The Longest Night: 10-11 May 1941, Voices from the London Blitz



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    By 4.30am, the storm had swept over Stepney leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. Dr Kenneth Sinclair-Loutit had been sent to Stepney a couple of hours after his attempt to save a coffee warehouse in the City. He and his Heavy Rescue team were now trying to extricate survivors from a collapsed block of flats. He was doing what he hated most, carrying out a rescue while a raid was in progress. ‘I can’t remember where exactly in Stepney the flats were,’ he said. ‘On May 10, the borough was hit so badly it was just a jungle of smoke and flames. I led my rescue team into the wreckage and the first few yards of tunnelling were always the worst; if the building was going to cave in on top of you, it would most likely be at the start. Each bomb that dropped, he said, was ‘a form of Russian roulette in which the trigger is pulled by someone else.’

    Sinclair-Loutit found an elderly couple, alive but in a state of severe shock. He extricated them using the ‘wheelbarrow technique’, the most favoured method of bringing out people from a low tunnel in which the rescuer straddled the victim who was on their back. The trapped person’s hands were tied together and their arms slipped over the neck of the rescuer. He then propelled them both along the tunnel using his hands. ‘On this occasion the old couple were very brave,’ says Sinclair-Loutit. ‘I remember the man joking to me as I put his arms round my neck. “Don’t you try any funny business,” he said to me.’

    Only once did Sinclair-Loutit remember seeing one of his team show any irritation. After bringing out several dead from a building one of them walked over to a WVS canteen van. The ladies serving could offer him only sardine sandwiches. ‘Have you got anything else, love?’ he snapped. ‘No, sorry, sardine only. What’s wrong with sardines?’ The man looked up at the smartly dressed woman smiling behind the counter. ‘Nothing, just that sardines smell like dead people.’

    At Waterloo Station, the asphalt on the platform was soft and spongy from the heat of the fire in the 23 acres of vault underneath. Mac Young and his fire crew from Paddington had spent much of the night fighting the fires in the vaults assisted by ten pumps from outside London. ‘These crews turned up and they all had their epaulettes on and looked very smart indeed,’ recalls Mac. ‘They also had these lovely turntable ladders on their pumps which could be elevated and extended.’ Mac stood by his pump, watching, a cigarette wedged between his index and middle fingers, as one of the provincial firemen climbed towards a platform at the top of the first section of the 100-foot ladder. ‘He got on to this platform where there was a fixed hose and clipped himself on,’ remembers Mac, ‘and signalled to the operator to elevate him up. But in the excitement of the moment, he forgot to keep his toes clear of the edge of the platform and, as soon as the platform started rising, his feet got caught in the first rung of the ladder, breaking all his toes.’ Despite the accident the fireman remained on the platform as he rose up towards the fire. ‘He was a brave chap, this fireman,’ recalls Mac, ‘but within a few minutes he’d passed out through
    a combination of heat and pain from his broken toes.’

    The aftermath

    On Monday afternoon, Arthur Greenwood, Minister without Portfolio, took a select group of journalists on a tour of Parliament. His job was to start to plan the rebuilding of London after the war. ‘This too,’ he indicated with a sweep of his hand, ‘will now come within my province and I must think about its reconstruction.’ They entered the Commons Chamber from the door behind the Speaker’s Chair. The ashes from the chair blackened their shoes as their footsteps scrunched across the wreckage.

    The parliamentary correspondent from the Daily Telegraph scaled the wreckage of the Chamber and dropped down into the ‘No’ Division lobby. ‘Four chairs stood forlornly around a blackened table. Their leather had melted but on the backs of them a gilt portcullis still showed. Among it all stood a heavy silver inkstand and paper rack stuffed with half-burned notepaper stamped with the House of Commons mark.’
    On the bright side, Greenwood told the shaken journalists, the mace had been saved, as had the Prime Minister’s private room and his library. Percy Carter, parliamentary correspondent for the Daily Mail, struck a similarly upbeat note in his copy. ‘To those of us who have worked at Westminster for so long, it is sad to think upon the fairness which has been wantonly destroyed by peevish people. But let us not waste time on sentiment. On with the war. All wounds will be healed in the new world we build.’

    Extracts taken from ‘The Longest Night: 10-11 May 1941, Voices from the London Blitz’ by Gavin Mortimer (Phoenix, £8.99).

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