ADVERTISER 150th anniversary: How Wartime censorship hinders reporting Blitz in 1940
- Credit: Archant
We arrive at the Second World War in our nightly lookback at some of the Big News of the day to mark the East London Advertiser’s 150th anniversary. The Blitz begins in 1940 in the East End with the Lutfwaffe bombing of the London Docks and the brave firemen in the thick of it reporting “the whole bloody world’s on fire”...
1940: The voice on the wireless is the traitor they call “Lord Haw Haw” broadcasting from a Hamburg radio station to announce the German bombing campaign, warning: “Hardest of all, the Luftwaffe will smash Stepney”.
The London Blitz begins on “Black Saturday”, September 7, when radar stations on the Kent coast detect a vast formation of enemy aircraft gathering in the skies over the German-occupied French coast around 4pm.
Then 350 Luftwaffe bombers and 617 fighter planes arrive over the Thames Estuary by 4.30pm, following the river bombing Dockland from the Royal Docks up to St Katharine’s-by-the-Tower.
First emergency calls come from Canning Town, but soon fires rage in Millwall, Limehouse, Shadwell, Wapping, the Beckton Gasworks, Rotherhithe on the south side and especially the Surrey Docks.
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Docker George MacFarlane in Wapping sees the first bombs drop on the London Docks that day.
“I remember Black Saturday,” he recalls years later. “I finished unloading the barges at Shadwell Basin and was at home in Riverside Mansions when the first wave of bombers came over.
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“They dropped a stick of bombs into the dock basin which missed a ship that had just berthed, the Gothenburg, but breached the dock wall.
“All the warehouses were alight. The quayside copped it.”
The all-clear sirens sound at 6pm, after 90 minutes. But the calm doesn’t last.
A second air raid begins at nightfall, around 8pm, when 250 German bombers attack the docks while fire crews are still tackling the flames from the afternoon raid.
The fire brigade records nine major conflagrations by midnight, each needing 100 fire engines and crews.
Another 19 blazes require 30 tenders each, and 40 more require 10 each.
Bishopsgate Goods Yard is consumed in flames with 100 crews and fire engines battling to bring them under control. The Surrey Docks needs 450 fire engines and crews.
Reinforcements arrive from all over London, the Home Counties and even as far as The Midlands.
A senior fire officer calling for back-up makes the now famous remark, “Send all the pumps you’ve got—the whole bloody world’s on fire”.
Ships and warehouses are ablaze. Rum in one warehouse at St Katharine’s catches light, with torrents of blazing liquid pouring out of the doors, barrels exploding.
Burning tar is flowing onto roads, filling bomb craters with liquid fire. Pepper from a blazing spice warehouse hits the surrounding streets with stinging particles, hampering fire-fighting.
Stocks of paint ignite in another warehouse, causing a cascade of white hot flame, coating the fire engines with varnish.
Burning rubber in another warehouse gives off clouds of toxic smoke. Sugar turns to liquid in the heat and floats on the water, while crates of butter melt, grain explodes and tobacco gives off sickening fumes which affect the firefighters.
Even hospitals don’t escape. St George’s in Wapping Lane suffers a direct hit and is destroyed.
The writer AP Herbert, a petty officer in the Royal Navy Thames Auxiliary Patrol, recalls passing Limehouse where he sees “a stupendous spectacle, half a mile of the shore burning”.
He observes: “The accumulated smoke and sparks of all the fires swept in a high wall across the river, the scene like a lake in Hell.”
A second all-clear is sounded at 4.30am on Sunday, 12 hours after the air raids had begun. But there’s no rest for fire crews who battle for up to 18 hours without relief.
An auxiliary fireman notes later in the margins of a book that he can only remember the first seven or eight hours, after which his mind is blank. Another writes that all he could think of was “a cup of tea”. After a while “you would act automatically and only ‘come to’ if someone shouted or a building collapsed”.
A fireman in Millwall’s West India Dock describes “an endless, solid wall of flame”.
A London Hospital ward logbook on September 7 records: “Many big fires resulted from this raid around Dockland, the sky ablaze all night while the fires increased and spread.”
There is little the East London Advertiser can report at the time, because of wartime security press censorship and national security. The full details are only published after the war.
The London Blitz lasted 57 consecutive nights of German bombing by Göring’s Luftwaffe without respite. It is not until the following May that there is any let-up for Londoners.