We continue our story of how in December 1940 the skies over the City were lit up as fire reigned down on the streets and old buildings of London.
Walks that take in the Blitz give you the opportunity to really get the feel of what it was like to live through the terror of the bombs falling across the city.
Our London walks make an ideal opportunity to explore the places where the damage was greatest.
Yesterday’s blog told of the preparations made by the german bomb crews for the Blitz. In today’s blog we join Londoners as dusk falls over the city of London and they prepare to walk home oblivious to the fact that their city is about to be drastically altered.
Dusk fell over southern England at 5.30 on the evening of the 29th. The Black-out (the wartime ban on lights showing from buildings) began at 5.26pm.
By this time Hauptmann Aschenbrenner was already on his way.
Aschenbrenner’s squadron had received orders for the attack on ‘LOGE’ (codename for London) at 12.30pm and took off from Vannes at 4.30pm.
KG 100 circled over the Gulf of St Malo and Aschenbrenner reported at 5.20pm that he had locked into Anton Beam over Cherbourg with an estimated forty-eight minutes to target.
The bombers headed for the English coast, crossing it near Bognor Regis at 5.47pm. On the English side of the Channel, KG 100 was picked up at 5.15pm by Ventnor radar station, Isle of Wight, as the
Heinkels assembled in battle formation. RAF Fighter Com¬mand HQ at Stanmore, Middlesex, was informed and in turn alerted 11 Group, Fighter Command at sector control Uxbridge. Uxbridge in turn alerted sector airfields at Tang- mere (Kent), Kenley (Surrey) and Gravesend (Kent) to stand by.
As Aschenbrenner crossed the coast, 219 Squadron, Tangmere, scrambled its Beaufighter night fighters (equipped with Al MK IV cockpit radar). These, however, failed to make contact with the raiders.
At 5.58pm Aschenbrenner’s Heinkel passed over Mitcham, Surrey, and the first buzzer, ‘ten miles to target’, sounded in his cockpit.
London was as yet unaware of the great airfleet heading towards it.
At 5.26pm the bells of St Bride’s church, Fleet Street (most beautiful of Wren’s City churches which is covered on our historic London walks) sounded out at the end of service. It was the last time the bells would be heard for seventeen years.
At 5.58pm, when the flight line of the incoming aircraft made it clear they were heading straight for London, Air Marshal ‘Sholto’ Douglas (Fighter Command Operations Room, Stanmore) called Home Office Fire Control Room (Commander Firebrace) with the news that ‘a large formation’ was on its way to London and, seven minutes later, the sirens began to moan out along the South London approaches.
As the sirens sounded to the south, George Garwood, in charge of the permanent staff of St Paul’s Cathedral Fire Watch, received a phone call from the roof informing him of the alert.
He made ready to go upstairs, but first received a second call telling him of IBs falling across the river in Southwark.
By the time Mr Garwood had climbed to the rooftop, IBs were falling all round in heavy showers and bouncing off the dome of the cathedral.
With cloud at 4,500 feet all over southern England and London itself, Aschenbrenner could not see his target and was flying blind.
At 6.08pm the second buzzer in his cockpit sounded out and Aschenbrenner’s bombardier released his deadly cargo.
The IBs straddled Guy’s Hospital, Southwark, London Bridge Railway Station and the River Thames. They were a thousand yards short of the target — the Bank of England — though in the circumstances they had achieved remarkable accuracy.
Bombs away, Aschenbrenner ascended a few thousand feet to circle and observe the rest of his squadron’s performance. The following bombers achieved even greater accuracy, hitting areas around St Paul’s, Moorgate just north of the Bank, and the area around the Tower of London.
On the ground at Guy’s Hospital, surgeons were at work in a temporary operating theatre.
The IBs pierced the roof of the theatre and the surgeons ordered nurses to douse them with sand while continuing the operation.
Outside the hospital, in nearby Tooley Street, Mrs Florence Welsh was closing down her mobile tea canteen for the night. Suddenly the whole street was lit by the bright flare of burning incendiaries. Mrs Welsh resignedly filled up her water boiler to make tea and ‘stood by to receive firemen’. She would have a long night ahead of her.
On our next London walks through the Blitz blog we will tell of the resilience with which Londoners faced their peril.