The London ‘Blitz’.

The first enemy bombs dropped on the City of London but without the mass bombing of the following months-the London Blitz.

September 1940 –May 1941.

London and the River Thames waterfront were the prime targets for the intensive enemy bombing campaign in the early part of World War II, which became known simply as the ‘Blitz’. Hitler had two objectives; to disrupt trade through the country’s largest port and breaking Britain’s spirit. But the Germans were to be proved to be wrong on both points. The German plan, overseen by Reich Air Marshall Goering, had been to reduce London, and other large populated cities, to rubble and ashes, shattering the infrastructures of everyday life. His aim to paralyse administration and industry and to leave the population exhausted, terror-struck and cowering in their shelters. From this onslaught, it was hoped, Britain would sue for peace. Goering’s strategic bombing dissolved the clear distinction between the battlefield and homeland. His tactics turned a distant city into an embattled ‘home front’.

Warehouses ablaze following heavy bombing raids on the Surrey Commercial Docks in Rotherhithe, SE London. This raid took place on 7 September 1940 and was consider to be the start of the Blitz on London. Over 1000 fire brigade pumps were called to the docks that night to fight the conflagations. 1940.

St Katherine’s Dock, in the Pool of London, where land and river firemen fought to contain massive warehouse blazes.
East London docks ablaze on the morning of the 8th September 1940, the raids started the night before.

The docks, warehouses, and munitions plants of London were obvious targets; but so were the utilities and transport networks that served them, together with the millions whose labour was the city’s lifeblood.  This was industrialised war;a ‘total war of materiel and attrition’. The people of London became targets. As such, they faced a choice: they could be mere victims, waiting in the damp and muck of a crowded shelter for the bomb that destroyed them – or they could become combatants in their own right and fight back by simply not giving in to the bombing. Londoner’s chose the latter.

10th September 1940 and the docks were no longer just the target of the enemy bombers.

Throughout the summer of 1940 the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) had targeted the Royal Air Force(RAF), both in the skies over southern England and its bases in the Home Counties, especially across the South-east. The Germans needed air superiority before they could mount their planned invasion of England. This was the Battle of Britain, and despite heavy losses of men and aircraft, the RAF gradually gained the upper hand, forcing the Germans to change their tactics. The Germans did.

In September 1940 London’s burning docklands provided a beacon for the German navigators following the Thames upriver. For those on the ground and fighting the dock and warehousefires, the contents, added to hazards the firefighters faced nightly. There were pepper fires, loading the surrounding air heavily with stinging particles,so that when firemen took a deep breath, it felt like burning fire itself. There were rum fires, with torrents of blazing liquid pouring from the warehouse doors, and barrels exploding like bombs themselves. There was a paint fire, another cascade of white-hot flame… A rubber fire gave forth black clouds of smoke so asphyxiating that it could only be fought from a distance.

Women in the Auxiliary Fire Service played an important part during the Blitz. Whilst not in the front line many were commended for their bravery and received National bravery awards others died in the line of duty.

ARP wardens were on active duty during the bombing, enforcing the blackout, guiding people to shelters, watching for incendiaries, attending and reporting ‘incidents’. Under such fire, and doing this essential work, they were as much combatants as the regular soldiers, manning AA guns, searchlights, and barrage balloons around London. (The ARP suffered 3,808 casualties during the war, 1,355 of them were killed.)

On that first night of the Blitz (7th September) only one in five of London’s firefighters had had any previous experience. The dangers they faced were numerous and unpredictable. During the war, more than eight hundred firefighters would be killed and more than seven thousand, seriously injured. Many of them blinded by heat or sparks. At the end of the ten-week onslaught of  intensive Blitz on London fire, crews were all utterly exhausted by lack of sleep, excessive hours, irregular meals, extremes of temperature, and the constant physical and mental strain.

13th September 1940-Great Scotland Yard-Westminster.
On the night of the 17th September London’s West End was ablaze. Here Oxford Street is seen on the morning of the 18th.
On the night of the 17th September London’s West End was ablaze. Another view of Oxford Street as seen on the morning of the 18th.

