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.
The vast Commercial Docks complex at Rotherhithe
A great deal of timber was stored at the docks, some of it on barges moored at the riverside. When these caught fire they were cut loose to drift downriver on the tide. However, they returned, blazing still, with the next tide and added to the overall chaos and confusion.
And the chaos was complete. Two days earlier, the local fire brigades had earlier been sent to help fight the blazes further down the estuary and had not yet returned. Fire brigades from other boroughs to the west and south were drafted into the East End but, of course, they were without any local knowledge amd most of the crews had never before set foot in Bermondsey and East Ham - the latter alone, had sent out calls for five hundred pumps to tackle its fires. The narrow streets were soon jam-packed with miles of hosepipe, pumps and towing vehicles, all bathed in the lurid glare and showering sparks.
Bermondsey, was particularly difficult. The strip of land between Surrey Commercial docks and the riverside was densely inhabited and known locally as "Down Town." A maze of narrow lanes lined with back-to-back cottages and goods yards, it was connected to the rest of Bermondsey by the Redriff Road which ran through the vast acres of docks and connected with the east side of Rotherhithe Road which looped around the north of the peninsula.
When the docks began to blaze, the inhabitants of Down town were evacuated and most of them were taken to Keeton's Road School to the south of Jamaica Road. The school was not an air raid shelter but offered the only available accommodation for such large numbers of people at such short notice. Unfortunately, the school experienced a direct hit a few hours later and many of the evacuees were killed. Many of the survivors were convinced that the German airmen had seen them make their way to the school and deliberately target it.
Our next eyewitness of the events of that afternoon and night of horror is a Mr Mills, Warden at Roper Street, at the south end of Redriff Road. The small team included a teenage boy - the 'boy' in his narrative - who would act as a runner if the telephone lines were down. At about six o'clock, his team and another at Rotherhithe baths, to the north of Down town, were sent in to evacuate the area.
"We came away from Roper Street, we was stationed down there at the time and we was directed to the surrey docks, the Redriff Estate, to rescue the people from there. Well, when we got there we went up as far as Canada yard and we couldn't get no further. Also the teams went away from Rotherhithe Baths. The 'shelter' referred to by Mr Mills was an Anderson Shelter, named after the Home Secretary and Minister for Home Security, Sir john Anderson. They consisted of a shell constructed from fourteen sheets of corrugated steel which stood six feet (2m) high and was buried to a depth of four-and-a-half feet (1.4m). The exposed two feet were covered with at least fifteen inches of soil. Sited in people's gardens, they were large enough to accommodate four to six people and offered protection against anything other than a direct hit. The entrance was protected by a bank of sandbags. Beginning in February 1939, they were issued free to those earning less than £250 a year and at a nominal charge of £7 for those who could afford to pay. In all, 2,250,000 were issued.
"They got down there and picked the people up from down there, took 'em to the Keeton's Road School and as soon as they got 'em there they was bombed again and we had to go there, after we got back. Well, coming back from Redriff Road, hey was bombing 'em all the time and the dock was all alight, ships blazing, and there was a grain warehouse there , just like a furnace.
"All the walls was red-hot and then we came back from there, we came under the [railway] arch in Southwark Park Road, we got as far as Ambrose Street and he dropped on the cinema. Well, we stopped the lorry outside the London Tea Stores, I think it was, we got underneath the lorry and laying on the ground we could hear someone crying out -
'Hurry up and get me out of here.'
I didn't know where it was, so what I done, I said to the boy, I said -
'Well, there's someone in trouble here somewhere so we'd better go and find out where it is.'
So the sound sounded to me as if it was coming from Anchor Street, so we run back to Anchor Street, went along and there was a woman standing at a door and a man. They said
'Here y'are mate, come through here, there's a fire over there'.
