Focus: The terrible toll of Black Saturday
Giles Broadbent looks back on the day that the war truly came to the East End, leaving the pride of Britain aflame
There was a war on - but you wouldn't know it. A year on from Neville Chamberlain's ominous declaration of hostilities, little had changed for the families of the East End.
The summer of 1940 had seen hundreds enjoy a scorching summer during which temperatures had risen into the 90s. Men in trilbies and women in floral one-pieces licked ice creams and relaxed in deckchairs while children paddled in the sea.
A few miles away, across the channel, the conflict for Europe was raging. The Germans had breached the Maginot Line in May and the first raids had hit London but complacency was still rife. Evacuee children were beginning to drift home.
But all that was about to change...
September 7, 1940, saw crowds cheer on the Hammers against London rivals Spurs in a Southern League match at Upton Park. By half time, the home team were 4-1 in the lead.
But overhead, the sky darkened and the thick drone of German planes filled the air - 348 bombers escorted by 617 fighters formed a 20-mile wide swarm in the sky.
The Thames, which had created employment for tens of thousands, had turned from ally to enemy's guide.
East End man Frank Thorpe was at the match. He said: "We rushed home as fast as we could. A stick of bombs dropped not 100 yards away.
"One fell in every turning. The blast was tremendous. People were really panicking. We had some house-proud neighbours whose windows were all blasted, they were screaming blue murder.
"We were all evacuated to a hall on Saturday night. My brother played the piano to help cheer everyone."
It had begun. That night more than 1,000 bombs - some strapped to oil drums for maximum incendiary impact - caused devastation across an area that Adolf Hitler had designated "Target A".
The fire would eventually spread to cover 100 hectares with more than 40 separate fires. The largest fire at the Surrey Docks, where soft wood was stored, required 300 pumps.
The death toll on Black Saturday was 448 with 1,600 seriously wounded as shelters proved inadequate.
The bombing was to instigate a firestorm that would last for five days. Flour, paint, rubber and sugar were incinerated and the flames rose and guided in the second wave of bombers which came in the evening and dropped bombs for eight hours solid.
At Canary Wharf, Rum Quay was struck by an incendiary device. Blazing spirits poured from barrels on to the quayside and the barges broke free.
One fireman recalled: "There was a paint fire, another cascade of white hot flame, coating the pump with varnish that could not be cleaned off for weeks. A rubber fire gave forth black clouds of smoke that could only be fought from a distance, always threatening to choke the attackers."
Docklands At War, a permanent exhibition at the Museum Of London Docklands records that the priority installations for the Germans were the Ford plant at Dagenham, the Beckton Gas Works and the Royal Docks. But on that first night industrial centres such Woolwich Arsenal and Surrey Docks would be decimated.
The bombing continued night after night without a break. By mid-November, the Germans had dropped more than 13,000 tons of high explosive and more than one million incendiary bombs.
Further down the line there would be unexpected bonuses. One Port of London Authority administrator recalls: "One offshoot of the burnt sugar was a very nice thick layer of toffee. Since there was hardly any sweets about, the labourers used to come in and chip lumps of the toffee off the road and take it home."
Prime Minister Winston Churchill took a tour of the smouldering docks and their reconstruction was essential.
The Blitz would continue until 1941 - and the Docks would rise again playing a crucial role developing Mulberry harbours that would be instrumental in the success of D-Day, finally delivering an end to the onslaught.
- The Blitz lasted from September 7, 1940, to May 11, 1941.
- 1.4million were made homeless, 20,000 killed.
- 40 per cent of housing in Stepney was destroyed.
- On May 10, 1941, 3,000 were killed in one night.
The Museum Of London Docklands has a permanent exhibition about the war.
The Museum Of London has a dedicated website with memories, pictures and facts.