Millwall, The Den and the misfortunes of war
Beyond Tower Bridge you can see the Docks on fire on Black Saturday
Left: An Heinkel He 111 over the Surrey Docks on Black Saturday 7th September 1940.  Above: The Docks on fire on Black Saturday.      Below: The Den had led a charmed life but was hit on 19th April 1943.
Bombed: The Den had led a charmed life but was hit on 19th April 1943 (Picture from Lions of the South)
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 balance.

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 civilians. 

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 2)

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 fighters.

 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 reserves.

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 effective.

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 target area.

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 passer-by ...

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 at last.

The Climax of the Battle of Britain

Sunday 15 September dawned fine, but soon became cloudy. 

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 approached.

 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 my windscreen.

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 aboard. 

 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 Wings'.

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 bomber offensive.

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 empty countryside.

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 mines.'

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  Coventry. 

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 injured.

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.


Double Disaster

After seeming to have come though the worst, Millwall were to receive two hammer blows.

(The following is a further edited extract from The Lions of the South)

In the very early hours of Monday April 14th 1943 the Luftwaffe carried out their second small nuisance raid on London in 24 hours.  

As the bombers reached the outskirts of London all but one were repelled. The lone raider who got through dropped two bombs towards central London, one failing into waste ground. The other scored a direct hit on Millwall's North Terrace, close to the Old Kent Road end corner, the point of impact probably under a half-ton crush barrier which was flung 200 yards through the air. 

Millwall's directors Tom Thorne, Lt-Col Thorne, George Max and George Beveridge returned from the Scotland England International at Hampden Park to discover the first team had been blitzed 9-3 in a friendly at Southampton and the ground had been blitzed by the Germans. 

The scene which greeted them was appalling: roofs had been blown off, there was a massive crater in the terracing affecting some of the penalty area and debris had been scattered all over the pitch.  

Miraculously, the stand had remained undamaged,

The main stand at the den before World War II and the fire.

and no one there had been no injured. The club immediately called upon the Voluntary Services of the home Guard, the police and Civil Defence to get the pitch fit to stage the Easter Monday London Senior Cup Final  between Tooting and Dulwich on the 26th April.

Against all the odds the game went ahead and resulted in a thrilling 5-4 win for Dulwich.  But the real fireworks were still to come, half an hour after the final whistle ground staff spotted a small fire in the stand.  

Another 30 minutes later and the stand was totally engulfed, the 8,000 seats and distinctive gable in the 350ft showpiece wooden structure perishing in the lapping flames as pools of black smoke lifted high into the South East London sky. What sad irony that a discarded match or cigarette had managed what even the Luftwaffe could not.

It was a crippling blow, a blow the club took a long time to recovered from. War-time insurance did not cover for bomb damage. Millwall’s own insurance  and compensation from the War Damages Commission didn't cover anything like the actual cost of rebuilding.  

A newspaper headline; 'Soccer's unluckiest club - Millwall" was not given to overstatement and Frank Butler commented; "Fortunately Millwall are one of the cheeriest clubs in the country. All through bad spell I have not heard any moaning."

The club immediately contacted the Ministry of Supply to appeal for materials to build a temporary stand. But the cause was not considered vital enough by them so Millwall embarked in negotiations to bring a temporary structure to the ground to suffice during war-time. Then they planned to build a massive double-decker stand - because of the restrictions of room by the nearby railway – which would take the ground's capacity to 60,000.  

Fortunately Millwall's offices and changing rooms had not been damaged in the blaze, being behind the Cold Blow terrace. West Ham immediately to offer Upton Park for Millwall's use. The club thanked them but said they intended to have a temporary stand ready for the 1943-44 season. 

However, by September negotiations were still "proceeding satisfactory" and a return to The Den was hoped for by November. A deal was struck with Charlton to whom Millwall paid a reasonable rent. Athletic agreed to stage Millwall's home games at The Valley with The Valliant's reserves playing at the Den. 

After playing ‘Home’ games at The Valley, Selhurst Park and Upton Park, on the 24th February 1944 the Millwall directors decided to call a halt to the club's wanderings and despite their many fruitless attempts for permission to build a temporary stand, and announced all further home matches would be played at The Den. They felt their long-suffering fans would rather stand amongst the ruins of their beloved home ground than continue to travel to assorted local enclosures.  

The post war plans for the reconstruction of the Den foundered in a nightmare of redtape and rationing restrictions. Millwall had enough money and even had secured the building materials, but were unable to obtain the necessary building licence to undertake the works.  

By 1948 Millwall were still well supported with healthy attendances of 20,000, but still no seats to put them in, a deficiency which was costing the club £15,000 a season it could ill afford. In September, the directors had finally decided to scrap their plans for a two-tier stand.  

The Ministry of Works would only consent to the building of a concrete terrace with covering only extending two thirds of its length.

This decision condemned Millwall to entering Football's Golden Period with a ground with barely adequate facilities.

At Christmas 1950 Millwall supporters received good news. Millwall FC were now the owners of the freehold of The Den, the transaction being formally completed on December 4th 1951 with the Deeds to follow later (the club were later to buy the Lease in 1956). 

Hewitt had first put the plan into action in 1939 when the land, owned by the railways, was cheaper. Now it had cost the club £30,000 to buy the land, £15,000 having to be paid up front. 

Hewitt, like the board, was delighted: "Thus ends a project that we have toiled hard and long to bring to a successful conclusion. This expensive purchase will, for a few years, make inroads on the  kitty but it will also ensure security of tenure in perpetuity – in plain English, football has been established at The Den - our home - your home - and the home of those who follow on after we have passed on from this troubled world.” 

The ground developed at a slow pace,  Floodlights were constructed in 1953 and in 1962  Millwall built the final third of the Stand to complete the restoration of the Den but the main stand now had only 2,300 seats and a paddock which when converted to seating in 1966 raised the seating capacity to 3,480.

The Den January 1953 v Man Utd in the 3rd round of the FA Cup

In 1974 the club was able to buy from British Rail the disused railway lines adjacent to the Den. Access was improved to the Main Stand, a small carpark was constructed and Cold Blow Lane was improved with the removal of the two railway bridges.  

Air Ministry Bomb damage aerial survey photographs from 1945 (above) and 1947 (below)

  The Millwall History Files    The Millwall Story since the early 1980's         [Home]  [Contents]  [Links]   [Search]