Unexploded Bombs cause widespread disruption


On arrival at the Church Hall, we had to sign in, giving name, address and number in family. We each got 2 blankets and a palliasse, found a space in the hall and made up our beds. We were all there for 4 days. The WVS were wonderful and provided us with breakfast of porridge, toast and marmalade at another church for anyone who wanted to go. We couldn’t cook anything as the gas ring only had 2 burners, but we made endless tea and lived off fish and chips. We didn’t get much sleep as people were coming and going day and night, working different shifts. We were also very conscious that we were in a wooden building with a tin roof-not much protection.

Examining the Fuze of a Bomb, Edward Ardizzone, 1940. Ardizzone described his experiences with the Bomb Disposal Squad: 'Ah, that was an unexploded bomb and I went to have a look at them, I must say I thought I was rather brave and I looked over the edge whilst they were doing it. That was in England.'
Examining the Fuze of a Bomb, Edward Ardizzone, 1940. Ardizzone described his experiences with the Bomb Disposal Squad: ‘Ah, that was an unexploded bomb and I went to have a look at them, I must say I thought I was rather brave and I looked over the edge whilst they were doing it. That was in England.’

The Blitz was now hitting cities across Britain on a daily basis.

It was a constant running battle to deal with the huge numbers of unexploded bombs. The Home Security Situation report for this week records that:

The total of unexploded bombs in the country remains at about 3,000. Of these, about 850 are in the London region, 1,000 in Sussex and Kent and 900 in East Anglia. During the week 1,392 unexploded bombs have been reported.

In Coventry on the night of the 22nd/23rd October of 60 H.E. dropped 30 failed to explode.

"Keep Clear Unexploded Bomb"
A familiar sight during the war, unexploded bombs caused massive disruption, often taking days to dig out.

Doris Anderson was living in Southall, west London during the Blitz. She recalls how by October 1940 her family no longer waited to hear the siren but every evening went straight to the Andersen Shelter that they had built in their garden and slept there. Until an unexploded bomb killed their neighbour:

October 21st: We awakened about 4 a.m. hearing a terrible bang. The whole shelter shuddered. We realised that a bomb had been dropped close by. We couldn’t see anything because it was too dark, so went back to sleep. Shortly afterwards, there was a banging on the shelter door and an air raid warden flashed his torch inside. He told us a large bomb had landed on a house opposite ours, bringing the house down and killing the old gentleman who lived there alone. It had not exploded and the whole area had to be evacuated. We were given 5 minutes to collect a case full of things and leave. The assembly point was the Mission Hall opposite the laundry where I worked.

My brother and sister were so frightened. My father was making arrangements to get my grandfather moved;he was bedridden and slept in a downstairs room reinforced with iron girders. He was whisked away by ambulance and never returned home again. We were a sorry lot trailing down the road with our neighbours, some with coats over nightclothes, carrying young children, some with dogs and cats and birdcages. Old and young, we were a dejected lot until someone started to sing: “There’s a long, long trail a-winding”.

On arrival at the Church Hall, we had to sign in, giving name, address and number in family. We each got 2 blankets and a palliasse, found a space in the hall and made up our beds. We were all there for 4 days. The WVS were wonderful and provided us with breakfast of porridge, toast and marmalade at another church for anyone who wanted to go. We couldn’t cook anything as the gas ring only had 2 burners, but we made endless tea and lived off fish and chips. We didn’t get much sleep as people were coming and going day and night, working different shifts. We were also very conscious that we were in a wooden building with a tin roof – not much protection.

We weren’t allowed back into the house for anything but my father managed to sneak over the back fence, feed the chickens and bring us clean clothing. Eventually we were told that it was safe to return: the bomb was not set on a time fuse, so would not now explode. It was left till after the war when a huge crane lifted it out. Had it gone off, we were told, the whole street would have gone up as well.

Doris Anderson’s full account can be read at BBC People’s War.

Doreen, Susie and Hugh Buckner play a game of 'Wardens' at their London home. Doreen, Susie and their dolls sit under an up-turned armchair covered in blankets, as 'Warden' Hugh checks to see that they are safely inside their make-believe air raid shelter.
Doreen, Susie and Hugh Buckner play a game of ‘Wardens’ at their London home. Doreen, Susie and their dolls sit under an up-turned armchair covered in blankets, as ‘Warden’ Hugh checks to see that they are safely inside their make-believe air raid shelter.

Bomber Command attacks Germany and Italy

138 medium and heavy bombers were despatched. A considerable weight of bombs were released within the various target areas, but results were difficult to assess except at Berlin, where a military objective and important marshalling yards were hit and at Grevenbroich and Cologne, where aluminium works were set on fire and several large fires were started in the vicinity of the Hohenzollern Bridge. At Bonn and Munster many explosions were caused when goods yards were bombed.

Bomb damage in Berlin October 1940
Clearing up the bomb damage in Berlin, October 1940. The RAF were a long way from matching the devastation being visited upon London.

