Blog Post Local History

Hitler’s Guy Fawkes Day Surprise: The Archway V2 Rocket Attack 1944

Where three residential roads in Archway, Islington, north London, meet is the site of a tragic loss of civilian life during the Second World War (1939-45).  A plaque commemorating the event can be seen at Giesbach Road Open Space, Giesbach Road, Islington N19 3EH. 

Scene at Holloway after a German V2 rocket fell in the evening destroying 18 houses and causing several deaths during the Second World War. ;Rescue workers search for surviviors amongst the rubble ;November 1944

The aftermath of the V2 Rocket attack in Archway, Islington,
5 November 1944. (Image: Mirrorpix)

Wartime strike
A little after 5pm on Sunday 5 November 1944, a V2 rocket was launched from its site in the Hague, Netherlands – its target was London. Just  minutes later, at 5.13pm, it exploded at the junction of Boothby, Giesbach and Grovedale Roads; nearby St John’s Way was also caught in the strike. This was the first enemy long-range V2 rocket to hit Islington.

Over 250 people were casualties of this wartime attack, which included 35 deaths and 219 suffering from injuries. The oldest person to die as a result of the explosion was aged 92 years, who passed away four months later, and the youngest was just five months old. Many houses were also destroyed or damaged beyond repair.

Vergeltungswaffe 2
The V2 (German: Vergeltungswaffe 2 or ‘Retribution Weapon 2’) was a long-range single stage missile or rocket, which used advanced technology to cause destruction and devastation. Standing at 14 metres on end, with a 1-ton warhead of high explosive, it travelled at 3,500 mph and could reach an altitude of 50-60 miles before arcing in a 120-mile trajectory. The V2 had a flying time of 10-30 minutes before crashing, exploding and usually causing a large crater. There was no indication or noise of its approach, as it could travel at supersonic speed at over six times the speed of sound.

The first V2 Rocket to hit London , causing three deaths, occurred on Friday 8 September 1944, falling on Staveley Road, Chiswick. This was the first of over 500 V2 rockets to strike the capital between September 1944 and March 1945.

V2 Rocket in the Peenemünde Museum, Germany 2005 LR

V2 Rocket in the Peenemünde Museum, Germany, 2005.
(Image: Creative Commons)

Diabolical weapon
In his unique and fascinating account of Islington during the Second World War, Civil Defence in Islington 1938 – 1945: an account of passive defence and certain aspects of the war as it affected the borough (1946), Islington Town Clerk and ARP Controller W. Eric Adams recalls the attack:

The enemy had in preparation an even more fearsome weapon in the shape of the long-range rocket. The first two of these heard in Islington was on the 8th September 1944. Although they fell at Chiswick and North Weald respectively, they sounded quite near. They were kept very hush hush and were facetiously referred to as “exploding gas mains”. The explosions were never acknowledged throughout the attack, as to do so would have given valuable information to the enemy for use at the launching sites in Holland. In sharp contrast to normal high explosive and [V1] Flying Bombs no warning at all was possible with rockets, in consequence of which the difficulties of the Rescue Service were greatly increased.

The first rocket to fall in Islington was at Boothby Road on a Sunday afternoon in November 1944. It was a ‘diabolical weapon’. At the moment of impact it was travelling at possibly 3000 miles an hour, which is much faster than the speed of sound; consequently, the first intimation of its arrival was the impact explosion. This was followed sometime after by the characteristic rumbling noise of its passage through the earth’s atmosphere. In some cases the effect was of a double explosion. The rocket, like the fly bomb, carried the high explosive in the nose, the remainder of its 40 ft. length being occupied by means of its propulsion.

Mr Adams continues:

Heavy rain
The Boothby Road incident occurred on a Sunday and the heavy rain which fell rendered the widespread clay, resulting from the explosion, very greasy and difficult to negotiate with casualties and heavy equipment. The work of the services was, however, eased to some extent by the employment for the first time in the Borough of an Army searchlight which proved invaluable. Although this incident which had occurred at 5.30 pm on the 5th, the last casualty was actually recovered on the morning of the 6th, the remaining time being spent in searching for persons whose whereabouts had not until that time been established. During this period the specially trained dogs made available to the Civil Defence Services were used in order to try to locate the persons believed missing.

Scene at Holloway after a German V2 rocket fell in the evening destroying 18 houses and causing several deaths during the Second World War. ;Rescue workers search for surviviors amongst the rubble ;November 1944

The aftermath of the V2 Rocket attack in Archway, Islington, 5 November 1944. This photograph was taken the following morning and shows rescue workers searching for survivors buried in the rubble. Nearby Archway Central Hall was used as a temporary mortuary. (Image: Mirrorpix)

W. Eric Adam’s account has, more recently, been supplemented by a number of eyewitness or secondary accounts from those who experienced the attack or who had members of their immediate family recount the incident:

Gillian Joel (née Stephens)

Mrs Joel’s account was published in the Islington Gazette in February 2020. She was six when her mother Sybil and brother James were killed after the rocket hit their home at 32 Grovedale Road, Upper Holloway, in 1944.


Mrs Joel in Grovedale Road, c.2019. (Image: Islington Gazette)

Her father, John Stephens, thinking Gillian dead, had gone so far as ordering her a coffin. However, she was in hospital after being saved from the rubble by Islington-based rescuers:

I remember going to the underground when the sirens started, it must have been Archway Underground. There was a green case at the door that dad would pick up. It had an eiderdown blanket in it and I would sleep with another blanket over me. It was our emergency pack, and I remember dad would carry me to the station. I don’t really remember anything from the bomb, except I was playing downstairs with my brother, James. I still have shrapnel and glass in me and only a few years ago a bit of glass came out of my head.

Read the full Islington Gazette interview with Mrs Joel here.

Ray Hardiman

Mr Hardiman recounted his memories of the attack on the excellent Archway Revisited Facebook Group:

I am somewhat familiar with this episode since I lived in one of the houses destroyed by that V2. I was just approaching my ninth birthday (December 44) at the time.

The V2 hit at about 5.30 pm on a Sunday in November 1944 … I do remember my mother saying something about “Hitler’s Guy Fawkes Day surprise” … I was in the Electric cinema at the Archway with my elder brother (aged 10) at the instant the rocket hit. In those days the first film showings on a Sunday was after 4.00pm (mustn’t clash with church going I suppose!). The film was Dive Bomber with Errol Flynn starring; Sundays films were always repeats of earlier releases; this one was first shown in 1942.

… Suddenly there was an almighty thump and dust drifted down from the ceiling. That was close, everybody thought  – the cinema is actually about a half-mile from the impact – and carried on watching the film. A little while later we became aware that the usherette was flashing her torch down the row where we were sitting. “There they are” somebody said, and we were beckoned to come out of our seats … When we got to the foyer we discovered that one of my elder sisters and her boyfriend had come to fetch us. I was amazed to see that they were covered in dust and dirt from head to toe! We were told that our home had been hit by a bomb/rocket and we were then to be taken to the boyfriends (parents) home somewhere not too far away.

At that time we had no idea whether any of the rest of our family were alive or dead … Eventually we discovered that all the family had survived although my parents had been cut about by flying glass. My baby sister was asleep in her pram in the front room of the house, and a tiny splinter of glass landed in the middle of one of her cheeks! Thankfully it never affected her eye but left her with a small scar . Not so fortunate was one of my playmates and his younger sister and parents. They lived in the house whose rear garden was the point of impact of the rocket.

V2 Archway image (ILHC) 02
The corner of Giesbach Road and Boothby Road, Archway, after the V2 rocket attack. The corner and destroyed houses are now covered by Giesbach Road Open Space. (Image: Islington Local History Centre)

We lived in number 38 Giesbach Rd, which is the second house from the end on the south side [now gone, replaced with Giesbach Road Open Space]. The family who died (whose name unfortunately I have forgotten) lived in the corner house on the north side of Grovedale Rd. I am fairly certain that the rocket impacted in the rear garden of their house. Thus this house took the brunt of the blast as well as the back of the house in St John’s Way and the sides of the end houses on both sides of Giesbach Road. All adjacent house were also heavily damaged of course. Our house being the second from the corner was a little protected, and also the blast must have dissipated to some extent up the middle of Giesbach Rd and across the front of our house rather than directly at it.

