With a father who served in HM Forces, most of the time overseas and a mother who worked at Woolwich Arsenal throughout the Second World War, it was probably inevitable that I would have more than a passing interest in the history of those times, although admittedly for some reason that I’ve never quite been able to work out, my interest has always been slanted towards the war at sea. Notwithstanding this, possibly because of hearing my Mother and her friends talking about those days, interest in the home front, especially in my own corner of south east London has never been too far from the surface.
These days, there aren’t too many visible signs of the war in SE7, although with a bit of local knowledge and with a little research, it is quite easy to get a good idea of what was bombed and what evidence remains.
The first place to start when researching an area is the local authority’s archive to study the Civil Defence Incident Logs. Scandalously, in the sixties and seventies, perhaps before the social history value of such information was fully appreciated, some boroughs destroyed their records. Fortunately the Royal Borough of Greenwich, as we should now call it, has an excellent Heritage Centre in which is held the records of the old Metropolitan Boroughs of Greenwich and Woolwich.
From a study of these logs, it can been seen that much of the heaviest damage was done to what is now known as North Charlton – that is the area at the bottom of Charlton Church Lane and bordering the Woolwich Road. There were many factories in this area, especially between Woolwich Road and the River and it was these that suffered repeatedly. Johnson & Phillips, British Ropes, Harvey’s, Stone Manganese, Siemens, the Central Tram Repair Depot at Rainton Road and many other local industries were all heavily bombed in 1940-41, as was the Woolwich Arsenal, where my late Mother had been working since joining as a 16 year old in 1937. Despite working in what was arguably the most dangerous place in London, she always felt safer once at work, rather than chancing the public shelters that were the only option if the warning went whilst travelling to work on the bus. She maintained until the end of her life that if the siren went as she was crossing Beresford Square, as it did on more than one occasion, she would always hurry up and get through the Arsenal Gates. This probably false feeling of safety was shared by many of the workers that I have spoken to subsequently.
The story as far as Charlton was concerned actually began before what is now viewed as the official start of the Blitz. On the 4th September 1940, St. Paul’s Church, which was located at the junction of Charlton Lane and Fairfield Grove, received a direct hit from a high explosive bomb which entered through the roof of the main building, completely destroying it. This was something of a landmark, as it was the first church in London to be destroyed in the War and the day following the incident, many thousands of people came to view the ruins. Sadly, the novelty value of this occasion was to wear off very quickly indeed. The gutted shell of the building remained until after the war, but was then demolished and the land sold to the local council for housing purposes. Today, the only clue to the existence of this landmark is an unremarkable block of local authority flats, which bears the name of the church which once stood on the site. This incident was covered more fully in this blog in April 2010
Mum did have one lucky escape, which was on ‘Black Saturday’ 7th September 1940, the first day of the Blitz. For reasons that she could not later recall, her boss had given the Pay Office (where my Mother worked) a Saturday off. This was a real bonus, because Saturdays were a normal working day at that time. My Mother remembered spending much of her day off – from the late afternoon onwards – in the Anderson Shelter of her parents’ home in Montcalm Road, Charlton. When she reported for work on the following Monday, the whole area where she worked, including her own office building as well as many of the air raid shelters, had been destroyed.
The destroyed Charlton Station (Greenwich Heritage Centre)
In Charlton, ‘Black Saturday’ also saw the railway line between Charlton Junction Station (as it was then called) and Woolwich Dockyard completely closed due to unexploded bombs. This pattern was followed many times during the following two months, with the line being closed again on the 12th September and again on the 20h, 24th and 25th September, when Angerstein’s Wharf was struck, with four railway personnel being killed. In October, the lines were again blocked due to bomb damage and once again, Angerstein’s Wharf was struck by incendiary bombs. No evidence of this damage is really apparent today, as most of the buildings were demolished post-war. Jumping ahead in time, the Booking Office and ancillary buildings of Charlton Station were completely destroyed on 23rd June 1944, when it received a direct hit from a V-1 flying bomb, killing four civilians, including Mrs. Newick, the wife of the signalman, who lived in the Stationhouse. As a result, the whole station was demolished and remained as a collection of temporary buildings until 1967, when the station was rebuilt into the style we see today.
The railway received one further blow, on 8th February 1945, when the signal box at the opposite end of the platform to the booking hall, received extensive blast damage from a V-2 that exploded 400 yards away from the building, although happily causing no casualties.
The familiar sights of London at war were already apparent in SE7 by the time the Blitz started in September 1940. Although there was no heavy anti-aircraft battery in Charlton itself, my mother recalled a mobile gun that used to drive along Canberra Road firing sporadically, which presumably did little good, other than to give the impression to the general public that we were fighting back, albeit in a small way. There was also a battery of 3.7” guns on Blackheath, which again, at that stage of the war, would have been more of a morale-boosting exercise than anything else. Charlton Park was the home of one, possibly, two barrage balloons, which of course, were dotted liberally all across London. In Canberra Road, number 106 received a near miss and severe blast damage, which caused the building to be demolished and which now gives one of the few clues to the Blitz still visible in SE7. The house was rebuilt to a slightly different layout to the other undamaged houses, which still stands out today. It was this blast that did the only lasting damage to the family home in nearby Montcalm Road. Roof tiles were blown off, windows blown out and the upstairs ceilings were all brought down. The evidence of post-war rebuilding is still evident today, with the ceilings being reconstructed in a different style to the originals.
