Friday, 19 August 2011

Looting is nothing new

Pretty well everybody in the United Kingdom and many people around the World will have witnessed the awful scenes of riot and looting last week in our cities last week and felt rightly angered at those who perpetrated these crimes.

In the aftermath, there is now a public debate as to whether the sentences being handed out are too harsh, too light or whether public boiling should be re-introduced!

These arguments are brought into perspective when we journey back in time to the Second World War and consider Emergency Powers (Defence) Act of 1939, which was brought in to regulate almost every aspect of home life in this country. Under this legislation, the death penalty was readily available in punishment of the offence of looting. Looters could, in fact, have been shot on sight, although there are no recorded instances of this ever happening, or indeed of the death penalty being imposed for this crime.


Theft of any sort is a pretty despicable sort of crime and looting, especially in wartime of properties damaged and laid open by bombing was just about the lowest of the low. The photograph shows a bomb damaged house in Greenwich, southeast London with the pathetic remnants of the owner's property laid outside the ruined home. In the upstairs window is the ominous warning that looters face death.

Despite this warning, looting still occurred; at the scene of the wrecked Cafe de Paris in Coventry Street, looters prowled the floor of the destroyed nightclub, tearing open handbags and removing rings from the hands of the dead and dying. Looting reached epidemic proportions during the Blitz and the Metropolitan Police, already hard pressed, had to set up a special squad to deal with the problem. Much of the looting was organised by gangs, who would send out spotters during a raid to highlight 'promising' incidents, report these to their bosses, who would send out teams of looters to the spot before the emergency services could reach the scene. More often than not though, the looting was a casual affair, with young boys being particulary susceptible to the temptation of stealing from bombed houses. Philip Ziegler, in his excellent book "London at War" reported that four boys, aged ten and eleven were sentenced to be birched for stealing from a bombed house in the capital.

Sadly, some of the looters were people who should have known better; the rescue and demolition squads seemed to have more than their fair share of thieves amongst them. Perhaps the temptation of seeing trinket boxes and other valuable items such as gas and electricity meters laying amongst the ruins was too much for some of them. Nearly half of the arrests made by the Metropolitan Police for the offence of looting came from members of the Civil Defence services. Then as now, there were calls for harsher sentences to be served on offenders. Six month sentences were commonplace in 1940 but by the time the Blitz ended in May of 1941, sentences of five years imprisonment were becoming commonplace. Sometimes the police took matters into their own hands and handed out beatings to those that they caught red handed.

The end of the Blitz not only gave Londoners a respite from bombing but also from the epidemic of theft that had been seemingly unstoppable. The Little Blitz and Terror Weapons of 1944/45 started it all again but on a much higher scale. By this time, four years plus of war had left serious shortages of pretty well all day to day items. In early 1944 for example, a radio and electrical shop in West Hampstead had it's entire stock looted within twenty minutes of it's being bombed and once again the courts were handing out exemplary sentences of five years or longer but still nobody was ever hanged for the offence. Perhaps even the authorities realised that although looting, stealing from the dead was a despicable crime, they understood that Londoners had had a hard time of it and apart from the organised gangs, most of this theft was by opportunists.

Whatever the reason, nobody was ever hanged for looting and even the harsher sentences didn't seem to stem the tide of theft.

Perhaps we would do well to remember today that sadly looting is nothing new; the threat of harsher sentences did not always act as a deterrent, although it did remove the perpetrators from circulation for the period of the sentence. Seventy years ago a five year sentence meant exactly what it said and prison conditions were considerably harsher than those of today. In 1945, the answer was peace and the gradual return to normality and the respect of other people, their property and the rule of law and order.

Published Sources:

Backs to the Wall, Leonard Mosley, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1974
London at War 1939-45, Philip Ziegler, Sinclair Stevenson 1995

Friday, 12 August 2011

Sidney Alfred Holder, The Wall and the Unknown Soldier

Earlier this week, this writer was lucky enough to be invited to the unveiling ceremony of the latest memorial plaque to be erected by the charity 'Firemen Remembered' which does so much excellent work in preserving and honouring the memory of the firefighters of the Second World War, those 'Heroes with Grimy Faces' as they were memorably described by Winston Churchill.

