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They stood with the Few Part II: Supporters and heroes

Geoff Simpson, FRHistS, suggests more of the people who might qualify for the Trust’s Blade of Honour scheme. (www.battleofbritainmemorial.org/blade)


In the 1960s I was sitting one evening with friends in a crowded pub in south London. The door opened and a young woman came in wearing Salvation Army uniform and carrying a collecting tin.


In my innocence I assumed that she might receive more ribald comments than donations. I was wrong. As she made her way down the bar and visited every table, the sound of coins being deposited in her tin was constant. Londoners who remembered the Blitz were also likely to have deep respect for the “Sally Army”, with its participation in rescue work, the establishment of canteens for rescuers and service personnel and its care of those who had been bombed out or were otherwise in a desperate situation.


Air Raid Precautions (ARP) wardens were not always popular as they enforced blackout regulations, but they played an important role, directing people to shelters and generally concerning themselves with the safety of those on their patch.


The equipment they carried included gas rattles, the sort of thing often seen at football grounds at one time, which would be used to warn of a gas attack or a gas mask drill. Fortunately, the Germans did not, despite considerable fears to the contrary, use gas during air raids.


The father of a school friend of mine had suffered much ill health and had been patently unfit for military service or many other active wartime roles. His contribution was as a fire watcher. Perched on a roof in London, he and his comrades were a long way from a shelter when the bombs were falling.


St Paul’s Cathedral surrounded by flames and smoke is one of the most published photographs from the war. That picture was taken by a fire watcher, although Herbert Mason was also the chief photographer of the Daily Mail. He was on top of the paper’s offices off Fleet Street when he captured history.


Bomb disposal personnel walked towards the danger as others hurried in the opposite direction. One of their RAF number was Welsh-born, Air Marshal Sir John Rowlands, who survived the war not only to reach high rank but to die aged 90 in 2006. He took up his suicidal calling in 1940 (at that time the life expectancy of a bomb disposal officer was 10 weeks, according to the Daily Telegraph) and eventually received the George Cross.

 

His citation noted: "For over two years, Wing Commander Rowlands has been employed on bomb-disposal duties and has repeatedly displayed the most conspicuous courage and unselfish devotion to duty in circumstances of great personal danger."


The award of the Victoria Cross (VC) requires actions that have taken place in the presence of the enemy. Some have argued that unexploded German bombs represented a not inconsiderable enemy presence.


A man who did receive the VC, albeit posthumously, was part of the defence of the Portland naval base in Dorset, a frequent target for the Luftwaffe in the qualifying period for the Trust’s Blades of Honour project. His citation told the world of remarkable heroism:


“Leading Seaman Jack Mantle was in charge of the Starboard pom-pom gun when HMS Foylebank was attacked by enemy aircraft on the 4th of July 1940. Early in the action his left leg was shattered by a bomb, but he stood fast at his gun and went on firing with hand-gear only: for the ship's electric power had failed. Almost at once he was wounded again in many places. Between his bursts of fire he had time to reflect on the grievous injuries of which he was soon to die but his great courage bore him up till the end of the fight, when he fell by the gun he had so valiantly served.”


Jack Foreman Mantle VC lies in Portland Royal Naval Cemetery.


The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) played its part in the rescue of the Few. It was the Margate lifeboat that brought ashore the badly burned Geoffrey Page, who would later found the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust.


The archive of Lifeboat magazine, published by the RNLI, contains the following in relation to Aldeburgh lifeboat station:


"During the evening [of August 19 1940] a British pilot was seen to bale out from his aeroplane some three miles south of Orfordness. A N.W. [north west] breeze was blowing, with a heavy swell. The No. 2 motor life-boat Lucy Lavers [a Dunkirk ‘Little Ship’] was launched at 7.10 P.M. She picked up the pilot, unconscious. Life-boatmen and a coastguard, who was aboard as an armed guard, used artificial respiration, but were unable to revive him. The life-boat returned at 9 P.M. Dr. Nora Acheson, the only doctor in the town, also put off in a motor boat to the pilot’s help.”


Pilot Officer John Alnod Peter Studd was 22. He is buried in a family grave at Holy Trinity, Touchen End, Berkshire. There is a small memorial display at Aldeburgh lifeboat station.



This photograph was taken in central London. The woman comforting the rescued child is an ARP warden

Herbert Mason captured the defiance of St Paul's cathedral and the British people

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