The Luftwaffe flew reconnaissance flights over London and the rest of Britain for years before the outbreak of World War II, 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: the Isle of Dogs.
The following Luftwaffe reconnaissance photo was taken during daylight in the evening of 7th September 1940, the first day of The Blitz. The arrows indicate identified bomb explosions.
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).
By the end of WWII, the majority of the West India Docks’ sheds and warehouses had been destroyed, shown in black on the following map:
Many hundreds of high-explosive bombs fell on the Island during WWII, as well as thousands of incendiary devices and a few V-1s. Some of these, and anti-aircraft shells fired from the Mudchute, did not explode and embedded themselves deep in the soft Island earth.
The risk of encountering unexploded ordnance during construction on the Island is thus high, and all building firms are to this day required to carry out a risk assessment before building can even begin. Risk assessments offer no certainties, though, and explosive WWII leftovers are still uncovered during construction. Major finds on the Island – serious enough to require evacuation from a large area around the site – include a 1000 kg bomb found in 1988 and even a V-1 which was found off Marsh Wall in 2007.
Fifty years before that, in 1957, a 1,570 lb parachute mine was discovered by a PLA diver embedded in the mud at the bottom of the southwest corner of the West India Import Dock.
Here is the location in modern money (close to camera, in foreground)…..
Parachute mines were essentially heavy naval mines dropped by parachute on land targets. They were designed to detonate just above roof level, where the shock waves from the explosion would not be absorbed by surrounding buildings. Their explosive force was thus felt over a wider area; it was not uncommon for all buildings within a 100 yard radius to be destroyed, and windows blown in up to a mile away.
On discovery of the parachute mine in West India Docks, the Royal Navy were called in to assist. In the following photo, the experts are conferring over their approach to its disposal, standing behind a ramshackle construction with flags and a light, warning ships to keep away – the type of construction that makes me proud to be British :).
Lieut. Commander Gordon Gutteridge, of HMS Vernon, the Mining and Torpedo Establishment at Portsmouth donned a frogman’s outfit and went down into the West India Dock to examine the parachute mine.
It was decided that the parachute mine would have to be defused while underwater as it would probably explode due to the change in pressure if it was first moved. The defusal would also have to take place in darkness.
Six naval frogmen took part in the work, and it took close to seven hours before the rusty fuse cover and the fuse itself could be removed, the final work carried out by Lieut. Commander M. Terrell.
The parachute mine was transported to Shoeburyness where it was detonated in the Thames Estuary.