Our heaviest attack [of the week] took place on the night of the 20th-21st October when 138 medium and heavy bombers were despatched. A considerable weight of bombs were released within the various target areas, but results were difficult to assess except at Berlin, where a military objective and important marshalling yards were hit and at Grevenbroich and Cologne, where aluminium works were set on fire and several large fires were started in the vicinity of the Hohenzollern Bridge. At Bonn and Munster many explosions were caused when goods yards were bombed.

This night also marked the resumption of our attacks on Northern Italy after an interval of some six weeks. Targets in Turin, Milan, Aosta, Bergamo and Savona were attacked; at Aosta a large sheet of flame followed a direct hit on the steel works.

TNA CAB 66/13/5

The Wolfpack moves on to Convoy HX79

0015. Three destroyers, line abreast, approach the ship, searching the vicinity. I went off at full speed on a south-westerly course and very soon regained contact with the convoy. Torpedoes from other boats exploding all the time. The destroyers are at their wits’ end, shooting off star shells the whole time to comfort themselves and each other. Not that that makes much odds in the bright moonlight. I am now beginning to pick them off from astern of the convoy.

Kapitänleutnant Otto Kretschmer, also known as Otto der Schweigsame (Silent Otto), November 1940.
Kapitänleutnant Otto Kretschmer, also known as Otto der Schweigsame (Silent Otto), November 1940.

The attack on SC7 continued into the 19th October. This time the record of action is from the German perspective.

This was the war diary of Otto Kretschmer, commanding U-99, for the period around midnight 18th/19th October:

18.10

2330. Now attacking right wing of the last line but one. Bow shot at a large freighter. The vessel zig-zagged, with the result that the torpedo passed in front of her and hit instead her even bigger neighbour after a run of 1,740 yards. The ship, about 7,000 tons, was hit below the foremast and sank quickly by the bows with, I presume, two holds flooded.

2358. Bow shot at large freighter approx. 6,000 tons. Range 750 yards. Hit below foremast. The explosion of the torpedo was immediately followed by a high sheet of flame and an explosion which ripped the ship open as far as the bridge and left a cloud of smoke 600 feet high. Ship’s forepart apparently shattered. Ship still burning fiercely, with green flames.

19.10

0015. Three destroyers, line abreast, approach the ship, searching the vicinity. I went off at full speed on a south-westerly course and very soon regained contact with the convoy. Torpedoes from other boats exploding all the time. The destroyers are at their wits’ end, shooting off star shells the whole time to comfort themselves and each other. Not that that makes much odds in the bright moonlight. I am now beginning to pick them off from astern of the convoy.

0138. Bow shot on a large, heavily laden freighter of some 6,000 tons. Range 945 yards. Hit below foremast. Ship sank at once.

0155. Bow shot on the next ship, a large vessel of approx. 7,000 tons. Range 975 yards. Hit below foremast. Ship sank in forty seconds.

Those U-boats that still had torpedoes following the attack on Convoy SC7 were now ordered to join up with U-47, commanded by Gunther Prien. He had spotted another Liverpool bound convoy, this time unescorted. Although the Royal Navy, alarmed at the losses to SC7 and aware of the probable danger to HX79 sent ships to the scene, they were no deterrent to the night time attack by the Wolfpack.

A further 12 ships were now sunk, with no loss to U-Boats.

The casualties from HX79 were:

Wandby – 8900 tons lead, zinc and lumber for Middlesbrough, sunk by U-47 Oct. 19, no casualties.
Loch Lomond steel/lumber for Methil, straggled, sunk by U-100 Oct. 20.
Shirak – Kerosene for London, damaged by U-47 Oct. 19, sunk by U-48 Oct. 20, no casualties.
Sitala – 8444 tons crude oil for Manchester, sunk by U-100 Oct. 20, 1 died.
Caprella – 11 300 tons fuel oil for Mersey, sunk by U-100 Oct. 20, 1 died.
Whitford Point – 7840 tons steel for Liverpool, sunk by U-47 Oct. 20, 37 died.
Bilderdijk – 8640 tons grain/general, sunk by U-47 [Uboat.net says U-38] Oct. 19, no casualties.
Janus – fuel oil for Clyde, straggled, sunk by U-46 Oct. 20.
Ruperra – steel/scrap iron/aircraft for Glasgow, sunk by U-46 Oct. 19, 30 died.
Athelmonarch – Molasses for Liverpool, damaged by U-47 Oct. 20.
Matheran -3000 tons iron/1200 tons zinc/general for Liverpool, sunk by U-38 Oct. 19, 9 died.
Uganda – 2006 tons steel/6200 tons lumber for Milford Haven, sunk by U-38? Oct. 19 [Arnold Hague says U-47], no casualties.
La Estancia – 8333 tons sugar for Belfast, sunk by U-47 Oct. 20, 1 died.

For more details on this and other wartime convoys see Warsailors

After leaving the remains of HX79, the U Boats went on to attack an outward bound convoy from Britain – HX79A – and sank a further seven ships on the night of the 20th/21st.

