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London DisastersLondon Fires: The Blitz: I
Posted on Feb 03, 2005 - 02:55 PM by Bill McCann

For fifty-seven successive days and nights between September and November 1940, London was repeatedly bombed by the Nazi Luftwaffe. For the following six months, she continued to be bombed frequently and heavily. This was the Blitz. More than 20,000 Londoners lost their lives and hundreds of thousands men women and children were injured as the city was in many places reduced to a smoking ruin. In his celebrated account of that winter, Constantine Fitzgibbon recorded the first-hand accounts of some of the Londoners who experienced the terror of the fires that engulfed their lives in the first days of the Blitz. In this short series we will attempt to re-capture the terror and stoicism of Londoners during that long winter. And, with the help of the great Winston Churchill, try to frame it in the overall dark and terrible context that confronted his government as Britain "stood alone" in the face of the Nazi evil engulfing Europe.


Sunset over London was not always so glorious and peaceful!

On Saturday, September 7th 1940 Herman Goering and his commander of the Air Fleet, Albert Kesselring, stood on the Cap Gris Nez on the north coast of France, not far from Calais. Below them they watched the Heinkels and Dorniers of Air Fleet Two form up, take off and head across the English Channel. Further to the south the bombers of Air Fleet Three were thundering along the runways of Normandy and Brittany. It was four o'clock in the afternoon and more than three hundred Luftwaffe bombers with their escort of six hundred fighters were airborne. The Blitz was under way.

British defences were caught by surprise. Not because an aerial bombardment was not expected - in fact, it was widely expected throughout that hot summer - but because military logic suggested that it would come immediately in advance of the planned Nazi invasion of Britain Operation Sea Lion. But Hitler had, at least temporarily, abandoned the plan, turning his eyes on Russia. Goering, however, was convinced that, by raining death and destruction on the civilian population, his great air force would destroy London and force Britain out of the war. He was not supported in this by the Army or the Navy and Hitler had expressly forbidden the bombing of the civilian population. The Luftwaffe did of course bomb the coastal defences and oil installations in southern England installations.

The situation changed on august 24th when German bombers accidentally dropped some bombs on London. Churchill immediately ordered reprisals and Berlin was bombed on the following night by 81 aircraft from Bomber Command but caused little damage. Whenever weather conditions allowed, British bombers appeared in the skies over Berlin for the next week. It was too much for Hitler and on August 4th an on September 4th he announced that he was about to "simply erase" Britain's cities. Military logic counted for nothing and Goering was given his orders to attack London.

The first wave arrived over the Medway, from the east, at around five o'clock. Fifteen minutes later they were over their targets Woolwich Arsenal and the docks in the East End. Goering's rain began to fall on London. Having hit their targets, the first wave of bombers and supporting Messerschmitts turned north and away - even as the second wave came in from the south and south-west. More than three hundred tons of high explosives and thousands of incendiary bombs fell on the Victoria and Albert Docks, the West India docks and the massive Surrey Commercial Docks in Bermondsey in that late afternoon and evening.

But it was not only the docks on which they fell. Packed around the docks in narrow rows of little streets were the houses in which the workers lived. These small two-storey houses had been built, quickly and cheaply, by the property speculators of the 19th century and were little better than jerry-built. They provided perfect fodder for the fiery holocaust that was about to be unleashed. They collapsed in the first shock-waves and by half-past six whole streets were a mass of dust and rubble. The fires quickly followed and provided an unmissable beacon for the advancing night bombers.

The Churchill Government now faced a cruel dilemma. As Churchill himself puts it in the second volume of his magnificent history of the war:

"The various preliminary raids which had been made upon our provincial cities in the previous three weeks had led to a considerable dispersion of our anti-aircraft artillery, and when London first became the main target there were but ninety-two guns in position. It was thought better to leave the air free for our night-fighters, working under No. 11 Group. Of these there were six squadrons of Blenheims and Defiants. Night-fighting was in its infancy, and very few casualties were inflicted on the enemy. Our batteries therefore remained silent for three nights in succession."
For the first three nights of the Blitz, therefore, this absence of anti-aircraft fire or "barrage" as they called it then - looked to the Londoners as if the government were offering no resistance to the Germans. It was much commented upon, and the Prime Minister was not unaware of this fact, as we shall see.

