41 Squadron was airborne!
Another problem encountered by the citizens of London, usually the morning after a night of raids, was hand-painted signs that read “DANGER: UXB”. Such signs quickly became intensely familiar to the civilian population of Britain’s towns and cities. “UXB” was an abbreviation for an extremely deadly phenomenon: the UneXploded Bomb. Some such bombs were simply duds, whilst others were of a type purposefully fitted with a delayed action fuse, so that nobody knew when they would explode.
Sometimes, the only way a UXB revealed its sinister presence was when it suddenly detonated. One such nightmarish occurrence happened to nine-year-old Joyce Thomas. She was left deafened in one ear and scarred by flying glass when an undiscovered UXB went off as she and a group of her friends made their way home after their weekly Boys and Girl’s Life Brigade Club meeting. The UXB was lodged under a sweet shop in Gurney Street, near the Elephant and Castle in South London. The young girl walking next to Joyce, whose name was Florrie, was killed instantly as an item of street furniture that had been hurled skywards by the blast, came down directly next to Joyce; directly where Florrie had been seconds before. Florrie wasn’t the only fatality that evening and Joyce wasn’t the only casualty, but Joyce always considered herself to have been the lucky one that night.
Even those UXB’s whose locations were discovered, still wrought their own brand of havoc as the roads, schools, railway stations, factories, warehouses and any other location in which they lay, had to be closed. Dealing with them was the exclusive preserve of the Army’s Bomb Disposal Units, a select band of men who quietly tackled these Hadean devices on a daily and nightly basis, and who sometimes paid the ultimate price for their gallantry.
Finding adequate shelter from the rain of bombs was something else Londoners soon grew adept at. Of course, Anderson shelters were all well and good if you had a garden to put one in, but for those living in flats or one of the many thousands of back-to-back houses in London, the Anderson wasn’t an option. The public shelters, such as they were, simply couldn’t cope with the number of people trying to use them. Jane Fisher, then a 30 year-old whose husband, Fred, was away at sea in the Royal Navy, simply preferred to gather up their three-year-old daughter and take shelter in her under-stairs cupboard as soon as the sirens sounded, rather than risk going out to try any of the public shelters. She felt she had as much chance of survival under the stairs in her Bermondsey home as in any shelter. It certainly worked for her.
It wasn’t long though, before a lot of Londoners “used their loaf” and started using the Tube stations as air raid shelters. The deeper the station, the more popular it became as a shelter. People slept wrapped in blankets in the passageways and on the platforms. At first, the government were worried by this new development and tried hard to dissuade people from the practice, but the stubborn Londoners continued to utilise the Tube stations so in the end, a substantial section of the London Underground was made into official shelter areas. Bunks were fitted, as were extra lavatories and temporary canteens. Some stations boasted rudimentary medical centres and children even received some of their schooling whilst sheltering from the bombing deep in the Tube stations.
But even Tube stations were not totally bomb-proof. On the night of October 15th, the Luftwaffe unintentionally scored a direct hit with a High Explosive bomb on Balham High Road, just above Balham Tube station. Forty-three people were killed above ground in the blast, whilst Sixty-four of the shelterers and four London Transport staff members died underground, as the vast bomb crater caused the total collapse of one end of the tube station. Also wrecked was the main sewer directly above the station and many of those killed below were either crushed under the many tons of rubble, or else they died trapped in unimaginable filth. Added to the carnage was a double-decker Bus, LT669 on route 88, that had been abandoned by its passengers and crew when the sirens sounded. The Bus had subsequently been drawn into the vast crater as the ground suddenly subsided beneath it. LT669 became something of a public spectacle as it remained in the crater for two weeks. It was just as much of a spectacle when it was finally lifted out by a heavy crane.
Like every other aspect of London life, London Transport was now finding itself evermore in the front line too. The Luftwaffe’s bombs wrecked innumerable vehicles and did enormous damage to the depots and roads. Eleven days after the Balham Tube station disaster, in the morning rush hour, a line of Trams in the Blackfriars Road received a direct hit as they stood just south of the overhead railway bridge. Two Trams were completely destroyed and one was severely damaged, whilst a fourth lost most of the glass on its top deck. Fortunately, like LT669, the Bus caught up in the Balham disaster, the Trams had been abandoned before the bombs came down, though there were some people who were injured by the flying glass.
