When tracing Family Stories for clients, very often we turn up examples of civilian suffering from the two world wars, and it is surprising how close so many families came to not existing many more due to enemy action. Here are a few excerpts from the various stories we have uncovered for clients.
The Great War
The Great War as WW1 was known at the time, was the first war that posed the threat of attack from the air to London. Although aerial attack is generally thought of as happening to the Docklands in WW2, Britain had to suffer it in WW1.
The Kaiser had initially forbidden raids on London and on any Historic Buildings generally, but in 1915 gave clearance for bombing of the London Docks by Zeppelins. These raids were generally ineffective, few getting through mainly due to adverse weather conditions. One night raid on the 7th/8th of September did manage to drop over a hundred bombs in a line across the East End causing damage and widespread fear, although without major loss of life.
By 1917 tactics changed, and the Germans started to use fixed wing aircraft as Bombers rather than the less reliable Zeppelins. In June 1917 twenty Gotha Bombers took off from an airfield in Belgium, to mount a strategic raid on London. After an initial attack on Margate and Shoeburyness, the formation headed up the Thames. The noise of the bombers flying in formation drove the curious to watch them pass over, thinking they were British Aircraft. By the time they reached the East End, they saw bombs were raining down on Barking, and East Ham, the explosions tracing a line to Poplar.
A set of bombs made a direct hit on Upper North Street Primary School in Poplar. One or two 110lb high explosive bombs passed straight through the roof of the school, smashed through the Girls’ classroom on the top floor killing two children by their impact, then continuing straight through the Boys’ classroom, throwing some of the boys through the floor and into the ground floor classroom where the Bombs exploded in the Infants classroom. Sixteen infants aged between four and six years old were killed in the explosion, more than thirty children were injured, some losing limbs
The German bombers carried on to bomb Liverpool Street Station and by 12 noon had crossed the City as far as Regents Park. By the time they headed back for the coast, over five hundred Londoners were killed or injured. Despite some anti-aircraft fire and the scrambling of home defence formations of the Royal Flying Corps, the bombers were not intercepted, and made it back to Belgium without any losses.
On his return the leader of the raid, Hauptman Ernst Brandenburg, was summoned to Berlin by the Kaiser where he was awarded the highest honour for bravery.
Back in Poplar on 20th June 1917 the whole Poplar neighbourhood turned out to pay their respects at the funeral procession of the Poplar children from Upper North Street Primary School. There is little doubt that the Harrigans were in this crowd. The children were buried in the East London Cemetery, and the service took place in the Harrigan’s local C of E Parish Church of All Saints. It was the biggest public funeral for common people ever to take place in the area.
The daylight bombers were to return to London on Saturday 7 July 1917, and other bombing raids would take place during WW1, but none as murderous as that on 13th June 1917.
Outside of London
The rest of Britain was not exempt from raids; on 25th September 1916 the Zeppelin L21 off course and looking for a target, saw the industrial fires and chimneys of the Mills and Factories at Bolton. It flew a double loop over the town dropping 25 bombs and killing 13 civilians in residential streets, only causing minor damage to industry and infrastructure. It then flew back to Germany.
There was no panic in Bolton, there was anger and surprise. Two months later L21 was back on a return raid to the Midlands, this time bombing Chesterfield. This time the raider was intercepted by three RAF fighters flown by Egbert Cadbury, E.L.Pulling, and W.R.Gaynor, who engaged the Zeppelin emptying four drums of ammunition into her, including phosphorous incendiary rounds. L21 exploded and fell from the sky into the sea ten miles off of Lowestoft, there were no survivors. A triumphant cheer went up in Bolton, no more civilians would be killed in the night by that particular murderous craft.
World War Two; The Blitz
London South of The River; Bermondsey
By the outbreak of the Second World War, many children had been evacuated from the most vulnerable parts of East and South East London, those parts near the docks, and around major road and rail links. But for the adults left at home, there was also a share of danger once the Germans started bombing London. One account from an eyewitness describes a raid on the actual streets in Bermondsey in 1940 where part of my own Family lived:
“Saturday from 4.30 was a day of terror, I was collecting in Neptune St when the sirens went, and as the planes were overhead in scores I picked up Mrs Rouse’s boy, and she and the baby and went to the Shelter in the Town Hall. We only just got in when Jerry released his bombs where we were standing and demolished Mrs Rouses house plus eight others. What a shock! Well most of the people in this dugout are now homeless as the bombing was unmerciful and hardly a place within a ¼ mile around escaped, except the Town Hall, he started a fire here which I expect you could see in Dormans [our evacuation venue 30 miles away] the all clear went at 6.45 and I was so shaken by the experience, and the screaming women and children, in the dugout that I packed up and made my way home, but most of the roads were roped off, and so I had to go half way round London to get to Canal Bridge, however I thought I would give a call in home before going to Brockley, and got a shock to see Credon Road no 51, 53, 55 got hit, and the next fell in Varco Rd, right opposite the end house; two people killed in this house. Mum and Dad [who lived at number 59] had a shaking up.