As the sun set and dusk began to descend on the metropolis, the blaze in the Isle of Dogs grew in intensity. Our first eye-witness is Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop who worked for the Board of Education.

"We'd been down to Richmond to tea with some friends. We came back on bicycles at about five o'clock and we saw this enormous great mushroom of smoke. It was so big, and towered up into the sky so high, that one couldn't believe it was smoke at all, and for a long time we didn't know what it could be. We'd heard the guns going and we'd heard the sirens going but we never dreamt of anything like this. And then we got up to the top of this rise in Richmond Park and we could see this smoke, this column of smoke, and we said
'My goodness, that must be somewhere near Hammersmith.'
And then we bicycled on, and we said -
'Well, it must be Chelsea'.
And finally when we got home, it was only then that we realised that it was ten or twelve miles away from us still. And then we went up on the roof of our flat and saw this great horizon plainly, this red column of smoke towering up into the sky, a terrifying sight."
From the other side of London, what had happened was all too plain. An anonymous man who lived in Woodford, at Epping Forest in the northeast of the capital, remembered:
"A monstrous, monotonous droning proclaimed the coming of the bombers. They swept on south of the Borough. By six o'clock the skies were empty, and all Thameside blazed. As the sun began to sink, the vast expanse of the red glow, to west and southwest, sent a chill to the heart. It seemed that all London was burning."
The view from the heart of the historic City of London gives yet another perspective. The then Dean of St Paul's, the Very Reverend W R Matthews, has recorded:
"Some of us watched the battle from the colonnade of St. Paul's. It was a golden, peaceful evening and, as the light faded from the sky, the angry red glow in the east, diversified by leaping flames, dominated the prospect, while from time to time the peculiar thud of bursting bombs punctured the silence. . . Bombs fell on all sides of St. Paul's and we had our first introduction to a sound that was to become all too familiar the weird and terrifying noise, like a muffled scream, which a bomb makes when it is launched from a great height. Once more we could see from the roof a great conflagration in the east, which spread for many miles along the horizon, while nearer at hand there were smaller fires around the cathedral. The whole of that night was almost as bright as a sunny day. The surrounding fires afforded a brilliant illumination and no torches were needed, though of course no torches were allowed on the roofs. Inside the Cathedral the light was such that I have never seen the stained glass windows glow as they did then. I did not know it, but that was to be one of the last times that I, or anyone else, would see those windows."
But at the very centre of the maelstrom itself we find Mr Jack Rothman, a member of the Auxiliary Fire Service (A.F.S.>)on duty at the Surrey Docks sub-station. On that Saturday afternoon he treated himself to a bath in the 500 gallon tank at the station. He takes up the story:-
"I was drying myself and partly dressed when we heard the sound of planes overhead. We saw them coming in rather fast and low, far lower than I had ever seen any plane during the war. We saw the bomb bays open quite clearly, but we still though it was some fun and games exercise over the docks, which we knew nothing about. I don't think it struck any of us that the emblems on the planes weren't British. Then we saw the bombs leave the planes and everyone ran for cover, buildings tossed about, the ground shook, and the next thing we knew the bells were down and away we went."
The German night bombers took off from their French bases at about eight o'clock that evening and about an hour later began to drop their loads into the blazing holocaust below them.

