Walworth Under Fire
The memoirs of Rev. John Markham,
Rector of St Peter's Church, Walworth 1937-1944.
An ARP class trying on protective clothing
Continued from Part Five
I had fear, and thank God I did, for it made me take whatever precautions I could, without neglecting the work that I had to do. I had so many narrow shaves, which added to my surprise, at the end of it all, that I was alive. Several of these were the result of the job that I took on after the first blitz, when the Bomb Disposal Units were unable to cope with all the calls to investigate possible unexploded missiles. It was decided to train two Police Inspectors and one Air Raid Warden out of each Police Division in the Metropolitan area. I was chosen to be trained in this way, and went for a special course at London Regional Headquarters in the Kensington Museums. On my particular course, there were about a dozen Police Inspectors, many of them young bloods with Hendon Police College training, who boasted that, naturally the police always came out top in the examination at the end of the course. The only other warden, and myself were the butts of their chaff.
I had not taken an examination of any sort for 10 years, but secretly I determined that I would do my best to beat the police. Therefore, I studied hard, and really learnt the mass of facts about every type of missile, German and English, with which we had to be familiar, and which we had to memorise. Impossible to refer to books for the various characteristics and dimensions in the darkness. It was a nice boost to my morale, both as a warden and a parson, that I did come top in the final examination.
Before that happened, the course involved some ground exercises in bombed buildings, in the dark mostly. We had to creep about those sites, observed by unseen Royal Engineer officers, and discover various planted bombs or other missiles and report about them, without theoretically blowing ourselves up. On some occasions a voice would call out of the shadows, as one of us crowded above the missile, saying, ‘Thank you, Mr So and So. You have just blown, yourself up.’ That would be the end of that exercise. We inspected sites, which illustrated the kind of damage that various types of bombs might cause.
As a result of this training, I was involved in a number of incidents connected with unexploded bombs, and many more that were suspected, but turned out to be due to something else. One I remember, reported to us by an old lady as having made a hole in her back garden, proved to be a hole dug by her cat.
Others were incidents, which were generally accepted as ‘having gone off’, but which, after careful investigation by myself and the Bomb Disposal Squad, proved to be large unexploded bombs with delayed action fuses. I found the work fascinating, and being comparatively young, took over nearly always from the other Bomb Reconnaissance Officer in my area, who was an older Police Inspector, looking forward to his retirement, and not anxious to risk his neck, unless it was absolutely necessary. I suppose it was my reading of detective stories, and boyhood ambitions to be a second Sherlock Holmes, that spurred me on, for the investigations that I undertook involved the following up of tiny clues and some inspired guesswork. Two cases only, I will record.
The first concerned a bomb which was supposed to have gone off in the middle of one of the small side streets in my Post Area on the night of April 16-17, 1941. It had been a heavy raid, and I did not know about this particular bomb until, the day after. I was puzzled by what I saw. There was a deep crater in the road, where the bomb was supposed to have burst. It had fractured the electricity, gas and water mains. And yet, the pavements nearby were little disturbed, the small houses some 15 feet away on either side had a few broken windows, but no structural damage. One of the people living in the houses said to me ‘Oh. Yes. It went off all right. We heard it and here is a piece of the bomb.’ What he offered me, I recognized to be a piece of what was called ‘the kopf ring’, a triangular sectioned ring of steel, which encircled the heavier bombs to retard their penetration in the ground, and allow them to explode nearer the surface. I accordingly got into touch with the Borough Engineer’s department, who said that they had inspected the incident, as their mains were broken, and definitely decided that the bomb had exploded, and were sending their gangs down to repair the mains. I was not at all satisfied with their verdict, but work began on the mains: I had other things to do. From time to time I visited the site to see how they were getting on. They mended the electric and gas mains and finally a crew was sent to dig deeper to repair the sewer. This time, I watched them. I said to the ganger, ‘Watch out for fragments of the bomb, because I do not think it has gone off.’ They laughed, and carried on. Suddenly, they turned up a large piece of alloy, coloured blue, which was in fact, the tail fin of a big bomb. They were out of that trench like greased lightning. I telephoned the Borough Engineer, and down came the Bomb Disposal Squad. It was not long before they exposed the rear end of a bomb, weighing a ton. In the meantime, we had evacuated the people from the adjacent houses, and the street was cordoned off. Most of the people had been living happily in houses close to the bomb for the past weeks. They watched a trifle apprehensively, as the Bomb Disposal Squad dealt with the fuses, the most delicate and dangerous part of the operation. Officially, the drill was that one of the squad unscrews the fuse in the crater, while another stands above, in case he needs help. Everybody else should retire behind the barriers, sealing off the area. The Bomb Squad Captain and I dutifully did as we were supposed to do, and watched proceedings from a safe distance, but, as usual, several of the squad lounged round the crater. A certain nonchalance is perhaps excusable after dealing with the hundreds of bombs, with which, by this time in the war, most of them had become familiar. However, the captain, one of the most experienced, agreed with me that we should not take unnecessary risks. Unfortunately, quite a number of men were killed unnecessarily, because they ignored the safety drills.
