Friday, 1 December 2017

Defending the Heart - a visit to RAF Uxbridge

Gate Guardian at RAF Uxbridge is this replica Hurricane in 303 Polish Squadron colours (author's photo)

Early in November, I was lucky enough to pay a visit to the RAF 11 Group Ops Room, more popularly known as the Battle of Britain Bunker at RAF Uxbridge in Middlesex, which was responsible for the air defence of London and the Southeast of England and as such carried the motto 'Tutela Cordis' which translates to 'Defence of the Heart.'

No. 11 Group was part of RAF Fighter Command and was an integral part of what became known as the 'Dowding System', named after Fighter Command's first Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief and the man who, with a committee led by Henry Tizard, developed what was the first interlocking command, control and communication network. This comprised of a system of Fighter Groups, Squadrons and Sector Stations, linked to the radar, observer posts, anti-aircraft guns, balloon control all controlled from Fighter Command HQ at Bentley Priory, near Stanmore in Middlesex.

It was a work of genius, which was a cornerstone of British victory during the Battle of Britain and of which the Luftwaffe were never fully aware and who never understood its significance.

The Memorial at RAF Uxbridge (author's photo)

The Groups were the second link in the communication chain and filtered down all of the information received through to the individual sector stations within their respective groups, whilst passing the information up to Command HQ at Stanmore. Today, the 11 Group Ops Room is open to the public, currently by appointment only and has been recreated to appear exactly as it did during the Battle of Britain, more specifically for around 11:30 on Sunday 15 September 1940, the day we now commemorate as Battle of Britain Day.

Appointments are necessary because the nature of the bunker makes space restricted and therefore limits the size of the groups that can be accommodated. My appointment made, I arrived a little before 14:00 having made the short walk from Uxbridge Underground Station through the former RAF Station, much of which is currently being developed into a new housing estate. On formation in 1936, the 11 Group Ops Room was located within Hillingdon House but this was a temporary measure as it was realised from the outset that any such nerve centre would need to remain impervious to enemy air attack.

The bunker was constructed by the well known construction company Sir Robert McAlpine under conditions of strict secrecy between February and August 1939 and was thus available in the nick of time for war. The bunker is sixty feet beneath the ground and was designed to be immune to the heaviest bombs of the period. It was also designed with attack by poison gas in mind and contains a gas filtration system (which is still functioning to this day) which ensures that breathable air is available at all times to those working within the complex.

On the afternoon of my visit, we had a small group of three people booked, one of whom was a 'no show' and thus, our small party of two, led by Bob, our enthusiastic and knowlegeable guide, began the descent of the first flight of 87 steps down to the Ops Room.

The first of 87 steps down - and back up! (author's photo)

As we were a small group on the day, Bob was first able to show us the gas filtration room, which after 78 years still functions perfectly well. Our next port of call was the checkpoint, which today is recreated by an RAF Regiment Guard in mannequin form, together with a rack of 0.303 rifles and a secure grill to prevent unauthorised entry. Understandably, given the secret nature of this site in 1940, entry was strictly governed by pass only. Bob explained that it was here that the Ops Room suffered its only fatal casualty of the Second World War when a WRAF was killed by a rifle which fired as it was being cleaned by one of the duty guards, killing her instantly.

The Check Point entrance to the Ops Room (author's photo)

With this sobering thought in mind, we descended further down two more flights of stairs until at last, we reached the bottom level. Bob explained that the bunker has always had a problem with flooding, although during the years that it was operational, the space was manned around the clock and could be adequately controlled. This is not always the case today and Bob showed us the mark left by a summer thunderstorm in July 2015 which left the complex shoulder deep in water.

Bob shows us the 2015 flood level marked on the door frame (author's photo)

Having reached the Ops Room proper, although I had never visited before, it was a strangely familiar sight. This was because I had seen it (so I thought) in many films, perhaps most notably in the 1969 classic Battle of Britain and I asked Bob about this filming. It transpired that the film hadn't been shot in the Bunker, because at this time RAF Uxbridge was still an operational station and in any case, the Ops Room in its 1940 form was non-existent at that time. A team from the production company visited, took meticulous measurements and aided by photographs of the complex taken during the war, faithfully recreated the complex at Pinewood Studios - and so myths are demolished!

The 'Tote Board' and Plot Table (author's photo)

The Gallery - VIPs were accomodated on the far left (author's photo)

The main Ops Room is dominated on one side by the vast 'Tote Board' which fills one wall and by the elevated desks and the curved glass of the gallery on the other. The desks were occupied by the 'Tellers' who were in constant contact with the Sector Stations, Radar Stations etc. and the Gallery was home to the Duty Controller and the AOC, who during the Battle of Britain was Air Vice Marshal Keith Park. The glass protection was a must, as the main Ops Room, with it's legion of Tellers, WRAF 'croupiers' on the Plot and the constant ringing of telephones, was a noisy place and the Controllers up above needed a modicum of quiet in order to take the momentous decisions needed to control the battle.

Bob immediately set about explaining the Tote Board and its complexities. It was designed to display all of the relevant information at a glance. The place names displayed prominently across the top and bottom of the board - TANGMERE, NORTH WEALD, HORNCHURCH, KENLEY, BIGGIN HILL, DEBDEN and NORTHOLT - are the Sector Stations for 11 Group. The numbers displayed beneath each Sector Station are the squadrons assigned to each sector, for example for Northolt we see 1 (Canadian), 303 (Polish), 229, 504 and 264 B Flight, which was a night-fighter squadron at this period of the Battle and is thus shown as 'Released' on the Tote Board, as it is set for 11:30 on 15 September 1940. The descriptions beneath each squadron, such as 'Available in 30 minutes' etc., show the readiness state of each of those squadrons. The meaning of the coloured lights relates to the colours shown on the clock face, so for example with the clock at 11:30, the minute hand has just passed the 'blue' section on the clock face, so if the light is illuminated in blue, the controllers know at a glance that this is up to date information, if in yellow then ten minute old information, red fifteen minutes and so on, with the lights being lit in sequence. At the bottom of the status list, we then see the words 'State of Squadrons' - this is simple with 'P' equating to pilots and 'A' for aircraft, so again we can see at a glance that 1 (Canadian) Squadron at this precise point had 23 pilots but only 13 aircraft, 303 (Polish) 21 pilots and 17 aircraft and so on across the squadrons.

Weather and Balloon Status was also shown (author's photo)

Nothing was left to chance and the lower part of the Tote Board displayed the weather and visibility across all Fighter Command airfields and so apart from the Sector Stations, we now saw other familiar names from the Battle of Britain such as Hendon, Croydon and Martlesham Heath on display. For example, the cloud status was 8/10 cloud cover at 18,000 feet above Biggin Hill and visibility of three miles. The green disks told at a glance that the airfield was open - a red would indicated a temporary closure and a red/green would indicate usable with care. The status of the balloon barrage was shown, with the heights of the barrages at Dover, Gravesend, Tilbury and London all shown.

