Tuesday, September 10, 2013

War Stories: London is Burning and I Live by the River*

View eastwards along the Thames.  Heavy smoke rises from fires in and around the London  Docks complex. Tower Bridge is clearly visible (lower centre right) and the Tower of London can also be seen (lower centre left)
My recent trip to Britain's capital and my former home, a flat near Tower Bridge, triggered all sorts of nostalgia. One of these thought threads, catalyzed by the memory that exactly 73 years ago the Battle of Britain was reaching its peak, was an intense curiosity about what life was like in the London Borough of Southwark in those dark war years. 

A Heinkel bomber flies over Surrey Docks on the Isle of Dogs, east London
The flat is in Docklands, an area of the city that suffered terribly in the Nazi bombing raids of WW2.  Back then the docks were fully functional and essential for maintaining the supply lifeline to the island nation. So they presented a logical target for German bombers in The Blitz of 1940-1941.  On 7th September 1940, having failed to destroy the RAF, Hitler directed the Luftwaffe to attack London.

View from St. Paul's cathedral  to Southwark bridge; London bridge can just be seen to the left of Southwark Bridge
Enemy bomb detonations on the first night of the Blitz. A scalable, interactive version can be found here

On the first night of the Blitz an initial wave of 348 bombers, escorted by 617 fighters, dropped their deadly payloads. A detailed and meticulous account of every bomb blast (there were 843 of them) is recorded here. The rose-coloured spectacles of hindsight tend to depict a romanticized vision of wartime London. The truth is that it was a grim and desperate place. In the following eight months more than 70 heavy raids were recorded, a million properties were destroyed or damaged and 40,000 people were killed. 1651 high explosive bombs, 20 parachute mines and an unknown number of incendiary bombs were dropped on Southwark borough alone. Bomb Sight, the WW2 bomb census organisation, records 136 bomb strikes in the Riverside sub-district of the borough. Half a dozen bombs landed around or actually on the present site of my flat in Mill Street and at least one went off in the adjacent St Saviour's dock. If my residence had existed at that time I would have certainly been rendered homeless or possibly killed.

Bomb detonation map of the Riverside district of Southwark showing bomb strikes during the course of the Blitz. Map from Bomb Sight records
Damage was extensive: one million homes were destroyed or badly damaged
Mill Street c1985. The shot is taken from Jamaica Road. My flat is in a block built on the site in the foreground on the left hand side (behind the railings). It's pretty evident that there is nothing there and I'm sure the buildings once there were razed in the Blitz. BombSight indicates several bombs fell on this spot.  The photo is by David Buckley and used with his permission
Dread Zeppelin! This plaque in Farringdon Road is a reminder that  London also suffered aerial attacks in WWI 
Of course, the bombing didn't stop with the cessation of the Blitz in May 1941. It continued at lower intensity and decreasing throughout the war however there was a sting in the tail in 1944 and 1945 when a Hitler deployed his V1 and V2 Vergeltungswaffe (Vengeance) weapons. They were both pilotless bombs and launched from sites in France. The V1, which also went by the charmingly folksy nickname of Doodlebug, was a relatively low speed projectile powered by a simple pulse jet. It could be shot down by anti-aircraft guns and fast fighter interceptors, notably the Hawker Tempest.  Nevertheless many got through the British defences and their 850 Kg warheads caused extensive casualties (approximately 23,000 killed and wounded) and property damage. V1 attacks ceased after allied forces captured their launching sites in September 1944. If you don't know what a V1 looked or sounded like you might want to watch this clip.

An even nastier weapon was the V2 rocket. These were fired approximately 100 Km into near space on a long parabolic trajectory. Because they were supersonic, the V2s were impossible to shoot down and could not be intercepted by fighters. And unlike the V1 which announced its arrival by the distinctive "parp-parp" note of its pulse jet, the V2 arrived ahead of the sound wave and was noiseless until its 1000 Kg warhead detonated.  While the V2 could be fired from fixed sites, the preferred method was to launch them from mobile sites (like the infamous SCUD missiles of the Iraq wars), usually in the Pas de Calais. The V2 has the dubious distinction of being the first ballistic missile used in combat and was a truly terrifying instrument of war.

The V2 rocket has the dubious distinction of being the first ballistic missile used in combat and was a truly terrifying instrument of war. It stood nearly 15metres tall and carried a 1000Kg high explosive warhead. The rocket here is on display at the Flying Heritage Collection, Everett, Washington.
On 2nd March 1945 a V2 rocket exploded here at Parkers Row, London,  SE1, killing three people. This site is no more than 200 metres from the front door of my flat. The building on the left is typical 1950s style post war prefab and I presume was ground zero for the rocket. Picture from Google street view.

I started out with the intention of this post being about the V2 rocket explosion near my old flat but it's morphed into something quite a bit more. As a baby boomer, I was very used to hearing "war stories" from my parents, their friends and family members when growing up.  As as fan of military history, I knew the phases of WW2 quite well. Yet in digging up the material for this article I was frankly shocked when I was reminded how bad things were...I even started to feel resentful of the "Keep Calm and Carry On" motto (ironically dreamed up in 1939 by the Ministry of Information in anticipation of air raids) currently being used to hawk endless products and services.
Wartime chic isn't!

* My apologies to the late John G. Mellor for borrowing this line from his excellent lyrics without his permission.

No comments: