Friday, 6 June 2014

The first bombs on London? The night of 24th August 1940

Eyewitnesses
Olivia Cockett at 33 Breakspears Road, between Brockley and Lewisham, started her diary entry: “1.30am. I am scared stiff. Sirens at 11.20 after I’d been to bed and got up once for bombs.  Cellar; bombs very close; quiet later so top window – big fire blazing high over the Rotherhithe Docks.  Shivered for the poor souls in or near it.  Trembled uncontrollably when the big bangs came.  Had a fag.  Seven of us, no one broke down, but we did not like it.  Heavenly moonlight and peace out in the garden.
Up again 2.45.  More bombs, no siren.  Spent rest of night in clothes, on settee, afraid.  Crawled upstairs into bed again about 6.”
George Orwell, who had been watching from not far away, at 24 Crooms Hill, Greenwich, recorded in his diary: “The raid which occurred on the 24th was the first real raid on London as far as I am concerned, i.e. the first in which I could hear the bombs. 
We were watching at the front door when the East India docks were hit.  No mention of the docks being hit in Sunday’s papers, so evidently they do conceal it when important targets are hit … 
It was a loudish bang but not alarming and gave no impression of making the earth tremble, so evidently these are not very large bombs that they are dropping.” 
Orwell contrasted that with his experience of the Spanish Civil War when a bomb 4 kilometres away made a “terrific roar”.
Colin Perry at Holmbury Court in Tooting, was alerted to the siren at about 11.10pm.  “I got an apple and went downstairs.  It was a simply heavenly night.  Overhead we heard the roar of a German bomber, and myriads of searchlights scanned the sky for trace of her.  This bomber to my mind seemed intent on circling round our neighbourhood, though I recall reading articles how bombers never circle but drop and run.  I went to the top of Number One block [Holmbury Court] after I had heard three wooshes signifying explosions but all Surrey and South London seemed quiet … The bomber went round and round and the all-clear went at around 1.50 or thereabouts.  Two hours!”
He saw “a gigantic red glow in the sky Citywards”.  His father was a journalist and found out “a bomb set fire to Rylands in Gresham Street and Fore Street and razed it to the ground … Barbican had a bomb.”
“At 3am I was awakened by another hellish German, and as I listened to him drawing nearer I heard him drop a heavy bomb and the explosion seemed close.  I listened … nearer … now the guns were in action … no sirens … like waiting for the luck of the draw.  I poked my head out of the window; the searchlights were still up though I considered them much less powerful than ordinary peacetime practices but of course the moonlight was brilliant.”
He says the population had been warned the alarm would not be sounded for individual German planes, but at this point his family went to the shelter.  “I stayed on top … three more terrific explosions, guns or bombs I could not say … We got back into bed about 3.30am.”
Other bomb-damage reported by his father included two sugar storehouses on fire and damage to Ford’s works at Dagenham

What happened?
The film “Battle of Britain” contains a version of the events of this night and explains the first bombs to fall on the central area of London as being due to a single lost Luftwaffe crew ditching their bombs to go home.  In the film, this leads the RAF to raid Berlin (this happens just as the disgraced Luftwaffe crew who inadvertently bombed London arrive there to be dressed-down). 
In response for the RAF raid, Hitler is so furious he orders the Luftwaffe to switch the attacks from the RAF airfields to London; with the airfields given breathing space the RAF recover, the Battle of Britain was won and invasion was averted, changing the course of the war (and of history).
Three aspects do not make sense to me:
(i) Could a single plane have caused the damage listed in contemporary records?
(ii) Was Thameshaven the target?
(iii) Did this raid really lead to the Blitz on London?
I’ll go through them in turn.

