How the docks and people of east London suffered in the war years before our final Victory in Europe
Curators would have loved to open their Docklands museum to the public for the VE Day 75th anniversary — but coronavirus put paid to that.
They had been preparing for an exhibition of wartime images when the lockdown emergency began.
So instead, the Museum of London Docklands has put its exhibition online to tell the story of how east London survived the war years, from the early days of the Blitz in 1940 to that historic Victory in Europe moment five years later.
Fire bombs and high explosives dropped by the Luftwaffe wreaked havoc on St Katharine’s, London, Millwall, Surrey and Royal docks.
The Isle of Dogs was cut off at one point during the constant German air-raids when the only two bridges connecting the area to Poplar and Blackwall were hit, with just the foot tunnel left under the Thames to Greenwich. An identical situation happened at the Royal Docks when Silvertown, Custom House and North Woolwich were cut off as fires raged, with just the Woolwich foot tunnel left.
Around 25,000 bombs were dropped on the docks during the war years, it is estimated. Thousands of families were left homeless and many businesses destroyed. A third of the docks were wrecked, with the Millwall and St Katharine’s the worst hit.
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We bore the brunt in east London from Luftwaffe’s air-raids aimed at destroying Britain’s war production which was now outpacing German’s arms industry.
Hitler aimed to demoralise the population into submission with his carpet bombing that began with the first raid on St Katharine’s Docks in Wapping, the start of the London Blitz on September 7, 1940, that went on for five consecutive months, night after night.
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The sheer terror in the years leading up to VE Day included the V1 ‘doodlebug’ flying bombs and V2 rockets that left death and destruction in their wake.
The first V1 to hit London fell on terraced houses at Grove Road in Mile End in 1944, killing six people including a six-month-old baby boy and his teenage mum.
The last V2 rocket hit Whitechapel’s Hughes Mansions in Vallance Road on March 25, 1945, killing 134 people, mainly women and children.
It was the final tragedy. Just six weeks later, it was all over with Germany’s unconditional surrender to the Allies. We had survived the darkest days to reach Victory in Europe.
Online: Museum of London Docklands wartime exhibitionHere’s how the East London Advertiser’s 150th anniversary edition in 2016 looked back at the way we reported those joyous VE Day celebrations more than 70 years earlier, in May 1945:
The King and Queen arrive in Whitechapel to visit Hughes Mansions the day after Peace is declared in Europe on May 8 to meet survivors of Nazi Germany’s last V2 rocket. Crowds surge forward and sing spontaneously There’ll always be an England.
The celebrations last a week. Bonfires appear everywhere — the people had enough of fires from the Blitz, but these are the flames of victory.
A victory parade is held on May 14, assembling at Tower Hill and marching through the East End’s blitzed streets along Royal Mint Street, Leman Street, Whitechapel Road and Mile End Road to the People’s Palace for the Grand Salute.
It is led by the Royal Navy, followed by the Army’s Middlesex Regiment “whose band provided the stirring music”, followed by the Stepney borough warden service “who in these very streets had laboured against every attack from the air” and the National Fire Service with crews from Whitechapel and Shadwell who had also been in the firing line during the Blitz.
The Mile End Odeon holds a cinema party “for 300 kiddies from Bethnal Green” showing short films and Walt Disney cartoons.
Bethnal Green, after nearly six years of wartime rationing, was splashing out on spam sandwiches and custard for the kidss and pints of brown and mild for the grown-ups, but most of the dads are still in the Armed Forces.
The kids are bundled off to the Empire ‘flea pit’ cinema in Green Street — known as “the Bug Hole”— where the owner lets them in free to watch a Dick Barton film. Victoria Park has floodlit dancing with 9,000 revellers — a welcome relief from the years of the London Blackout. More street parties are held the following Saturday.
Television doesn’t return for another year, after the big switch off back on September 3, 1939, the day war is first declared, to avoid enemy aircraft homing in on its transmission signal. The cinema is still the main entertainment.
Life in post-war Britain is slowly getting back to normal, rebuilding a shattered but proud nation, one that had stood up alone against Hitler and kept the flame of freedom alive for Occupied Europe.
There was still Japan to defeat in the Far East, but for now, in May 1945, there is Victory in Europe and peace across the land.