Walworth Under Fire
The memoirs of Rev. John Markham,
Rector of St Peter's Church, Walworth 1937-1944.
Bronti Place Jubilee party 1935 (Photo: Steve Gray)
Continued from Part Four
How it all comes back to me in the mists of time, as I write about it. The rising and falling banshee wail of the sirens, twisting your stomach with its message of the symphony of guns and searchlights and bombs. The chatter of the wardens in the Post, as they reported and left for patrol, the dense tobacco smoke in the semi-basement post as we prepared for the first salvoes of the anti-aircraft batteries, most of which were sited in the larger parks. The nearest to our area were those carried on a train which shuttled back and forth on the line which ran parallel to our area, about 100 yards away. In the early days of the bombing, the Bofors ‘Bang-bang-bang’ was a reassuring answer to the menace of the ‘burr-burr’ drone of unseen aircraft. Then to these light guns were added, first naval multiple ‘pom-pom’, a quick-firing ten barreled affair, which made an ear-splitting, tearing sound, and projected a salvo of tracer shells. I remember particularly standing on one occasion, just outside the Rectory, when a group of parachute flares floated just above the church tower, bathing it and everything around in brilliant white light, so that we felt exposed and naked to the enemy planes droning above. The multiple pom-poms on the railway, and the other guns all opened up in a fury of sound, tracer slipping through the air in In red streaks, as they shot at the flares, and dispersed them. For a couple of minutes it was the finest firework display I had ever seen. But this was small compared to the barrage of the later years of the war on London, when the parks were filled with a new weapon – the multiple rocket launcher, manned by Home Guards, who merely had to load the rockets onto a tray, press a button and off they went, many at a time to form a fixed box pattern of explosions all over the London skies. The combined blast of their launching and their detonation in the air produced an earth shaking thunder and roar, like many express trains in a tunnel. The whole sky would light up to the horizon. We in the wardens’ service did not like this weapon, in spite of its power against the enemy, because of the shrapnel that they produced. We had plenty of it from the older-type anti-aircraft shells: it fell all around in the heavier barrages, and we swept it up in shovel loads the next day. But I was never hit, and it made no more noise than a falling pebble.
The ‘Z’ rockets, on the other hand, rained on us a great deal more lethal hardware, because, in addition to the metal of the actual shell head of the rocket, containing the explosive, there was a three foot tube of steel, containing the rocket fuel, which theoretically should be blown to piece when the war-head exploded, but often came dawn as a jagged, partly ripped tube, three inches in diameter. Coming down from a great height, they made a sound very similar to that of a bomb, a whistling ‘whoosh’ and a thump as they hit the ground, or a crash as they met the harder road or the roof of a building. By the time that they were being used, I had become a District Warden, covering half the borough, and one of few wardens in the whole borough trained as a Bomb Reconnaissance Officer by the Bomb Disposal squads. I was continually being called on to investigate what the locals declared were unexploded bombs in their backyards or their lofts. Too often they proved to be the remains of rockets. At one time, I remember dozens of these steel tubes standing in my office, after the wardens or I had retrieved them. They certainly added to the clatter and the nerve-twisting of those who were on patrol in those nights.
However, I was thankful that I never had to deal with yet another device that our ‘boffins’ had conceived out of their almost Heath Robinson minds. As a bomb-reconnaissance officer, I had to be trained to deal with every known German and British device that I might find. The strangest of these was undoubtedly the ‘Free-floating balloon barrage.’ This consisted of small, gas-filled balloons, attached by thousands of feet of piano-wire to a circular wooden platform, about 18 inches across. This platform had a sort of Mills Bomb type of device sitting in the middle, with its detonating trigger held in the safe position by a piece of string, to which was attached a slow-burning cord fuse, fastened in a sort of serpentine pattern to the surface of the platform. To this cord-fuse were attached at intervals other strings, which hung down below the edge of the platform, with little bags of sand at their ends. More piano wire hung below all this, ending in a small parachute. As hundreds of these contraptions were launched from the ground, the slow fuse would be lit, the balloon would rise to a certain height; as the gas slowly escaped, the slow burning fuse would release a small sandbag from the platform, allowing the balloon to rise again to its operational height, trailing its thousands of feet of piano wire below it. The theory was that enemy planes would catch the piano wire on their wings, drag the platform onto it, as the other ends would act as anchors to the wire, with the drag of the balloon at one end, and the small parachute at the other end. The plane would then have its wing blown off by the bomb by means of a contact fuse. If the bomb had not thus been detonated by the time the balloon had lost its lift, the theory was that the slow-burning fuse would release the safety lever and explode the bomb before it reached the houses or the ground below.
