|The Second World War
Not that there is a right
time for a war, but World War II came just at the wrong moment for
Millwall Football club.
(The following is an extract from James Murray's Lions of the South)
The club had assembled a formidable team and During 1938-39 Millwall made more money than any other
club in London and there was only one other
club in the land who boasted a better bank
In view of this the club had announced
during the season that they were to make major
alterations to The Den and convert it into one of
London's biggest grounds. The most important plan
was the extension of the terraces at the Cold Blow
Lane end, the roof behind the goal was to be dismantled
and rebuilt on the new terracing further back
so the capacity behind the most popular end could
be increased by a further 8,000. Also, the new
covering on the North Terrace was to be extended
a further 80 ft towards the dog track at the Canterbury (Now Ilderton) Road end.
It was planned that within three
years the ground would be completely covered. These
were no idle plans but with the worsening situation
in Europe the directors decided to hold back
until the picture was more settled. However, they
did go ahead with some new work, beginning with
the dismantling of the famous old wooden fence on
the North Terrace - Cold Blow Lane corner, a new concrete
wall replacing it, and there was further concreting
of the wooden terrace steps.
Hewitt had made one fine signing for the 1939-40 campaign, that of current Irish International half-
back Walter McMillan from Chesterfield for £2,000 who was coming in for the aging Forsyth. Despite
the bitter-sweet season before, Millwall were still strongly fancied to occupy one of the two elusive
promotion places (to the first division).
The season was only one week old when Germany
invaded Poland and Britain gave Hitler an ultimatum, agree to withdraw
from Poland by 3rd September or a state of war would exist.
The war in which 46 Million people would perish had
begun. It was heralded to be war fought not just on the battle field, it
was feared that there would be devastating air raids which would level cities and kill Millions of
On the day German troops invaded Poland a massive
operation swung into action, with 1.5 Million children, pregnant women
and other vulnerable people such as the disabled, evacuated to safer
countryside locations in just two days.
In April 1939, at the height of war scares, 1
Million funeral forms were printed by the British Government in
anticipation of air raid casualties.
In fact civilian casualties never approached these
levels, by the end of 1940, 23,000 Britons had been killed, with London
taking the brunt with 13,596 dead and 18,378 hospitalised.
Extract from "The Bombing of London" (From Richard Holmes War Walks
With increasing loses and the failure to draw the
RAF into a climatic showdown Goering decided to change tactics. He would
mount raids against targets the RAF would have to defend, such as
airfields and aircraft factories, with fewer bombers and more escort
The rest of the bombers would carry out
sporadic and widespread raids at night and in bad weather. London was
off limits, they had been preparing for such attacks but the orders had
not come down from above due to the threat of retaliation.
During the first of these night bombing raids on 24
August 1940, due to difficulties of navigation, several bombers dropped
their loads on London. The damage was light, 9 people killed and 58
injured around the Bethnal Green area.
Churchill had already declared that if London was
hit, "It seems very important to be able to return the compliment
the next day upon Berlin".
The next night, 25th August Bomber command launched
its first attack on the German capital, leading to an escalation.
On the 2nd September Goering issued new orders
shifting the weight of attacks away from airfields to cities. He was
influenced by Hitler's desire to punish Britain for the RAF's raid on
Berlin. He also felt that to meet an attack on London, Dowding would
have to throw into battle what the Germans believed to be his last
On September 4th Hilter announced in a speech at
the Sportpalast in Berlin that the Luftwaffe would now reply to British
provocation - "If they declare they will attack our cities on a
large scale, we will erase theirs".
Hitler was reluctant to order the wholesale bombing
of civilian targets, possibly because he was still hoping for a peace
treaty with Britain. Goering's chief of staff argued in favour of
striking residential areas in order to provoke mass panic, but Hitler
believed that attacks on military and economic targets were more
In practice it mattered very little, for at this
stage in the war bombing was so inaccurate that attacks directed against
economic targets would inevitably cause damage to the surrounding areas.
Black Saturday', 7 September, was the first day of
the offensive against London. There were minor attacks on Dover and
Hawkinge in the morning.
