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How the docks and people of east London suffered in the war years before our final Victory in Europe

PUBLISHED: 07:00 09 May 2020 | UPDATED: 22:43 10 May 2020

Night raid on London Docks... enemy parachute flares being dropped by Luftwaffe on dock entrance at Wapping, seen from Rotherhithe, pictured by war arist Stanley Haines for the Port of London Authority

Night raid on London Docks... enemy parachute flares being dropped by Luftwaffe on dock entrance at Wapping, seen from Rotherhithe, pictured by war arist Stanley Haines for the Port of London Authority

Museum of London

Curators would have loved to open their Docklands museum to the public for the VE Day 75th anniversary — but coronavirus put paid to that.

Children clear rubble on a bomb site in the East End... war in Europe is at last over. Picture: Tower Hamlets ArchiveChildren clear rubble on a bomb site in the East End... war in Europe is at last over. Picture: Tower Hamlets Archive

They had been preparing for an exhibition of wartime images when the lockdown emergency began.

So instead, the Museum of London Docklands has put its exhibition online to tell the story of how east London survived the war years, from the early days of the Blitz in 1940 to that historic Victory in Europe moment five years later.

Fire bombs and high explosives dropped by the Luftwaffe wreaked havoc on St Katharine’s, London, Millwall, Surrey and Royal docks.

Iconic Tower of London (far left) and Tower Bridge and blaziing St Katharine's, London, Millwall and Surrey docks on first day of London Blitz, September 7, 1940. Picture: Museum of London/PLAIconic Tower of London (far left) and Tower Bridge and blaziing St Katharine's, London, Millwall and Surrey docks on first day of London Blitz, September 7, 1940. Picture: Museum of London/PLA

The Isle of Dogs was cut off at one point during the constant German air-raids when the only two bridges connecting the area to Poplar and Blackwall were hit, with just the foot tunnel left under the Thames to Greenwich. An identical situation happened at the Royal Docks when Silvertown, Custom House and North Woolwich were cut off as fires raged, with just the Woolwich foot tunnel left.

Around 25,000 bombs were dropped on the docks during the war years, it is estimated. Thousands of families were left homeless and many businesses destroyed. A third of the docks were wrecked, with the Millwall and St Katharine’s the worst hit.

We bore the brunt in east London from Luftwaffe’s air-raids aimed at destroying Britain’s war production which was now outpacing German’s arms industry.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill tours London Docks in September 1940, with auxiliary firemen. Picture: John Avery/PLAPrime Minister Winston Churchill tours London Docks in September 1940, with auxiliary firemen. Picture: John Avery/PLA

Hitler aimed to demoralise the population into submission with his carpet bombing that began with the first raid on St Katharine’s Docks in Wapping, the start of the London Blitz on September 7, 1940, that went on for five consecutive months, night after night.

The sheer terror in the years leading up to VE Day included the V1 ‘doodlebug’ flying bombs and V2 rockets that left death and destruction in their wake.

The first V1 to hit London fell on terraced houses at Grove Road in Mile End in 1944, killing six people including a six-month-old baby boy and his teenage mum.

It's all over... VE Day street party, one of many in East End neighbourhoods in May 1945. Picture: ELAIt's all over... VE Day street party, one of many in East End neighbourhoods in May 1945. Picture: ELA

The last V2 rocket hit Whitechapel’s Hughes Mansions in Vallance Road on March 25, 1945, killing 134 people, mainly women and children.

It was the final tragedy. Just six weeks later, it was all over with Germany’s unconditional surrender to the Allies. We had survived the darkest days to reach Victory in Europe.

Online: Museum of London Docklands wartime exhibition

Here’s how the East London Advertiser’s
150th anniversary edition in 2016 looked back at the way we reported those joyous VE Day celebrations more than 70 years earlier, in May 1945:

West Ham trolleybus depot the night after a German air-raid... the years of bombing now at at end. Picture: Tower Hamlets ArchiveWest Ham trolleybus depot the night after a German air-raid... the years of bombing now at at end. Picture: Tower Hamlets Archive

The King and Queen arrive in Whitechapel to visit Hughes Mansions the day after Peace is declared in Europe on May 8 to meet survivors of Nazi Germany’s last V2 rocket. Crowds surge forward and sing spontaneously There’ll always be an England.

The celebrations last a week. Bonfires appear everywhere — the people had enough of fires from the Blitz, but these are the flames of victory.

A victory parade is held on May 14, assembling at Tower Hill and marching through the East End’s blitzed streets along Royal Mint Street, Leman Street, Whitechapel Road and Mile End Road to the People’s Palace for the Grand Salute.

But industrial unrest isn't over... the Millitary unload supplies during 'wildcat' unnofficial dock strike, October 1945, when dockers who had supported war effort downed tools five months after VE Day to improve working conditions. Picture: John Avery/PLABut industrial unrest isn't over... the Millitary unload supplies during 'wildcat' unnofficial dock strike, October 1945, when dockers who had supported war effort downed tools five months after VE Day to improve working conditions. Picture: John Avery/PLA

It is led by the Royal Navy, followed by the Army’s Middlesex Regiment “whose band provided the stirring music”, followed by the Stepney borough warden service “who in these very streets had laboured against every attack from the air” and the National Fire Service with crews from Whitechapel and Shadwell who had also been in the firing line during the Blitz.

The Mile End Odeon holds a cinema party “for 300 kiddies from Bethnal Green” showing short films and Walt Disney cartoons.

Bethnal Green, after nearly six years of wartime rationing, was splashing out on spam sandwiches and custard for the kidss and pints of brown and mild for the grown-ups, but most of the dads are still in the Armed Forces.

VE Day was only possible thanks to Mulberry floating docks used for the invasion of France, built in sections to be towed across the Channel for the D-Day landings... Our 'bulldog' prime minister Winston Churchill is seen touring East India Dock at Millwall in 1944 which had been drained for one Mulbery to be built. Picture: PLA/Ministry of SupplyVE Day was only possible thanks to Mulberry floating docks used for the invasion of France, built in sections to be towed across the Channel for the D-Day landings... Our 'bulldog' prime minister Winston Churchill is seen touring East India Dock at Millwall in 1944 which had been drained for one Mulbery to be built. Picture: PLA/Ministry of Supply

The kids are bundled off to the Empire ‘flea pit’ cinema in Green Street — known as “the Bug Hole”— where the owner lets them in free to watch a Dick Barton film. Victoria Park has floodlit dancing with 9,000 revellers — a welcome relief from the years of the London Blackout. More street parties are held the following Saturday.

Television doesn’t return for another year, after the big switch off back on September 3, 1939, the day war is first declared, to avoid enemy aircraft homing in on its transmission signal. The cinema is still the main entertainment.

Life in post-war Britain is slowly getting back to normal, rebuilding a shattered but proud nation, one that had stood up alone against Hitler and kept the flame of freedom alive for Occupied Europe.

There was still Japan to defeat in the Far East, but for now, in May 1945, there is Victory in Europe and peace across the land.


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