|Neil Bright guiding in Westminster during 2010 (author's image)
Wednesday 15 November 2023
Tuesday 31 October 2023
|Cover of Streatham's 41 (author's image)
In mid-June 1944, Londoners could perhaps have been forgiven for thinking that the days of attacks on them from the air were a thing of the past but on 13 June, a new threat to their safety appeared in the form of the V-1, the first of Hitler’s Vergeltungswaffen or “Vengeance Weapons”. In excess of 2,400 of these early cruise missiles were to fall upon London in a campaign that was to last until early September 1944, in which the various neighbourhoods of south and southeast London bore the brunt,
The original edition of this account
was written by Kenneth Bryant, Senior District Air Raid Warden of the Metropolitan
Borough of Wandsworth and appeared in 1946 as a basic record of the forty-one
flying bombs that fell upon the south London suburb of Streatham. In 2019 an
updated and expanded edition was produced by the Streatham Society to mark the
75th anniversary of the campaign and which has recently been re-issued once
This attractive A4 softback booklet
provides a detailed analysis of each of “Streatham’s 41” flying bombs, each one
accompanied by a map, as well as personal accounts from those affected by each
incident and where available, contemporary photographs of the aftermath of each
In addition, there are useful and
informative chapters on the organisation of the ARP (Air Raid Precautions),
later the Civil Defence Service in general and in particular within the Borough
of Wandsworth. There is also a brief history and timeline of the V-1 offensive
and the counter-measures put in place, as well as an interesting chapter
covering the human cost of the campaign and financial cost of rebuilding in Streatham,
most notably the “pre-fabs” that sprung up across London as a temporary
solution to re-housing those who had been rendered homeless.
There is also a chapter on the design
of the V-1, which leads to my only minor gripe with the book, in so far that the
authors describe the propulsion system as a ram jet, whereas in fact the V-1s
were propelled by a pulse jet system, which gave rise to the peculiar rasping
sound made by the engine.
Overall though, this is an excellent
local history publication which should be of interest to Home Front historians
as well as those with a love of our capital city’s history.
Streatham's 41: The V-1 Flying Bomb Offensive as experienced in Streatham
Author: Kenneth Bryant (updated edition prepared by John W Brown)
by The Streatham Society (www.streathamsociety.org.uk)
Tuesday 20 June 2023
|The order of service for the ceremony (author's photograph)
|The original plaque, now obscured from public view (author's photograph)
|Old Palace School before the war (Firemen Remembered)
|The grim task of recovery (Firemen Remembered)
|Stephanie Maltman and the Rev'd Cathy Wyles (author's photo)
|Fire Brigade guests, past and present (author's photo)
Monday 8 May 2023
One of the many joys of guiding is the "surprise factor" brought to the party by our guests - when starting out with a group, whether it be from the Army, RAF, a school or college group, overseas visitors or a home-based group of history lovers, one never knows what to expect and this certainly helps to keep me as the guide, on my toes!
|The Hungerford Bridge parachute mine made safe (author's collection)
A recent walk with a London-based group of history enthusiasts brought one of the biggest and most pleasant surprises in my thirteen-year guiding "career".
The group's organiser had requested a bespoke walk starting at Hungerford Bridge, which for non-Londoners is a bridge that carries the railway from Charing Cross Station across the Thames and which also doubles up as a footbridge. To be brutally honest, this isn't the most picturesque part of London but is one which has a wartime history, so I had a suspicion that at least one member of the group might have a connection in some way.
So when the group met on a dank Sunday morning in March, I began by explaining the wartime history of Hungerford Bridge, which began on the night of 16/17 April 1941, when a parachute mine settled on to the tracks just outside the station. Incendiary bombs were also falling and had started a major fire in the signal cabin at the end of platform one, with the flames creeping towards the mine, which had failed to explode.
|Lieut. Cdr. Ernest Oliver "Mick" Gidden GC, RNVR (fotostock)
As parachute mines were adapted anti-shipping weapons, they were always dealt with by the Royal Navy who had the necessary expertise to deal with them and accordingly, a team led by Lieutenant Commander Ernest "Mick" Gidden RNVR.
Gidden worked on the mine for over six hours, breaking it free from the live rail, from which it had welded itself and forcing it back into some sort of shape with a large hammer, so that he could unscrew the fuse from the weapon and in doing so, earned himself a George Cross into the bargain. While Gidden was working on the mine, he was aware of the large fire burning in the signal cabin and noticed that two Auxiliary Firemen were tackling the fires, seemingly oblivious to their own safety - he later spoke of these men thus:
“When I arrived at the incident on Hungerford Bridge I found about half a dozen firemen working within 15 feet of the unexploded mine. This had already lost its filling plate, exposing the explosive to the naked fire should it have reached it. Luckily for the bridge and several important Government offices the firemen were able to prevent this happening. I warned the men of their imminent peril but they seemed not to care a jot and I had to order them away. They left with great reluctance.”
The two firemen in question were Station Officer George Watling, a London Fire Brigade "regular" with 21 years service and Auxiliary Fireman Alf Blanchard, a chef in civilian life, who had joined the Auxiliaries shortly before the outbreak of war in 1939. The men were based at Holloway in North London and in keeping with the work of the Auxiliaries, had been summoned down from their usual base of operations to assist in Westminster.
|Auxiliary Fireman Alfred Blanchard BEM (Kevin Ireland)
For their work on the night, Blanchard and Watling were awarded the British Empire Medal, which was gazetted on 3 October 1941.
After explaining this incident to the group and the subsequent near-destruction of the bridge in a V-1 incident in July 1944, one of the group stepped forward and informed me that he was Alf Blanchard's grandson and had some mementos of his late grandfather to show me.
