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

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    This week sees the sixty-fifth anniversary of the worst night of the Blitz, when London became a sea of flames. Time Out interviewed hundreds of people who survived the onslaught. These are their voices

    On Saturday May 10 1941, the Luftwaffe launched an unprecedented assault on London. At 11pm, as the air raid sirens echoed across the city, the first explosions occurred. By the following morning, the German bombers had claimed 1,486 lives, destroyed 11,000 houses, and hit the Houses of Parliament, Waterloo Station, the British Museum and many other landmark buildings. It was a night that would change the face of the capital forever.

    12.30am
    At 30 minutes past midnight, the storm broke over London. The smoke from the Fireraisers [incendiary bombers] had dissipated and people on the ground looking up saw a sky lousy with German bombers. Thirty Junkers 88s from [unit] KG1, 29 Junkers of KG77, 59 Junkers of KG54, 42 Heinkel He111s of KG55 and 28 Heinkels of KG27, with a hundred more half an hour behind.

    Special Constable Ballard Berkeley was patrolling his beat when the first bombs dropped. He was standing outside the Lyons Corner House in Coventry Street talking in his actor’s voice [Ballard went on to play the Major in ‘Fawlty Towers’] to the customers coming in and out of the restaurant, when a cataract of incendiaries fell from the sky at 250mph. They hit the ground with their curious and distinctive plop-plop sound and then erupted in a sizzle of bluish-white flame. Ballard watched ‘helpless’ with mirth as a man put a steel helmet over one of the incendiaries: ‘The helmet went red hot, white hot and then disintegrated.’ It also amused the news vendor standing on the Corner House with the evening edition stacked in front of him. ‘Star, News, Standard!’ he bellowed with a grin on his face. ‘Star, News, Standard! Cup final result! Cup final result!’

    ‘He just stood there,’ recalls Ballard, ‘and the bombs came down and he kept selling his papers.’ Another bunch of incendiaries fell, just a few yards in front of a prostitute coming up from Piccadilly. ‘She had an umbrella up,’ said Ballard, ‘and she was singing, “I’m singing in the rain…”. The only rain coming down was the incendiary bombs. And I remember thinking: I wish Hitler and Goering could have a look at this.
    It was quite extraordinary.’

    Bombs fell everywhere in those bedlam hours. They fell in the north, in Purcell Street, Islington, where a HE bomb flattened 17 houses and left eight dead. They fell in the south, in Cunard Street, Southwark, where a landmine exploded on a row of houses owned by the RWhite’s Lemonade Company killing 14. They fell in the east, in Redmead Lane, Wapping, where a bomb landed on the premises of T Allen Ltd, a cartage contractor, wrecking his ten horse-drawn vans, killing a driver and several horses. They fell in the west, in Notting Hill, where a covey of high explosives pulverised Bomore Road hewing out Nos 12 to 40 on one side and 29 to 41 on the other. Seven civilians died and 13 were wounded.

    The bombs were no less arbitrary than usual on May 10 1941. They picked their victims at random, indifferent to sex or age or godliness. At 15 Mann Street, Southwark, a couple were sitting either side of their kitchen table when an explosion dislodged the chimney breast above them. It fell noiselessly, shattering the table but leaving the pair without a scratch. In Walworth, 19-year-old Hereward Barling was guiding a doctor to an incident in Rodney Road when a bomb dropped, killing Barling instantly but sparing the doctor. In Clapham, 15-year-old Maggie Meggs got out of bed to tell her parents they have to leave the house. ‘Something bad is going to happen,’ she told them. Muttering at the whims of teenagers, Mr and Mrs Meggs took their daughter to the shelter. On their return they found a two-foot spear of glass embedded in Maggie’s pillow.

    Other buildings were hit just as indiscriminately, like the Queen’s Hall in Langham Place. Just a few hours earlier, the Hall had held 2,400 people listening in rapture to Malcolm Sargent conduct the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Now, the only voices were those of Tom Clark, the electrician, and Bob Rhodes, a fireman permanently stationed in the 21,000 square foot of the Queen’s Hall. The pair had just swept the building for incendiaries and found nothing amiss. They put their feet in the caretaker’s room just inside the artists’ entrance in Riding House Street and filled the kettle with water. Suddenly they heard a heavy thud on the roof. They ran into the Hall and saw through the skylights sparks and flames coming from the side of one of the oval windows at the back centre of the ceiling, as though one of the workmen up there was ‘welding an acetylene lamp’. Rhodes thanked his good fortune. A 50-foot hose was positioned just at that spot, and with the help of Clark the incendiaries were quickly extinguished. Clark told Rhodes he could turn the water off, but before Rhodes had moved the hose went dry. ‘It’s turned itself off, Tom,’ said Rhodes. Then there was a hiss, a sudden tremendous explosion of energy and the flames were roaring from the incendiary once more. Clark hurtled into the caretaker’s room and phoned the fire service. They said they would be there as quickly as they could.

