The Ride of your life – The London Necropolis Railway


THE LONDON NECROPOLIS RAILWAY was a private company transporting the dead of London to the London Necropolis (Brookwood cemetery in Surrey), one of the ‘new’ cemeteries built to ease the severe overcrowding in the capital’s existing ones after the population doubled in number from the early to mid – 1800s.


A Ticket to Ride: The archway that lead to the station and office complex of the London Necropolis Railway. Photo (C) Stephen Richards via

Although the company was in existence from 1854 to 1941 the building at Westminster Bridge Road dates from 1902.

In April 1941 the station was badly damaged in an air raid. The war ended and the London Necropolis Railway decided not to reopen, selling off the remaining buildings for office space.

The entrance to the site at Westminster Bridge Road was for first class mourners; second and third class parties entered through a separate entrance off Hercules Road.

The existing building – now Grade II listed – and a few iron pillars that supported the railway structures are all that remain of the large station complex. It had ticket offices and separate waiting rooms (multiple First, Second and Third class rooms according to the type of travel and funeral party was to undertake. Waiting rooms could also double as chapels for funeral services if required), mortuaries, workshops and specialist facilities for handling the coffins – including a steam-powered lift to raise them to platform level. There was apparently a stock of coffins on hand in case of deaths in hotels or similar premises where… erm…a certain amount of discretion was needed…

More info:



A sign of the times


SUPRISINGLY FOR SOME, Imperial War Museums’ Churchill War Rooms and Museum (CWR) is not the only reminder of the Westminster’s Second World War history.

Not far from the Palace of Westminster (which had at least one pillbox – long since gone – built into the surrounding wall at the north end of Westminster Bridge Road) is Lord North Street.

It’s a quiet street of Georgian three and four bedroomed terrace houses averaging around £4,000,000 each and a favourite des-res of many politicians – including Sir Harold Wilson (who allegedly believed that certain elements of the Security Services had the place bugged and were ready to instigate a coup d’état with factions of the Armed Services) Antony Eden, and disgraced MP Johnathan Aitken – and others wanting or needing to live quietly in central London.

War-time Home Secretary Lord John Anderson (after whom the Anderson air raid shelter is named) also lived there and coincidentally the street has a number of signs indicating that there were public shelters converted from the cellars of some of houses on the street.

‘Public shelters in vaults under pavement in this street’. An example of an air raid shelter notice on a wall in Lord North Street, Westminster, London. Image: © R Maddox 2017

For many years after the war the white ‘S’ on a black background was a common sight on walls all over the UK. Image: © R Maddox 2017


History doesn’t recall if house holders were ever woken by strangers wanting shelter from the Luftwaffe – or indeed any conversation that unfolded in the late blacked-out gloom.

Also living there was Brendan Bracken, owner of the Financial Times and a friend and confidant of Winston Churchill.

Oh… and in nearby Smith Square lived Sir Oswald Mosley MP with his wife Diana (nee Mitford).

The ex-Conservative Member of Parliament, ex-Labour MP and founder of the British Union of Fascists was interned by Churchill under the Defence Regulation 18B (which allowed for the internment of suspected Nazi sympathisers) shortly after Churchill came to power. Mosely and his family were released to house arrest in 1943 on medical grounds.

Unlucky twenty four


THE AIRCRAFT PANEL below is part of the online IWM Collection.

It was recovered from the Hermann Göring aeronautical research institute in Völkenrode near Braunschweig – Brunswick in English – at the end of the Second World War, when the huge secret facility was taken over by the British Ministry of Aircraft Production (MAP).

Professor William Jolly Duncan, a senior scientist specialising in aerodynamics and according to the IWM Collections web page,  he sent it to the Air Ministry in London in January of 1945. It was passed to the museum in 1946(1).

Professor Duncan was part of a specialist team by headed by Alfred Hubert Roy Fedden a noted aero engine designer who had designed a number of engines for the Bristol Aircraft Company before joining MAP(2).

The team visited the site on 14 June 1945 as part of their mission(3) to gather information and materials etc from the research facility ahead of the Russians under whose jurisdiction the site fell – and of course the Americans and the French; all of whom wanted to capitalise on the advances in aircraft technology made by the German scientists.

After the initial mission, MAP took over the Völkenrode research facilities – a 1,000 acre site with more than 60 buildings, including five wind tunnels, one large enough to put a full-size fighter aircraft inside. During the war fifteen hundred staff worked on airframe, aero engine and aircraft weapons development and testing.

