St Peter's School and Church, Walworth

St Peter's School and Church, Walworth

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Walworth Under Fire (Part Eight)

Walworth Under Fire

The memoirs of Rev. John Markham,

Rector of St Peter's Church, Walworth 1937-1944.

Part Eight - The bombing of St Peter's Church

Continued from Part Seven

On October 28th, 1940, the Air Raid warning sounded at the usual time, about 6pm. The crypt shelter was full, even before the warning. Everybody had their usual settling down period - perhaps a few songs, families talking, eating the food they brought with them before they laid down to get some sleep in their usual places on improvised bedding, deck chairs and even on the bare stone floor. The shelter wardens, mostly members of the congregation, including one of my churchwardens, little Mr Morgan, getting on in years had the usual busy time, fetching drinking water from the tap up to the church vestry, doling out tea from the club bar, made by some of our ladies, and then settling down for a rest themselves, as the night wore on, and our area seemed to be having a quiet time. What bombs were dropped seemed to be aimed at other parts of London by scattered groups of planes, sent over night after night, not only to cause damage, but to wear down the morale and the working ability of the civilian population.

We wardens were on patrol, or in some cases were resting in the crypt, or the post, snatching some food or sleep if possible. My messenger and I, however, had a busy time around midnight helping the police, when we had alerted, to seek out and arrest some intruders in the erstwhile film studio and former Baptist Chapel a few yards from the Rectory. We had heard them at work, looting the belongings of bombed out houses, stored there by the borough. We failed to catch them: all seemed quiet. Jenner and I returned to the Post, and then decided that we would make a circuit of the area, to contact the wardens on patrol, whom we had not been able to see for several hours. As usual, we mounted our blitz bikes, brakeless, lampless, and started off down the street alongside the churchyard.

We heard the explosion of one or two bombs in the distance, and carried out our usual drill - falling off the bikes without stopping. As we hit the ground, five bombs exploded around us, so that we could see the orange flashes; two in the churchyard beyond the church, two others, as it turned out, in the church, and one in the garden of one of the small houses beside us, throwing some of the dirt on us, as we sprawled in the gutter. We got up, and rushed round to the other side of the church, which appeared, in the moonlight, to be undamaged, expecting to find that the houses on the other side of the churchyard had been hit. No signs of damage there. Then I heard a dull, confused murmur from the crypt, and a dusty figure struggled among the sandbags in the doorway at the foot of the steps, leading down to the shelter, crying out ‘Help!’ In a flash I guessed that the orange bursts that I had glimpsed through the windows of the church as I sprawled on the road belonged to bombs which had exploded in the east end of the crypt.  I shouted to the dusty figure, ‘I will get help!’ and ran round the church, into the Post, dashed off a message for the telephonist, giving a rough estimate of 200 casualties, guessed from the probable number in that part of the crypt which appeared to have been hit, and then, leaving the wardens there to start in the crypt, ran round to the school next door, shouted to the R.A.F. Balloon crew, ‘Get your beds ready, and plenty of boiling water, and I will send all casualties round here.’

In a remarkably short time, the Mobile Unit, with a doctor on board, and a complement of nurses, armed with the life-saving morphia so essential in dealing with the shock of major casualties, drove up, and I directed it to the school, where they were able to work on the casualties in full light, and plenty of space. The balloon crew worked like Trojans, helping in the crypt to bring out casualties, and having a boiler full of water on the ready. In a remarkably short time, a steady stream of injured were going through the process of being diagnosed by the doctor, cleaned up and given First Aid. Stretcher Parties arrived, together with Light Rescue teams. As a result of my original message, giving 200 possible casualties, Control made it a major incident, which entitled them to call on Regional help from other boroughs, so that we had ample services on the site within a matter of half an hour at most. We were fortunate that no more bombs fell that night: indeed, we were probably the victims of a lone plane on its way home, dropping its load across the borough. They proved to be 50 kilogramme semi-armour piercing bombs, part of a stick of twelve.