It was a terrible period for the Royal Navy, despite having the escort ships on the scene of the action, they had been unable to prevent a determined night attacks by U-boats on the surface in the middle of convoys.

Gunther Prien
Gunther Prien, the German U-boat ‘ace’.

The star of the German show was once again Gunther Prien who provided another great propaganda boost for the the Nazis. His tonnage sunk may well have been exaggerated to push him along. He was now awarded the Oak Leaves to the Knights Cross.

The entire crew of 40 were saved from the merchant steam ship Uganda when it was sunk on the 19th October 1940, possibly by U-47 commanded by Gunther Prien.
The entire crew of 40 were saved from the merchant steam ship Uganda when it was sunk on the 19th October 1940, possibly by U-47 commanded by Gunther Prien.

Meanwhile Admiral Karl Doenitz, directing the U-Boat war, felt that his tactics had been vindicated. As he afterwards recorded in his memoirs:

In three days, then, and almost exclusively in night attacks delivered together, eight boats had sunk thirty-eight ships belonging to three different convoys. In these operations no U-boat was lost.

The conclusions to which I came and which I entered in my War Diary were:

1. These operations have demonstrated the correctness of the principle which since 1935 has governed the development of U-boat tactics and been the basis of all U-boat training, namely, that the concentration which a convoy represents must be attacked by a like concentration of U-boats acting together. This has become possible thanks to the advances made in means of communication.

2. It is only possible to carry out attacks of this kind when captains and crews have been thoroughly trained for the purpose.

3. They are only possible when the requisite number of U-boats are present in the area in question.

4. The greater the number of U-boats in any given area of operations, the more likely it becomes that with more eyes (i.e. more U-boats) more convoys will be spotted – and the more numerous will become the opportunities for these concerted attacks.

5. Again, the presence of a greater number of U-boats means that, after an attack of this kind, the sea lanes of approach to Britain will not be free of danger for the time being. At the moment, nearly all the operational U-boats, after having exhausted their load of torpedoes, are forced to return to their base.

6. Success such as was achieved in the operations under review cannot always be expected. Fog, bad weather and other factors can sometimes completely ruin all prospects of success.

The decisive factor, however, is, and always will be, the ability of the captains and their crews.

Karl Doenitz: Memoirs: Ten Years And Twenty Days

US FLAG

 

U-Boat Wolfpack savages Convoy SC7

22:40 – Sighted a “U” boat on surface straight ahead steaming fast on the same course. Distance 3000-4000 yards. Opened fire with star shell. The “U” boat and her wake were clearly visible but not sufficiently for the Gunlayer of “A” gun to get his sights on before she submerged a few minutes later. Contact by echo was obtained at about 3000 yards range and was held on the run in up to 800 yards.

October 1940, On board the escorting destroyer HMS Vanity on an east coast convoy. Views of the Convoy going north up the East coast.
October 1940, On board the escorting destroyer HMS Vanity on an east coast convoy. Views of the Convoy going north up the East coast.
The leading ship of the convoy as seen from the bridge. The Captain, Lieut Cdr Ouvry, is on the left.
The leading ship of the convoy as seen from the bridge. The Captain, Lieut Cdr Ouvry, is on the left.

The longest lasting campaign of the war, the U-boat war, was still gathering pace. Although the Royal Navy had quickly instituted the convoy system, based on its experiences in the First World War, they were facing a determined enemy. The threat to Britain’s capacity to continue the war was potentially even more serious than that of the Blitz.

Thirty-five merchant ships had set out from Nova Scotia on the 5th October for Liverpool. The original escort of the convoy HMS Scarborough had fallen behind whilst attacking another U-Boat, so HMS Leith was sent with the Corvettes HMS Heartsease and Bluebell to see the convoy through the final stages. They were later joined by HMS Fowey.

Unfortunately the Germans had now formed up a Wolfpack of five U-boats, including the experienced Otto Kretschmer in U-99. They now made a co-ordinated attack on the convoy, sinking 16 ships over the 18th and 19th October. The post action report of HMS Leith’s commander shows how busy these ships were and how hard their task was:

Friday 18th October

01:15 – In company with Heartsease. Course 129° Speed 14. Sighted S.C. 7 ahead in position 58 50N 14 12W. Wind SE, Force 2, moon behind cloud, visibility good, sea calm.

01:26 – Ordered Heartsease to position [?] intending to take station myself.

01:34 – Red Very’s light observed in direction of convoy.

01:38 – An unknown ship astern of convoy signalled he was hit port side.

01:45 – Heard explosion to port of convoy. Altered 90° to port to search across convoy’s wake. From the above it would appear that two ships had been torpedoed and two ships were certainly seen at this stage. Later however only one ship Carsbreck could be found and other ships of escort stated next day that only one ship was missing. The discrepancy cannot be explained.

01:55 – Sighted Bluebell and stationed her one mile port beam. Searched 3000 yards up port side of convoy wake. When estimated position was abeam convoy searched back.