The Plot Table set for 11:30 on Sunday 15 September 1940 (author's photo)

Moving to the Plot Table, the same principal of showing at a glance the age and therefore the validity of the information to hand applied. Looking at the photograph immediately above, three raids can be seen heading across the Channel; these are marked 'H' for Hostile and the number '04' for example, signifies that it is the fourth hostile raid detected so far that day. The figure in red below indicates the number of aircraft in the raid, either based on the radar operator's judgement, or as observed by a member of the Royal Observer Corps. The arrows behind the raids are coloured according to the clock face, so in this instance a blue arrow represents the most up-to-date and therefore accurate information available and by looking at the progression of arrows, it is possible to plot the course of the raids as they head towards the English coast. The RAF fighter squadrons being deployed in response to the raid are shown in similar fashion, with the squadron numbers displayed on yellow flags atop the  wooden blocks, so we see that the first squadrons likely to intercept are 92 and 72 Squadrons, which comprise of twenty aircraft and which are patrolling at a height of 25,000 feet, in other words, with the advantage of height. Other squadrons are shown at various points, either patrolling over airfields, or ready to intercept before the raiders reached London. In the distance, just over the demarcation line between 11 and 12 Groups is a formation marked 'W' which shows fifty five aircraft patrolling at 20,000 feet. This is the Duxford Wing, or the "Big Wing" of 12 Group, which although it had let down Park in 11 Group earlier in the battle by appearing too late to be effective, on this day it was to have a devastating psychological effect on the Luftwaffe by appearing in large numbers, just at a time when the German pilots had been led to believe that the RAF was on its last legs.

From the Plot Room, we moved upstairs to the gallery area behind the curved glass. Part of this is still laid out with the desk for the Duty Controller, which during the Battle of Britain was Air Commodore Baron Willoughby de Broke, who during the Battle of Britain always ensured that he was available and never missed a single day's action. An interesting fact relayed by Bob our guide, was that contrary to popular belief, no RAF personnel slept in the bunker at any point during the war, the only person being allowed to do so was the duty GPO telephone engineer, so vital was it to maintain communications with the outside world and the 11 Group airfields in particular. Another interesting point of interest is that the map on display is the original dating from 1940, which when the Ops Room was restored to it's original Battle of Britain configuration in the mid-1980s, was found rolled up in a storeroom, gathering dust!

The view down from the Gallery (author's photo)

The remainder of the Gallery, along with many of the adjoining former offices, has been converted into a most attractive and interesting museum, housing models, uniforms, medals and memorabilia from the RAF's Second World War history and beyond. This was largely the work of Warrant Officer 'Chris' Wren MBE, who whilst stationed at RAF Uxbridge for the final nine years of his RAF career, took it upon himself to restore the Ops Room to it's former glory and made it a personal mission to achieve this end. Chris is now retired from the RAF and from overseeing the Ops Room but he can be extremely proud of the end result.

During the Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill was a frequent visitor and would sit in the VIP area of the Gallery watching the day's events unfold and indeed, it was following a visit on 16 August 1940 that he was so moved by what he seen, that he began to pen the speech that would include the now immortal phrase "Never in the field of human conflict, was so much owed, by so many to so few."
Churchill was again present on 15 September 1940, the day we see frozen in time at the Ops Room today but the Bunker was visited by many other VIPs during the war, including Field Marshal Montgomery and General Dwight D Eisenhower.

Air Raid Siren formerly mounted on the roof of Hillingdon House (author's photo)

Babys' Gas Mask (author's photo)

Other parts of the Museum are dedicated to the Royal Observer Corps, Bomber Command and to RAF Uxbridge. A slick looking new Visitor Centre is currently under construction outside in the grounds which is due to open in February 2018 and it is to be hoped that this new facility doesn't detract from the charm of the current arrangements too much. There is also a Lecture Theatre, and whilst we were undertaking our visit, watched a fascinating film made especially for the RAF in 1990 which highlighted the work of 11 Group. Bob mentioned that for school groups, who are also catered for here, he frequently shows the classic documentary "London Can Take It!" which dates from 1940.

Of course, the 11 Group Ops Room was at the centre of events other than the Battle of Britain, although this was undoubtedly it's 'Finest Hour' to coin a phrase. The subsequent fighter sweeps, known as 'Rhubarbs', a costly strategy envisioned by Keith Park's successor Trafford Leigh-Mallory, who had intrigued for the 11 Group AOC's post, were all controlled from here, as were the air operations for another ill-advised mission, the Dieppe Raid in 1942. The culminating moment came in 1944, when the air operations for Operation Overlord, the D-Day Landings were all controlled from the 11 Group Bunker and today a replica Spitfire Mk IX in "Invasion Stripes" acts as the joint gate guardian with the Hurricane to represent the two pinnacles in the Ops Room's history.

Replica Spitfire Mk IX gate guardian (author's photo)

The Battle of Britain Bunker in it's present format is open by appointment only until Friday 22 December 2017, after which point it will close until the new Visitor Centre opens in February next year. I highly recommend paying a visit and details as to how to book can be made by checking out the Museum Website as per this link. If you can, visit before the closure so that you can see the current arrangements before it is too late!

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Remembering a Charlton hero: The Jim Mackenzie Story

Jim Mackenzie at right of photo (Charlton Athletic Museum)

This blog usually concentrates on events and people from the Second World War but to commemorate Remembrance Week 2017, we look back at the 1914-18 conflict and visit the story of a young man who was one of those involved in the formation of Charlton Athletic FC and whose death took place one hundred years ago this year. This article is a modified version of a piece I wrote last year for the club's museum and is reproduced here with acknowledgements.

Even though Jim Mackenzie was only fifteen years old at the time of the formation of Charlton Athletic FC, he can now be rightly seen as one of the 'Founding Fathers' of the club and to commemorate the centenary of his death, it seems a good time to re-visit his story, which I have been able to update, having unearthed some more information covering his final days.

Although I no longer attend matches as regularly as in previous years due to the various issues connected with the club's ownership, they are still 'my club' and will always be so. Over the years, Charlton Athletic have gained a justifiably superb reputation for community involvement and for our awareness of the club's proud heritage and one such initiative is the excellent Charlton Athletic Museum, an entirely self-funded charity founded and operated by a team of trustees and volunteers.

On an early visit of mine to the museum, my friend, fellow battlefield guide and Addicks fan, Clive Harris drew my attention to what was then a newly produced marble plaque which was to be added to the club's war memorial and which featured the names of the three Charlton Athletic players and officials who lost their lives during the First World War.

