from Rotherhithe and Ronald Hedley, a 26-year-old labourer of no fixed address appeared in court at the Mansion House on Friday 19 January 1945, along with "two other men not in custody" and were charged with the murder of Captain Binney, who according to Mr Lawrence Walton for the prosecution "was killed while doing his duty as a brave citizen." The accused had previously been charged with shopbreaking at the jewellers and of the theft of jewellery to the value of £3,795.

Although both men denied any involvement in the robbery and subsequent murder of Captain Binney, witnesses had identified Hedley as the car driver, with Jenkins as the man in the front passenger seat of the car. Another witness, a motorist, said that he had followed the car, sounding his klaxon to alert them to the man trapped beneath but the car failed to stop and the motorist ceased his pursuit once the Captain rolled from beneath the car as it swung left from London Bridge into Tooley Street.

The Liverpool Daily Post reports from the Old Bailey (author's collection)

The men stood trial at the Old Bailey on 6 March 1945 and whilst they both admitted to knowing each other slightly, they still denied all knowledge or involvement in the robbery and murder, despite the testimony of the eye witnesses that proved their involvement. The jury took only eighty minutes to find both men guilty; Hedley, the car driver was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by hanging, whilst Jenkins was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to eight years imprisonment. After the verdict was announced, Hedley was heard to mutter "Nothing I can say will make any difference."

Hedley was due to hang at Pentonville Prison on Saturday 28 April 1945 but the day before the sentence was to be carried out, the Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison announced a reprieve and commuted the sentence to one of life imprisonment. The reasons behind this are unclear but as another man sentenced to hang, one Phillip Berry, was also reprieved on the same day, it might have been part of a wider amnesty granted with the approaching end of the European war in sight, or it was perhaps connected with a lingering element of doubt concerning the two other men "not in custody" at the time of the original arrests, whose identities never seem to have been established. Whatever the reasons, Hedley could consider himself a very lucky man given the prevailing attitudes at the time. In the event, Hedley was released after ten years in prison and so could count himself doubly fortunate.

Hedley's reprieve reported in The Citizen of 27 April 1945 (author's collection)

The death of Captain Binney marked a double tragedy for his family, as his son Sub Lieutenant David Binney, aged just 20, had been killed whilst serving in the destroyer HMS Tynedale when it was torpedoed off the Algerian coast on 12 December 1943.

As a result of Captain Binney's selfless action, his fellow officers in the Royal Navy established a trust fund to enable an award to be made to members of the public who put themselves at great personal risk in attempting to intervene in violent crimes in the Metropolitan and City of London Police areas. For many years, Captain Binney's widow would attend the annual ceremony and present the award in memory of her late husband.

The Binney Award has today been absorbed into the annual Police Public Bravery Awards but incorporates the award of a Binney Medal which is proudly presented every summer by the Captain's great niece, Caroline Brodrick to "The Bravest in The Land" and thus keeps alive the name of a man who died upholding the finest traditions of the Royal Navy, albeit in extremely unusual circumstances and surroundings.

Published Sources:

Daily Herald - 9 December 1944
Essex Chronicle - 15 December 1944
Hampshire Telegraph - 19 January 1945
Liverpool Daily Post - 13 March 1945
The Citizen - 27 April 1945
Daily Mirror - 17 January 1973

Unpublished Sources:

Caroline Brodrick's family photographs

Monday 21 October 2019

London Open House Weekend - Albert Speer's doorknob, Charles Holden's masterpiece, an air raid shelter and Civil Defence HQ in one day!

Firstly, for those readers outside London, or indeed the United Kingdom, let me explain what London Open House Weekend actually is!

It bills itself as "the world's largest architecture festival, giving free public access to 800+ buildings, walks, talks and tours over one weekend in September each year." The event has been running since 1992 and provides access to buildings that are not normally open to the public, as well as to the parts of well-known buildings that the public cannot usually visit. In short, it is a dream for any lover of architecture, history or of London in general!

This year, I set myself a target of visiting some sites with a wartime connection and as always, report on here what I had found. My first visit took me to Westminster and to a building with an interesting immediate pre-war history.

Number 6-9 Carlton House Terrace is now the home to The Royal Society, who have been resident here since 1967. The Terrace itself is the creation of architect John Nash and in addition to Prussia House, as the building was known in a former guise as the German Embassy, the Terrace has had many famous residents, including Lord Palmerstone, William Ewart Gladstone, Viscount Astor and Lord Curzon.

The small garden adjoining the former embassy is the home to a small grave marker, which is inscribed "'GIRO' EIN TRUER BEGLEITER! LONDON IM FEBRUAR 1934, HOESCH" and commemorates a pet dog belonging to the ambassador from 1932 - 1936, Dr. Leopold Von Hoesch. Translated, the inscription reads "'GIRO' A LOYAL COMPANION" and is also perhaps indicative of the good Doctor's personality - a cultivated, cultured man, who worked hard to improve Anglo-German relations in the inter-war years. The marker almost certainly doesn't indicate the actual resting place of Giro as it was rescued from oblivion by a worker engaged on excavating the underground car park during the 1960s. Giro had reputedly met his end by electrocution, when he carelessly chewed through an electric cable to a lamp but sadly today, there is no trace of the location of his exact grave.