The worst part came at night. I had just left for home and got to Canal Bridge when the sirens started, I ran for a dugout in Peckham Park Rd and the experience all South London had to suffer was more than one could go through more than once. We had bombs dropping every five minutes, and I should say there are marks of the raid in nearly every road in SE London, at home they had another on drop at the entrance of the church in Verney Rd, Ilderton Rd every shop has been hit, all Rotherhithe New Road there are hundreds of people killed or injured, when the all clear sounded at five o’clock I had to walk home, and about every hundred yards along the Old Kent Road had been bombed, so you can imagine my feeling as what to expect in Brockley. The first signs came when reaching St Katherine’s [St Catherine’s church Hatcham in Pepys Road SE14] our church got two bombs and is a wreck, Vesta Rd two houses and a number of incendiary bombs, in Drakefell Road, St Asaph Road, Avignon Road etc., one dropped outside the Patton’s but was a dud, what luck!
Well my dear it has given us all a good shaking and are dreading tonight. I can now understand why the government wanted to keep the children away, and am pleased you and Francis have not had to face our terror.”
The map below shows just how close the bombs fell to my relations in Verney Road. The Germans were trying to destroy the network of Canals, Docks, Railway Lines, and Gasworks that clustered in Bermondsey, but to the ffamily it would have felt more personal than that.
As the water table was so high in the Bermondsey area, there were very few deep shelters around, so the family would have had to have taken cover as best they could in any local shelters, crossed their fingers for luck, and hoped that the bombers didn’t get a direct hit on them.
The picture below of a German bomber over South East London, shows a Bomber’s view of the area, the area on the bomb map above is just little below the tail of the plane in the picture below, where you can see the railway crossing the canal (black vertical line crossing a white horizontal line) the Gasworks can be seen to the south, the complex railway junctions between Bermondsey, and The Bricklayers’ Arms Goods Depot, as well as the long straight line of the Surrey Canal and Surrey Docks separating the Gasworks from the streets to the north of it. Poplar is the land in the loop of the river to the right.
London, North of The River; Poplar
The people of Poplar had suffered many miseries from the turn of the twentieth century through the Air raids of WW1, Strikes that meant starvation rations and occupation of the docks by the military in the 1920s, a devastating flood that forced people out of their homes, and the unemployment of the depression in the 1930s, but the 1940s and WW2 would prove to be more fearful times. The Docklands were bombed remorselessly by the Germans during 1940 and 1941.
From 7th September 1940 London was systematically bombed by the German Luftwaffe for 56 out of the next 57 days, with the 15th September marking the height of the daylight raids. Because of the failure to break the will of the people of London whilst receiving heavy casualties amongst German Pilots from British fighter squadrons during this time of the Battle of Britain, the Germans switched to night-time for most of their raids after the summer of 1940. On the night of 29th December 1940 the Luftwaffe dropped 10,000 fire bombs on London at a rate of 300 per minute, or 5 per second. During the Blitz 28,556 Londoners were killed, and 25,578 were wounded. The bombs that killed the children in WW1 at Upper North Street Primary School weighed 110lbs, the Germans were now dropping bombs that weighed up to 5,500lbs on London in an attempt to level whole streets full of women and children.
The bombing never completely went away, and in 1944 a new terror weapon was unleashed, the V1 Rocket carrying over 2,000lbs of explosives, called a Doodle-Bug or Buzz-bomb by Londoners. People would speak of a “throbbing, droning sound” of the V1 engine, before something looking like a small aircraft with a flame coming out of the back of it, would appear in the sky. Londoners soon learned that as long as you could hear the engine there was no danger, but once the engine cut, the Doodle-bug would plummet to the ground and explode, the best thing was to walk away from the direction of flight of the Doodle-bug, and then hit the deck when the engine cut out. The V1 proved to be inaccurate, and many were either shot down, or “toppled” by fighters flying alongside and flipping them over with their wing tips to disable their internal gyroscopic guidance system forcing them to crash into the fields of Kent and Essex (see picture). By August 1944 80% of all V1s launched were being downed by British defences before hitting their targets. By December 1944 allied advances had overrun the nearest continental launch sites of the V1s and attacks reduced dramatically.
Undeterred the Germans next attacked with their V2 Rocket between 1944 and 1945, sending over a total of 1,358 to fall on London, like the V1 each one of these carried over 2,000lbs of explosives. Many people believed that these were worse than the V1 as they gave no warning being a rocket that flew at supersonic speeds and against which there was no effective defence, and the only effective way of countering them was to bomb their launch sites, and ultimately shut down production by winning the war.
Children were evacuated for at least some of the War, but the adults were forced to put up with the terror from the skies, Londoners stood up to it, and pulled through, despite the horrors they had witnessed. London’s morale was never broken.
The Moral of the Story
All good stories have a Moral. Tracing Family Trees and writing up deep and complex Family Stories for our clients, brings out starkly the tenuous luck that has brought all of us into being on this Earth today. One bomb falling a little to the left or right, one minute delay in getting to a shelter, and a whole Family’s story could have ceased to exist in a blast of high explosives, and many did. We should each thank our lucky stars for all of us for getting here today.
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