The Luftwaffe flew reconnaissance flights over London and the rest of Britain for 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 U-shaped loop in the Thames: i.e. the Isle of Dogs. Covering a large part of the Island, and key targets, were the West India and Millwall Docks.
The London Blitz started on 7th September 1940, a day that later became known as ‘Black Saturday’. On that day, and many following days, the docks were repeated targets. This Luftwaffe reconnaissance photo was taken during daylight in the evening. The arrows indicate identified bomb explosions.
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).
Poor weather prevented the Luftwaffe from mounting a major raid today on 10th September. However, there was some bombing of the docks which led to 19 civilian dead and 290 injured. This included high explosive bombs which landed next to the Millwall Dock entrance lock at Kingsbridge, destroying the lock machinery and the central gates. The lock would never be used again.
Extracts from The Isle of Dogs During World War II (by yours truly):
1st November 1940
A high explosive bomb landed on the north side of Millwall Outer Dock, near the Railway Gate.
27th December 1940
At 22:10, 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.
A 50 Kg bomb landed on the Millwall Inner Dock.
29th December 1940
A very large number of incendiary bombs were dropped along the Thames causing serious and extensive fires—numbering nearly 1,500 in all —in the City and the docks area.
Millwall Docks were extensively bombed, and bombs fell on East Ferry Road, including on Hawkins & Tipson. Three people died:
- Gladys Crawley aged 38, of 93 East Ferry Road
- Robert Thomas Palmer, aged 40, of 396 Manchester Road
- John William Hill, aged 46, station Office LFB Fire station, died next day in Poplar Hospital
17th February 1941
During what were described as moderate attacks on London (due in part to the cloudy weather), fire bombs caused 7 major fires in Millwall Docks and in the rest of the Island.
19th March 1941 – ‘The Wednesday’
A very bad night for those living and working in the East End, including on the Island. In clear weather, more than 500 aircraft dropped thousands of incendiary and high explosive bombs along the banks of the Thames from London Bridge to Becton.
A later German radio communique described the attack on London as “a heavy one carried out with shattering effect by very strong bomber formations of a period of hours.” Harbour and dock facilities and other military objectives were attacked with bombs of every calibre it stated. It was claimed that “widespread destructions was caused in the main docks as well as to harbour installations.” Other targets included factories north of the Isle of Dogs and merchant shipping in the Thames.
- Arthur Burgess, aged 50, of 38 Manchester Road, and recipient of the PLA Certificate of Gallantry was killed in Millwall Docks.
- William Parkin, aged 62, of 113 Elspeth Road, Clapham was killed in West India Docks.
19th April 1941
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.
11th June 1942
Gertrude Dunn was awarded a British Empire Medal at Buckingham Palace. She was a cook working for the PLA in Millwall Docks and received the award for her actions when the kitchens were destroyed during a bombing raid. She built fires in the open and continued to cook and provide food for workers and emergency services.
23rd June 1944
Five workers at Thorne’s Woodyard (just inside Millwall Docks, near Roffey House) were killed by bombing:
- Alfred Henry Hall, aged 74, of 20 Odessa Road, Forest Gate
- John Patrick Jones, aged 55, of 59 Ellerman Street, Poplar
- Lewis George Mayo, aged 67, of 72 Morley Road, Plaistow
- Richard John Johnson, aged 72, of 19 Sutherland Road, Poplar
- Arthur Davies, aged 70, of 38 Pennyfields
“As I came in Depot, one came out of the clouds above the flats, dive inside dock across Mellish Street, several of us watching. Saw explosion, thought of blast, dived with bicycle for safety of lorry, too late. Caught and pushed, ears popped, heard large lump falling, nothing else for some time. Parmenter got the piece that landed near us.
To the ‘Pin’. Had to leave 1 beer. Martin well oiled, wanted me to have a drink with him. Saw one come over us, began to climb, dived straight for Hammond House, twisted to the right, about turn, straightened out, glided across river, landed in Blackwall Lane (allotments).
Five of F & T Thorne’s men killed in the dock by this morning’s bomb.”
30th June 1944
Two V-1 strikes close to the Millwall Dock entrance lock. The one closest to the nearby Montague Myers killed the following workers:
- Patrick Orwell, aged 15, of 34 Colwick Street, Deptford
- Home GuardReginald Stanley Andrews, aged 43, of 1 Kingsmead Road, Bishop’s Stortford
- Francis Collins Gahagan, aged 59, of 50 Ashgrove Road, Goodmayes
- Albert Henry Robertson, aged 62, of 29 Baildon Street
- Frederick George Rover, aged 28, of 3 Guinness Trust Bldgs, Stamford Hill
- Stanley Matthew Strohman, aged 32, of 2 Meads Place, Hackney
- David John Walter Stranders, aged 44, of 40 Moody Street, Stepney
1st July 1944
“Depot 8.10 a.m. Found bomb had fallen behind depot, in Montague Myer’s in the dock, yesterday afternoon about 4.30 p.m. A. Shift working on site until 11.00 p.m. Canteen and Sports room, and sleeping quarters all windows out.”
By this time, the Heavy Rescue Squad had moved from the damaged Millwall Central School to a new depot between Westferry Rd and Montcalm House, just across the road to Montague Meyers.
In the evening a V-1 struck the western (river) end of Deptford Ferry Road
After the War
This post-war OS map extract (click for big, full-sized version) shows ruined dock buildings in red, and non-dock buildings in blue.
The map gives the impression that the Millwall Docks got off lightly, especially compared to the surrounding residential areas. It is misleading: before the war, Millwall Docks had far fewer brick-built buildings than West India Docks and outside of the dock walls. High Explosive bombs had far less impact when falling on timber sheds which could be – and were – quickly rebuilt.
The West India and Millwall docks are high-risk areas with regards to undiscovered, unexploded ordnance. Contemporary bomb censuses gives a good impression of just how many bombs were dropped on the docks (and on the Island in general).
To this day, unexploded ordnance is fished out of the docks, or found deeply buried in the Thames alluvial soil.