26 August 2008
Sandbags outside Bermondsey Central Baths, Grange Road, September 1939 (above); and the remains of the railway arch on Southwark Park Road in October 1944 (below right)
By Julia Shipperley
IN SEPTEMBER 1939, the first grim sign of war for the people of Bermondsey was the fitting and distribution of 78,000 gas masks, including masks for babies.
This, together with the ominous sounds of the air raid sirens, had a profoundly psychological effect on local residents. The real threat to the people of Bermondsey however, was discovered in 1940, when the bombs started to fall and the lack of adequate shelter was fully realised.
Bermondsey people had more reason to be concerned about sheltering from the bombs than other Londoners. The nature of the ground in Bermondsey meant a lot of waterlogged soil prevented the construction of the deep shelters required to give protection against the bombs. As it was the home of some of London’s busiest docks, it was a prime target for German bombers.
The government delivered Anderson shelters, to house people in their own back gardens, but these did not alleviate local government of the need to provide larger shelters for the community. Railway arches were converted into shelters that were, unfortunately, exactly where bombs could be expected to fall and were of dubious strength.
On September 6-7 1940 the first high explosive bombs were dropped on Bermondsey. A railway arch on Linsey Street, in use as a shelter at the time, was hit and 23 people died. Over 1940, Bermondsey experienced 395 air raids, during which 99 bombs were dropped. The raids occupied a total of 1,108 hours meaning that Bermondsey residents had to carry on their day-to-day lives, working and socialising, during air raid conditions that totaled a quarter of their year.
One of the worst nights was on February 17 1941, when there were heavy raids across London, with 34 incidents occurring in Southwark. That night, 300 people were taking shelter at the Stainer Street arch near London Bridge station. The roadway under the arches had been converted into a shelter containing a medical aid post. A pair of ten tonne steel doors closed each end of the shelter.
At 10.25pm a high explosive bomb burst into the shelter and exploded in the medical aid post. The steel doors were hurled into the shelter and the water and hydraulic mains burst. In the horror that followed, 68 bodies were recovered and 175 people were injured. Many of the dead were squashed by the steel doors and were beyond recognition. The bodies of Dr Lesley Probyn and her Red Cross nurses Ethel Little and Rosina Hartley at the Medical Aid Post were never found.
Not all Bermondsey residents relied on the larger shelters to protect them during the war and some of the survivor stories show that the Blitz was not all doom and gloom. The raid that struck London on May 10-11 1941 was one of the heaviest of the Blitz and in less than seven hours 121 high explosive bombs, twelve unexploded bombs, two parachute mines, three oil bombs and a large number of incendiaries hit Bermondsey.
In Spa Mansions, one old man was found uninjured after all the surrounding rooms had been destroyed and the floor underneath him was left unsupported. After he was painstakingly moved to safety he bitterly complained for his bed until it was eventually rescued.
A bomb fell on Hawkstone Road that left a huge sixty-foot crater. Right on the edge of the crater a lone Anderson shelter appeared from the haze and rubble. Out of it emerged an elderly lady who, after calmly taking in the destruction of her surroundings, shouted to her friend below: "There you are Emily - I told you it was a bomb!"
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