The fuses made safe, the squad brought up a mobile crane, and hoisted the bomb out of the hole in the road, like some offending tooth. A great gasp ‘Ooo, look at that.’ went up from the watching crowds behind the rope barriers. For ‘Hermann’, named after the portly Goering by the bomb loaders in his Air Force, was as large and fat as a pillar box, and that without his tail, which had broken off in pieces on impact. If he had exploded, there would not have been much of the street left, and a crater 20 feet deep and 30 feet across would have opened up. I saw the result of such explosions in a square of old Victorian, four storey houses, in Surrey Square, in the next area to ours, when I went along to see how some colleagues of mine, the Vicar and curate of All Saints’, Surrey Square, were faring after a heavy raid. I found that the whole square was filled with craters, large enough to take a bus, and every one of the houses, reduced to piles of rubble. I was therefore thankful that our ‘Hermann’ was now safely on the Bomb Disposal Unit’s lorry.
The second incident involving an unexploded bomb also illustrated the same fact that confused so many of us in the early days. This is the unexpectedly violent damage caused by the entry of a bomb, dropped from a great height even if it does not explode on contact. Like I have just described, many cases occurred because our knowledge of the behaviour of bombs on impact was insufficient. There were thousands of missiles lying in the ruins of London, written off when they fell as small, exploded bombs or anti-aircraft shells.
One of these unexploded missiles was the unwitting cause of a gigantic operation to re-examine every reported incident since the beginning of the blitz involving, in the case of our borough alone, over 4000 occurrences. As a consequence I was launched on a very intensive detective search, which I found fascinating.
The incident that sparked off this search happened when there was no raid in progress, one Sunday evening, when I was sitting in our dining room in the Rectory with Eileen. It was a sunny day: we had had no raids lately. People were enjoying the Sunday break, many of them thronging to the Trocadero cinema, which was still intact, near the Elephant and Castle, a mile or so from us.
Suddenly, there was an almighty crump. The ground shook. I leapt up and craned my head out of the window, in time to see a great column of smoke and debris ascend into the air somewhere in the direction of the Elephant and Castle. I think this must have been late 1942, when I was a District Warden and an Incident Officer, covering the southern half of the borough, as far as the Elephant & Castle. I therefore rang up the Control to see what had happened. They said that a large explosion had occurred near the Trocadero, but knew nothing more. I got on my bike, and cycled up to see what I could do. By this time, services of every kind were converging on the scene, without being called out, in particular the Fire Service from the big station near the Elephant & Castle. When I arrived, they were swarming all over an enormous pile of rubble, about thirty feet high, which was all that remained of a block of flats. There was naturally a lot of confusion, but eventually the casualties were identified and dealt with. Miraculously, only a few were in the flats at the time: there was only a handful in the street, passing by, when the explosion covered them with flying rubble, and, in one case blew one of them up in the air and tossed him on top of the houses on the other side of the street. He was found, injured but alive. It was miraculous, because, had the bomb gone off a little later, the people in the cinema would have been coming out, and thronging the street.
