Saturday, 19 September 2009

Digging Dad’s Army: Blast Shelters and the Bagnold Bunker

An Introduction to Standing Buildings Recording.

September 1 1939 

At 04.45 Local time the German Pre-Dreadnought Battleship KMS Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on the Polish fortifications at Westerplatte on the Baltic signalling the commencement of hostilities in Europe.

Later that morning, in London and other cities considered vulnerable to Air Raids, tens of thousands of children, my mother her twin brother, then aged five and their older sister  included, not to mention their teachers and many parents, particularly pregnant and nursing mothers, assembled in their schools and at Stations and bus stops, ready to participate in "Operation Pied Piper," the largest organised mass movement of people in British history.

Seventy years after the platforms of London's Main Line Railway Stations were packed with crocodiles of children with no idea where they were going,  the Evacuee Re-union Association [ERA] held a 70th Anniversary commemoration of Operation Pied Piper at St Pauls Cathedral.

I went to St Pauls to see the members of the ERA emerge into the late Summer sunshine and it was impressive and rather moving to see hundreds of people, now for the most part in their seventies, united by remembrance of a shared history and for many a sense that theirs is a simplified, romanticised or even untold story.  Not that it was going to remain untold that day.  There was a considerable media presence and to its credit the ERA had managed to get extensive coverage in much of the print and broadcast media. 

It is also interesting that the ERA has reclaimed the simple expedient of a Luggage Label being turned into an identification tag, as symbolic of their organisation and of the event it recalls.  The Luggage label is now just as much a part of the Heraldry of 20th Century Total War and just as resonant as an RAF Roundel on a Spitfire, the Lightning Runes of the SS,  or a yellow star of David.

I also found myself noting how complex our relationship with these anniversaries and this war is-  and perhaps that is as it should be?  Watching an impromptu rendition of "There'll always be an England," complete with Union Flags, I couldn't help reflecting on both the joy of the singers in the song and their togetherness, but also the questions that also come with such anniversaries and sentiments-  Which England and Who does it belong to?

Such thoughts were pertinent as I had just spoken to a member of the crowd outside the cathedral, who was politely protesting about the treatment of the Albanian minority in Greece and suggested that in his view, the kind of racism and ethnic discrimination WW2 and European Union was supposed to have ended was still endemic.

We must also remember that,on that Friday War was not inevitable, at least, some people still believed it was not.  Even as the children were being evacuated and the members of the services were going to a War Footing, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain stood up in the House of Commons in the afternoon and made a statement suggesting that, if German armed forces left Polish Territory, then, in spite of the aggression, it would be diplomatic business as usual.  While Hitler himself still expected this was still going to be a localised dispute.  As we now know it was not to be.

When Chamberlain sat down he realised he had lost the House of Commons with this suggestion of an Appeasement too far.  As Labour Deputy Leader Arthur Greenwood stood up to reply Tory MP Leopold Amery Amery's was heard to say "Speak for England."  Faced by a Cabinet rebellion Britain issued the ultimatum which Hitler would reject that Sunday morning two days later. 

In a reflection of the impact of the war he supported Amery's two sons would both serve what they regarded as their cause; Julian as an Officer in the British Army serving as an SOE Liaison Officer with Albanian Partisans and the other, John, would be executed for treason on 19 December 1945, having made Propaganda broadcasts from Berlin and attempted to recruit British Servicemen into a British Frei Korps. The irony of such a history is even richer when you consider Leopold Amery's mother came from a family of Hungarian Jews.

On the way home I called in at Whitehall and walked past the Admiralty Building and across Horseguards Parade, glancing across to downing Street and the site of the Cabinet War Rooms.  Seventy years on the Sandbags of 1939 have been replaced by barriers against suicide car bombs, but wars are still being planned and fought here and British Armed Forces are still serving overseas, sometimes because of the legacy of events which can be traced back to at least 1939 and decisions made in these same buildings.  

September 3 1939

At 11.00 Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain broadcast to the United Kingdom and gave the news that many had been expecting.  The German Government had failed to respond to an ultimatum to begin withdrawal from Poland and that "consequently, this Country is at War with Germany."

