In 1938, with war imminent, 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 concrete ack-ack gun installations were built around a central control bunker, and accommodation and storage huts were built to the east.
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.
The Blitz started in the late afternoon of 7th September 1940, when Bill Regan reported in his diary (see Heavy Rescue Squad Work on the Isle of Dogs: Bill Regan’s Diary from the Second World War ):
The Mudshoot [former popular spelling] gun site did its stuff, but was pretty futile. As we understood it, they were popping off with four 3.7’s, which sounded rather feeble to us. They were enthusiastic, and I suppose that was something to be thankful for.
That night, a parachute mine fell on the site, and the explosion 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.
I came across a film of the mudchute anti-aircraft gun in action quite by accident while browsing through wartime information films on YouTube. In a 1940 film produced by the Shell Film Unit, “Transfer of Skill”, I spotted what was very obviously McDougall’s flour silo building in the background. Here is an extract:
Bill Regan in his diaries on 11th September 1940:
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 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.
They had been very nervous, and they did the sensible thing. Me and Vi said goodnight, and went to our own shelter in the back garden, and surprisingly, had a good night’s sleep, several near misses woke us, but were asleep again almost at once. I suppose the noise is becoming familiar, like the ships on the river, on a foggy night, blowing away on their whistles which we became used to, and regarded as normal background noise.
And on 24th December:
At this stage of the Blitz, the anti-aircraft defences of London
were not up to the task of protecting the capital, but they did
what they could to put up a fight and had some occasional
Alert about mid-day, we saw a fighter plane going across
towards Essex, rather high and fast, but the Mudchute got off
one shot at it, and we watched the plane suddenly explode and
we were left with a clear sky.
We heard the gunners shouting their heads off. I went round
to the site entrance by the Wesleyan Chapel, and the two men
on guard were grinning like gargoyles, and all I could get off
them was ‘One shot, one bull’.
As I came away, one of them said to me ‘Wait till we get the
four—fives, we’ll show them’. I hope my guess is right, and
that it meant 4.5 AA guns. We could do with something a bit
bigger, if only to give our morale a lift. The last four nights
we have had a mobile gun on an army lorry, going round the
Island, and firing a few rounds in one place, then tearing up
the road, a few more rounds, then back again, ‘ditto repeato’,
to cheer us up, or confuse the enemy. Anyhow, it’s one of
Churchill’s better ideas.”
Just a few days after Bill’s diary entry, a 50 Kg bomb fell on the 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.
Later, the site was fitted with more sophisticated, radar-controlled guns. Bill Regan wrote in March 1941:
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.
Later in the war, in September 1944, Regan described a new type of enemy aircraft:
One machine passed over from S.E, to S.W, as I got out. Searchlight held it, flying very low and fast. Every type of gun, opened up, but it seemed unaffected. One pack of rockets from Rotherhithe surrounded it, but it just veered right as if from blast, and continued toward the city. Seconds later, the engine ceased, it dived, and immediately a terrific white flash was seen. After a lapse of about 6 seconds a big red flash, and a terrific explosion. We congratulated the Ack-Ack to each other, and counted one plane down.
Immediately, another came over, held by searchlights, and surrounded by shell-bursts; as before, right through it, over-head, and going towards Poplar, as I thought. Burdett Rd; as before, the engine cut out, it dived steeply, big white flash, pause, huge red flash, bang. We felt the blast distinctly. That’s two planes, we said. They seemed to be small fast fighters, with an apparently outsize bombload. Just about here, Martin who had varnished his tonsils with his usual double Scotches, got very talkative, and tried to bolster himself with loud talk. “I’m with you lads, first to go out. I’ll be there.” etc, etc. Before he could impress us, another one came over, passed, went silent, dropped, same white flash, pause – red flash, bang. I said to Alf Crawley, that the gunners were on form, three over, three down. Hardly credible.
We began to discuss the possibility of them being planes, as we could see flames coming from the tails of them, also a light in the nose. Some said rockets, as the flames did not seem to impede their progress.
It was Bill’s first sight of a V-1 rocket. Frequently referred to as the Doodlebug or Flying Bomb, the V-1 was an abbreviation of Vergeltungswaffe-1 (the German for Weapon of Revenge or Retribution), notable for the sound of its pulse jet engine and the eerie silence when that engine stopped and the rocket made its descent. Flying at 640 km/h (400 mph), it carried its 850 Kg explosive warhead from Dutch, Belgian and French launch sites to London and the South East. The first V-1 to fall on England was at 4.25 a.m. on 13th June 1944, hitting a railway bridge in Grove Road near Mile End Road. The bridge and railway track were badly damaged and a number of houses were destroyed. Six were killed, 30 injured, and more than 200 people made homeless. The few that fell on the Island are marked on this map (from The Isle of Dogs During World War II, by yours truly):
For perhaps as long as 5 years after the end of WWII, the guns remained in place, after which the land reverted to the PLA. They, obviously, were not so interested in the effort and expense of removing a concrete control centre and four gun emplacements with foot-thick concrete walls, on land they didn’t have any use for. And so they remained in place, a great place for kids to play (as long as the PLA police didn’t kick them out of the muddy, but they didn’t even bother with that after a while).
Gary’s photos show signs of the fledgling mudchute farm, as do my own, taken a few months later.
The control bunker has since been demolished, which I think is a shame – it might not have been practical, but it did have some historical value. On a positive note, there is now a renovated anti-aircraft gun on the site. Not an original Island gun, but a good addition all the same.