Heritage: Gidea Park firefighter’s experience of The Blitz
- Credit: PA Archive/PA Images
Seventy-six years ago this week London suffered its last major air raid. DAVID ADAMS’ father was a Gidea Park firefighter and was called to help keep Fleet Street from burning.
A visit to a West End show was a traditional part of Christmas in our family when I grew up in Hornchurch in the 1950s and early 1960s.
The route my father took us in his car was always the same, through the East End and the City, passing the Bank of England and then along Queen Victoria Street before reaching Theatreland.
Queen Victoria Street had special memories for him.
From 1940-42 Frank Adams was a fireman based at Gidea Park’s wartime fire station in Heath Drive.
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He was the driver and his crew were often called up to London during the Blitz.
One such call came on the night of the very last major air raid on the capital, May 10, 1941.
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It’s been described as “the severest bombing of the whole Blitz …. creating fires from Romford to Hammersmith”.
1,436 lives were lost, 11,000 houses were destroyed. The House of Commons was wrecked. Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London and the British Museum all suffered damage.
That evening the Gidea Park crew were ordered, as was customary, to report at West Ham where they and other crews were marshalled and then directed to particular incidents.
In those days, the nation’s newspapers were printed in Fleet Street. The Gidea Park crew were sent there.
Frank drove along the route he’d follow many years later in very different circumstances.
When he reached Queen Victoria Street, he could see it had been hit.
He was flagged down by two firemen who pleaded to be given a length of fire hose so they could deal with the beginnings of a fire before it really caught hold.
“No can do,” he replied. “Our orders are to head for Fleet Street – with our fire hose. More than my life’s worth to disobey orders.”
They went on their way and spent a gruelling night. The Fleet Street printworks were packed with huge rolls of paper, a terrible fire hazard.
The crew were grateful for tea and sandwiches from the Daily Mirror canteen. The Mirror building was hit but it survived the night.
My father always remembered the bravery of the printers who carried on their vital work of printing the news all through the Blitz.
After 24 sleepless and exhausting hours, the crew set off on the return journey to Gidea Park.
But when they reached Queen Victoria Street, there was no way through. Long stretches of the street were no more. It had been devastated by high explosives and incendiaries, causing wholesale destruction.
No street suffered worse damage that night: the Chief Officer of the London Fire Service himself supervised the firefighting. Only by a whisker did his men save Faraday House, the world’s biggest telephone exchange.
The Gidea Park crew had plenty to think about as they made their way back to Heath Drive. Perhaps with an extra length of fire hose early in the night, Queen Victoria Street might just have been saved.
But then again, they might have returned home thinking: “One more length of fire hose, and we might have saved Fleet Street …..”
History is full of might-have-beens.