Those early hours of that morning were so hectic that my memories of it are confused. I remember that I was very busy rushing backwards and forwards, from the Post to the school and the church, seeing that the various services were directed and parked. Early on, the Post was invaded by walking casualties, brought out of the crypt, or found staggering about in the churchyard, dazed and covered from head to foot in white dust. I snatched up a couple of First Aid boxes and shoved them into my wife’s hands, as she sat with my daughter in her arms in the kitchen, both in their night-clothes, for it had been a quiet night, and had enabled them to get to sleep, until the crypt was hit. I said ‘I am sending in some light casualties to you: get on with it.’ I dashed off to the churchyard to see what was going on, just in time to find AlfMorgan, my elderly churchwarden, crawling out of one of the windows of the crypt, where the explosion had blown away the protecting sandbags. His foot was badly injured. I got someone to take him along to the school. On one of my visits to the Post, I found an old lady, who lived just round the corner, sitting in one of chairs, where one of the wardens had put her. She was grey with dust from head to foot, and where her skin was exposed it was beginning to peel off. Otherwise, she did not seem to be injured and was fully conscious. In fact, she died later from the effects of blast.

My estimate of casualties was not far out: later we reckoned on 250 seriously hurt, and over 70 killed, with hundreds of lesser casualties, caused mainly by splinters from the wooden partitions, dividing the various parts of the crypt. The blast had torn the matchboarding into countless needle-like splinters, which rifled into people and their belongings. Later on, when we salvaged the hundreds of handbags left in the crypt, we found them filled with minute fragments of wood, which had pierced the leather or cloth of the bags without tearing them noticeably.

The blast in the confined space of the crypt, was greater than it might have been because both bombs exploded on the floor of the crypt, having, in one case gone through the roof and ceiling of the church, then the organ, on through the thick stone floor. Being semi-armour piercing and dropped from a height of perhaps 20,000 feet, they literally bored their way through these successive layers, and in the case of the second one, through a 12 inch beam, literally like a gimlet, without dislodging it from the floor of the gallery which the beam was supporting. The combined blast produced some bizarre results, some of which were studied by Air Ministry experts later on. On that night, one which was perhaps the strangest of all was the injury incurred by one young man, who undoubtedly owed his life to the rapid manner in which he was attended by the First Aid services and the speed with which he was transferred to hospital. When the bombs fell, he was lying asleep on the floor. The blast hurled a wooden kitchen chair through the air, and a slab of stone, likewise projected by the blast, drove the leg of the chair through his hip, where it was firmly embedded. When he was found, his rescuers sensibly left the chair-leg embedded, detached the remains of the chair, and sent him off to hospital. Within three months, he was back at work in his factory.

Another strange case was that of a young woman, who was sitting in a chair by the brick pier supporting one of the arches in the crypt. One of the bombs exploded just the other side of this brick pier, blowing to bits a whole family, six members of which I commended to Almighty God a few days later at a funeral service in a neighbouring church. The young woman, just a few feet from them, was uninjured, except for a burst eardrum.

The heavy brick arches and piers caused many strange effects of similar nature. One of these concerned the injury to Alf Morgan, whom I had found crawling on hands and knees in the churchyard. He had been asleep on the stone floor; the blast ripped past him, missing him entirely, except for one foot which happened to be in its path. This was reduced to a pulp, so that he was in hospital for many weeks.

Another of my shelter wardens, Mrs Curtis, was resting in one of the club arm chairs, when the blast lifted a huge stone slab, forming the ceiling of the crypt and the floor of the church, and shattered it, as it fell. Half of the slab crashed down, its fall broken by the central heating pipes, and pinned her in the armchair. When the wardens found her, she was sitting there, perfectly conscious, comparatively unhurt, unable to move, with rusty water dripping from the pipes onto her head. The Rescue workers managed to free her, and I found her being treated in the school. She was badly bruised on the thighs, but otherwise all right.

Two of my wardens were not so fortunate. They were off-duty in the crypt, when it was hit. One was the 19 year old, rather unfit, only son of a widow. His name was Kenneth Ballard. The other, Arthur Townsend, was an older man, with a wife and family. One of the problems, with which I had to deal with, as we got most of the casualties away to hospital in two hours, was the disposal of the dead. I decided that the considerable risk of panic among the wardens and the local population would be heightened if they had to see rows of dead laid out, waiting for the mortuary vans. I had all the bodies taken straight into the undamaged West End of the church, where they were laid out in rows in one of the aisles. In the morning there were 35 stretchers of the remains waiting for the vans. Their blood stained the stone flags: I was glad that I was able within a week to establish our altar on that very spot, where we offered the sacrifice of our worship and prayer for them and ourselves, and all the world, during the following years.  I shall always remember them.

