Pictorial History of the West India Docks. Part 3: World War II

The Luftwaffe had been flying reconnaissance flights over London and the rest of Britain for 6 years before the war, and had marked targets – such as power stations, docks and gas works – in a set of aerial photos. London was divided into different target areas, and the easiest for bomber pilots to recognize from the air was the one enclosed by a distinctive Ushaped loop in the Thames: i.e. the Isle of Dogs. Covering a large part of the Island, and key targets, were the West India Docks and Millwall Docks. Bombing at the time was not accurate enough to avoid surrounding areas, but the Nazi chiefs told themselves that this was an acceptable inevitability and, besides, it would support their strategy of destroying trade, industry and communications if people’s ability to live and work normally were also disrupted. After all, how can the docks operate without dockers?
– ‘The Isle of Dogs During WWII’ by Mick Lemmerman.

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This Luftwaffe reconnaissance photo was taken during daylight in the evening of 7th September 1940 and contains arrows and other markings penned by Luftwaffe personnel.

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Barrage balloon over West India Docks

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Canadian troops marching into West India Docks

1940, AFS sub-station crew at the filled-in Limehouse entrance (Island History Trust Collection)

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Fires in West India Docks

The West India Docks are clearly taking a battering in this photo, but more than half the bombs have fallen on residential areas. In Millwall, explosions can be seen at the corner of Havannah Street and Commons Street (A), and especially in the area around Millwall Central School (B). South of Millwall Outer Dock is an explosion just west of St. Edmund’s Church (C). Further east, in Cubitt Town, there are explosions on Manchester Road opposite Manchester Grove (D), Saunders Ness Road near Island Gardens (E), London Yard (F), and Samuda Street (G).

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Luftwaffe reconnaisance photo

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1941, numbers 8 and 9 warehouses, North Quay, Import Dock.

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Bomb-damaged warehouse

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Bomb-damaged warehouse

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1941, North Quay, Import Dock.

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1942, site of numbers 8 and 9 warehouses, North Quay, Import Dock.

Three days after D-Day (5th June 1944), the two Mulberry harbours were taken in sections across the English Channel. These were prefabricated, portable harbours developed for the Allied invasion of Normandy. Concrete ‘Phoenix’ units (or caissons) formed the harbour breakwaters. These were huge floatable and sinkable structures weighing up to 6000 tons. Almost a year earlier, in later 1943, the East India Import dock had been dammed, pumped out and 153 converted into a dry dock for the construction of 10 of such units. Other units were built in other parts of the country, and all units were then floated into West India Docks for making into two harbours: Mulberry A, the American harbour, for assembly off Omaha Beach at Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer Mulberry B, the British harbour, for assembly off Gold Beach at Arromanches.

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Caisson construction

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PLA bomb damage schematic.

As much as 80 per cent of storage space at the West India Docks was lost in the war. During the war, an average of 30% of quay space was unusable at any one time.

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7 Responses to Pictorial History of the West India Docks. Part 3: World War II

  1. Elizabeth,,, one of The Newcastle Arms Dunn's says:

    You are a fine historian Mick,. Important work.

  2. Doreen Salter (nee Davis) says:

    1940 AFS sub station crew shows my grandfather George Morris standing in uniform on the left. One of my aunts is also there… a wonderful photo

  3. Don Liddell says:

    As always really interesting Mick but just for the record, the Canadian troops are I think marching in to the dock, I wonder what they were letting themselves in for? Keep up the good work.

  4. Justin says:

    Great article – thank you.

    My Dad grew up in Manchester Rd and recounted – in the years leading up to the war – German Naval vessels coasting up and down The Thames. I think he said they were U-Boats and the officers could clearly be seen with their binoculars. No doubt some early reconnaissance as well…

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