Giro grave marker (Author's photograph)

Dr Von Hoesch had been appointed by the Weimar regime and by the time of his death in 1936 whilst still in post, he had found himself increasingly at odds with his new political masters back in Berlin. His funeral cortege in London had been full of Nazi pomp but tellingly, he was returned to Germany on a British destroyer, HMS Scout and at the funeral in his home city of Dresden, not one party member had bothered to attend.

I was aware that the interior of the building had been renovated by Hitler's architect Albert Speer and wanted to see if any evidence of this work was still visible. I had heard rumours of a Nazi Eagle mosaic hidden beneath a carpet somewhere in the building but if there was any truth in this, any views of it were not forthcomng but what we were able to see from this era were several doorknobs reputedly installed during the Speer renovation and also the main staircase, which now boast Travertine marble facings, also a remnant from the work carried out at this time.

A Third Reich doorknob! (author's photo)

Travertine marble installed during the Albert Speer renovation (Author's photograph)

A brisk walk across St James's Park took me to my next port of call at 55 Broadway, perhaps better known as the headquarters building for London Transport, designed by Charles Holden and constructed between 1927 and 1929. The wartime connection here is somewhat more tenuous but still merits a honourable mention. Holden himself was London Transport's "in house" architect and was responsible for the corporate style that led to the classic, airy station buildings designed on the Northern and Piccadilly Line extensions but he had perhaps first come to prominence for his work for the Imperial War Graves Commission (now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) immediately after the First World War. Initially working as Senior Design Architect and reporting to such luminaries as Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker, he had gone on to design works in his own right including memorials at Messines Ridge British Cemetery and the Buttes New British Cemetery at Zonnebeke.

55 Broadway was when built, the tallest office building in London and is of a cruciform design, with wings that project from a central core which contain lifts, staircases and other services. The design allowed more natural light into the offices and was constructed directly above St James's Park Station. The building is supported by some 700 concrete piles and nineteen load-bearing steel girders span the railway, with special insulation used in order to reduce vibration emanating from the passing trains beneath. It is faced with some 2,200 cubic metres of Portland stone, one of Holden's favourite materials. Much use was also made of Norwegian granite for plinth facings and black Belgian marble for the column capitals, as well as Travertine marble for the reception areas.

55 Broadway still looking maginificent (Author's photograph)

Frank Pick, the Chief Executive and Deputy Chairman of London Transport, who commissioned the building and who was responsible for every aspect of London Transport's corporate design, also invited contemporary artists such as Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill, Henry Moore, A H Gerrard, Eric Aumonier, Allan Wyon and Samuel Rabinovitch to contribute sculptures to adorn the building but Epstein's work entitled 'Night and Day' provoked a considerable outcry at the time for the somewhat generously endowed child that forms part of the 'Day' section of the work. Pick and Holden, to their credit, stood by their artists and supported the installation of their works. The building suffered during the Blitz and received a direct hit from a high explosive bomb on the night of 10/11 May 1941, which was temporarily repaired in brick during the war but seamlessly repaired post-war using compatible Portland stone.

The original train describer that once could place every train on the network (Author's photograph)

The seventh floor executive suite (Author's photograph)

An 'Underground' embossed hopper at the top of the drain pipe (Author's photograph)

Sadly, many of the original office interiors were torn out in 1986/87 during a refurbishment and replaced with more contemporary materials, which are frankly, not suitable for a building of this stature. Despite this, some original features still remain, such as the train describer in the main reception, which when installed could reputedly locate the position of every train on the network by making a printed mark on the recording paper disks for each of the lines in existence at the time - this device predates the Victoria and Jubilee Lines by some years. The Executive Suite on the seventh floor, which once contained Frank Pick's office, together with that of the Chairman, Lord Ashfield, remains fairly unchanged with timber panelling abounding and the exterior of the building features drain pipes adorned with the "Underground" logo on the hoppers.

55 Broadway is deservedly a Grade One Listed Building. Sadly, the cash-strapped Transport for London have sold the building, which will become a hotel, no doubt out of the price range for ordinary Londoners. It remains to be seen whether this magnificent structure will continue to be open for future Open House Weekends.

I left 55 Broadway beneath rapidly darkening skies and made a quick dash by tube for Waterloo Station, from where I was to catch a train for my next destination and what for me, would be the highlight of my day.

The Shelter Entrance at St Leonard's Court (Author's photo)

Fortunately, I made a quick connection at Waterloo but by the time I alighted from my train at Mortlake, it was raining steadily but although the Open House brochure had warned me of potential queues at my next venue, a combination of the bad weather and my early arrival meant that only a short wait was necessary before I could descend below ground!