Those stretchers represented less than half the number of those who died either at the time, or later on in hospital. One of the latter remains particularly in my memory, on account of its tragic irony. It concerned a young coloured girl, one of the communicant members of the congregation, aged about sixteen. She was lying on the floor of the crypt when the bombs hit. A fragment of one tore into her leg, and finally lodged in her groin. Gangrene set in as a result, so that the hospital, despairing of her life, wanted to amputate her leg. She steadfastly refused to allow this, fighting for her life through something like fifteen operations, to triumph after long months, walking again. She was finally evacuated somewhere North. However, she had a small injury from the shrapnel of the bomb to one of her fingers. She was a keen pianist. So she came back to London to have a comparatively minor operation to straighten the finger. She died under the anaesthetic.  Having visited her during the fight that she made in hospital, and seen her courage and indestructible spirit, I grieved greatly for her. I hope I have the privilege of meeting her in the hereafter.

One Italian family was wiped out in the crypt shelter, where they had taken the week’s takings of their business. We had the job of counting bags of coins and bundles of pound notes, some of which were shredded to thin strips by the blast. One sixpence had been melted by the heat of the explosion and formed itself into a sharp silver spike which protruded from the handbag like a needle.

Dawn and the ‘All Clear’ wailing of the sirens found us very weary, particularly, my wardens, many of whom had plunged into the work of extracting the injured from the tangle of debris and darkness of the crypt. I was luckier in that I had been too busy directing the whole operation to have much close contact with the dead and injured. Inevitably, those who had been down amongst it all were suffering from shock, as were the whole neighbourhood, when they came out of their shelters, checked up on their friends and relatives, many of whom were in the crypt. There was a shocked feeling about, heightened by the belief that many had cherished that the crypt was a safe shelter - an illusion which I had never shared.

By this time, the Control had sent down a senior officer to take over my job, so that, for the first time after three or four hours, I was able to look into the Rectory kitchen to see how Eileen and our baby daughter were getting on. My last view of the latter had been of her sitting in her little chair in her night clothes in the Wardens’ Post, watched over by one of the telephonists. The milling crowd of wardens, entering and leaving, hardly noticed the small figure. Tears were not far away.

I found her and her mother in the kitchen, which was a scene of desolation. The floor was covered with bits of blood-stained cotton wool and rags. Eileen had treated more than twenty casualties single-handed. One of them was an elderly, rather bald man, with a scalp wound. He had wandered round the large kitchen table, brushing his bleeding scalp on the baby's washing, which was hanging from a line covered with his blood. Susan was on Eileen’s lap. I swept up all the mess that I could and took it into our small backyard. I cannot remember having any breakfast. What I do remember is the instinctive determination to get some sleep, for I knew that we were likely to have another long night of alert and bombs. My wardens were more shattered than I was: the parish was near panic. I felt that I must be fit to deal with what might come. ‘I'm going to bed.’ I said to Eileen, who asked ‘What shall I do if anybody cones down to see you? ‘ ‘Tell them I am sleeping, and must not be disturbed.’

 I think that I went out like a light, and slept, fully clothed in my A.R.P. overall and gumboots, on the camp bed in the scullery. I was oblivious to all the comings and goings in the Post next door. Apparently, my Bishop came: Admiral Evans, the Regional Commissioner, likewise. Eileen kept them firmly at bay. When I awoke about lunch time, things were quieter. I was able to deal with some of the aftermath, such as seeing that the dead were removed from the church.