After it was all over, investigations by the Royal Engineers revealed that the explosion was that of a ‘G’ type mine, weighing about a ton. This kind of mine was not a parachute mine, but had fins like a bomb. It had been designed to be dropped into shallow waters, and lie at the bottom. It had very sensitive fuses, detonated in various ways. This particular one had been dropped two years before, had hit a block of flats, severely damaging them as it went through the building and buried itself in the foundations. It was written off at the time as an exploded bomb, and the block was demolished and the site cleared. People were able to live in the next-door flats for two years without any suspicion that they were literally sitting on a time-bomb.
When it did explode on that Sunday evening, it did far more than shake the surrounding area. It caused a major revolution in the ideas that the experts had held with regard to German fuses. These were armed before they left the planes by means of an electrical charge. The fuses were detonated by this charge, when the bombs hit, or when a delayed action mechanism triggered the charge. It had always been thought that the electrically charged fuses would be harmless after approximately three months, by which time the electrical power would, they assumed, have evaporated. As a result of this theory, many unexploded bombs in awkward situations, which had lain there for more than three months, were on a very low priority for removal.
After this ‘G’ type mine had gone off, having lain there for over two years, the whole theory had to be abandoned. Hence the re-appraisal of all the incidents recorded since the start of the blitz, and the thorough investigation of the sites of any which might be doubtful. The one that I particularly remember in this affair was one that had been reported at the time of its arrival as an exploded anti-aircraft shell. It had fallen, so it was reported, on a small house in a row of semi-detached dwellings, badly damaging the top back bedroom, and the kitchen below. I went along to see it, and was lucky to find that it had not been cleared up, and the house was empty. The next door houses, however, had been occupied throughout the previous two years. I was immediately suspicious, when I found the rain-pipes on the wall of the damaged back rooms were untouched, and still hanging tightly to the wall. Furthermore, the garden wall, separating the house from the next door back yard, and constructed of old bricks and mortar, four inches thick, was intact, although it was separated from the room in which the shell was supposed to have gone off by a mere two feet. I looked over the wall into the yard next door, watched from their back door by the people who lived there a few feet away. I noticed that the stone slabs of the yard were raised a few inches in a sort of hillock.
‘That bomb definitely went off, guv’nor,’ the man next door said to me, ‘I've got a piece of the bomb to prove it.’ ‘Can I have a look at it?’ I asked. He went indoors and appeared with a metal ring of dull green steel. I thought to myself, ‘This looks very like the carrying ring of a German bomb, so we are probably not dealing with the supposed anti-aircraft shell.’ To make sure, before I alarmed anybody, I rang up the Bomb Disposal Captain, and described the shape and size of the ring. ‘That definitely sounds like the carrying ring of a 500lb bomb. I'll come down straightaway.’ It was not long before he and some of his squad came to the house, saw what I had seen, and decided on the evacuation of that street and several others nearby. They dug down in the yard of the occupied house, where I had seen that suspicious hump, and found the fins of the bomb, they followed further clues and eventually ran the bomb to earth four feet under the kitchen floor of the man who had given me the ring. The bomb had apparently come down through the house, which suffered the damage, entered the ground and jinked sideways under the garden wall and the back yard to its final resting place. It proved to have a delayed action fuse, which failed to function because the bomb was damaged in its penetration of the building and its foundations. It was lucky for the family living above it, for they later told me that they had danced ‘Knees up, Mother Brown’ at many parties on their kitchen floor, a mere four feet from the unsuspected death-trap.
I sympathised with them, for I too had been within a few feet of a very dangerous, unexploded mine, without knowing it was there at the time. We had a heavy raid. We were luckily not badly damaged in our area. So after the ‘All Clear’, when it was first light, I wandered across the border of my Post Area to see how my neighbours, the Reverend Thompson and his wife had fared.