It was inevitable that if an air raid shelter formed part of London Open House, then I would be there and the private shelter at St Leonard's Court had been on my "must visit" list ever since I became aware of it a couple of years ago.

St Leonard's Court itself is a four storey, private apartment complex designed by architect F G Fox and constructed between 1934 and 1938. The idea of the shelter was no doubt spurred on by the Munich Crisis that came during the year the block was completed and although the immediate threat of war was averted then, planning permission for the shelter was sought in October 1939, just a month after war had been declared. Residents had been canvassed as to their interest in building the shelter and they had decided that a private shelter was far preferable to the public shelters on offer in the borough. Space could be assured for the price of £7 per annum and the original shelter consisted of two large sitting areas constructed below the courtyard and accessed from stairs in a turret-shaped structure. These sitting areas were segregated into male and female sections, each with two Elsan-type toilets and capable of holding 120 persons. Each sitting area had an emergency exit, consisting of a vertical ladder, in case of the main exit being blocked by rubble. Electric light was provided as well as bench-type seating. These facilities represented a considerable improvement on the public shelters, which were usually brick built, surface structures with little or no sanitation.

Going down.....(Author's photograph)

The route to daylight (Author's photograph)

Emergency Exit (Author's photograph)

Ladies sitting area (Author's photograph)
Gentlemen's sitting area (Author's photograph)

Each sitting section had two of these Elsan toilets (Author's photograph)

In 1941, a dormitory section was added and contained 48 bunk beds. This was probably limited by space constraints rather than any lack of demand. As with the sitting areas, the accommodation on offer here was vastly superior than could be found in any public shelters, with the possible exception of the London Underground (out of range for this area) and the Deep Level shelters (also out of range and yet to be finished in 1941). As with the sitting areas, the dormitory was divided but this time with a Children's section added too. Each bunk had it's own electric light above the bed for reading purposes and remarkably, many of these lights still have the makeshift shades made by the residents from pieces of fabric that they had to hand. As with the sitting areas, an emergency exit ladder was provided.

Each bunk had a light - here with original improvised lamp shade (Author's photo)

Recreated bunks, with numbered coat hangers (Author's photograph)

Fortunately, although the shelter was used on numerous occasions during the Blitz and subsequent V-Weapons campaign, St Leonard's Court was never seriously damaged by bombing and suffered just one incendiary bomb on the roof in 1941, which was quickly dealt with by the Air Raid Wardens.

Leaving the shelter and saying my goodbyes, I was now racing against the clock, as I needed to get from Mortlake back to my own neighbourhood in southeast London before it was too late. Once again, the train connections were kind to me and I was able to quickly dash home and collect my car in order to make the final visit of the day.

Shrewsbury House sits almost on top of Shooter's Hill in southeast London and was built in 1923, replacing another house of the same name dating from 1789 and located slightly further up the hill. The earlier building has been built for the Earl of Shrewsbury but in 1799 had come into the ownership of the Prince Regent, later King George IV. The house had been used as a convalescent home during the First World War but in 1916, the house and it's grounds had been purchased by Fred Halse, a former Mayor of Woolwich and owner of a construction company. He demolished the original Shrewsbury House in 1923 and the new building bearing the same name was intended to be a family home for Mr Halse. Things obviously didn't go to plan and in 1930, Halse & Sons went into voluntary liquidation and it is far from clear whether Halse or any members of his family ever lived at their new home. The house is today Grade II listed and is described by Historic England as "A handsome and substantial early C20 country house with varied and well-articulated external elevations and interiors in a Jacobean, early C18 and Adam style."

The main entrance of Shrewsbury House (Author's photograph)

In 1933, the Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich purchased the house, together with an acre of grounds for £9,000, with the intention of using the building as a library and museum, although the museum usage never actually materialised, perhaps due to the gathering war clouds. By the time war came in September 1939, Shrewsbury House had been established as the Civil Defence control for the Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich, in preference to Woolwich Town Hall, a magnificent Victorian building but one which was considered unsuitable for this purpose, due to a combination of the age of the building and the associated expense involved in converting the basement for this use and also because of its location in the centre of a Garrison Town which was also fairly adjacent to a prime target for the Luftwaffe - the Woolwich Arsenal. Shrewsbury House, in contrast is in a far more isolated location and less likely to attract the attention of hostile aircraft.

By the time I arrived, the final guided tour of the day had started but I was able to tag along just in time for the parts of the tour that interested me most, covering the building's wartime past. The tour was guided by the excellent Andy Brockman, a local historian and professional archaeologist, who is also a trustee of Shrewsbury House. I joined Andy and the group in a room that now is used as a meeting room in the house's current guise as a community centre and which also contains the bar. Andy explained that during the Second World War, this room was the nerve centre of the Civil Defence network for the borough and would have contained representatives of the various services that constituted the wartime Civil Defence, or Air Raid Precautions as it was known in the early years of the war. Andy told us that there were few clues remaining as to this former use but invited us to look more closely at the main door to the room. On closer examination, the outline of the words "MAP ROOM" could just about be made out and were in fact, slightly clearer the further back from the door one stood.