    Half an hour later flames were threshing back and forth across the entire roof of the Queen’s Hall. When debris from the roof began to fall into the Hall there was still no sign of a fire engine; nor was there when the seats caught fire or when the blue-green paint started to wriggle down the walls. They hadn’t appeared when the gilded pipes of the towering organ cracked and toppled, nor when the flames writhed their way underneath the platform into the band room where the instruments were stored. Inside they destroyed without discretion, devouring Amatis and Guearnerius and Stradivarius and cheap, worn instruments that lay beside them.

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30 comments
Sheila Beaton
Sheila Beaton

I used to live in Westmoor Road and would be very interested to see pictures of the bombing during WWII. I see John has some photos

DYNA DODSON
DYNA DODSON

MY parents Joseph and Dorothy Dodson were killed on that night in saunders st. Lambeth London. Does anybody know anything about that incident. I would be grateful for the smallest amount of information. My father was 35 and my mother 31.please help. Are there any relatives out there who can fill the gaps in my life.

john
john

I have pictures of the houses bombed in Westmoor Rd 1941

Roy Williams
Roy Williams

Further to my enquiry re Elsie Hensch/Hench does any body know about the Ridock Band they came form south London were involved with the family

Tracey
Tracey

my great grand-mother Ada Robinson died near to Webber Street SE - we think in a air -raid shelter - her house still stood for many years after the war! anybody know the name Charlotte/Ada Robinson she had a few sister who lived on the Peabody estate SE1

David Williams
David Williams

Alan, My Parent. Eileen and Colin Williams moved into 44 around 1949 - 50. We left there in 1965. My Father has passed away and my Mum has Alzhiemers, but she still has a good long term memory on occasions. I will ask her and get back to you. I must admit your surname does not ring any bells Alan. I remember some names from then, the Edgells. the Lemons, The Cox's, the Mrs Creasy, but I may be able to jog my Mum's memory. It is interesting when you Google Earth Hollington Road you can see where the bomb damage was prior to building the "new" blocks.

alan james dudman
alan james dudman

i liked to ask david williams if he remembers my family from 24 hollington street, i was born there in 1949 and we lived there until around 1956, my parents had 7 children 5 girls 2 boys but only 6 were born in hollington street, please let me know. Regards, Alan

O'Brien
O'Brien

I have found a document written by my grandfather who served south of London with the Canadian 17th L.A.A, Btty. 3rd L.A.A, Regiment. He was on leave in London during the rade. From his Note: I got another week end leave and went to London and landed there just in time to get in another big air raid. This was the biggest of them all, when it started I was near Buckingham Palace on the mall when the first bombs came down I got a HELL of a fright. I then went down the mall to the Beaver club and it was a hot spot too, So I went across Trafalgar square to Charin cross station and back to a Street leading to waterloo bridge when I reached waterloo bridge one fell on the embankment, it shook the bridge until I thought it was going to go from under me at last I was safe on the other side. I no Sooner got across the bridge when one fell in a jewelry store near Waterloo road. It must of been a big one because it shook all the buildings for blocks around and started a big fire, so I joined in to help put it out. We were so tired I started for the place where I was staying it was known as the Union Jack Club and by the time I had made the stairs I was plenty tired, so I lay down on the bed and soon was a sleep. The next morning when I awoke about six, I found the bed was covered with glass, but the caretaker told me that a bomb had hit close in the night and had shook the windows out. I went to the basement and had my breakfast and went for a stroll down a place called waterloo road it was sure one hell of a mess I don’t think there was one building standing in the fifteen blocks that I walked and the rescue squads were still picking up the dead, so I wandered around until about noon by my-self until I meet a Girl from the RAF. So we walked about twenty miles together just to see the sights. London had been bombed from end to end. I felt sorry for the people....