On the river, beside the Massey Shaw and London’s otherfire-fighting craft, London’s air defence precautions included the River Emergency Service. More than a dozen pre-war pleasure steamers were converted to first aid and ambulance boats. They were moored at various points along the river including Silvertown Wharf, Wapping and Cherry Garden Pier, alongside the Beta III. To give a taste of what the fire-float crews, and others, endured onthe Thames that first night it is perhaps best illustrated by a personal account given by Sir Alan Herbert, who was in command of the Thames Auxiliary Patrol’s vessel Water Gypsy, which was heading downriver:

“Half a mile or more of the Surrey shore was burning. The wind was westerly and the accumulated smoke and sparks of all the fires swept in a highwall across the river.” He pressed on into the clouds of smoke: “The scene was like a lake in Hell. Burning barges were drifting everywhere. We could hear the hiss and roar of the conflagrations, a formidable noise but we could not see it so dense was the smoke. Nor could we see the eastern shore.”

Sir Alan Herbert and his crew on the Water Gipsy-a London Auxiliary patrol vessel

As dawn broke on the 8thSeptember the scale of the destruction was revealed. Four hundred and fifty Londoners had been killed and one thousand five hundred badly injured. Three main railway stations were out of action and one thousand fires were still burning, all the way up the river from Deptford to Putney. They included two hundred acres of timber ponds and stores in the Surrey Commercial Docks, destroying one third of London’s stocks of timber–stock which was badly needed for building repairs in the coming months.

Firemen dispatch riders would transfer messages, via motor bikes, dispite the bombs falling and the dangers around them.

The Blitz on London had started. The German bombers struck for fifty-seven consecutive nights and sometimes by day as well. The riverside communities from Woolwich to Lambeth bearing the brunt of the onslaught. Some streets had sturdy, well-constructed public air raid shelters; in others people had to rely on quickly-built Anderson shelters made from a couple of sheets of corrugated iron with earth piled on top. The shelters were for the civilians, there was no such safe haven for the emergency services, but especially the firemen, working on the streets and along the river.

London’s firemen, especially those who joined up in 1938/1939 to the newly created AFS got a bad press during the ‘Phoney War’ and were considered by many to be war dodgers-including comments in the national press! This all changes when the Blitz started and London’s firefighters were in the home front line.

An amed fireman guards the entrance to Lambeth HQ Control Room. 1940

Meanwhile it was not exactly business as usual for the docks and wharves as traffic was reduced to half its pre-war levels. But more freight was carried by tugs and lighters (barges)since, unlike the roads, the river was never blocked by bomb damage. For Londoners, and particularly the East Enders, it was the winter from hell. From that September their homes, and their city, had been pounded almost nightly by the Germanbombers. In riverside communities from Woolwich and Silvertown in the east, and Lambeth and beyond in the west, everyone knew the bomb-damaged streets, the families whose homes had been destroyed or who had lost a loved one in the Blitz.

The night-time raids that followed were equally terrible and deadly. Night after night the bombers returned. The Strand, the West End and Piccadilly were attacked. St Thomas’s Hospital, St Paul’s Cathedral, Buckingham Palace, Lambeth Palace and the House of Commons were all hit. Between September and November 1940 almost 30,000 bombs were dropped on London.In the first 30 days, almost 6,000 people were killed and twice as many badly injured including London’s firefighters.

King George VI and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth stayed in London during the bombing and visited many of the scenes of enemy bombing and its resultant devastation.

There were many acts of‘Blitz’ outstanding gallantry. One fireman was awarded the George Cross, theNation’s highest civilian gallantry award. Others received the George Medal,tragically some medals and commendations were awarded posthumously.

In late1940 Acting Sub Officer Richard Henry ASHTON’s actions saw him awarded the Medalof the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (BEM) for Meritorious Service. (Published in the London Gazette Supplement No 35058, 31stJanuary 1941, pp. 611.) About fifty people were cut off by a serious fire and were in danger of being driven into the river by the flames. With great difficulty and while bombing was continuing Sub-Officer Ashton, who was in charge of a fire-float, rescued the stranded people by towing them in a barge, skilfully avoiding other burning barges and disembarked them in safety.