Various factors caused this device to be used rarely, I believe. One was that a change of wind could set the whole barrage of many hundreds of balloons drifting in the wrong direction, over London’s built up areas rather than the open country beyond. On one particular night a large part of one borough was covered with piano wire and little wooden platforms. Some of the bombs had failed to blow themselves up, because rain had interfered with the slow-burning fuses.
Barrage balloons over Buckingham Palace
We were summoned to conference about the matter, to prepare for a repeat of the problem. It was with a certain wry sense of the ridiculous that I learnt there that my role in such an event would be to trace the wire carefully through the street, until I found the unexploded bomb. Having cut the wire a few yards from the bomb (from the shelter of some convenient corner, in case this cutting should set the bomb off) the next step was to tie some hundred feet of string to it, and from that safer distance to drag it carefully along the street to some open space, where it could be left to be detonated by the Bomb Squad. It is putting it mildly, when I say that I was not enamoured of the whole idea. I was very thankful that I was never called upon for that particular exercise.
In other similar briefings, we were told about butterfly bombs, another very nasty little device, of the Germans, this time. They were quite small, about the size of a tea caddy or a ginger jar, but not so tasty in their contents, which consisted of about 4lbs of High Explosive in a cast-iron casing, which fragmented into lethal shrapnel. They were classed as anti-personnel bombs, and were designed originally for use against military targets. The Germans had been using them on certain civilian targets – notably, I believe, on Grimsby, which they plastered with the things, immobilising the whole area for several days, because many of them failed to explode, and became deadly booby traps in all sorts of unlikely places. This was the result of their ingenious design, which gave them the name ‘Butterfly Bomb.’ Hinged to the inner casing of cast iron was an outer skin of steel in four sections, which opened out like wings on release from the 50 Kg. containers in which they were dropped from the plane. These wings acted as a kind of parachute, so that the bombs fluttered down comparatively slowly, while the four wings rotated on a screw thread, and could be detonated by a jerk or a bump. The mechanism which detonated them was very tricky and wayward; some had been known to be shot at by members of the Bomb Disposal from behind a safe sandbag wall, and not gone off, only to explode in their faces as they jarred the ground by their approach.
They could land in trees, ceilings, lofts, hedges, soft ground, which they did not penetrate because their four wings prevented them, so that they lay like some obscene dull green bird among the weeds or grass of a garden.
It can be imagined that I did not look forward to looking for such objects, or stumbling upon them in the dark. Luckily for me, I never did. The only probable specimen that graced my Post Area landed on the small cottage of one of my wardens, Mr Fiveash, who lived with his wife and a large family of children in Bronti Place, where he kept his horse and cart, to ply who the trade of a Street Market fruit seller. He was a nice, rustic ruddy featured man, who would have seemed much more at home on some farm. His horse lived in a stable at the back of his little house, down a short garden path. When the small bomb landed on the roof of the cottage, it blew the roof off and the four walls outwards. This cottage (for that was what it had been in the days when Walworth Common was open fields) was a wooden framed building, of brick filling in the frame. His wife and family sheltered in a large cupboard under the stairs. When my wardens arrived at the scene, they told me, to their utter astonishment, they found the frame building standing, the bedroom floor intact, and the whole tribe of Fiveashes emerging from the cupboard, unharmed. The only trapped member of the family turned out to be the horse, because his stable door was jammed with the brickwork of the house, and the way out was blocked with solid sections of the walls. With Mr Fiveash, as soon as it was light, having sashed the brickwork up with sledge hammers, we cleared a way for his horse, and off he went to Covent Garden to earn his daily bread.
Dear old Bronti Place! It had its fair share of bombing. Now there is nothing of it but a name and a very modern block of flats. Gone are the two rows of cottage-type houses, separated from one another by yards and gardens - a sort of backwater among the London crowd of shops and taller buildings. Most of its inhabitants were engaged in the trade connected with the adjacent street market of East Lane. A couple of my wardens came from there.
