- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Doris Lilian Bennett
- Location of story:
- Isle of Dogs, London
- Background to story:
- Civilian Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 08 May 2004
THE LONDON BLITZ
It began on Saturday 7th September 1940 at around tea-time, there had been one or two night time warnings during the previous week, but of short duration and no consequence. That Saturday was a warm, sunny Autumn day. In the late afternoon we of the Auxiliary Fire Service, stationed at the London Fire Brigade Station at the bottom end of the Isle of Dogs were standing in the Station yard watching the vapour trails of aircraft high in the sky when it was suggested we might get a better view from an upstairs window. Watching from the window towards Greenwich, across the Thames, we suddenly saw aircraft approaching, quite low, their shapes black against the bright sky. We watched, mesmerised, until someone said, uneasily, “I think we’d better go downstairs, these blokes look like they mean business” They did. We closed the window and were walking, unhurriedly down the stairs when suddenly came loud rushing noises and huge explosions. Bombs! we were being bombed! We huddled together in a corner of the stairwell until the noises ceased, then pulled ourselves together and made our way down the rest of the stairs.
Downstairs all was in darkness. Big, burly L.F.B. Sub-Officer Smith was marching about bellowing “First bomb lights went out, lights went out first bomb.” This simple fact seemed to please him enormously. The Emergency Lighting System —candles- had been put into operation and by their flickering light we made our way to our Control Room and took our places in front of the telephones. The first call came very quickly, from V Sub-station, my telephone. They had been called out to attend a fire at a wharf on their ground. I noted the time of the call, wrote the message on the pad, and handed it to Sub-Officer Frost, our Mobilising Officer who put the Mobilising Board into use for the first time For Real. During the previous months, whilst awaiting Enemy Action, we had many exercises to get us accustomed to what would happen if and when air raids began and we all knew what we had to do, but this was the first time it was happening for real. From that first call, calls came in thick and fast, Discs were shuffled about on the Mobilising Board and coloured-headed pins denoting fires and appliances attending thereat were put into a map of the Island on the wall next to the Board. Appliances were ordered out and any who reported back after fires they had been attending were brought under control were swiftly ordered out again. It was organised chaos.
The Island was a prime target. Around the edges close to the river were timber yards, paint works, boiler making and engineering factories, and other factories producing jams, pickles and confectionery. Across the top of the Island were the three large West India Docks, down the middle were the Millwall Docks, the docksides lined with shipping from all over the world, their warehouses stuffed with the cargoes those ships had carried. At the bottom end of the Millwall Docks were MacDougalls flour mills,
their tall silos an outstanding landmark, all close together, the whole of the Island highly inflammable. Jerry was well aware of this.
The air-raid continued, unabated, as well as the noise of the bombers and their bombs was the noise of the Ack-ack guns, four of them, on the Mud-chute, pounding away, the noise of their shells going up competing with the noise of Jerry’s little offerings coming down. We in the Control Room carried on with what we had to do, taking and relaying messages. At some time during the evening our W.A.F.S. Sub-officer, a good and efficient lady, organised some tea for us in the W.A.F.S quarters across the Yard. We went, two or three at a time, wearing our tin hats (our battle bowlers), when my turn came I found I had no appetite, but gratefully drank two cups of tea, then we went back to carry on taking and relaying messages until one by one, the telephones were put out of order as wires were cut. We then relied on the young Messengers and our two Despatch riders ,on their motor-bikes to fetch and take.
It must have been around midnight when the Guv’nor called us together and said the way things were there was no point in all the girls staying on duty, we were to divide ourselves into two groups. This we did, he pointed to one group and said “You stay”, to the other group he said “You go”, to the shelter in the Yard. I was one of the Go lot. We collected tunics and tin hats and went to the back door to make our way across the Yard. It was after midnight, I had expected to walk out into the blackout we had grown accustomed to but the night was as bright as day from the light of the fires all around us flickering on the walls of houses and tall buildings. I had known, from the map of the Island in the Control Room that there were fires all around but it still came. as a shock to see it. For a moment I stood, watching, thinking that if the bridges were hit, as they quite well might be, we would be isolated in this ring of fire, but then I saw the other girls, strolling across the Yard as though on a Sunday walk in the Park, they didn’t seem at all worried, so I thought, “Oh well, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”, and I did. The shelter was made of four or five corrugated iron Andersons bolted together, making one very long shelter, half buried in the soil of what had been the Station garden, the soil that had been dug out to receive it had been spread on and around it as reinforcement. The floor had been boarded, and kapok quilts, intended to cover engines and keep them as warm as possible in very cold weather, were spread upon the floor. We arranged them, and ourselves, not very comfortably, and tried to get some sleep. I suddenly thought of all the things I had been afraid of before this night, they were all so trivial compared to this that they were just not worth worrying about.