The single plane?
The theory of the single plane was contemporaneous: for example, John Colville, a senior aide on Churchill’s staff, noted in his diary for Monday 26th August: “London has been bombed – by a single aircraft on Saturday night – and in retaliation we sent eighty-nine bombers over Berlin on Sunday night.”  So even 36 hours after the bombing on the night of 24th-25th, Churchill’s staff believed a single plane had been involved.
The Battle of Britain film takes up this theme, but other sources (such as Wallington) say two planes were involved.  However, the supreme “After the Battle: Volume 1” questions whether one or two planes could have produced the number of incidents and the spread over time that was reported.
I would tentatively suggest a minimum of six planes (based on minimum numbers of one over Middlesex, one over north and east London, two over central London, and two over Surrey), with ten being more likely.  They seem to have been flying singly or in pairs. 

Target Thameshaven?
I don’t doubt Thameshaven was A target on this night.  But none of the books or websites I consulted give a reference source for the target(s) for the Luftwaffe for that evening.  My question is whether Thameshaven was the only target?
Its position on the ‘coast’ (albeit the Thames estuary) made it a good night-time target: the lights of the city could be ‘blacked out’, but there was no way to stop the moonlight glinting off of water.  Colin Berry and Olivia Cockett both record how bright the moonlight was (the full moon was on 18th August).  German navigators would thus have been able to get an accurate idea of where Thameshaven was. 
In addition, the location of Thameshaven at the mouth of the Thames gave a short journey from the Luftwaffe airfields in northern France.  Some sources say Rochester, on the other side of the Thames estuary, was also a target, and this would have all the same attributes as Thameshaven.
So, given this ‘simple’ target, and the bright moonlight how did the Germans seemingly overshoot their target by over 30 miles?  They are then said to have jettisoned their bombs over seemingly empty countryside which would have involved ignoring the distinctive line of the Thames, also visible in the moonlight, not to mention the Regent’s Canal, running just north of sites bombed such as Wenlock Street and Scawfell Street.
Perry tells us that Fords at Dagenham sustained damage, and it would make sense for this factory, also on the riverside, to have been a secondary target for the Luftwaffe.  The other possibility is that it was the main target and the planes were lost trying to spot the less distinctive coastline in that area.  From Dagenham to the main bombing sights was 14 miles.

The night that changed history?
The tit-or-tat version is that London was bombed on the night of the 24th, Berlin was raided on the night of the 25th, and … the Blitz on London began on the 26th?  Well, no – it was 12 days later, on the 7th September (two weeks exactly from the ‘accidental’ bombing of London on the 24th August).
This table lists the number of incidents where civilians were killed in the areas around London (note London City Council was what we would now think of as inner London, so for example West Ham was in Essex and Tottenham was in Middlesex):

London City Council
Essex
Middlesex
Surrey
25th August
0
0
1
1
26
0
1
2
2
27
0
0
1
0
28
0
1
1
0
29
4
1
1
0
30
0
0
0
2
31
4
8
1
2
1st September
0
3
0
4
2
0
0
0
0
3
1
1
1
1
4
1
0
0
2
5
5
0
1
0
6
10
5
1
3
7
98
45
2
0

This makes clear that while the raid on Berlin on 25th-26th might have been a factor in the decision to switch to deliberate area bombing of London, there was no simple cause-and-effect. 
It couldn’t be argued the Luftwaffe had to develop detailed plans to bomb London, for example, as if Hitler had simply wanted revenge then he could have ordered completely indiscriminate bombing where any one civilian target was as good as another.  In fact, over the whole weekend of the 7th-8th September, the county of Middlesex saw only four incidents where civilian deaths occurred, and Surrey saw none at all; this indicates German targets were close to the river, on both banks.

