Three authors write on WW2 air raids in Forest Gate

Friday 11 August 2017

This article looks at the way in which World War 11 air raids in Forest Gate have been approached and described from three very different perspectives. They are from the local fire chief of the time, a school boy, recollecting later in life and from the fictional work of an author born in West Ham.

The Fire Chief was Cyril Demarne and we have quoted from his work about Forest Gate before, here. The school boy was actor and film director Bryan Forbes, who spent his childhood in Cranmer Road and the novelist is Mike Hollow, who has authored three books about the Blitz Detective, DI Jago. Full details of the books can be found in the footnotes.

We have covered air raids in Forest Gate in previous articles, here and here, but not directly in the words of victims/witnesses.

Bryan Forbes' autobiography  - Notes for a Life

We covered Bryan Forbes' recollections of Forest Gate life in the 1930's in a previous blog (see here). Part of his childhood recollections focussed on his experiences of air-raids experienced from his Cranmer Road house, in 1940 - before the family moved from the area.

What follows is a graphic and direct quote of recollections of youth, from his first autobiography.

The early nights of the Blitz were not all that frightening. I felt curiously, irrationally secure in the fetid darkness of the small shelter and devolved a method of determining the distance from our own house of the bomb blasts. I would put my cheek against the sweating concrete walls and calculate by the intensity of the vibration carried in the earth.

We listened to Lord Haw Haw in the Anderson, searching the dial of the wireless until that arrogant, rasping voice filled the small enclosure. 'We shan't be dropping bombs on Earlham Grove tonight' he said once, in a reference to the Jewish Quarter of Forest Gate, 'We shall be dropping Keating's Powder.' Keating's was a brand of dustbin disinfectant. In repeating the remark here I am not trying to perpetrate that distant vicious smear, I merely wish to record the absolute amazement and fear I felt at hearing my own locality mentioned by the remote voice of the enemy

On the Saturday afternoon, when the second phase of the Blitz began in earnest I was inside the Odeon, Forest Gate, watching a matinee of Gaslight. Half way through the performance the audience became conscious of what seemed to be a hailstorm beating on the roof. The projector lamp died and the house lights came up. The limp manager, in black tie, came on to the stage and announced that the audience should disperse in the interest of safety.

We trooped without undue haste into the bright sunshine outside and stood in groups on the pavement watching pattern after pattern of sun-silvered Dorniers winging high overhead. Urged on by the police and wardens I ran the length of Woodgrange Road and along Godwin Road straight into the arms of my distraught mother.

We went immediately into the Anderson and except for hurried forays into the house for food and the use of the toilet during the rare lulls in the bombardment, we stayed in the garden shelter for the best part of two whole days and nights. During the night hours the sky was swollen red enough by the monstrous Dockland fires to make the regulation blackouts meaningless.

Sticks of bombs fell across Wanstead Flats, cutting a path through Cranmer Road at the top end, but the Anderson never shifted.

Our experience was nothing out of the ordinary and we were far luckier than most, for when the last bomb with our number on it found its target the Anderson shelter still held, but our life in Cranmer Road was over forever.

Cyril Demarne's Fireman's Tale

This short memoir was published almost 40 years ago. Cyril joined the West Ham Fire Brigade in 1925 and spent the much of the war serving in the district. He was later appointed Chief Fire Officer for West Ham and was made an OBE in 1952.

The book describes life as a fireman in the area during the war. Below we reproduce two extracts about places very familiar to Forest Gaters.
Writing of July 1944, Cyril says he got a radio call:

"V1 explosion in Blake Hall Crescent, Wanstead, sir. Your car has been ordered"

Oh, God: here we go again. What frightful scenes should we encounter this time? We had become accustomed to rows of shattered houses and shops and the back street factory with a dozen girls entombed; to the heart-rendering cries of the bereaved and to children screaming for their parents; to the torn and hideously mangled bodies to be recovered from the debris; and to the little corner shop, a heap of ruins, with customers slashed by flying glass, laying amid bundles of firewood and tins of corned beef.

I asked my driver if she knew where we were going. Yes, she knew, and we were there in a few minutes. All the trees in the vicinity had been defoliated by the explosion and the pungent smell of chlorophyll mingled with the musty odour of mortar and other dusts. Only the stench of blood was missing, something, at least, to be thankful for. A number of houses had been demolished and women and children were being removed from the debris.

As we toiled, several V1's roared across the sky and there came a chorus of "Seig Heil, Seig Heil," from hundreds of German throats in the POW camp a few hundred yards along the road. How I prayed for one to come down smack in the centre of that compound, but my prayer went unanswered and the bombs flew on, to crash in Poplar or Stepney, or points west.

The houses in Blake Hall Crescent lay in a hollow which restricted the area of the blast. Casualties, relatively, were light and we were able to clear up rather more quickly than usual and make our way home. There was no knowing where or when the next buzz-bomb would dive.

