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15 October 2014
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DAY THE THAMES DISAPPEARED

by BBC Southern Counties Radio

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Contributed by 
BBC Southern Counties Radio
People in story: 
Mick Pitt
Location of story: 
Kingston upon Thames
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A4615625
Contributed on: 
29 July 2005

This story was submitted by Garry Lloyd, a CSV volunteer, on behalf of Mick Pitt, who has given his permission for his story to be added to the website and understands the terms and conditions of the website.

It was a warm, sunny Sunday around 1941, and the French windows were open at our home in Kingston, Surrey overlooking the river Thames. With no air raid warning there was a sudden bang.

I was 12 years-old and my mother, in the kitchen, vexedly called to my father: “What’s he doing now?” The he meant me, and I was doing nothing but waiting for my lunch. From our windows we could see a pall of smoke over Teddington Lock, a few hundred yards downriver, where the Thames becomes tidal. Teddington means tide-end town. We quickly realized it was a bomb.

So blasé had the family become about bombs (a hundred fell on our neighbourhood of Ham, so one more could wait) my parents made me sit down to lunch before I was allowed out to investigate. Neither they, nor my elder brother, bothered to leave the house. But curiosity took me to the Lock.

It was astonishing. The river was alive with dinghies and people, surrounded by hundreds of dead fish. They were pulling them from the water — many measuring some two feet - and offering them for sale, supposedly to benefit the War Charity which funded, among other things, aid to our Russian allies.

The cause of this impromptu fish market was a stick of bombs, dropped by a German plane, on the Lock. Three or four had fallen into the river without exploding, but one had hit the weir island, destroying it and the sluice gates which controlled the flow at this crucial spot where the Thames becomes tidal. A torrent was pouring over the smashed weir, and concussion of the explosion had killed the fish.

When the entrepreneurial trade had subsided I went home to bed, and my father to work on nightshift at the Leyland factory, a few hundred yards upriver from our home, where they built Cromwell tanks.

I awoke when he arrived home in the morning to hear him tell the family in amazed tones: “the river’s gone!” We got up to cross the green outside our front windows and stared in amazement. The Thames had disappeared. There was nothing but a tiny rivulet trickling between its broad banks.

Off came my socks and shoes and I walked across its bed, some 70 yards, to the Middlesex side. I was soon joined by scores of other sightseers, instant beachcombers of treasures at our feet. There were numerous handbags and handfuls of cash which had fallen, over the years, out of skiffs, rowing boats and punts which recreationally used the river.

Revolvers and rifles were also recovered, and beneath Kingston Bridge an empty safe, believed to have been dumped after a successful robbery. I came home with a typewriter, much to my parents’ disgust. Apart from its soiled and rusted condition none of us could type.

From Hampton Court Lock to Richmond, moored boats had been toppled and damaged, and though the daily tides rose and fell below Teddington Lock, sections upriver remained dry for weeks before the sluices were rebuilt. The bomb had destroyed part of the central island. The river was no longer navigable for wartime barges carrying coal and materials up to Oxford.

Petrol rationing had turned the Thames into a major highway and Vospers boatyards upriver at Walton, where they built motor torpedo boats (MTBs), could not dispatch their craft to the Royal Navy until the river was brought back to life. Not a word of the Thames’s humiliation ever appeared in the newspapers. Wartime security, denying the enemy satisfaction of publicity, saw to that.

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