One of the myths of the blitz was started in Bronti Place. I was called to an incident there one night, when a bomb had landed in one of the yards between two houses. No one was hurt, but the chimney pots were leaning drunkenly just above the pavement. One of the wardens and I got hold of a ladder, climbed onto the roof, where we discovered the front wheels and shafts of a cart, and its load of pears and apples, weighing the roof down. We lowered the loosened chimney pots down, and placed them in a row on the pavement for the time being. Some weeks later I happened to be in the Wardens’ Post when Mr Moore, who lived in Bronti Place, but had not been on duty there the night the bomb fell, was regaling the wardens on duty with the story of how a bomb had fallen in Bronti Place, and the blast had lifted the chimney pots and deposited them neatly in a row, upright, on the pavement. I suspected that this tale had been one of his chief contributions to the many legends of the raids doing the rounds of the local pubs. It was one myth that I had to discount.
One by one, the little houses in that street were rendered uninhabitable. During one of the daylight raids I happened to be inspecting a shelter in another part of my area, in Westmoreland Road, where a small street market was in full swing. In daylight raids, the warning often went only a few seconds before the bombs fell. In this instance, there was a crash a little way off, as I flattened myself on the pavement. I remember looking up being rather amazed to find the street, which a moment before had been crowded with shoppers and barrow-boys, selling their wares, completely deserted. They must have dived remarkably quickly into the basement areas of the adjacent houses. I also saw a column of debris and dust from a bomb in the general direction of the Rectory and the church. I ran towards them, thickening clouds of dust rolling towards me, scattered bricks and debris littering the road. No signs of damage to the Rectory or the church, as I ran further towards Bronti Place. There was damage to the roofs of the houses I passed. When I arrived at the corner of Bronti Place, there was a large crater, lined with brick rubble and bits of wood, all that remained of two houses, which had received a direct hit. It was mid-morning and fortunately the people who lived there were out shopping, and the street was likewise deserted.
Bomb damage, Farrell Court, Elephant & Castle.
In that same raid, there was another bomb, which fell in the Walworth Road, where shopping crowds and omnibuses were busy. It fell at a bus stop, just as the bus moved off, and blew up a brewer’s dray, unloading outside a public house. The horse was killed instantly, but the driver, who was sitting on his cart, was hurled up on to the roof of the pub, where he was found little injured. The bomb penetrated very deeply into the road, and blew up all the main telephone cables. A section of one cable, about two or three inches thick, cased in lead, was hurled high in the air and fell through the roof of a shop on the other side of the road, from which it was retrieved by one of my wardens, and brought to the Post for my inspection. It was fortunate that it had not hit anyone, for it weighed quite a lot. It looked rather like the gnarled branch of some grey tree, from which the ends of hundreds of multi-coloured wires protruded.
I found these short daylight raids very worrying, because of the crowds in the streets. If there was time, they used to rush madly into the nearest shelters, including the crypt. It was rather hazardous to be in their path, for it was a stampede of hundreds. Often the crypt had standing room only, which meant that there were probably 900 there, luckily only for half an hour or so.
Another hazard I did not relish was that of the large plate glass windows in the shops of the Walworth Road. Blast could suck them out into hundreds of lethal fragments. I always tried to go across my area by side streets to avoid passing along the main road. The astonishing fact is that, during the years 1940-44, I was out in the raids a great deal of the time, never took shelter, and yet never was hit by shrapnel or debris. I suppose that I was safe, because I was not a sitting target.
It seemed tragic to me when some of my people were driven by fear to go to almost any length to flee the bombs. One couple aged about forty, with no children, because they said that they could not afford them, were always down in the crypt in good time every night, their pockets full of their savings, which, during the daylight, they took with them on feverish hunts in the countryside in the hope of finding a safe refuge.
They had a little house just round the corner from the Rectory, backing onto the churchyard. In the rear garden was a very good Anderson shelter, one of those curved, corrugated steel affairs, half buried in the ground, one of the safest shelters one could have. They never used it. They did no duty as wardens or fire fighters. To find a safe house elsewhere was their obsession. When the crypt was hit, they were down there, but they and their money were blown completely to pieces, that the only identification we could find after weeks of sifting the debris was a torn sick certificate with the husband's name on it, which enabled the coroner to identify their death. At the end of the war, their house and the Anderson shelter still stood, undamaged.
Similarly, another couple fled from the district to Somerset. Bombs fell near them, so they moved again to Newton Abbot on the edge of Dartmoor, only to be killed by the only raid on that town. If we allow it, fear no often, drives us into danger.
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.