As I crossed the boundary, I noticed that the streets were completely deserted. Not a living soul in sight. When I arrived at my friends’ Vicarage, I discovered that a bomb had fallen between it and the adjacent church, damaging both pretty severely. I wandered round the ruins, to make sure that nobody was about, and then returned through the eerily silent streets to my own Rectory. There I found Father Thompson and his wife, plus Father Curwen and his dog, from All Saints’, Surrey Square, on our doorstep, asking whether they could take refuge with us, because they could not get near their house from which they had been evacuated by the police. A parachute mine, they explained, was hanging just over their garden wall, waiting to be defused by the Royal Navy, who were the experts to deal with it. I was rather shattered to discover that I had walked in their garden a few minutes before, within a few feet of the unseen mine. The drill, you must understand, that had been drummed into me, was that even pedestrians must be kept away from an unexploded mine for a distance of 400 yards. They have a very sensitive trembler trigger mechanism, designed to be set off by vibrations from passing ships. They were consequently very tricky objects for the Navy Mine Disposal Unit.
Father Curwen, the Vicar of All Saints’, Surrey Square, and his curate, not to mention his dog, had a prolonged ordeal during the raids. As I have already mentioned, Surrey Square had received more than its fair share of heavy bombs. I think that this was due to the fact that one of the largest railway marshalling yards, the Bricklayers’ Arms, lay just across the Old Kent Road from Surrey Square. Time after time, salvoes of heavy bombs, probably destined for the Bricklayers’ Arms, fell short, demolishing first the church, and then the Vicarage, both of which were in the centre of the square, together with the Church Hall. When the Vicarage was hit, Father Curwen was shaving in the bathroom upstairs, his curate on his way out by the back door to the church. When the bomb hit the front of the Vicarage, Father Curwen opened the bathroom door, to find nothing except the ruins of the front rooms. The curate was blown by the blast out of the backdoor. Neither of them was hurt, and the dog survived. They then took refuge in the Hall, which doubled up as their Vicarage and a temporary church. Finally, another raid damaged the hall, so that they had to retreat to live with the Thompsons at St Stephens, from which they were chased once more by the unexploded mine.
One of my nicest memories was preaching at a later date at a High Mass celebrated by Father Curwen and his brother clergy, with a full choir, in the roofless, bare ruins of All Saints’ church. Miraculously, the organ, on the North side of the roofless chancel, had survived and was played for the service.
In connection with the bombing of his parish, I remember the strange noise that the large bombs made as they travelled over my area. At the time, I was busy with an incident in my own area, where a bomb had fallen In Boyson Road, blowing up the water and electric mains, and causing the collapse of an adjacent newsagents. As we struggled to get through the debris to the people whom I knew were buried, those heavy bombs sent us flat on our faces in the road with their awe-inspiring, rumbling, rushing, somewhat reminiscent of an express train, a sort of wobbling roar. They seemed to be so near, that we were surprised when nothing happened, and then got on with the job in hand. It was pitch dark: I was very worried because I stumbled on the end of a severed electric main, rearing like some serpent about five feet into the air from the crater. There was water running from the main everywhere, flooding the cellar of the public house apposite, and causing a marvellous firework display of shorting electricity in a junction box in the pavement, where the cover had been smashed. Men were dashing about, shouting, in the dark. I was afraid that someone would touch the electric cable and be killed. I noticed that someone had sent for the Fire Service to pump out the pub cellar, before the beer was spoilt.
The newsagent’s shop, with its living quarters in two storeys above, was just a heap of rubble which had fallen so neatly into the cellar, that the debris scarcely formed a pile higher than a man at pavement level. I knew the people who lived there. One was a young man, an ardent member of the Pacifist movement, the other his sister. They had taken over the shop recently. He had been to see me, and was due to serve in my church for one of my early morning services next day.
The Rescue squad, my wardens and I worked all that night to find them. We tunneled down through tightly packed debris, which included thousands of cigarettes, the allocation for that month having been delivered that morning. Eventually, we found first the sister, dead, and then the brother, still warm, probably suffocated by the dust. We felt defeated.
