As the clip below demonstrates, the eerie, banshee-like howl of the air-raid siren was one of the most defining sounds of WWII.
Although the conflict ended in 1945, the UK maintained a fully working network of these chilling devices right up until 1992- primarily thanks to the Cold War.
Most air-raid sirens have now vanished from the streets… but an intriguing example can still be spotted in central London; perched high up on one of the numerous bridges which ferry slowly rumbling commuter trains past Waterloo Station.
Information on this siren is pretty much non-existent.
Personally speaking, I’m inclined to believe that this particular example is post-WWII; installed to warn unfortunate Londoners of flooding (a grave threat before the Thames Barrier opened in 1984) or, worse still, an impending Soviet nuclear attack.
Perhaps though this siren isn’t a relic at all… on closer examination, wires can be seen trailing from the device… and the alarm still appears to be plugged in.
Let’s hope it never gets the chance to be cranked out of retirement…
Liverpool Street at War
As with its former neighbour, Broad Street- which suffered at the hands of a zeppelin airship in 1915- Liverpool Street Station was the victim of enemy bombing during the First World War, with a devastating attack taking place in May 1917.
By this point the German military had realised that their airships, with their cumbersome and vulnerable nature, were no longer effective for carrying out air-raids over London.
With this in mind, they switched to smaller aircraft- the Gotha Bombers.
With their speed and manoeuvrability, these craft proved far more deadly.
When a squadron of Gothas attacked Liverpool Street during the 1917 assault, they unleashed a lethal flurry of bombs, killing 162 people.
Four years after WWI, in 1922, a large memorial was installed at Liverpool Street Station as a solemn tribute to the many employees of the Great Eastern Railway who had perished during the devastating conflict.
This memorial was unveiled at midday on June 22nd 1922 by Sir Henry Wilson, a 58 year old politician who had served in WWI as one of Britain’s most senior officers.
Once the ceremony was over, Sir Wilson hailed a taxi, the destination being his home on Eaton Square… however, he never made it.
Lying in wait at the Belgravia address were Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan; two members of the Irish Republican Army who were reputedly unhappy with the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty which had been signed six months before (coincidentally, the treaty had been signed at 22 Hans Place, a short walk from Sir Wilson’s home) .
From their vantage point, Dunne and O’Sullivan waited for Sir Wilson to pay the cabbie and then, as their target mounted the steps to his front door, the pair dashed forward, shooting the former Field-Marshall several times.
Sir Henry Wilson died on his doorstep, the murder causing chaos and outrage. His killers were both quickly caught, and executed at Wandsworth prison a few months later.
WWII and the Kindertransport
Liverpool Street’s finest hour occurred during the prelude to WWII, when the London terminal played a vital role in shepherding 1,000s of Jewish refugees- all of whom were children- to safety.
This process was known as the Kindertransport.
Ever since Hitler had seized power in 1933, Jews had been subject to persecution.
However, on the 10th November 1938, the Nazi’s hatred exploded dramatically and violently with the horrendous Kristallnacht; the ‘night of broken glass.’
During the span of one evening, 267 synagogues, 7,500 Jewish businesses and 1,000s more Jewish homes were targeted, with Nazi thugs smashing windows and daubing anti-Semitic graffiti.
Arson was carried out on a huge scale, with many Jewish premises destroyed outright. A number of Jews were killed, whilst many more were rounded up and arrested.
Following this night of horror, the Kindertransport concept was quickly conceived and put into action.
After getting the nod from then Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, certain immigration laws were suspended, thus allowing Jewish youngsters under the Nazi jackboot to enter the UK in large groups rather than waste precious time in applying individually.
In all, around 10,000 children found shelter in the UK under the system and every single one of them passed through Liverpool Street Station.
The first group arrived just three weeks after Kristallnacht- 196 little ones whose Jewish orphanage had been callously destroyed by the Nazis.
The young refugees came to the UK by ship, landing in Harwich. From there, they boarded special steam-trains to London, where they would be introduced to their kindly guardians at Liverpool Street Station.
The process brought both salvation and utter heart-break.
Although the youngsters found safe-harbour, the vast majority would never see their parents again as the families they were torn from fell victim to the perils of war, concentration camps and gas-chambers.