The bridge itself was also very badly damaged, but not enough to totally stop the trains. It wasn’t long before they were able to cross it, just a little more slowly till full repairs had been carried out. The south side of the railway bridge and the surface of its brick support pier on the west side, opposite the old station entrance, still plainly bear the scars from this episode today.
Because of incidents such as these, the Buses found their routes constantly changing, but somehow London Transport continued to operate, just like the railways, keeping London moving as best they could. In another noteworthy incident, the Bus garage at Leyton, in east London, suffered damage by bombs one night and every Bus in the garage had its windows shattered. When the “All clear” sounded, the garage staff, undaunted, simply removed all the broken glass from every vehicle and sent the least damaged vehicles out first. By ten-to-nine that same morning, the entire fleet from Leyton garage was in service; albeit totally windowless and somewhat battered, but running nonetheless.
Also running, or rather cycling, during one of the many air raids of this time, was James Jenman who on this particular night, was cycling home after playing Rugby, when he was blown off his bike by the sudden explosion of a bomb. His bike was totally wrecked and so he had to walk the remaining five or six miles home. Although his back hurt him considerably, he thought, in his considered medical opinion, that it was just badly bruised. It later transpired that he had in fact fractured two vertebrae in the tumble, an injury that was to give him trouble throughout his later life.
On Sunday, October 20th, the high-flying Jabos returned, making daylight attacks on southeast England and London again. They came over in five waves, heavily escorted, from about 09:30 till approximately 14:00. Part of the fighter escort for one of the later raids was provided by 6/JG52, based at Peuplingues, in France and one of the escort pilots from this unit was Oberfeldwebel Albert Friedemann.
The inbound raiders and their escorts had already been fighting their way across Kent when they reached Central London at around 13:40. The Jabos had dropped their burdensome bombs shortly before and their pilots could now engage the defending RAF fighters on equal terms, though ever with a cautious eye on the fuel gauge.
One of the RAF squadrons sent to deal with these raiders that day was 41 Squadron, up from Hornchurch. High over the City of London area, 41 Squadron’s Flying Officer Peter Brown in his Spitfire, was in combat with a yellow-nosed Messerschmitt 109, that flown by Friedemann. During the combat, Brown succeeded in gaining the advantage over his opponent and scored several decisive hits on Friedemann’s Messerschmitt, which started to belch brownish-black smoke from its now mortally wounded Daimler-Benz engine.
The crippled Messerschmitt began to lose speed and height as it flew over Tower Bridge, crossing the Thames in a roughly southeasterly direction. Brown flew his Spitfire alongside his vanquished foe as the German pilot jettisoned his cockpit canopy and raised himself out of the seat. Having no choice in the matter, Friedemann baled out of his doomed fighter over the Plumstead/Welling area of south London and as it transpired, his exit was not a moment too soon. Seconds after Friedemann had jumped, the Messerschmitt’s fuel tank exploded in mid-air. The time was almost exactly 13:45.
On the ground at Welling, was fifteen year-old Ennis Mowe. Though still at school, Ennis was the sort of girl who hated the fact that she was considered too young to take any active part in the war effort. She badly wanted to “do something” and even though it was she who had done the Lion’s share of the work involved in constructing the family’s Anderson shelter, it simply wasn’t enough for her to be content with, an attitude that had lead to several arguments with her father recently.
Not feeling inclined to enjoy the dubious comforts of the public air-raid shelter in Bellegrove Road that Sunday, Ennis was making her way home, on foot, half-watching the vapour trails of yet another aerial battle that was obviously taking place at altitude over London again. Suddenly, she heard a loud “boom” high above her. Stopping, she quickly looked up in time to see a fireball and a fighter aircraft breaking apart as another fighter turned rapidly away. The tail section of the stricken aeroplane disintegrated, but the front section was coming straight down, dropping like a stone.