So … just another myth?
To dismiss the events of the 24th-25th August as ‘just another myth’ - to be ranked alongside such sceptical re-interpretations as the myth of the Blitz, the triumph of “The Few” or the ‘miracle’ at Dunkirk - would be a mistake.  Civilians died and the civil defences were put through their paces for the first time in many cases.
Using different sources we can piece together the following scenes of bombings and/or fires on that Saturday night:
Fore Street - the Barbican (Cripplegate) area
The docks
Scawfell Street – off of Hackney Road, by Haggerston Park
Wenlock Street – north of Old Street and City Road
Elsewhere in London

Fore Street
The incident at the Barbican is probably best-known, because a sign still marks the site where the first bombs fell on the City of London; this blog does a great job of investigating the modern view of the area.  (It’s a fascinating website for London history in general.) 
Wallington reports the siren at 11.08pm was the sixth alert of the day.  A bomb exploded close to the door of the church of St Giles, Cripplegate, knocking over a statue of the poet, John Milton.  Buildings were also set fire in Fore Street.  The Redcross Street fire station was close at hand but despite the quick response, 200 pumps (over 800 firemen) were needed to control the fire.  Wallington says up to that point a 30-pump fire was regarded as “a major outbreak”.


This photo is undated but shows a burned out building on Gresham Street at the corner with Wood Street.  The lack of other damage visible suggests this could eb from around the 24th August 1940.

The docks
Seemingly at the same time as Fore Street was catching alight, two separate dockside warehouses in the West India Docks (site of modern Canary Wharf) were also starting to burn.  These could have been the warehouses containing sugar referred to by Perry.  One fire required 100 pumps plus 2 fireboats, and the other fire required 70 pumps plus 6 fireboats.
The contemporary official report says one of the buildings was the Neill Warehouse with Warehouses Numbers 3 and 4 being set alight later in the night.  I can find no other reference to “the Neill Warehouse” – can anyone help?

Wenlock Street
Located about 600 yards north-west of Old Street Underground, the line of Wenlock Street still exists but is almost entirely modern flats and there seems to be no pictorial evidence of how the street used to look.
A bomb here killed Mrs Rose Windust, a widow aged 70, living at number 55.  We know this was on the north side of the street, probably close to New North Road, possibly opposite the junction with Evelyn Walk.
Mrs Windust was born Rosetta Magee in Shoreditch on 9th October 1869, daughter of John (a paper stainer) and Emma, being baptised at St John’s in Hoxton
Aged 21 she was living at home, her father shortened her name to Rose for the Census papers, and her employment was making artificial flowers.
She married William Richard Edward Windust on 7th April 1895, aged 25.  He was a shop fitter, like his father, and they went on to have at least 6 children, two of whom died when young.
She continued to work while the family was young, first as a “jet worker” (presumably she carved the mineral jet to produce goods such as statues or jewellery) and later as a milliner (a hat maker).
It was slightly unusual for a woman to continue to work with a family, but times do not seem to have been easy – the 1911 Census records the family living at 55 Wenlock Street with the parents and four children in a 4-apartment house or flat.
William seems to have died in 1921, his death registered in Romford although it is not clear why it was away from his home address.
We know nothing else about Rose, other than that she was still in the family home of at least 30 years when she was killed.

Scawfell Street, Haggerston (then in Shoreditch)
The south end of this street still exists, from the junction with Hackney Road to the junction with Dunloe Street, numbering to 12 on the east side and 21 on the west.  The modern street ends here with Haggerston School replacing the former road.  The street line is then picked up gain the other side of the school, joining Kent Street.  In 1940 this would all have been Scawfell Street, numbering up to 104 and 107.


Look for the red circle in the aerial view at the bottom in the middle of the screen.  Scawfell Street runs north from the circle, then comes the modern school, then the old street line (now Kent Street.)

