- Contributed by
- Torbay Libraries
- People in story:
- Donald King
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 31 October 2005
This story was submitted to the People's War site by Paul Trainer of Torbay Library Services on behalf of Donald King and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's Terms and Conditions.
I have often wondered just how many people still remember the night of Saturday 13th May 1941.
At the time I was an office junior and working in the city of London and was employed by an export merchants at Gain, Orr and Brett, 101-113, Queen Victoria Street, E.C.4. The office was on the third floor and was rented from the Salvation Army International Headquarters. Father was on air raid spotters duty for Messrs. Tate and Lyle, the sugar refinery at North Woolwich. His normal job was a Mills Hopper Attendant. Finishing off his weeks work of 10pm to 6pm he had to go in early to cover a duty of Auxiliary Firemen. This night in particular was to witness one of the worst air raids of the Second World War. The lookout post was situated on the 14th floor of the building and was said to be the highest point overlooking the City Of London except for St. Paul's Cathedral. With binoculars one could see a distance of some thirty miles in the Southend-on-Sea direction and out towards the south coast in the Brighton direction.
This particular night my father along with his mate Stevo were told of the Yellow Alert signal that had been sounded in the A.R.P. London Headquarters. This meant that the pair of them had to go to the lookout on the top floor as it meant the German Luftwaffe would be passing over the River Thames in the direction of London. It seemed unbelievable, the moon had risen early that night and I could actually see some of the German aircraft passing over the River Thames and even passing over the London Docks and without a bomb being dropped. Somebody shouted out that they were hitting the centre of London. I can remember my mother shouting for me to come down to the Anderson air raid shelter as I watched the night sky light up.
Father told us the following morning the German aircraft having finished their bombing run turned towards the Brighton area with bombs falling as they made their way back to base. After the sounding of the all clear, my dad's mate decided to go down from the lookout post to go and have a drink of tea. Dad called to Stevo to wait as he could hear a strange noise. It sounded like someone whistling and he couldn't work out from which direction it was coming from. Just the same, Stevo left my father up on the tower. Minutes were to go by as the noise was getting louder. It was then that father saw the Aerial Mine floating down towards his look out point. Father said that at first he stood frozen to the spot looking to the houses. He then fell to his knees praying, probably for the first time in his life as he watched the Aerial Mine pass only feet over the lookout, only to land on the factory gates, and be held by the parachute.
At first nobody believed him as he shouted down the A.R.P. Headquarters telephone, but the cable company had already reported the happening before Dad had got up from his knees. With the city of London on it's west side well alight a second air raid was sounded and father could see the search lights coming on in the direction of Southend-on-Sea again. It wasn't until the aircraft approached the London Docks that the bombs were to fall. This time I did sit in the air raid shelter. The whistling noise of the bombs was terrifying. East Ham, West Ham, Plaistow, Custom House south side of the Thames and the warehouses around Tower Bridge were being pounded. It went on for a few minutes, but sounded like hours. Even when the morning light was beginning to break we could see the King George VI docks still burning.It was father who told us that with the first raid taking place, hundreds of Auxiliary Fire Service (A.F.S.) vehicles were being sent to the centre of London, leaving the docks and East End almost destroyed. Come the end of father's shift the factory was closed to any workers except the new air raid spotters coming on duty and ancillary teams. The factory had to wait two days before a team of Army explosive experts arrived to make the mine safe.
Usually father would be home at the end of his night shift around six thirty am but this night it was turned nine-o clock. It seemed ages before he put his cycle away in the shed at the back of the scullery. Without taking bis coat and bicycle clips off he burst into tears as he tried his best to tell of what he had witnessed and how helpless he felt as the bombs rained down all around him and the homes around the docks, ships and warehouses. His usual route was blocked as he came home via Beckton, and East Ham. The docks bridge was badly damaged. This meant that he had to sometimes walk with the bicycle over the damaged houses. Some were still alight. Anyone with a spare pair of hands was searching in the rubble helping the A.R.P. and Police. Even servicemen were helping people trapped in the rubble. The fire service was still damping down, having to draw water from the River Thames. The worst sight he said was a brick shelter filled with people and completely demolished. It took father some hours to calm down and he fell asleep in his favourite armchair still wearing his work clothes. It was the first time I would ever remember father crying, just like a little child and even today I still remember the occasion vividly.
For myself to get to work on the Monday morning and get to the office by 9am I went out early from home in Barking on the District Line Underground to Queen Victoria Street. I had quite a few problems. The District Line railway could only get me as far as Plaistow Station where all the passengers had to disembark. We had to walk all the way to the main road that runs between Barking, Upton Park and Aldgate East and I with some luck hitched a lift on a passing lorry packed with other workers in the back. Alighting from the lorry, all one could see were miles and miles of hose pipe lying on the ground and the bomb damage. Working my way all though Cheapside and Leadenhall Street, turning down Little Watling Street I was able to see the damage to the little church that contained the famous Bow Bells laying on the church floor. Further on into the town and Queen Victoria Street I came to a halt as I could see the Salvation Army International Headquarters insides gutted. Only the Thursday before I was to see the Queen Mother, accompanied by Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret outside, inspecting the two or three mobile canteen vehicles and entering the building to be shown the musical instruments. Other items included the latest issue of the magazine "Blighty" As I approached one of the mobile canteens one of the Salvation Army officers recognised me and called me over to have a cup of tea. It was then that I saw one of the directors, a Mr Brett one of the export merchants standing by with tears in his eyes as he looked at the office. The office was gutted and standing on the steps of the 113 I could see the sky. I was able to recognise the 2, Burrough Comptometer (adding machines) on the floor in front of me. With the office manager turning up for work we managed to find a fire officer who allowed us to go down into the basement of the building to retrieve the up to date records stored down in the basement vault each night. Mr Sydney left me to find transport in order for the records to be transferred to the home of Mr Brett at Gwendoline Avenue, Putney, South West London.
It seemed hours before Mr Sydney returned, while I stood in the street keeping watch over the records. With not a single lorry, or motorised van available, a horse and cart turned up with the name of Lloyds Haulage emblazoned on the canvas cover. It must have taken nearly an hour to load the cart and accompanying the records we moved off via the Embankment passing Big Ben. We decided to make the horse trot through the Admiralty Arch, down the Mall and past Buckingham Palace, into Constitution Hill, around Hyde Park Corner to Knightsbridge, joining the Brompton Road, then Fulham Road and on to Kings Road and Putney. After unloading the records I was allowed to go home.
I turned up at my home in Barking by using the restored train service, both tired and very hungry. Without a wash I must have looked like a tramp as I had been in the vault and had come out covered in dust from head to toe - not the usual office junior with neatly combed hair and wearing a white shirt and stiff white collar! But then it wasn't a usual working day.
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