Port of London: The Second World War

Following the declaration of war against Germany and its allies, on 3 September 1939 all UK ports were put under the control of Port Emergency Committees, responsible to the Ministry of Transport. The committee for the Port of London was headed by J.D. (later Sir Douglas) Ritchie, who had succeeded David Owen as general manager of the Port London Authority [PLA] in 1938. The Admiralty also created a Naval base for the Port of London, with its flag officer and staff based at the PLA headquarters, the control centre for the Port throughout the war.

Adolf Hitler was well aware that to cripple the Port of London was to weaken Britain’s ability to survive and, as it was an entrepôt port, would furthermore affect the entire British Empire. Prior to the war, the Luftwaffe had been flying reconnaissance flights over London, taking aerial photographs, and had marked key points along the river as targets. For centuries the winding river and dangerous estuary shoals had long protected the Port. It was clear from contemporary conflicts in Spain, China and Abyssinia, however, that aerial attack would be inevitable if war occurred. Distinctive from the air both during the day and by moonlight it was an easy target for airborne bombers. Spread along sixty-nine miles of tideway, the Port was extremely difficult to defend. The following years were to become some of the most dramatic and challenging in the long history of the Port of London.

The PLA had some time earlier developed a defensive plan at the government’s request that was adopted for all ports. A River Emergency Service had been formed, able to aid and advise the Navy with local expertise. Thames lightermen and barge-owners formed the Lighterage Emergency Executive (later superseded by the London Tug & Barge Control), making themselves available to the Port Emergency Committee. Shelters were provided for workers, pillboxes constructed, first-aid stations established and some buildings strengthened. Steel pylons were erected as lookout posts. A wartime nerve centre was created at the PLA headquarters although aspects of its work moved to a safer location at Thames Ditton. Naval ships were stationed at the sea entry to the Thames. From September 1941 they were replaced by Maunsell Sea Forts, constructed in the Surrey Docks and towed downriver from there. Gun batteries were installed on each bank of the lower river. Locks and other key points were guarded by military police. The Navy requisitioned a number of Thames tugs to act as guardships, forming the Thames & Medway Examination Service, with several based at the Naval Control Centre at Southend. Conscription into the forces began in April 1939 but Port workers were included on the Schedule of Reserved Occupations and were thus exempt.

There was an initial period known as the ‘phony war’ when the British people prepared themselves for the worst. Women and children were evacuated to the countryside, leaving Port workers separated from their families. Yet during the first year there was no significant harm done to London and some of those evacuated drifted back to their homes. During that period more than 6,000 port workers were trained in various aspects of defence.

By the end of 1939 magnetic mines were being dropped into the Thames Estuary by German aircraft, sinking a number of merchant vessels. Each morning thereafter minesweepers left Gravesend and Sheerness to clear the shipping channels. It took several months for the Navy to introduce the ‘degaussing’ method that neutralized a ship’s magnetism and thus made them resistant to the devices. In the meantime, the PLA’s jurisdiction for the salvaging of ships was extended to a greater area. Groups of dockers were formed into units of the Royal Engineers, of which there were twelve by the end of the war, and they assisted in the British Expeditionary Force mission in September 1939 and their retreat in 1940. Operations took place in coastal areas as far as the Arctic Circle, North Africa and Burma.

From the summer of 1940 Germany took occupation of the Netherlands, Belgium and France and for the following four years their forces were only a short distance from shipping entering and leaving the Estuary. Allied troops were suddenly forced to depart for the Continent and ‘Operation Dynamo’ was launched to undertake the evacuation. A bizarre fleet of small vessels of all shapes and sizes, some having not been designed to go out to sea, were assembled to rescue troops from the beaches of Dunkirk, including thirty Thames tugs. Much of the fleet was assembled, provisioned and crewed at Tilbury Docks. Some, including at least eight Thames sailing barges, failed to return. At that time a German invasion seemed inevitable and two booms were laid across the Estuary, the outer one from Shoeburyness in Essex to Minster in Kent and the inner boom from Canvey Island to St Mary’s Bay. Gaps were kept open during the day, guarded by the Navy, but they were closed at night. Merchant ships began sailing in convoys, which assembled at the Naval Control Service station at Southend Pier. Shipmasters received their orders in the pier’s dance hall.