02:45 – Sighted Fowey and Heartsease who had also searched port side.

03:50 – Ordered Fowey back to convoy. Stationed Heartsease.

04:15 – Turned back towards convoy.

05:20 – Reported attack on convoy. Sighted ship and closed.

05:50 – Sighted lifeboat near ship.

06:10 – Spoke ship Carsbreck who stated she could steam 6 knots and would probably stay afloat. Ordered Hearstease to pick up survivors from boat and escort Carsbreck.

06:25 – Stationed Bluebell one mile port beam and set course for convoy at 14 knots.

08:15 – Sighted convoy.

09:48 – Stationed escort

09:58 – Spoke Commodore.

13:05 – Sighted two rafts ahead, searched in vicinity with Bluebell then picked up Master and crew (18) of Nora (Estonian) torpedoed on 13th October about 50′ (30′?) west of Rockall.

17:15 – Commodore signalled his intention to alter 40° to starboard at 20:00 and 40° to port at 23:30.

18:00 – Ordered Fowey to search 5′ astern of convoy at dusk.

19:25 – Observed very distant glare on horizon bearing 180°.

20:00 – Convoy altered course 40° to starboard.

20:20 – A ship torpedoed on port side of convoy in position 57 22N 11 11W. Altered course 120° to port, and increased to full speed firing star shell. Proceeded 10′ and then turned towards convoy.

21:30 – Sighted Fowey who had been 5′ astern of convoy when attack took place. Stationed Fowey abeam 3000 yards and searched up wake of convoy at 14 knots (Fowey’s maximum).

22:05 – Sighted two horizontal red lights then some miles ahead. They burnt for about 15 seconds. Heard explosion ahead.

22:10 – Heard explosion ahead.

22:20 – Heard explosion ahead. Increased to 15 knots and sighted several ships.

22:37 – Heard two explosions ahead.

22:40 – Sighted a “U” boat on surface straight ahead steaming fast on the same course. Distance 3000-4000 yards. Opened fire with star shell. The “U” boat and her wake were clearly visible but not sufficiently for the Gunlayer of “A” gun to get his sights on before she submerged a few minutes later. Contact by echo was obtained at about 3000 yards range and was held on the run in up to 800 yards.

22:55 – Contact was then lost. Meantime Bluebell who was in the vicinity had been ordered to join the hunt which continued until

23:55. About the time “U” boat was sighted a sheet of flame was seen on the starboard bow. It was assumed to be a tanker exploding.

23:55 – Detached Bluebell to pick up survivors and stand by four torpedoed ships which were afloat in the immediate vicinity. These four ships were Empire Miniver, Gunborg, Niritos, Beatus. Set course to rejoin convoy, speed 16 knots. Made two signals to Admiralty and C-in-C W.A. (Signals 3 and 4 timed 23:26 and 23:58).

Saturday 19th October

00:09 – Sighted Fowey and ordered her to join me stationing her 1′ on port beam, speed 14. She stated she had picked up survivors of Convallaria, Hurunui, Shekatika and Boekelo. [The British Hurunui was from the westbound Convoy OB 227, sunk by U-93 Oct. 15]

00:28 – Saw flashes on starboard bow on horizon. Turned towards to investigate.

00:50 – Sighted ship which proved to be Blairspey.

01:00 – Master stated that ship had ben torpedoed but that he considered she would keep afloat and that he could steam 6 knots. Detailed Fowey to escort her and reported to C-in-C W.A. (Signal 5 timed 01:26/19).

01:16 – Set course to rejoin convoy, speed 16 knots.

01:45 – Sighted and closed ship on port bow in position 57 10N 10 38W. Found the Commodore’s ship Assyrian slowly sinking, having been torpedoed at 00:30, with the wreckage and survivors of two other ships in her immediate neighbourhood.

02:15 – Picked up survivors from Assyrian, Empire Brigade, Soesterberg amongst whom was the Commodore (Vice Admiral L.D. I. Mackinnan).

04:00 – Proceeded on course of convoy route (130°), speed 16 knots, searching for ships.

The Royal Navy was still developing its tactics for responding to U-Boat attacks. Not realising that the attacks were being made by U Boats on the surface between the ships within the convoy, much time was spent looking for submerged U-Boats outside the the area of the convoy.

Warsailors.com has full details of all the ships in the convoy, the casualties and much more.

The Royal Navy Sloop HMS Leith
The Royal Navy Sloop HMS Leith was sent out to escort Convoy SC7 into Liverpool . Shortly after she arrived the convoy was subjected to sustained attack by U-Boats.

London landmarks and railways hit

Damage to civilian property and public buildings has been widespread in London and in other areas. A feature of the damage has been the number of huildings of national importance which have been affected. St. Pauls and the cathedrals of Canterbury and Coventry must take first place. In London the Royal Courts of Justice, the National Gallery, Kensington Palace, St. James’ Church, Piccadilly, the Natural History Museum, the Treasury, the War Office, No. 10 Downing Street, have all suffered damage.

railways-bombed-during-london-blitz
Damage was widespread but Railways appear to have been targeted during this week.