Awarded the Medal of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (BEM) for Meritorious Service was AuxiliaryMessenger Samuel STILLWELL. At a large Docks fire this boy (16) was discovered holding a hose until relieved by firemen. He continued afterwards to deliver messages-and bring drinking-water to officers and men who were unable to leave their positions. Altogether Stillwell was at the fire in the Docks on the first day and night for over 14 hours and on five succeeding nights carried out duties at fires in the same area with great courage. He was quite indifferent to the danger he was in and, although ordered to shelter, he turned up again and again later in the night and the next morning carrying drinking water to the men on the hoses.

On the night of September 17th 1940 Auxiliary fireman Harry Errington and some of the other firemen were resting in the basement of their sub-station. In total there were about 20 firemen and 30 civilians sheltering from a bombing raid outside. At about midnight the building received a direct hit. As a result the floors above the basement collapsed with the vehicles and fire appliances, and the garage petrol store,  crashed into the basement creating a sudden ball of fire. Harry was blown across the floor and woke to find himself stunned but unhurt though twenty-six others were killed including seven of the firemen.

The cellar was burning. It was smoke logged and rubble strewn. Harry had tried to make his way to the stairs but they were blocked. Remembering that there was another exit he tried to locate that and as he did so he heard cries from behind him. He turned to find his friend,  John Hollingshead, another AFS fireman lying on the floor. He was face down and in pain. Both his legs were trapped by masonry and his back badly burnt. Placing a blanket over his head for protection Harry managed to reach John Hollingshead and pull him free by scraping away the rubble with his bare hands. Which soon became burnt and cut. He too was, by this time, in great pain. He managed to half carry, half dragged John Hollingshead up a rubble filled stairwell. All the while the fire grew worse and the building above more unstable. On his way out  Harry saw another AFS friend, John Terry, trapped by a radiator. Terry was, semi-conscious and had a huge bleeding lump on his head. Having dragged Hollingshead to safety, despite the fire and the danger of the building collapsing, Harry returned into the basement and managed to pull  Terry through a window that had been blasted away as the stairs were now completely blocked. Outside he left Terry propped up against a wall to wait for first aid and began again to drag Hollingshead towards the women’s hospital in Soho Square. With great effort he managed to get them both there, where they were both treated. Harry was badly concussed, with the skin on his forearm and hands badly burnt. He spent four months in hospital recovering. For his outstanding valour Harry was awarded the George Cross-the civilian equivilent of the military Victoria Cross.

Awarded the GEORGE MEDAL
. Divisional Officer Geoffrey Vaughan BLACKSTONE and Acting Sub-Officer Sydney Herbert BOULTER. A high explosive bomb demolished a building leaving one wall in a tottering condition. Five members of the Fire Service were on beds on the ground floor of the building and were entombed under the debris which was supported by iron girders inclined against the damaged wall. Bombs were falling in the district at the time and the blast made the wall sway dangerously. DO Blackstone, fully realizing the extreme danger of the wall falling, began toburrow into the debris. He worked continuously with his bare hands for about four hours in darkness and foul atmosphere and released three of the victims. In order to extricate them, he had to take the weight of a girder on his shoulders while passing debris back between his legs. DO Blackstone displayed conspicuous courage and suffered considerably from the effects of the gas and bad atmosphere in which he had been working. The tottering wall fell soon after the rescues had been effected. Sub-Officer Boulter, although wet through andexhausted after, seven hours strenuous fire-fighting, also assisted in the rescue of two of those trapped who were on the side of the ground floor away from the dangerous wall. He tunnelled downwards and, held by his feet, wriggled down vertically through the debris to a man who was pinned under a steel girder and covered in masonry. After three hours hard work in darkness and a gas-fouled atmosphere he released the man and brought him out alive. After this rescue Boulter assisted the other party until the last victim was recovered.  Sub Officer Boulter displayed endurance and great courage in the face of extreme danger.

Blitz in London — AFS firefighters salvage their bedding from the bombed-out Mansfield Road fire sub-station after it was seriously damaged in a bombing raid on 16 November 1940. 1940

Soho bombing. At 7.45 pm on 7 October 1940 – after four nights in whichWestminster escaped damage in raids on London – a high explosive bomb hit the doorway of the fire station at 72 Shaftesbury Avenue, close to Cambridge Circus and directly opposite the Palace Theatre. The Shaftesbury Avenue fire station (built in 1887 and renamed the Soho Fire Station in 1921), suffered severe damage and was virtually demolished. Two passers-by sheltering in the doorway were killed and several firemen inside the Station also died or were seriously injured. Three fire engines were covered in debris and the station entrances were completely blocked. Survivors from the building escaped by sliding down the debris, dazed but otherwise unhurt.

