Tuesday 20 June 2023

Old Palace School - the largest Fire Service tragedy on British soil

The order of service for the ceremony (author's photograph)

Towards the end of last month, I was honoured to be invited to the dedication and unveiling of the latest commemorative plaque placed by the charity Firemen Remembered, at the Old Palace Primary School in Bow, in London's East End.

In many ways, this represents a full circle for the charity as the first commemorative plaque ever placed by the charity was at Old Palace School in 1997. Whilst this plaque is still in situ, it is no longer visible to the public and although the names were known at the time, they were not listed on original blue plaque and so it was right that the story was brought up to date.

The original plaque, now obscured from public view (author's photograph)

In common with many London schools, whose pupils had largely been evacuated out of the capital, Old Palace School, in St Leonard's Road was taken over by the Auxiliary Fire Service to serve as Sub-Station 24U, under the control of the erstwhile Brunswick Road Fire Station. It had served throughout the Blitz, including the dark days of "Black Saturday" on 7 September 1940, the great fire raid of 29 December 1940 and countless other raids affecting the East End of London. 

Old Palace School before the war (Firemen Remembered)

By April 1941, although Londoners didn't know it at the time, the Blitz was drawing to an end. Hitler was about to strike east at the Soviet Union and despite the misgivings of senior figures within the Luftwaffe such as Hugo Sperrle, the majority of the Luftwaffe's bomber forces were redeployed east. 

Despite the impending changes, bombing on London continued for the time being, with another particularly heavy raid being mounted on the night of 16/17 April 1941, a raid which became known to Londoners simply as "The Wednesday".

Three days later, on the night of 19/20 April came another heavy raid, said by some to coincide with Hitler's 53rd birthday and again, it was a sufficiently heavy and devastating raid to be given the simple label "The Saturday" by those that experienced it.

One of the purposes of the Auxiliary Fire Service was for the various units to act as a mobile reserve to be deployed wherever the need was greatest and on this night, as all of the local crews had been called out to fires in the local area, the call went out to Beckenham Fire Station for reinforcements. The twenty one Beckenham Firefighters arrived at 01.30 on Sunday 20th April and were mustering for orders alongside fellow crews from Homerton and Bow, when at 01:53 a high explosive bomb scored a direct hit on the school, demolishing a large part of it and setting the remainder on fire.

The results were catastrophic; all thirty two Firemen at the school as well as two Firewomen (1941 ranks used) were killed outright. It was - and remains - the largest loss of Fire Service personnel in a single incident in British history.

The grim task of recovery (Firemen Remembered)

The ceremony was presided over by Stephanie Maltman of the charity Firemen Remembered and the Rev'd Cathy Wyles; it was attended by Steve Dudeney, the former London Fire Brigade Borough Commander for the area when the original plaque was unveiled, as well as members of the present day Beckenham and Bow Fire Stations. As always, it was an extremely moving ceremony, especially as the names of the fallen were read.

Stephanie Maltman and the Rev'd Cathy Wyles (author's photo)

Fire Brigade guests, past and present (author's photo)

After the ceremony, we repaired to the school for tea and cakes but before we did, the School Caretaker invited us to the rear of the school buildings, where he showed us the splinter-strewn car park walls, the only part of the original school still standing, mute witnesses to an appalling horror. The walls had been slated for demolition a few years ago, he told us but the-then Head Teacher had mounted a campaign to save them, which ensured that they are now listed and saved for future generations to see.

Splinter strewn wall at Old Palace School (author's photo)

Splinter strewn walls (author's photo)

Thanks are due, as always to Stephanie Maltman and Bill Hickin of Firemen Remembered for organising the ceremony and for inviting yours truly to attend.

The new plaque in situ (author's photo)