Detail of the Charlton Athletic FC Roll of Honour (Author's Photo)

One name, or perhaps rather a ship’s name, immediately caught my attention when looking at the finely crafted plaque. This was the steamship Heron, a name I recognised as being a vessel from the General Steam Navigation Company, a London based short sea and coastal shipping concern that later became a part of the shipping company for whom I once worked, the P&O Group. So apart from the connection to Charlton Athletic, there was also a link, albeit a slightly tenuous one to my first employer, with whom I had spent some of the happiest working years of my life. I had to learn more.

Of course, it wasn’t just a ship’s name on the plaque, for the Heron was merely providing background to the story behind the loss of a human life. The individual’s name was somebody who had been involved with the club literally right from the very start, for he was none other than Jim Mackenzie, the very first Honorary Secretary of the embryonic Charlton Athletic when the club was formed by a group of young lads from the East Street area of Charlton in time for the beginning of the 1905-06 season and whose name and home address at 5 York Street, Charlton was shown in the Kentish Independent newspaper advertisement of 27 October 1905, as the person to contact for potential opponents looking for a friendly fixture.

John Alexander Mackenzie, as his surname suggests, was a Scot, born in 1890 in Dundee to parents William and Annie Mackenzie. Jim, as he seems to have been universally known, was eventually the eldest of five children, with a younger brother and three sisters. By the time of the 1901 Census, the family had moved to 36 Cedar Grove, Charlton as Jim’s father William had taken a job as a Dockyard Labourer, no doubt at one of the many wharves that lined the Thames in the area at that time. By 1905, the family had moved to York Street, today called Mirfield Street and which connected East and West Streets (now Eastmoor and Westmoor Streets respectively) at the heart of the area from whence the young players of the newly formed football club were to be found.

Jim was Honorary Secretary of Charlton Athletic FC during it's formative years but in November 1908 at the age of eighteen, he decided to join the Merchant Navy, being engaged by the General Steam Navigation Company, often referred to simply as the GSN, or ‘The Navvies’. Although the company’s headquarters were at Trinity Square in the City of London, they also had a wharf and engineering works at Deptford, at that time a short tram journey away from Charlton. Perhaps it was the locality of his new employers, together with the relatively short routes covered by the company that attracted Jim to this type of work, which would have permitted him to watch at least the occasional home match when time and voyage schedules permitted.

The s.s. Heron of 1920 - the replacement for the vessel sunk in our story (author's collection)

The 1911 Census found Jim on board the steamship Heron, berthed at Weaver’s Wharf, North Dock, Swansea, when his rank was Mess Room Steward. By 1915, Jim was still aboard Heron and by this time, his rank was shown as the Ship’s Cook. In those days in the Merchant Navy, it was not uncommon for crew members to serve aboard the same vessel for voyage after voyage, for if the seaman was good at his job and conducted himself well, the Ship’s Master would encourage these men to form the nucleus of a trusted and competent crew. We can therefore assume from his long service with the company and aboard the Heron in particular, that Jim was both well liked and a decent Ship’s Cook.

Despite his somewhat nomadic life at sea, Jim kept his roots in Charlton and surely must have kept in contact with his friends at the football club he had helped to set-up during his periods of leave. In the 1911 Census, the family had moved to 93 East Street but by the time the 1913 Electoral Register was printed, the family had moved again to a newer and larger home at 57 Delafield Road, adjacent to Charlton Railway Station and ironically a short walk from what was to become Charlton Athletic’s future home at The Valley.

The Heron was the second of the company’s vessels to bear the name and was an iron hulled steamship of 879 gross register tons delivered to the company in 1889 by Gourlay Brothers of Dundee, so coincidentally the Heron had the same birthplace as her Ship’s Cook and was just a year older. She was engaged on one of the GSN’s regular routes from London and other UK ports to Oporto, carrying general cargo as well as having provision for some passengers. Sadly, no photograph of the vessel seems to have survived the passage of time. The third Heron was built in 1920 and although she was a larger vessel than her predecessor, her general layout was quite similar and gives the reader a good idea as to the type of vessel Jim served aboard.

The First World War saw the emergence of a new form of warfare at sea in the form of the submarine. At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, the submarine had been damned by many and the opinion of Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson RN, who described submarines as “Underhand, unfair and damned un-English” was typical for the time. Attitudes changed however, and by the outbreak of the War in 1914, submarines had been adopted by both the Royal and Imperial German Navies as an integral part of their respective fleets.  

Kapitanleutnant Walter Remy of U-90 (author's collection)

German submarines made an immediate impact in the war, with one notorious incident in September 1914 seeing the loss of the British cruisers Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy with heavy loss of life. The repercussions the following year of the torpedoing of the Cunard liner Lusitania, including the deaths of 128 American civilians, who at that time were citizens of a neutral country, caused the Germans to scale back their submarine operations for fear of further alienating public opinion in the United States and thus drawing them into the war. The submarine flotilla was duly withdrawn from the commerce war and was given strict instructions to attack enemy warships only.

However, on 31 January 1917, with the war beginning to go against Germany and the effect of the Allied blockade having a disastrous effect on food supplies, the Kaiser ordered that unrestricted submarine warfare should be recommenced with immediate effect. As a countermeasure, the British reluctantly instigated a convoy system, initially only on the shorter supply routes to France and across the North Sea but later extended to cover the Transatlantic and Gibraltar routes as well. The exigencies of war meant that there were frequent alterations to loading schedules and diversions to convoy assembly points.

The Heron was no exception in being a part of the new convoy system and having loaded a cargo of coal at Newcastle, topped up with general cargo in London, the little coaster found herself at Falmouth on 27 September 1917 as part of Convoy OF6, which comprised of nineteen vessels bound for Genoa, Gibraltar, Alexandria, Savona, Tunis and Oporto, which was the destination of the Heron, the smallest vessel in the convoy and the only one destined for the Portuguese port. The convoy sailed at 16:00 and was escorted by nine warships of the 4th Destroyer Flotilla under Commander Francis Twigg RN in HMS Lysander, who was the Senior Officer in command of the escort, which comprised the destroyers Porpoise, Hind, Achates, Cockatrice, Unity, Christopher, Brave and Lyra. Considering the size of the convoy, this was a powerful escort on paper but it must be remembered that unlike their Second World War counterparts, the destroyers of this era could not detect submerged submarines whilst they were underway as their hydrophone systems would only work when the destroyers were stopped. The destroyers would therefore hope to catch the submarines on the surface and deal with them either using their gun armament, or as a last resort, by ramming. Conversely, the attacking submarines would often surface at night to sink their prey using their own guns and to avoid wasting torpedoes, which at this time, were not always the most reliable of weapons and could only be guided visually. A large destroyer escort was also required as ships would be detached to cover the merchantmen departing for their individual destinations along the convoy route.