The words "MAP ROOM" can still be faintly seen on the door (Author's photograph)

Moving on, Andy then took us outside the building with a promise to show us more of the building's Civil Defence past and we paused outside a large brick and concrete structure, reminiscent of a Second World War surface air raid shelter but one which looked too large for this purpose. Andy then explained that this was in fact the Civil Defence Control for the Cold War era but that initially, these structures had been based on Second World War technology and experience, hence this structure looking like a "beefed up" version of a 1939-45 shelter. Closer examination revealed strong buttresses at floor level, the purpose of these being to steady the walls against the much larger blast waves expected from nuclear weapons, which would exert enormous pressure on the walls, no matter how thick they might be. Speaking to us from within the confines of the main Control Room area, Andy went on to tell us that experience gained from subsequent weapon tests rendered these surface buildings obsolete almost as soon as they were constructed. The blast wave from even a moderately sized nuclear bomb dropped in the vicinity of the Royal Docks, just across to the north side of the Thames, would have been more than sufficient to have flattened a structure such as this. Subsequent control rooms would be built below ground to give them a chance of immunity from the effects of an atomic bomb.

The Cold War Civil Defence Control Room (Author's photograph)

Civil Defence Control - Cold War style (Author's photo)

Andy explains the use of the building to the group (Author's photograph)

We then moved back inside the building and completed our tour by looking out at the magnificent view across the Thames Estuary and East Kent from the upper floors. It was whilst checking out this view that I noticed that the garden of an adjacent house contained a small, concrete shelter. This would have been privately built instead of the then occupier accepting the more usual Anderson Shelter. Perhaps the proximity of the garden to the Civil Defence Headquarters had swayed the thinking of the householder!

Private shelter visible at centre of photograph, behind wooden fence (Author's photograph)

The view to the east (Author's photograph)

So ended an exhausting but highly enjoyable Open House experience. Where else could one experience an Albert Speer doorknob, see the work of one of our foremost architects, visit a remarkably well-preserved private air raid shelter and learn about the Civil Defence arrangements for a London borough, all in one day?

Thanks are due to all of those organisations taking part in London Open House Weekend 2019 as well as to all those volunteers who willingly gave up their weekend time in order to show off their wonderful buildings. The London Open House 2020 event will take place over the weekend of September 19 and 20, so reserve these dates in your diaries as there are sure to be some more architectural gems on display.

As always, all of the photographs in this piece are my images and may not be used or reproduced without my express written permission.

Monday 7 October 2019

River Kwai Revisited

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that apart from my interest in military history, I also have a passion for movies and although my love of film covers many genres, not just those concerned with  war and conflict, it is a war film that piqued my interest recently when I re-watched it for the first  time in many years. At about this time each year, I am a volunteer at the local Charlton & Woolwich Free Film Festival, at some events purely as helper to prepare and take down our equipment, sometimes to shake a collection bucket and usually once or twice per festival, as an Event Manager, where I am lucky enough to choose a film and to either introduce it, or (usually) to arrange a guest speaker or other events to dovetail around the screening.

This year, the festival made a welcome return to the wonderfully evocative venue that is the Garrison Church of St George at Woolwich. Ongoing restoration work at the church had meant that we couldn't stage an event there last year but this year, the Trust which is responsible for the maintenance of the church chose a film with a military theme for the screening, the 1957 classic "The Bridge on the River Kwai", directed by David Lean which amassed no fewer than seven Academy Awards. I had been on holiday when the film was selected and was therefore delighted to be asked to introduce the screening and provide a few insights and personal thoughts on the film, even though this wasn't "my" event.

As I hadn't seen the film for a number of years, I made a point of purchasing the DVD a few weeks previously so as to re-acquaint myself with the movie. Whilst I remembered that it was an epic production, as could be expected from Sam Spiegel and David Lean, I was immediately struck by the sheer scale of the production and beauty of the locations. The screenplay was also far better than I had remembered and my overall impression of the acting was also extremely positive.

The origins of the film go back to 1952, when Pierre Boulle's novel, "Le Pont de la Riviere Kwai" was published. Boulle was also responsible for a later novel, also adapted for film, entitled "Planet of The Apes" but we shall forgive him for that, bearing in mind his earlier work! The novel was based in part on Boulle's own experiences as a prisoner of the Japanese following his capture at Singapore whilst operating as an agent for the Free French and tells the story of a group of British soldiers, under the fictional Colonel Nicholson who are set to work as slave labour in constructing a bridge over the River Kwai, in reality the Mae Klong River, which Boulle had confused with the real River Khwae at Kanchanburi at the time. In the novel, Boulle deals with the subject of collaboration by French officers but in the film version, the officers and men depicted working on the bridge are all British - more historically accurate, except for the subject of collaboration, which caused much ill-feeling and resentment amongst veterans at the time, who knew full well that such behaviour had not occurred amongst any British officers.