Scattered German air raids started to take place along the east coast. For London, the phony war ended in late August 1940 with a raid on north and east London followed by another on the City the next day. In the following year air-raid sirens were a familiar sound to Londoners and gave warning to take shelter. A bomb partially destroyed a boatyard at Tilbury on 1 September. The Estuary fuel depot of Thameshaven was targeted by German bomber planes on 5 September, creating a conflagration that burnt for several days and could be seen far out to sea. Then, at around 5pm on the sunny Saturday afternoon of 7 September 1940, 348 bombers, supported by 617 fighter planes, flew in perfect formation along the Thames, with the Port as the main target. Warehouses, docks, factories and homes between Woolwich and Tower Bridge were immediately destroyed by high explosives or set alight by incendiary bombs. Most areas of the Port suffered, as well as Woolwich Arsenal and Beckton Gasworks. Timber at the Surrey Commercial Docks began to burn, as it did at the West India and Royal Victoria Docks. A bomb hit the entrance lock of the King George V Dock as a ship was passing through. Fires burnt at the great flour mills at the Royal Victoria Docks. Several ships took hits in the West India and Royal Victoria Docks. Firefighters were so occupied with major blazes that smaller ones had to be left to burn themselves out. Damage throughout the Port was so great that some buildings were subsequently demolished and left as open ground for decades. Huge clouds blackened the sky as warehouses full of inflammable goods and nearby houses were set alight. Sixty craft were sunk or destroyed and blazing barges set adrift floated down the river.

Incendiaries were perhaps a bigger threat to the Port than high explosive bombs. Fires were still burning from the afternoon raid when, shortly after sunset, the next wave of bombers arrived, with enemy aircraft guided by the light of the flames. The Surrey Commercial Docks, still lit by burning timber from the earlier raids, suffered most severely during the first weekend. Fortytwo major fires took place, spread over 250 acres, along three miles of the south bank of the river. They were tackled by firefighters from as far as Bristol and Rugby. Containers of fuel oil, dropped from aircraft, as well as delayedaction bombs and years of accumulated woodchips, ensured the continuation of the conflagration for several days. Daylight revealed a landscape of gutted warehouses, sunken ships and human bodies. Rum barrels exploded in the Royal Docks; and paint, pepper and flour burned in various docks and wharves. Burning rubber was particularly difficult to tackle. The heat was so intense that paint blistered and peeled on vessels moored some distance away. The Woolwich ferry worked all night to evacuate residents of Silvertown and their belongings. In the first night alone 430 civilians died in London including a number of dock workers. In the first 12 hours 120 major incidents were reported in the Port, with over 60 craft sunk or destroyed.

Bombs inevitably failed to hit their intended targets and hit others. For example, on that first afternoon many of the residences in Stebondale Street in Cubitt Town, at the southern end of the Isle of Dogs, were destroyed. Yet the bombers failed to put out of action the anti-aircraft battery at nearby Mudchute and almost all the nearby wharves were left untouched. The residential area north of Mudchute, between Manchester Road and the Millwall Inner Dock, was devastated during the course of the war, whereas the adjacent Millwall Docks were left relatively unscathed.

One hundred and seventy one bombers returned for nine and a half hours the following night, leaving 400 dead and more destruction. The basins of the St Katharine Docks became a cauldron of flames when a fire in E Warehouse spread to others filled with flammable goods. Burning coconut oil and paraffin wax spread out across the water, blazing for several days and laying waste to some of the warehouses. The Rum Quay at Millwall docks burned out, destroying one and a quarter million gallons of the spirit. The dockmaster and his assistants worked continuously for forty-eight hours to move imperilled barges as blazing rum flowed across the water, puncheons exploded and fiery rivers of glutinous sugar crept from burning warehouses. The PLA headquarters on Tower Hill took a direct hit that night, completely destroying the central rotunda and causing extensive damage to other parts of the building. Incredibly there were no major injuries and staff within the building continued their work. The bombers returned again and again, every night for seventy-six nights, except on one when there was bad weather, until mid-May 1941 when a final 500-bomber onslaught was unleashed on the capital.

In the first few days, Anti-Aircraft Command were ill prepared. Guns had mainly been located at downriver sites. Within a week warning systems, communications, searchlights and anti-aircraft guns were relocated to suitable places, as well as mobile guns mounted onto lorries. Those measures ensured that bombers had to fly at greater altitudes with subsequent lack of accuracy. Barrage balloons could be raised to a height of almost a mile and their steel mounting cables acted as a deterrent to enemy pilots. On Sunday, 15 September alone, fifty-six Luftwaffe bombers were brought down by RAF fighters. As well as high explosive bombs, incendiaries and oil bombs, the enemy also dropped time bombs that unexpectedly exploded later, plus parachute bombs that detonated above roof level and thus caused a wider area of destruction.

