My War Years Memories - Chapter 3

Recollections of the blitz as seen from our community

By John Bathurst

Drive southward over Langdon Hills past the “Crown” thence down South Hill towards Horndon-on-the-Hill and there is a magnificent view to the west and many of the features of London can be picked out. Does this mean that in the September of 1666 the few people who lived in the parish of Langdon Hills, some of whose bones moulder in the yard of St Mary and All Saints church down Old Church Hill had a particularly good view on the three days of fire that destroyed most of the medieval buildings of the capital? As far as I know it is very unlikely we shall ever find as no records appear to exist written by any such local eye witness. In any case it would probably be several days before the news got through to everybody as to what was happening. No such delay in finding out in 1940. The smoke and flames that resulted from the massive assault night and day on London by the Luftwaffe with explosive and incendiary bombs caused a fire that was clearly visible to us as we travelled by the regular coach over the route described on our way to Palmer’s School at Grays. 

Although the news of what was happening in London was much officially suppressed in the Press and on the Radio, we had been well aware of what was happening as the waves of enemy aircraft droned over homes on route to sow their deadly cargoes. Several of the planes had been brought down around the district as had some of the planes that sought to defend the city and the anti-aircraft guns seemed to have been blazing away for days, leaving the ground littered with the bits of shell-casing we called “shrapnel” that many of us favoured as souvenirs. In any case, much nearer than London was the massive pall of smoke that was the result of the bombs that had struck an oil carrying vessel which had been discharging its load at the Shell Haven refinery causing a fire to both the boat and the vast storage tank adjacent. The flames of this particular fire were clearly visible to us in broad daylight as the coach descended South Hill with its excellent view across the Thames Valley. It took most of a week to bring that under control. 

The pall of smoke from Shell Haven coupled with the ashes from similar fires at Purfleet where the Stork Margarine factory of Vandenburg and Jurgen and the Thames Board Mills also burnt peppered Laindon for days and were clearly visible as a glow at night illuminating the sky in defiance of the strictly applied total blackout even though the Langdon Hill intervened. I was reminded by this glow that in the November of 1936 that I had been awakened when in bed by my parents to see the similar glow that illuminated the sky when the Crystal Palace burnt down at Sydenham in that year. Such a glow would not be visible now at Laindon due to the massive light pollution that has developed since WW2; pollution that means that the night sky of the war years with its myriads of stars which was so spectacularly visible then is now denied my children. 

Hindsight enables us to know that in 1940 the fire services of the UK were nearly completely overwhelmed dealing with the fires started by the air-raids of the Blitz and that as a result all such services became centrally controlled under what became known as the National Fire Service (NFS). Because of this I recall seeing a bright red fire-engine with its crew wearing their brass coloured helmets emblazoned with the words “Norwich City Fire Service” pass, oil bespattered, through Laindon High Road on their way back to Norfolk after their stint at Thames Haven.

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This page was added by John Bathurst on 08/07/2012.