A Local hero
As work goes on towards installing an old ack-ack gun on one of the Mudchute gunsites (see May/June Newsletter) an extraordinary story has come to light about one of the men who served on the guns.
The story appears in two histories of the defence of London during the Blitz. Here it is as told by General Sir Frederick Pile in his book, Ack Ack.
“The initial damage to the docks in particular and the East End in general, had been very great
On that first evening (Sepember 7th 1940), to quote from the Divisional history, a battery manning 4.5-in. guns on the Isle of Dogs caught the brunt of the attack. Bombs fell all round them, wrecking communications and causing terrible damage in the neighbourhood. It was a severe test for the battery, especially as many of the gunners had been in the Army for no more than a few weeks. In fact, when the first warning came through from Gun Operations Room, Captain W.J.S.Fletcher, the Site Commander, was inspecting a fresh intake of men who had never before been on a gun position.
For the next three days and night the enemy, in a desperate effort to smash London, send over hundreds of aircraft at a time. At the beginning of the raids a heavy bomb landed on the road leading to the Isle of Dogs site, ruling out any chance of transport getting through with supplies. Ammunition replenishment was one of the greatest worries, but the R.A.S.C. lorries arrived regularly and the gunners carried every round two hundred yards over bomb-torn ground to their gun-pits.”
He goes on: “In spite of these difficulties, the guns were kept in action and Captain Fletcher, who, in lulls between actions, searched the site and devastated neighbourhood alone for unexploded bombs, was given the immediate award of the Military Cross for his great courage and leadership during the raid.”
The story also appears in Colin Dobinson’s book, AA Command: “...the Isle of Dogs, where high explosive blasts ringing the battery severed communications and destroyed the site’s access road. Caught in the eye of this particular storm, HAA Battery kept their 4.5s firing throughout the raid, so winning a commendation capped only by that awarded to their Captain W.J.S.Fletcher. For maintaining fire amid the chaos of the attack, for steadying his men - many of them novices and some arrived at this, their first posting, that very evening - and for venturing into nearby streets to tackle fires and unexploded bombs, Fletcher was awarded the Military Cross.”
Although this story appears in the two books as quoted, the name W.J.S.Fletcher, as Captain or any other rank, does not appear in the listing of those awarded the Military Cross. Yet we also hear that he was the only soldier to whom this award was made whilst serving on British soil.
What a local hero! But a bit of a mystery too.
(This story appears in Island History News for November/December 2012. We are grateful to Jenny Barraclough for bringing it to our attention.)
The photograph of a Mudchute gunsite was loaned to Island History years ago by a Mr Philips. He had served on the gunsites on the Mudchute and the only names he remembered were Tom Hart, and - Cutler. We don’t know at what stage of the war this was taken, or if the bare-headed, dark-haired soldier is Captain Fletcher. But it could be! More on this when the information comes to light.
And now (April 2012) Island History supporter Steve Jacobs has come up with this, via the Internet: Wyndham John S. Fletcher was born in Chertsey 5th August 1910 and married Betty O. Horsford in 1934 in Kensington. He died in June 2006 in Kent. A Captain and also Major W.J.S.Fletcher MC are listed in the London Gazette in 1945 and 1950. He played cricket for Lancing College in 1928/29.
(April 2013) Keith Griffiths, of Elmstead in Kent, has provided the following information: Wyndham joined the 52nd (Lond.)A.A.R. as a gunner. He was promoted to 2nd lieutenant on 4th January 1939 and as an acting Captain in the Royal Artillery was awarded the Military Cross on 29th November 1940 in recognition of gallant conduct in action with the enemy. Wyndham was also mentioned in dispatches as a temporary major in the Royal Artillery on 22nd March 1945 in recognition of gallant and distinguished services in North West Europe.
Still no photograph!