A Messerschmitt bf 109 fighter suspended in a wind tunnel at Hermann Göring aeronautical research institute, 1940.
Library of Congress (Prints and Photographs Division) Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Although Brunswick was targeted over 40 times during the war, site appears to have escaped major damage(4).

In order to maintain the site’s secrecy, there were no obvious aircraft-related structures such as runways, all power supplies were buried underground and there were no railway lines to the site. Most buildings were low-level structures without chimneys and all were well camouflaged(5).

The panel comes from a Handley-Page Halifax II bomber, serial HR697 (ZA-F). It served with No 10 Squadron RAF and was one of ten Halifax bombers shot down on the night of 28/29 June 1943 when RAF Bomber Command sent 608 aircraft to attack Cologne(6).

Panel from the forward fuselage area of Handley Page Halifax bomber HR697.
IWM catalogue number EPH 4623. © IWM

It shows 23 successful missions flown to German and French targets – including four to Essen, three to Berlin, the twenty-first operation (to Wuppertal) marked by a ‘gold key’. The final mission symbol was painted by the Germans after the panel was recovered from the aircraft’s wreckage.

Seven of the crew died as a result of the attack and crash and are buried at Jonkerbos War Cemetery in the Netherlands(7) (8).

The eighth – Flight Engineer Sergeant Robert Shannon, RAAF – became a prisoner of war.

According to his Ex-Prisoner of War Questionnaire (completed 2 May 1945), he was transferred to the Aircrew Interrogation Centre – commonly known as ‘Dulagluft’ near Frankfurt – on 2 July 1943 as PoW no 350(9), presumably from a local prison in Belgium.

On 15 July 1944 he was sent to Stalagluft 6 Prisoner of War camp in East Prussia, remaining for just over a year.

He was moved to Stalagluft 357 at Thorn in Poland on 18 July 1944 for a month until that camp was relocated to Fallingbostel in Germany.

Here he stayed for eight months from 12 August 1944. On 14 April 1945 he and another prisoner escaped from a column of POWs which were being withdrawn as the Allies were advancing.

They left in six columns, each of 2,000 prisoners. Both made it back to Britain(10).

The pair were very lucky.

Arriving in Gresse after a 10-day forced march of over 100 kms they were attacked by RAF ground attack aircraft who mistook the lines of men for German infantry. Sixty men died and many were injured in the attack.

An added poignancy to the story is that the crew –

Pilot Officer Roy Hamilton Geddes, Royal Australian Air Force
Sergeant Robert Stirratt White, Royal Air Force
Pilot Officer Herbert Ernest Cross, Royal Air Force
Sergeant David Brown, Royal Air Force
Flight Sergeant Clifford Entwistle, Royal Air Force
Pilot Officer Reginald Eric Bradshaw, Royal Air Force
Sergeant Albert William Booth Royal Air Force and Sergeant Robert Shannon Royal Australian Air Force

– were well on their way to completing their operational tour of 30 missions.

Roy Geddes (who had been promoted to Pilot Officer less than a week earlier) had returned to flying earlier in June after being injured in a crash involving another No 10 Squadron Halifax. They were returning from an operation over Dortmund on 5 May 1943.

Five of the crew he was flying with were killed when the aircraft – clipped Hood Hill, near Sutton Bank in North Yorkshire (11) (12).

In the bottom right hand corner of the panel are the names of Leutnant Johannes Hager and Unteroffizier Hubert von Bergen, the Luftwaffe crew that shot the aircraft down at 01:27 on 29 June 1943.

They flew with 4./NJG1, a night fighter unit and engaged the Halifax at around 18,000 feet. It crashed one kilometre northwest of Maastricht(13).

Johannes Hager would end the war with more than forty victories (sources credit him with between 42 and 48) and die in September 1993(14).

How the panel got to the research station and why exactly it was there is not known at this time, but the names of the German crew and the addition of the final mission marking on the panel suggest that it may have been presentation piece.


(1) (Retrieved 25 May 2017)

(2) (Retrieved 1 June 2017)

(3) (Retrieved 1 June 2017)



(6) (Retrieved 1 June 2017)

(7) (Retrieved 1 June 2017)

(8) (Retrieved 23 June 2017)

(9) Footprints on the Sands of Time – RAF Bomber Command Prisoners of War in Germany 1939-45, Olover Clutton-Brock, (2003)

(10) WO 344/283/1, UK National Archives, Kew, England. Consulted 27 June 2017.

(11) (Retrieved 23 June 2017)

(12) (Retrieved 23 June 2017)

(13) Luftwaffe Night Fighter Claims: Combat claims by Luftwaffe Night Fighter Pilots 1939 – 1945, John Foreman and Simon W Parry (2003).