The Luftwaffe’s relentless assault on Britain, begun on 7th September, continued unabated. It was now evident that London and other major cities would have to absorb widespread destruction and a heavy tide of deaths. There was no end in sight. Equally there was no sign at all that Hitler was any closer to bringing Britain to her knees, forcing her to sue for peace.

From the weekly Resume of the Naval Military and Air Situation for the week up 17th October 1940, as reported to the War Cabinet:

Great Britain.

36. Daylight attacks consisted mainly of sweeps over South-Eastern England, for which bomb-carrying fighters were increasingly employed; on the 13th, each of the four raids plotted was entirely composed of fighters.

37. Night attacks increased considerably in intensity and relays of aircraft, singly or in groups, were active over the country from dusk to dawn, the scale of attack usually diminishing after midnight. On the 15th October the enemy reverted to the dropping of parachute mines. New devices reported were a combined incendiary and explosive bomb, and large balloons for the distribution of leaflets.

38. About three-quarters of the night attacks were directed against London, but bombs were also scattered over rural districts, particularly in the Home Counties. In the Provinces, Liverpool, Birmingham, Coventry and Bristol suffered comparatively heavy attacks. On the 15th-16th the number of enemy aircraft operating over Great Britain was the highest experienced at night, some 450 long-range bombers being employed.

A huge pile of brick rubble and a large hole is all that is left of this house on Watery Lane in Birmingham following an air raid on 18 October 1940. Amazingly, the houses behind appear unscathed.
A huge pile of brick rubble and a large hole is all that is left of this house on Watery Lane in Birmingham following an air raid on 18 October 1940. Amazingly, the houses behind appear unscathed.

Throughout the week railway communications seem to have received particular attention, and seventeen Royal Air Force stations were attacked, though with negligible results. Enemy reconnaissance activity was continued on the same scale as before.

39. During the week Fighter Command flew an average of 35 sorties each night and a total of 812 patrols, involving 4,005 sorties by day… Two enemy aircraft were shot down by our fighters on the night of the 15th-16th, and at least two more were destroyed the following night.

Other Damage.

68. Damage to civilian property and public buildings has been widespread in London and in other areas. A feature of the damage has been the number of huildings of national importance which have been affected. St. Pauls and the cathedrals of Canterbury and Coventry must take first place. In London the Royal Courts of Justice, the National Gallery, Kensington Palace, St. James’ Church, Piccadilly, the Natural History Museum, the Treasury, the War Office, No. 10 Downing Street, have all suffered damage.

69. The south-east coast towns have again suffered damage to civilian property, especially Hastings. Other parts of Kent, Surrey and Essex have sustained considerable damage and there has been damage to residential property in Liverpool, Manchester, Coventry, Luton, Birmingham and Middlesbrough.

Civilian Casualties.

70. The approximate figures for the week ending 0600 hours, 16th October, are 1,567 killed and 4,634 injured. These figures include the estimated figures of 1,380 killed and 3,729 injured in London.

See TNA CAB/66/13/3

Two cats, two teacups and a sleeping man take residence on benches under railway arches which are used as a public air raid shelter for dispossessed people in west London, 1940.
Two cats, two teacups and a sleeping man take residence on benches under railway arches which are used as a public air raid shelter for dispossessed people in west London, 1940.

104 Killed in Kennington Park

01.25 Estimated at least another 100 under wreckage. 2 dead so far recovered. Estimated it will take a considerable time to clear debris and secure those trapped. Public in remaining portion of trenches fairly calm. 2 further 50lb bombs fallen in park. No casualties.

Trench-shelter for London Park
Many London Parks had public Trench Shelters designed to accommodate the large number of people who did not have their own garden where they could install an Anderson shelter. The corridors were covered with boards which were then covered with mounds of earth.

Trench Shelters were a relatively economical and quickly produced means of providing Air Raid shelters for large numbers of people. Unfortunately the ‘ladder design’ of intercommunicating trenches meant they were very vulnerable to bombs landing nearby, which could cause whole trenches to collapse, instantly burying their occupants.

On the evening of 15th October a bomb fell on the Trench Shelter in Kennington Park, Lambeth, south London. The district Air Raid Precautions log for that evening and the following day gives some indication of the difficulties faced by the authorities in dealing with the disaster, even as more bombs fell into the Park:

Tuesday 15th October 1940…

20.05 Express report – casualties at Kennington Park trenches.

20.16 Please send medical aid for casualties in Kennington Park surface shelter.

20.20 Send doctor to Kennington Park trenches. Dr Wilson sent.

20.25 More ambulances wanted. Men with spades. Trenches collapsed.

20.41 Take spades. People buried.

21.16 1 section of trench completely collapsed. 20 casualties out.

21.25 1 ambulance to Oval tube for Kennington trenches.