We obviously never went back to the house which was pulled down along with many of the other houses round about. Eventually new blocks of flats were built over the site of the bomb damage and also the top half of Boothby Rd so that it no longer intersects with St Johns Way. I never got to see the conclusion of the film Dive Bomber until about thirty years later when it turned up on television!

Read the full Archway Revisited posting with Ray Hardiman here.

Islington V2 rocket attacks
There was a lull of 11 days before the second V2 landed in Islington at 2.46am on Thursday 16 November at Mayville Road, killing seven and injuring 53 people.  During this second stage of the Third Reich’s V-rocket campaign, nine V2 rockets exploded in the borough killing 288 and injuring over 1000 people. The worst of these attacks were Mackenzie Road (26 December 1944) and Smithfield Market (8 March 1945) which, combined, witnessed 183 deaths.

The devastation to buildings in Islington (not including Finsbury) due to the V2 rocket explosions was immense. Serious damage, sometimes beyond repair, was caused to 18,000 houses, 72 public houses, 55 factories, 28 churches and 10 schools.

Islington remembers
Islington remembers all those who suffered in the tragic Archway incident, as well as everyone who died and were injured in countless other V rocket attacks and enemy air raids across Islington and beyond during the Second World War.  They will not be forgotten.

V2 Plaque roll of honour

Islington Civilian War Dead Memorial Islington & Camden Cemetery East Finchley (24 Jan 2018) (3)

Memorial to the civilian dead of Islington (1939-1945), Islington and Camden Cemetery, East Finchley, 2018: “This memorial has been erected to perpetuate the memory of those citizens who lost their lives as a result of enemy action during the Second World War, and whose remains lie buried in this cemetery.”

V2 plaque image

Islington Memorial Plaque unveiling on 23 July 2021 to commemorate the loss of lives and those injured in the first V2 rocket attack on Islington,
5 November 1944. L-R: Revd Nigel Williams, Islington Mayor Troy Gallagher, John Williams (whose lost his first family in the blast),
Jeremy Corbyn MP, Cllr Janet Burgess.
(Photograph: Copyright Em Fitzgerald Photography)

Mark Aston
Islington Museum | Islington Local History Centre
October 2020, revised July 2021

Related sources and links

V2 Rockets:

Islington and the Second World War:

Blog Post Local History

Blitzed Islington: Islington and the London Blitz (1940-41)

The 80th anniversary of the start of the London Blitz (7 September 1940 – 10/11 May 1941), during the Second World War, is being remembered nationally from Monday 7 September 2020.

On ‘Black Saturday’ 7 September 1940, at around 4pm, and lasting for two hours, nearly 1000 German bombers and fighter escorts of Hitler’s Luftwaffe were seen attacking from the skies over London. Two hours later, guided by the fires set by the first assault, a second group of raiders commenced another attack that lasted until 4:30 the following morning. On this first day, 430 were killed and 1,600 injured in the capital. This was the start of what became known as the ‘Blitz’ (‘Lightning’ in German), a term was first used by the British press. The enemy’s intense bombing campaign of London and other cities continued until the following May and, for the next consecutive 57 days, the capital was bombed each day or night.

London was bombed significantly at night, but daytime attacks were frequent too. In October 1940, Islington’s rescue service attended 131 incidents, the most in one night being 32. Records show that 206 people were recovered alive, with 83 deceased. Rescue operations to retrieve casualties could take several hours or even days to complete and were sometimes performed whilst raids were still in progress.

Battle of Britain
During the previous two months, the Battle of Britain had taken place in a fight for daylight air superiority between the Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force (RAF) over the United Kingdom. The Luftwaffe had attempted to destroy RAF airfields and radar stations in preparation for German invasion. This campaign had failed and, instead, Hitler turned his attention to destroying London in an attempt to demoralise and destabilise the population and force the British to come to terms.

While Londoners, including the residents of Islington and Finsbury, had experienced German aerial bombardment during the First World World, nothing had prepared them for the sheer devastation that was to come. Fires from incendiary bombs consumed many portions of the city. Residents and workers sought shelter in many places, including their own back-garden ‘Andersen’ shelters, communal shelters, underground stations, school basements and church crypts.

Under seige
Nearly 30,000 London civilians were killed in the Blitz and later raids during the Second World War; nearly two-thirds of this figure during the London Blitz.  From 7 September 1940 onwards, businesses, churches, public houses, schools, housing estates and residences were reduced to rubble. The blackout cast well-lit streets into darkness, and local anti-aircraft guns and searchlights brought the war firmly home to the capital’s citizens. As the Luftwaffe’s Blitz raids of 1940 spread to other cities, including Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Coventry, Glasgow, Hull, Liverpool and Southampton, the civilian population of Britain found itself under siege as never before. In just nine months they, along with Londoners, witnessed the landscape and the character of their cities change beyond all recognition. 

A few weeks before the official start of the Blitz, Islington had, in fact, witnessed a random air attack when bombs fell on Canonbury Park North and vicinity during the late evening of Saturday 24 August 1940. Fortunately, only one casualty was reported, a Warden who was wounded by bomb fragments in the left shoulder. Another bomb fell at the rear of the house at the corner of Willowbridge Road but without much effect. In opposition, the first raid by the RAF on Berlin took place the following night. However, from September onwards, the Blitz was to turn the Islington and Finsbury Home Front into a battlefield. 


Preparations for likely air bombardment began prior to the Second World War, with the British government providing air-raid shelters to families for free or for a small fee, depending on their income. Over the course of the war, shelters would take a number of forms and provide security for the citizens of Islington and Finsbury. Read more …

Bomb damage and destruction

The Second World War turned the home front into a battlefront. On 7 September 1940, Dornier and Heinkel bombers, escorted by Messerschmidt fighter planes, began bombarding London. Islington and Finsbury would come under fire … Read more

Islington and Finsbury swing into action

As part of war preparations, volunteers were trained in civil defence duties to warn or respond to attacks. Many Islington and Finsbury civilians became members of the Heavy Rescue Service, Air Raid Wardens, Home Guard members, firefighters, first-aiders and ambulance drivers, who would provide invaluable assistance to their community once war began. Read more

Finsbury Under Attack (1939-45)

Like many parts of inner London, Finsbury suffered badly from bombings during the Blitz (1940-41) and, again later, as part of the V1 and V2 rocket attacks on the capital from the summer of 1944 onwards. Given its proximity to the City of London, Finsbury’s residents lived with the threat of bombing and untimely death. However, in spite of fatalities, an uncertain future and much hardship, Finsburyites kept calm and carried on. The constant bombings were designed to break morale but conversely brought people together. Read more …

Just weeks after the start of the Blitz, a captured Messerschmitt Bf 110, shot down by a RAF Hurricane fighter during the Battle of Britain, was displayed outside Finsbury Town Hall, Garnault Place, in October 1940. It became the most photographed Luftwaffe plane of WW2. Read more …

While London was regularly attacked, the ferocity of some raids far exceeded others. On the night of 10/11 May 1941, London was hit by the most devastating and largest raid on London during the Blitz. In total, 711 tons of high explosive, along with 2,393 incendiary bombs, were dropped on the city, with 1,436 civilians losing their lives in that one raid alone.

Blitzed Islington

Blog Post Local History

Islington and the Last Night of The Blitz (10/11 May 1941)

On 11 May 1941, after eight months and five days of constant threat and terror, the nationwide Blitz came to an end.

Up to this point, approximately 41,000 tons of bombs had been dropped in total, with 18,291 tons falling on London alone. Around 41,000 people had been killed, 21,500 of whom were Londoners. 139,000 people had been injured and around two million homes destroyed, 60% of which were in London.

SF Chronicle 12 May 1941
News of the ‘Hardest Night’ spread across the Atlantic, as can be seen in the front-page headline in the San Francisco Chronicle, 12 May 1941. [Image: Public Domain]

The Hardest Night
The night of 10/11 May became known as the ‘Hardest Night’ and was to be the last major raid on London for over a year; a major raid was defined as one where over 100 tons of bombs were dropped. It was to be one of the most ferocious and devastating of the entire nine-month German bombing campaign The raid on the city, carried out between 11.02pm and 5.57am, came a night illuminated by a full or ‘bombers’ moon, when the River Thames was at low-ebb tide. The low water level played havoc with the ability of firefighters to use water from the Thames to counter fires from incendiaries.