(14) (Retrieved 20 June 2017)

Scapa Flow, Operation ZZ and a final act of defiance


A British tug alongside the sinking German destroyer G102 at Scapa Flow. Image © IWM (SP 1631)

JUNE 21 1919 and another day breaks over the huge natural harbour – 120 square miles – of Scapa Flow in the Orkneys but before it is over the greatest recorded loss of shipping in a single day will have occurred there. 

Scapa Flow use as a safe haven for ships dates back to Viking times but it was first used by the Royal Navy in 1812 as an anchorage for trading ships to the Baltic coast. Recognising the importance of the harbour and that of the cargo ships, two Martello towers were built to protect the waiting ships until their Royal Navy escort arrived to take them across the North Sea.

Time and conflicts passed and regular use of Scapa by the Royal Navy waned.

In the early 20 century the Admiralty decided that its base at Rosyth near Edinburgh on the Firth of Forth could be disabled by mines sown across the estuary – effectively confining Royal Naval ships to harbour and so Scapa, with its rapid access to open waters, was to become the home of the Grand Fleet.

All the facilities needed for the effective use and protection of the harbour – artillery batteries, anti-submarine defences (including hydrophones), a mine field, blockships and later a Royal Naval Air Station – were built and by the outbreak of the First World War the base was ready to face the German threat.

In May 1916 Grand Fleet units sailed to meet the Imperial German Navy’s High Seas Fleet off the coast of Denmark. The encounter would be the greatest sea battle of the First World War – the Battle of Jutland.

The battle would involve some 100,000 sailors and around 250 ships; around 8,500 men and 25 ships would never see their home ports again.

On 5 June 1916 – for days after the battle had concluded Lord Kitchener the British Minister of War arrived at Scapa Flow to board HMS Hampshire for talks with Britain’s Russian allies.

The cruiser would never complete her voyage.

Having left harbour and trying to avoid a storm, she sank in around 20 minutes, almost certainly having hit a German submarine-laid mine off the Orkneys.

A dozen men survived from the 735 crew.

Kitchener and his thirteen staff all perished.

Just over a year later on 9 July 1917, HMS Vanguard having returned from a naval exercise would explode just before midnight killing 843 men. An explosion in the cordite room is believed to have been responsible for the ship’s loss.

On 21 November 1918, with the Armistice in force talks between all sides proceeding and disagreement over what should happen to the German Navy, Operation ZZ came into effect.

Seventy German warships sailed to an agreed point to be met by the 193 Royal Navy ships and then escorted in internment at Scapa Flow, to be held until their fate was decided. The flotilla stretch for 19 miles and was six miles wide with the German ships surrounded on all side.

Having arrived and isolated from with little news about what was happening at the talks and from their homes in Germany, time dragged and rumours flourished amongst the German crews.

Rear Admiral Ludwig Van Reuter, disgruntled by what he saw as the discreditable way his government were behaving both at the talks and in Germany but determined to act with honour sent a note to his captains which read:

‘It is my intention to sink the ships only if the enemy should attempt to obtain possession of them without the assent of our government. Should our government agree in the peace terms to the surrender of the ships, then the ships will be handed over, to the lasting disgrace of those who have placed us in this position.’

At 10:00 on 21 June 1919, with the majority of the Royal Naval ships out of harbour exercising and believing that the peace talks had failed and the Royal Navy was going to seize the German ships, he ordered that all the ships should hoist their ensigns for one last time and then scuttle themselves.

SCUTTLING OF THE GERMAN FLEET AT .SCAPA FLOW, JUNE 1919 . The battlecruiser SMS Hindenburg half sunk at Scapa Flow. Copyright: © IWM (Q 70580). Original Source:

As night fell that day 52 ships – including 15 of the 16 battleships – had settled on the floor of Scapa Flow.

Nine German sailors were killed when British sentries, believing they were under attack, fired on life boats approaching the shore.

More information (all sources retrieved 26 May 2017)

Scapa Flow:

Battle of Jutland:

Lord Kitchener:

Operation ZZ:



Flying low-level down the Champs-Élysées


SEVENTY FIVE YEARS AGO TODAY a single RAF aircraft undertook an audacious mission to boost the morale of the French population.


Image: A trade advertisment for the Bristol Aircraft Company’s ‘Beaufighter’ depicting Gatward and Fern dropping a French tricolour banner over the Arc de Triomphe on 12 June 1942. From

NINETEEN FORTY ONE wasn’t a good year for Occupied France and there was no reason to think that 1942 would be any better.

