Posted on Sep 07, 2020
The London Blitz - the sustained bombing of the capital by the Luftwaffe during the Second World War - is ingrained in the collective memories of indigenous Londoners. Those who lived through it can never forget the horrors, while younger generations will likely know the names of lost relatives and family friends, writes Gary Cartwright.
A little after 4pm on September 7th 1940 an armada of 348 German bombers and 617 fighters arrived over London, the largest bombing raid the world had ever seen, and just the first wave of many that day. The first bomb of the London blitz landed on the Dockyard Offices on the periphery of what is now the car park for Surrey Quays shopping centre at Canada Water. This was then known as Surrey Docks, and was the arrival point for timber imported from across the world.
A stick of bombs then fell the length of Moodkee Street, the last of them exploding directly outside the Cock and Monkey pub at 86 Neptune Street, claiming the lives of a number of revellers celebrating a birthday. These were to be the first of 43,000 civilians to lose their lives in the Blitz, with another 139,000 injured. For 56 of the following 57 nights the bombers were to come.
"Black Saturday" saw more than 1000 incendiaries dropped, including bombs actually strapped to canisters of oil.
Pulitzer Prize winning American journalist Ernie Pyle (1900-1945) had witnessed at first hand the Battle of Britain, and was present in London during the opening days of the Blitz.
He wrote of the latter: "It was a night when London was ringed and stabbed with fire. They came just after dark, and somehow you could sense from the quick, bitter firing of the guns that there was to be no monkey business this night. Shortly after the sirens wailed you could hear the Germans grinding overhead. In my room, with its black curtains drawn across the windows, you could feel the shake from the guns. You could hear the boom, crump, crump, crump, of heavy bombs at their work of tearing buildings apart. They were not too far away. Half an hour after the firing started I gathered a couple of friends and went to a high, darkened balcony that gave us a view of a third of the entire circle of London. As we stepped out onto the balcony a vast inner excitement came over all of us-an excitement that had neither fear nor horror in it, because it was too full of awe.
"You have all seen big fires, but I doubt if you have ever seen the whole horizon of a city lined with great fires - scores of them, perhaps hundreds. There was something inspiring just in the awful savagery of it. The closest fires were near enough for us to hear the crackling flames and the yells of firemen. Little fires grew into big ones even as we watched. Big ones died down under the firemen's valour, only to break out again later.
"About every two minutes a new wave of planes would be over. The motors seemed to grind rather than roar, and to have an angry pulsation, like a bee buzzing in blind fury...
"Into the dark shadowed spaces below us, while we watched, whole batches of incendiary bombs fell. We saw two dozen go off in two seconds. They flashed terrifically, then quickly simmered down to pin points of dazzling white, burning ferociously. These white pin points would go out one by one, as the unseen heroes of the moment smothered them with sand. But also, while we watched, other pin points would burn on, and soon a yellow flame would leap up from the white centre. They had done their work - another building was on fire."
At Surrey Docks a third of all warehouses were destroyed in one horrific night, and 25 acres of timber were set ablaze; more than 300 appliances were needed to tackle the inferno.
An unnamed fireman wrote of the night "There were pepper fires, loading the surrounding air heavily with stinging particles so that when a fireman took a deep breath it felt like breathing fire itself. There were rum fires, with torrents of blazing liquid pouring from the warehouse door and barrels exploding like bombs themselves.
"There was a paint fire, another cascade of white hot flame, coating the pump with varnish that could not be cleaned off for weeks. A rubber fire gave forth black clouds of smoke that could only be fought from a distance, always threatening to choke the attackers."
The fires raged for a full week, and 85% of houses near the docks were destroyed. St Katherine's dock, which specialised in wool, sugar and rubber, was almost totally obliterated during the war. Wolfe-Barry's imposing lock at Greenland Dock was rendered useless through bomb damage.
The Dockyard offices at Surrey Docks still stand, and are still in use. A blue plaque on the outside wall commemorates the events of September 7th 1940. The site is just a few moments walk from Surrey Quays underground station.
The main image, taken by a Luftwaffe photographer on September 7th 1940, shows a Heinkel 111 flying over the River Thames east to west. Its position suggests it would have already dropped its bombs by the time the picture was taken. Moodkee Street, and the Cock and Monkey pub, are obscured by the port (left) stabiliser (tailplane).
The Cock and Monkey pub was closed in 2003, and the building demolished the following year. An apartment building now stands on the site. There is no memorial to the victims of the bombing.
U.S. journalist Ernie Pyle was killed in action on the Pacific island of le Shima on April 18th, 1945.
Main image: Public Domain File:Heinkel over Wapping.jpg Created: 7 September 1940, via Wikipedia
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