During the seven-hour raid, more than 700 tonnes of high-explosive and 100,000 incendiary bombs were dropped by around 550 German aircraft. These undertook 571 sorties with some crews flying two and three missions in order to maintain numbers required to sustain the attack. Luftwaffe numbers were, by this time, depleted as many had been lost over Britain during the Blitz and other units had been moved east in preparation for the assault on Russia.

Last night of the Blitz EC4
Firefighters tackling a blaze in the City of London on the last night of the Blitz, 10/11 May 1941. (Image: IWM HU 1129)

Of the high explosive dropped, 167 tons were recorded as unexploded the following day, along with 86,173 incendiaries. The London Fire Brigade reported 2,136 fires. Of these, nine were conflagration level, eight ‘major’ outbreaks (requiring 30-plus pumps), 43 serious outbreaks (up to 30 pumps), 280 medium (up to 10 pumps) and at least 1,796 small outbreaks. 1,436 Londoners were killed, with around 1,800 seriously injured. 700 acres of the city was destroyed – double the area lost in The Great Fire of 1666 – causing damage valued at £20 million in 1941.

Anti-aircraft guns fired 4,510 rounds with two bombers claimed destroyed. RAF Fighter Command dispatched a total of 325 aircraft and claimed 28 enemy aircraft in return, although one Hurricane and one Beaufighter were badly damaged. Surprisingly, the Luftwaffe lost only twelve aircraft that night:  ten Heinkel He111s, one Junkers Ju88 and one Messerschmitt Bf110*.

*[This single aircraft crashed at Floors Farm, Bonnyton Moor, Glasgow at 11.05pm. It was flown from Augsburg by Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess on an mis-guided peace mission. Find out more about another Messerschmitt Bf110 that was displayed in Islington during the Blitz: The German Destroyer in Finsbury].

Islington and the Last Day of The Blitz
While enemy bombers concentrated on attacking the docks and East End, many other parts of the capital were to receive the full force of the Luftwaffe, including Islington and Finsbury. In Islington, the night found the rescue services once again fully extended, with the boroughs’ rescue services operating at several major incidents. Islington was hit by 38 high-explosive bombs, of which three did not explode, and 16 incendiary devices.

WW2 Bomb Damage Map (Barnsbury)
Section from London County Council Bomb Damage Map, 1946, showing damage to the Pentonville Prison area.  The map is coloured coded – the darker the colour, the worse the damage. The houses to the east of the prison were later swept away as part of  Islington’s post-war redevelopment. [Image: courtesy London Metropolitan 

On Saturday 10 May, 24 people were killed when bombs hit Corsica Street, Elia Street, Liverpool Road, Errol Street and Roman Way. An 18-month-old boy, Ronald Kenkerdine, was one of the six people killed at Liverpool Road, and three teenage sisters from the Smith family were among ten killed in Roman Way.

Sunday 11 May brought 62 further deaths. The victims came from Barbara Street, Charlotte Terrace, Essex Road, Gerrard Road, Halton Mansions, HMP Pentonville, Hanley Road, Holford Square, Old Street, Percy Circus and Whitecross Street. Ernest and Robert Westbrook, 11-year-old twin brothers, were two of the 18 people killed at Holford Square in King’s Cross and, nearby, three-month-old baby girl Mary Coyne was one of eight victims at Percy Circus.

Halton Mansions, 66-79.tif
66-79 Halton Mansions, Islington, following the raid on 10/11 May 1941. Nine residents, aged between 15 and 63 years, were killed in the attack, with many from the same families.

Pentonville Prison
Of the nine major incidents covered that night by Islington’s rescue services, the bombing of HMP Pentonville Prison in Caledonian Road was one of the largest. C-Wing of the prison was hit by a string of high-explosive bombs that reduced the four-storey building to rubble, killing 13 people. It was closed after the bombing and didn’t reopen until 1946; the wing was eventually rebuilt to three storeys in 1958 becoming the prison’s education block.

HMP Pentonville Prison, Islington post-bombing 11 May 1941. C-Wing was destroyed and later rebuilt.

Total London casualties for the raid on 10/11 May were the highest for any night of the Blitz: 1,436 people died and 1792 were seriously injured. More than 5,000 houses were destroyed, making approximately 12,000 people homeless. Many famous and public buildings suffered damage, including the Houses of Parliament and the British Museum where 250,000 books were ruined.

Blitz Spirit
The capital, including Islington and Finsbury, would continue to suffer sporadic bombing raids and through the use of the V-weapons. Other cities and regions of England would also continue to suffer. The smaller ‘Baedeker Blitz’, which targeted historic/tourist locations, Exeter, Bath and Norwich and the Steinbock or ‘Baby Blitz’ affected southern England from January through to May 1944.

However, Hitler and the German Third Reich’s initial, great strategic bombing campaign to crush the British war industries and civilian morale was ultimately a failure. A combination of the Luftwaffe’s inability to agree on tactics, the British ‘Blitz Spirit’ reaction and the need for Hitler to divert resources for Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union brought the Blitz to a close.

Article written by Johnny Baird, Islington Museum volunteer

[All images Islington Local History Centre, except where stated]


  1. ‘The Blitz – The Hardest Night’, History of the Battle of Britain Online Exhibition,
  2. The Blitz – Wikipedia,
  4. WW2 Civil Defence (1938-1945) Draft Transcript v1
  5. Islington & Finsbury WW2 incidents 10-11 May 1941
  6. Pentonville Prison, A, B, C and D Wings and Chapel Wing

Further reading


Islington Local History Centre | Islington Museum
Islington Heritage Service
September 2020

Blog Post Local History

The Blitz Period in Islington (1940-41)


By W. Eric Adams (Islington Town Clerk and ARP Controller)

The 80th anniversary of the start of the London Blitz (7 September 1940 – 10/11 May 1941), during the Second World War, is being remembered nationally from Monday 7 September 2020.

This contemporary account of the Blitz period in Islington was taken from:

Adams. W. Eric. Civil Defence in Islington 1938 – 1945: an account of passive defence and certain aspects of the war as it affected the borough. October 1946

ARP W Eric Adams (from Collins pamphlet box)
W. Eric Adams, Islington Town Clerk and ARP Controller

The Blitz Period

When the attack started on Islington it was very intensive, in fact the first two months were never again equalled in the number of incidents to which the [Air Raid Precaution / Heavy Rescue] Service was called. Fortunately, however, some of the bombs were of small calibre and operations were often concluded after only a few hours work.

The movement of parties was directed from the Report and Control Centre by the Controller or his representative on duty. The number of parties likely to be required to deal with an incident was estimated from details give on the air raid damage report received from the Warden and these were dispatched by telephone message to the depot most conveniently situated in relation to the incident. Reinforcements, if required, were obtained by the Party Leader of Clerk of Works by message to control through the nearest Wardens’ Post. On the completion of work the Party Leader reported the fact to Control when he would be either directed back to his depot or to another incident.

Annette Crescent
Of the more serious incidents the first to fully extend the Service was a direct hit on a trench shelter in Annette Crescent, and it is no reflection upon the men that although the operation was successfully accomplished, the unpleasant task to which they were so far unaccustomed affected them considerably for some few days after. With raiding every night, however, and the necessary shoring work next day, the parties soon got into their stride and continued to successfully answer all calls made upon them, including at times moving as reinforcements to other Boroughs. Their task was a strenuous one and so far as work permitted parties were rested for short periods during daylight hours in readiness for the inevitable stand-to when darkness fell – in fact, it was 24 hours service in the full sense of the term.

Typical of the work during these early days were rescue operations at Petherton Road* and Bryan Street**, at both of which Rescue personnel received awards for gallantry. At Petherton Road, where a large calibre bomb had demolished a five-storey building, a tunnel 5 feet horizontally was cut into the debris to release two casualties. The whole operation took seven hours to complete and was performed whilst the raid was still in progress, in the presence of coal gas and in wreckage which was in imminent danger of collapse. The Party Leader in charge of the work was awarded the George Medal and three of his colleagues were commended.