Wednesday 16th October 1940…

01.25 Estimated at least another 100 under wreckage. 2 dead so far recovered. Estimated it will take a considerable time to clear debris and secure those trapped. Public in remaining portion of trenches fairly calm. 2 further 50lb bombs fallen in park. No casualties.

03.21 Rescue workers have left trenches. They report that nothing further can be done until 06.30 hours when they will return. They also state that everyone remaining in bombed trenches is dead. Police have taken charge of the park and closed entrances.

05.01 Arrived at incident but after surveying the situation gave it up as hopeless until daylight. One man has since been rescued by wardens and police and taken to hospital in police van. All services have returned to depot.

07.00 100 shrouds requested.

08.03 Big lorry wanted to remove bodies.

15.15 Company of guards have now arrived to assist in the digging out of those trapped.

15.15 Position at present: approximately 35 minor casualties got out last night. 20 serious ambulance cases. Today 23 have been brought out. All dead. Remainder trapped – must be assumed as such.

17.22 We are still waiting for van to take bodies to the mortuaries.

No records were kept of the numbers entering large public shelters such as these, it would have hardly have been practicable to do so. But when disaster struck it was impossible to know how many casualties the authorities were dealing with.

Many of the bodies in Kennington Park were blown apart and most were buried. Eventually 48 bodies out of the estimated 104 fatalities were recovered. The balance remain under the grass of Kennington Park to this day.

See Kennington’s Forgotten Tragedy.

Churchill sets out his priorities

THE very highest priority in personnel and material should be assigned to what may be called the Radio sphere. This demands Scientists, Wireless Experts, and many classes of highly-skilled labour and high-grade material.

On the progress made, much of the winning of the war and our future strategy, especially Naval, depends. We must impart a far greater accuracy to the A.A. guns, and a far better protection to our warships and harbours. Not only research and experiments, but production must be pushed hopefully forward from many directions, and after repeated disappointments we shall achieve success.

Sound locator crew working with search lights during the Blitz
A sound locator crew working with a Search Light unit during the Blitz. Such methods, as well as the Observation Corps, were given considerable publicity and shown as part of the co-ordination of Air Raid detection. By contrast the Radar system, which was already playing a crucial role, remained highly secret.

On the 15th October 1940 Winston Churchill set out his priorities in a War Cabinet ‘Note by the Prime Minister’.

He was perhaps mindful of the recent success of HMS Ajax in utilising radar against the Italian Navy, which he would just have been briefed about:

THE very highest priority in personnel and material should be assigned to what may be called the Radio sphere. This demands Scientists, Wireless Experts, and many classes of highly-skilled labour and high-grade material.

On the progress made, much of the winning of the war and our future strategy, especially Naval, depends. We must impart a far greater accuracy to the A.A. guns, and a far better protection to our warships and harbours. Not only research and experiments, but production must be pushed hopefully forward from many directions, and after repeated disappointments we shall achieve success.

The 1A priority must remain with Aircraft Production, for the purpose of executing approved Target programmes. It must be an obligation upon them to contrive by every conceivable means not to let this priority be abused and needlessly hamper other vital Departments. For this purpose they should specify their requirements in labour and material.

Other priorities were that he set out were:

The establishment of 10 Armoured Divisions by the end of 1941.

We cannot hope to compete with the enemy in numbers of men and must therefore rely upon an exceptional proportion of armoured fighting vehicles

Rifles and small arms ammunition – the Home Guard was still for the most part without weapons, and there was a shortage of ammunition for all units.

Small craft and anti U-Boat craft in preference to large ships for the Navy.

See TNA CAB/66/12/46

Blenheim Mk IFs of No. 25 Squadron at Martlesham Heath, 25 July 1940. The foreground aircraft is equipped with AI Mk III radar. The squadron was used for night fighter operations.
Blenheim Mk IFs of No. 25 Squadron at Martlesham Heath, 25 July 1940. The foreground aircraft is equipped with AI Mk III radar. The squadron was used for night fighter operations.
A member of the Observer Corps listens for the approach of aircraft while his colleague sleeps, 29 February 1940.
A member of the Observer Corps listens for the approach of aircraft while his colleague sleeps, 29 February 1940.

Disaster at Balham Tube station

They had gone to the Tubes for safety, instead they found worse than bombs, they found the unknown, terror. Women and children, small babes in arms, locked beneath the ground. I can only visualize their feelings, I can only write how it has been told to me, but it must have been Hell. On top of this there came a cloud of gas. People not killed outright were suffocated, the rest drowned, drowned like rats in a cage.

Sleeping on Elephant and Castle tube station during the Blitz
There was huge demand for space on the London underground during the Blitz, probably the safest place to be. Yet nowhere was entirely safe.The Elephant and Castle station was only six stops along the Northern Line from Balham station.

Mike Harris at BBC People’s War recalls sleeping at Balham Underground station before his evacuation from London.

