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.
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.
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).
(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.
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.
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.