The Occupation continues to make daily life in France – and indeed in all the countries  under German control – difficult in many ways.

France is physically and ideologically divided. Troops are on the streets of the Occupied Zone. The Résistance and German authorities continue the cycle of assassinations and reprisals.

Power struggles between Guallist and communist factions split the Résistance.

Factories have been taken over to manufacture products for the Germans.

Rationing continues for the French population.

Mass arrests of communist sympathisers started in 1941 and Jewish citizens are coming under increasing scrutiny – not just from the Germans directly but through the occupying forces using the French authorities and their Vichy allies to enforce the new order.

Unable to lure foreign workers to Germany itself by the promise of better rations, the German controlled Service du Travail Obligatoire (a scheme whereby more than half a million people were forcibly sent to work in Germany) was just starting.

After the evacuation at Dunkirk and the destruction of units of the French naval fleet by the Royal Navy in August 1940, many felt in France and elsewhere felt Britain needed to show its support.

Thus Operation SQUABBLE was born.

Organised by the Special Operations Executive and Air Chief Marshal Sir Philip Joubert de la Ferté (himself of French descent) the original plan was for a single attacking aircraft to fly along the mile-long Avenue des Champs-Élysées just as the German Army were parading there and – if the opportunity presented itself – attack the nearby former French Ministre de la Marine (now occupied as the Germany Naval headquarters in France).

Sir Philip was Commander-in-Chief of Coastal Command, the branch of the RAF that operated closely with the Royal Navy and – critical in these circumstances – attack small targets at low level.

Coastal Command had both the aircraft and the aircrew to mount an attack such as this.

Flight Lieutenant Alfred Kitchener ‘Ken’ Gatward was a leading anti-shipping attack expert and was offered the chance of carrying out the attack. It was stressed that it would be an ‘unsafe’ mission using a single aircraft without further support.

Gatward and his navigator, Flight Sergeant Gilbert ‘George’ Fern immediately started planning the flight and honing their skills by carrying out attacks on an abandoned wreck in the English Channel.

The day of the attack dawned and improving weather – that is the lack of cloud cover – forced the pair back to England while they were over France.

This happened not once but three times and without the advantage of surprise the mission was doomed.

So on 12 June 1942 the aircraft left the Coastal Command airfield at Thorney Island, Hampshire (just outside Portsmouth) for what the crew had decided would be the final attempt. They had decide that there was to be no more practising.

This was it.

They would fly the whole mission at low level to give them the best chance.

Crossing the French coast half an hour after take-off, they managed to avoid both fighter aircraft and flak positions.

At one point some 30 feet (10 metres above the ground) the aircraft scattered a murder of crows. One lodged in the engine air intake, causing the motor to overheat.

Still they flew on.

Approaching Paris from the south they rounded the Eiffel Tower and then headed for the Arc de Triomphe at the top of the Champs-Élysées.

Their canons primed and ready, they reportedly flew at less than roof top height down the Champs-Élysées. But not until they had sent one of two banners (made from a French naval ensign back in Britain) fluttering down on the Arc de Triomphe.

But their German army quarry eluded them. The military parade – something that happened every day after midday – was nowhere to be seen.

Instead the crew saw groups of French people happily waving to the aircraft.

At the other end of the Avenue, the Place de la Concorde with its fountains and the Luxor monument grew ever larger.

Swinging around the 75-foot Egyptian obelisk they lining up on their second objective, the Naval Headquarters.

Gatward fired a volley of 20mm shells into the building before dropping the second banner and making off north towards Gare Saint Lazare railway station and then coming around westward to return to England – again at low level.

Landing at RAF Northolt not far from central London, he and Fern delivered 60 photographic images of Paris.


One of the images taken by Flight Sergeant George Fern as the Beaufighter entered the Place de la Concorde at low level. It shows the Grand Palais exhibition hall with a sign publicising a German propaganda exhibition entitled the ‘La Vie Nouvelle’. This and others were published in LIFE magazine. Image by Flight Sergeant George Fern, DFM, RAF. From

In 2012 Gatward’s Second World War medal group, together with memorabilia about the flight were sold at auction for £51,000.


Image: Wing-Commander A K Gatward, Commanding Officer of No. 404 Squadron RCAF in another Beaufighter later in the war. IWM catalogue number: MH 7660. © IWM

Sources and more information:

Operation MILLENNIUM and how Hamburg was spared at the cost of Cologne


THE NIGHT OF THE 30-31 May 2017 marks the 75th anniversary of the first RAF 1,000 bomber raid against targets in Germany.