The First Day of the Blitz
The Reverend Arthur Holmes was the curate at St. Cuthbert's Church, on the corner of Cahir Street, in 1940. His wife Margaret later recalled the first night of the Blitz in a letter to a friend:
" Last Saturday evening at 6pm Arthur was out visiting (the warning had gone an hour ago) and I was watching from our front door for any signs of activity when I saw a formation of planes coming over, they were mostly huge black ones with four engines, I had never seen any of this kind before and they were much lower than usual. Our guns battered them but they kept beautiful formation until they seemed to be overhead, when they spread out fanwise and then came a long whistle and a crash. Then another and another. By this time I had grabbed Dodger (the dog) and was under the stairs. When the nearest bang came, the din was terrific and the dishes on the dresser and the doors and windows rattled like anything.
Arthur came rushing in. He had been on the roof of the church, watching the planes when the bombing started, but he soon shifted, he said the church swayed like anything. He had seen the nearest bomb fall 100 yards away on a paint wharf. It had hit a container of ammonia and the fumes made us think it was gas and everyone put their gas mask on - our first experience of them. Arthur was rushing around asking where his gas mask was and I showed it to him on his back. Then he went out to help. We could see fires had started all round.
Ours was a good one. Oil poured in a river down the street and there were great clouds of black smoke. The Germans' idea was to light the place up with fires to guide them in the night raids to follow. But our fire was put out before dark. Arthur came back with a message to go along to St. Mildred's (a ladies' settlement) to help the people from a block of flats which was bombed to bits just over the bridge. They were safe, having been in shelters, but homeless. I got to St. Mildred's having explained my mission to several soldiers and being passed over an oily plank, over an oily river, by several oily air-raid wardens. We fed the people on biscuits by candlelight - all else had failed. When the next siren sounded at 8pm, Arthur arrived and we went home.
From then on we had neither water, gas nor electricity. We had a cold supper while the bombs and guns were going strong - but not too near. Then we retired to our bed under the stairs. It was an awful night, we didn't think of sleeping. Arthur was in and out a lot, after a near crash he would go and see if anyone needed help. He had left his bike in the hall under the church and left the downstairs door unlocked in case anyone should need shelter. But during the night, he brought the bike back to the house, though it was thick with oil from the fire. It was awful lying under that stair, listening to bombs near and far and wondering when one would come for us! We soon got to know the whistle and crash of the high explosive, the long whistle and awful shaking but no crash of the delayed-action bombs.
Then at 3.15am we thought ours had come. The crack was terrific. The front door burst open, broken glass crashed on the pavement, and dust and stones rained everywhere. We looked out and could see nothing but dust, so we waited. I went through to Dodger who was in his chair in the scullery. The back door had burst open too, but Dodger just shook himself and wagged his tail. The dust settled and we looked out. The street was carpeted thick with dust, bricks and glass. Arthur ran round the corner and met Firemaster Ayre who said: Was anyone in the Church? No, why? said Arthur. Has it gone? Yes. Oh dear, said Arthur, Unemployed!
Just then there was another crash and they lay down in the gutter but it was a bit away. I was still under the stairs. Arthur was away a while, helping the people from the houses next to the church, which had come down with it - six houses. The folk had been in Anderson shelters behind and were okay.
Later I went round with Arthur to look at the church. What a sight! A crater I think about 15 feet deep took up the width of the road. It was floodlit by a 12-inch gas main burning nicely and water was pouring in from the water main. All round the crater was spread half the church; the altar end was left standing and you could look up to the altar (the church at St. Cuthbert's was on the first floor). Westwood's engineering firm across the road was partly down and great lumps of road and church had crashed on their machinery. Windows were broken and ceilings down for hundred of yards along the street, where pieces of church had flown about. The big flats next to us had doors blown off and all the windows out. The pub at the corner had all the ceilings down and all glass out, yet the landlord was serving beer at 5 in the morning!
(St.Cutherbert's Church was never rebuilt after the war. The site of the church is now part of Harbinger School playground in Westferry Road).
