This post builds on the work of the excellent West End at War website and I urge you to read their original post about this incident here.
A busy lunchtime on Victoria Street and I was looking for somewhere to sit with my lunch. There’s a garden on the corner of Broadway (opposite the famous revolving sign for New Scotland Yard”), surrounded by a low wall. As the map below shows, this is actually the old grave yard – Christ Church once stood between the current gardens and Caxton Street.
Here is the equivalent Google maps view:
On the night of 16th/17th April 1941 a major air-raid on London took place with numerous incidents, casualties and fires. From the accounts I have read, the following is either known or probable:
- At some point, probably after midnight, incendiary bombs set the church on fire.
- Firewatchers did what they could but contacted the emergency services.
- Fire engines were attending numerous incidents all across the centre of London; initially one pump was spared and subsequently an engine with a turntable ladder also arrived. (Photographs below show contemporary pump and turntable ladder views, not from this incident.)
- Soon after the arrival of the turntable ladder, a German plane was heard circling overhead; at just before 3.30am it was said to have dived and dropped at least one bomb (some sources say a whole stick of bombs).
- One bomb exploded on or near one of the two fire appliances – my guess is it was the pump because we know the turntable ladder stayed upright. This engine was destroyed with sufficient force for the mark made by a wheel to be seen in the wall of a bank on the other side of the road (see map) several years later.
- One fireman was killed instantly. Up to nine others were seriously injured, and were probably taken to nearby Westminster Hospital in Horseferry Road. (This hospital would probably have been extremely busy and the injured judged fit to travel would have been transferred to outer London as soon as possible. One destination would have been the Hillingdon County Hospital.)
- At least three of the injured subsequently died, and possibly a fourth man as well. The uncertainty arises because in four cases the Commonwealth War Graves Commission record states at which incident people were injured. However, some sources say up to five men died of injuries, and there is a good match for one additional fireman.
- The (anonymous) fireman on top of the ladder was knocked unconscious but the ladder stayed upright and when he recovered sufficiently he was able to climb down, obviously badly shocked.
Writing in his diary the following day, Stephen Melville Woodcock said, “Nr the office at 55 Broadway Christ Church was gutted and still smoking and a fire escape ladder and fire engine were lying in the road charred and broken.”
The three photographs below, taken from Google Street View show the modern view.
Above: The view across Victoria Street looking up Broadway (church gardens and modern building behind the trees) - the bank where the wheel from the shattered fire engine made the impact was on the corner buidling site on the right of the photo.
Above: The same view but having crossed Victoria Street, the white building end on to us on the right marks the site of the church.
Above: The view looking back down Broadway towards the first two photos, the church would have stood where the white five-floor building in the centre of the photo now stands. The bomb would have dropped in the roadway on the left. The famous revolving sign outside New Scotland Yard is just out of the photo on the left.
Was the bomber aiming for the fire engines?
In general, bomb-aiming was not precise at this stage of the war – expert crews dropped incendiaries and follow-up crews bombed the fires. It’s unlikely the German bomber was aiming specifically for the fire engines; while visibility was generally good that night, central London would have had a number of fires visible and it is possible smoke was obscuring the bomb-aimer’s view. This could be why the plane seemed to those on the ground to be circling, trying to spot where it was. It may have taken its aiming point from the shape of the River Thames and aimed for “The Government District”, so the explosion was purely by chance.
Where were the fire engines from?
We do not know where the engines were despatched from but the men who died all lived in west London. Three of them had links to Hammersmith so one engine may have come from that area with the other one possibly coming from Marylebone.
Taking this as their origin, it is likely they had been dealing with other incidents already that night, either on their own (for smaller fires) or as part of a bigger group fighting a major fire.
How sure can we be the fifth man was injured here?
CWGC records are precise about the date Robert Parbery, the fifth man who may have died here, was injured and that the incident was in Westminster. The only other fireman killed that night was in a major incident at the Newport Buildings by Leicester Square. Of course, it is possible Parbery was injured somewhere else.
The other link to the Christ Church incident is his home address, please him in the west London area. This would be in common with several of the other firemen.
What did Christ Church look like?