Sam Spiegel purchased the film rights and set about choosing a director; Fred Zinneman, Howard Hawks, William Wyler, John Ford and Orson Welles were all considered before British director David Lean was settled upon. Casting for the four main male stars saw Jack Hawkins signed up initially - he was to play Major Warden, the leader of the British Commandos tasked with destroying the bridge. William Holden was next on board, cast as Commander Shears, a US Navy enlisted survivor of the USS Houston, who is masquerading as an officer to ensure a better chance of survival. He escapes from the camp at the beginning of the film but is horrified to be detailed to return to the bridge as part of the deal for remaining an officer. Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa was cast as the inflexible and harsh Colonel Saito. The final actor to be engaged for the project was Alec Guinness, who was to play Colonel Nicholson, the somewhat stiff and stubborn British senior officer. Guinness was initially reluctant to take the role as he was wary of working with Lean and for his part, Lean was not keen to cast Guinness as he felt that with his recent history of light comedic roles in various Ealing comedies, Guinness would not convince audiences with his portrayal of the somewhat "buttoned up" British Colonel.

The screenplay was written by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, both of whom were on the Hollywood blacklist at the time for supposed pro-communist sympathies and were working in exile in England. Because of this, they had to work in secret - so secretly in fact that the name of Pierre Boulle appears on the credits for the film and was awarded the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, which would have been quite an achievement for someone who did not speak or write English. This wrong was subsequently righted when the two genuine scriptwriters were posthumously awarded the Oscar in 1984.

The main location shooting took place is Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and was not without difficulties. Predictably, Lean clashed with many of the cast, especially Guinness, who wanted to play Nicholson as a slightly softer, more gently humorous character, whilst Lean wanted him to be portrayed as "a bore". Some of the British actors, especially James Donald who played the Medical Officer Major Clipton thought the novel "anti-British" and were uncomfortable with the undertones of collaboration. All of this exasperated David Lean, who was pleased to see the back of the British stars and who supposedly enjoyed his dealings with William Holden far better. Another scare came when the film of the climactic destruction of the bridge, which was being flown to London for processing, went missing for several days. The destruction of the bridge was very much a "one take" affair and would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to re-shoot. Fortunately, the film was discovered at Cairo Airport and despite having sat in the hot sun for nearly a week, was still in perfect condition and was developed without any further hitch.

The music for the film was composed by Malcolm Arnold and featured an arrangement of the iconic "Colonel Bogey" march at the beginning of the film. Real life veterans complained that they had never heard this whilst in the jungle and in any case hadn't had the breath to whistle but nevertheless, the music became an integral and instantly recognisable feature of the film.

Despite the misgivings of the veterans - both British and Japanese (who felt the film glorified Western civilisation) - the film was a huge critical and popular success, grossing $30.6 million in it's original release (against a budget of $2.8 million). At the 1957 Academy Awards, it won seven Oscars, for Best Picture (Spiegel), Best Director (Lean), Best Actor (Guinness), Best Adapted Screenplay (Boulle, later awarded to Foreman and Wilson), Best Music Score (Arnold), Best Film Editing (Peter Taylor) and Best Cinematography (Jack Hildyard). In addition, Sessue Hayakama was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor award.

The real bridge was not completely destroyed by commandos as in the film but was damaged by Allied bombing in 1945. Such was the success of the film, tourists came to Thailand to visit the bridge and because of this, the Thai authorities were forced to rename the location as "Khwae Yae" or "Little Kwai" to differentiate it from the location wrongly attributed by Boulle, who had never actually visited the location and had incorrectly assumed that it was located at Kanchanburi .

The real-life British commander of the camp alluded to in the novel was Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey of 135th (Hertfordshire Yeomanry) Field Regiment, Royal Artillery. He had actually been ordered by his superiors to evacuate from Singapore prior to the surrender but had refused to leave his men to captivity and so was taken prisoner alongside them. He was made commander of the camp at Tamarkan and courageously stood up for his men and complained to the Japanese of their ill-treatment, ensuring many beatings for himself. Eventually though, he was able to wrangle concessions from his captors by convincing them that the men would work better if they were more humanely treated. He maintained discipline in the camp and earned the respect of the Japanese, who considered Toosey's camp to be the best run on the entire railway, thus allowing him a certain amount of autonomy. Far from collaborating with the Japanese, Toosey covertly instructed that his men work as slowly as possible without endangering the lives of his men and also arranged the collection of termites, which would eat the wooden supports of the bridge.