Alf's grandson was called Kevin Ireland and produced Alf's B.E.M. as well as a souvenir that his grandfather had secured for himself once the mine had been made safe - this was a piece of one of the cables that suspended the mine from the parachute. For once in my life, I was speechless!
|Kevin Ireland with his grandfather's souvenirs (author's photograph)
To say that I went into geek mode would be an understatement and many photographs were taken at the time and after the walk, when e-mail addresses were also exchanged.
|Close up of Alf's BEM (author's photograph)
|Close up of Alf's BEM (author's photograph)
|The section of parachute cable (author's photograph)
|Alf's letter of release from the Fire Service (Kevin Ireland)
Tuesday 7 March 2023
|Firemen Remembered Plaque to Sidney Alfred Holder in Shoe Lane (author's photograph)
This post was originally written in August 2011 but since then, one or two discrepancies in the original story as recounted to me have come to light. These corrections have now been incorporated into the text, which is updated accordingly.
This particular plaque is located close to the scene of the incident at Shoe Lane, just off London's Fleet Street and commemorates a tragedy that was immortalised on canvas by the War Artist Leonard Rosoman R.A., who at that time was a member of the Auxilary Fire Service and who witnessed the event at first hand. Deeply troubled by what he had seen, Rosoman created a powerful image, which he found himself painting and re-painting, as if trying to exorcise what he had witnessed from his own consciousness. The artist subsequently stated that he was never entirely happy with the work and at first thought it was too raw for public consumption but it is today recognised as one of the iconic images of the Blitz. The image entitled 'The Falling Wall' by the artist but for some reason re-titled by the Imperial War Museum as 'A House Collapsing on two Firemen, Shoe Lane, London EC4' is reproduced below, courtesy of the IWM. The original is currently on display at the IWM North in Manchester, although perhaps would be better located in London, given that is where the incident occurred.
|"The Falling Wall" by Leonard Rosoman (IWM collection)
On the night of 29th/30th December 1940, some 140 medium bombers of the Luftwaffe dropped some 24,000 incendiary bombs concentrated on the City of London in a raid that became known as "The Second Great Fire of London". The raid had been carefully planned to coincide with an exceptionally low tide on the River Thames, which once the water mains had been damaged by the high explosive bombs which were also dropped on the Square Mile, made it nigh on impossible for the beleaguered firefighters to obtain emergency supplies of water from the river. The spread of the fires was further compounded by the fact that many nightwatchmen and fire watchers employed by the various businesses in the City, had taken advantage of the Christmas and New Year holidays to sneak away for a long weekend, so leaving fires to spread unchecked. This failing was the subject of an official Government Enquiry after the event, the result of which was to compel companies to provide full-time fire watches on their premises.
As part of the ceremony, the redoubtable Stephanie Maltman, one of the leading figures behind the charity, explained what to the best of our knowledge today, had happened on this night in Shoe Lane and how Auxiliary Fireman Sidney Alfred Holder and a now unknown helper who had simply been passing by had come to perish beneath fifteen feet of white hot bricks and masonry.
|The programme cover for the unveiling event (author's photograph)
Sidney Holder, Leonard Rosoman and the future travel writer and novelist William Sansom were part of an AFS squad from Station 13 at Belsize Park, detailed to fight a major fire in Shoe Lane, just off Fleet Street, adjacent to the Daily Express building. The three men were controlling a branch directing water onto the blazing building and although it looked a hopeless task, stuck bravely at their task. Amazingly, but not uncommonly during a major raid, there were still passers by going about their business and the firefighters were joined by an off duty soldier and an RAF airman, who offered to help. During the course of their toils, a more senior AFS Officer appeared on the scene and instructed Rosoman to leave the branch to the others and accompany him on a recce from an adjacent building to see if they could find another spot from which to direct their branches at the by now out of control fire. As they surveyed the scene, Rosoman heard the ominous crack of the wall crumbling under the heat and collapsing onto the men below, one of whom was Rosoman's close friend, William Sansom.
Incredibly, Sansom and the RAF man survived the incident by dint of good fortune; the wall had collapsed almost as a solid slab of masonry but they had had the luck to be standing more or less in line with a window aperture which framed them as the wall collapsed. The two men were showered with masonry but were not seriously injured and were quickly able to free themselves in order to clamber to where Holder and the soldier had been directing their branch. The two men tore at the red hot bricks with their bare hands, severely burning themselves at the same time. They were quickly relieved by a Rescue Squad and it was only when they were taken aside, that Sansom and his colleague realised the extent of the injuries to their hands.
|Wreath laid at the unveiling ceremony (author's photograph)
The rescuers eventually reached the two buried men; the soldier was dead when they found him. His steel helmet had been crushed almost flat and he was burned beyond recognition. Although the details are sketchy, history tells us that Sidney Alfred Holder was alive when pulled from the rubble; the Commonwealth War Graves Commission tells us that he died 'near to St Bartholomew's Hospital' which suggests that he died in an ambulance whilst being taken to hospital.
Sidney Alfred Holder was born on 21 April 1907 and lived at 69 Denmark Road, Hendon, with his mother, Emily. His peacetime job as shown on the 1939 Register was a Temporary Railway Porter but he had obviously joined the Fire Service at some point after this. Despite fairly extensive research by Stephanie and her colleagues at Firemen Remembered, the identity of the soldier who heroically offered to help on that fateful night has never been established and he remains 'known unto God' but to us mere mortals, one of the many 'unknown soldiers.'
Dark City alleyways and passages,
curtained for a century by tall walls,
exchanged their twilight gloom for
a flood of yellow light in one
Fireman Flower - William Sansom, Hogarth Press 1944
The London Blitz: A Fireman's Tale - Cyril Demarne OBE, After The Battle 1991
1939 Register - UK National Archives