Today, the Kindertransport’s life-line is commemorated at Liverpool Street by two sculptures.
The first, which is tucked away on the station’s bustling concourse, was originally unveiled in 2003 and is dedicated to the Quakers, whose campaign was vital in instigating and implementing the Kindertransport.
This poignant statue is twinned with similar artworks at Prague’s Hlavni Nadrazi Station and Vienna’s Westbannhof Station, both of which served as departure points for the evacuating children.
On 21st May 2011, a ceremony was held in which Liverpool Street’s subtle memorial was rededicated by a very special man… Sir Nicholas Winton- who is represented as the bespectacled chap holding the small child in the Prague statue above.
Sir Nicholas- a Londoner, born in Hampstead in 1909- played a huge role in the Kindertransport, single-handedly organising the evacuation of 669 Jewish children from Czechoslovakia.
His amazing feat, which was carried out from a makeshift office set up in a Prague hotel room, has resulted in him being dubbed Britain’s answer to Oskar Schindler.
In 2011, a documentary film- Nicky’s Family– was made, chronicling Sir Nicholas’s efforts and the subsequent influence his humanity has had upon others.
The trailer for this moving film can be viewed in the following clip:
A humble man, Sir Nicholas didn’t speak about the immense role he’d played in saving so many youngsters from the evils of Nazism for several decades.
Things came to light again in the late 1980s when his wife, Greta discovered Nicholas’ note-books in the attic; the very books and paperwork which he’d used to administer the large scale evacuation.
Greta approached the BBC, who managed to track down 80 of those whose name appeared in the book and, in 1988, Sir Nicholas was invited onto the show, That’s Life to discuss the Kindertransport.
What the great man didn’t know as he sat in the audience was that he was surrounded by a large group of the now fully-grown up children whom he’d saved 50 years previously, all of whom would have started their new lives at Liverpool Street Station.
The following clip demonstrates what happened next….
In 2009, to mark the 70th anniversary of the Kindertransport, the lifeline’s route was re-created, with specially chartered steam locomotives linking up the stages across Europe.
The carriages, which were hauled by vintage trains, carried many of the surviving (and now very much grown up!) refugees, who had fled tyranny so many years before.
Younger guests were also invited to join the special ride, giving them the opportunity to chat to the former Kindertransport children about their tragic stories and experiences.
The final leg of the emotional event- Harwich to London- was hauled by the Winton Train; named in honour of Sir Nicholas.
The fantastic engine can be viewed in the following clip, as it thunders towards Liverpool Street on the memorial day:
Sir Nicholas Winton is still alive today; going strong and looking amazingly well at the grand old age of 103.
A true inspiration.
Sir Nicholas can be seen in a BBC news report from 2011, which details the re-dedication of Liverpool Street’s first Kindertransport memorial. Please click here to view the clip.
The second Kindertransport memorial at Liverpool Street Station can be found just outside one of the entrances, standing on a relatively peaceful area which has been named ‘Hope Square’.
Unveiled in 2006 by Prince Charles, the sculpture was created by Frank Meisler- who himself was a Kindertransport refugee, arriving from the Polish city, Gdansk in 1939.
Frank’s Liverpool Street sculpture is actually part of a series, having three counterparts across Europe which chronicle the route of the Kindertransport.
The other sculptures can be found at Gdansk station in Poland, Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse station (which also commemorates the many more unfortunate youngsters who boarded more sinister trains to the death camps) and Rotterdam; the port from where the children would depart for the assured safety of England…
The Blitz and a challenge to authority
Once WWII was fully underway the Kindertransports were forced to cease… and, in 1940, Hitler unleashed his fury on London with the nightly Blitz.
Once the regular air-raids commenced, many Londoners considered the London Underground- with its exceptionally deep tunnels- to be a natural place in which to seek shelter.
The government however had other ideas.
They feared that allowing people to shelter on the tube would result in a ‘bunker mentality’- in other words, they believed that once the shelterers were down on the platforms, they wouldn’t want to come back up ever again, becoming subterranean dwellers!
As such, official policy was that the Underground was for transportation only; anyone attempting to stay for the night would be moved on.