As many people who heard Chamberlain's broadcast recall, immediately the broadcast ended the Air raid Sirens went off.  Chief of the Imperial General Staff [CIGS] Lt General Sir Henry Pownall remembered that morning...

“The War Office staff left their offices for
the basement as the sirens sounded.
The slamming of doors sounding down
the lift shafts, convinced many in the
basement that an air raid was in

Lt Gen Henry Pownall recalled by his step son.
[The Old War Office Building A History: MOD 2001]

What is seldom heard is the last part of Chamberlain's very short broadcast.  It does not end with the chilling words, all the more chilling for their cool matter of factness "Consequently this Country IS at War with Germany." but with a reminder to members of the Armed Forces and Civilian Support Services to carry out their Call Up instructions.

Britain was already on a war footing and seventy years on, it is now up to us to reflect and research just how this community responded.

I think we should also remember a phrase which was quoted a number of times on the anniversary of the outbreak of World War Two in Europe particularly when the painful complexities of war lead some to question whether this kind of remembrance is healthy and why should we remember....

"Never Forget.  Never Again."

12 September

I spent this afternoon visiting Whitstable on the Kent Coast.  In particular I was visiting our sister project The Forgotten Frontline which is led by Mark Harrison.  Mark and his team have spent the last five years researching the Coastal Crust Defences around Whitstable on the north east coast of Kent and today, in glorious sunshine Mark was leading a walk around the town to interpret their findings to an audience of over 50 people. 

We were shown a cross section of the defences of the town including the remains of Anti Tank Cylinders at the head of the beach and the site of a Petroleum Warfare device in the harbour as well as the sites of bomb damage and civilian structures such as a Blast Shelter in a school playground and an Auxiliary Fire Station.

It was particularly enjoyable as the tour was joined by many of the local people who have provided information to the project team.  We were also able to look at some of the large collection of documents and photographs located by or donated to the project.  Many of them are the strictly illegal at the time, but oh so valuable, private photographs of people going about their war work including some rare images of the Observer Corps, a vital and often overlooked, element of the Command and Control system of Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain. 

You can see something of the team's work on line at...

...and the work is the subject of an excellent exhibition at Whitstable Museum which runs until November.  Do go and see it if you get the chance-  and enjoy Whitstable while you are at it.  Fascinating history, good shopping and excellent is much more than the latest Brighton wannabe for refugees from London.

"The Forgotten Front Line" exhibition runs until 14 November 2009 and is free.

Details from the Whitstable Museum and Gallery, 5a Oxford Street, Whitstable.

CT5 1DB. Telephone: +44 (0)1227 276998.

NB:  Unforeseen results of War

This week Dame Vera Lynn became the oldest person to have a Number One Album.  On September 3 She was quoted by the BBC as saying her first thought on the outbreak of war was "Bang go's my career."

17 September

The anniversary of the start of Operation Market Garden-  the Bridge Too Far operation

17 September 1944 was also a Sunday morning and my father was back in Dover having been evacuated to South Wales.  Along with thousands of others in southern and eastern England he watched the spectacle of some of the 1500 Transports and 500 Gliders heading east across the channel. In the case of Dover people were watching the American 82nd and 101st Airborne heading for Eindhoven and Nijmegan and what would become known as Hell's Highway.

NB  Unforeseen results of war

The failure of Operation Market Garden to end the war by Christmas led directly to the "Hongerwinter," Hunger Winter in occupied Holland.  The Dutch Government in exile called a strike on the railways and the Germans retaliated by embargoing food supplies until November, by which time a particularly harsh winter set in leading to the adult ration in cities like Amsterdam falling to around 1000 calories per day.

It is estimated some 18,000 Dutch civilians died in the Hongerwinter famine while the privations experienced by expectant mothers led to studies which showed the effects of malnutrition on the developing foetus such as an increased risk of diabetes and even schizophrenia.  Low birth weight babies often went on to have low birth weight children themselves-  an example of the issues of one generation having an impact on the next.