Jim Mackenzie remembered on the Merchant Navy Memorial at Tower Hill (CWGC)

On the night of 30 September whilst crossing the Bay of Biscay, the Heron’s company sister ship, Drake, was sunk by the gunfire of U-90, under the command of 34 year old Kapitanleutnant Walter Remy. The U-90 had only been commissioned at the beginning of August 1917 but Remy was an experienced commander, who had previously commanded the U-24 and who was already responsible for sinking over 31,000 tons of Allied shipping when he took command of his new U-Boat at the Kaiserliche Werft, Danzig. The U-90 was quite a large submarine for the time and displacing 998 tons, was actually slightly heavier than the Heron. She was armed with six 50 centimetre torpedo tubes, four at the bow and two astern and carried sixteen torpedoes. She was also armed with a 10.5 centimetre gun, with 240 rounds for surface attacks.  

The entire crew of the Drake were able to take to the ship’s boats and were eventually picked up the following morning but two hours after her sinking, a single torpedo fired at close range from U-90 slammed into the hull of the Heron adjacent to the engine room and with disastrous results. The impact of a heavyweight torpedo upon the small and elderly iron built coaster must have been devastating, as the Heron with her cargo of coal, sank like a stone. The Engine Room crew along with anyone else caught below decks would not have stood a chance and of the crew of twenty three, there was just one survivor. 

The remaining members of the s.s. Heron commemorated at the Merchant Navy Memorial, Tower Hill (author's photo)

He was a Japanese crane operator by the name of Higo, who had been off duty and taking a bath when the torpedo struck. He quickly realised that the ship was rapidly sinking and ran out on deck, grabbed a life belt and jumped naked over the side. Higo later recalled that it was a beautiful night with a calm sea and bright moonlight. He could hear the cries of other survivors in the water but they were too far away to be visible. After about twenty minutes in the sea, he was picked up by the submarine and a short time later, whilst in captivity but safe aboard the U-90, he was joined by Captain Carter, Master of the Drake, who had also been picked up, doubtless to try and obtain knowledge of the convoy and of the ships they had sunk. 

The remainder of the Drake’s crew were later rescued by the escorts and other ships in the convoy and landed at Gibraltar but of the other twenty two crew members of the Heron, including the 27 year old Jim Mackenzie and of the vessel herself, there was no trace save for a few fragments of wreckage floating on the surface. Jim and his shipmates lay at position 46⁰ 27’ N, 11⁰ 14’ W, some 300 miles southwest of Ushant, in the Bay of Biscay.

The Charlton Athletic FC Memorial and Roll of Honour (Author's photo)

The crew of the Heron represented the British Merchant Navy in microcosm, being a very cosmopolitan bunch.  As might be expected, there were men from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales on board but there were also crew members from Denmark, India, Portugal and Sweden as well as Japan. Coincidentally, apart from Jim Mackenzie, there was one other resident of Charlton on board; Charles Davey the First Engineer was from Eversley Road, whilst the ship’s Master, Captain RS Bristow hailed from nearby Beckenham in Kent. 

The men of the Heron are commemorated on the Merchant Navy Memorial at Tower Hill, a stone’s throw from the GSN Company’s former headquarters at Trinity Square and where 12,210 British Merchant Seaman from the First World War who have no grave but the sea are remembered. Unfortunately, the panel bearing Jim’s name is located quite high up on the memorial and is difficult to photograph well but is clearly visible to those wishing to pay their respects.

The poem “No Roses Grow on a Sailor’s Grave” could have been written for Jim Mackenzie and his crewmates and it is a fine achievement by the Museum that one of the original ‘East Street Boys’ without whom we would not have a Charlton Athletic, is now commemorated at the home of the football club that he helped to set in motion back in 1905.

The Charlton Athletic Museum is not connected to the club and is run by a volunteer team of trustees and helpers who are committed to preserving the club's heritage and history for a wider audience. The Museum is located within the North Stand at The Valley and is open on Fridays from 11:00 to 15:00 and on matchday Saturdays between 11:00 and 13:00.

Unpublished Sources:

Greenwich Heritage Centre - Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich, Electoral Registers, various 
National Archives - ADM 137/2628 - Admiralty Historical Section: Records used for Official History, First World War: Convoy Records, Outward Convoys Falmouth OF1 - OF21
National Maritime Museum Archives - GSN/1/43 - Minutes of the GSN Company - October 1917
National Maritime Museum Archives - GSN/41/24 - GSN Newsletter issue 93
National Maritime Museum Archives - RSS/CL/1915/3444/12 - ss Heron crew list 1915

Published Sources: 

Birds of the Sea: 150 Years of the General Steam Navigation Company - Nick Robins, published Bernard McCall, 2007
Business in Great Waters - John Terraine, published by Leo Cooper Ltd, 1989
The Story of Charlton Athletic 1905-1990 - Richard Redden, published by Breedon Books, 1990

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Exploring Wartime Woolwich

LCC Bomb Damage Map for the area of the walk (author's image)

Last month, we looked at the classic British war movie Battle of Britain, in advance of the special open-air screening of this film as part of the 2017 Charlton and Woolwich Free Film Festival. The evening was a great success and although it has to be said that the weather was not particularly kind to us, some quick thinking on the part of the organisers, coupled with some judicious examination of on-line weather forecasts, ensured that the hardy souls who did brave the rain were able to sit under cover in order to enjoy the film.

One of the supporting events for the film was a short guided walk of the local area to give people a taste of what the people of Woolwich had to endure not only during the Battle of Britain/Blitz period but during the whole of the Second World War. As this walk is unlikely to be repeated in the immediate future, it seems a good idea to give readers the chance to undertake a 'virtual' walk of Wartime Woolwich without having to get wet!

Postcard view of a Church Parade in Victorian times (author's collection)

Needless to say, the walk started and finished at the event venue, the Royal Garrison Church of St George, which as it's name suggests was originally built for the soldiers of the adjacent Royal Artillery Barracks. The church was built between 1862-63 on the orders of Lord Herbert, the Secretary of State for War in order to provide "moral well-being for soldiers of the Royal Artillery" and which was part of a more general response to the criticism aimed at the government of the day following the Crimean War, when the lack of modern facilities for the British Army was brought to the attention of the public. The church was designed in an Italo-Romanesque style and was very similar to Lord Herbert's own parish church in Wilton, Wiltshire, although built on a much larger scale. The church was the work of the architect Thomas Wyatt, assisted by his brother, Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt.

Pre-WW2 postcard view of the Garrison Church (author's collection)

The church served the Royal Artillery faithfully for many years, with Sunday church parades becoming a regular feature of Woolwich life. The building suffered blast damage from a Zeppelin raid in the First World War and in the following conflict, was initially damaged on the night of 9 March 1941, when a High Explosive bomb caused damage to the north-western corner of the church and left shrapnel damage to the marble entrance pillars that can still be seen to this day. This was one of no fewer than seven bombs that fell in the immediate area on that night but the real killer blow came some three years later when the church was struck by a V-1 Flying Bomb on Thursday 13 July 1944, causing the building to lose it's roof and upper levels. The church can be seen on the extract from the LCC Bomb Damage Maps above, at the bottom right-hand corner of the page. The church is coloured in light red, which indicates that it was thought that repairs were possible but as will be seen below, this proved not to be the case.