As damage occurred to roads and bridges, some riverside communities around the docks became cut off from neighbouring districts. After the first week the Isle of Dogs was looking quite derelict and many residents had moved away. By mid-September the dock bridges had been withdrawn for protection and the foot tunnel to Greenwich closed due to bomb damage, making it very difficult to leave the Island. Residents of Wapping were evacuated on a flotilla of boats and a similar evacuation took place at the LCC Hospital at Rotherhithe. Some brave souls remained even after being bombed out of their homes several times. Despite the destruction around them, and in some cases the loss of their homes, workers continued to keep the Port operating.

There were many tragic stories. One took place at Bullivant’s Wharf rope and wire factory at Millwall on the Isle of Dogs in March 1941. With specially reinforced concrete floors to support heavy machinery, it appeared to be particularly safe and was thus used as a public night-shelter during bombing raids. Sadly, when the building was hit, the heavy floors collapsed, killing around 40 and injuring a further 40 people sheltering below.

The coming and going of vessels still had to continue according to the tides, despite the bombing raids. A blackout was imposed at night so navigation and dockside work was required to be undertaken in darkness. Many regular tasks, such as pulling a tail of laden barges under Thames bridges or passing a ship through a lock, became extremely difficult and dangerous when undertaken in complete darkness. Despite the great damage being inflicted, a diminished staff and the need to continue its normal operations, PLA staff also took on the civil defence of the docks and river. That included the provision of firstaid stations, firefighting, salvage and wreck-raising. Along the length of the tidal river volunteers kept watch each night, reporting anything falling into the water to the Flag Officer In Charge at the PLA headquarters, from where mine-sweeping and clearance activities were coordinated. Ordinary dock workers extinguished incendiary bombs, which often fell in awkward places such as on roofs, in order to protect the contents of warehouses. Fires that took hold in private wharves, often in cramped conditions and with limited staff, were particularly difficult to extinguish. Tugs and lighters continued their journeys during raids, their crews often kicking incendiary bombs overboard. Most Thames tugs, operating as the River Tug Fire Patrol, were equipped with powerful pumps that could be used for firefighting. Between 1940 and 1950 the PLA had to deal with eight shipwrecks caused by the conflict and raise 35 ships and 600 small craft from the river. Staff kept the port operational despite the difficult and dangerous conditions, although trade had been reduced to a quarter of its pre-war levels.

From early 1941 the enemy began dropping parachute magnetic bombs as far upstream as Hammersmith. These could lie dormant on the bed of the river or dock until triggered by a passing vessel. A dramatic example occurred in April 1941 when the oil tanker Lunula, having arrived at Thameshaven from Halifax in Canada, detonated a mine dropped the previous night. The resulting fire blazed for ninety-seven hours.

As the war progressed the authorities became more prepared, with air-raid early-warning and anti-aircraft guns in place and better defence provided by the Royal Air Force. Despite the constant destruction, the Port somehow managed to continue operating, although at a reduced level. The river had to be closed on some occasions to sweep for mines. With diminishing returns, and other fronts on which to fight, the Germans had largely given up their efforts to destroy the Port by the middle of 1941. From the second half of April the Luftwaffe instead concentrated on other British ports such as Belfast, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Merseyside, Tyneside and Glasgow. Despite the respite from bombing, the Port remained under a state of siege as the enemy continued dropping mines and maintaining U-Boat operations in the approaches. In June 1941 Winston Churchill reported in a secret session of the House of Commons: ‘The Port of London has now been reduced to one-quarter … and the English Channel, like the North Sea, is under close air attack of the enemy.’

Patterns within the Port dramatically changed. Some ships familiar in London were requisitioned by the Navy. Others that worked particular trades became general carriers and berthed in different docks than previously. Unfamiliar ships arrived in London. Most long-distance trade was diverted to less vulnerable ports such as the Clyde, to where some London port staff, sea-pilots, equipment such as cranes, locomotives, tugs, lighters and a floating crane, had been transferred. From there London’s imported food supplies arrived by rail or coaster into storage facilities at the Royal and West India Docks. Reserve buffer depots were organized in safe places around the country. An exception was flour, which had to be kept within easy reach but in safe places. The solution was to store it on barges that were dispersed along the river between Teddington and the Pool. Most cargo was carried by smaller coasters, which were less vulnerable to attack than larger vessels. During the course of the war a million tons of rubble from demolished homes and factories was sent around the coast, much of it on sailing barges, to be used as hardcore for the construction of airfields on the east coast. There was an acute shortage of young workers as they were diverted to other ports or into the services. Those who remained were nearly all over fifty years of age.