When I was a young boy I remember going down the Underground at Balham station on the Northern Line during the worst of the German air raids. I well remember the sound of the first train in the morning which woke us up from the bunk beds we were sharing. I remember the stuffy atmosphere but the sense of togetherness among the people.

He was fortunate not to be there on the 14th October 1940 when at 8.02pm a 1400 kilo semi armour piercing bomb penetrated 32 feet underground and exploded just above the cross passage between the two platforms.

Site of the explosion at Balham Tube station cross passage
The bomb exploded above the cross passage between the platforms for the up and down lines. Massive quantities of debris fell into the tunnel.

Above ground a No.88 London double decker bus, travelling in blackout conditions, plunged into the crater created by the bomb. The dramatic spectacle of the trapped bus was to become emblematic of the dangers of the Blitz, a series of pictures of it appeared in publications around the world.

Bus in crater at Balham tube disaster.
The bomb exploded directly in front of a No 88 London bus which drove straight into the crater.

The water and gas mains, along with the sewage pipes, had been broken: water poured down, flooding the tunnels below, and gas hampered rescue efforts. Almost all of the casualties would have resulted from the blast and debris. Yet stories soon developed of trapped people drowning in the flood waters and of miraculous escapes by people swimming along the tunnels to the next station. Colin Perry wrote in his diary:

This bomb I think penetrated the steel-encased Tube below the ground, and I hear too that something, by a million to one chance, went down the ventilator shaft of the underground station. The water main was burst and the flood rolled down the tunnels, right up and down the line, and the thousands of refugees were plunged into darkness, water. They stood, trapped, struggling, panicking in the rising black invisible waters.

They had gone to the Tubes for safety, instead they found worse than bombs, they found the unknown, terror. Women and children, small babes in arms, locked beneath the ground. I can only visualize their feelings, I can only write how it has been told to me, but it must have been Hell. On top of this there came a cloud of gas. People not killed outright were suffocated, the rest drowned, drowned like rats in a cage.

See Boy in the Blitz: The 1940 Diary of Colin Perry.

It was easy for such stories to take a hold but there is no mention of these scenarios in the official accounts of the rescue. In total sixty six people died, although over the years there has been confusion over the exact number and only recently Transport for London has agreed to revise the memorial plaque at the station.

The double decker bus is removed from the bomb crater at Balham.
People are still moving along the footway beneath as the double decker bus is removed from the bomb crater at Balham.

The recovery of bodies was to take almost until Christmas yet remarkably the damage was repaired and trains were running through the station on 8th January 1941, and the station itself reopened on the 19th January.

Nick Cooper’s London Underground at War has a very comprehensive account of the Balham aftermath drawn from official sources, and a huge amount of detail on everything about the Tube during the war.

Training for the Grenadier Guards

From the moment a recruit arrived at the Caterham barrack gate and was marched off by a picquet sentry to join his squad, feet moving so fast that he seemed to be flying, there was not a moment to relax: through the first haircut (a shaven head)to the first and subsequent drill parades; through the sound of reveille blown by bugle at six o’clock, with all recruits tumbled out and standing at attention by beds one minute later; through the occasions when it was decided (on principle) that we had been ‘idle’ and needed sharpening up – HALT! Stand at ease! ‘GAS’! (old-style respirators on – most uncomfortable from a respiratory point of view) – Squad shun! Squad will fix bayonets – FIX! (this was the old, long sword- bayonet, with a tricky fitment to the rifle for the inexperienced or maladroit) – BAYONETS! Slope Arms! Quick March! Left – right – (what seemed thirty miles an hour) – Break into double time, Double MARCH! Mark TIME! Lift Knees, Up, Up, Up!

Churchill inspects parade of Grenadier Guards
Winston Churchill inspects a unit of the Grenadier Guards equipped with Bren Gun Carriers. He spent much time travelling around every part of the country visiting all types of military unit.

Across the country tens of thousands of men were adjusting to military life, many volunteering but most following conscription.

David Fraser, later to become General Sir David Fraser, had enlisted at the earliest opportunity but had had to wait some time before he could join his chosen regiment, the Grenadier Guards, which his father had served in. In October 1940, not yet even an officer, he describes his experiences at the Guards Depot at Caterham, where recruits for the Guards Regiments received their training separately from the rest of the Army. He was part of a distinct squad who would all later go to on to Sandhurst for officer training. But initially they got no special treatment:

It was a tonic, and a much needed tonic because now, at last, I was part of an organization with really high standards, really strict discipline and really good morale.

From the moment a recruit arrived at the Caterham barrack gate and was marched off by a picquet sentry to join his squad, feet moving so fast that he seemed to be flying, there was not a moment to relax: through the first haircut (a shaven head) to the first and subsequent drill parades; through the sound of reveille blown by bugle at six o’clock, with all recruits tumbled out and standing at attention by beds one minute later; through the occasions when it was decided (on principle) that we had been ‘idle’ and needed sharpening up – HALT! Stand at ease! ‘GAS’! (old-style respirators on – most uncomfortable from a respiratory point of view) – Squad shun! Squad will fix bayonets – FIX! (this was the old, long sword- bayonet, with a tricky fitment to the rifle for the inexperienced or maladroit) – BAYONETS! Slope Arms! Quick March! Left – right – (what seemed thirty miles an hour) – Break into double time, Double MARCH! Mark TIME! Lift Knees, Up, Up, Up!