We did, eventually get some sleep, out of sheer exhaustion, but we were awake quite early, and clambered out. Dawn was breaking and all was quiet until suddenly the silence was broken by the sound of the All Clear the raid had stopped, Jerry had gone home, no doubt satisfied after a good night’s work. We went up to our flat, washed, changed into clean clothes and made our way down to the Control Room to take over from the girls who had been there all night. Nobody said much. Crews were returning to the Station, exhausted after their very busy night, smoke blackened, hungry, dying for a cuppa, but there was very little food as the Mess Managers had been unable to collect the rations the previous evening due to enemy action. The girls who were not on Control Room duty made tea and put together some sandwiches from what was found in the store cupboard, the men ate and drank gratefully. Those of us on Control Room duty began to sort out the messages from the previous night so that they could be entered in the Occurrence Book. The air in the Rec and the Control Room was dank and stuffy. We opened the Emergency Hatch and let in light and fresh air. I looked out into the street. the only person in sight was a young woman pushing a pram piled high with her belongings. She looked weary and dejected, and passed by without raising her eyes or speaking. I went back to the Control Room.
Later that morning, Control Room duty finished I went home to see how they were. There was no gas or electricity, Dad had lit a fire in the kitchen range and Mum was cooking the Sunday Roast. They had spent the previous night in the Public Shelter in the local park, with friends and neighbours, much better than being by themselves in the back yard. At some time during the night Father Kingdon, Father Hickin and Miss Tabor from St. Johns had gone around distributing cups of tea. “Very good to us they were” said Mum, appreciatively. Seeing that they were O.K. I went to make my way back to the Station when the Air Raid siren sounded. We walked along the road, they making for the shelter, I for the Station. Suddenly the All Clear sounded, and at the same time a bus came along. I said goodbye to them and boarded the bus, they returned home to their delayed dinner.
Back at the Station everything was quiet, most people not on duty making up for the sleep they had lost the previous night. The rest of the day passed quietly and uneventfully, but that evening, at about the same time as the previous day, came the sound of the sirens. Jerry had come to pay us another visit and the night followed the same pattern as previously. The Post Office Engineers had miraculously restored the telephone lines so we were back in business taking calls and ordering out appliances, mainly to the docks North Quay and Rum Quay were again favoured targets.
But the following day everything changed. The Guv’nor gave the order “Get this place cleaned up!” and it needed it. The floors of the Rec. and the Control Room were covered in thick muddy, oily footprints, the Control Room was a mess after the previous hectic night.
Lethargy vanished. There was always a plentiful supply of hot water, we found buckets, brooms, scrubbing brushes and soap and set tow work. It took a long time and a lot of hard work, but eventually the job was done, the floors gleamed. The Control Room was tidied up and put in order and then we set about the Shelter, taking out floor coverings and putting them to air and sweeping the floor. A job well done. In the Yard the men were busy cleaning smoke blackened appliances and putting them in order ready for the night that was to come, and scrubbing the hoses and hanging them to dry. By this time the Mess Managers had returned from Stores with whatever they had managed to buy. Then the Guv’nor called us together and said that the way things were the A.F.S. Mess on the top floor would be abandoned as being too dangerous, and from now on all personnel would share the L.F.B. Messroom, a large room behind the Appliance Room that had original been the Stables in the days when fire appliances had been horse-drawn.
Until then the only people to use the L.F.B. Mess had been L.F.B. personnel. It was a large room, windows overlooking the Yard had replaced the stable doors, but the original small round windows on the opposite wall remained. Sink and draining board had been installed under one of the windows and at one end there was a fireplace. There were tables and chairs, but not enough to accommodate extra personnel, so while the men were busy shifting A.F.S. equipment from upstairs, we girls went across the road to the Express Dairy which had bravely opened for business and bought milk, then along to the greengrocers on the corner, also open, bought fruit and made a meal of those.
Eventually the Messroom was equipped and put in order and we had our first meal there, Eggs and Bacon. Never before had anything tasted so good.
The days that followed took the same pattern, sirens every night at about the same time, the raid lasting until the early morning Houses, shops, factories all received bomb damage, some irreparable. People moved away from the Island, as my family did once our home had been made uninhabitable. The London Blitz continued until mid-may 1941, ending with a spectacular fire-bombing. I was at home that night, sitting quietly with the others until Dad went outside and called us all to come out. The sky over London was scarlet from the light of the fires Jerry had started. The following day on my way back to the Station the bus from Ilford stopped somewhere just before Stratford, the road from them on being impassable. I walked, along could hardly believe the damage that had been done. Whole streets of houses beyond repair. Back at the Station, I was now back at V Sub-station, the girls were tired out after a hectic night. There was no water, but they had managed to get a bucketful from a standpipe and they were all attempting to wash in the tepid water, and not feeling too happy about it.
However that was the end of that particular time, it will never be forgotten by those who experienced it.
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