The above extract is taken from The Island at War, Memories of War-Time Life on the Isle of Dogs, East London, now out of print.
One Night in September 1940
On the night of the 17th to 18th September 1940, the Blitz had been going on for 10 days and nights. The wail of the air-raid warning, the tense anticipation, the ominous drone of the planes, the thuds, explosions, roars of falling bombs, the shattered masonry, the dust, heat and flames, the cries of the wounded, the struggle to rescue and repair - all this had become, not familiar, how could it? - but part of a nightly routine, a nightmare experience constantly renewed.
And the Auxiliary Fire Service personnel had been in the thick of it. Violet Pengelly and Joan Bartlett were Island women in the AFS. When they went on duty on the 17th September, they knew what the night might hold, not only for them but for their families at home in their shelters. But there was no question of not going on duty, or of not remaining at their posts, even when taking a break, not for them nor for the hundreds of people all over London who were facing the same prospect of sleepless nights and anxious hours spent helping and protecting others.
Cubitt Town School in Saunders Ness Road had been newly built in the 1930s and the spacious, airey building was, in many ways, ideal for a Civil Defence base. It had kitchens, offices, teaching rooms and open spaces for drilling and for storing vehicles. Civil Defence was largely the responsibility of the local Council and after the children were evacuated in 1939 the School had become home to an Air Raid Warning Post, a Stretcher Party, and a Mobile Unit. The Ambulance and Fire Services also had units based there. The School often housed large numbers of personnel, either actually on duty or taking a break between shifts, recovering from action or waiting to be called out. Fireman A. F. Sharpe recalled in his memoirs that the Hall of the School had been specially strengthened with iron girders and that this was where they waited, fully rigged, for a call.
The bombers came in the darkness of the black-out. Violet and Joan had gone up to the first floor rest-room. Others were on duty or resting. As the raid began, the centre of the building took a direct hit. A fireman stationed in Millwall Fire Station recalled later that the explosion had literally flung a girder out of the building across the road into the warehouses opposite. Fireman Sharpe, who was on duty inside the School, recorded his memory of a dull thud and a bright flash, the crash of falling masonry and a desperate rush for the exits, then a roll-call and the missing girls, of trying to climb the staircase to the women's rest-room, but it was ready to come down at any moment and the centre of the school had been flattened. "Are you there?" he called. There was no response.
At their home in Gaverick Street, Victor, Violet's little brother, was six years old. All he could remember of the incident in later life was his impression that his lovely sister was "missing - not coming home". Eventually, the rescue workers penetrated the solid mass of rubble that had been the School. The remains of the dead were discovered and identified. On the 10th October 1940 they were buried together in a local authority grave.
As well as Violet and Joan, 14 members of the Stretcher Party died that night. All the members of the Mobile Unit died - a nurse, a doctor, two First Aid workers and a driver. Four of the eight ambulance drivers died. The one Warden on duty was killed.
After the war, the school was rebuilt and later, it became home to St. Luke's School. On December 8th, 2008, a Service of Remembrance was held in the School, and a plaque was unveiled, bearing the names of all those who died on the night of 17th/18th September 1940.
Those who died: Pictured on the left with AFS colleagues are Joan Bartlett (on the right) and Violet Pengelly (next to Joan). The others who lost their lives were:
Auxiliary Ambulance Drivers Mark Breslau Cyril Eugene Jacobs Reuben Norman James Samuel Spratt Tomas John Steward Victor Ronald Tidder Stretcher Bearers Jack Bauer Charles Arthur Clutterbuck Horace William Field Cyril John Hawthorn Arthur James Jones Albert Edward Littlewort William Albert Mears William Charles Miles David Arthur Morton-Holmes Ernest John Purdey Edward Henry Snook Charles William Patrick Staff Cyril Swerner Mobile First Aid Unit Mary Bridget Cooke, Nurse Lilian Gladys Hawkridge, Nurse Dr. Leonard Moss Florence Tyler, Nurse Air Raid Warden Frederick Hall
This story was published in the Island History News, Nos. 51 and 49, in 2008. The names of the dead were researched by Stephanie Maltman, on behalf of Firemen Remembered.