Roy Williams
Roy Williams

My Mum was Elsie Hensch /Hench? and I believe lived in Southwark on this night anyone with any knowledge of her or her father Christopher who worked at Familioes Paint factory?

robert defalco
robert defalco

does any body know if the stones certified by sir baddeley of the house of parliament in 1941 are of any value ESP. NO. 17606 my dad left them to me from his estate thanks.

Jean
Jean

Hi John. Can you scan it and email me a copy? That would be wonderful! Would live to see where my great grandfather lost one of his wife's and some children. Jeanmhunt79@ hotmail.com

john
john

I have a picture of the houses bombed in may 1941 Westmoor road Enfield

Martin Garfinkle
Martin Garfinkle

Does anyone know the history of the parliament stone that was turned into different collectibles that was done to raise money after world war 2? I would love to write a book about this since many objects were produced and many had different symbols i.e. Churchill, parliament bulding etc. Thanks.

David Williams
David Williams

81Hollington Road - Jean I was born in 44 Hollington Road in January 1952. The bomb site was there until 1963/4. I remember playing soldiers amongst the rubble and finding a pair of ladies glasses. They were the round rim, tortoise shell frame popular in those times. I often wondered what happened to the owner. I had no way of knowing who the lady was, but it is a childhood memory that has stayed with me to this day.

fabricio
fabricio

hi there my name is fabricio I havea piece of stone with winston churchill big coin dating 1941 and at the back of it is writing by hand ( I HEREBY CERTIFY THAT THIS STONE WAS PART OF THE STRUCTURE OF THE HOUSES OF PARLIAMENT DAMAGED BY ENEMY AIR RAIDS ON 10TH MAY 1941 ( SIGNED ) VINCENT BADDELEY ON BEHALF OF THE READ + AND ST JONHN FUND AND SOME SORT OF STAMP AT THE BOTTON 13 may 1941 I do not know about this things so I was wondering if there is any value? Many thanks Fab

Jean
Jean

Hi, After a lot of research I found that my great grandfather lost his "wife" and 2 sons in this bombing blitz at 81 Hollington Road, East Ham. Her name was Florence Mary Whittaker (MacLeod or Blackamore) aged 35. Her sons were William and Ian McLeod. I have no record of my great grandfather after this date. He identifed the bodies then disappears. If the author is still alive or if anyone has come across more information on this blitz I would love to hear it, Jean

Elizabeth Winthrop
Elizabeth Winthrop

Just found this site when I was googling the date. My uncle Ian Hankey was home on leave, staying in my grandparents' flat at 60 Pont Street when the church across the street, St. Columba was hit. He attempted with other neighbors to put out the fire with sand and buckets of water, but the church was gutted. He himself was killed late August, 1942 in the battle of Alam Halfa, just before El Alamein at the age of 20.

Alan Bowling
Alan Bowling

My father lived at 18 Cunard St and was in the house when the landmine hit. Sadly it killed his father Thomas Bowling, his mother Maud Bowling, his sister Jessica and his brother Thomas. My father was buried in the blast and was dug out many hours later. His other brother Edward had been evacuated to Somerset so was fortunately spared the experience. The are buried at: Camberwell Cemetery, Brenchley Gardens Camberwell Greater London England Postal Code: SE23 3RD

Juliana Gennissen
Juliana Gennissen

My grandmother was killed in these raids. She was Anna Heinz and was at the corner of Harrington and Ragland Sts NW1 where there was a direct hit. She had just come off duty as an ARP (I think) and this was a pub. Apparently she carried her jewels in her gas mask bag and by the time she was dug out someone had emptied the bag of the jewellery. I live in Sydney Australia and my mother,who spent the last 10 years of her life here,always said that it was the smell from digging her out that remained with her. Does anyone have any connection to this area of London? Our home address,where I was born, was 2 Harrington St. Thank you.

John Murray
John Murray

I found this site quite by chance by googling the date. I had a great aunt and uncle die that night in Brockley, S.E. London. My daughter has the only thing to survive the hit a tea service.