This particular plaque is located at Shoe Lane, London EC4 and honours an incident that was immortalised on canvas by the artist Leonard Rosoman R.A., a firefighter in the Auxilary Fire Service who witnessed the event at first hand and although traumatised by what he had seen, created a powerful image, which Rosoman himself at first thought was too raw for public consumption, showing as it did, the imminent deaths of two firefighters and colleagues but which is today recognised as one of the iconic pieces of the war artists' work that it truly is. The image originally entitled 'The Falling Wall' by the artist but for some reason re-titled by the Imperial War Museum 'A House Collapsing on two Firemen, Shoe Lane, London EC4' is reproduced below, courtesy of the IWM, which is today the home of the original painting.

This incident occurred during the great fire raid on the City of London on the night of 29th/30th December 1940, which is sometimes known as The Second Great Fire of London, such was the intensity of the fires started by the German incendiaries and the vast swathes of the Square Mile that were laid waste.

As part of the ceremony, the redoubtable Stephanie Maltman, one of the leading figures behind the charity, explained what to the best of our knowledge today, had happened on this night in Shoe Lane and how Auxiliary Fireman Sidney Alfred Holder and a now unknown helper who had simply been passing by had come to perish beneath fifteen feet of white hot bricks and masonry.

Sidney Holder, Leonard Rosoman and the future writer and novelist William Sansom were part of an AFS squad detailed to fight a major fire in Shoe Lane, just off Fleet Street. Rosoman, Sansom and Holder were controlling a branch directing water onto the blazing building and although it looked a hopeless task, stuck bravely at their task. Amazingly, but not uncommonly during a major raid, there were still passers by going about their business and the firefighters were joined by an off duty soldier and an RAF aircraftsman, who offered to help. Again, this was not an uncommon occurence. During the course of their toils, a more senior AFS Officer appeared on the scene and instructed Rosoman to leave the branch to the others and accompany him on a recce from an adjacent building to see if they could find another spot from which to direct their branches at the by now out of control fire. As they surveyed the scene, Rosoman heard the ominous crack of the wall crumbling under the heat and collapsing onto the men below, one of whom was Rosoman's close friend, William Sansom.

Incredibly, Sansom and the Aircraftsman survived the incident by dint of good fortune; the wall had collapsed almost as a solid slab of masonry and they had the luck to be standing more or less on the spot where a window frame hit the ground and although showered with masonry, they were not seriously buried and were quickly able to free themselves and rushed to where Holder and the soldier had been directing their branch. The two men tore at the white hot bricks with their bare hands, severely burning themselves at the same time. They were quickly relieved by a Rescue Squad and it was only when they were taken aside, that Sansom and his colleague realised the extent of the injuries to their hands.

The rescuers eventually reached the two buried men; the soldier was dead when they found him. His steel helmet had been crushed almost flat. Although the details are sketchy, history tells us that Sidney Alfred Holder was alive when pulled from the rubble; the Commonwealth War Graves Commission tells us that he died 'near to St Bartholomew's Hospital' which suggests that he died in an ambulance on his way to that place.

Sidney Alfred Holder was 49 years old at the time of his death and came from Hendon in North London. Despite fairly extensive research by Stephanie and her colleagues at Firemen Remembered, the identity of the soldier who heroically offered to help on that fateful night has never been established and he remains 'known unto God' but to us mere mortals, one of the many 'unknown soldiers.'

It is thanks to the likes of Sidney Alfred Holder, his colleagues in the Fire Service and Civil Defence Services and the now anonymous helpers like the unknown soldier, that the London we know and love today still stands, with 'honourable scars' but unbowed by tyranny.