The POW camp came near to disaster about a week later, when a flying bomb crashed on the anti-aircraft rocket installation on the opposite side of Woodford Road (ed: near the current Esso garage, on Aldersbrook Road), killing a number of gunners and ATS girls. The blast set fire to dry grass on the site and it was by a narrow margin only that the NFS (National Fires Service) stopped the fire before it reached the magazines, crude corrugated iron sheds, with openings screened with hessian curtains protecting the rockets laid out on racks.

It was a close shave.

Cyril Demarne
And the second extract, describing events a little later that month:

It was during the scalded cat raids, when fast flying aircraft roared over London, dropped a load of bombs and hared away as fast as possible. A number of isolated fires had been started in Manor Park - Forest Gate area - and I found myself in a temporary fire station, manned by part-time fire crew, at midnight. The firewoman on duty reported that her crew had been ordered out to a fire at the Manor Park Cemetery and had been gone for three hours. I could not imagine a fire in a cemetery occupying a crew for anything like that time and I passed the place twice during the evening, observing no sign of fire. However, I had better investigate: it was not unknown for a fire pump to have become engulfed in a bomb crater.

The cemetery gates were wide open and we drove in, following the main drive until it narrowed into a single width road and terminated in a sort of roundabout, with four or five paths leading in different directions.. The glow of the distant fire was the only light we could see as we stopped. I got out and had a look around and there was no sign of a fire or the crew. ...

I was soon out of sight of the car and I started to hear a voice out of the silence of the night.

"I wouldn't go down there", it said, "something has come down" It was the cemetery keeper. I shone my torch ahead and saw a number of shining incendiary bombs, none of which appeared to have fired, lying scattered over graves and paths. I picked up two of the bombs, and walked back towards the car. The keeper told me that firemen  had been in the cemetery some hours ago to deal with a fire in a heap of discarded wreath frames but had left before the second fall of incendiaries. ...

The missing pump turned up, eventually. It was manned by a crew of part-time firemen, who attended for duty one night per week. ...  After dealing with the cemetery fire they chased after another showing a light at Manor Park; then to another, arriving home at their station about 1 a.m., tired out, but happy with their evening's performance."

The Blitz Detective series of novels, a review by Sandra Walker

I found this series enjoyable and very surprisingly, rather compelling. I can happily recommend it to anyone interested in WW2 east end, ‘popular’ social history (especially local Newham people) who likes an ‘easy, undemanding, lightweight’ read. Mike Hollow, the author, was born in West Ham.

Mike Hollow
The stories are full of local interest, with housing and historic building references and descriptions including car journeys along roads that no longer exist - during some of the bombing raids of the Blitz which actually destroyed them. Descriptions, venues and events are based on Mike Hollow’s family oral histories and local and national topical news at the time.  The author successfully conveys a sense of the hardship, stoicism, humour, disruption, trauma, community and ‘stiff upper lip’ attitude with which we have become familiar and associate with the events of the time.

Conscientious objectors, fifth columnists, local council corruption, inequality, early feminism, the evacuation of children, poor quality housing and healthcare, food shortages, harsh living conditions, lack of sleep, trauma of witnessing dead bodies and the impact on local communities as they are disrupted and fractured forever are just a few of the issues the reader is confronted with – this in addition to ‘murder most foul’. Yet this is skilfully woven into stories of day to day life (and murders) which continue in spite of and add to the difficulties and horrors.

I found myself quickly comfortable and easily able to relate to the somewhat familiar stereotype   principal characters of the ‘Old Bill’ of the time. The emotionally repressed bachelor, DI Jago with WW1 baggage who is our principal character is immediately likeable because he is so sensible, rational, fair minded and indeed forward thinking for his time (for example regarding women’s inequality and what the post war future holds for them). 

Jago’s trusty, novice, sidekick DC Cradock is uncomplicated and keen. The awful pompous, bumbling  DC Superintendent  ‘Soper of the yard’ and the faithful old Victorian Cockney Copper Tomkins, hauled out of retirement for desk sergeant duties are all stereotype characters readers  of a certain age will immediately recognise. 

The plots were credible however some of the relationships and links which assisted in discovering clues and gaining information were frankly rather ‘incredible’ or unlikely –very  lucky strikes!

There is, of course, the potential for  romance - provided by attractive, exiting, confident, worldly wise, female American journalist, go getter Dorothy and dependable, maternal, East Ender cafe owner, Rita. Both likeable ladies!
Originality? Well, dare I mention two similar series here; Anthony Horowitz’ Foyle’s War for characters and plots and Barbara Nadel’s local Newham based WW2 amateur sleuthing by troubled undertaker Francis Hancock for local interest?

All said and done, I liked the series and I will certainly be reading the next book scheduled for release in 2018.

Footnote  The books reviewed are The London Blitz - a Fireman's Tale, by Cyril Demarne, now out of print, but originally published by the Newham Parents' Centre (now Newham Bookshop - who may still have copies buried away) in 1980. Bryan Forbes' autobiography Notes for a Life, was published by Collins in 1974. The Three Blitz Detective novels by Mike Hollow are: Direct Hit, Fifth Column and Enemy Action, they are published by Lion Hudson

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations to all at this web site who investigated the Dames Road V1 disaster with some of the most impressively conducted research I have seen anywhere.


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