Lieut Colonel Philip Toosey (Toosey Family Collection)

There was a Japanese soldier at the camp named Saito but he was not a Colonel. Sergeant Major Saito was second-in-command at the camp and was considered to be a relatively humane individual not prone to the excesses of many of the other Japanese military personnel at the camp. After the war was over, Saito was due to stand trial for war crimes but Toosey spoke up for him, ensuring he would not have to stand trial and effectively saving his life. The two men corresponded after the war and when Toosey died in 1975, Saito subsequently travelled to England to visit his grave in Birkenhead. Saito was quoted as saying that Toosey "showed me what a human being should be and changed the philosophy of my life." When Saito died in 1990, his family discovered that he had converted to Christianity some years previously.

Sgt. Major Saito visiting the grave of Philip Toosey (Toosey Family Collection)

Our open-air screening was blessed with fine weather, if a little on the chilly side and an audience of over sixty people enjoyed watching the film beneath the South London stars. As always, thanks are due to Tim Barnes and his team at the Garrison Church. to all the volunteers from the Free Film Festival and of course, chiefly to those who supported the event on the night.

Sunday 11 August 2019

"An Unprincipled Rogue"

Vic Wilson - "an unprincipled rogue" (Mark Smith)

In a week when I was lucky enough to be part of the latest Football & War Seminar, hosted by the excellent Charlton Athletic Museum, it was fitting that the day after the event, a trail that I had thought had gone cold, suddenly and unexpectedly came back to life with a phone call out of the blue. Regular readers, may remember that in January 2018, following a post on the club's message board, I had made some enquiries about Vic Wilson, who is mentioned in Alfred Allbury's book "Bamboo and Bushido", which describes the author's experiences as a Prisoner of War at the hands of the Japanese following the fall of Singapore in February 1942.

Vic and Alfred both came from Greenwich and were close friends who served together in a Territorial Army Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery. Alfred described Vic in the narrative as " unprincipled rogue with a delightful wry sense of humour and a healthy hatred of the war that kept him from his wife and young baby back in Charlton."

First Edition cover of Bamboo and Bushido (author's collection)

The phone call came from Mark Smith, who is married to Vic Wilson's great granddaughter. After introducing himself, Mark explained that Vic's daughter, Val Jacob, who I had written to and subsequently had a long telephone conversation with, was sadly in hospital having suffered a nasty fall and had therefore not been able to pursue her promise to try and find me a photograph of her father, hence my thinking that the trail had gone cold. Mark had discovered my initial letter to Val and kindly offered to pick up the baton and sure enough, the next day, two photographs of Vic arrived by email - one of which can now be seen at the top of the page.

A few things in this story had intrigued me; it isn't often that my little backwater of Southeast London gets a mention in a book that doesn't concern football and the fact that the two men served in the Royal Artillery - a local regiment - meant that we were quite possibly looking at men from my immediate locality and perhaps who supported the same football club. Unfortunately, Allbury's book didn't say with which regiment of the Royal Artillery they had served but a delve in one of my many reference books provided the Order of Battle and this informed me that a local Territorial Army Battery - 118th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery - was present at the fall of Singapore and this encouraged me further.

A search of the excellent Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, as it so often does, provided the basis for my research. It told me that Gunner Victor Charles Wilson had sadly not survived the war but had indeed served with 118th Field Regiment. Vic had died in captivity on 27 July 1943 and was buried at Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery in Burma, which indicated that he was one of the many who perished whilst being employed as slave labour of the Japanese on the infamous Burma Railway.

Further research showed that Vic had been born in Greenwich in 1918 and lived at 49 Chevening Road. During the third quarter of 1939, Vic married Violet Elizabeth Brown from 60 Inverine Road, Charlton and in the first quarter of 1940, Violet gave birth to a baby daughter, Valerie. With the onset of the Blitz, Valerie and Violet were evacuated to the relative safety of Hampshire but Vic and his colleagues, being members of the Territorial Army, had been mobilised upon the declaration of war.

The War Diary of 118th Field Regiment RA reveals early mobilisation plans (author's photo)

In normal times, 118th Field Regiment was based at their Drill Hall in Grove Park, Southeast London but inspection of the Regimental War Diary reveals that the process of mobilisation began as early as 23 August 1939 with the call-up of civilian transport and by the evening of 1 September, an advance party of 150 officers and other ranks marched from Grove Park to Cambridge Barracks at nearby Woolwich, to take up their wartime duties. Apart from a brief spell in late November 1939 when the Regiment took part in an exercise in the Ramsgate area, they remained at Woolwich Garrison until mid-January 1940 at which point they moved to Eastbourne to take up coastal defence duties. The Regiment was equipped with a mixture of 18 pounder field guns of Great War vintage and 4.5" howitzers, of similar ancestry. From late June 1940, they moved to the Norfolk coast to take up anti-invasion duties and whilst here, were re-equipped with 75mm artillery supplied from the USA. In September 1940, a further move occurred, this time to Worstead during which time the Regiment was finally re-equipped with the iconic 25 pdr pieces so beloved of the Royal Artillery. Yet another move to the Scottish Borders followed in January 1941 and it was whilst here that the War Diary first mentions the possibility of a deployment to a "Tropical Climate" with training being arranged accordingly. In early April 1941, the Regiment moved to the Staffordshire area, where training continued. Study of the War Diaries tends to lend the lie to the usual perception that the British were forever unprepared for war and muddling through - the politicians may have been unprepared but the Regiment was making preparations for mobilisation over a week before the declaration of war and then training to fight in the Far East some eight months before the entry of Japan into the war.