Through the shining parades, when we sat astride our beds in the evening, a tin of boot polish and duster in hand, and answered questions on Regimental history, Regimental personalities and so on – the progress of shine on boots was a matter of unceasing anxiety. ‘Those boots are below standard! Unless you get a move on them you’ll find yourself back-squadded, lad!’ Official shining parade only lasted an hour but we kept at it until lights out.

And it was in the unofficial parts of it that we could wander a little, laugh, gossip, make friends. Smoke.

Although if a matchstick fell to the floor at the wrong moment – March down the barrackroom. Stamp to attention. ‘Leave to fall out, Trained Soldier.’ A nod. A turn to the right, a march back, a retrieved match stick, its disposal, another march down the barrackroom. ‘Leave to fall in, Trained Soldier.’ Another nod.

The bugle for Lights out. Sleep on three wooden trestles placed on two wooden stretchers and surmounted by three ‘Biscuits’, square mattress-like objects. Two blankets. Through all these experiences the impression was indelible. We were in a bit of the Army quite unlike any other. And it worked.

See Wars and Shadows: Memoirs of General Sir David Fraser

The Castle Guard, formed from members of the training battalion, Grenadier Guards, leaving the main entrance of Windsor Castle on the way to Victoria Barracks in Windsor, 30 June 1940.
The Castle Guard, formed from members of the training battalion, Grenadier Guards, leaving the main entrance of Windsor Castle on the way to Victoria Barracks in Windsor, 30 June 1940.
Troops from the Grenadier Guards constructing sandbag defences around government buildings in Birdcage Walk, London, May 1940.
Troops from the Grenadier Guards constructing sandbag defences around government buildings in Birdcage Walk, London, May 1940.

HMS Ajax strikes again – first use of Naval radar

These were some of the best Italian ships and there was much speculation within the Italian Navy as to how HMS Ajax had overcome the larger force which had attacked her first. She had sunk the Italian destroyer support ships ARIEL and ARIONE and seriously damaged the destroyers AVIERE and ARTIGLIERE. At first this was attributed to excellent Royal Naval gunnery and astute use of Starshell during the night time action. In fact HMS Ajax was making history, using Radar for the first time in a naval combat engagement, and using it to good effect.

Italian destroyer Artigliere blows up after being torpedoed by HMS York
The crippled Artigliere is finished off by a torpedo from HMS York which hits her magazine causing a massive explosion.

The light Cruiser HMS Ajax had won fame during the Battle of the River Plate, the first major naval engagement of the war. Now she was in the Mediterranean, leading the attack on the Italian Navy:

A small convoy for Alexandria left Malta on the evening of the 11th October, and to cover them cruisers searched to the north and east.

H.M.S. Ajax encountered three destroyers early on the 12th October and sank two of the Arione class (679 tons, built 1937-38). Later she sighted a large cruiser and four destroyers, one of which she damaged before the ships escaped in the darkness.

At dawn air reconnaissance located the damaged destroyer in tow of another one, but no other ships were seen. The towing destroyer, on the approach of our forces, at once slipped her tow and escaped under cover of smoke, and the crew of the damaged destroyer, the Artigliere (1,620 tons, completed 1937), abandoned ship.

H.M.S. York dropped Carley floats in the vicinity for the use of survivors and sank the Artigliere by torpedo. In view of the fact that the ships were in submarine waters about 90 miles south-east of Sicily, and the previous experience of H.M. Ships being bombed whilst picking up the survivors of the Bartolomeo Colleoni, it was not considered advisable to stop and pick up the survivors.

A few survivors were, however, rescued some distance away by H.M. Ships Nubian and Vampire. Casualties in H.M.S. Ajax were 2 officers and 10 ratings killed, and 1 officer and 2 ratings seriously wounded. She suffered slight damage.

See TNA Cab/66/13/3

These were some of the best Italian ships and there was much speculation within the Italian Navy as to how HMS Ajax had overcome the larger force which had attacked her first. She had sunk the Italian destroyer support ships ARIEL and ARIONE and seriously damaged the destroyers AVIERE and ARTIGLIERE. At first this was attributed to excellent Royal Naval gunnery and astute use of Starshell during the night time action.

In fact HMS Ajax was making history, using Radar for the first time in a naval combat engagement, and using it to good effect. The action contributed to the continuing celebrity of HMS Ajax but no mention was made in any of the publicity of the role of Radar.

HMS Ajax seen before the Second World War
HMS Ajax, seen here before the war, had been hit several times in the Battle of the River Plate and suffered 12 dead and more injured. She took over a month to repair.
HMS AJAX at a buoy.
HMS AJAX at a buoy.