Post-war scars as seen from Google Earth 1945

Google Earth have released imagery of London from 1945 (and other years) which give a fascinating view of how the Luftwaffe left the area.

Following on from my post about the V1 that demolished a large part of the area around Brassey Square you can see in the map above the hole left in the centre of the image above.

It’s also quite interesting to see, as the joke goes, how the post-wars planning finished the job that the Luftwaffe started. To the east of Tyneham Crescent you can see the north-south roads that no longer exist, likewise the housing sandwiched by the Shaftesbury Park Estate and Lavender Hill. In both cases while damage is apparent it’s clear that far more was destroyed by council demolition than German.

I can’t help wondering how many homes would be there now if we had rebuilt houses, and allowed for the subsequent conversions, extensions and development rather than creating inflexible blocks of flats.

(Thanks to @marxculture for pointing it out to me. I should probably also add that the image is ©2010 The Geoinformation Group and the map overlay ©2010 Tele Atlas)

The extent of destruction: The red area highlights the homes destroyed or damaged beyond repair.

There is an immediacy to reading the reports compiled while various authorities were responding to Second World War bombing. As I noted when writing about the houses a few doors down from me, records of incidents are mainly as it happened notes of orders and instructions given rather than post-incident reports written with the benefit of hindsight.

Given a little thought it is obvious this is the only way it could be, the sheer scale of the Blitz meant that there would be little time for reflection and report writing; the focus was on clearing up from one raid, recovering and preparing for the next.

The result is that the slips of paper, collated and bound together during the war, read almost like a rolling news channel: information is constantly coming in, things are happening, the situation changes, but as you read through you realise that you aren’t analysing or taking an overview – you are caught up in it.

Incident 1038, 17 July 1944
By July 1944 Allied troops were in northern France, pushing the German troops back and the Blitz a three-year old memory. However, just over a month earlier Germany had launched its first V1, the ‘flying-bomb’, ‘buzz-bomb’ or ‘doodlebug’. The device was relatively simple. A bomb with a jet strapped to it, pointed towards London and, when flying, the air flow turned a small propeller that operated a counter, when the counter reached zero it triggered a dive (which often also cut out the engine) and the bomb fell to earth.

Incident 1038 records the bomb that impacted in the rear garden of 2 Brassey Square. The picture illustrates the scale of damage caused (you can see the original on Bing maps, and look at it from various angles), over 100 houses were destroyed by the bomb itself, or damaged so badly that they were later demolished. If you know the area you will realise that it’s almost impossible to get a photo at ground level that gives any indication of the scale of the damage.

The “fly dropped” at 0628, it was reported at 0634 and by 0635 five ambulances were despatched, along with the warning that “Bolingbroke Hospital is full up”. At the same time various mobile units mobilised to help with the clear-up and rest centres alerted and told to expect up to 200 people. Status reports sent up the command chain feared heavy casualties. Fifteen minutes after the first ambulances were sent a further seven were requested, all being told to approach via Grayshott Road (other ways being blocked), and neighbouring areas were contacted to request ambulance reinforcements. Along with the ambulances eleven rescue parties were sent (these were divided into ‘heavy’ and ‘light’, depending on the size of the incident, in this case it seems they just sent everyone!) along with a heavy mobile unit and mobile command unit.

And then, almost as suddenly as it happened, calm descended. The flurry of messages slowed and as the people on the ground tackled the situation. By 0818, less than two hours after the impact, an update recording that work was progressing, two were killed, three were still trapped, thirty-two taken to hospital plus a further ten minor casualties: “job well in hand.” As a consequence the ambulance reinforcements borrowed from Wandsworth (then a separate borough) were returned.

The messages show a well-rehearsed procedure being acted out, with various actors arriving on the stage, doing their jobs then leaving. Some would have been more welcome than others, at 0740 word was received that the Ministry of Food would be sending a food van, which duly arrived at 0815. But at 0800 and 0915 the mortuary van arrived, each time to take away two bodies.

At 0859 it was believed all trapped people had been rescued and the ambulances returned to their stations: the only slight drama was at 1014 when a heavy rescue party was requested as “two persons still trapped.” It arrived at 1022 and, after half-an-hour, it was realised that the fears of people still trapped where unfounded.

The final report at 1228 recorded:

Final casualties at Sabine Rd

  • Killed 4
  • Injured to Hosp 44
  • 30-40 treated at FAP

All persons accounted for. Incident closed.

Sadly not all persons were accounted for. The four recorded were:

  • Mrs Holland, 41 Sabine Road
  • Mr Heath, 61 Sabine Road
  • Mrs Adam, 2 Brassey Square
  • Mrs Bristow, 2 Brassey Square

Subsequently Mr Hockley was found in an Anderson shelter to the rear of 2 Brassey Square, making five killed in all. Of the forty-four taken to hospital twenty-five were categorised as ‘stretchers’, nineteen as minor casualties. I’ve not been able to find any further records of them, which means they are likely to have survived this incident.

