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Communiqué No. 20 by Paul Rowntree
sent from London during the first WW2 blitz
Tu 7 Jan 41
I had got as far as the all clear at about 11 o’clock on:
Sunday 29 Dec 1940
I am afraid that the extraordinary sights that might have left no separate chain of impressions – I am left with superlatives merely.
It was extraordinary the lightness everywhere. We had heard machine gun fire before the all clear and as the barrage had stopped although some people at first thought the Jerries were machine gunning the streets, most people believed it was our night fighters who, we reasoned, from above the Jerries would get a good view of them against the glow of the sky. (Most papers next day said fighters were up – but the Daily Mail most emphatically said there were no night fighters operating over London and they said that the reason the barrage stopped was because they would give their positions away with the City blaze on. So they would in daytime, I should think, and anyhow the mobile ach-ach on lorries would surely try and do something.)
We could hardly believe that the Jerries had been driven off or maybe, we thought, they could do no more damage in the City by dropping H.E. in fact they might put some of the fires out.
It turned out that a miraculous change in the weather prevented the follow up by H.E. alone. ( There had been some H.E., a landmine or two etc with the 20,000 incendiaries.)
And so we walked along Threadneedle Street and then along Gresham Street. By the Bank the roads became filled with a web of hoses, some empty. I remembered the firemen say that there was a water shortage as a main had been hit. There was a blaze to our right but we went straight into and along Gresham St. We passed the Guildhall ablaze on our right with high water towers shooting water in.
Further on where the street bends right then straight again, we saw our fist big fire. It was just terrific. The whole inside of the building was one solid furnace of roaring flame. Flames were pouring to leeward across the street fanned by a stiff breeze. Again and again showers of glowing sparks would sweep along the streets as we walked about, but as we were frequently sprayed by hoses they did no damage. We soon realised why so many fireman’s eyes needed cleaning out. Our eyes began to smart and water as we walked about.
I read in the paper next day that streets were closed to the public – we saw no sign of that and although we may have looked official, in our tin, hats, as we walked with an air of authority among the fire pumps and hoses and ducking under jets from the hoses yet the few other “civilians” we saw were not controlled.
Next morning however when the City was crowded by its workers there were ropes and policemen so that we could hardly move and a policemen (who didn’t know about Little Britain) wouldn’t let us pass the rope when we knew we had a clear route and so we had to make a slow detour round by St.Paul’s and the old Bailey. – and I was even more pleased at having seen the fires themselves in the comfort of the night before.
We turned right from our first fire and saw a church ( St. Mary’s) making a beautiful picture as the inside was burning.
We discovered that we were at Aldermanbury Post although it bore no resemblance to its normal appearance. Falcon St. leading to it was a mass of rubble. The post although safe in itself was evacuated when they were ringed round with fire with only one way out and that being closed.
Merryfield said that George Binns was in his element “organising” everybody as they put out fires in the building.
Their M.O. ( I thought he looked a shit when I saw him some time ago) who is supposed to be a Czech refugee was last seen on 2 Jan that night asking if the roads to the country were clear.
I don’t know if he has returned yet ( he has) to the post which is temporarily in a small shelter ( as casualties can’t reach the proper post over the heaps of unrecognisable streets which are as passable as a rocky shore.
We found a way left into Cheapside where we were able to get to St. Paul’s tube passing another fire to our right.
There was a fire raging over the entrance to St. Paul’s tube station 9 opposite Pelham’s (which is ok) and as we passed we noticed the very roof of the CTO had a thin sheet of flame along it ( the fire having been blown across Newgate St. )
We went along Aldersgate but before we got to the Met Station there were huge fires on either side of the road. There were also many fires in individual buildings and in the streets to the right and left. We were able however to get along Little Britain and we waked round to Henry VIIIth gate, very apprehensive because thee was an ominous glow silhouetting the outer Barts buildings. Smithfield was lit up brightly by the general glow ( again making a coloured picture) and the windows of the modern buildings to the west were lit up – but only by reflection. We entered the square and were relieved to find Barts unaffected by the 8 incendiaries ( some explosive) which were soon put out by students and porters.