Six  London firemen died when Wandsworth fire station was destroyed by enemy action during the night of 16th November 1940 during a heavy air raid. Both appliances, pump-escape and pump, were in the station awaiting deployment and their crews were resting, mainly in the basement of the building. Also in the basement was the Control Room staffed largely by female personnel, and other off-duty and administrative staff were sleeping in various positions offering shelter. On the ground floor, the Station Watch-Room was manned by Watch-Room Attendants W. Brum and L. Isaacs. Also present with them was Company Officer Beard who had just returned from visiting local Sub-Stations. On the other side of the appliance room was the recreation room and here were resting Firemen A. Turner and L. Aylett; LeadingFireman Despatch Rider C. Andreazzi and Junior Despatch Riders D. Aust and E.Bowler.

The station was hit by an oil-bomb and was immediately well alight. The recreation room side collapsed completely but the only personnel on this side of the building were the five men referred to. Of these, Fireman Turner, Ldg Fm D/R Andreazzi and Junior D/R Aust were killed if not by the explosion then by falling masonry. Fm Aylett and Junior D/R Bowlerwere shielded by the snooker table under which they were sleeping. This partially collapsed but the strong legs and slate top, although broken, protected them from the debris and despite being trapped they sustained comparatively minor injuries. Meanwhile in the Watch Room, the two W/A’s and Con Off Beard were killed, probably by the explosion, and that part of the station and the appliances were burning.

The personnel in the basement were able to escape into the station yard through a hatchway constructed for such a purpose. Assistance was quickly forth coming as pumps from Battersea were already on their way to stand-by at Wandsworth when the incident took place. They got to work on the fire and rescue operations commenced as soon as it was known that there were survivors in the debris. The first man to be reached was Fm Aylett,and when extricated he was able to tell the location of each of the other men in the recreation room. D.R Bowler was next released and both were removed to hospital. In due course, six bodies were recovered from the building.

Notthumberland Avenue-Westminster, 1940.

Just after Christmas, and at 6.30 p.m,on the 29th December, a massive night attack began in earnest. Baskets and baskets of enemy incendiaries clattered down on the roofs andstreets of the City of London. All around St Paul’s Cathedral fires sprang up and quickly spread. Some fire bombs fell on the cathedral’s roof but all were cast off or extinguished.

The iconic image of St Paul’s captured on the night of the 29th December 1940.

The water supply in London failed, important mains being shattered by high-explosive bombs. Only by dragging heavy canvas hose across the mud from the fire-floats working in the Thames could water be brought to the bank. In the river bed firemen toiled, coaxing slimy hose-pipes into a battery of lines for their vital water supply. It was most one of the most notorious raids of the Blitz to date. The enemies focus was the City of London. An area from Aldersgate to Cannon Street and Cheapside to Moorgate went up in flames.

City of London-29th December 1940.

Nineteen churches, including sixteenbuilt by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London, were destroyed.Miraculously, however, St Paul’s survived. Of the thirty-four Guild Halls, thirty-one were decimated. When Paternoster Row, centre of London’s publishingindustry, was destroyed, around five-million books were lost. Two fire officers and fourteen firemen were killed that night. Across London two hundredand fifty officers and firemen were injured fighting the one thousand-fivehundred fires that blazed into the early hours of the following day.

Whitecross Street. Probably the most devastating strike occurred on the evening of 29 December, when German aircraft attacked the City of London itself with incendiary and high explosive bombs, causing a firestorm that has been called the Second Great Fire of London. The first group to use these incendiaries was Kampfgruppe 100 which despatched 10 “pathfinder” He 111s.  At 18:17, it released the first of 10,000 fire bombs, eventually amounting to 300 dropped per minute.  Altogether, 130 German bombers destroyed the historical centre of London. Civilian casualties on London throughout the Blitza mounted to 28,556 killed, and 25,578 wounded. The Luftwaffe dropped 18,291 tons of bombs.

The morning of the 30th December 1940 and line upon line of hose snakes its way over Southwark Bridge from the south side bring much needed water supplies into the City of London.