A few hours later, the warning went, and the usual night raid began. The wardens were very jittery. It was not long before we were dealing with another problem - an unexploded bomb in Bronti Place, the inhabitants of which had to be evacuated there and then. It was a long night, but luckily for our area, one without further casualties. I was glad that I had got some sleep, when I did, as I had to hold things together very much that night. The following days were busy, for we had hundreds of inquiries about the casualties. I gave Bertram Calver, my curate, the task of checking up on their whereabouts, for they were treated at various hospitals, and then transferred to the evacuated sections of the larger units, such as St. Thomas’ and Guy’s. One of them was at Brookwood in a very large and gloomy Mental Hospital building. Another was housed in Some Army huts. I could not afford much time to visit them, as the journey was often long and complicated. A more lugubrious task for Bertram was that of checking queries that arose concerning the bodies of the dead. One in particular produced a particularly thorny problem. Someone identified a body as that of his mother, and had her buried. Later on, the family of the lady in question refused to accept the body labelled with her name, and eventually it was indeed proved that she had been claimed by the wrong family and had already been buried under another name. It was decided that the body should be exhumed and reburied under her real name. The Town Hall officials were about to go through the difficult and lengthy process of getting a Home Office exhumation order, when Calver reported it to me. As she had been buried in consecrated ground, I rang up the Bishop's Legal adviser, who affirmed that we did not need a Home Office order, the Bishop being able to authorise the exhumation and reburial. This was done quickly, and I took the funeral. The original coffin was encased in another larger one for this second burial - the only time I have seen this done.

It was extremely difficult, also, to establish the exact identity and number of those who were killed in the crypt, as we kept no records of those who sheltered there. The coroner in some cases wanted proof of the fact that certain people, known to have sheltered in the crypt on most nights, were actually there on the night of the bombing. After months, it was decided that the crypt would have to be cleared completely of all the debris, which would have to be sifted carefully for any evidence of identity. Rescue teams were sent down, to work in masks for two hour shifts, over a period of six weeks. I had to go down with them for quite a lot of the time, as being the person most likely to know the significance of any find. It was a gruesome business, as the blast had literally lifted the whole church slightly, causing the brickwork to part a fraction, with the result that fragments of clothing and human flesh were caught between the bricks. I remember taking an Air Force officer from the Air Ministry down there for an inspection of the damage. After a few minutes, I noticed that he was very silent and looking a trifle green. He said ‘I am sorry: I must get out of here.’ I had got so used to the smell that I was unaffected. Nevertheless, I was glad when the crypt was cleared, and I cannot say that I went down there more than was necessary. For one thing, it was open to the four winds by that time, and all the cats in the neighbourhood, many of them having lost their homes, infested the place with their fleas.

We could not use the church for several weeks after the bombing. We had our services, many of them funerals, in St. Mark’s, in East Lane, which was placed at our disposal by Wellington College Mission. However, my curate and I got to work on the problem of making a temporary church in St Peter’s, which had a wide aisle at the west end, running across the church, and the floor of which had not been affected by the blast. The main force of the bombs had damaged the nave and choir, but left the aisles and the chancel intact. One bomb, as I have already described, had gone through the organ, and heaved it so violently from below that the pipes were thrown in all directions, giving it a very drunken appearance. The plaster statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, only recently installed near the organ and pulpit, was smashed, only the face of our Lady being recognizable. Yet, the plaster crucifix, just above the pulpit, and within three feet of the statue, was untouched. In the choir, we had a Bechstein Grand piano. This too had been thrown into the air, and broke one of its legs, when it came to rest. The second bomb had gone through the floor immediately in front of the Lady Chapel Altar, and some of the blast from it took out the whole of the adjacent window, and smashed the stone top of the altar, without disturbing the cobwebs on the chains of a hanging sanctuary lamp nearby. The High Altar was completely undisturbed. Pews in the body of the church were lying higgledy-piggledy. Most of the windows seemed to be undamaged, but white cracks showed in the plaster ceiling, where the roof had been jerked up by the explosions.