The electricity and gas was off and Barts was working on our emergency dynamos. We also managed to get a cup of tea.
We returned round by the old Bailey and Ludgate Hill and saw many buildings round St Paul’s which we were surprised to see was alright. ( some incendiaries fell though the roof but the watchers were hot onto them).
We came through St. Paul’s Churchyard and saw the Central Telegraph Office completely ablaze with fire from all windows.
There were other huge fires along Newgate St – Efram Blakes ( which still stands and above the old Post Office tube station.
We stood and watched the C.T.O. but it was latish and we decided that the walls would not fall for some time. (they still stand).
Then we wandered the streets north of Gresham Street where the fires had got such a hold that there were no firemen there. They were ringing round the fires trying to prevent them spreading. We tried to make our way towards the post but we couldn’t go straight on so we tried to go southwards ( to the west of St. Mary’s Church). We ran quickly passed a blazing building only to find our way blocked by a huge wall of rubble from a collapsed building. Things began to drop from the blazing building and we rushed back before anything heavy came down. We retraced our steps back along the only possible route to Aldersgate and the only way we could back to Cheapside.
There was a straggly young A.F.S. man with a Yorkshire accent who asked the way to Mansion House. He left gibbering and repeating himself. After a time, we understood that one of his pales ( under his orders) had been killed by a falling cornice stone. He left repeating “poor c***” and whining “poor f*****”. I told him not to go there – it’s not my fault – he wouldn’t listen – I told him not to stand there – poor c*** – he’s dead – my pal – do you realize he was my pal – it’s not my fault is it.” We assured him it wasn’t – but it made no difference to him.
“Poor c***” – I told him not to go there – I couldn’t help it”. Apparently his pal and some others had been taken to Barts and we couldn’t be sure if he had died yet.
It appeared that they found some bottles of whisky in a basement and he had allowed them to drink it. He also had a bottle himself and he was terrified that he would therefore be held responsible for his pal’s death.
He was terrified that we would report him or hand him over. I thought he wasn’t in a fit state to wander about ( he had lost his brigade) and wanted to take him back to the post where we could give him a stretcher. But he was too suspicious and broke away from us. I was afraid he might throw himself in a fire in a suicidal fit but Ismay thought although drunk – he was rationalizing well and anyhow, having reach the Mansion House we could do nothing else but shake him by the hand and say goodbye and leave him to his own devices. I hope that the many AFS men and the policeman would keep him from harm)
We got back to the post (which we believed was the only 1st aid place still working in the City – with Barts refusing cases) )
We were wet and tired and I went to bed. Ismay was far to excited and leaving his camera and valuables with me ( he was a bit apprehensive going without my “steadying influence”) he went out again ( at 4.30 am) to rejoin the fire. He took over one of the hoses at an Aldersgate St fire. The fireman ( who had been in the dock fires) said the City one was far worse.
Allardice ( after evacuating from Aldermanbury) was walking along just outside the White Hart at about 11 o’clock when a bomb landed on top of the White Hats buildings. Stones and bricks were hurled across the road where windows in the observation room and R.S.Q. and the catering Coy. were caved in by the blast.
[Aldermanbury is positioned next to Guildhall]
He however being close to the building was safe under the waterfall of huge stones etc which fell into the road.
He hurried to the Vicarage [Barts club] and had 8 double whiskies straight off.
6am found him helping in the evacuation of patients to Hill End. They were to be evacuated at 10am. But even though the risk of fire and total evacuation changed with the wind, the police advised them to start earlier while the streets were empty.
Please don’t say anything to anyone else and don’t tell her I asked you this, as she might not want you to know she has worries.
So please curb any curiosity you will now have until you see her.