Shrapnel damage still visible (author's photo)
The Garrison Church as it is today (author's photo)

Once the rubble was cleared, the church remained in limited use, with occasional open-air services. A rebuilding was mooted in the early 1950s but a road widening scheme, coupled with the general shortage of funds for defence-related matters put paid to that plan. The ruins were further stabilised in the 1970s, with the remnants of the upper walls removed and more recently, a modern canopy was erected over the altar area to replace the unsightly corrugated iron structure previously installed there. This permitted restoration and stabilising works to be undertaken to the fine mosaics at the altar and which should ensure the future of the building going forward. In 2011, the ownership of the church was transferred from the Ministry of Defence to a Trust and today, the building seems to have an assured future as a venue for a variety of events.

From the Garrison Church, the group crossed the strangely quiet South Circular Road and began to walk along the footpath which traverses Woolwich Common adjacent to the magnificent frontage of the Royal Artillery Barracks, built between 1776 and 1802 which at 329 metres, represents the longest continuous architectural frontage in London and which today is Grade 2* Listed. This pathway can be seen running across the bottom of the map reproduced above but perhaps because the barracks were still a relatively secret establishment during the wartime years, no bomb damage is recorded on the map. The Luftwaffe had scant respect for historic buildings however, and the barracks suffered serious blast damage from the seven High Explosive bombs dropped on 9 March 1941 mentioned above as well as receiving fire damage from German incendiaries dropped on 19 April 1944, in what proved to be the final Luftwaffe raid (as opposed to V-Weapon attack) on the borough of the entire war.

Pointing out bomb damage to the group at the RA Barracks (Paul Chapman)

The rain was by now beginning to fall more heavily as the group continued across the footpath and turned right into Repository Road, which is shown on the LCC map as running to the immediate left of the main barrack block. Finding shelter beneath some trees, the group next paused adjacent to the main gate of the modern Woolwich Barracks, now home to the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, where we discovered a simple memorial to one of Churchill's 'Few' from the Battle of Britain. Given that we were walking on 15 September, Battle of Britain Day and given the subject matter of the film that we were about to watch, this was the most poignant moment of the walk and this fact was not lost upon the group.

Memorial to Robin McGregor 'Bubble' Waterston (author's photo)

The memorial is one of several placed by the excellent Shoreham Aircraft Museum in Kent, commemorating members of 'The Few' who lost their lives within a short radius of the museum. The airman in question on this particular memorial is Flying Officer Robin McGregor 'Bubble' Waterston, aged just 23 in 1940 and whose Spitfire X4273 was shot down in a dogfight over the streets of Southeast London during the early evening of 31 August 1940. As his name might suggest, Robin was a Scot, who served with 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron based at RAF Hornchurch in Essex. The squadron had only moved down from Dyce, Scotland on 27 August as part of the ongoing rotation of squadrons in order to reinforce those defending London and the Southeast during the Battle of Britain. Robin had gained his nickname due to his reputed likeness as a youngster to the young boy who was the subject matter of Millais' still life painting which was later used as an advert for Pears Soap. Robin was a very well-liked personality within his squadron who would think nothing of rolling his sleeves up during his off-duty periods in order to help his ground-crew service his aircraft.

Robin Waterston (right) holding a beer (author's collection)

Robin became one of the victims of a major air battle that took place above Woolwich during that early evening and was still inside his Spitfire when it crashed opposite to where the memorial is now placed, close to the junction of Repository Road and Hillreach. During the same battle, a Messerschmitt Bf109 flown by Oberleutnant Walter Binder of 4.KG76 was also shot down. This aircraft crashed in nearby Ann Street in Plumstead and like Robin, the German pilot was also killed in his aircraft. It was thought that he was shot down by Sergeant Stokoe, also from 603 Squadron but it is not known whether the German officer was the pilot responsible for shooting down 'Bubble' Waterston.

The rain was now falling steadily as the group turned sharp right into Artillery Place and proceeded along this road, which can be seen on the map running from left to right almost at the dead centre of the image. We paused briefly opposite the garage and car dealership, which amazingly in 1940 also served as a garage and which saw some drama on the night of 17 October 1940 when it was the scene of an unexploded bomb, which was successfully dealt with by the Royal Engineers Bomb Disposal Squad and in the rain, we talked briefly of the work undertaken by these extremely brave men.

Moving along Artillery Place, we next paused on the corner as the road bears left opposite a small side street named Belford Place, which can be seen on the LCC map as a plethora of dark shades, indicating total destruction of buildings and those damaged beyond repair. Four houses in Belford Place were destroyed on the night of 19 March 1941 by a Parachute Mine, which also caused severe damage to Mulgrave Place School, then in use as Auxiliary Fire Station 42W. Seven lives were lost from amongst the residents of the destroyed houses, including a 6 year old boy named Peter Harding, who was killed along with his father. The school, already heavily damaged, was then almost completely destroyed on the night of 20 April 1941 when a High Explosive Bomb detonated, causing the deaths of three AFS Firefighters, including Auxiliary Firewoman Lillian Baker, as well as an 18 year old AFS Messenger, Francis McDonough and Station Officer Charles Burden. This raid coincided with Adolf Hitler's birthday and was thought at the time be some sort of bizarre birthday gift for the Fuhrer.

The War Artist Bernard Hailstone was a member of the AFS who was stationed at Mulgrave Place for a while and his painting of the ruined school buildings now forms part of the collection of the Greenwich Heritage Trust. Not surprisingly, the ruins were demolished and replaced by a new school building post-war.

Bernard Hailstone's painting of Mulgrave Place School (author's photo from original at Greenwich Heritage Centre)

The group now headed down the gentle slope to the junction of John Wilson Street, which in 1940 did not exist and was then a narrow footpath called St John's Passage which can be faintly seen on the right of the LCC map running immediately to the right of the main Barrack block. The junction of this pathway with Artillery Place was in 1940 the location of St John's Church, which had already closed as redundant in 1939. The empty building was damaged by incendiary bombs on the night of 11 September 1940 and further damaged by the blast from the V-1 that caused such heavy damage to the Garrison Church on 13 July 1944. The ruins were demolished in 1948 and any trace of the footprint of the church was subsequently lost beneath the newly constructed John Wilson Street in the late 1960s so that today no trace of it's existence can be discovered.

St John's Church Woolwich (author's collection)

A now distinctly damp group now headed back to the relative dryness of the Garrison Church to take on some liquid refreshments before settling down for the main event of the evening. Despite the efforts of the weather, the evening was a great success and thanks are due to all of those who braved the rain and attended the film and the walk beforehand, the re-enactors who came along, Neil from the London Beer Factory who supplied us with light refreshments as well as to the Garrison Church Trust who permitted us to use their wonderful venue once again. Hopefully the weather will smile on us for next year's events at the Garrison Church!