It remained necessary for colliers to continue supplying London’s Thamesside power and bunkering stations with coal. During the course of the conflict there were many losses as they travelled back and forth around the coast. They were constantly threatened by submarines, E-boats and mines. Although immune from magnetic mines, wooden-hulled Thames sailing barges, which were unable to travel in convoy, were a sitting duck for enemy aircraft and only a small number survived the conflict.

At the outset, twenty Thames ship-repair yards came under Naval control in order that priorities could be set. For several years London once again became Britain’s main ship-repair port, handling over 23,000 vessels. Yards installed armaments, adapted craft for wartime duties and repaired damaged vessels. Work continued uninterrupted throughout the war, despite a number of direct hits on the yards.

W.S. Morrison, Minister of Food, pointed out that the transportation of food by ship was putting the lives of seamen at unnecessary risk. Lessons had been learnt from the Great War and the navy organized escorted convoys from the start of the conflict. Nevertheless, there was a great loss of shipping and lives from enemy action, particularly from German and Italian submarines. Over 2,700 British merchant navy ships, or the equivalent of over fifty per cent of British merchant navy tonnage at the start of the war, was sunk during the course of the conflict, with the loss of over 30,000 lives. Many of the total of over 1,350 Royal Navy ships that were sunk were on escort duty.

With food being rationed, and in some cases homes obliterated Lord Woolton, who took over as Minister for Food in April 1940 commented: ‘With my right honourable friend Mr Bevin, I entered some months ago into a joint campaign to increase the provision of works canteens. We took very seriously the old idea that you should feed your troops well.’ Most dockers ate and drank in pubs close to where they worked but establishments had been damaged, or simply shut up shop during the Blitz. The government passed the Docks (Provision of Canteens) Act that compelled the PLA, along with other ports, to provide canteens for all the workers. The first works canteens were vans, donated by well-wishers from British colonies and operated by the Women’s Legion, but they were later supplemented with twenty-seven permanent premises. ‘With regard to dockside canteens,’ said the Minister, ‘I take a very special interest in this problem, because I was well acquainted with the docks in Liverpool … We have now erected a large number of new canteens … They are capable of feeding people by day and by night. I have seen the canteens, and I have been among the dock labourers, and men whom I know have told me of the very great advantage that they are getting as a result of the excellent meals which are being served to them at what are really very low prices.’ The provision of canteens continued after the war and at the end of the decade were providing 6,000 meals each day in the Port.

By 1942, after the end of the first wave of bombing, there was a different rhythm in the Port and some shipping returned. American-built ‘Liberty’ ships – low-cost, mass-produced cargo vessels – were arriving. The British war emphasis moved from defence to attack. Up and down the river, craft were being built or modified at existing yards and other suitable sites ready for a future offensive or for mine-sweeping duties. Many were constructed of wood due to the dangers of magnetic mines.

In retaliation for Allied air raids on Germany, in January 1943 Luftwaffe bombers returned to the London skies in what was named the ‘Baby Blitz’. By then British defences were far more effective than in earlier years and considerably less damage occurred. One casualty however was the Tilbury Hotel that was burnt to the ground by incendiary bombs. It had stood on the riverside since 1882 and had been until then a landmark for passengers and crews passing along the river.

As the bombs rained down on their homes during the Second World War, casual workers, who were not obligated to work set hours or days, were able to take time off to clear damaged properties. This absenteeism occasionally left the Port undermanned and distribution of food and military supplies disrupted at a crucial time for the nation. As wartime Minister of Labour, it was Ernest Bevin’s responsibility to solve this problem. The National Dock Labour Corporation was created as a statutory body in March 1942 to oversee the availability of workers in British ports and ensure there was the correct amount of manpower available wherever and whenever it was required. Workers were incentivized to arrive each morning for the call-on, with an ‘attendance pay’ for those who came, even if work was not available, and provided with paid holidays. Rather than the previous chaotic situation of men crowding outside London’s dock gates, new meeting halls were erected where they assembled until assigned their tasks. In November 1944 the stevedores at Surrey Commercial Docks walked out in protest at the necessity to meet in their hall. As the backlog of unloaded ships grew, the dock management were forced to acquiesce and allow the men to continue gathering at the dock gates for the selection. The same occurred when meeting halls were erected at the Royal Docks in early 1945, with a mass walkout organized by the stevedores and the Transport & General Workers Union. When the government this time refused to give way, the strike spread to Tilbury and only ended after a week when the government promised an enquiry.

