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They stood with the Few

Updated: Feb 9

Geoff Simpson FRHistS reflects on some of those who could be considered for the trust’s Blade of Honour scheme...


Albert Henley did not fly fighters, or carry arms at all. He was, however, one of the many without whose efforts the Few could not have succeeded in the Battle of Britain.

 

As Mayor of Bermondsey from 1939 to 1941, Councillor Henley did not

believe in remaining in his office, though he often slept in it. Local people remembered years later how he would arrive at the scene of bomb incidents, usually driven by the mayoral chauffeur Eddie Taylor, and take part in the rescue efforts.

 

On 11 May 1941, the last night of the initial Blitz, the mayor heard that a shelter had been hit. He was outside Bermondsey Town Hall, setting off for the scene, when another bomb exploded and he was fatally injured by shrapnel.

 

Eight months earlier, on 7/8 September, the first night of the Blitz, not far from Bermondsey, a bomb hit the South Eastern Hospital at New Cross, killing four nurses.

 

Probationer nurse Doris Sale, aged 17, was seriously injured and trapped. Several people worked to free her but they realised that a wall was about to fall on them. All retreated except hospital porter Albert Dolphin, who used his body to protect the helpless teenager. He was killed when the wall fell but Doris Sale survived.

 

Although many heroes of the Blitz in towns and cities across the country went unrecognised, Albert Dolphin was awarded a posthumous George Cross. 

 

In the early days of hostilities, perhaps astonishingly, people who joined the fire service might be called “war dodgers” and other insulting names. That quickly changed. On the terrible first night of mass bombing, Station Officer Henry “Gerry” Knight found himself amongst burning warehouses and ships’ superstructures in the Surrey Commercial Docks. His signal to his control room, “Send all the pumps you’ve got. The whole bloody world’s on fire”, probably raised eyebrows (“bloody” was a much worse swear word then than now) and it may have had some effect. Firecrews were racing from places such as Birmingham to join their London comrades that night. Gerry Knight was killed a few hours after he sent his signal, along with auxiliary fireman Richard Martin, still battling the dockland inferno.

 

The worst loss of life in British fire service history occurred after the Battle of Britain, though many of those involved are likely to have served in support of the Few. On 19 April 1941 a bomb struck a disused school at Bromley, Kent, that was being used as a sub fire station, killing 34 fire men and women.

 

The gentle humour of Dad’s Army can still be enjoyed in TV repeats. The Home Guard, an ill-armed collection of men (women came later) too old, too young, too unfit to join the regular services, or in ‘reserved occupations’, was the butt of humour in 1940. I suggest, however, that there is no doubt that, had the Germans come, some Home Guard units would have fought to the end.

 

They did meet the enemy when called upon to arrest downed German airmen, as did the police, some of whom had been armed against such eventualities. On one occasion the war came to a west country farm when the capture of the crew was carried out by the farmer’s daughter brandishing a shotgun.

 

Farmers were not often in direct danger, but their output was vital to the war effort. It prevented the nation going hungry and saved lives in the Merchant Navy.

 

Members of the Few would recall the heroism of their ground crews as bombs fell on the airfields. Some groundcrew were decorated but not very many. The fliers would remember, too, the WAAFs carrying on through the attacks. This was a world where the idea of women in the frontline was alien. By the end of the Battle of Britain six WAAFs had earned the Military Medal.

 

All the services were in the fight. The “Battle of the Barges” to destroy the German invasion fleet was fought, with heavy casualties, by the RAF’s Bomber and Coastal Commands and the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy.

 

Rare decorations on home soil were earned by soldiers on airfield defence. At Manston, Private Joseph Lister, a Border Regiment Territorial and, in peacetime, a colliery lamp room worker, was hit a number of times and badly wounded, later losing part of one leg. Yet Private Lister remained at his post and continued to fire a Bren gun at the enemy aircraft overhead. He was awarded the Military Medal and invalided out of the Army.

 

Before the war the Government had feared that once factory workers were in shelters and under bombardment they would not emerge again. When the moment arrived, industrial output survived and people struggled into work to keep the country running. One lady explained to me that as she negotiated the rubble to reach her office, the whelming consideration was to preserve her stockings.

 

Keeping the country running was the concern of railway workers, too. Trains and railway installations were obvious enemy targets and plenty of workers died. Wartime railway journeys were often long lasting and arduous, but they happened. The munitions and other freight usually got through, too.

 

Nor were children always prepared to sit out hostilities. Lots, often Boy Scouts, acted as messengers as the bombs fell.

 

There were so many more who supported the Few, enough to fill a good many blogs. The fighter boys were in the forefront. The country stood with them.



Fire rages in London
London firemen in peril. Picture courtesy of Historic Military Press

Damaged building
Clearing up after Sloane Square underground station in London was hit.

The remains of Coventry Cathedral
The remains of Coventry Cathedral, bombed in November 1940.

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