Monday 14 September 2020

The First Day of the Blitz in Greenwich

Luftwaffe reconnaissance photo taken in the early evening of Saturday 7 September 1940 (author's collection) 

The above photo was taken from a Luftwaffe aircraft during the early evening of Saturday 7 September 1940 - "Black Saturday" as Londoners came to call it - the first day of the London Blitz and an afternoon and evening never to be forgotten by anybody who experienced it. The annotations are mine as I wanted to mark some local landmarks to the image as 7 September was a day that impacted upon my family, as it did on many thousands of people across the eastern half of London, on both sides of the Thames.

My late Mother was one of those affected by the events of the day, in so far as she had been working at Woolwich Arsenal until lunchtime in her job at the Pay Office there. Although a half day on Saturday was the normal order of things, she quite often had to work a full day but fortunately on this day, her work was completed in time for a scheduled departure at 13:00. Had she left later in the afternoon, she could well have been caught up in the events there later.

In the Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich, the first incident was recorded at exactly 17:00 at 38, 59 and 61 Basildon Road, Abbey Wood, with a High Explosive (HE) bomb as well as a Delayed Action device (DAB) reported. Nos 59 and 61 were reported as completely demolished and a large fire burning out of control, although happily with no casualties. The LCC Bomb Damage Map for Basildon Road confirms that the two houses towards the top left of the road (between the 'L' and 'D' on the map) were damaged beyond repair and a look at Streetview today confirms this, with a much newer property (no. 61) in the space left by the two destroyed houses. This much more modern building coupled with the fact that the house numbers jump from 57 to 61 without a no. 59, tells the present-day looker what happened here.

LCC Bomb Map for Basildon Road (author's image)

The "new" no. 61 Basildon Road fills the space left by the destroyed 59 & 61 (Google Streetview)

Things soon began to deteriorate in the borough and by 17:50 buildings in the Woolwich Dockyard were well on fire. This is the huge column of smoke that can be seen at the top centre of the photograph at the head of this page. The Incident Log tells us "Major Fire, 30 pumps in service, one casualty dealt with locally. Commonwealth Buildings - three buildings on fire, only 2 pumps on spot." Clearly a dangerous situation as the Dockyard was by then being used by the Woolwich Arsenal for the storage of ordnance, amongst other things. Fortunately, this fire was brought under control before things got out of hand, although the fires at Commonwealth Buildings were still alight at 21:00. Elsewhere in the borough, casualties began to mount - two mortuary vans were required for an incident in Plumstead High Street at 17:52, whilst a direct hit on a shelter in Wickham Lane, near the 'Foresters Arms' pub saw two women, together with a boy and a girl killed. There was no let-up as the evening progressed and the raiders returned; four further fatalities were reported at Lakedale Road, including an AFS Station Officer, Frederick Tierney.

So it continued, throughout the early hours of the 8th with no respite - in total 92 incidents appear in the log for the night of 7/8 September, whilst across the borough boundary in Greenwich a similar story was developing.

In Greenwich, the first incident was not reported until 17:50 in Ordnance Crescent with "many IBs" (incendiary bombs) being the terse comment on the log. At 18:00 in Kidbrooke Grove (initially wrongly reported as Kidbrooke Gardens) we see the words "RAF parachutist badly injured" - this is Flight Lieut Richard Reynell who sadly was dead following the non-deployment of his parachute and whose story has been covered in this blog on several occasions, most recently in August 2017.

As in Woolwich, events intensified as the evening progressed - the first civilian fatality was reported at Armada Street in Greenwich at 18:15, whilst four minutes later, there is a report of an "aeroplane down" in Victoria Way, Charlton although I haven't yet been able to glean any further details of this, including whether it was a friendly or an enemy machine. At 22:56, the Johnson & Phillips cable factory in Victoria Way is also reported hit, with one building in danger of collapse, which seems to have occurred later when looking at the photographs taken later the following morning.

Damage to the Johnson & Phillips cable factory in Charlton (Greenwich Heritage)

Collapsed building at Johnson & Phillips (Greenwich Heritage)

The raid continued into the early hours, although in Greenwich there were slightly fewer incidents,  with 64 recorded by the local ARP Service. Fatal casualties in Greenwich amounted to 25, compared to 69 across the borough border in Woolwich. It was a bad night for London with some 400 civilians killed and was the precursor of fifty seven consecutive nights when London was bombed and of a wider Blitz across all major British towns and cities which would last until the spring of 1941.

Published Sources:

The London County Council Bomb Damage Maps 1939 - 1945, editor Laurence Ward - Thames & Hudson 2015

Unpublished Sources: 

Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich Civil Defence Incident Logs
Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich Civil Defence Incident Logs