On the 8th September 1940, an event at Liverpool Street station would result in this policy being re-considered…
It was a Sunday evening when the air-raid sirens kicked in and the drone of enemy bombers could be heard approaching…. Eager to get under cover, large groups of residents from Spitalfields dashed towards nearby Liverpool Street, aiming to head for the station’s deep Central Line platforms.
Once there, the crowd found the entrance to the tube barred and gated; shielded by armed troops who were under orders to enforce the government’s no-shelter on the tube policy.
The spirited East-Enders took no time in deciding that this blockade just would not do … and by sheer force of numbers, they managed to disable the barricade, barging their way through and pouring down to the deep platforms, mounting what we today would most probably label a ‘sit-down protest.’
Overwhelmed, the authorities quickly realised that the ban on sheltering on the underground was unworkable and the following day, the Minister for Home Security did a U-turn, announcing that the public were in fact more than welcome to spend the night on the tube if they so wished.
Following this change of heart, the government’s paranoid predictions of bunker mentality were proved wrong.
People sheltered in the tube by night, but were more than happy to leave the following morning…. If anything, they were probably glad of the fresh air after being stuck deep below ground for hours in stuffy, smelly and downright uncomfortable conditions.
Nor was the tube always safe- on several occasions, many civilians were killed by direct hits on stations, with explosions at Balham and Bank being particularly catastrophic.
The following clip is taken from the end of the 1941 short film, Christmas Under Fire, which was shown in American cinemas and depicts the conditions endured by Londoners who opted to shelter on the tube during the Blitz:
Liverpool Street Today
Despite being one of London’s busiest and most illustrious stations, Liverpool Street gradually sunk into a gloomy, decrepit state during the second half of the 20th century.
In 1986, Liverpool Street’s neighbour, Broad Street was demolished and a fresh, modern development of offices, restaurants and public spaces known as ‘Broadgate’ rapidly sprung up to fill the void.
Part of this complex spilled over towards Liverpool Street; namely the impressive ‘Exchange Square’, which is constructed on a vast raft, perched over the subterranean tracks leading into the station; a set-up which invites an interesting perspective of Liverpool Street’s Victorian architecture.
Popular with city-workers on their lunch break, Exchange Square is dotted with small cafes and eateries… and a wide array of public artworks, the largest of which is the ‘Broadgate Venus’:
Weighing 5 tons, the Broadgate Venus was installed in 1990, its creator being Mr Fernando Botero, a Columbian artist who originally trained as a bull-fighter! Fernando’s work is very distinctive in that his subjects often appear tubby- his 1959 re-imagining of the Mona Lisa being a good demonstration of his style!
The Future and reminders of the Past
Today, Liverpool Street continues to grow thanks to its role in the new Crossrail project; an express subway which will link the capital to a number of commuter towns stretching from Essex to Berkshire.
Deep beneath Liverpool Street, a large interchange is currently being constructed to serve the new route; a true feat of engineering which requires hefty piles to be ploughed 130ft into the ground.
Whilst excavations have been taking place, a large number of human skeletons have been unearthed, many of which lay only a few feet below the surface as generations of commuters trudged overhead…
These skeletons, which have been receiving the utmost care and attention in their removal, belong to former inmates of the Bedlam lunatic asylum; the site of the excavations marking the old hospital’s burial ground.
Archaeologists on the project have confirmed that the remains of 4,000 souls lie in this compact area, and it is hoped these sad collections of bones will give historians more insight into the lives of those who were ‘treated’ at the horrendous institution.
As this London terminal expands to meet the needs of the 21st century, these once long-forgotten skeletons are a sober reminder of Liverpool Street’s darker past.
This is the entrance to the Café de Paris, a famous London nightclub on Coventry Street near Leicester Square, which first opened to partygoers way back in 1924 and is still going strong today.
The dance-floor of the Café de Paris was originally designed to resemble the ballroom of the fated Titanic and, in its earliest days, one of the club’s most frequent regulars was Edward, Prince of Wales (Prince Harry’s wild nights out at Boujis and Chinawhite are clearly nothing new!)