Sunday, 3 September 2017

Battle of Britain

Original poster for the film (author's collection)

Regular readers may remember that in the October 2016 edition of this blog, we looked at "Real to Reel" an exhibition covering a century of war films that was held at the Imperial War Museum, London and selected my own ten personal favourite examples of the genre.

One of those I selected was Battle of Britain a film released in 1969, appropriately enough on Battle of Britain Day, 15 September. This film used to get regular airings on television but seems to be less frequently seen nowadays and remains one of my personal favourites. It was one of the last of the great British war movies and was directed by Guy Hamilton, himself a Royal Navy war veteran and director of four of the iconic James Bond films.

On 15 September 2017, as part of the Charlton & Woolwich Free Film Festival I'm delighted to be hosting a special open air screening of this classic British war movie at the wonderful atmospheric surroundings of the Royal Garrison Church of St George, Woolwich. For those that don't know the area, this church was the victim of a direct hit by a V-1 Flying Bomb on 13 July 1944. Despite being largely destroyed, the church remains as consecrated ground and is the home of the Royal Regiment of Artillery's VC Memorial, as well as the memorial to Fusilier Lee Rigby, who was murdered by terrorists in Woolwich in May 2013. The church is now managed by the Woolwich Garrison Church Trust, who are responsible for the management of the building and who have made great strides in preserving the building for the future.

Plaque outside the Garrison Church explaining it's wartime past (author's photo)

Going back to Battle of Britain the film is an extremely faithful re-telling of events running from the Fall of France in June 1940, culminating in events on Battle of Britain Day, 15 September 1940. The film had a budget of $13,000,000 (equivalent to $91,000,000 today) and therefore represented a considerable financial risk to the producers Harry Saltzman and S Benjamin Fisz. Shooting of the film took place in the spring and summer of 1968, with much of the filming taking place on location. Many of the airfield scenes were filmed at Duxford, Debden, Hawkinge and North Weald - all genuine Battle of Britain airfields. One of my abiding memories as a nine year old boy growing up in Southeast London at this time was seeing large formations of Second World War aircraft appearing in the skies overhead, including what looked like Heinkels and Messerschmitts. I found this very exciting but looking back, I suspect that my parents, grandparents and others of their generation may perhaps have been less enthusiastic as it would have no doubt rekindled some less than happy memories, especially to my Mother and Grandmother, both of whom lived in London throughout the Blitz.

Group Captain Hamish Mahaddie (Bomber Command Museum of Canada)

To recreate as authentic a group of aircraft as possible, Group Captain Hamish Mahaddie, a former Bomber Command Pathfinders officer, was hired to source suitable aircraft, both British and German. He managed to locate over hundred Spitfires in the UK, of which twenty seven were made available for the film, although twelve were in flying condition. Two of these were authentic Mark I and II variants, with the others all later marks, which had to be suitable modified to look the part for the period. The Hurricanes, although far more numerous than the Spitfire during the real Battle of Britain, were far fewer in surviving numbers by 1968, with only six being made available for the film, half of which were flyable. On the German side, there were no surviving flyable Heinkels, Dorniers, Junkers and Messerschmitts in 1968 but a ready solution was found in Spain, whose air force were still flying Spanish built CASA 2.111 twin engine bombers, virtually identical to the Heinkel III. Mahaddie obtained the services of no fewer than thirty two of these authentic looking aircraft, along with twenty seven Hispano 'Buchon' fighters, Spanish built versions of the Me 109, so in 1968 as in 1940, the RAF found itself outnumbered. Together, these aircraft represented what was described in 1968 as the thirty fifth largest air force in the world. The Ju 87 Stukas were represented in the film by large scale flying models and the aircraft destroyed on the ground and in flying scenes, were also models. The other flying scenes were all shot 'for real' as this was many years before the advent of CGI technology and the film in my opinion is much the better for being shot in this way. Even today, the flying scenes remain amongst the best ever put on film.

Other locations used for filming were St Katherine's Dock, Aldwych Tube Station, Peckham Rye and Dragon Road in Camberwell, which were all used for the sequences of the London Blitz. Sir Hugh Dowding's office at RAF Bentley Priory was used once again as such in the film but the 11 Group Bunker at RAF Uxbridge was recreated at Shepperton Studios as an almost exact replica of the real thing. Huelva in Spain doubled up for Dunkirk at the start of the film, whilst some other airfield shots were filmed at Tablada in Spain. 

Apart from Hamish Mahaddie, the other technical advisors for the film included Tom Gleave, Bob Stanford-Tuck and Ginger Lacey, all real life Battle of Britain pilots for the RAF. Squadron Leader Boleslaw Drobinski advised on the Polish scenes and General Adolf Galland was the main technical advisor for the German scenes. Galland was anxious to ensure that the German pilots were not portrayed as 'Cartoon Nazis' and was involved in a furious argument on set when he objected to a scene in which German pilots were shown giving the Nazi salute and threatened to walk off the film if the scene was included. Galland was adamant that German pilots didn't use this salute and insisted that even he had never used it in normal circumstances, even when meeting Hermann Goring. After much debate, the scene was left in the film, although other scenes do show the German pilots using the conventional military salute. Galland was also instrumental in the decision to show the German actors actually speaking German, with English subtitles being used, rather than speaking heavily accented English, as has usually been the case in other war films prior to this time.

Robert Shaw as he appeared in the film (author's collection)

The cast for the film represented a veritable 'Who's Who' for the period and included Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir Ralph Richardson, Sir Michael Redgrave, Trevor Howard, Christopher Plummer, Robert Shaw, Kenneth More, Michael Caine, Susannah York and Kurt Jurgens, as well as appearances by younger actors who were to subsequently become well known in their own right such as Edward Fox and Ian McShane.

Most of the senior figures of the Battle are portrayed as themselves, so we see in the film portrayals of Hermann Goring, Albert Kesselring and Erhardt Milch on the German side and Sir Hugh Dowding, Keith Park, Trafford Leigh-Mallory on the British. Further down the chain of command, for reasons of brevity in the film, characters are merged to greater or lesser degrees, so the character played by Robert Shaw, known somewhat enigmatically in the film as 'Skipper' is largely based on the South African 'Sailor' Malan, who had acquired his nickname due to his having served in the Merchant Navy in a previous career. It was a nickname adopted by all who knew him and happily used by Malan as well, perhaps because his real Christian name was Adolf!

The character played by Christopher Plummer, Squadron Leader Harvey is loosely based on Squadron Leader Foxley, not a Canadian as in the film but someone whose real-life experiences closely matched those of Plummer's character in the movie. Edward Fox's character in the film, a Sergeant Pilot known simply as 'Archie' is heavily based on Sergeant Ray Holmes and as with Foxley, a character whose exploits in real life closely matched those of his film alter-ego. Similarly, on the German side, the character Major Falke is based on Adolf Galland, who really did inform Hermann Goring that he could use a squadron of Spitfires to help win the Battle for the Luftwaffe.