So when we got through the yard we had to scale about four or five walls and then we saw the house alight. The shelter and then the shed, all ablaze. Well, we done no more, we got over the wall and into the shelter. Everyone was all mixed up there, the sandbags had all blown in on 'em so I got my number one and he helped me out, he was at the door, and I threw the sandbags out at him to clear the way, then I got five people out. They came out and I went out altogether.
I came out in Ambrose Street and hen I went back from there down to the depot again. Now where did we go from there? I think I went to the Old Kent Road, the top of Page's walk. They'd dropped one there. And coming back from the Old Kent Road we come down the Tower Bridge Road. The cork factory in Abbey Street, top end . . . Next, the Public house, the Black man's House they used to call it, and that was all ablaze, but there was no one in there, and then we came out of there and went back again and I know we went out three or four times. I went in Westcott Street, there was another one we went – we was all out – all the teams was out one after the other on tht particular night, I can't think where we went to."
As they were buried structures, drainage was a problem and this did not go unnoticed by Churchill himself. On September 3 1940 he wrote the following note to the Home Secretary:-
"In spite of the shortage of materials, a great effort should be made to help people to drain their Anderson shelters, which reflect so much credit on your name, and to make floors for them against the winter rain. Bricks on edge placed loosely together without mortar, covered with a piece of linoleum, would be quite good, but there must be a drain and a sump. I am prepared to help you in a comprehensive scheme to tackle this, Instruction can be given on the broadcast, and of course the Regional commissioners and local authorities should be used. Let me have a plan." Our next eyewitness account is from a Mr O'Connell, a full-time Post Warden stationed on Rotherhithe Street.
"Our first fire was at Bellamy's Wharf and following that was one near Surrey Lock Bridge, which we did our best to try and out, and we did out to a certain extent, and then we followed on with the break of a spell, and then we had the Dixon Street flare up, and that was a terrific fire, and all the personnel in that street did a magnificent job trying to get the incendiaries and everything out. And here is Jack Rothmans of the A.F.S. again:-
Two firemen who were badly hurt in the fire were brought into my post, which I had to change all their clothes and give them two suits of overalls, and let themselves warm themselves because they were soaking with oil. And then Capsull's, the paint factory, that went up in the air. We all had an order to watch out for parachutists coming down in the area. And this certain thin was coming down which we thought all the time was a parachutist, but it happened to be a mine, which fell partly in the dock, and set fire to the paint wells, and then we had Bellamy's Wharf, the egg warehouse. Well, Bellamy's Wharf, as we know, had a vast lot of people under shelter there, and also the Globe Wharf. I had a tidy few people in there, and in this shelter this night the top of it was all alight. And I called one of my individuals out on the quiet, and I say to him, I said –
'Bill, we shall have to evacuate the people out of this place.'
And with that I brought all the people out, even in our own dust carts. Things quietened down a bit after that, and then we had another big fire. And we had a bargeload of very burnable stuff, which was alcohol, and we had to cut that barge a-loose in the river. And then the dock itself was one mass of flame, and the barges of timber which my people cut loose from the sides of the wharves, to save the other timber, but I think it was a labour in vain as far as that went."
"I ws struck by the lack of organisation of he dock authorities. I remember when we wanted petrol for our pumps we had to break the locks on the petrol pumps in the dock area because the man in charge was nowhere to be found. I remember too that there were three ammunition ships in the docks an nobody seemed to make any efforts to move them. I know that one exploded. What happened to the other two I never did find out. There was so much noise and so many explosions, and so many thousands of firemen all about you that you were really just concerned with the fire you were working on.
The night seemed endless, wave after wave, or wjhat seemed like wave after wave of planes, the roar and crackle of the flames, falling buildings, men shouting. It's hard to remember exactly. I suppose when you are engaged on doing one specific thing you're oblivious to what is going on around you. Though you know there's terrible things going on. I don't think that any of the men with me were any less scared than I was. I know I was scared, and I am not ashamed to admit it."
TO BE CONTINUED.
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.