The Dutch Famine Birth Cohort study which carried out this work investigates the health of men and women born in the Wilhelmina Gasthuis in Amsterdam in the period between November 1943 and February 1947 and you can find out more at ... is a unique and fascinating study and a timely reminder of how the effects derived from what happened in the period 1939-1945 are still being played out today, even at the very personal level of the health people who were not even born until years after World War Two ended.

In this year of the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War Two in Europe, those of us working on DDA believe we have the perfect opportunity to look at the impact of Total War through the microcosm of south and east London. Thanks to the work we have already done we know that on that Friday morning in September seventy years ago Plum Lane Schools [now named Plumcroft School] were evacuated via Woolwich Arsenal Station, [one of the local evacuees ended up in the Kent countryside near a place called Biggin Hill] while on top of Shooters Hill a series of Barrage Balloon sites had been identified by the Air Ministry and would be operated by a locally raised a Barrage Balloon Squadron, No 901 County of London with its HQ at No 1 Balloon Centre at Kidbrooke.

The London Borough of Woolwich had built Blast Shelters across the borough and had the basic infrastructure of the ARP Service in place while, as a reminder of the previous blitz, a few inches under the surface of Eaglesfield Park the concrete emplacement of a 3" Anti Aircraft Gun lay almost forgotten, except for the children playing football who occasionally tripped over its remains.

We are also discovering that a surprising number of families had the vision and the considerable amount of cash [at least £35.00 at 1939 values], to build their own Air Raid Shelters. However, as so often in research, we are discovering that the more we find the more there is to find, in the archive, in the memories of local people and in the ground.

That is why this weekend we have embarked on an "Air Raid Shelter Census." We have a team of DDA regulars and students recording a group of Surface Blast Shelters in Oxleas Wood as well as re-visiting the highly un-usual "Bagnold Bunker," which was investigated during the "Time Team," programme we made here in 2007. More about the work we have been doing this weekend tomorrow, but suffice to say we are trying to record the buildings for the Historic Environment Record and find out why this part of Shooters Hill was so heavily provided with Shelter accommodation [we know of at least three large shelters, while the bulk of the local population was several hundred metres away on the other side of the A207.

This work is a prelude to a full on appeal for information about Air Raid Shelters in Shooters Hill and Woolwich. For something which was both a fact of life and something of an iconic image of World War Two, Air Raid Shelters, have been subject to surprisingly little published research. The seventieth anniversary of the outbreak of war seems like the perfect cue to look at them again and ask what were shelters like to spend time in, how many types were there, how many people built private Shelters, and how Shelters were and are, used. As we are discovering in the twenty first century, as in the 1940's, discussing some of those uses requires the archaeological equivalent of an 18 Certificate in the Cinema.

We are working at Oxleas tomorrow- 20 September so do come and visit us if you are in the area. At 2pm I will be leading a guided tour of the Shelters and other WW2 sites on Shooters Hill.

And if you have any information about Air Raid Shelters and the people who built, organised or spent time in them in our area, please contact us. The more information we get the better the story we can tell.

Workshop Details
This weekend workshop, which is designed to study a series of air-raid shelters in the Oxleas Wood area of Shooters Hill, began today.

After introductions the morning began with Guy Taylor describing the background and rationale for the systematic recording of buildings of historical interest of all types and then specifically in the context of military buildings. This was followed by Andy Brockman explaining the formal levels and reporting methodologies currently in use and the tools we would be adopting this weekend in recording the shelters.

We then moved over to the main practical site area at Oxleas Wood, with Andy giving a terrain briefing and putting the general militarised local landscape in its context.

The afternoon was spent looking at the two blast shelters within the wood and examining the general structure, location, access and other characteristics of each building.

Finally today we moved over to the 'Bagnold Bunker' and again examined its general structure, location and main features.

Tomorrow the main focus will be to begin to actually record each building in turn and to develop the skills associated with accurately completing this task to a technically accurate and competent level.

1 comment:

  1. Hi,
    A fascinating blog. I am very annoyed that I missed the tour of strucures etc on Shooters Hill. I think that I have identified most of them but have not found the two blast shelters. Could you possibly give some information as to where they are?

    Colin J Allen