A good many people on the ground, including young Ennis, also saw something else falling away from the doomed aircraft, flailing and tumbling through the air as it came down. It was Oberfeldwebel Albert Friedemann, who was now condemned to realise a horrible end to his young life, by the fact that his parachute had failed to open.
The Messerschmitt’s largely intact front section landed with a very loud thud, upside-down in a front garden in Wickham Street, across the road from the gate of Gibson’s Farm. The impact forced the Messerschmitt’s undercarriage to spring partially from the wheel-bays. Albert Friedemann fell to his terrifying death a short distance away across the farm, whilst pieces of his Messerschmitt’s tail section fluttered down over a wide area.
Meanwhile, in Wickham Street, there was already a small crowd around the wreckage, the fallen Messerschmitt having miraculously missed the houses. The hot metal of the fighter’s engine was still ticking as it cooled, but there was no fire. The Messerschmitt’s remaining fuel had been burnt off in the mid-air explosion, some twelve thousand feet ago. People seemed to be looking at the vanquished aircraft with a mixture of curiosity and awe, as if it were something from outer space. The authorities were soon on the scene and gradually the crowd dwindled as the Police sent the sightseers away. Later, the RAF posted a guard over the wreck to prevent any possible souvenir hunting, for the wreck rapidly became a spectator attraction.
The authorities quickly removed Albert Friedemann’s shattered and lifeless body from Gibson’s Farm, but the wreck of his aircraft stayed in Welling for another three weeks. It was put on display outside the local cinema and fifteen year-old Ennis Mowe stood beside it nightly, in all weathers, for just over a fortnight, collecting donations from the queue of cinema-goers, in aid of the district Spitfire Fund.
At the end of each collection, she gave her collecting tin to the cinema manager, who counted the money she’d collected, paid it into the Post Office on her behalf and posted a notice showing the Post Office receipt for the amount raised. Ennis felt proud that she was at last doing her bit for the war effort, while her father simply shook his head in quiet capitulation. However, this episode proved to be just the beginning of a long, long history of young Ennis “doing her bit”.
The day after Friedemann’s death, October 21st, was one when the weather clamped down again. It was mainly cloudy with intermittent rain and even some lasting fog over England. Despite this, the Luftwaffe sent small formations and even single aircraft over to make a nuisance of themselves; an aim that they totally achieved, though the effort cost them six aircraft. Fighter Command suffered no losses, but the mournful weather seemed to portend the grim discovery that was made later that day.
Seventeen days after he’d last been seen, the body of missing twenty-seven year-old Flight Lieutenant Ken Gillies from 66(F) Squadron was washed ashore at Covehithe. After leading the successful interception of that Heinkel 111 bomber, it is entirely possible that his aircraft had been damaged by return fire, or that he’d perhaps fallen foul of an escorting Messerschmitt 109. Either way, his Spitfire had evidently crashed in the sea.
Six days later, on October 27th, 66(F) Squadron lost another pilot, as Pilot Officer John Mather was killed when his Spitfire crashed at Half Moon Lane, Hildenborough. What caused the crash is still not known, but once again Oxygen failure was strongly suspected at the time.
On October 30th, 66(F) Squadron left Gravesend for the newly completed and now operational airfield at West Malling, near Maidstone. Pilot Officer Mather was therefore the last of the fifteen pilots flying from Gravesend who’d lost their lives during the Battle, officially. This is purely because for the British, the Battle of Britain officially ended at midnight on 31st October 1940.
As if in recognition of this fact, 66(F) Squadron’s place was taken by 141 Squadron, a Defiant-equipped squadron whose role was now night-fighting. Henceforth, RAF Gravesend was to be a night-fighter station until the following spring.
With the threat of German invasion now patently passed, the daylight air battle was clearly won and the British position thus clearly saved. Air Chief Marshall Dowding and Air Vice Marshall Park, the two victorious commanders, were duly summoned to a meeting of the Air Council; at the end of which, both men, instead of being heartily congratulated, were actually removed from their posts; sacked, effectively. Dowding was sent off to America on a fact-finding tour whilst Park was transferred to RAF Training Command. There was no truer saying, it seemed, than the old proverb which states that people are seldom grateful toward their saviours.