In order to meet the number of aircraft to be sent, planes were begged from as many units as possible – including operational training units – with just 678 aircraft being front line bombers of all different shapes, sizes and capacities.

Eventually 1,047 aircraft would take off on the raid – more than 2.5 times the number of the previous biggest raid.

Of the aircraft that took off 868 claimed to have bombed the target releasing 1,455 tons of bombs (60% incendiary bombs). As was the norm at this period of the war only around two-thirds of the bombs landed in the city.

Image: A vertical air to ground photograph taken during Operation MILLENNIUM, the ‘Thousand-bomber’ raid on Cologne, Germany 30/31 May 1942. Because of the fact that the aircraft, the searchlights on the ground and the tracer shells from anti-aircraft fire are all moving, most of the picture is covered in light trails. Smoke from exploding bombs can be seen in lower left corner of the image. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

But this, the first use of the bomber stream tactic with all aircraft passing over the target in just 90 minutes, still accounted for the loss of 5.2% of Cologne’s buildings, 486 people killed, 5,000 injured and almost 60,000 made homeless.

The poem below by George Crocker, a former air gunner who served with of No. 218 (Gold Coast) Squadron, RAF paints an evocative picture of the crews setting out on the night of 30 May 1942.

It (and the poem’s explanatory notes ) were published in ‘The Aussie Mossie’ magazine in December 2007.

Cologne, 1942

The briefing room was crowded
With twenty crews, or more
We saw the target map and route
And guessed what was in store

The air is thick with rumour
“It’s a Happy Valley (1) treat”
The CO (2) enters quickly
We clatter to our feet

“A message from the C-in-C (3)
We raise a muted groan
“A thousand aircraft on tonight –
Your target is Cologne”

“A thousand aircraft” echoes round
A mocking cheer is raised
“Four hundred Tiger Moths (4)” one quips
Yet still we are amazed

“Your job tonight – to start the fires
First there will find it tough
Make it easy for the heavies (5)
To drop their back-room stuff (6)

“A thousand aircraft on Cologne
God help the bods below
With a full moon and a clear sky
God help the sods that go”

The banter crackles back and forth
Weak jokes that mask strong fears
For some, this night will end with death
With horror, grief and tears

And so we saunter to the flights
Each with his thoughts alone
Warsaw, Rotterdam, London burned
For them – tonight… Cologne.

  • Happy Valley:
    RAF nickname for the Ruhr valley, a heavily industrialised and well-protected area of Germany, targeted by the RAF.
  • CO:
    Commanding Officer – usually the man in charge of the RAF station where the bomber squadrons were based.
  • C-in-C:
    Commander in Chief.
    At this time Command in Chief Bomber Command was Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris GCB, OBE, AFC
  • Tiger Moths:
    The De Havilland Tiger Moth was an unarmed biplane used for training RAF pilots.
  • Back-room stuff:
    refers to new types of bomb and or target markers etc.
  • Heavies:
    RAF bomber aircraft were categorised by the load they could carry – light, medium or heavy. In May 1943 the RAF ‘heavies’ were the Short Stirling and Avro Manchester (both types being phased out), the Handley Page Halifax and the Avro Lancaster – more capable aircraft re-equipping Bomber Command.

Image: Members of No. 106 Squadron RAF, including their Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Guy Gibson (standing middle, front row), celebrate their return to RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire after the raid on Cologne, Germany on 30/31 May 1942. The Squadron’s Avro Manchesters, in the course of being replaced by Avro Lancasters are in the background. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

Although Cologne was the target bombed on Operation MILLENIUM it was not the first choice of Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Harris (‘Bomber’ Harris) head of Bomber Command.

That was to be Hamburg, a large port city on the coast and relatively easy to find using the navigation aids of the time – especially Gee that was coming into operation use. Harris’ declared aim (cited in ‘The Bombing War’ by Richard Overy) was the to wipe out the city in one night – two at the most – by carrying every single incendiary bomb possible to create an ‘unextinguishable conflagration’ in the ‘suitably combustible’ part-medieval city.

But weather concerns spared Hamburg that night – but for just over 12 months.

On the night of 23 July 1943 the RAF launched ‘Operation GOMORRAH’ against Hamburg. Reports state that around 43,000 people died in the resulting firestorm, almost half of the capacity of the modern Wembley Stadium, the home of English national football.

George Crocker’s RAF story with other examples of his wartime poetry can be found at (accessed 19 May 2017).

A different sort of war memorial


Image: The Westminster City Hall War Memorial commemorating 82 council workers. Image: © R Maddox 2017

 VILLAGES, TOWNS AND CITIES up and down the United Kingdom are dotted with war memorials.