[*The awards for gallantry were made after the incident in Petherton Road on the night of 15/16 September 1940 all relating to members of the Heavy Rescue Service: Frederick A. Bashom (George Medal), J. Williams, C.D. Southam, A.H. Thomas (all three received Commendations)]

Petherton Road 12 Nov 1940
Petherton Road, Islington, following an attack on 16 September 1940. Heavy Rescue party leader Fred Bashom was awarded the George Medal for his part in the rescue of two casualties.

At Bryan Street, off Carnegie Street/Caledonian Road, on the night of 21/22 September 1940, two boys were trapped in the basement of a demolished house and a tunnel 12 feet long was required to reach them. It was formed about 2 feet square by men working in succession lying prone, throwing back the debris and fixing struts and bearers (converted from the debris) as they advanced – a risky operation cleverly performed. After 3 hours the boys were safely released uninjured over men lying flat in the tunnel and passing the boys hand over hand. For this operation two members of the personnel were awarded the British Empire Medal and a third commended.

[**The awards for gallantry were made after the incident in Bryan Street on the night of 21/22 September 1940 all relating to members of the Heavy Rescue Service: George Turner and Frederick B. McQuillan (British Empire Medals) and C E Hollis (Commendation)]

Bryan Street 22 Sept 1940
Bryan Street, Islington, after a raid on 22 September 1940. Clara Savage (57) of 5 Bryan Street was killed in the attack.

Night raids
To fully appreciate the fine work the Service was doing during this period it must be remembered that raiding invariably continued throughout the night which necessitated the men working with the minimum of light. The operation, therefore, of entering badly damaged buildings and tunnelling into masses of debris was necessarily coupled with an even greater element of risk than would otherwise have existed.

Mid-September heralded the advent of a very serious complication in the shape of parachute mines. The first in Islington – dropped at Poole’s Park – fortunately failed to explode and was successfully defused, by a Naval Officer. To allow of its removal, the Rescue Service was called upon to demolish certain garden walls and to erect a covering of corrugated iron to protect it from incendiary bombs pending removal. The local ‘Spitfire Fund’* collectors, however, saw in this a heaven-sent opportunity to raise their total, so promptly remove the covering and charged a penny a time to view the unusual exhibit. When at night this was discovered, the Rescue Service was called out once more to replace the covering.

* [Learn more about Islington’s Spitfire Fund]

A few days later, two other mines fell which failed to explode on landing, one in Wright Road, the other in Leigh Road. Both exploded while being worked upon by the naval Party. The first unfortunately killed the naval Officer, who was attempting to defuse it. This was the only casualty as the area had been evacuated.

On the night of September 26/27th however, there were two further mines, one at Camden Road and the other at Cornwallis Road and in both cases they exploded on impact with the result that the Service was fully extended. During the month the Service attended at some 130 incidents and was responsible for rescuing 100 persons alive and recovering 81 dead.

College Cross
At an incident at College Cross in October*, the Service did good work and showed great devotion to duty. The night was very dark and it was raining heavily; in addition there was a delayed action bomb of unknown calibre only 70 feet away. Parties worked through the night until exhausted but returned after a short break and insisted on working until 11 a.m., two hours after the change of shift. After consideration it was deemed inadvisable to expose parties to the danger of the adjacent delayed action bomb and volunteers were called from whom 12 were selected. Unfortunately the trapped persons were dead when recovered.

*[One of those who died in the College Cross attack, on 9 October 1940, was 96-year-old Emma Henesey of 42 College Cross. Emily was Islington’s oldest casualty on the Home Front during the Second World War]

WW2 Bomb Damage Map Essex Road
Section from London County Council Bomb Damage Map, 1946, showing damage to the Essex Road and Upper Street area. The map is coloured coded – the darker the colour, the worse the damage. The  circles represent later V-Rocket attacks of 1944/45. [Image: courtesy London Metropolitan Archives]

Isledon Road and Market Road Gardens
At Isledon Road, rescue work was proceeding at an incident which had occurred on the previous night when a second high explosive bomb fell in the near vicinity killing one Rescue man and injuring four. In spite of the physical and mental shock to the men, work continued with very little interruption.

An incident which might have proved disastrous but for prompt and gallant action occurred on 15 October. Two high explosive bombs fell adjacent to trench shelters in Market Road Gardens blocking both the normal exits. The Leaders of the two parties called to the incident entered the shelter by means of the emergency escape hatches and found that an overpowering atmosphere – which was later found to be the result of carbon monoxide due to the explosion – had rendered most of the occupants practically helpless. All escape hatches were immediately opened and the work of raising the shelterers from the floor some feet below through the escape hatches by means of rope with “chair” knots was commenced. Several of the Rescue men were overcome and had themselves to be rescued before they continued after treatment. When the last visible shelterer had been removed, in all approximately 100, it was found that two were still missing. These were eventually recovered after two days buried under debris from the bomb explosion. To add to this excitement on the night of this incident, a parachute mine exploded in Caledonian Market 150 yards away.

War Debris Clearance Scheme
Two other mines fell on the same night at Queen Margaret’s Grove and Britannia Row. During the month, the Service attended at 131 incidents, the most in one night being 32. 206 persons were recovered alive and 83 dead. By this time the Borough was showing marked signs of its ordeal and it was in October that the War Debris Clearance Scheme under the direction of Sir Warren Fisher was instituted, and work commenced in Islington on several of the most badly damaged areas. The Rescue Service was called upon to attend fewer incidents in November but amongst these were Radford House (London County Council housing estate) and 26 Highbury Grove an R.A.F. billet, both of which were of a serious character.

Queen Margaret's Grove.tif
Queen Margaret’s Grove, Islington, following an enemy air raid on 15 October 1940. Damage was caused by a parachute mine. Alice Philcox (44 ) of 26 Queen Margaret’s Grove lost her life in the attack.

Under the influence
Another incident in November occurred in Huntingdon Street where four members of the Rescue personnel earned British Empire Medals for gallantry. A heavy high explosive bomb had demolished three 4-storey buildings and to reach the trapped persons a tunnel had to be formed through the debris, 20 feet long, which filled with a heavy concentration of escaping coal gas. The four men, working in pairs, took turns in the tunnel but all were at some stage of the work overcome and had themselves to be assisted out. The operation was successfully accomplished but three of the Rescue men had to be taken to Hospital for treatment. The effect of the gas they had inhaled badly affected their gait with the ironic result that a report was received suggesting that the men had been under the influence of drink. Remote breathing apparatus was devised later to cope with such cases as this.

Huntingdon Street
Huntingdon Street, Islington, following an attack on 16 November 1940. 21 people were killed in this incident and many more saved. Dr John McCarthy was awarded the O.B.E for gallantry for treating the injured at the site. Six others were also recognised with awards for their bravery in the incident.

“There’ll always be an England”
Whilst generally the rescue workers were directed to trapped persons by their cries of help, or in bad cases from information of their possible location given by Wardens and neighbours, it is worthy of note that on one occasion in Petherton Road a definite clue to the position of a trapped man was provided by his lusty rendering of “There’ll always be an England”. Such spirit typified the defiance of the public at that time as did the Union Jacks which were invariably planted on the highest point of the ruins. The Rescue men unofficially adopted the Union Jack as their standard and there were few lorries which did not prominently display a good specimen of the National flag.

December 1940 and January 1941 were quieter months, the Rescue Service being called upon to attend at only 14 incidents, whilst in February their services were not required at all for rescue work. It was during this period that the enemy changed to incendiary raids.

The Thatched House
In March, 12 incidents were attended, including the serious parachute mine incident in Kelvin Road where in the course of four days the Service rescued 15 persons alive and recovered 19 dead. The amount of debris created at parachute mine incidents necessitated revised technique and it was here that the principle of removing debris completely away from the scene was first introduced. A fleet of lorries was acquired and members of the Pioneer Corps worked in conjunction with the Rescue Service in removing the debris to a temporary dump in Petherton Road.

Other serious incidents during the month were direct hits on the “Thatched House” Public House in Essex and the Police Station in Hornsey Road. At the “Thatched House” where the bomb penetrated the building to explode in the bar, the Service rescued six persons alive and recovered 17 dead, whilst at Hornsey Road Police Station two were rescued alive and 10 recovered dead.

Essex Road - Thatched House.tif
Aftermath of the enemy air raid on the Thatched House pub on Essex Road on 8 March 1941. Three members of the Flood family were killed in the incident.