During the spring of 1944 large quantities of supplies were being stockpiled in the Port in readiness for ‘Operation Overlord’, the military return to the Continent. Troop and supply ships moored in the Tilbury, Royal and West India Docks. The American 14th Army Transportation Corps based themselves at the Royal Albert Dock. From the Royal Victoria Dock, General Montgomery addressed an audience of over 16,000 London dock workers throughout the Port, relayed by telephone wires and speakers, telling them that their efforts in the following months would help determine the outcome of the war. To ensure that everything ran smoothly there was a general overhaul of lock gates, cranes and other equipment, and new bridges were constructed. Temporary huts and facilities were put in place to accommodate the large number of awaiting military personnel. All this activity took place while the Port continued with its normal business.

Marshalling of vessels for the D-Day Landings took place in London on 27 May 1944 and the following day at Tilbury Docks. The next week the armada gathered in the Thames Estuary off Southend and departed on 6 June. Three hundred and seven ships sailed from the Port, carrying 50,000 soldiers, 9,000 vehicles and 80,000 tons of supplies. London’s pilots worked around the clock, often in darkness, and commercial work at Tilbury ceased for a period in order to accommodate the British Liberation Army.

The forces that arrived on those beaches were immediately followed from Tilbury by six 30-foot-diameter, 250-ton floating ‘ HMS Conundrum’ bobbins. Around each drum was wound seventy miles of ‘Pluto’ pipeline that was unrolled to lie on the bed of the English Channel, supplying the advancing troops with fuel pumped from England. The system had originally been devised and tested two years earlier, with pipes from a Thames-based submarine cable manufacturer. Over eight miles of concrete caissons, weighing up to 6,000 tons, were then floated across the Channel and sunk on the Continental coast to form prefabricated ‘Mulberry’ harbours. Two-thirds of these caissons had been constructed in the Port of London during the winter of 1943–44 from the rubble of destroyed buildings. Some were made in dry docks. To create other manufacturing sites, the East India Import Dock and parts of the Surrey Commercial Docks had been drained and later refilled in order to float the completed caissons.

After the initial landings, London continued to operate as the principle supply base for the British Army of Liberation as it moved across the Continent. Special arrangements were put in place for the rapid turnaround of supply ships. During the year between D-Day and the end of the war in Europe 2,760,000 tons of military stores, including over 200,000 tanks and vehicles, left the Port.

D-Day was not the end of the war for London and its Port however. Just a few weeks later, in June 1944, the enemy began launching ‘Vergeltungswaffen’ or ‘retaliatory weapons’, unmanned flying rockets. Fired at London from occupied Europe they simply fell when their fuel supply was exhausted, hitting random targets. They had a very distinctive sound when in the air and became known as ‘doodlebugs’. On 30 June 1944 the Millwall Docks river entrance lock took hits from two rockets, having already been damaged by high explosive bombs early in the Blitz. After the war it was decided that repair could not be justified due to the high cost and the lock was permanently dammed with concrete in 1955. The only entrance thereafter was via the West India Docks.

Despite flying at about 400 miles per hour the rockets eventually became vulnerable to air defences. In September 1944 Germany began launching a more effective ballistic missile known as the Vergeltungswaffe 2. Carrying a one-ton warhead, V-2s were fired high into the earth’s atmosphere before turning and descending on their targets at 2,000 miles per hour, a speed that was too fast to be hit by a human-operated anti-aircraft gun. Poplar and West Ham, around the docks, were particularly badly hit. The only serious harm to the Port itself was at the important Exchange railway sidings of the Royal Victoria Dock and on the bascule bridge over the entrance to the King George V Dock, the latter temporarily closing the dock entrance. The last V2 to land in London fell in Stepney, killing 131 people in March 1945.

During the course of the war London had come under bombardment for almost 2,400 hours. Approximately 1,500 high-explosive bombs, 800 Vergeltungswaffen rockets and 350 parachute mines had fallen on the Port’s riverside boroughs, as well as countless thousands of incendiary bombs. The many casualties among port workers and seamen included sixteen London ships’ pilots who lost their lives.