This particular Prince of course went onto become King Edward VIII in 1936… but he didn’t stick the throne for very long. Shortly after taking on the crown, he decided to chuck it in; abdicating so that he could pursue a relationship with U.S socialite, Wallis Simpson. I wonder if the hedonism of the Cafe De Paris had a corrupting influence on him?…
Shortly after it opened, the Café De Paris was the venue for the UK’s first performance of the famously hip and energetic, Charleston dance. This spontaneous debut was carried out by the American model and showgirl, Louise Brooks- a bold act which pulled London firmly into the ‘Roaring 20s’.
In 1929, the club hit the silver screen when it appeared in the silent film, Piccadilly
Starring Anna May Wong- the film industry’s first ever Chinese-American actress, the plot of Piccadilly involved jealousy, betrayal, forbidden love, murder.. and, above all, dancing as demonstrated in the following excerpt!-
A decade later saw the outbreak of WWII and the subsequent Blitz on London- during which time the Café De Paris was considered to be one of the safest places in the West End, due to the fact that the bulk of the club was located several floors underground.
For those who had the money and style to gain entry, the assumed safety of the Café De Paris was clearly far more attractive than spending the night sleeping on a stuffy, crowded tube platform or huddled in a dank Anderson Shelter at the bottom of the garden.
During the Blitz, the biggest attraction at the Café De Paris was the nightly entertainment provided by Kenrick Reginald Huymans Johnson; more commonly known as Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson, leader of his specially put together, ‘West Indian Orchestra’ who were the club’s resident band.
Ken was born in British Guyana, South America in 1914.
During the 1920s, he rose to become an acclaimed dancer, coached by Buddy Bradley who had also taught Fred Astaire.
Ken’s smooth moves quickly earned him his famous ‘Snakehips’ nickname, paving the way for appearances in a number of American cabaret acts, as well as leading to Hollywood and a role in the 1934 film, Oh Daddy.
During his time in America, Ken visited New York’s Harlem where he got to witness jazz greats such as Cab Calloway practicing their craft.
Such experiences enticed Snakehips, encouraging him to move on from dancing and to go about establishing his own band who would soon become known as the aforementioned ‘West Indian Orchestra.’
By 1940, Ken and his team of musicians were in London and were already so acclaimed that the Café De Paris snapped them on a permanent basis.
Upon being hired, Ken announced that he was determined to make Londoners “like swing at the Café… or die in the attempt”…
It wasn’t just the rich and famous who got to hear the West Indian Orchestra’s exciting music- Snakehips and his talented line-up were regulars on the BBC’s Wartime Service, giving Brits a welcome and uplifting diversion from the conflict and misery which was consuming the world.
On the evening of Saturday 9th March 1941 Ken and his gang took to the stage as per usual.
Shortly into their performance, the air-raid sirens cranked into action, sending their eerie banshee howl wailing across the capital.
It was a situation Ken and the orchestra were used to and, being the accomplished entertainers they were and safe in the knowledge that the Café De Paris was deep underground, the band played on…
It was during a rendition of “Oh Johnny” that the unthinkable happened.
A bomb hurtled down from the sky and somehow managed to pinpoint an airshaft, sending the sinister device tumbling down into the very heart of the Café De Paris where, in a blue flash, it exploded on the dance floor.
34 people- including Snakehips Johnson- were killed instantly and a further 80 were seriously injured.
A number of those killed perished as the powerful blast sucked the air out of their lungs; a deadly phenomena which caused the victim to display no outward signs of injury, but instead left them statue-like; frozen in the pose they’d been in on the moment of impact.
One of the first to rush to the scene was a police officer called Ballard Berkeley… who would later go onto become an actor, playing the character of Major Gowen in the much loved sitcom, Fawlty Towers.
Watching him act in such a well-known comic role, it is difficult to imagine the horrors which Ballard witnessed in the aftermath of that dreadful bombing.
Ken Johnson, whose once beautifully agile body was severely ravaged in the blast, was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium.
He was just 26 years old.
The loss of the great Snakehips and his band was felt deeply. When The Times reported on the disaster, they deliberately avoided mentioning the band by name for fear of damaging public morale.
The devastated Café De Paris remained closed until after the war, finally re-opening in 1948.
Below is a rare recording (made approximately two months before the Café Des Paris disaster) of Ken and his West Indian Orchestra preforming ‘I’m in Love for the Last Time’, the distinctive sound which, for an all but too brief period, lifted spirits during one of Britain’s most devastating periods.