Invicta Road School (Greenwich Heritage Centre)
On November 14th 1940, the same night as the great raid on Coventry, southeast London also suffered. In Charlton Park Lane, near the junction with Shooters Hill Road, near to where Charlton Lido now stands, a parachute mine fell and became entangled in trees. Fortunately, there was sufficient time to evacuate the residents of the adjacent houses, before it exploded some hours later, destroying several houses and causing severe blast damage to many other properties. By far the worst incident in London on this night was in nearby Blackheath, when Invicta Road School, then in use as Station 54X of the Auxiliary Fire Service received a direct hit from a Parachute Mine, killing twelve firemen and three civilians. These two incidents were separated by a matter of minutes and quite possibly the same aircraft dropped both of these mines.
Back in Charlton proper, The Village also attracted the attention of the Luftwaffe, when the Bugle Horn public house and St. Luke’s Church also received severe blast damage. The stained glass windows of the church were almost completely destroyed and what is now the Lounge Bar of the pub was severely damaged. This was not rebuilt until after the war, and whilst today the building looks much as it ever did from the outside, a closer inspection of the interior of this bar reveals it to be a pastiche of the original.
Once the First Blitz of September 1940 to May 1941 was over, Charlton in common with the rest of London enjoyed something of a respite with only sporadic raids until the ‘Little Blitz’ of late 1943 to the spring of 1944. Then in June 1944 came the Allied invasion of Europe and the war-weary citizens of Charlton perhaps thought that the end was in sight. It was at this relatively late stage of the war that Londoners were subjected to their final and arguably worst ordeal in the form of the terror weapons – the V-1 Flying Bombs and later the V-2 Rockets.
The first V-1 in London fell in Bow on 13th June 1944 but the boroughs of Greenwich and Woolwich were spared until three days later, when the first of many of these weapons fell in both boroughs. Greenwich’s first fell harmlessly on allotments in Tunnel Avenue, Greenwich, whilst the first ‘buzz bomb’ in Woolwich fell in Heavitree Road, Plumstead causing seven fatalities. The V-1’s fell regularly thereafter in both boroughs, with the casualties mounting steadily. The V-1 assault fell away and then stopped altogether by early September 1944 when the Allied armies overran the launching sites in the Pas de Calais. Another brief respite followed but then on 8th September 1944, a house in Staveley Road, Chiswick was obliterated without warning. At first, the authorities tried to calm the populace by informing them that the explosion was caused by an exploding gas main but when the explosions continued, they finally had to come clean and tell Londoners that yet another new weapon was being used against them. Thereafter, some of the more cynical Londoners christened the rockets ‘flying gas mains!’
Like everywhere in London, as well as many other places in England and indeed liberated Europe, the V-2s caused havoc in Greenwich. The first one to fall in the borough also proved to be the worst. This was on 11th November 1944 when the Brook Hotel in Shooters Hill Road was completely destroyed by a direct hit. There were twenty nine fatalities, many of whom were passengers on a number 89 bus which happened to be passing when the missile fell. The pub was rebuilt after the war but subsequently closed; the building however is still extant as a small supermarket. Most buildings that suffered from the attentions of these rockets were completely destroyed but there is one building in Charlton, which although rebuilt after the war, still shows the extent of the damage caused. The building is Charlton House, the splendid Jacobean manor house that greets visitors to Charlton arriving from the direction of Blackheath, which suffered a near miss from a V-2 on the evening of 25th January 1945. The entire north eastern wing of the building was destroyed, and although the post-war rebuilding work was painstakingly done, unfortunately shortages of materials and perhaps a low budget caused the wrong colour brickwork and stone to be used and the rebuilt area can still be clearly seen, giving the present day viewer some idea of the extent of the damage caused.
Johnson & Phillips in March 1945 (Greenwich Heritage Centre)
The final V-2 incident of the war as far as Charlton was concerned occurred on 9th March 1945, barely two months before the end of the war in Europe, when the Johnson & Phillips factory, which had suffered so much during the First Blitz received another direct hit, this time on the Cable Shop causing one fatal casualty. The last V-2 of the entire war fell in Orpington on 27th March 1945 causing one final fatality but with the Allied armies closing in on the shattered remains of the Third Reich, the final surrender of the Nazis on the 8th May 1945 meant that London and Londoners could at last begin to return to their peacetime routines.
To end on a brighter note, the final word must go to an incident which my late Mother remembered until the end of her life. It was June 1944 and her husband to be, Ron was on leave, having just returned from nearly four years service overseas in North Africa. The air raid siren sounded and both Mum and Dad began to walk down the garden to the shelter. As they were doing this, a V-1 could be seen and heard overhead. The engine then stopped and instead of running, my Mum made some comment about the engine having stopped and just stood there watching. Ron told her in no uncertain terms to get down, whereupon he pushed her to the ground and she ended up face down in the dirt with a muddy face.
Mum was uncertain when exactly and where the V-1 fell, but given the chronology, it is just possible that it was the same weapon which fell on Charlton Station as described above.
She still laughed about this incident some 60 years on, as apart from the muddy face, it was the first time that my Dad had ‘sworn’ at her, apparently having called her a “Silly Cow” when she was gawping at the Doodlebug!
This article has been submitted kindly by supporter & historian Steve Hunnisett
Author’s family recollections
Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich ARP Incident Log
Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich ARP Incident Log