These tunneling jobs were strange affairs, so chancy in their outcome. One night, I was summoned to a small house, which had been demolished by a bomb. We managed to crawl under the collapsed bedroom floor, held up precariously on one side by the tottering wall. There, by the light of our torches, we found a man, still sitting in a kitchen chair at a table, his head and body bowed down to the table top by the weight of the flooring, which had crushed him, injuring his head. He was grey with mortar dust, but conscious. We got the rescue party, who sawed off the legs of the chair, and so released him to be whisked off to hospital. In the meantime, we found his daughter lying dead in the debris a few feet away. To look at the scene in the light of the following morning, it was difficult to imagine that anyone could have survived under the pile of rubble and wood, which was all that remained of the house. While we were looking, a young man appeared, who wanted to dig through the debris into the place where his front room had been. ‘My old mum,’ he explained, ‘is terribly anxious about her valuables which she kept in a tin box under her bed in the downstairs front room. She always shelters in the trench shelter in the play-ground, and has nowhere to go. It will help a lot if I can get hold of that tin box.’ I replied that we could not let him dig in the ruins, but I and one of my wardens would do it for him. So there we were digging downwards through the pile, so that it would not be unduly disturbed and bury us. It turned out that the top room of the house formed a flat, in which a young married couple had taken great pride in furnishing the front room with the latest fashion in shiny furniture, including a piano, marble surround to the fire-place, patterned rugs, etc. - the sort of articles that the big hire purchase stores in the Walworth Road displayed in their windows before the blitz blew them out. We dug through the lot, hauling the piano from the debris, piece by piece. I can still see the iron frame, cart-wheeling down the heap of rubble, its strings twanging protestingly, as it crashed to rest. We cut a hole through the pile carpet, so that one of my wardens could squeeze under the old lady’s bed below, and find the tin box which contained her few treasures. It was, hot, dirty work, after a long noisy night, but always felt that these little salvage efforts were worthwhile. It is hard to realise that it was these small things that made such a difference to the morale of so many people. I suppose the secret of it lies in the fact that we showed that someone cared about the loss of their homes. It was important that there should be some visible link with that home, as they took refuge in the bare, amorphous surroundings of the schools, which acted as Rest Centres for the bombed out.
We tried to do something also for those who eventually found alternative lodging, when their time in the Rest Centres came to an end. One case I remember particularly, because out of the tragedy of one home, another family was given a new start. I was given the complete contents of one of the flats, formerly occupied by an old retired shoe maker and his wife. The Council had arranged for the old couple to be evacuated. Old people, with no families to look after them were being encouraged to take advantage of this scheme. Unfortunately, this particular old couple, in their eighties, probably married for 60 years, were evacuated to different hospitals or old peoples’ homes somewhere in the north, in different towns, so that they did not see one another. They quickly pined and deteriorated. They both died. Their flat in my parish was left intact by the bombing. Their only relative, an elderly man living out of London, offered me the contents of the flat. My wardens helped me to move them to the crypt, which was empty after the bombing. We borrowed a cart and horse from one of the barrow boys, and within a few weeks were able to supply another bombed out family with all the necessaries for setting up home – complete sets of crockery, bed linen and furniture. The only article I did not give them was the old shoemaker’s set of tools, which I used from time to time for many years after.
Such are some of the vivid pictures that come to the surface of one’s mind after all these years. But life during those first months of the bombing was not all death and destruction. It is true that many days in the blitz of 1940 were dominated by the warnings, and the bombs. We ate and slept when we could, but warden duty took a lot of the time. I remember being so fed up with the understandable grumbling of the full-time wardens at the long hours of duty, and the disturbed off duty periods, that I worked out the hours of duty that I did for that particular week, and it shocked me when it came to 118 – and I was officially a part-time, unpaid voluntary Post Warden. The unpaid voluntary wardens, in fact, did more than their fair share of duty. On top of it, they had to get to work to earn their living. I had my parish duties. We tried to keep the daily services going, although they were often impossible, if incidents occurred, which kept me on duty in daylight hours. I tried to get some sleep after breakfast. I can remember falling asleep, with my fork full of a rasher of fried bacon, half way to my mouth. We rarely got a bath. Yet family life, church life, went on. We printed the Church Magazine ourselves on one of those old, flat, hand-rolled, duplicators. Eileen did the rolling of the 200 or so copies, a page at a time. She cooked, she looked after Susan, and fed myself and the curate. She shopped, sometimes cycling up as far as the Army and Navy Stores in Victoria Street for the groceries. Susan sometimes went to stay with her grandparents in Tulse Hill. Otherwise, we very rarely left the area during the weeks of the first blitz. We slept and ate in the basement of the Rectory most of the time.