The distinctive loop of the Thames around the Isle
of Dogs, was known to the Germans as Zielraum (target area) G. Bomber
crews were given specific targets like the docks or gasworks and
attacked them if visibility permitted, otherwise they simply bombed the
In the afternoon growing numbers of German aircraft
formed up south of Cap Gris Nez, where Goering and a galaxy of senior
Luftwaffe officers had assembled to watch the attack. Just after 4.15
almost 1,000 aircraft, (1/3rd Bombers) stacked up at heights from 14,000
(4,270 m) to
23,000 feet (7,000m), crossed the coast. Twenty one British squadrons
went up to meet them, bringing about the largest aerial battle yet seen.
There was no stopping the bombers, which pressed
home their attack and dropped 300 tons (305
tonnes) of high explosive on London. About 2000
civilians were killed or seriously injured, and wide areas of ware-houses
and factories in the East End were soon ablaze.
Flames erupted from the great factories and
warehouses lining the River Thames from
Woolwich to Tower Bridge. In the crowded dockland streets, massive ware-houses
and tiny dwellings alike came crashing down under the impact of high explosive, burying their occupants and any luckless
Two hundred acres of tall timber stacks blazed out
of control in the Surrey Commercial Docks. The rum quay buildings in
West India Docks, alight from end to end,
gushed flaming spirit from their doors. An army of rats ran from a burning Silvertown soap works ...
When the bombers came back after dusk they needed
no navigational aids: they were guided by the blazing East End and fires
downstream at Thameshaven. They dropped
another 300 tons (305 tonnes) of explosive and
thousands of smaller incendiary bombs, and when the last of them left, before dawn on 8 September, London was still
burning, with three of its main-line
railway termini closed.
Thousands of London's children had been evacuated
to the countryside on the outbreak of war. Despite official attempts to
ensure that they remained in comparative
safety, many had returned by the time the Blitz began.
A study based on the Government's Mass Observation concluded:
Of those who stayed put with their parents, a few
were continuously nervous, and a few
constantly exhilarated. The greater part adjusted as well as their
parents or mildly better. At no stage did
they present a special problem as compared, say, with
old ladies, or stray pets.
Fighter Command's failure to prevent the bombers
from reaching London on 7 September placed
Dowding under pressure to ensure that his most experienced
squadrons were available for the capital's defence. When the Germans
came again in strength, on the afternoon of 9 September, few of them were able to reach London, and they lost 28
aircraft to the RAF's 19.
The battle swung in favour of the Germans again two
days later. Bombs fell in the grounds of
Buckingham Palace, and after another more damaging
raid on the palace on 13 September the Queen remarked: 'I'm glad we've been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the
East End in the face.'
For the next two days losses were roughly equal and
bombers were able to reach their targets.
It seemed very much as though the Luftwaffe had the edge
The Climax of the Battle of Britain
Sunday 15 September dawned fine, but soon became
Kesselring intended to hurl his full strength
against London in two attacks, and the first of them reached the English
coast at 11.30 that morning. Park already
had 11 of his 21 Hurricane and Spitfire squadrons airborne
to meet the bombers, which were mercilessly harried on their way
to London. There the Duxford Wing joined in, though views on its effectiveness varied. After a brief pause the second
wave rolled in, and it too was met as it
Squadron Leader Bob Stanford Tuck, newly promoted and given his own squadron, tells how:
"We found a big bunch of mixed bombers, flying in
formations of anything from thirty to
sixty, with escorting fighters above them. As I led my new squadron in, I
saw three of these parties nearing London. As the boys waded into the
bombers, I went for some of the fighters. I
picked off an Me 110 which I shot down over Barking,
and one of his pals nearly got his own back when he put a bullet through
Twenty-six of Fighter Command's aircraft were shot
down that day, but The Luftwaffe lost a
total of 60 - not all to British guns and fighters - and others
struggled back across the Channel with dead and wounded crew-men
Few German bomber crews now believed bland assertions that it would never be possible to prevent the
occasional fighter from appearing.
The attainment of air superiority seemed as far
away as ever, and on 17 September Hitler
postponed Sealion until further notice: the Battle
of Britain had been won.