Typically they date from the 1920s and feature a realistic depiction of a soldier, sailor or airman in a heroic or sometime contemplative pose – standing defiantly against the enemy, rifle in hand, or head bowed saluting fallen comrades.

Those which are abstract usually are cenotaph-like or variations on Sir Reginal Bloomfield’s ‘Cross of Sacrifice’ that features in Commonwealth War Grave cemeteries the world over.

Outside Westminster City Hall I saw what I took to be a piece of sculpture – something that is not unusual in the redeveloping area – that reminded me of a collection of aircraft munitions.

The ‘sculpture’ is a modern-day war memorial commissioned by Westminster City Council, It doesn’t honour those who died in Iraq or Afghanistan but commemorates the 82 council employees who died on active service during the First World War.

Each is remembered by a single Sicilian marble ‘shard’.

The names of those commemorated by the memorial are laser-engraved on a 2-metre diameter disc at its base.

Designed by Lee Simmonds it was dedicated in December 2016. It replaces a Roll of Honour from 1921 which was lost ‘decades ago’ when the Council moved offices.

Lee was born in 1987 and studied metalwork and silversmithing at Sheffield Hallam University. He returned to London to gain his Master’s degree at the Royal College of Art.

And do I like it?

It’s certainly eye-catching and since I first saw it I have found myself thinking about the shape of those polished needle-like projections.

Why choose that shape? I have my own ideas but I thought I‘d contact Lee Simonds and ask him.

If and when he gets back to me I’ll let you know what his thinking was and how he came to design the memorial!

More information:

The Churchill War Rooms


CHURCHILL’S COMMAND CENTRE was the hub of the Britain’s secret intelligence network in the Second World War as it played a central part in its direction.

The headquarters of MI6 were to be found (if you were in the know) at 55, Broadway opposite St James Park Underground Station just across the park. Churchill founded The SOE (Special Operations Executive) in 1940 in St Ermin’s Hotel, just around the corner from Broadway, with orders to ‘set Europe ablaze’ and create the resistance movement which its agents did.


St Ermines Hotel ©

The Battle of the Atlantic was being directed, with the help of Bletchley Park; in the depths of the ivy clad Citadel next to the Admiralty within sight of Winston’s headquarters. The command centre kept in constant touch with the “Park” as it was producing the ULTRA intelligence evaluations from wireless intercepts they decoded of Hitler’s orders to the Wehrmacht . The intelligence reports were delivered by a constant stream of Dispatch Riders arriving at the back door of the bunker in Great George Street. The Top Secret documents were then scrutinised by Churchill in the war rooms and circulated to his chosen advisors, sometimes with the now famous ACTION THIS DAY note on them.

The intelligence secrets that Churchill reviewed in his war rooms with the help of his small tight-knit team of senior naval and military officers played a crucial part in formulating the strategy of naval and military operations in every theatre of war around the globe. The decisions they made about the huge and complex movements of British forces and their military equipment had to be relayed rapidly and accurately to the commanders in the field. As the war began each of the armed services handled their own coding and communications but it soon became obvious that communications within the war rooms had to be more centrally organised. The Royal Air Force set up the Cabinet Office Cypher Office; a small detachment of WAAFs (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) officers were assigned the arduous task of coordinating, coding, transmitting, receiving and distributing all signals communications within the command centre.


Lady Llewellyn Image © The Telegraph

Squadron Officer Joan Williams (latter Lady Llewellyn) was put in charge of the Cypher Office for which she was later awarded and OBE; it grew rapidly under her supervision to many more times its original size. A battery of machine coding Typex machines (the equivalent of the German coding Enigma machine) were installed within weeks of the decision. A team of eight WAAF officers administered the operation of the constantly busy communications unit whose conditions in the sub-basement of what is now the Treasury Building were gloomy and almost airless. Visitors to the Churchill War Rooms today may be able to imagine the cramped living conditions but not the pressure under which they all worked. Those of us that have been concerned with coding and decoding messages will know the demands that such work needs and the close attention required where errors in a digit or letter could render a message unintelligible. Squadron Officer Williams work would not only entail the close attention to the coding or decoding of documentation but also the priority of its distribution, she was also responsible for seeing the right people saw the right documents. Priorities in circulation were laid down by General Sir Leslie Hollis to whom she reported; on more than one occasion she was reprimand her for an error in the circulation of documention. Her team had sent a document to staff on the normal ‘Secret’ list, when it should only have gone to the much more restricted ‘All Most Secret and Personal for Chiefs of Staff’ list.

