I had no idea fighter-bombers were used against London as early as 1940, yet on Tuesday 8th October just before 9 am a raid took place that certainly hit targets across the centre of London, including Whitehall, at the very heart of British government.
Following losses in a raid on 30th September, the Germans switched their tactics for daylight raids in early October, with one-third of the available fighters (Messerschmitt Bf-109s) converted to carry a 250kg bomb (“Bishop “The Battle of Britain Day-by-Day” page 365). The bomb-carrying fighter was referred to as a Jabo, the German term for a fighter-bomber.
Previous fighter ‘sweeps’ by large numbers of planes had been ignored by the RAF because they could only do a limited amount of harm and attacking them risked precious pilots and planes. Bomb-carrying fighters could not be ignored because they could do serious, if isolated, damage.
The main aim was to draw the RAF into combat at high altitude, where the German planes had better performance. It’s significant that on the 8th October “… regular Jabo attacks … penetrated the defences by operating at increasingly greater height.” (“After the Battle: The Blitz volume 2”, page 169). Bishop says that it took a Jabo at 30,000 feet 17 minutes to get from the coast to London, but it took the RAF planes 27 minutes to scramble and climb to the same height. If the RAF planes were spotted climbing, the Germans could ditch their bombs and revert to a fighter role, attacking the RAF planes with the advantage of height.
So why didn’t the Germans use these tactics more often? Jabos had the disadvantage of reducing the already limited range of their planes because of the extra weight. They were also extremely unpopular with the pilots (see e.g. Goss “Luftwaffe Fighter-Bombers Over Britain”). Planes were not pressurised and pilots suffered stomach cramps and sharp pains in their joints, similar to decompression in a deep-sea diver. Apart from this the psyche of the fighter pilot seemed to have been of speed and single combat against a matched enemy. The impression is of very young men signing up to drive a high-performance sports car and then being ordered to use it for door-to-door deliveries.
Just after 8.30am on the 8th, over 50 German aircraft crossed the coast near Dungeness and attacked London. They had fighter escorts flying at up to 32,000 feet.
The most likely plane used was the Messerschmitt Bf-109E-7, shown here:
While years after the event the bombing was described as “scattered” and damage caused as “relatively slight” (North “The Many Not The Few” page 277) there were several very tragic incidents. Writing the following day, Colin Perry reported, “Chancery Lane was bombed in the morning rush hour. Charing Cross Station was hit, 8 killed and 27 injured. Another bomb fell near Odhams reducing a building already scheduled for demolition, knocking in several shops and killing a number of people. Victoria too – the Queen’s and the Palace Theatres are no more. Buses in Chancery Lane were also hit, and the passengers killed, or seriously injured. Such is the battle of London and as I write this by the Bank of England at any moment the Dorniers and Junkers [German aircraft] may whip from the clouds and blast us all to smithereens.” (“Boy in the Blitz”, pages 184-185).
At least one bomb dropped in High Holborn – from the photographic evidence, a building was destroyed and a bus was badly damaged, whether by blast, debris or a second bomb is uncertain.
I have found six photos of the aftermath. The first was taken from street level in Holborn looking east:
The building in the far distance has a tower and this is still standing – it is Holborn Bars (‘the Prudential Building’) at 138-142 Holborn. Given that this is on the north of the street, we can deduce the scene in the foreground is a few hundred yards to the west of that.
The wrecked building on the left is almost certainly 12 High Holborn, and housed Manzoni’s Restaurant. The bus is just past the wreckage and on the left of the road suggesting the bus was heading away from the camera, towards Holborn and the City of London. The bus seems likely to have been passing Number 12 as the bomb exploded. There does not appear to be any glass in the windows of the bus and part of it may have been fire-damaged; however, it has stayed upright.
Zooming in on the left of the photo, we can see rescuers looking into the shattered building; they are almost certainly waiting to help others inside who are digging or listening for casualties.
Zooming in on the right of the photo we can see the bus has more damage than was initially apparent:
The rear of the bus is partly missing, revealing the stairs to the top deck. The left side of the bus as we look at it has been ‘peeled back’ and the lower deck windows are leaning in, possibly as a result of having been hit by debris. Just in front of the bus (to the left as we look) are the traffic lights at the junction of High Holborn and Grays Inn Road.
The white van on the right of the picture has its rear doors open and on the side it says “LCC” suggesting this was an ambulance. Just above the ambulance roof we can see the Tudor frontage of the Staple Inn on the south-side of High Holborn.
The second photo contains the imprint of Getty Images – I hope they approve my use.
The damage to the bus can now be seen: all the window glass has been broken and the blast has knocked several of the wheels (and presumably the axles) out of alignment. (The wording on the advert at the back of the bus is now revealed to be “Dunlop”.) This also shows the neighbouring shops, numbers 1-11 High Holborn.
The third photo looks back into the wreckage of Number 12 and shows the number of rescuers present:
The role of the rescue team was to tunnel into the rubble towards possible survivors – the wreckage was often unstable and having a large number of people all tearing at it with their hands could have caused it to collapse onto survivors or to bring down damaged parts of the building onto the rescuers.
The final photo was taken seemingly a little later from either the Staple Inn or the building next to it and looking across the entrance to an underground station which we can now identify as Chancery Lane.