In the Trenches World War One
Albert Conn grew up in Cuba Street on the Isle of Dogs. When he was 17 he volunteered for the Army and ended up in the Devon Regiment. Whilst training in Devon, he met his future wife, but before they were married, Albert saw active service in some of the notorious battlefields of the First World War. Here is his account of one episode:
Ypres 1916: Fred was a decent sort of bloke. He was much older than me, old enough to be my father. I never knew anything about his folks, whether he was married or single. I don't think he got much mail from home. I got a fair amount. mostly from my girl in Devonport. Every now and again there was a parcel with some Woodbines and a cake. I used to share with Fred, sort of mucking-in pals, we were. I remember I had a rubber pillow from her on one occasion, the sort of thing you blow up and rest your head on at night, we finished up playing football with it in a French farmhouse. One time there was a tin of Harrison's Pomade, it was a kind of Vaseline but smelt terrible, it was supposed to kill the lice but I think they thrived on it. I had the biggest and fattest lice in the company.
Fred joined us from the base after we got cut up badly at Mametz. He had previously served with the Gloucesters. He still wore his old cap badge. He was Number Four on our gun, I was Number Three. Our job was to cart the ammo about. One day we were resting near Amiens when Fred suggested we should have our photos taken. We went into a house where a Frenchman with an old-fashioned tripod camera underneath a big black cloth took our pictures. A few days afterwards we marched back to the Somme. We were occupying an old German trench when we got orders to move out that night.
We were checking weapons and ammo when the mail came up. I had a box of fags, proper posh ones they were, called High Life, gold-tipped too. I shared them with Fred just as darkness was settling in. It was a bad night, rain coming down in sheets. In the distance the sky was flickering with flares and gun fire, we could hear the thudding of the bombardment. We struggled along with these panniards slung around our shoulders, rifle, ammo and spade as well as the rest of the fighting order. I always reckoned a bloke was half dead before he even reached the enemy. Our officer seemed to lose his way several times. Once we found ourselves in Trones Wood. They must have had a hell of a bust-up there. The trees were just stumps sticking out of the ground and the place stank of the dead.
Well, we got on eventually and found the rest of the lads in an old communication trench near Guillemont. This village had been taken and retaken several times. For some unknown reason the Germans were loath to part with it. By the sound of the bombardment I shouldn't think there was anything left of it.
There was a steady stream of wounded making their way towards the dressing station and we asked one or two what it was like in front of the village. They said the bombardment was terrible, so you can bet we didn't feel too happy. It was still raining so I tried to get a bit of a kip before dawn, in those days I could sleep on a clothes line. I pulled my waterproof cape over my head and settled down in the mud. I was jolted out of my sleep by a sharp blow on the inside of my right knee. I thought somebody must have kicked me. Half asleep, I felt my leg and my hand came away wet and sticky.
I thought to myself, Blimey, I've got a Blighty one. It was deep and about a couple of inches long. Fred tied a field bandage to it. He then helped me down the trench and out onto the road. The first dressing station was down a mile of steps and the officer refused to dress my wound because I did not belong to his Division. We found another one further down the road and here I shook hands with Fred. He wished me luck and said that should I reach Blighty would I contact his people in Bristol. I promised to do so, but strangely enough, he never gave me his address. Another strange thing was that I did end up in Bristol, at Beaufort War Hospital.
I wrote to Fred to get his address. The answer came back to say that Fred and the remainder of the gun crew had been killed that morning. I was the only survivor.
(From Volume I ,A Brief History of the Isle of Dogs, Chapter 14, One Soldier's War. See Books)