General Adolf Galland (Bundesarchiv)

There were other issues that arose during the production of the film, most notably concerning the musical score. The original composer for the score was Sir William Walton, who was recommended to the producers by Sir Laurence Olivier, who had collaborated with Walton on three of his own film productions, Henry V, Richard III and Hamlet and who was also a close personal friend of the composer. Walton wrote a classical orchestral score for the film, which all of those involved with the production felt was perfect for the film, if perhaps a little on the short side. The executives at United Artists thought differently and felt that the score was old-fashioned and ordered that it be scrapped. This caused Olivier to threaten to walk off the set and he stated that if he were to leave the production, he would not allow his name to be shown in the credits to the film and any of it's publicity. This would have been a major blow as Olivier was still a major player in the film world, even in 1968 and as a result of this, a compromise was reached. A new score was commissioned from the British composer Ron Goodwin, who had previously scored films such as Murder at The Gallop, 633 Squadron, Where Eagles Dare and Operation Crossbow amongst many others. However, a sequence from Walton's score, entitled Battle in the Air was retained and used towards the end of the film to accompany the climactic air battle which is played out with almost no dialogue and no other extraneous sound effects.

At the time of it's release, the film had indifferent reviews and this was perhaps thought to be a result of the generally pervading anti-war feeling at the time resulting from the Vietnam War, although the film did perform well in the United Kingdom. Over the years though, the film's reputation has recovered and it is today regarded as probably the definitive film covering the subject.

If you've never seen this film before, or if like me, it is one of your favourites, come and join us on Friday 15 September when you will get the opportunity to watch this film at a truly unique venue. The film is being screened at 19:45 but before that at 18:15, I will be guiding a free walk starting from the church, lasting around an hour, during which we will discover something of the area's wartime past. There will be a licenced bar available on the night and also hopefully snacks as well - full details of the timings and other events during the Charlton & Woolwich Free Film Festival can be found on the event's website.


Sunday, 20 August 2017

Dickie Reynell, Black Saturday and eye-witness accounts

Flt Lt RC Reynell RAF (Shoreham Museum)
Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I have written on a couple of occasions abour Flight Lieutenant Richard Carew Reynell RAF, an Australian pilot who died many thousands of miles from home, helping to defend London on 7th September 1940 during the Battle of Britain and who was shot down just a mile or so along the road from where I now live. As a result of my original piece back in February 2012 I was contacted by Andrew Rennie, a friend of the Reynell family back in Australia who is putting together a book on Dickie's life. We have kept in contact over the years and were finally able to meet in June 2013 when the Shoreham Aircraft Museum unveiled their monument to Dickie at Crown Point in Blackheath, not too far from the spot where his Hurricane crashed and where Dickie's body was discovered.

On Andrew's visit in 2013, he had gleaned information that perhaps Richard's body had been found at a different location to that originally reported in the Civil Defence Incident Log and seeing as this information came from what was thought to be a reliable source, we set about trying to piece together the latest threads of information. We were told that Richard's body had been found by a passer-by not at Kidbrooke Grove as shown in the Civil Defence records but in Dartmouth Row, on the opposite side of Blackheath and quite a considerable distance from the original recorded spot. The source shall remain nameless so as to avoid embarrassment but his information had supposedly been corroborated by an eye-witness. The location of the wreckage of Dickie's Hurricane V7257 had been spread across the heath, with the largest portions, including the engine, falling through the roof of St Ursula's Convent, so this much at least could not be disputed.

I have always had a great suspicion of "eye-witness" accounts and think that certain authors and researchers place a great over-emphasis on their importance. These accounts are all well and good if there are several of them and they broadly agree in their description of events. They are also generally reliable if they emanate from a trained observer, such as a Police Officer or a serviceman or woman but those written long after the event from someone whose memories may be faded have to treated with the utmost caution - these people sometimes tell one what one wishes to hear, or what they think might have happened but say it with great authority. Sadly, many of these "authentic" accounts prove to be unreliable to say the least and so it proved with the information given to Andrew.

The National Archives are in the process of gradually releasing the Casualty Branch enquiries into deceased airmen from the Second World War and when news of these became known to Andrew and myself, we anxiously awaited the release of the pack containing Dickie's details. The first batch was released in 2014 and infuriatingly for us, only included details for casualties up to and including 31st August 1940 - so near and yet so far!

Almost three years were to elapse, with many enquiries as to their release dead batted away by the National Archives until the next tranche were finally released in July of this year and this time, we were not disappointed. The documents were ordered and a visit to Kew was made a few weeks ago. The file contained a great deal of correspondence, including copies of telegrams sent from the Air Ministry to Dickie's wife and family, letters from his employers the Hawker Aircraft Company enquiring about arrangements for obtaining a Death Certificate and most importantly from our point of view, a genuine eye-witness account, not from someone supposedly recalling events from thirty or so years' distance but from a Staff Sergeant Deeley of the Royal Army Pay Corps, who had been walking across Blackheath towards Shooter's Hill Road on 7 September 1940, when he witnessed the aircraft crashing and Dickie's partially opened parachute falling. After running for a short time, he commandeered a passing van and both he and the driver arrived on the scene of the incident at the same time as a Police Officer, PC Cochran from Lee Green Police Station.

This account, written by a trained observer, confirms that the original Civil Defence report was indeed correct and that Dickie's body was discovered in the garden at 3 Kidbrooke Grove, which was incidentally the residence of Commander HP Mead RN, who happened to be at home at the time of the incident. Dickie appeared to have been wounded in the chest and had crashed through a garden bench when he hit the ground. According to the report "Life was extinct and the body was removed to the Royal Herbert Military Hospital, Woolwich."

Andrew recently visited the UK once again, so on a rainy August day, we met in Blackheath and took ourselves to 3 Kidbrooke Grove and on the spur of the moment, in a fine display of Australian forthrightness, Andrew knocked on the door. We were greeted by the present owner of the house, Chris Richards, to whom we introduced ourselves and who was astonished to learn of the events of some seventy seven years ago in his back garden. Chris is a war gamer and has a keen knowledge of military history, so was fascinated to learn what had happened. Over a cup of coffee, Chris showed us his back garden and we were able to perhaps imagine what is must have been like in September 1940 with an air battle raging overhead, bombs falling and the terrible sight and sound of a fighter pilot's body suddenly arriving in one's garden.

To provide some wider background, I can do no better than include a slightly re-edited version of my original 2013 blog post which covered the day's events.