The 1st January 1941 and St Paul’s survives with only minor damage

The raid near the Tower of London on the 16th April 1941.

The last major attack on London was on 10/11 May 1941, on which the Luftwaffeflew 571 sorties and dropped 800 tonnes of bombs. This caused more than 2,000fires. 1,436 people were killed and 1,792 seriously injured, which affectedmorale badly. Another raid was carried out on 11/12 May 1941. Westminster Abbeyand the Law Courts were damaged, while the Chamber of the House of Commons wasdestroyed. One-third of London’s streets were impassable. All but one railwaystation line was blocked for several weeks. This raid was significant as 63German fighters were sent with the bombers indicating the growing effectivenessof RAF night fighter defences. 

Yvonne Marie Green was a 30 year old thirteenth generation Canadian from Montreal who had recently been divorced from Tyrou Nichol, a British actor. She had re-married, this time to Leonard Green, an officer of the Canadian Army who had been posted on attachment to the Royal Tank Regiment shortly after the outbreak of war. The family home was at 24 Old Church Street, Chelsea but like all worried husbands who were in a position to do something about it, Leonard had tried to move Yvonne to the relative safety of the country and for a while, she dutifully lived with him near his barracks at Farnham in Surrey but being the fiercely independent and feisty character she was, Yvonne was having none of this and soon moved back to London and later joined the AFS as a Firewatcher based at Chelsea Old Church.

Yvonne had left her baby daughter Penelope, in the safety of Canada with her mother and from her regular correspondence to ‘Madam Cherie’ which survive in the archives of the Imperial War Museum, we can see just how independent this remarkable lady was. Her letter dated 8th October 1940 demonstrates exactly what she thought of life in the country:

‘Here I am back in London again, to your honour and my satisfaction. Honestly, Farnham was a simply dire place and I’d rather face Goering’s worse than die from pernicious boredom. I take no chances, believe me, and when I’m not on duty I sleep downstairs very snugly in the basement. Don’t alarm yourself when you don’t hear from me because I have given instructions that if anything should happen to me you should be informed – so no news is good news – remember that.’ Yvonne’s letters are all like that – newsy, common sense, matter of fact and with an unshakeable belief in the final victory of the British Empire and her Allies. By 23rd February 1941, she was writing home to report on her first night stationed at the top of the tower of Chelsea Old Church:

‘I had quite an exciting experience on Wednesday night – my first night as a fire watcher. I was as high as one could get in Chelsea Old Church tower being shown around; where the buckets of sand, stirrup pumps and water were. And the bombs dropped! The first we’d seen in our district since September. I tell you, I have never descended a spiral staircase as fast in all my life! It was only a stick of three bombs in the next street which luckily did little damage and only one man hurt-a broken leg. So my experience was not disastrous luckily, but its going to take a lot to inveigle me up to the top of that tower again while a Blitz is in progress. I have never had a head for heights anyway.’
She was killed in the air raids on the night of the 16th/17th April 1941.

By May 1941 43,000 people had been killed across Britain and almost one and an half million had been made homeless. Not only was London attacked but so were many other Britishcities. Coventry and Plymouth were particularly badly bombed. Few, if any ofBritain’s cities escaped enemy bombing. Manchester, Glasgow and Liverpool allsuffered major damage, the loss of life and its populations serious injury.

In the closing weeks of the Blitz the bravery of London’s firefighters was never far from the bombing. Fire stations from the outskirts of greater London headed into the fray, many attending the riversidedocks and warehouse fires. The Blitz on Britain was called off in May 1941. Hitler had a far more prized target. In the following month, Operation Barbarossa was launched, the attack on Russia. The huge military force needed for this attack included many bombers and two-thirds of the German military was to be tied upon the Eastern Front for the duration of the war. Meanwhile it was not exactly business as usual for London’s docks and wharves as traffic was reduced to half its pre-war levels. But more freight was carried by tugs and lighters (barges)since the river was always clear of any bomb debris which blocked the capitals roads. London started to re-build whilst awaiting the next onslaught. It came in the form of the V1 and V2 attacks towards the end of World War II when London again was under attack.

It would be five decades before the bravery and sacrifices of London’s firemen and woman were formally recognised nationally with the unveiling on the The Blitz statue in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother.

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