The junction with Grays Inn Road would be just out-of-frame to the right. The rescue parties have gone but the wreckage remains. The damaged bus also remains; looking at the top left of the bus we can see the damage shown in previous photos. Note the man in the chef’s hat watching on the left of the photo.The fourth photo was probably taken from this building:
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission list of civilian war dead suggests
four people died at 12 High Holborn
fifteen died at a location described as “High Holborn by Chancery Lane”
two died at a location described as “High Holborn between Grays inn Road and Chancery Lane”
three died at a location described as “High Holborn”
six died having been injured in Holborn (no more precise location)
one died after being injured at 329 High Holborn (which is opposite number 12)
one had no location recorded for their injury but died at a hospital that seven other High Holborn victims died at (the Royal Free Hospital)
If we assume these were all killed in the same incident a total of 32 people died.
The dead at 12 High Holborn
Four people died here, the premises of Manzoni’s Italian restaurant.
Lucia and Afre Paglia, and Francois Verani
Lucia Domenica Peilu was born on 31st July 1881 in Mercenasco, a village in the Piemonte region of north west Italy, about 15 miles from the edge of Turin. She appears in the 1901 Census at 2 Porchester Road in Bayswater (now underneath Waitrose) where she lived and worked as a domestic servant in a restaurant. The restaurant owner was Jeremino Paglia and his business partner Frenchman Francois Verani lived at the same address, with a waiter and a cook.
Lucia and Jeremino (more accurately Geslimirio Jeremias Paglia) were married in 1903 in London at the ages of 21 and 34. Their daughter, Angela was born in 1904 (d.1989) and the 1911 Census found them living at 15 Greek Street where he was chief steward at a working men’s club (probably the St James’s and Soho Club).
By the 1911 Census Francois Verani was a waiter, living at 31 Great Ormond Street, with his wife Amy. He was 42 at the time (suggesting he was born in 1869) and came from Nice in the south of France. He was 15 years Amy’s senior; Amy was not in employment and they had no children. Francois called himself Francesco, suggesting he might be trying to fit into an Italian restaurant! While the Census return suggests he married Amy around 1905, the marriage records show they were legally wed in 1915.
Between 1911 and 1920 Geslimirio started a restaurant at 12 High Holborn (http://www.london-gazette.co.uk/issues/32043/pages/9071/page.pdf). Afre Paglia was killed and Lucia Paglia was fatally injured and died later that day at the Royal Free Hospital. (Geslimirio himself died in 1950 aged 82).
(My thanks to the owner of a family tree on ancestry.co.uk for information about the Paglia family:
The fourth person attributed to 12 High Holborn has a less obvious connection to the building. CWGC gives his name as William Bellhouse, aged 67, of 14 Thompson Road, Dulwich. However, checking the electoral roll for this address in 1938 shows Louise Jane, Eileen and Nellie Bellhouse living at the same address Louise was his wife and Eileen & Nellie his youngest daughters (of at least nine children).
William Charles George Bellhouse was born on 4th June 1867, and christened in St Pauls, Clerkenwell. In the 1881 Census the family (parents plus seven children) was living in 24 Blomfield Street, Dalston where his father was a carpenter and joiner; William was referred to as Willie. By 1891 the family, now parents plus four children, were at 17 Bradbury Street in West Hackney, where his father was a furniture dealer. 18-year old Willie was now working as an upholsterer.
In 1897 William married Louise Phillips (1872-4/12/41) in St Mary Magdalene, Peckham. He was now a furniture dealer, presumably working with his father, and his wife was a widow (born Webber, daughter of a carrier) with two children from her first marriage.
By 1901 they were living in 13 Nutfield Road, Dulwich, and by 1911 they had five children of their own (this Census, seemingly completed by Louise, adds the information she had had 4 more children who did not survive). With Nellie and Eileen born a few years after 1911, Louise gave birth to 13 children.
William was still a furniture dealer and the eldest son still at home was described as an assistant in a furniture shop. The records show nothing else about William up until his death; the National Probate Calendar gives the value of his estate as £328. Louise only survived him by just over a year and the Probate Calendar named Albert Bellhouse (auctioneer’s clerk) and Agnes Cousins, wife of Walter.
The dead at 329 High Holborn
He was born William Hugh Gale in Chelsea in 1901, son of a milkman. In the 1911 Census the family were at 134 Lynmouth Road, Walthamstow, and William had two younger siblings, born in Fulham and Battersea suggesting the family was moving quite often. William’s aunt lived with them but is described as a domestic servant.
He married Marjorie Annie West (1898-1957, daughter of a policeman) on 20th August 1921 at Christ Church, Fulham; at this time he worked as an electrician (his father was now described as a dairy manager).
They had one daughter, Joan (born 1924). In 1940 they lived at 25 Epple Road, Fulham, by Parsons Green Station (they had lived there for at least 9 years). The National Probate Calendar gives the value of William’s estate as £248.
NOTE: I will add more details on the other people over the next few posts.
A note on photographs of the incident
This seems to have been the second incident involving a bus in High Holborn. On 9th September 1940 a bus was partially wrecked outside number 300, and some websites confuse the two. The bus in the earlier incident has the advert “Black and White” on the side. Some pictures show it with the upper deck distorted and the roof missing. Other photos show the upper deck having been completely removed but with the “Black and White” writing still visible. It is also shown directly outside a wrecked building.
The bus outside 12 High Holborn retains its shell intact (including the rook on the upper deck) and appears to have stopped past the wrecked building (near the junction with Grays Inn Road).
A note on the numbering of properties in High Holborn
Property numbers start from the corner with Grays Inn Road on the north side and number towards the west; this number 1 is on the Grays Inn Road corner, number 2 is next to it, number 3 neighbours 2, and so on. At the western end of High Holborn the property numbers switch to the south-side of the street and number back towards the east, ending at 333 which is opposite number 1.