The raid on London of 7th September 1940 was what RAF Bomber Command and the US 8th Air Force would later call a 'Maximum Effort' raid. Goering deployed 348 bombers escorted by 617 Bf109 and Bf110 fighters. They were basically in one massive formation heading towards London at between 14,000 and 23,000 feet. It was no exaggeration to say that this huge force filled the skies and they must have presented an awe-inspiring sight to the defending Spitfire and Hurricane pilots of 11 Group, Fighter Command sent up to meet them. It was no wonder that Londoners were to dub this day 'Black Saturday' such was the intensity of the assault upon the capital.

43 Squadron Crest - Gloria Finis
The first two squadrons to intercept the attackers were the auxiliaries from 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadron and the 'regular' 43 Squadron, known as 'The Fighting Cocks' from their squadron badge. Three of 43's Hurricanes went in against the fighters, whilst the other six, led by the Squadron commander, the Rhodesian Caesar Hull, along with Dickie Reynell and Pilot Officer Alan Deller, took on the bombers. The engagements lasted all the way from the Sussex coast and even after they had exhausted their ammunition continued to harass the bombers as best as they could by making mock attacks. Hull shot down two Dorniers but was eventually shot down by an escorting fighter and crashed in the grounds of Purley Grammar School in Surrey, whilst Dickie's Hurricane exploded over Blackheath and he fell to earth without his parachute having deployed. Deller too was shot down but managed to bale out out of his blazing Hurricane and lived to fight another day. When John Kilmartin, leader of the rear section that had attacked the fighters landed, he could only mutter the words "My God, My God!"

Although the RAF quickly recovered it's equilibrium, Black Saturday was arguably the closest that Fighter Command came to being overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Air Vice Marshal Park of 11 Group had called upon the neighbouring 12 Group for assistance as per the well tried system within Fighter Command but as often happened, the 'Big Wing' took far too long to formate and to compound this delay, the leader of the Duxford Wing, Douglas Bader ignored the instructions of his controller and took his wing to patrol at 15,000 feet over North Weald instead of at 10,000 and whilst engaging a formation of bombers were 'bounced' by the escorting fighters which shot down or damaged six Hurricanes. The 'Big Wing' concept was unwieldy and on this day, was also hindered by communications breakdowns that slowed it's deployment still further. Despite all of this, pro and anti 'Big Wing' attitudes in the RAF would harden in the coming months.

The unveiled memorial stone
At the end of the day's fighting, the Germans had lost only fourteen bombers, or 4% of the attacking force but had lost twenty three of the escorting fighters, which had sacrificed themselves in protecting the bomber force. It had been a bad day for Fighter Command, losing twenty six fighters and more importantly six of their pilots. Despite this attrition, the odds still favoured the RAF; their pilots that survived being shot down were over friendly territory and were usually quickly returned to the fray, whilst the Luftwaffe pilots were either killed or taken prisoner. Furthermore, by switching their attention to London, the Luftwaffe were no longer attacking the RAF's airfields.

London had already suffered grievously and with the Luftwaffe returning under cover of darkness to re-stoke the fires, the coming of the dawn would see 412 Londoners dead, with a further 747 seriously injured. To add to the confusion, somebody had issued an invasion alert - the codeword Cromwell had been issued and the church bells in some areas had been rung. Fortunately, this was a false alarm and the fuss soon died down. From now onwards though, London would be the Luftwaffe's main target and would suffer by night. There would be one more attempt to mount a major daylight raid - this would come just over a week later and would result in a vastly different outcome, although this is another story.

As a result of their mauling on 7th September and earlier losses during the Battle of Britain, 43 Squadron was withdrawn from the action and sent to recuperate at RAF Usworth, near Sunderland in 13 Group, Fighter Command. The squadron had been decimated and could only muster thirteen pilots, of whom six were recent postings from the Operational Training Units. Of the survivors, only John Kilmartin had any significant experience, so although the withdrawal was a painful blow for this proud squadron to bear, it was undoubtedly the correct decision. 43 Squadron's time would come again, in November 1942 as part of the Desert Air Force and in liberated France in 1944, where they became known to the local French populace as Les Coqs Anglais. Moving into the jet age, the squadron operated Meteors and Hunters in the 1950s, Phantoms in the 70s and 80s, before receiving Tornados in 1989. The squadron saw service in both Gulf Wars before standing down in 2009 as part of one of the seemingly endless rounds of defence cutbacks. The squadron is earmarked to reform as a Eurofighter Typhoon squadron at some point in the near future but whether this actually ever happens remains to be seen.

The memorial stone before unveiling

The 2013 ceremony for Dickie Reynell was a simple but moving affair organised by the Shoreham Aircraft Museum in Kent, as part of their ongoing project to place a memorial at or near the site of every Battle of Britain pilot lost within a ten mile radius of the museum. The service was attended by the Mayor of the Royal Borough of Greenwich, Cllr Angela Cornforth as well as many members of the Reynell family, representatives from the Australian Embassy, RAAF and the RAF and of course many volunteers from the Shoreham Aircraft Museum as well as a decent turn out of members of the local Blackheath and Greenwich public who braved the rain and who wished to honour this brave man who died helping to defend the city that we all love and the freedom that we enjoy today. 

Andrew Rennie tells us about Dickie's final mission

Family friend Andrew Rennie, whose book on Dickie will doubtless make fascinating reading, gave a moving account of Richard's last sortie and of the events of the afternoon of September 7th. The memorial stone was then unveiled by Monsignor Nicholas Rothon of St Mary's Church Blackheath, Wing Commander Tony O'Leary of the RAAF and by David Caillard RAF (retired), who is a great nephew of Dickie Reynell. Following the unveiling ceremony, David gave a moving and insightful speech about Dickie Reynell and of his family's continuing pride in his achievements, not only during the Battle of Britain but in his pre-war service with the RAF and also as a test pilot for Hawker's, in which he did much valuable work in perfecting the RAF's first monoplane fighter and which was the real workhorse of the Battle of Britain, along with it's more glamorous half-sister, the Spitfire.

Members of the Reynell family by the memorial

From all accounts, Richard Reynell was not only a brave man, he was fine pilot and a decent person too, who had a kind word of encouragement for all and who was widely liked by not only his family but by his extended family within the RAF, in Hawkers and in the aircraft industry. It was a sad twist of fate that he had been recalled by Hawkers on 7th September 1940 but had chosen to see out the day's operations before returning to his normal work as a test pilot.

The City that Richard Reynell died whilst defending

When reflecting on Dickie Reynell and his contemporaries within the RAF during the Battle of Britain, one can only echo the words of Winston Churchill - "Never was so much owed by so many, to so few."



Unpublished Sources:

National Archives - AIR81/3127 Air Ministry P4 Casualty Branch Flight Lieutenant RC Reynell 

Published Sources:

The Most Dangerous Enemy - Stephen Bungay, Aurum Press 2000
The Narrow Margin - Derek Wood with Derek Dempster. Tri-Service Press 1990