Four fifths of the men on the ground who "were off" when the "bells went down" had no previous experience of actual fire fighting. They were confronted with blazes at least three times bigger than anything the regular fire service had to face before the war. All of these fires were technically "out of hand" unsurrounded, uncontrolled and spreading. At Woolwich Arsenal, these untrained firemen ran between boxes of live ammunition and crates of nitro-glycerine quenching the fires while all the time the bombers overhead continued their efforts to destroy the foremost military target in London. The biggest fire was in Quebec Yard, Surrey Docks it has been said that it was 30 to 40 times bigger than the largest of the immediately pre-war London fires. The heat it generated was so intense that the solid wooden blocks making up the surface of the roadways were set alight and the paint on the fireboats trying to slip past on the opposite bank of the river, 300 yards away, was blistered. Stocks of timber, drenched by the firemen to prevent them from catching fire, merely hissed steam, dried themselves and burst into flame.

Constantine FitzGibbon graphically describes the new horrors of the different types of fire in the warehouse areas:

"There were pepper fires, loading the surrounding air heavily with stinging particles. So that when the 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 the bombs themselves. There was a paint fire, another cascade of white-hot flame, coating the pumps with varnish that could not be cleaned for weeks. A rubber fire gave forth black clouds of smoke so asphyxiating that it could only be fought from a distance, and was always threatening to choke the attackers. Sugar, it seems, burns well in liquid form as it floats on the water in dockland basins. Tea makes a blaze that is 'sweet, sickly and very intense'. One man found it odd to be pouring cold water on hot tea leaves. A grain warehouse when burning produced great clouds of black flies that settled in banks upon the walls, whence the firemen washed them off with their jets. There were rats in their hundreds. And the Residue of burned wheat was "a sticky mess that 'pulls your boots off'."
How did these auxiliary firemen feel in the face of such terrors and dangers? One has left us a record of his impressions:
"Most of us had the wind up to start with, especially with no barrage. It was all new, but we were all unwilling to show fear, however much you might feel it. You looked around and saw the rest doing their job. You couldn't let them down, you just had to get on with it. You began to make feeble jokes to each other and gradually you got accustomed to it. . .
The fires had a stunning effect. Wherever the eye could see, vast sheets of flame and a terrific roar. It was so bright that there was no need for headlights.
On September 7th we took our pumps to East India dock. To Rum Wharf. The first line of warehouses was ablaze from end to end. I walked down between the two warehouses by myself. Half-way down was a staff car in the middle of the causeway. Standing nonchalantly beside it was a young W.A.F.S., outwardly taking not a blind bit of notice of the stuff that was falling pretty thick all round. Seeing her I strolled passed as if I was used to walking out in the middle of the falling bombs every Saturday afternoon. We gave each other a sickly smile and I passed on. . .
"The fire was so huge that we could do little more than make a feeble attempt to put it out. The whole of that warehouse was a raging inferno, against which were silhouetted groups of pigmy firemen directing their futile jets at the wall of flame. . .
While we were working on our branch [of the fire hose] we had to keep in the same position for hours on end, unable to let go of the branch to take cover when bombs fell a large cargo ship took fire for'ard . . . we put this fire out in half-an-hour and then returned to our warehouse.
"In spite of the numbness you have time to think a little while you crouch over the branch and I remembered the crowd of women and children whom we had met as we rode in, streaming away from the danger area, carrying bundles over their shoulders. Some would run out into the roadway and call to us to come and attend to their fires. . .
"Occasionally we would glance up and then we would see a strange sight. For a flock of pigeons kept circling around overhead almost all night. They seemed lost, as if they couldn't understand the unnatural dawn. It looked like sunrise all round us. The pigeons seemed white in the glare, birds of peace making a strange contrast with the scene below.
When the real dawn came about five, the Germans eased off their blitz. The All Clear raised a weary cheer. At seven o'clock I was hunched half-asleep across the branch holder. At last the relief crews arrived. Knowing that we were returning home gave us that extra ounce of strength without which we could hardly have hoisted the rolled-up lengths on our shoulders."

Churchill, Winston S., The Second World War, Volume II Their Finest Hour. Cassell & Co. London, 1949.
FitzGibbon, Constantine, The Blitz, Allan Wingate, London 1957.
Matthews, W R, Saint Paul's Cathedral in Wartime 1939-1945, Hutchinson & Co, 1946.


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