Serious incidents
Islington enjoyed a comparative lull in the early part of April, but on the night of 16th/17th was badly hit once more, including parachute mines in Pembroke Street and Carnegie Street. At Pembroke Street lorries were again utilised to clear away the debris and although the majority of the casualties were accounted for in two days it was not until 29th that the Rescue Service was able to finally leave the incident. Other serious incidents in the same night were at Stroud Green Road and Foxham Road whilst later in the month a large calibre bomb fell in Poets Road where the Service was responsible for rescuing 3 persons alive and recovering 15 dead.

The night of May 10th 1941 found the Service once again fully extended with what proved to be the last bad night of the “blitz” for Islington. The Rescue Service operated at 9 major incidents including that at Pentonville Prison where one of a string of bombs scored a direct hit on a wing of the prison.

[Read more about Islington and the last night of the Blitz]

Pentonville Prison, Caledonian Road, Islington, after an attack on the night of 10/11 October 1941. The attack on the prison killed 13 people. It was the final night of the Blitz and one of the most devastating. In total that night, over 1400 people were killed in the capital and 1800 seriously injured.

The final incidents of this phase of the attack occurred in July when Mildmay Park was hit by several high explosive bombs, resulting in 5 persons being rescued alive and 6 recovered dead.

Over the whole period, September 1940 to July 1941, the Rescue Service attended at 404 incidents and were responsible for rescuing 479 persons alive and recovering 411 dead. In addition to the rescue work no less than 575 individuals jobs of removal of danger and salvage of furniture were carried out during the same period.

By this time the Rescue Service had by its work at numerous incidents earned the respect and confidence of the general public. By its very nature, however, much of its work remained unobserved and received little publicity. Few realised that the Rescue man often worked alone for hours tunnelling his solitary way through shifting debris and suffocating dust, risking dangerous walls above, the collapse of which might bury him and the trapped casualties he was seeking, and able to hear little but the creak of sagging timber or trickle of slipping debris.

All who were privileged to witness this work at close quarters, however, were struck by the amazing skill, gentleness, and sympathetic considerations displayed to casualties during the rescue operations which seemed to be unexpected from men normally employed in the building industry.

Testimonials: gentle and humane 
The following extracts from letters received by the Service bear eloquent testimony to their work:

From a man rescued from the Arsenal Shelter, November 1940

“Two drainpipes being joined together over my head keeping the concrete from crushing me, and the way you men worked to get me out without disturbing those pipes (and saving my life) I shall never forget. May all your efforts be as successful as mine were”.

Camden Road, September 1940

“Not only for the hard work but their sympathy and encouragement”

Brecknock Road, December 1940

“Will you please convey my thanks to the demolition squad who came to the above address…and excavated my dog and buried him in my garden. It was the most gentle and humane piece of work my mother has witnessed…”

Post-raid work
Nor by any means did work end with the recovery of the last casualty, in fact, there was often much hazardous work to perform even at incidents where no trapped casualties had been involved. Buildings seldom collapsed completely and where dangerous walls remained these had to be demolished or shored without the the aid of scaffolding, etc. The work was of a very urgent nature by reason of the fact that the resumption of normal traffic often depended upon its completion to finish quickly to be in readiness to deal with new incidents.

On the lighter side of the Rescue man’s work mention might be made of one case where a lady in night attire who, although reached, at first refused to be removed by him, and of another lady for whom the Service was searching apparently considered that the celebration of her escape was more important than reporting herself to the authorities and who eventually returned to the incident in an advanced state of inebriation.

W. Eric Adams, October 1946

[Original transcript held at Islington Local History Centre. All images Islington Local History Centre, except where stated]

To find out more about people who died during the Blitz, and later raids on Islington and Finsbury, visit the Islington Online Book of Remembrance. You may also leave a personal tribute to all individuals associated with Islington who fell as a result of conflict (1899-1950).

Further reading

Compiled by Mark Aston
Islington Local History Centre | Islington Museum
Islington Heritage Service
September 2020

Blog Post Local History

How Islington Greeted VJ Day 1945

The 75th anniversary of VJ Day (Victory over Japan), marking the end of the Second World War, is being commemorated nationally on Saturday 15 August 2020.

Millions of people across the world celebrated the Allied victory over Japan in August and September 1945, including Londoners and the residents of Islington and Finsbury. It was peace at last!

How Islington greeted VJ Day

The Islington Gazette (17 August 1945) captures the mood of Islington’s citizens in reporting how the borough greeted the event, along side other local news: 

“Islington Town Hall was gaily bedecked with flags of the Allied Nations for VJ Day and after dark the building was flood lit. One of the first effects of the Victory announcements was bigger queues, which began forming outside bakers’ shops before 7am. Crowds also besieged grocers, butchers and food shops generally to get what they could for the holiday.

VJ Day Food Problem: Housewives don’t like V-days

The two-day holiday celebrating the momentous occasion was all singing and dancing but, for a number of housewives, it also signalled a time of stress, as this article taken from the North London Press (Friday 17 August 1945) highlighted: 

“The midnight announcement of peace, on Tuesday, brought a new flock of troubles to the housewife that were fully realised on Wednesday morning. Wherever our reporter went, he met tired housewives who had been queuing for food from the early hours. “We mustn’t be caught out was the remark of one St Pancras woman, and her example was followed by several thousand others.

Bakers, grocers, fruiterers and fish shops were all besieged before opening time by irate housewives in their frantic search for food. One shopkeeper complained to the North London Press of the unnecessary repetition of the VE Day mistake. “I think it’s ridiculous that the Government did not realise the shoppers’ difficulties,” he said. “This is not a happy celebration for them.”

Dancing, music, fireworks and bonfires all played their part in festivities. While no official, local programme of celebrations was announced, the mood in both Islington and Finsbury was jubilant and residents took to the streets to celebrate.

It was, indeed, a joyous occasion for many, as the examples below taken from the North London Press (Friday 17 August 1945) and the Islington Gazette (Friday 24 August 1945) bear witness:

Caledonian Road: Youngsters were given a victory tea and what a spread it was – with cakes, lemonade, jellies, blancmanges and all those goodies dear to the hearts of children. Wynford Road, Halfmoon Crescent, Balmoral Grove and many of the other turnings off Caledonian Road, from Holloway to King’s Cross, also celebrated in grand style.

Chapel Market: There were many celebrations in the side streets, and in the famous market there were scenes of real revelry. People brought their glasses of beer out into the roadway and danced and sang with abandon. In Parkville Street, the return home of two soldier-friends were being celebrated by another large crowd of children and their parents. The lilting sounds of music mingled with the crackling sounds of the bonfire. The soldiers, next-door neighbours, are Privates Thomas Bartram and Thomas Bown – D-Day veterans. At the end of Chapel Market and, into Barnsbury, fires were everywhere, including Penton Street, Culpepper Street and Carnegie Street. In Culpepper Street, flood lighting and loud speakers providing dance music added to the attractions.

Finsbury Town Hall: Finsbury Borough Council minutes, September 1945 records, ‘VJ celebrations – Town Hall banner. “The Town Clerk reported that in accordance with the instructions given at a conference of party leaders with the Mayor, a banner had been prepared and placed across the Town Hall , at a cost of £14. The Borough Engineer, in consultation with the chairman and town clerk, endeavoured to arrange for the banner to be more prominently displayed.”

Liverpool Road: The road’s residents lived up to their reputation for “doing things well.” From nearly every side street, the scenes of merriment were repeated while the glow of the fires merged into one huge vivid red glow which, at times, transformed the night into scintillating brilliance. The night air echoed to a chorus of happy voices, while fireworks added to the din. Kiddies, who had never known a world without war, joined in the revels with awe and wonder.

Thorpedale Road: In Thorpedale Road, scene of one of the worst bombing incidents in the district, a great crowd, in full victory spirit, sang and danced round a bonfire which illuminated the site of the new prefabricated houses. 

Wilmington Square: ‘Thanksgiving for final victory: Open air service in Finsbury’. “In accordance with the King’s expressed wish that Sunday should be observed as a day of Thanksgiving and Prayer, an open-air thanksgiving service to mark the end of the World War was held in Wilmington Square, Finsbury, on Saturday.”