Three people were killed here at numbers 76 and 78, which would have been on the east side, just about where the northern ‘stump’ of Scawfell Street meets the school boundary.  The people who died were:
At Number 76
Ada Elizabeth Short aged 23, a nurse at a first aid post, and Hannah Amelia Short, 28, her sister-in-law.
Hannah was born in West Ham in 1912, daughter of William Brandon and Caroline Florence Windus.  Her parents married in 1907 at St Ann’s, Hoxton, and her father’s occupation was given as a sawyer (one who saws wood).  By 1911 the family lived in Haggerston and William had new work as a fish frier in a supper bar.
Hannah grew up to marry Alfred Herbert Short (born 14th August 1910 to Herbert, whose occupation was making wooden packing cases, and Ada, who was a dressmaker).  The wedding was in the second quarter of 1936, Alfred’s mother having died the previous year.
The couple had one child, Kenneth, born in 1938 and around this time they lived 110 Samuel Lewis Trust Dwellings, Amhurst Road.
Alfred remarried in 1947, to Florence (nee Loynes), and died in Chelmsford in 1989.
Alfred’s younger sister, Ada, died alongside Hannah.  She was born in 1917, and lived with Alfred and Hannah at number 76.  She had been trained as a nurse at a first aid post, but nothing else is in the public domain about her.
At Number 78
Stanley James Ryder, was 50 when he died.  He was born in Hackney in 1890, and his father was a waiter in an inn.  He was one of four children, two of whom died young.  At the 1911 Census he was a waiter as well.
While it is not easy to find a record of military service in World War One, he was married on 2nd August 1919, which might suggest a serviceman being demobbed.  The bride was Ellen Brightwell, three years his senior, and daughter of a wood carver; the wedding took place at All Saints, Haggerston.
The couple had one daughter, Ellen, born in 1920.  Ellen senior probably died in 1944 in Shoreditch.


I could not find a photo of 76-78 but the above shows numbers 63-81.

Looking at the 1938 electoral register the properties are generally occupied by two families, presumably in an upstairs flat and one downstairs.  The Ryders shared number 78 with Frederick and Emma Borrows; were they still living there when Stanley died?  And at number 76, who out of the Pughes (mother and daughter) or the Ridleys (husband and wife) had moved out to make space for the Shorts to move in?  Did they know how lucky they had been?  And the Ryders had lived at Number 80 until 1936 before moving next door (indicating these flats were rented) – had they stayed put they would have survived.


This is the view from Kent Street, north of the school, looking back down the line of the old Scawfell Street.  Numbers 76 and 78 would have been somewhere just past the parked red van.

Elsewhere in the London area
Wallington also refers to two other fires in east London that night, requiring 30 and 20 pumps.  It’s unclear whether this referred to one of the areas listed as being bombed, which included Leyton, Wood Green, and Stepney as possible candidates.  However, the following day it was reported 100 people in Bethnal Green being left homeless – this could be what was described as the fire in Stepney, as the two areas border onto each other.
Other areas bombed in London were Canonsbury Park, Highbury Park, Enfield, and Millwall.  In Surrey the targets reported to be attacked divide into two groups: a south-western group (Feltham, Kingston, Hampton Court, Malden) and a southern group (Epsom, Banstead, Coulsdon).
The other certain casualties that night were at Ida Road in Tottenham.  At number 17, Mary Ann Kingsland was fatally injured and her son William and his wife, Ivy, were killed; Mary Ann died the same day at the prince of Wales Hospital in Tottenham.
Mary Ann Jeffries Bellamy was born in 1865, daughter of a bricklayer.  She married Thomas, son of a labourer, on 2nd June 1884, and they had around ten children.  Thomas died in 1930.  Mary Ann left £222 to a son, Charles Kingsland, boot repairer.
William, Mary Ann’s son, was born in 1901, one of twins.  He married Violet Ivy Williams (born 1904) in 1930 and they may have had one child, William, the following year.

References used
The eyewitness quotes are from:
Olivia Cockett – “Love and War in London” (edited by Robert Malcolmson)
George Orwell – “A Patriot After All” (edited by Peter Davison)
Colin Perry - “Boy in the Blitz”
John Colville “The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955”

Other sources cited:
“After the Battle, Volume 1” (edited by Winston Ramsey)
Neil Wallington – “Firemen at War”

I also found it very helpful to see the contemporary home security reports from the Battle of Britain Campaign Diaries on the RAF website

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