The Regiment sailed from the Clyde on 30 October 1941 as Convoy CT 5 in eight large troopships, which in peacetime had been better known as the ocean liners ANDES, DUCHESS OF ATHOLL, DURBAN CASTLE, ORCADES, ORONSAY, REINA DEL PACIFICO, SOBIESKY and WARWICK CASTLE. The convoy took the troops as far as Halifax, Nova Scotia where they arrived on 7 November 1941. The next phase of the voyage saw them trans-shipped to six American Troop Transports, the JOSEPH T DICKMAN, LEONARD WOOD, MOUNT VERNON, ORIZABA, WEST POINT and WAKEFIELD. This particular aspect of the voyage is fascinating as the Americans were by now openly assisting their British allies some two months before their official entry into the war and were transporting the British soldiers to potentially fight against an enemy who had also not yet entered the war!

The American ships sailed as Convoy WS 12 X (a British convoy designation) even though the naval escort at this stage was entirely provided by the US Navy and proceeded via Port of Spain to Cape Town, where they arrived on 9 December 1941, two days after the USA's official entry into the war. From Cape Town, the naval escort was a mixed Royal Navy and US Navy affair and the convoy proceeded via Mombasa to Bombay, where they finally arrived on 27 December 1941. From here, the troops transferred to British ships for the final leg of the voyage to Singapore, where they arrived in mid-January 1941, barely one month before the surrender of the colony to the Japanese.

General Arthur Percival (IWM)

The fall of Singapore was arguably the biggest debacle in British military history and is a story of poor preparation, poor command and a classic case of resources being spread too thinly. Despite this, the Allied forces enjoyed a huge numerical superiority over the Japanese, consisting of some 85,000 British, Australian, Indian and Malay forces against some 36,000 invading Japanese. The Allies however, had no tanks in Singapore and were initially convinced that any Japanese assault would come from the seaward side and not via the Malay Peninsular. The air cover was also insufficient, consisting at first of obsolete Brewster Buffalo fighters and later, small numbers of Hawker Hurricanes, which were no match for the Japanese fighters and were quickly overwhelmed. As a result, there were constant air raids on Singapore and the British commander General Percival, faced with a civilian catastrophe as well as a military defeat, surrendered his forces on 15 February 1942. It was an utter humiliation and one from which British prestige in the region never really recovered.

Alfred Allbury wrote eloquently of the final hours before the surrender:

"My co-driver Vic Wilson and I sallied forth on nightly excursions to ammunition dumps scattered around the island-no transport could survive ten minutes on the road by day. Once our 15cwt was loaded, we had to deliver the shells to our guns. This called not so much for a knowledge of map reading as for the gift of clairvoyance. Jap planes and the unsuitability of the terrain for effective artillery positions kept our battery commanders roving the island in a desperate search for potential gun-sites. Those found and occupied were speedily made untenable by the sustained accuracy of the Japanese counterfire." 

"Vic Wilson and I had long been friends. He was an unprincipled rogue with a wry sense of humour, and a healthy hatred of the war that kept him from his young wife and baby back home in Charlton."

"On the morning of February 14th the first tentative shells landed among our supply-dumps. They quickly found the exact range and soon a searing bombardment developed that sent us scuttling into our fox-holes. The Japs were ranging on us from heights that overlooked the town. Bukit Timah was theirs after the bloodiest of struggles, the reservoir was stained crimson with the blood of those who had fought so bitterly to hold it, and the little yellow men whom we had ridiculed and despised were in swarm across the island. It was already theirs." 

"Next morning Vic and I set off on a last mad jaunt taking ammunition to ‘A’ Troop who were dug in behind a Chinese temple to the north of Racecourse Road. Vic drove like a maniac. He had, I found, been sampling a bottle of ‘John Haig’. We thundered along deserted roads, pitted and scarred with bomb craters. Wrecked and burnt-out vehicles lay everywhere, strewn at fantastic angles. The trolley-bus cables hung across the road in desolate festoons which shivered and whined as we raced over them. A few yards from the charred remains of an ambulance were a knot of troops gathered round a cook’s wagon. From them we scrounged a mug of hot tea and found out the guns of ‘A’ Troop were only a few hundred yards distant. We delivered our ammunition and an hour later rejoined Battery HQ close by the Raffles Hotel." 