Calver and I managed to put the High Altar on rollers and manoeuvre it across the chancel and down the aisles, to place it under one of the windows on the South side, so that it faced across the church in the west end aisle. With help we moved some of the smaller pews and chairs to furnish this aisle, which made a temporary church for our use. I obtained the services of a local builder, who took up the boarding floor under the damaged pews in the nave, and used it to make a partition from the west end gallery to the church floor, thus closing our improvised church off from the damaged nave. We papered these boards inside, so that it was draught-proof. We moved the font from its position in the central aisle, to the end of the temporary church, and the grand piano likewise. Two Tortoise, army-type, coke stoves, each end, provided the heating. In this fashion, we were fully operational within six weeks of the bombing, and this was the home of our congregation until the end of the war. We were much more fortunate than the majority of the churches in the neighbourhood, which were either blown to pieces or burnt. St Peter’s escaped burning by a very small margin. We had clouds of incendiary bombs all round us: I used to sweep up the unexploded ones by the dozen. Only two fell on the church, which had the largest roof in the area. One landed on top of the cupboard in my vestry. One of the wardens passing at that moment saw it through the unblacked -out window, dashed in and put it out. The other we discovered lying on the rafters of the aisle roof, burnt out, without having set fire to the woodwork all round. St Peter’s was one of the few churches which did not have any organised fire-party to care for it, for we were all heavily engaged in the wardens' service. And yet, because we were so engaged, and allowed the wardens to use the crypt, we were saved. Likewise, I never had time to look after the Rectory during raids, unless I happened to be on the spot, when fire bombs were coming down. And yet, at the end of my time there, in 1944, the only damage sustained by the Rectory, were two window panes, and a broken front door lock. We had some extraordinary escapes. I counted about eleven High Explosive bombs which fell within a radius of 50 yards, and the building next door to the Rectory, a china store, full of packing cases and straw, was burnt out. One wall of the Rectory touched this building, so that we got very hot, when the fire was at its height. The wardens in the Post had to spray it with stirrup-pumps to prevent it catching fire. Incidentally, the only fire watcher in the china store at the time was an old and very deaf night watchman, whom we had to rescue from the building before he could do anything. I wonder whether he even heard the air raid warning, let alone the quite gentle 'plop' that incendiaries made when they hit.

The wardens and fire guards were kept busy, when we had incendiary raids, which were usually the overture to the more intensive bombing. The Germans tried to light up fires, which helped them to pinpoint targets for the high explosive bombs. It was therefore important to extinguish the fires, if we wanted to avoid the rest of their attentions. On one particularly busy night, I counted 95 small fires in my Post area alone. I think this was December 29th, 1940 when the City burnt. We had a good many small explosive bombs, because the Germans knew the Fire Brigade's plans for relaying water from the river and the canals by means of relays of fire pumps, every 200 yards. The H.E. bombs were intended to knock these out. In those days, we were pitifully short of water supplies for fire-fighting. There were a few 500 gallon tanks in the streets, but they were emptied by a fire-pump in a very short time.

We had no major fires in my area, except that which destroyed the War Records, which I have already described. But we had only stirrup pumps, and a few small axes to deal with the fires once they started. I remember being called to a house, which was hit be several incendiaries, one of which had lodged under the floor of the front bedroom. I had nothing to break through the floor, except a 141b sledge-hammer, which one of the fire guards produced. With this I managed to bash a hole in the solid pitch-pine floor, and get a stirrup pump into it. The most serious fires were caused by the occasional oil-bomb – quite a large affair, containing oil round an explosive core. I remember one of these failed to ignite during a day raid in my area, and made a horrible mess of the houses and the street with its cargo of sticky black oil.

Another unusual device was the land mine – parachute mines weighing about a ton, designed to be used against shipping by being dropped into the water, where a time fuse or a pressure fuse set it off. The Germans started using them on London. At first, we did not know what they were: we reported to Control that there were a lot of explosions in the air, which damaged roofs and sent chimney pots flying. After a short delay, we got the message ‘The enemy is using parachute mines.’ This was the first time we had heard of their existence. On that particular night, we soon knew what they were like, because one fell in Penrose Street, just a few hundred yards from the border of our area. There was a tremendous crash, and the air was thick with dust and debris. It leveled the houses for about a quarter of a mile around, but miraculously killed very few. They produced a great deal of blast, but those who were in shelters usually escaped injury. 

The names of those who died in the crypt in the early hours of 
29 October 1940 are commemorated at St Peter's Church.

The above content is from the private papers of Reverend John Gabriel Markham, held at the Imperial War Museum in London.
This 50 page memoir written in the 1970s and entitled 'The Church Under Fire', concerns Rev. Markham’s involvement with Civil Defence when he was Rector of St Peter’s Church, Walworth, SE17, prior to and during the Second World War, with descriptions of his work organising rudimentary Civil Defence for his parish at the time of the Munich Crisis, September 1938, preparing for the evacuation of local children and converting the crypt of his church for use as an air-raid shelter in early 1939, his appointment as ARP Post Warden in early 1940 and his responsibilities for training ARP wardens and Fireguard parties under his control, the evacuation of the church school, the effects of the Blitz, with references to conditions in public shelters and looting, his work as a Bomb Reconnaissance Officer, and final promotion to District Warden before moving to another parish outside London in 1944.

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