Published Sources:

Fireman Flower - William Sansom, Hogarth Press 1944

The London Blitz: A Fireman's Tale - Cyril Demarne OBE, After The Battle 1991

Sunday, 7 August 2011

It wasn't just London

Since this blog started some 18 months ago, we make no apologies for the majority of the writing being somewhat biased towards events in London. After all, the Blitzwalkers do concentrate on walks around various areas of our capital that were affected by the events of 70 years and longer ago. However, although London was the place that the Luftwaffe always returned to, we are the first to recognise that there were plenty of other places outside the capital that drew the attention of Hitler's finest.

Liverpool, Manchester, Belfast, Glasgow, Coventry, Portsmouth, Southampton, Belfast, Birmingham, Sheffield, Hull, Plymouth and Exeter amongst other places all suffered at the hands of the Luftwaffe and having just returned from a short holiday in Devon, it is this county upon which we shall concentrate today.

The county of Devon, with its rich agricultural traditions, at first choice seems an odd choice of target for Goering's bombers but with a little thought, the logic of this choice of target becomes apparent. The City of Plymouth is the home to Devonport Dockyard, the largest naval base in Western Europe and then as now, one of the homes of the Royal Navy. Hitler and his cronies were quick to recognise that if Devonport could be crippled, then the capabilities of the Royal Navy could be similarly hampered. The photograph shows the city centre the morning after a heavy raid in March 1941.

The first bombs fell on the city as early as 6th July 1940, when the suburb of Swilly was attacked with the death of three people. Much worse was to follow in early to mid 1941, when five heavy raids reduced large parts of the city to rubble. As elsewhere, the Plymouth Blitz brought tales of tragedy, heroism and defiance. Amongst the former, March 21st 1941 saw the Childrens' Ward at the City Hospital take a direct hit, when four nurses and nineteen children, the youngest barely a week old, were killed. Tragedy came again on 22nd April 1941, when a public air raid shelter located in Portland Square received a direct hit which resulted in the deaths of 72 shelterers. As always, the heroes were the firefighters, rescue workers and wardens, who toiled without a thought for their own safety. The defiance came in many simple ways; people continued to go to work, the Western Morning News, the local newspaper continued to appear every day despite the damage to their own offices and perhaps most poignantly of all was a wooden sign fixed over the door of the ruined parish church of St Andrew by a local headmistress, which read simply "Resurgam" which translated means "I shall rise again."

Neither was Plymouth the only part of Devon to be bombed; in 1940 and later during the so called Baedecker Raids of early to mid 1942 saw Exeter bombed with much of the historic City Centre being flattened. Newton Abbot railway station was bombed on 20th August 1940 when three enemy aircraft deliberately attacked the large railway station and yards resulting in the deaths of fourteen people and extensive damage and disruption to the main line to and from London.

Even seemingly sleepy backwaters such as the Regency seaside town of Sidmouth were not immune; in November 1941 a German bomber, probably on it's way back from a raid on Exeter shed it's load over the town, fortunately without loss of life but causing some material damage to properties and also causing the attention of a large number of curious locals who came to see the bomb craters the next day!

Devon, of course was the destination of large numbers of evacuees from the big cities, particulary from London. This writer knows of one friend who was evacuated from Greenford in Middlesex to Newton Abbot as a small boy. The reaction of his parents when they heard of the bombing of this part of Devon must have been one of extreme consternation, although for the most part, the evacuees sent to this part of the world must have found rural Devon a world apart from London and the other big cities.

Devon, in common with pretty well the whole of the south of England, was the home to many thousands of Allied servicemen in the build up to D-Day and many friendships were forged between American servicemen in particular and the local populace, whom they grew to like and to admire. In 1944, these servicemen were to leave for what General Eisenhower described as "The Great Crusade" to rid Europe and the World of Nazi tyranny. Many of these young men would never return, but they left behind a Devon, which like the remainder of the country, would never be quite the same again, so deep were the scars left behind.

Published Sources:

The Newton Abbot Blitz - AR Kingdom, Oxford Publishing Company 1979
Sidmouth, The War Years 1939-45 - John Ankins, privately published 2001
The Blitz of Plymouth - Arthur C Clamp - PDS Printers 1981