The night London burned...
It s Christmas 1940 and Joseph Jackson is making his way through London as the capital burns. Born during the First World War and fighting in the second, in this letter Joseph describes his Christmas leave. A qualified accountant, he served on HMS Dunedin
It's Christmas 1940 and Joseph Jackson is making his way through London as the capital burns. Born during the First World War and fighting in the second, in this letter Joseph describes his Christmas leave. A qualified accountant, he served on HMS Dunedin as a telegraphist, but died aged 25 when his ship went down in the south Atlantic on November 24, 1941. This is an extract from a letter to his family who live in Huntingdonshire. The full text is in the Imperial War Museum in London.
I AM continuing my account of my journey back to Collingwood. I had got to the point where our train was stopped in the middle of huge fires. Some people on the train got a bit restless and as we looked out of the carriage windows we could see, in the bright firelight, the huge arches of Liverpool Street Station about 150 yards in front of us.
Some people suggested we should get out and walk down the line to the station. We were not alongside a platform and there are notices in the trains telling people not to leave a train when it stops in a raid, outside a station. However, as the sparks were coming down like rain, they did not attempt to get out.
The smoke in the train got worse - and then, far worse. We heard, for the first time, engines of German bombers. We all thought we were for it, as the fires lit the trains up: but unless they had come down low and to one side, I do not think they would have seen the train as there were huge clouds of smoke. But they would make for a fire and dump high explosives in the middle of it - and that is where we were.
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We then heard the rattle of machine-guns, and concluded the Germans were machine-gunning firemen or people in the streets. We learned on arriving at Liverpool Street that the machine-gunning was between the planes as British fighters were up and the barrage had stopped. It certainly was a good night for the fighters as the fire below white clouds would light the whole sky above: and they would be able to see the German planes far better than in moonlight.
Everyone seemed very calm, and a strange silence swept down the train. Everyone was looking at the fires on either side but saying little except to inform one another that Liverpool Street was in sight. Everybody had the one idea - to get out of the train and to the Tube.
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It was strange coming into Liverpool Street with huge flames licking at one end of the station. All the notices were visible in the light of the fires.
I went to the Tube to find it more crowded than usual. In my opinion, it was hopeless to stay at the YMCA with huge fires on all sides. It was 9.15pm and I decided to go across to Waterloo as I presumed the attack was local to Liverpool Street. The journey (at night time) involves two changes on the Tube, so I was on my way to Tottenham Court Road. A soldier came on the train with face blackened saying it was "bad all over the place". He had been on a train at London Bridge when an incendiary bomb had been thrown through the roof and on to the seat and set the carriage on fire. He had to leave all his luggage behind - everything except his rifle.
At Tottenham Court Road, I was told that Waterloo was out of action due to incendiaries. I got out of the Tube and went up the street to Oxford Street/Tottenham Court Road junction. There were no planes about.
I had some supper in a cafe in Oxford Street.
The firelight made everything in the shops visible as in day time. One of our men who lives in Edgware says the fires in central London made it possible to read papers in the street at Edgware, 12 miles away.
I walked all the way down to Marble Arch and was in Oxford Street for one-and-a-half to two hours. During that time, it was a constant stream of fire engines and AFS trailer pumps.
An auxiliary ambulance drew up. It was driven by a woman who asked me where D H Evans was. I had not passed it but all the same I thought it was behind me and said so. However, I was wrong and it arrived at D H Evans as I was passing four minutes later. It had been hit by incendiaries but they were put out before doing any damage. Someone who had helped to put them out suffered burns.
I was surprised at the small amount of damage in Oxford Street. Some buildings had been hit but were so strong that only the top three or four floors had been affected. I saw one big shop which was really down and blown out completely, and that was the John Lewis block.
In the City (the number of incendiaries) got beyond the control of the firemen. They had to deal with fires far greater than any they have had to deal with in this war before.
I got on the Tube at Marble Arch and proceeded back to Liverpool Street as the raid appeared over but the sirens had not sounded the All Clear. The huge warehouses, and houses just down the line were blazing even more fiercely than when I left. I went to the YMCA to find it had been evacuated.
I went into streets surrounding the station to see the fires. There were 30 or 40 fires involving huge offices and shops as well as other buildings. I soon became surrounded by fires and the streets were simply jammed with fire engines and trailer pumps. Even though there were so many hundreds of fire engines, it was obvious they had not enough, nor enough hydrants to deal with such fires. Only those who saw them can imagine it.
It seemed that the only way to get out of Liverpool Street was by Tube.
I got on it at about 11.30pm. Trains were still coming through the fires but they were limited to two lines in and out because the signal system had been burnt.
I must say I am surprised at the railway companies continuing to run trains containing thousands of people through such fires in such conditions as though nothing was happening. The sparks falling were enough to set trains on fire.
The people who usually sleep on the platforms at two of the stations my Tube train called at, had just been told that they must move at once and leave by train as the surface above was a mass of fires. The train was simply crammed. I got out at Tottenham Court Road and went to the Strand, where I had to leave the Tube and walk to Waterloo. In the Strand were patches on the ground where incendiaries had been dropped and put out. I walked over several such spots, where a few hours before, German bombs had fallen.
A man told me that they were mostly small incendiaries and in places came down like rain. It was obviously an attempt to fire the whole of central London, but the bombs had not been spread evenly. City, Moorgate and round St Paul's seemed to get a double dose. They did drop some high explosives but not as many as the previous Friday night. This was fortunate as it must have saved a number of casualties among firemen.
While I was on Tube, the All Clear sounded. It was raining as I walked to Waterloo. I think the weather and presence of fighters made the Germans cease coming after 9.30pm.
From Waterloo Bridge one got a grandstand view of the terrific fires. It was a never to be forgotten spectacle - fires on both sides of the river, and I am sure that the Great Fire of London was not a more impressive sight. This was the night of hundreds of fires all burning on the same night in widely separated districts. Warehouses and buildings adjoining Waterloo Bridge were blazing furiously.
The huge dome of St Paul's and church steeples were surrounded by flames and it appeared to me that it was actually on fire. But it is said in the papers that this was not so, although everything around it was burnt out. The flames rose many feet above the burning buildings and across miles of skyline. There must have been several square miles of fires. There was a big fire some miles down the river and many believed it to be at the docks.
(This is) a scene which may in future years be called the second great Fire of London - for such it was, and unless the Nazis can do worse, there will not be a sight like it again.