The Wilmington Square service was conducted by the Rural Dean, the Revd H Brewer, assisted by local clergy and ministers. The Hornsey British Legion led the singing. The Mayor and Mayoress of Finsbury (F.J and Mrs Barrett) and members of the Borough Council walked in procession from Finsbury Town Hall to Wilmington Square. The service witnessed lessons being read, thanksgiving prayers offered and addresses by dignitaries given, involving the themes of liberation and loss and peace and security.

“Victory in itself does not bring peace”

The Islington Gazette’s V J Day edition (17 August 1945) editorial, following the announcement of the Japanese surrender, as well as aftermath of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, issued a concerned statement about humanity’s future:


Islington on the Home Front during the Second World War


Mark Aston
Islington Local History Centre | Islington Museum
Islington Heritage Service
August 2020

We'll Meet Again

We’ll Meet Again: VE-Day Celebrations

As the final installment of the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs 1939-45, we look at how the people of Islington and Finsbury celebrated Victory in Europe Day, or ‘VE-Day’ in May 1945.

Monday 7 May 1945 marked a joyous occasion – the formal surrender of Nazi Germany’s armed forces in the Second World War. Winston Churchill addressed Britain the following day with a speech broadcast from Downing Street, stating “we may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing, but let us not forget for a moment the toils and efforts that lie ahead”. National celebrations were well under way by the time Churchill made this official announcement. Tuesday 8 May 1945 was designated Victory in Europe Day to commemorate the end of the Second World War in Europe. The people of Britain celebrated by coming together to host street parties to mark this momentous occasion.

In Islington and Finsbury, the streets were crowded with tables, likely stacked with spam and dripping sandwiches, eggless fruitcake and Lord Woolton pie (a pastry dish of vegetables). Some food and materials, such as those for buntings, were derationed temporarily to help residents mark the occasion. Special treats, such as sweets, buns, jelly and “lashings of ice cream,” were also enjoyed at the celebrations. Local businesses and benefactors gave donations of food and money to supplement the £2,000 (approximately one farthing per person) provided by the council for the occasion.

Whilst many celebrated, VE-Day did not mark the end of the war for everyone, with many soldiers still fighting in the Far East. One resident wrote to the Islington Gazette to say that, “90 per cent of Theberton Street were flying colours. Why the 10 per cent aren’t I cannot say, unless they are less interested in victory than war.” This was countered by another who replied, “What a ridiculous statement! There are still thousands for whom it is not yet finished.” It would take many years for wounds to heal, but for some the psychological relief would never come.

958 Islington lives were lost as a result of enemy air activity throughout the war, and the physical landscape of the boroughs would be changed dramatically. An estimated 3,097 houses were destroyed beyond repair; 1,253 seriously damaged and 36,877 damaged but occupiable. There was damage to 144 churches, 74 schools, 518 factories and 298 pubs. It was against this backdrop of six years of destruction and difficulty that Islingtonians and Finsburyites were ready to celebrate Victory in Europe.

Islington on VE-Day

Seward Street, Finsbury, May 1945

Residents of Seward Street, Finsbury enjoying a street party to celebrate Victory In Europe Day. ‘VE-Day’ commemorates the formal acceptance by the Allies of Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender of its armed forces on 8 May 1945.

While London’s focal point for celebrations was Trafalgar Square, the Mall and Buckingham Palace, local street parties and celebrations, like this one in Finsbury, were held all over the capital.

Athelstane Road, Islington, May 1945

Some celebrations started as soon as the news of the end of the war in Europe was announced on 7 May 1945. Some were postponed until all evacuees returned home so that entire families and communities could celebrate together, such as here in Athelstane Road, Finsbury Park. Events included street parties, parades and bonfires.

Revellers wore their best clothes or fancy dress. They made paper hats and sang and danced in the streets. Material for flags and bunting was de-rationed for the occasion. It was the first festive occasion that many children would have experienced.

Cloudesley Road, Islington, May 1945

VE-Day celebrations in the Caledonian Road and Barnsbury areas were particularly lively with music and dancing into the early hours of the morning. In Frederica Street, over 130 children enjoyed a huge tea with jelly and ice cream, they danced to an accordion band and were given a 10s (50p) note each.

In Cloudesley Street and Cloudesley Place, contributions to the celebrations were so generous that there was enough extra money to fund a cinema trip for all residents. The children of Cloudesley Road also had an additional outing, as seen here in this group photograph.

Seward Street, Finsbury, May 1945 

As well as street parties, as seen here in Seward Street, VE-Day celebrations in Finsbury included a tea party and a concert for 900 senior citizens at Finsbury Town Hall. An open-air service of thanksgiving at Wilmington Square, Clerkenwell, on 13 May 1945 was attended by over 1,000 people.

The Mayor of Finsbury, Frederick Barnett, addressed the older generation, “Thanks are due to you for the way you brought up your children who, after spending their childhood days in ways of peace and happiness, proved themselves, when the testing time came, not merely equals but masters of a nation.”

Tilloch Street, Islington, May 1945

As families were reunited and local communities came together to celebrate the end of the war in Europe, as seen here in Tilloch Street, Islington, the church and the press considered the possibility of reconciliation between Britain and Germany.

An editorial in the Islington Gazette titled ‘Pray for Germany’ commented, “We should have failed if we have merely crushed and humiliated our foes, leaving legacy of bitter hate and sullen resentment. We must pray the German nation might experience a change of heart.”

This is final edition of the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs 1939-45.

We'll Meet Again

Researching We’ll Meet Again: a volunteer’s experience

At Islington Museum we are lucky to have a dedicated team of volunteers that share their skills and expertise with us regularly. These volunteers assist us with a huge range of activities on a daily basis, from customer service, to collections work, educational assistance and research. A recent addition to the volunteer team is Johnny, who moved to Islington in 2019 and assisted with the We’ll Meet Again exhibition by researching and writing the articles Each bob you pay keeps the bomber away: The Islington Spitfire and The German Destroyer in Finsbury.

In the below piece from Johnny, he talks of his experience researching life in Islington during the Second World War. Thanks from everyone at Islington Museum and Islington Local History Centre to Johnny and our fabulous team of volunteers who helped bring this exhibition to life, including Anne Marie and Julia.

Helping out on the WW2 Exhibition project has been a great experience for me, especially as it has taken me back to my nerd like interest in WW2 as a child.

Researching what happened in and around Islington during the Blitz was extremely interesting and informative. It was an aspect of the war of which I was aware but didn’t have a great knowledge of. My own home city of Belfast also suffered during the wider blitz, especially around the east of the city where I grew up as that was where the Harland & Wolf shipyard and Short and Harland aircraft factory were based. It wasn’t on the same scale as London, with only four raids recorded, but caused widespread damage and many people lost their lives.

The second raid, on the night of Easter Tuesday 15th April 1941, was undertaken by 150 German bombers targeting the city waterworks, harbour area and shipyard amongst others. Fifty-five thousand houses were damaged leaving 100,000 people temporarily homeless, 1500 injured and over 900 dead. It was the greatest loss of life in a night raid outside of London during the Blitz.

Devastation from bombing was a common site for those living through the Second World War. This image shows destruction caused by a V-2 rocket at Smithfield Market in March 1945.

While I was aware of what happened it wasn’t something that was often spoken about by my family or others. As a child I used to play in my grand-parents back garden and over in one corner was an old, small concrete out building, big enough for me to stand up in that was used as the coal bunker. It was only years later that I found out that it had been built by the original owner of the house as an air raid shelter during WW2. That was my first introduction to the reality of how people lived at a time of war not knowing when the next raid would come or where the next bomb might fall.

This memory came flooding back to me as I looked through the photographs and read accounts of the people of Islington from this time. It was while doing this that I found a piece of information that brought the experience of the blitz a lot closer to me than I expected.

Bomb damage map of Islington. Areas were colour-coded depending on the level of damage incurred.

While consulting a bomb damage map for some information on a particular street for one of the archive photographs, I happened on the street where I now live. I saw that there was a little group of three houses toward one end of Ripplevale Grove that were colour coded as having been damaged. They were the only ones in the street that had been hit. On closer inspection I found that the house in the middle that had been ‘damaged beyond repair’ was my house! It had been totally rebuilt while the houses on either side that had been badly damaged were able to be repaired. Later I found an eye-witness account of what may have happened from someone who had been sheltering in a public shelter around the corner on Hemingford Road. It seems an unexploded anti-aircraft shell had fallen back down and exploded on hitting the house, causing massive damage. Other reports say that it was a high explosive bomb. Luckily the occupants of the house were already in one of the public shelters and escaped injury.

