In 1938, anticipating the approaching conflict, the War Office took over an area of land in the Mudchute west of Stebondale Street, paying compensation to the 37 allotment holders whose plots were appropriated.
Four octagonal, concrete ack-ack gun installations were built around a central control bunker.
Similar view today:
The installation was initially manned by the 154 Battery of the 52nd (London) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment – a volunteer air defence unit of Britain’s Territorial Army. While the accommodation and supply huts were still being built, the troops were billeted in Dockland Settlement. George Hames wrote in August 1939:
There was a heavy bang on the front door. A quick glance through the window showed a lorry pulling up outside. It was a battery of the Heavy Artillery (HA) just back from annual camp and as their battery site on the Mudchute was not ready, they just commandeered the club! The take-over was almost entire. The George Hall became the officers’ room, the library went to the sergeants; they took the gym, the main hall and the carpenters’ shop in the arches. The troops were with us until the following May, the HA being relieved by another battery who eventually took to their now finished quarters on the Mudchute.
One of the anti-aircraft guns with the McDougall’s flour silo visible in the background.
The previous image is a screenshot from a 1940 propaganda film produced by the Shell Film Unit, called “Transfer of Skill”, taken from a section of the film that talked about watchmaking skills being useful for the creation of fuses for anti-aircraft shells. The section concerned is here:
On 9th September 1940, 200 planes attacked the London area in a daylight raid, followed by 170 at night (repeating the pattern of a second wave being guided by the fires of the first wave). 370 people on the ground were killed. Violet Regan, wife of rescue worker Bill Regan, of 271 Manchester Road, a few doors along from the Pier Tavern:
Very soon we heard the ominous drone of distant aeroplanes – German aeroplanes! The drone rapidly became a roar which caused the very air to tremble, and as they drew nearer I knew there were many, many planes and they would be bombers! Suddenly the guns on the nearby gun site opened fire. A puff of white smoke burst under the rear planes of the second squadron. The blast caused them to be tossed about for a few seconds but they quickly regained control and flew on in perfect formation – coming ever nearer.
With the coming of darkness the Luftwaffe resumed their attacks and all hell broke loose again. They added fuel to the already raging fires and started fresh ones. It was terribly frightening to hear the fierce crackle of flames and the constant crashing of falling masonry so near to us. Dear Lord — so near, several times the huge building seem to rock with the impact of high explosives. We listened to the continuing sound of screaming planes and the crashing of bombs; and my heart ached for all the gallant souls who were out there fighting against such great odds — my husband among them.
The menacing drone of the enemy bombers set already badly taut nerves on edge and somebody screamed, ‘What’s the matter with our guns — they haven’t fired a shot!’ It was quite true. Apart from the solitary salvo loosed at the beginning of the raid — no gun had fired a shot in our defence — and morale by now was pretty low. We had depended on the anti-aircraft guns, and all of us felt badly let down.
What Violet was not aware of was that the Mudchute anti-aircraft battalion was dealing with its own problems at the time: a parachute mine had fallen on the site, and the explosion had seriously damaged the command post and destroyed the canteen and stores. The guns could no longer be aimed with radar and fired by remote control; the access road to the gun sites was also badly damaged making it difficult to get in fresh supplies, and gunners were bringing in replacement ammunition by hand.
Bill Regan, a couple of days later:
We were last out tonight, but were not needed. At the height of tonight’s bother, some of us were in the open, watching shell-bursts in the sky. The Mudshoot [original spelling of Mudchute] guns were giving tongue, we could hear the shells whistling over us, in a westerly direction, and we could see bombers passing by the face of the moon in an easterly direction, quite unopposed. Oh well, I suppose we will get better with practice.
Met some of the gunners from the Mudshoot today. All very young, none of them regulars, gave them tea, and chatted away until dusk, when the sound of distant gun-fire from down the river, then the sirens. The lads were a bit edgy when the noise came closer and Vi’s mum asked them if they were on duty, and they said no. When their guns started firing, of course the house began vibrating, and each time this happened, they looked very uneasy, and Vi’s dad said he thought they should go back to camp. They went, quick.
And on 12th September:
We were already beginning to ignore the daytime alerts. We could see them, and they were in a direct line with us, we’d mount up and drive smartly back to the depot. Nights were very different, all of them were after you personally. We did some salvage work today, in Galbraith Street, for people moving out. The Island was beginning to look derelict already. For all the damage done, there had been very few casualties. Alert as soon as darkness fell. The Mudshoot opened up with their pop-guns, and they have a search-light to play with now.
Bill Regan, Christmas 1940:
Alert at dusk. Raid seems to be widespread; it must be difficult for the guns to concentrate on one target. More searchlights in operation than usual. One bomber came over the depot, very low, flying north to south. It was so low and slow, it must have been in trouble. The mudchute searchlight was the only one able to pick it up. We could see the tracers from the Bofors going into it, and it still kept going. Suddenly the rear-gunner opened up, and after the second long burst, the searchlight went out, and after a while the Bofors stopped.
At 22:10 on 27th December 1940 a 50 Kg bomb fell on the Mudchute anti-aircraft battery. It fell outside one of the concrete gun emplacements, but managed to penetrate underneath the emplacement, wrecking its foundations and demolishing some of the 12-inch thick concrete wall. The gun, which was undergoing repairs and was not in use, was damaged.
On the night of 19th to 20th April 1941, between midnight and 4:00, 58 bombs, mainly 50 Kg, fell on the East, West India and Millwall Docks; damaging much, including items repaired after previous raids. As usual, bombs also fell on residential areas. Bill Regan:
Had a big share of the goodies last night. The Mudshoot has a new man in charge now. They have four big A.A. guns installed, and they used them last night, and what a lovely sound. They go off as one, we can hear the scream as they go up, and follow the sound, and they explode together, forming a square, and if the aim is right, it’s got to be curtains for the plane on the end of it.
Many hundreds of high-explosive bombs fell on the Island during WWII, as well as thousands of incendiary devices, a few V-1s and unexploded anti-aircraft shells fired from the Mudchute. The anti-aircraft guns would have to be firing almost vertically (which rarely happened) for unexploded shells to land on or close to the Island. More usually, unexploded shells would land a long distance from the Island, as far away as Romford according to one report.
(I had my own “U.X.B. experience” as a child, when my mates and I found an unexploded anti-aircraft shell in the Thames foreshore mud near Island Gardens. We dug it out and carried it to the old police station that was opposite Galleon House. The Desk Sergeant was not impressed; he also went a funny colour.)
Some parts of the anti-aircraft installation have been saved. They were originally built on land belonging to the PLA, who, after the war, had little incentive to demolish the strong, reinforced concrete buildings on a piece of disused land.
Thanks to local community action in the 1970s, the Mudchute was saved from redevelopment into homes or offices, and the Mudchute Farm was created.
Thanks to the following for some of the images and text in this post:
- (Friends of) Island History Trust
- Ann Regan-Atherton, for extracts from: Heavy Rescue Squad Work on the Isle of Dogs: Bill Regan’s Diary from the Second World War
Some text is from my own book, The Isle of Dogs During World War II.