Working in the War Rooms was demanding, often in ill lit and confined spaces but in spite of the difficulties morale was always high because war room staff found Churchill’s leadership so inspirational. The War Rooms had been manned for 24 hours every single day since 3rd September 1939 but on the 15th August 1945 Japan surrendered and a global war ended and the Map Room as the heart of the command centre ceased to function. A graphic picture of the conduct of the war was left for to-day’s visitors but the Cipher Office in the Cabinet Office still continued its operations for just over a year; still run by the WAAFS. Finally civil servants took over its function and the Cabinet Office Cipher Office was subsumed into other government security facilities leaving the war rooms vacant.

For some years after that there was an informal arrangement to show a limited number of people around the rooms but there was a growing public interest in viewing the historic command centre. Margaret Thatcher formally opened the Churchill War Rooms in 1984 and run by the Imperial War Museums; today the Churchill War Rooms are visited by almost half a million people a year. They are able to see the secret establishment from which the Second World War was directed laid out much as they were during the war; the site compares in importance with Bletchley Park as a part of Britain’s secret intelligence story. A visit to the War Rooms is enhanced by the feeling of Churchill’s presence, the arms of his chair in the Cabinet Room where he led discussions on the war’s progress with his Chiefs of Staff and advisors still show the deep groves. They were worn by him showing the strain of those meetings and making the momentous decisions while he was making history.

Feature image © IWM (HU 73355)

Operation CHASTISE – the attack on the Ruhr dams


THE AIRCRAFT FLEW IN THREE WAVES (nine in the first wave, five each in the second and third waves) to the first dam, the Möhne.

At 12:28 and after five hits the dam was breached. The Eder dam was next on the list and was shattered at 01:52.

The final dam – the Sorpe – was then targeted but remained intact.

Of the nineteen that were despatched only eleven attacked. Three aborted the mission before bombing, eight were lost and eight returned home.

Fifty-three aircrew died (almost 40% of the attacking force) and three men became prisoners of war as a result of the operation.

On the ground around 1,600 were killed including around 1,000 prisoners of war – many Soviet – serving as forced labour with two hydro-electric power stations destroyed and others damaged. A number of factories and coal mines were damaged and full production was not restored for four months.

In all thirty-four decorations – including a Victoria Cross to Guy Gibson – were awarded to the aircrew that took part. Gibson would be killed four months later flying a  De Havilland Mosquito on a raid in Holland. He was twenty-six years old.

The Imperial War Museums have a number of images in their online collection relating to No. 617 Squadron RAF and Operation CHASTISE.

A selection are shown below.

Image: An oblique view of the scale briefing model of the Eder dam (to the immediate right of the area of flat farmland) and the wooded hills of the surrounding area. Copyright: © IWM (MH 27710).


Image: A group of observers watches as a practice ‘bouncing bomb’ (UPKEEP weapon) heads toward the shoreline at Reculver in Kent, where No 617 carried out trials of the weapon. Designer and engineer Barnes Wallis is on the extreme left of the group. Copyright © IWM FLM 2343


Image: Close up of Avro Lancaster, ED932/G ‘AJ-G’ flown by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, commander of No 617 Squadron RAF after a practice drop of an UPKEEP bomb at Reculver, Kent.
The ‘/G’ after the serial number means that the aircraft is equipped with secret equipment and is to be guarded at all times while on the ground.
© IWM FLM 2354


Image: A German official standing by the ‘UPKEEP’ weapon salvaged from  Avro Lancaster, ED927/G ‘AJ-E’, after it struck an electricity pylon (possibly after being hit by flak) and crashed near Haldern, Germany at 23:50 hours on 16 May while flying to attack the Sorpe Dam. Flt Lt R N G Barlow and his crew were all killed. Copyright © IWM (HU 62922).


A summary of the attack produced by the Operational Research Section RAF Bomber Command for Director of Scientific Research, Ministry of Aircraft Production and dated by a covering note written by Dr Basil Dickins (Head of ORS, Bomber Command) as 3 November 1943.
Image: UK National Archives – Air 14/1858 ‘Investigations into the accuracy of bombing attacks on enemy targets, September 1941 to October 1943’.



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May 12 1940 – The death of Flying Officer Levin Fredman and the nine year search to find out what happened


Image: Pilots of No.615 (County of Surrey) Squadron RAF at Abbeville in France. Flying Officer Levin Fredman is sitting on the right with his Brodie on his knee. He holds a pistol on his lap – perhaps to test the protective properties of the Brodie helmet! © IWM (1609)

SEVENTY-SEVEN YEARS AGO TODAY Levin Fredman died. He was 21 years old.