The photographic exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs (1939-45) shares a series of captivating images of the people and places in Islington and Finsbury during the Second World War; shedding light on the hardships endured and perseverance demonstrated by those that lived through this historic time.

We'll Meet Again

The German Destroyer in Finsbury

The captured Messerschmitt Bf 110, pictured above on display outside Finsbury Town Hall, Garnault Place in October 1940, became the most photographed Luftwaffe plane of WW2.

The aircraft was a twin-engined heavy fighter or ‘Zerstörer’ (‘Destroyer’ in English) flown by the Luftwaffe and some other nations during WW2. It was championed by Hermann Göring who nicknamed it ‘Eisenseiten’ (‘Ironsides’). The Bf 110 was a successful aircraft in the early stages of WW2 in the Polish, Norwegian and French theatres of war. However, its lack of agility in the air was its primary weakness and this was exposed during the Battle of Britain (10 July – 31 October 1940). Some Bf 110 equipped units were withdrawn from the battle after heavy losses and redeployed very successfully as night-fighters. It enjoyed a successful period following the Battle of Britain as an air superiority fighter and strike aircraft in other theatres of war. During the Balkans Campaign, North African Campaign and on the Eastern Front it provided valuable ground support to the German Army as a fighter-bomber (Jagdbomber/Jabo). Later in the war it was developed into a formidable night-fighter, becoming the main night-fighting aircraft of the Luftwaffe.

Full scene of Bf 110 S9 + CK being observed by the public in Garnault Place

The aircraft seen on display at Garnault Place, Bf 110 S9 + CK, was originally part of a large German attack during the Battle of Britain that took place on 15th August 1940. The Luftwaffe had put together a force of 1120 aircraft to attack the airfields and airfield installations of Fighter Command, from Newcastle in the north to the Solent in the south. German aircraft came from airfields in Norway, Denmark and France.

The Bf 110 S9 + CK was one of 16 fighter-bombers from 2 Staffel Erprobungsgruppe 210 (2./Erp.Gr.210) that took off from Calais-Marck airfield in Northern France. It was piloted by Oberleutnant Alfred Habisch and crewed by Radio Operator Unteroffizier Ernst Elfner. They targeted the airfield at Martlesham Heath in Suffolk and destroyed some workshops and the officers mess. Two hangers were seriously damaged and the attack also ruptured the watermains and disrupted telecommunications.

Colourised image of the Bf 110 S9 + CK being dismantled in Garnault Place, Finsbury, 1940.

The aircraft of 2./Erp.Gr.210 then went on towards London, escorted by 8 Messerschmitt Bf 109s. Their target was Kenley but, flying into the low setting sun, they mistook the South London airfield of Croydon which was a civil airport being used by the RAF as the target. As they commenced their bombing run, Hurricanes from 32 Squadron Biggin Hill and 111 Squadron Croydon arrived on the scene. While the Bf 109 escort departed and escaped largely ignored by the Hurricanes, the German fighter-bombers, led by Hauptmann Walter Rubensdorffer released their payload of bombs on the buildings below.

The suburb of Croydon shook as explosions shattered the airfield. Surrounding houses were damaged as blast waves tore holes in walls and one house had its roof lifted. The blasts were felt as far away as Woolwich and the Houses of Parliament in Central London. It’s not known if Rubensdorffer was aware that Croydon was a suburb of London. At this time, Hitler’s explicit orders were that London, including its dockland area and suburbs, were not to be attacked or bombed. Anyone violating this order would be court-martialled if they survived such an attack. Rubensdorffer would never find out if he would be court-martialled for what became the first ever bombing raid on London in WW2. His crippled aircraft crashed as he tried to guide it back to base after the attack, killing both himself and his crewman.

The Bf 110 S9 + CK in a hangar

While being chased by the Hurricanes of 32 and 111 Squadrons as they tried to escape, the Bf 110s actually flew over the airfield at Kenley that had been their intended target. One by one they were hit and had no time to go into their defensive circle pattern, their only means of defence against the British fighters. Some tried to keep altitude and head for home, others became victims of the chasing fighters and crashed into the heavily populated suburbs around Croydon and Purley. The Bourjois Perfume Factory in Croydon sustained a direct hit. Sixty people died and over 180 were injured. A number of the German aircraft also came down in the fields of Kent and Sussex, of which S9 + CK was one, coming down at Hawkhurst in Kent. Others struggled to make it back to their base in France with many crashing into the Channel.

Habisch and Elfner both survived the crash and were captured by the local Home Guard. Elfner suffered a bullet wound to his right hand. Both crewmen were eventually shipped off as POWs to Canada. Their aircraft, still mostly intact, was later displayed outside various locations, including Finsbury Town Hall, as part of a ‘Victory Tour’ during the Battle of Britain. It was then shipped to the USA on the SS Montanan in April 1941 and passed to the Vultee Aircraft Corporation for evaluation.

Article produced for the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs (1935-45) by Islington Museum volunteer, Johnny Baird.

We'll Meet Again

We’ll Meet Again: Carry On!

As part of the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs 1939-45, we delve further into life on the Home Front for the people of Islington and Finsbury during the Second World War.

Whilst the people of Britain had to adapt to new ways of living in the Second World War, there were many aspects of their lives that ‘carried on’. The now well-known term ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ was one of three key phrases created by the Ministry of Information, Britain’s wartime propaganda department, in the Summer of 1939. Whilst the phrase was not seen by the public at the time, the stoical manner in which British people dealt with the Second World War is now often described as keeping calm and carrying on.

Many practical elements of life in Islington and Finsbury endured, but in a modified way. Weddings were adapted for the time, with the ceremonies taking place in a sandbagged Islington Register Office; vaccinations for babies took place in vans, such as the Islington mobile diphtheria immunisation clinic; communities came together to support those who required assistance and formalised support, such as the Ministry of Food’s Welfare Food Service provided free or subsidised cod liver oil and canned orange juice for children under five and pregnant women.

Childhood treats, such as sweets and chocolates, were still available, although rationed from 26 July 1942 all the way through until 5 February 1953. Rationing amounts fluctuated throughout the war from 16oz a month down to 8oz. Cadbury launched more economically sustainable ‘Blended’ and ‘Ration’ bars, made with skimmed-powdered milk, which were described as being “as appetising as eating cardboard.”

In spite of the many hardships faced by those on Islington’s Home Front, people did their best to persevere and ‘carry on’ with life.

Islington’s Home Front

Sandbag wedding, Islington Registry Office, 1939

In the first ‘sandbag wedding’ of 1939, 20-year-old Corporal Charles White of the 1st City of London Regiment leaves Islington Register Office with his bride, 18-year-old Harriet Nock. The happy couple obtained special permission to get married and enjoy a summer wedding. Notice how the entrance to the building is covered in protective sandbags, by then a familiar sight.

Charles and Harriet lived in Gainford Street, Barnsbury, and happily both survived the war. They later moved to nearby Richmond Avenue.

[Historic England: MED 01/01/1227]

London Fever Hospital, Islington, 1 January 1940

The caption on the reverse of the original photograph reads, “Off-duty fun. Picture shows nurses of the London Fever Hospital, Liverpool Road, and St Bart’s students enjoying themselves during their off-duty period.” They were enjoying ‘frozen frolics’ on the hospital’s tennis court on New Year’s Day 1940.

The London Fever Hospital also became a general hospital during the War, with beds allocated for patients from bomb-damaged hospitals.

Finsbury Town Hall, Garnault Place, after 15 August 1940

This remarkable photograph shows a German Messerschmitt BF110 that was shot down over Kent, following a raid on Croydon on 15 August 1940. It was displayed outside Finsbury Town Hall as part of a ‘Victory Tour’ during the Battle of Britain.

The aircraft was probably the most photographed aircraft of the Luftwaffe and the image here shows Finsbury residents getting a close-up view of an enemy plane. The Messerschmitt was then shipped to the USA for evaluation in Spring 1941.

Firewood piles, Islington, 1940/41

Islington residents gather free firewood from the pile of debris collected from destroyed buildings. While brick, stone and some other materials were salvaged for reuse following bomb damage to buildings, timber was available to collect as an alternative fuel to coal.