Obviously I need to thank the staff of the local history section in Battersea Library for this, but I’m not the only one extending thanks.

While I said there didn’t seem to be any form of post-incident reflection during the Blitz, it was a little different on this occasion, perhaps the relative infrequency of V1 and V2 incidents allowed more time, and the records also contain a private report of the incident from the incident officers, E Witton and HS Phillips who were based at Basnett Road school (Basnett Road barely exists now, just a stump on Lavender Hill with the rest demolished to make way for the Ashley Crescent and Wycliffe Road estates, the old school would be near the current John Burns school).

They use their report to thank all involved in the rescue but single out three individuals: two wardens – W Ben and R Clarke, who climbed in through the debris to rescue trapped people, at risk to themselves – and Mr Wheeler, who sent to boxes of cherries to be distributed amongst the bombed-out children.

Evidence of the Blitz: 'Infill' houses replace those damaged beyond repair

Battersea still carries the architectural scars of World War II. You don’t need to go far to find a few buildings that are out of keeping with their surroundings, providing an immediate contrast between post-war architectural styles and constraints and their older neighbours.

Inspired by the anniversary of the start of the Blitz (and the excellent, and occasionally chilling @ukwarcabinet on Twitter) I decided to have a look at a few of the incidents in Shaftesbury.

Off the top of my head I can think of many examples that I suspect are evidence of bomb damage. There’s a block straddling Parma Crescent and Lavender Sweep. A small blocks in Lavender Gardens and Gowrie Road. The open space and flats running across both corners of Elspeth Road with Lavender Hill and into Mysore Road. The Dorothy Road park and houses opposite and on Kathleen Road. And several areas in the Shaftesbury Park Estate (most notably on the eastern side of Brassey Square and Sabine Road). The one that immediately interested me are the houses just down the road from me at 177-181 Elsley Road.

What surprised me is how little is available online. There are a few resources. The Guardian have detailed the locations of bombs dropped on the first day of the Blitz. Other sites like Flying Bombs and Rockets have detailed where V1 and V2s hit in south London, including Battersea. Working more laterally the Commonwealth War Graves Commission also detail civilian war dead and someone called Geoff Sullivan has constructed a search front-end that means you can search by road. But this in imperfect, since it means someone has to have died – searching for Elsley Road only produces one fatality, Albert Chapman, who lived at number 7, but was actually killed at the gas works at Queen’s Circus.

So I ended up in the local history library at Battersea. Where the staff were incredibly helpful, despite my insistence on repeatedly breaking rules.

I was expecting a fairly dry report. Possibly nothing more than a day, date and bare details. In fact they have all the original documentation which includes copies of the messages passed to and from those on the ground and between the various controls. Reading through them gives an incredible sense of the way the information developed, from the first report, to initial assessments and refinements.

29 December 1940
What struck me, though, was how my ‘neighbours’ plight appeared routine (though, for them, it was anything but). Incident 744 at 2032 on 29 December 1940 revealed a high explosive bomb (they had options of HE, incendiary or poison gas – later in the war the word ‘FLY’ was written by hand on the pro forma) had hit 179, damaging 177 and 181 either side. There were no fatalities, but there was a fire in the front room and one man and two women were taken to hospital.

The walls were noted as being “dangerous”. Then, at 2058 the warden phoned for an ambulance for one casuality at 201 Elsley Road. The ambulance was noted as being despatched at 2058½!

16 April 1941
If the neighbours felt the chances of another hit were slim they were wrong. Towards the end of the Blitz, on 16 April 1941 183 Elsley Road was hit by an incendiary device. It was a busy night, the report (incident 815) detailed 21 sites hit in the raid – the main focus for response seems to have been Arding and Hobbs which was described as “well alight” at 2210. 183 seems to have been left (it was hit at 2205) until 2300 when it was reported that wardens were on scene and the fire under control.

Unlike 177-181, 183 Elsley Road was undamaged enough to be repaired and stands to this day.

It is slightly bizarre reading these rather matter of fact reports written almost 70 years ago. I would not have imagined that so much data and information was captured and catalogued on small slips of paper. The bureaucracy must have been enormous. And despite that they managed to despatch an ambulance within 30 seconds – I’d bet it doesn’t happen that much quicker even now.

But it’s also strange to think about how people reacted and coped with all of this, and I suspect expectations have changed to the extent we might not cope today (at least not without suing the government over the quality of temporary accommodation). But there is so much writing about the ‘Blitz spirit’ that I cannot add anything but banal cliché so I will stop there.

However, I would invite you, next time you walk past a set of building that are obviously different to their neighbours – in just the same way as 177-181 Elsley Road – to stop and think how it happened, and what happened to the people living there.

[Of course, the next stage would be to try to find out something about them, but I fear that would be beyond my limited skills as an historian.]