The Blitz Goes On
The effective cancellation of Sealion changed the
tempo of the fighting but did not end it. Goering ordered that the night
bombing of London would continue,
'harassing attacks' would be launched in daylight, and pressure
on aircraft factories would be stepped up.
The Italian Air Force belatedly
joined the battle on 25 October, when 16 of its bombers attacked
Harwich. On 11 November 40 CR 42 biplanes escorted 10 bombers
in another attack on Harwich, and although the fighters defended
their charges bravely they were hopelessly outclassed: three bombers
and three fighters were shot down without loss to the British, and daylight bombing raids were abandoned. A final
daylight Italian fighter sweep on 23
November was also driven off without loss.
Two days later Dowding, who had remained on duty at
the personal request of the Chief of the
Air Staff despite being over the age limit for retirement,
slipped into civilian life and was replaced by Air Marshal W S.
Douglas. The new Commander-in-Chief declared that 'it does not matter
where the enemy is shot down provided he is shot down in large numbers', and made arrangements to set up more 'Big
However the Germans
had suspended the daylight attacks which justified the use
of large wings, and the task immediately
facing Douglas was to deal with the night
Steps were taken to form more night-fighter
squadrons, to equip airfields with special equipment for night flying,
and to produce more radar sets capable of
permitting ground controllers to direct a night-fighter onto its
target or, better still, to be fitted in aircraft. Other expedients were
adopted, such as drifting balloons containing
explosive charges; and a variety of
deception measures were designed to encourage bombers to attack
London was bombed night after night, and
during the second week in October there were almost 1400 killed in the capital. Terrible damage was caused by 2200 lb
(1000 kg) parachute mines, provoking
Churchill to order ministries that: 'No disclosure should be
made of the severity of effect, in the public estimation, of these
On the bright moonlit night of 15 October London
was heavily bombed, while other raiders
struck Birmingham and Bristol. Much of London's
railway network was put out of action and both Becton Gas Works
and Battersea Power Station were hit. There were more than 900 fires - firefighting was badly disrupted by ruptured
mains - whose glare could be seen in
mid-Channel by German aircrew. Although the RAF sent up
41 fighters, only one bomber was shot down.
In November London gained a brief respite, albeit
at the expense of provincial cities like Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool,
Plymouth, Southampton and
On the night of 29/30 December London suffered the
most spectacular attack of the Blitz. The square mile of the City was
hit by a hail of incendiaries which caused
six enormous fires, destroying the Guildhall and
eight Wren churches. St Paul's Cathedral escaped by a miracle.
One eyewitness found
it 'a hauntingly beautiful picture' as buildings collapsed
to reveal Wren's masterpiece rising in its glory amongst the smoke
and flames. Because the Thames was low, fireboats could do little
to help, and burst water mains impeded the work of their land-based colleagues.
Casualties were lighter than might have been
expected, possibly because it was a Sunday
night, and the City was virtually empty, but
163 people were killed (16 firemen amongst them) and another 509
The Blitz eased in 1941, due to the shift of German
Bombers to the Eastern Front, however smaller scale raids were still regularly
made on London.
In 1943, the RAF was launching massive and
widespread raids on Germany, which culminated in the devastating raid on
Hamburg codenamed Gomorrah starting on 24th July, 22 acres of the
city were engulfed in fire storms and 42,000 people were estimated to
have been killed and 1 Million refugees fled the city.
In one week the RAF (and at this stage its junior partner US
Eight Airforce) had achieved more devastation than the Luftwaffe had achieved
in eight months of the Blitz. The damage to Hamburg alone, 40,385 House,
275,000 flats, 580 factories, 2,632 shops, 277 schools, 24 Hospitals, 58
churches, 83 Banks, 12 Bridges, 76 public buildings and a Zoo had been
obliterated. In the week since 24th July Bomber Command had flown 3,095
sorties, dropped 9,000 tons of explosives and incendiaries on Hamburg
for the Loss of 86 Aircraft.
It is indeed fortunate for London, that the
Luftwaffe never obtained such a striking force to visit upon London.