The Fuel and Lighting (Coal) Order 1941 came into force in January 1942. Central heating was prohibited in the summer months. Domestic coal was rationed by the government to 762 kg for those in London and South East, less than those in the north, due to the milder climate in southern England.

Finsbury Food Office Mobile Unit, 1942

Food rationing in Britain was introduced in January 1940 for all adults regardless of age, wealth and status. Children and babies received extra rations of meat and milk.

In 1942 the Ministry of Food launched the Welfare Food Service. This provided free or subsidised cod liver oil and canned orange juice for children under five and pregnant women. The Ministry encouraged Jamaica and British Honduras to produce the oranges used. This cheerful photograph shows the women and younger children of Finsbury outside the borough’s Food Office Mobile Unit, where the oil and juice were dispensed.

[Historic England: MED01/01/3790]

Holloway Prison, Islington, 30 August 1943

The caption on the reverse of the photograph reads, “The Prison Nursing Service. Picture shows Sister Alice Shearer, the creche sister, with some of the babies born in the prison.”

HM Prison Holloway employed state-registered nurses who were qualified midwives. Mothers with babies born while detained in Holloway could care for them in their spare time, and children were looked after in the nursery while the women worked. 

Islington mobile diphtheria immunisation clinic, 1945

Diphtheria is a highly dangerous and contagious bacterial disease primarily affecting children. Diphtheria causes a thick covering in the back of the throat, leading to difficulty breathing, heart failure, paralysis, and potential death. The Second World War prompted a number of developments in vaccinations for the protection of soldiers and civilians, including one for diphtheria.

The free diphtheria vaccination was introduced in 1940, reducing the number of cases from over 46,000 in 1940 to 962 in 1950, and the number of deaths from 2,480 to 49.

Next week will be our final installment of images from the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs 1939-45. Next week we’ll be looking at VE-Day celebrations in Islington and Finsbury during the Second World War.

We'll Meet Again

Each bob you pay keeps the bomber away: The Islington Spitfire

Lord Beaverbrook, the Anglo-Canadian media tycoon Max Aitken, came into the British Government in early 1940 to help speed up aircraft production. He was an advocate of public appeals to raise funds for things like raw materials and also encouraged the public to shop thriftily to help the war effort.

The Spitfire Fund

The Spitfire was hugely popular with the public, capturing the imagination and was covered widely by the media. People wanted to know how more could be built and this led to the setting up of The Spitfire Fund in May 1940. Funds were set up by councils, businesses, voluntary organisations and individuals. Another way was the viewing of downed German aircraft. They were put on display and toured around towns and cities.

Each Spitfire had been priced arbitrarily at £5000 and to encourage the idea that every penny counted a components list was also published. A wing was £2000, a gun £200, sparkplugs at 8s each and rivets sixpence each.

Spitfires in flight (IWM CH 740)

There were some other interesting ways of fundraising. A Kent farmer charged sixpence “to see the only field in Kent without a German aircraft in it”. During an air raid, the manager of a London cinema pushed a wheelbarrow up and down the aisle asking for donations calling “The more you give, the less raids there will be!”. Market Lavington in Wiltshire drew the outline of a Spitfire in the square and challenged residents to fill it with coins. The task was completed in days. In Liverpool a ‘lady of the night’ left £3 at the police station “for the Spitfire fund”. This was the same amount as the standard fine for soliciting.

Pin badges were also produced and sold to raise funds. These were often made out of brass or tin with enamel inlays like button badges, showing the organisation responsible. Some were in the shape of a miniature Spitfire made from chromium plated metal stamped with the name of the fighter.

Chromium plated Spitfire Fund pin badge (

Fundraisers could have a dedication of their choice painted on the side of the Spitfire. Some were named after the place where the funds had been raised, others after the local newspaper that raised the money. The Kennel Club helped fund an aircraft called ‘The Dog Fighter’. POWs of Oflag VIB (a prison camp in Germany for captured officers) were able to donate a month’s pay through The Red Cross for ‘Unshackled Spirit’, no doubt kept secret from their captors! A group of women and girls named Dorothy paid for ‘Dorothy Of Great Britain and Empire’. The country of Uruguay, officially neutral, funded 17 aircraft. Other countries and cities donated enough for entire squadrons to bear their name – No. 74 (Trinidad), No. 167 (Gold Coast), No. 114 (Hong Kong). No. 152 (Hyderabad) was donated by the Nizam of Hyderabad in India. Some communities instead chose to name their aircraft in honour of bereaved local families.

Enough funds were eventually raised for 2600 Spitfires of which only 1600 can be traced due to incomplete records. Around £13 million (approximately £650 million today) was raised in total. The funds went into the Government coffers and were used to support the entire war effort as opposed to purchasing individual aircraft. The process had a profound effect on the morale of the people and helped them feel they had ‘done their bit’ for the war effort and was very important.

The Borough of Islington Spitfire Club

On Friday 9th August 1940 the Mayor of Islington, Alderman Douglas McArthur Jackson, launched the Borough of Islington Spitfire Club in the local press:

“I propose to launch the Borough of Islington Spitfire Club and I want £5000 for the first Spitfire. I am confident that Islington will respond.”

“Islington has never been behind in expressing its devotion to our beloved country and to all it stands for. The time has come to put that expression into concrete form and, Citizens of Islington, Go To It.”

– Mayor Jackson, August 1940

The Mayor wanted members of the public to get collecting sheets from the Town Hall and log their donations on the sheets. After raising £1 the sheet could be returned to the Mayor who would send out an illuminated certificate of membership of the club. Anyone raising £20 could receive a silver model Spitfire badge in addition to their certificate.

‘Supply One Spitfire’: Mayor Jackson and Islingtonians fundraising for the Islington Spitfire on 24 August 1940.

The slogan of the Spitfire Club was ‘each bob you pay keeps the bomber away.’ Cheques could be made payable to the Mayor of Islington’s Spitfire Club and by 13th August the Club had received nearly £150. The appeal had been going for less than a week.

On 24th August Mayor Jackson sat for nine and a half hours opposite The Nag’s Head at the entrance of Holloway Arcade collecting money for the fund. He began at 10am and finished at 7.30pm, interrupted only for lunch and a break for an air raid warning in the afternoon. By that time the fund had already passed the £1200 mark and that day’s collection added a further £89 5s. By the first week of October 1940 the fund reached the halfway mark of £2500. The daily progress of the fundraising was shown on a giant thermometer above the main entrance to the Town Hall in Upper Street.

‘The War Chest’, The Star, 24/08/1940

There were various fundraising activities undertaken to raise money for the fund. A boxing tournament was held at the Caledonian Road Baths on Saturday 5th October where £52 was raised towards “the other kind of Fighters”. A whist drive was arranged by the West Islington Women’s Conservative Association. The Islington Gazette reported: “Just before the whist drive started an air raid warning sounded, but it was unanimously agreed to carry on.” Bracelets were made from the cuttings of Spitfire windscreens and sold. A Mrs Clark invited her neighbours into her back garden to see a deactivated landmine that had landed there during an air raid. She charged a penny a time and news of the landmine being on show spread quickly with over 2000 people coming to see it. In the end £9 was given over to the Mayor for the fund.

The Islington Spitfire

The Borough of Islington Spitfire, 1942

The actual ‘Islington Spitfire’ was a Spitfire Mk.Vb (Trop) ER206 built at Castle Bromwich and was named ‘Borough Of Islington’. It was allocated to No. 46 MU Lossiemouth on 29th August 1942 and eventually shipped to Gibraltar on 25th October, arriving on 9th November. After assembling and testing the aircraft was flown to North Africa and allotted to No. 152 (Hyderabad) Squadron at Souk-el-Arba. On 6th February 1943 it suffered engine failure while carrying out a sweep and crashed south of Pont du Fahs. It was flown by Sgt D.G. Boyce who survived unhurt.

Although the plane never saw combat, the Borough of Islington Spitfire brought together the Islington’s residents to express their “devotion in a concrete form to keep the bomber away”. On request from Mayor Jackson that they Go To It, the Citizens of Islington went to it and they Got It! 

Article produced for the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs (1935-45) by Islington Museum volunteer, Johnny Baird.