Sunday 2 August 2020

Splinters, Shrapnel and London's 'Honourable Scars'

Steve pointing out the splinter damage on General Wolfe's statue (Sam Dorrington, Surrey Photographer)

For clients taking one of my Blitz walks, the enjoyment and interest comes in many forms. For some, it is the aspect of walking the ground and imagining just what it was like to be in London, or any other town or city when the bombs were falling, whilst for others, it is the wonderment of seeing the 'then and now' perspectives to be gained by comparing the present day view with that of some seventy years ago. One aspect that does seem universally popular however, is when at various points along a given route, the 'props' appear. These period artefacts really help to bring the walks alive and the fact that people can touch and feel something from the period helps them to better understand the subject matter being discussed at that particular 'stand' on the walk.

One set of 'props' in particular always arouse a particular fascination - this is the shrapnel fragments. The fascination is always a mixture of interest in finally handling the stuff that is so often mentioned in personal accounts, in documentaries and books as well as an appalled understanding as to what this stuff that can easily scar solid masonry could actually do to the human body.

With the final bomb sites in London and elsewhere finally now built upon, the splinter and shrapnel scars left on many buildings are perhaps the remaining most tangible reminder of the daily ordeal that London and Londoners, as well as many other towns and cities endured eighty years ago and sometimes from the First World War too.

The author's shrapnel fragments from a British anti-aircraft shell (Author's photo)

Before going any further, perhaps we should examine the derivation of the word 'shrapnel' and how it has passed into everyday usage.

In 1784, Lieutenant General Henry Shrapnel, of the Royal Artillery, perfected what he called "spherical case" ammunition, which was basically a hollow cannon ball, filled with musket balls which was designed to explode in mid-air over concentrations of enemy soldiers. This first anti-personnel weapon was demonstrated in 1787 at Gibraltar and was adopted by the British Army. By 1803, they had evolved into an elongated shell that was christened as the "Shrapnel Shell" and continued to be manufactured with little basic change, until the end of the Great War. The name stuck and by the Second World War, Henry Shrapnel's surname had become the generic description for any bomb or shell fragments.

This writer is lucky enough to possess several such fragments, all of which were discovered on the Thames foreshore in Greenwich by the excellent Nicola White of Tide Line Art and which are invaluable 'props' to my walks.

These pieces take many forms; first we have the shell fragments, which in this case come from the driving bands of British 3.7" anti-aircraft shells. Modern gun barrels are "rifled" with helical grooves that are machined on the interior bore of the gun barrel and at the base of a shell is a brass or copper alloy band with corresponding grooves that engage with those inside the gun barrel, thus causing the shell to rotate upon firing.

People sometimes overlook the fact that apart from the fragments from German bombs, there was a spirited anti-aircraft barrage emanating from London's defences and whilst in 1940, it has to be said that this fire was largely ineffectual, it did help boost the morale of the beleaguered Londoners, who felt that there was at least some opposition being generated to the unseen night time raiders. Of course, the theory of "What goes up, must come down" applied and as well as being peppered with bomb splinters, those who had reason to be out on the streets during a raid had to contend with this added British generated hazard.

Spent British 0.303" bullets (Author's photo)

Another similar item in my possession is a collection of spent bullets. In 1940, the Battle of Britain was raging overhead and some of the Luftwaffe's early daylight raids over London were fiercely contested by the RAF's Hurricanes and Spitfires. Many of the dogfights took place over London itself and whilst most civilians wisely took cover, there were many who watched these deadly duels taking place over their own homes and workplaces. The daylight battle over London culminated on September 15th with the Luftwaffe suffering heavy losses. At the time, the Air Ministry claimed that 185 German aircraft (of 201 bombers and approximately 530 fighters deployed) had been destroyed. The actual figure was 56 destroyed but still represented a major defeat for the Luftwaffe. Combined with earlier heavy losses, the German high command decided to switch their attacks on London and other British cities to night-time area bombing methods.

The bullets that I have are from British 0.303" calibre Browning machine guns, which were the standard armament of the Hurricane and the Spitfire, the versions of these iconic fighters in use during the Battle of Britain each being equipped with eight of these weapons. Nicola also kindly (and unwittingly) gave me two live rounds, which were promptly and safely disposed of!

Neil Bright's bomb splinter (Author's photo)

Then of course, we have the pieces that come from German bombs, more correctly described as splinters rather than shrapnel. Neil Bright, formerly of this parish, is the owner of a fearsome fragment from a German bomb, which is roughly the size of the palm of my hand. The prospect of a fragment of this size striking a person simply does not bear thinking about. There are many similar pieces on display in museums, at home and abroad. The church of St Edmund, King & Martyr is perhaps unique in containing splinters from a bomb that was actually dropped on the building by a German Gotha aircraft in 1917 and which fell through the roof. Not only are pieces of the bomb still on display inside the church but the entry point was converted into a window, located in the roof!

Bomb fragments at St Edmund, King & Martyr Church in the City of London (author's photo)

The entry point of the bomb at St Edmund, King & Martyr (author's photo)

The museum at the Royal Hospital Chelsea goes one better by having a complete bomb on display, in this case a 250 kg HE bomb which was one of three that fell in the grounds of the Infirmary on 16 October 1940, all of which failed to explode.

Unexploded 250 kg bomb on display at Royal Hospital, Chelsea (author's photo)

In Hamburg, two museums in that city display bomb splinters of impressive proportions; the Bunker Museum at Hamm has a substantial fragment of a British 250 lb bomb found in the immediate area when clearing the ground prior to the opening of the museum. The thought of this scything through the air is truly frightening. The museum in the crypt of the Nikolai Kirche also has some large splinters on display, as well as some complete bombs, again of the unexploded variety.

British 250 lb bomb fragment at Hamburg Bunker Museum (author's photo)

Bomb fragments at the Mahnmal St Nikolai, Hamburg (author's photo)

Unexploded RAF 250 lb bomb at the Mahnmal St Nikolai (author's photo)

Today, many buildings in London still display the "Honourable Scars" of their Wartime past, amongst them General Wolfe's statue in Greenwich Park, St Bartholomew's Hospital in the City of London, St Clement Danes Church in The Strand, Lord Clyde's statue in Waterloo Place as well as Edward VII's equestrian statue in the same location. Other buildings still bearing their scars are St Paul's Cathedral and the Victoria & Albert Museum, whose pockmarks are accompanied by a helpful plaque, which explains what these marks are and why they remain unrepaired. The Guards' Memorial also proudly displays splinter damage as do humbler structures such as the abutments of a railway bridge across Blackfriars Road and buildings in London Street, near Paddington Station.

Wartime scars on St Clement Danes Church (Author's photo)

Damage to the base of Lord Clyde's statue in Waterloo Place (author's photo)

All of these, as well as others serve to remind present day civilians here in London and elsewhere what our forebears had to endure during the dark days of the Second World War.

Printed Sources:

Battle of Britain Day: 15 September 1940 - Dr Alfred Price, Sidgwick & Jackson 1990
The Narrow Margin - Derek Wood with Derek Dempster - Tri Service Press 1990