The Thames: Assisting the Enemy

A famous photograph put out by the Germans in September 1940 showing a Heinkel 111 on a bombing raid over the Isle of Dogs, East London. It suggests that Britain, symbolised by the River Thames, lay helpless beneath the Luftwaffe’s might. There are refuted suggestions that this picture is a Nazi propaganda mock-up. Whatever the truth of this, the image is from Wikimedia and is in the Public Domain so, hopefully, Reich Propaganda Minister Goebbels will not be claiming copyright.

11 November 2021

By Tim Koch

Today, Thursday 11 November, will see what is variously called Armistice Day, Veterans’ Day or Remembrance Day observed in many countries around the world. HTBS has written many times about the wartime service of particular oarsmen and also of the war memorials erected globally by many rowing clubs. Following a common omission, we have said nothing of those who were casualties as a result of air raids, notably in the eight-month “Blitz” over Britain that ran from 7 September 1940 to 10 May 1941. London was bombed on an almost nightly basis and in those eight months, 43,000 British civilians died, almost half of them in the capital.

In The Blitz Companion (University of Westminster, 2019) Mark Clapson wrote:

The rationale for the aerial bombing of London was quite straightforward. Having lost the Battle of Britain during the summer of 1940, and with Berlin (bombed by the Royal Air Force), the Germans (attacked) the British capital to disrupt its infrastructure, to reduce iconic buildings to rubble, and to undermine civilian morale… 

The River Thames was a significant point of reference for the Germans because it flowed into London from the west and snaked through the capital to the east… (guiding) in-flying enemy pilots who were also well aware of the residential and industrial zones that sat alongside the riverbanks. A moonlit night was a strong navigational aid as the rivers were silver far below.

A sample of a collection of Luftwaffe aerial photos, maps and navigational instructions now belonging to Eric Pemberton which were given to the German aircrew before their bombing missions. This shows the West India Docks and the Isle of Dogs. Taken from the “Isle of Dogs Life” website post, “Mapping the Blitz 2”. 
Smoke rising from fires in the London docks following bombing on 7 September 1940. Picture: Wikimedia/Public Domain.

There is a great irony in the fact that, during the Second World War, the river that had originally given birth to London guided those who wished to destroy it from the Channel coast to the heart of the city. There follow some rather random pieces that I have collected on the Thames, rowing and the Blitz. However, I hope that together they will tell a bigger story.


Bombs dropped around the area of the Putney to Mortlake course on the River Thames during the Blitz shown in a screenshot from the website “Bomb Site” by the University of Portsmouth. Image: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Putney suffered two particularly terrible bomb hits, both probably from failed attempts at hitting Putney Bridge. On 19 April 1941, 45 people died in the Castle pub at 220 Putney Bridge Road, and on 7 November 1943, 81 were killed in the Cinderella Dancing Club on the corner of Putney High Street and Putney Bridge Road (this was part of the “Little Blitz” of late 1943 – early 1944).

During the war, there were nine fire boat stations on the Thames and, between 1941 and 1945, Auxiliary Fire Service River Station R2X was based at the requisitioned London Rowing Club. Fire boats played a vital role in extinguishing fires along the river, each could pump 14,000 gallons of water a minute. LRC moved some of its treasures to a place of safety, but the “safe place” was bombed while the club was not. Picture:


Kensington Rowing Club’s 1939 – 1945 war memorial plaque in what is now Auriol Kensington Rowing Club includes the name of former club secretary, Captain Henry Goodwin-Castleman, who was killed while defusing an enemy bomb in Liverpool on 16 September 1940.
Also in Auriol Kensington is this section of wall from the pre-refurbishment clubroom. Six Auriol members scratched their names into the wood panelling as they remained in the bar during an air raid. It reads: SKELTON WILSON WIDDOWS HORWOOD GORDON ALDINGTON JAN 28 1941 4.00 AM. 
Lower Mall, Hammersmith, showing the results of bomb damage. Few windows have not been blown in. In the picture is Furnivall Sculling Club (FSC), the West End Amateur Rowing Association (WEARA), Kensington RC (KRC) and Auriol RC (ARC).
Furnivall suffered the worst of the Lower Mall boat houses that were damaged by enemy action. Picture: @FurnivallSC.
This picture was taken in 1957, twelve years after the war ended, but it still shows two reminders of the Blitz. Until the 1980s, Hammersmith Bridge remained the grey colour it was painted in 1939 in an attempt to obscure it from enemy bombers. Also, behind the sculler’s head is a pumping station on piles that drew river water to back up the local mains water used to fight Blitz fires. It was only removed in the 1960s. Picture: Alisdair Macdonald.
Another “Blitz” occurred between July 1944 and March 1945 when V1 and later V2 rockets were launched, mostly against London. On 24 July 1944, a V1 landed on part of the Hammersmith riverside known as “Little Wapping”, destroying many properties, notably an 18th-century Quaker Meeting House and Clark’s Lead Mills. Here, Hammersmith Bridge is visible in the background.
The same view as above pictured in 1951. In 1948, it was decided that there should be a public open space called “Furnivall Gardens” on the bomb-damaged site of “Little Wapping”.


1939: Oarswomen going afloat from Tom Green’s Boathouse by Barnes Bridge carry their gas masks with them. Attacks by gas bombs were expected but never materialised.
The Civil Service Boathouse, shown here in 1930, was requisitioned as a mortuary at the beginning of the war. It was never used as such as Blitz deaths were not as high as many in authority had feared. In 1939, for example, military expert Basil Liddell Hart speculated that 250,000 casualties could occur in the first week of a bombing campaign.
A picture from 1933. On the left is what was then the boathouse of Ibis RC, now occupied by Mortlake Anglian & Alpha Boat Club (MAA), and on the right is what was then the boathouse shared by Polytechnic Rowing Club and Quintin Boat Club. Picture: Quintin BC.

The history section of the Quintin BC website says:

(In 1944) the rear of the boathouse was hit by an incendiary bomb and over fifty boats were destroyed, including all the racing boats… Although the ground floor was burnt out, the first floor suffered much less damage and the structure of the building was relatively unscathed.

MAA’s website history section records:

During (the Second World War) the sister of (Peter Harrison, Mortlake RC’s Captain) took up sculling… Hitler’s bombs missed the club, but one landed (on the foreshore)… This caused a large crater that retained water even at low tide and in which the Miss Harrison was able to practice sculling manoeuvres without fear of falling in. Fifty years later the foreshore at that point remained soft underfoot where the crater had eventually silted up.

George Drinkwater

George Drinkwater (right) working on a clay bust of Steve Fairbairn (left). A better image is here.

Perhaps the highest-profile oarsman to die as a result of the Blitz was George Carr Drinkwater. He rowed for Oxford in 1902 and 1903 and was later the rowing correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. In 1929, he co-authored The University Boat Race Official Centenary History. Drinkwater was also an architect, portrait and figure painter. Most famously, he sculpted the Steve Fairbairn bust that is awarded to the fastest crew in the Head of the River Race. His death in England in May 1941 due to “enemy action” was ironic as well as tragic as he had survived service in both the Boer War and the First World War. In the latter he became a Brigade Major, won the Military Cross and was twice mentioned in despatches. 

Our friends, the foe

Ruder-Club Franken in Schweinfurt, Bavaria, after bombing on 2 February 1944.
German civilians also suffered terribly from Allied bombing raids. Up to 25,000 were killed in four raids on Dresden between 13 and 15 February 1945. Afterwards, this picture was taken from the city hall. The statue is called “Güte” meaning “Good” or “Kindness”. Picture: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany/Deutsche Fotothek.


  1. Thank you, Tim, for a very interesting post for Armistice Day. It puts
    the Thames and boathouses in a new light for me.

    It was a pleasure to meet you at the Fitz at what I thought was a really
    good occasion. Thank you, too, for your contributions to what Victoria 


  2. Most of the vandals who carved their names into Auriol’s woodwork during the 1941 air raid (Skelton, Wilson, Widdows, Horwood, Gordon & Aldington) may not have been from Auriol. With the exception of Gordon, oarsmen with those surnames all rowed at Quintin in the late 1930s.

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