"But late that afternoon came the news that we had surrendered. There was to be a cease-fire at four o’clock. We had fought and lost. And the ashes of defeat tasted bitter. At three o’clock all but a few of the guns were silent. Ammunition had been expended. From the hills there still came the occasional bark of a Japanese gun followed by the whine and crash of its shells. But by six o’clock, save for the spluttering of flames and the occasional explosion of ammunition, all was quiet over the island of Singapore. The carnage of the last ten days was quieted now, and in eerie silence our troops sat huddled together in puzzled but fatalistic expectancy."

"Vic and I returned to our lorry, ate some tinned bacon and biscuits and stretched ourselves luxuriously for our first uninterrupted sleep for many days. We took off our boots, smoked, talked and listened to the distant caterwauling of the Japanese." “They’ll probably,” said Vic “be crawling round us in the night, cutting off our ears.” 

"But we stretched out and slept the sleep of the utterly exhausted, while around us into the tropic rose a barbaric and discordant dirge: the victory song of the triumphant Japanese." 

With the fall of Singapore, some 80,000 Allied personnel became Prisoners of War. The Japanese had already signalled their scant regard for humanity when the day before the surrender, they had captured the Alexandra Hospital. A British lieutenant, clearly displaying a white flag, approached the Japanese in order to act as an envoy and explain the presence of a military hospital but was killed with a bayonet. As Japanese forces entered the hospital, they killed soldiers undergoing surgery and bayoneted doctors and nurses with no regard to their non-combatant status. The following day, a further 200 patients and staff were dealt with in the same manner. This was just the beginning of the now-familiar tale of atrocities committed by the Japanese.

With the exception of small parties who escaped Singapore by small boats, including a group of nineteen from the 118th Field Regiment, who safely arrived in India in April 1943 after an odyssey that lasted some fourteen months, the vast majority of those who surrendered went into captivity. After initially being held at Changi Prison, many of the men were sent to work as slave labour on the infamous Burma-Thailand Railway and this is where the story of Vic Wilson ended, succumbing to Beri-Beri on 27 July 1943 and thus never returning home to his wife and daughter.

The Nominal Roll records Vic Wilson's death (authors image)

The Regiment somehow managed to maintain a Nominal Roll which records the fate of Vic and his colleagues, despite the writer of the Roll being imprisoned at Changi and the Regiment being scattered far and wide. It makes heartbreaking reading and a manual count by this writer revealed that of the 744 Officers and Other Ranks that went into captivity at Singapore, 188 died whilst POWs, which represented a loss rate of 25.27%. The vast majority of these men died from disease but inspection of the Nominal Roll reveals some who died from acts of brutality, with for example, one cause of death recorded as "Fractured skull caused by rifle butts." Sadly, this is not uncommon, all of which confirms the Japanese lack of regard for Allied Prisoners of War. 

Despite the sad loss of Vic's life, this story does have an uplifting ending, as following further research, I was able to ascertain that Vic's daughter Valerie is still with us and lives in the local area. I rather tentatively wrote her a letter, explaining who I was and asking whether or not she was aware that her father featured in a book covering the fall of Singapore. I was delighted to receive a phone call a day or so later from Val and had a pleasant conversation with her. She doesn't really remember her Dad, as she was only a baby when he went overseas for what proved to be the final time and neither was she aware of Alfred Allbury's book. Val's Mum had of course told her something of her father and had frequently told Valerie that she shared many of Vic's characteristics. She also confirmed that as far as she had been told, Vic was a Charlton football fan and had attended matches at The Valley before going overseas. I sent copies of the pages in which Vic had been mentioned and subsequently had another long chat on the phone. 

The second photo that I received from Mark, courtesy of Val's son Paul was of Vic, together with a slightly disgruntled looking Val sitting on his knee, in the garden of what looks like a bomb damaged house - perhaps this is the reason for the move away from Inverine Road to the relative safety of Hampshire?

Vic and Valerie (Mark Smith)

It is always pleasing when a story finally comes together and when it happens unexpectedly when one had thought that the trail had gone cold, it is even more satisfying and thanks to the efforts of Mark, we now know the identity of a Charlton Athletic supporter and "unprincipled rogue" who now rests far away from Southeast London.

Published Sources:

Bamboo and Bushido - Alfred Allbury, Robert Hale Limited, London 1955

Unpublished Sources:

National Archives WO 166/1530 - 118th Field Regiment RA, War Diary 01 August 1939 - 30 September 1941

National Archives WO 361/235 - 118th Field Regiment RA, Malaya: Missing Personnel
National Archives WO 361/1300 - 118th Field Regiment RA, Thailand, Casualties
National Archives WO 361/2092 - 118th Field Regiment RA. Far East, Prisoners of War, Nominal Roll

Jacob family archive and reminiscences