Called up to RAF service in September 1939, he and his squadron flew their Gloster Gladiators across to France on 15 November 1939, to bolster elements of the Air Component of the British Expeditionary Force already there.

Once there, No 615 Squadron and fellow Auxiliary Air Force squadron No 607 (County of Durham) Squadron that had flown with them settled into the routine of the Phoney War – occasional encounters with enemy aircraft, coupled with occasional trips to Paris,

That changed in the spring of 1940 after the launch of the long awaited Blitzkrieg.

Friday 10 May 1940 German offensive in Europe starts at dawn. Belgium, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands are attacked simultaneously under ‘Plan Gelb’ (Plan Yellow).

The Belgian Air Force is virtually destroyed that day and the RAF and French Air Forces are faced with rapidly regrouping and fighting the confident German forces sweeping across Europe.

That day Pilot Officer Levin Fredman takes off in a Gladiator biplane (see the earlier post ‘The Day Winnie Could have Killed Winston’) and attacks a Luftwaffe Heinkel He-111 bomber. Out run, he reported ‘port engine seen to emit black smoke and made off towards the west’.

It was probably the last time he flew the Gladiator as No 615 Squadron ‘B’ Flight were re-equipping with modern Hawker Hurricanes fighters.

Two days later on May 12 1940, he and other members of his squadron were sent to Vitry-en-Artois to reinforce No 607 Squadron (County of Durham) RAF.

At around 09:30 he took off as part of a mixed section of Hurricanes with both No 615 Squadron and No 607 Squadrons.

They encountered a number of Messerschmitt bf 109 fighters escorting Heinkel He 111 aircraft and he fails to return.

The National Archives has a file detailing the hunt to discover exactly what happened to him.

Like all such files about missing personnel you have to take a moment before you open it as the sorrow, the false hopes and tireless efforts of the both the relatives and the RAF Casualty Branch to find out what happened can emotionally drain you.

In this file are copies of RAF reports, letters from his brother and a sister asking for information on behalf of his aged parents.

It details searches by the Red Cross – including one to a mysterious Miss Day who is sending a telegram to ‘Direktor Maurer’ at the Töcher Institut in Switzerland, where she was apparently a former pupil – to see if he had been badly injured and become a prisoner of war, a report from a Frenchman  in Merville in the Nord region of France that he was buried there (he wasn’t).

There was also a report that he had been buried secretly in a village in Belgium and his grave hidden from the German occupiers. Again this is not the whole truth.

These are just a sprinkling of the sorts of correspondence in the folder. The first item is dated May 1940 and the last December 1949.

According to the file, enquiries with the Red Cross produced no lead nor had Miss Day’s enquiries. So his case had been handed to the Missing Research and Enquiry Unit in 1946 and after reviewing the case, interviewing possible witnesses they found a Gendarmerie report indicating that he was buried in Wihogne, a small village around 90 kilometres from Brussels – and around 500 kilometres from Merville.

The (very damaged) MREU report on the file is dated 26 June 1946 and written by Flight Lieutenant J A M Stuart from No 8 Section, No. 2 Missing Research and Enquiry Unit.

He states that he interviewed witnesses (including the local mayor) and found that Levin Fredman had been recovered from his burning aircraft and he had been identified by his identity discs and a number of papers – a bank statement, an RAF message form and five letters. The report continues:

‘ 5. I paid a visit to this cemetery and there saw the grave of FREDMAN. It was marked with a wooden cross on which is written the number of this officer. On the Grave itself is a small white stone on which is marked in French: ‘To our Brave Ally’. This grave has been registered by 73 G.R.U. [a military Grave Registration Unit].

6. Ref. para 2 in your letter of 27th June 1946 stating that a M. Jean Carette had informed F/O Fredman’s brother that F/O Fredman was buried in Merville cemetery, France. I think that perhaps M. Carette must refer to some other airman. ‘

He concludes the report with an appropriate understatement…

‘ 7. In view of the fact that the burial place of F/O Fredman has been located, I thought it unnecessary to make the journey to Merville to interview M. Carette.

May this case now be considered closed? please. (sic) ‘

We will may never know the full details of how exactly Flying Officer Fredman met his death but two things are certain.

His burial was recorded and documented and today his grave (the only British military grave in the cemetery) is well tended. Photographs show that although the wooden cross has been replaced by a Commonwealth War Graves headstone, there is still a separate plaque marked ‘A Notre Brave Allie’.