BY NEIL BRIGHT – LOCAL HISTORIAN
1933: Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power in Germany.
1935: Germany began to build up its military power even though it had been forbidden to do so in under the terms of its defeat in World War One (1914-1918)
1936: The Nazis marched into the Rhineland (the name for areas of Germany along the river Rhine). The Germans had lost the Rhineland during World War 2, and on March 7th 1936, the Nazis took the Rhineland back and re-militarised the area. Again, this was forbidden under the terms of Germany’s defeat in World War 1. These terms were outlined the Treaty of Versailles, signed on 28 June 1919.
1938: Germany annexed neighbouring Austria and Sudetenland (this area was part of Czechoslovakia where many German speaking people lived). These regions therefore become a part of the ever-increasing vision of the German Empire – “The Third Reich”. Also in 1938, Britain, France, Belgium and Russia started to believe another war in Europe was a possibility and began to build up their own forces.
1939: In August, Germany signed a pact with the USSR (now Russia). This was called the “Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact” which meant that if another country i.e. America or the UK tried to attack Germany, then the USSR would not join these forces – and if Germany wanted to attack or invade other neighbouring countries – then the USSR would not stand in its way.
By signing a treaty with Russia there would be no one to stop the Nazi forces. Other parts of Czechoslovakia also fell to the German army in early 1939.
1939: WAR BREAKS OUT
The Germans attacked Poland on 1 September 1939. The German forces had developed a new style of war which was called “Blitzkrieg” which means “Lightning War”-sharp swift attacks with tanks and troops.
The British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, demanded that Germany leave Poland or there would be war between the two countries. Germany ignored the British demands, therefore war was declared on 3 September 1939.
Germany defeated Poland within three weeks. The British Army went over to France and Belgium expecting these countries to be attacked as well. However very little happened until 1940.
1940-In April Germany invaded Norway and Denmark. The British Army landed in Norway to fight the Germans, but had to withdraw and Norway was lost to the Germans.
On 10 May the Germans attacked Holland, Belgium and France (the Allies). The Allies were quickly beaten and the British forces had to quickly retire from their positions and somehow get back to Britain despite being attacked all the way back to the channel ports by the Germans. The British Navy launched a plan to evacuate as many of the British and the Allied forces as they could from Dunkirk and other ports. This was known as “Operation Dynamo” and involved the use of, not only Navy ships, both those of the Merchant Navy, fishing fleets, cross channel ferries, lifeboats and pleasure boats. The evacuation started on 26 May and nine days later nearly 450,000 Allied troops had reached Britain. However most of their equipment, such as guns, tanks and lorries were left behind. Holland, Belgium and France all surrendered.
Hitler now wanted to invade Britain, but he had to get across the channel and Britain had a superior Navy which would stop the invasion. The German plan was to beat the British air force (RAF) first to give his air force (the Luftwaffe) complete supremacy of the air. Therefore German planes could attack the British Navy and keep them at bay while the invasion (called “Operation Sealion”) took place. The last likely date for any invasion was likely to have been 15 September 1940, because of the weather.
Hitler decided the best way to destroy the RAF was to attack their airfields, destroying planes on the ground. This campaign began on 1 August and the RAF was nearly destroyed. However a lone German plane that was supposed to bomb Thameshaven was lost in bad weather and dropped its bombs on the City of London on 25 August. In retaliation the RAF bombed Berlin, something Hitler vowed would never happen. Hitler was furious and ordered the bombing of London. This change of tactic, away from the RAF airfields, allowed the RAF to recover and by 15 September the Battle of Britain had been won and any thoughts of invasion were postponed
The first night of the Blitz was 7th September 1940. This was a dark day for London and particularly for Rotherhithe…
7 September was a sultry Saturday in the late summer of 1940. Nothing out of the ordinary seemed in the offing. Millwall were playing Charlton and people were going about their Saturday afternoon business. Some members of the Oxford and Bermondsey Youth Club were enjoying a weekend away at Halls Green marvelling at the dog-fights overhead.[i]
In the late afternoon the first wave of German bombers dropped their payload on Ford’s Motor Company at Dagenham. The primary targets that day were the West Ham power station, the Woolwich Arsenal, the Beckton gas works and the docks on both sides of the river in London-a blow right into the heart of the infrastructure of the capital.
It wasn’t long before an estimated half a million tons of wood on Surrey Docks was ablaze. The area was almost cut as Redriff Road and Brunel Road; the two roads leading on to the docks were twisted and warped with the heat of the blaze. Gerry Knight, the officer in charge of the Fire Service on the Docks pleaded with Fire Brigade HQ, “send all the pumps you can, the whole bl##dy world’s on fire!” To those trapped on Surrey Docks Gerry’s words must have seemed so true. As Fire Brigade pumps arrived from other forces it was often the case that their equipment wasn’t compatible with the local hydrants.
The local population of Surrey Docks had to be evacuated and Mr Julius, a stretcher party leader at Redriff School described the scene, “It looked like one flaming mass and the flames were terrifically high. To us it seemed that remarkable that people would get out of that area and when we saw the people coming down from Dockland we were absolutely amazed. They seemed to come like an army marching and running from the area. The people coming from Downtown looked in a very bad condition-they were dirty and dishevelled and hurrying to get away.”[ii]
One of those people who were trying to help those get off of the Surrey Docks peninsula was Women’s Voluntary Service driver, Grace Rattenbury. As the raids continued into the night and with much of the area ablaze, Grace constantly drove into the interior of the peninsula to bring out trapped civilians as well as injured firemen. For her bravery Grace was awarded the George Medal.[iii]
Half a mile away just off Jamaica Road, Keatons Road School was being used as a rest centre for those bombed out of their houses. Many residents of Surrey Docks arrived at the school to get a hot drink, something to eat, maybe some dry to wear. Tragedy struck just after midnight as the school was hit by a high explosive bomb. The Bermondsey Air Raid Wardens’ log reported “29 killed, rear of school demolished, no fire appliances available.” The King was horrified and visited the scene some days later.
The fires on Surrey Docks could be seen from as far away as Guildford. As the members of the Oxford and Bermondsey Club returned from their weekend away to the golden burning glow of docklands little did they know some of their homes may have been destroyed and family and friends were probably among the casualties.
Black Saturday was the start of 57 consecutive nights bombing of London. Following the loss of the Battle of Britain, German bombing raids would largely be carried out at night. The Night Blitz lasted until the 10/11 May 1941.
[i] Mark Say-The History of the OBC
[ii] Constantine Fitzgibbon-The Blitz
[iii] Charles Graves-Women in Green, the Story of the WVS