In the Second World War, the dockyards and riverside factories of London’s East End were essential to the country’s struggle against the Nazis. But this also made them a key target for enemy attack.
Over 25,000 German bombs fell on the area during the war, causing immense damage, particularly to the West India and St Katherine’s yards. But the campaign failed in its ultimate objective to strong-arm the country into surrender.
Yet the Blitz had a massive human cost. The area was densely populated with the homes of factory workers and dockers, and their families. Although thousands were evacuated, most ‘essential workers’ had no choice but to stay put.
As if their work was not punishing enough, they had to live in constant fear of death from the indiscriminate bombardment from above. This was the secondary motive of the German campaign – to crush the morale of the country’s population and further hinder its ability to fight.
Morale-boosting campaigns were therefore a necessity. This is probably the reason Prime Minister Winston Churchill toured the docks in September 1940, 80 years ago, as is depicted in this picture from a new gallery on the Blitz at the Museum of London Docklands.
A visit from the country’s leader was an early form of public relations; a reminder that the sacrifices of those in the East End, as well as of those in cities throughout Britain, were appreciated at the top. The Royal Family also got in on the act. When Buckingham Palace was hit, the Queen consort commented that it allowed her to sympathise with those targeted at the docks. ‘It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face,’ she said.
Not that such visits were universally welcomed. Somewhat out of keeping with the ‘Blitz spirit’ of common endurance, the Queen was often jeered for touring the bombed-out suburbs in her most expensive clothes.
Nor was Churchill – here dressed in his trade – mark bow tie and hat, and staring intensely at an unknown sight – immune to criticism. There is no sign of the public in this picture, only his wife, Clementine, herself quite strikingly dressed, and some dockyard officials and auxiliary firemen.
It was wartime after all, and the East End was very much a war zone. Lavish visits with thronging crowds were a thing of the past.
But if Churchill provided the moral and rhetorical leadership for the war effort, then it was places such as London’s docks that provided the industrial might to accompany it.
The gallery ‘Docklands at War: 1939-1945’ can be visited for free during the Museum of London Docklands’ opening hours. For more information, visit their website.
This article was published in the October/November issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.