D Day in Lewisham

D-Day, the 6th June 1944

D-Day, one of the great events of history, passed almost unnoticed in Lewisham, to judge by surviving contemporary records. Perhaps this was because the return to Europe had been expected ever since America entered the war, and rumour had reported the invasion as imminent many times during the previous two years. Fatigue and staleness were numbing the senses of civilians. After the excitement of the early days of the war, and the dangers of the Blitz, their lives had settled down to a dull routine of long working hours, uncomfortable homes, and inadequate food.

But at least two and a half years of diminishing air raids had allowed some aspects of life in Lewisham had returned to something like normal. Most of the evacuees had come home, many schools had re-opened (when the emergency services could be ejected), and political life was beginning to stir again as plans for post-war changes were discussed.

A full range of entertainment was on offer to Lewisham residents during their brief leisure time. At the local cinemas there was a choice of 'On Approval', with Clive Brook and Beatrice Lillie, at the Deptford Odeon, the Savoy, Lee Green, and the King's Hall, Lewisham; 'The Desert Song', with Dennis Morgan and Irene Manning, at the Broadway, Deptford, and the Splendid, Downham; Walt Disney's 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' at the Park, Hither Green; and 'The Hound of the Baskervilles', with Basil Rathbone, at the Gaumont, Lewisham, and the New Cross Kinema. A production of the musical comedy 'No, No, Nanette' was playing at the Lewisham Hippodrome, and the programme at the New Cross Empire music hall was 'Radio Funfare', starring the Two Leslies. There was greyhound racing at the Catford Stadium, and a good selection of cricket matches, though the teams tended to have unfamiliar names like the 54th London Home Guard and Deptford Civil Defence. The football season had ended a month before (with Millwall just returned to the fire-ravaged Den) so in D-Day week the fans had to make do with supporting the Lions' outside left Tom O'Connell at his wedding, which took place at Christ Church, East Greenwich.

The big local news of the week was the birth of 'the Lee Quads' in Lewisham Hospital on the night of the 3rd June, an event announced by the local paper on D-Day itself. Before fertility inflation quads were a rare event, and Mrs Knee-Robinson of Baring Road and her four babies (three girls and a boy) were visited by the Mayor and their progress followed with great interest. Sadly, three of the quads died before the end of the year.

The most important business on hand for most Lewisham residents was the collection of new ration books. Twelve of the borough's Air Raid Wardens' posts were closed so that the wardens could act as marshalls to maintain order at the collecting centres. These were mostly the libraries, though in Deptford the Ts to Zs had to go to St George's Hall in Shardeloes Road. In slightly less regimented Lewisham people could collect their new books from any of the centres, which included the New Town Hall, now Town Hall Chambers.

Even organisations directly connected with the war took no notice of D-Day. Lewisham's Civil Defence Emergency Committee was engaged in the important work of purchasing underclothing for the men and women of the Civil Defence Services to wear with anti-gas suits, and for use in case their own underclothing should require to be decontaminated. The only hint of momentous events afoot that can be found in the minutes of their meeting on the 23rd of May is a note about Air Raid Shelter bunks:
"London Region called for a return of bunks which were held in store and which could be considered surplus to requirements. This was because large numbers of bunks are required at the present moment for the furtherance of the War effort. The return was duly made and almost immediately the Military Authorities came to collect the surplus bunks."
It seems likely that some of the hundreds of thousands of troops massing at the invasion ports spent their last nights before embarkation in beds previously used in Lewisham's public shelters.

One other small direct contribution to the D-Day effort was made by volunteers from the local Home Guard Battalions and Army Cadet Corps, who were employed in unloading, unpacking, stacking, and weighing equipment at the invasion ports, to speed the turnaround of the hard-pressed wagons.

After D-Day, when the exciting news from France might have been expected to monopolise public attention, the long-suffering civilians almost immediately had something more pressing to worry about. Hitler's response to the invasion was to launch his secret revenge weapon, the V1 flying bomb. The first of these doodle-bugs, after passing over Deptford, fell in Bow, in the East End, on the 13th June. Three days later the full-scale onslaught began, and Lewisham suffered its first serious V1 incident when eleven people were killed in and around Elmer Road, Catford, and some of the main shops in Rushey Green were damaged.

Once the scale of the V1 menace became known many of those evacuees who had drifted back to London over the previous two years began a hurried retreat to the country. So for ordinary Lewisham people trying to get to work, or go about their business, the main impression of D-Day and the following months may have been of clogged railways taking troops and supplies east, mothers and children west and north. In the month after D-Day 17,500 special trains took troops and supplies to the invasion ports. In the fourth week after D-Day 175 evacuation trains left London.

Many local soldiers, sailors, and sailors were, of course, directly involved in D-Day campaign, and a number were killed. They included Sgt. Norman Reed (Rifle Brigade), of Revelon Road, Brockley, and Private C.W.Collins of Armada Street, Deptford.

Lt.-Commander W.C.Simpson, R.N.V.R., of Elm Lane, Catford, was one of the pilots employed spotting targets for the bombarding cruisers. Interviewed after a mission, he said "It was grand to be able to turn the tables on Crete and Dunkirk; in fact, by and large it was a pleasure."

Lewisham and Deptford were still industrial areas in the 1930s, and during the war many of the factories had been directed into work of military importance. For example, the Lewisham Engineering Works in Malyons Road made bayonets and components for tank-landing craft.

The most important local contibution to the invasion of Europe was made indirectly by William Potter Stone & Co., plumbers of Malpas Road. Frank Stone (1913-2004), a partner in the firm and the son of the founder, was born in Brockley, and was an old boy of Mantle Road School and Addey and Stanhope. He had become the leading expert on the welding of lead pipes, and in 1942 was called in by Siemens of Woolwich to advise on the design of Pluto (Pipe Line Under The Ocean), which supplied the Allied armies with fuel for tanks, planes, and trucks. Frank and his brothers personally welded together all the sections of the twenty-one pipe lines laid under the Channel. At its peak Pluto was delivering one million gallons of fuel a day to the front line.

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