Photographs of the church prior to 1941 are surprisingly hard to find and there are none at all of the aftermath of the bombing. While the West End at War website has what seems to be a sketch of the church, the shape of the tower does not match those clearly visible on aerial photographs of the period:
Above: taken from the Britain from the Air website, the prominent building in the centre of the photo is 55 Broadway, London Transport's HQ building. The ruins of Christ Church are directly below it in the photo, clearly showing the square tower, not a spire.
The men who died
Albert Gentry, aged 51, killed immediately
William Henry Herbert, 31, died on the 18th April at the Westminster Hospital
Douglas Bruce Baldwin, aged 40, died on the 20th April at Hillingdon County Hospital
Alexander Walter Collins, aged 33, died on the 21st April at the Westminster Hospital
In addition, we know fireman Robert George Parbery, 33, was injured in Westminster on this night and that he came from West Kensington, maintaining the link of other casualties with west London. He died on 6th February 1943.
Albert Gentry was born in 1890, in Mundon, Maldon in Essex, son of William and Ellen. He was the middle one of none children (eight boys, one girl). His father was variously a farm labourer and a shepherd.
He probably served in the armed forces and one possibility is that he was an acting sergeant in the Royal Engineers; this would be consistent with his role in 1941 as a senior fireman in the London Fire Brigade.
He married Edith Etta Collier in in 1922 in West Norwood, Lambeth; Edith was five years younger, daughter of a railway signalman. A few years after they were married they lived in Hammersmith (at 126 Willow Vale) but by 1941 they lived in East Acton at number 1 The Green. There is no clear evidence they had any children.
Albert left effects of £351 to his widow.
William Henry Herbert, was born in 1909 in Bloomsbury, son of Henry Herbert and Elizabeth Sherman. His father was a dining room attendant (presumably analogous to a waiter) and in 1911 they lived in the Corporation Buildings on Farringdon Street.
By 1932 the family was living at 19 Thayer Street in Marylebone (the southern continuation of Marylebone High Street) where his father was a caretaker (the address being a popular one for people who lived out of town to use as a London base).
William married Annie Beatrice Finbow in 1938 in St Marylebone and in 1941 they lived in a flat at 64 Wendover Buildings, Chiltern Street.
Douglas Bruce Baldwin was born in 1901 in Notting Hill, youngest of three 3 children. His parents were John Edward Baldwin, a self-employed carpenter, and Mary Ellen Barnard. The family had only just moved to London from East Grinstead, Douglas’s uncle staying with them and working as a general labourer.
By 1911 his elder brother Albert was apprentice to a pharmacist, and his elder sister Constance was in domestic service. The family lived at 203 Portland Road, Notting Hill.
He married Maude Alice Love (1902-1991) in 1925, and by 1939 they lived in a flat at 127 Coningham Road in Hammersmith. There’s no evidence they had any children.
Alexander Walter Collins was born in 1907 in Fulham. He is the most difficult of the four men to trace. He was married to Evangeline Mary Jane Wallis (1909-?) in the second half of 1940 in Hammersmith and they lived in Sinclair Road. He left £186 in effects to his widow.
Robert George Parbery was born in Fulham in 1909, son of William Parbery and Edith Dennis. William was a second-hand furniture dealer, and the family lived at 60a Valetta Road, Acton Vale.
He married Emily Irene Francis at the end of 1939 in Surrey. Emily may have been a teacher, having been at Banstead Residential School as a 22-year old. Robert died and was buried in Epsom, suggesting Emily took him back to her home area after the bombing. (Emily may have been born in Swansea in 1904).
There is no probate record for Robert but when his father died, Emily, Robert’s widow, was named together with William’s business partner; his effects were valued at £1578. Emily probably died in Somerset in 1983.
Above: again from Britain from the Air, 55 Broadway is visible top left and Christ Church is just below it and to the right. Westminster Cathedral is in the centre of the photo and Westminster Abbey is just out of shot at the top of the photo.
My sources in addition to the West End at War post were:
Francis Beckett “Firefighters and the Blitz” pages 75-76
William Sansom “The Blitz: Westminster at War” page 80
Jane Waller and Michael Vaughn-Rees “Blitz: the Civilian War 1940-1945” page 280
Neil Wallington “Firemen at War” page 100