Then the raids became less frequent. We returned to sleep upstairs. If there was a raid, the Post was alerted by two telephoned signals – Yellow warning (raiders in the offing) and Purple (raid imminent). When they had been received, one of the wardens would clump up two flights of stairs to our bedroom and shine a torch on us in bed, with the words ‘Yellow (or Purple) warning, sir.’ I would dress and hurry down. Eileen would take shelter with the child in the basement.
And then we actually had a holiday. In the summer of 1941, when the last big raids on London ended with that of May 10th, we were offered a fortnight’s holiday by the diocese, offered by the Vicar of All Saints’ Church, Southbourne, to a clergyman’s family in the bombed areas. We had a marvellous time there.
Parish life revived. I had confirmation candidates to prepare: many weddings, and some baptisms. I signed thousands of forms for my parishioners, mostly for the special milk and orange juice allocation for people with young children. Calver, my curate, and I dismantled the organ in the church, stacking the pipes which seemed to be usable, hundreds of them, down in the crypt, where I got Mr Maunder, the organ builder to come and label them, with a view to the rebuilding after the war.
St Peter's Church in 1954
I did more training for the Civil Defence, and we received brand new uniforms to replace the rather tattered overalls. They consisted of blue battle dress, with, yellow badges, and a blue mackintosh, and police type boots. Finally, I found myself promoted to District Warden, responsible for the oversight of several Post Areas. One of my deputies became Post Warden, and I had to find a new office. I managed to get hold of an empty shop at the corner of our street and the Walworth Road, a mere 50 yards from the Rectory. The Town Hall told me to buy the furniture that was needed, so Eileen and I explored the second-hand office equipment dealers in Holborn. We ended up with a couple of desks, a table and some chairs, plus a filing cabinet which looked very smart in the spacious front showroom of the shop. The large spare space of linoleum became a demonstration area for lectures and exercises, for I could draw plans of streets on the lino in chalk. There was a large cellar under the shop. We arranged a telephone plug, so that, during the raids, we could take the office telephone down there. Edith Rush, one of our choir members, who now played the piano for our church services, volunteered to be our telephonist at nights. We also organised a trailer pump crew, trained by the Fire Brigade to manhandle one of the smaller pumps, really intended to be drawn by a car. This crew became very keen, dragging their pump for half a mile to fires. They made our cellar their headquarters. Eventually, Edith Rush married one of the crew.
My office staff consisted of Mrs Baker, the wife of Councillor Baker, who had been a Post Warden of one of the Posts in the district, and now became my Deputy. They were a marvellous couple, always willing and cheerful. Mr Baker, one of the Southwark Borough Labour Party councillors, proved invaluable to me in dealing with the large meetings of Fire Guards, thirsting for the blood of the authorities over the question of compulsory fire watching on business premises. I would give a reasoned exposition of the matter, which did not cut any ice at all with the angry men. Baker would then get up and address them for half an hour or so, saying a great deal, of which I could not make any connected or logical sense whatsoever. Time after time, I watched the eyes and faces of his listeners. I saw them glaze over, as if they were being slowly anaesthetised. When he stopped, there would be an outburst of clapping, and they voted for our proposals. I consciously used this power of oratory for my own ends but was inwardly chilled by a demonstration of the kind of spell-binding that Hitler had exercised in Germany.
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.