Colin Dance
Colin Dance

Thanks for the information Dave, I think I also had family living in Cunard street and that could explain why contact was lost with them .Have you seen the book 'The London County Council Bomb Damage Maps 1939-1945' I know it is out of print but would like to see a copy . I believe that they lived at 13 Cunard street whilst other family at 1 ( Herbert Cyril Dance ) and inlaws ( Hook ) at number 11 Have you seen the book 'The London County Council Bomb Damage Maps 1939-1945' I know it is out of print but would like to see a copy . Do you know how I can find out who would have been living at the addresses in particular on 17thJune 1929 at 13 Cunard Street. I unerstand that RW Whites lemonade factory owned a number of the houses .Any idea which they were? Sorry for so many questions but trying to close a big gap here Thanks Colin

dave bowling
dave bowling

cunnard street was where my father lost his family it was hit by a landmine and was the site of a communial air raid shelter it was opposite the r whites factory i believe it was never restored it was a typical victorian frontage street railings etc there is a publication about wells street park which features old photos and shows the layout .I saw what was left in the early eighties but believe its been re developed it features in the a.r.p. logs of the record of the raid and the list of casualties

colin dance
colin dance

Can anyone please tell me what happened to Cunard Street..It no longer seems to exist on maps

Jone
Jone

No. I am interested in people. But stories like this could have been written on countless other events during ww2. When you finaly decide to write about this particular day, I was hoping for more oversight and information on a broader perspective relevant to this particular date. It's completely alright to write about individual cases, but it becomes rather trivial and monotone when the entire article is nothing but row after row after row of examples without going beyond that. What is the pont of just writing up a series of events, without putting them into a bigger historical context at all? This is however, a choice for the writer I guess, but I have seen so many other articles like this, and they all tend to be about the same kind of stuff happening, which would be expectable during a war. I am not a politician. I am a young history student, keen on learning more about specific dates that the history books often fail to explain in detail. This article doesn't leave me much wiser, sorry. It seems to aim for a more mainstream audience I guess, and that's completely alright, It's just not what I personally wanted. PS: If my spelling is odd, it must because I am Norwegian! :P Sorry about that...

dave bowling
dave bowling

jone thanks for your input very useful and interesting thankyou thia article is about people who are individuals and experience i find it very interesting as many records were destroyed on that night remember is people this is about , maybe jone unusual spelling was a politician not interested in people or maybe you just like to spout off , thanks to all the other genuine replies dave

Jone
Jone

There are far too many trivial details on a solely individual level in this article. I was hoping to learn more about this historic day on the whole. It was after all the worst pounding London received during the whole Blitz. But this article only deals with row after row of single fates on an individual level. I fail to see the point of making the article so trivial and in my opinion, unrelevant, in comparrison to such a devastating day in the whole of London.

dave bowling
dave bowling

my father robert george bowling i believe was the only survivor of his family who lived in cunard street southwark when the landmine struck he was 11 years and has never found his parents and families graves they all lived there his dad worked for the r whites company thomas bowling married to maude bowling all his brothers and sisters were killed .think they were buried in camberwell south cemetery dad is now in his seventys

Andrew Fox
Andrew Fox

This was the night my Grandfather was killed. Abraham Lewis was an Auxiliary Firemen stationed in London's East End. His crew was called to a conflagration at Trinity House in Tower Hill and they made there way there through a bombing raid. At the scene Abraham was directed to connect his hose to a hydrant and as he bent over to connect it two incendiary bombs dropped onto his back. He was taken unconscious to relative safety behind some sandbags and later onto the London Hospital in Whitechapel where he died two days later from his grievous wounds aged 33. He left a wife and two small children. Years later I had the privilege of meeting with his Commanding Officer then aged 92 who was present on the night and who arrived at the scene after Abraham had been injured. It transpired that he shouldn't have been directed to attach his hose to the standpipe as the Thames' tide was out and the supply was non-existent. Thanks to the charity Firemen Remembered a plaque now hangs in the entrance of Trinity Hose to mark his action and each year he is remembered along with all the other firemen and women who lost their lives during the war at the site of the "Blitz" memorial outside Wren House, at the top of Peter's Hill, and just a few steps away from St. Paul's Cathedral.

Gabriel Owen
Gabriel Owen

After the bombing of Parliament House to raise funds towards the rebuilding effort, they took the stone ruble left and made the bases for Desk Lamps from it. My father purchased one of those lamps. They have an enamel badge set into them. Around the outer edge it reads: This stone came from Houses of Parliament 1941. In the centre of the badge is an expressed bronze picture of Parliament House.

Rene Lindsay
Rene Lindsay

I am looking for a Victor Cyril Dove who may have died on this day. We (my husband) have been trying to find him, any relations and if in fact in died on this awful day. He was in AFB and died sometime after Feb 1941. If anyone can help with this or lead me in any direction if would be great. Victor was married to Sarah Dove (we think). We do not know if they had children. Please help if you can.