Monday 8 May 2023

The Joys of Guiding

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)

After the walk, the group kindly invited me to join them for a curry and as mentioned above, email addresses were exchanged. I was able to obtain Alf's Fire Service record card from the London Fire Brigade archives, as well as his British Empire Medal citation. In return, Kevin sent me some copies of letters that Alf had received from his then employers informing him of his impending medal award and perhaps rather sadly, a letter informing him of his release from the Fire Service in early 1945. After the war, Alf returned to his old occupation and passed away, aged 73 in 1982.

Alf's letter of release from the Fire Service (Kevin Ireland)

I am indebted to Kevin Ireland and indeed to the rest of the group for a memorable afternoon and for providing me with yet another reason to love the job that I do.