Parachute Bombs And Their Victims
Goodnight Sweetheart is a song known to many as a favourite of the Second World War years and one which many of today’s television audiences might know as the theme tune of the popular BBC wartime-based sitcom of the same name starring Nicholas Lyndhurst – the actor otherwise known as Rodney Trotter in the hit comedy Only Fools and Horses.
What many people might not be aware of, however, is that the singer responsible for popularising the Goodnight Sweetheart hit, and later turning it into a wartime favourite, was killed when a deadly German parachute mine exploded outside his flat in London at the height of Germany’s Second World War bombing raids on Britain, known as the Blitz.
Singer Al Bowlly, also known for his hits throughout the 1930s and 40s such as Love Is The Sweetest Thing and The Very Thought Of You, had earlier returned from a performance at the Rex Cinema in High Wycombe with jazz guitarist Jimmy Mesene and was at home at 32 Duke Street, in the St James area of the capital, when the bomb detonated outside his flat at 3:10am.
The blast was reported to have been powerful enough to blow Bowlly’s bedroom door off and leave him with fatal head injuries even though the bomb was not a direct hit on his home on that fateful night on April 17, 1941.
Bowlly, perhaps one of the most popular jazz stars and vocalists in Britain during the 1930s and 40s, with a musical status of the era that sits up alongside that of Bing Crosby, is now buried at Hanwell Cemetery in Uxbridge Road, Hanwell near Ealing.
Parachute mines were one of the deadliest forms of explosive during the Blitz and Bowlly was by no means the only victim – he is buried, with a number of others killed in the bombings, in a mass grave at the cemetery.
Among those who witnessed the destructive power of parachute bombs on London that same night was novelist Graham Greene, who had been working as an air raid warden during the Second World War before his recruitment into MI6.
Greene, and his lover Dorothy who was also an air raid warden, had been dispatched to Malet Street in Bloomsbury after a parachute bomb had exploded above the Victoria Club, not far from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in neighbouring Gower Street, and where 350 Canadian soldiers had been staying that night.
The pair of air wardens arrived to find soldiers pouring out of the bombed-out building in their pyjamas, many of them barefoot, and many smeared in blood.
Bloodied victims of the blast filed down Gower Street, with many of them having suffered cuts from flying broken glass - coughing and spluttering amid the clouds of debris dust.
The moment is discussed in the book The Life of Graham Green by Norman Sherry in which the author describes how Greene took a stretcher into the bombed-out building to rescue a trapped man only to find the man was ‘a goner’ with only his head and shoulders visible in the rubble of the ruins where a 20-foot drop had opened into the building’s foundations.
What Is A Parachute Mine?
And Why Were They So Deadly In The Blitz?
The vast majority of bombs unloaded on to the civilian streets and dockland areas of London between September 1940 to May 1941 – during what was termed Hitler’s blitzkrieg, or ‘lightning war’ – were Sprengbombe Cylindrisch 250 (SC 250) high explosive bombs.
These were 250kg explosive devices filled with about 130kg of chemical TNT and highly explosive Amatol, with a strong nose cone that was designed to penetrate target buildings before detonating.
The destructive power of these bombs became apparent during the Blitz as they laid waste to vast swathes of London homes and military-strategic targets such as dockland areas.
German command, however, discovered that the blasts from such bombs, as devastating as they were to targets, could be cushioned by surrounding buildings, limiting their impact.
Sea Mines Turned Into Land Mines
Another course of events at this time in the war had left the Germans with a surplus of magnetic sea mines they had been using to target metal Allied ships.
Germany had used mines extensively during the First World War and the earlier years of the Second World War to defend coasts, coastal shipping and ports.
Sea mines had been designed to detonate when they detected the magnetic signature generated by steel warships but research by British scientists and the Royal Navy had discovered a way to eliminate the remnant magnetic field around ships and demagnetise them – a process known as degaussing.
New technology also followed the research, allowing British and Allied navies to improve their countermeasures, with more effective minesweeping methods to clear mines.
Left with stockpiles of sea mines that were no longer as effective, Germany experimented.
The result was the parachute mine.
These were sea mines fitted with a timer and dropped by parachute by Luftwaffe bombers.
When timed to detonate at the level of rooftops, rather than exploding on impact like SC 250s, the effect was a maximised blast that sent shockwaves over a wider area without any cushioning from neighbouring buildings.
The blast could be devastating way beyond the capabilities of other bombs – with the potential to destroy an entire street, sending a blast out in a 330ftm radius, and even causing some peripheral damage up to a mile away.
These sea mines soon became known as ‘Land Mines’ or parachute bombs and they sent fear through the hearts and minds of Londoners at the time.
Hundreds of these parachute clusters were dropped on London during the Blitz, among the rain of SC 250s that poured down on the city’s streets.
There were varieties and different sizes of parachute mines
One was the Luftmine A (LMA) mine: it weighed 500kg was a little over 5ft in length.
The other was the Luftmine B (LMB): 1,000kg and just over 8ft in length.
They were fitted with a parachute housing which deployed in the air.
They were also fitted with magnetic detonators or a pre-set timer, clockwork detonator.
Many, however, failed to explode, drifting down to the ground intact.
The biggest, most deadly of these bombs came in at 2,200lb.
Black Saturday And The Start Of The Blitz
London’s test of resolve during the Second World War began on what later became known as Black Saturday – the start of the Blitz.
There had been bombings over the capital but this was the first time the city had been targeted in a sustained, strategic mass raid.
Hitler had maintained that he would not bomb London without provocation – hoping instead to revel in the glory of invading Britain and taking over the capital without damage to the city’s finest buildings.
However, the Blitz is said to have been triggered by what was initially a mistake when Luftwaffe bombers missed their intended target of London’s Royal Docks and instead hit homes in London’s East End – prompting Winston Churchill to order a retaliatory attack on Berlin.
This infuriated Hitler – who then ordered the sustained bombing of London in a similar fashion to his raids on Poland and Western Europe as part of his Total War.
The Blitz In Numbers:
- London was bombed for 57 consecutive days or nights over the course of the Blitz
- The biggest raid was over May 10-11, 1941
- Overall, German bombers dropped 711 tons of high explosive
- London was attacked 71 times
- 2,393 incendiaries were also dropped on London
- Black Saturday alone left 430 dead and 1,600 injured
- More than one million houses were destroyed or damaged
- More than 40,000 civilians were killed
- Dozens of parachute bombs destroyed London streets
More than 30,000 bombs fell on Britain during the Blitz, during the prolonged air raid on British cities which lasted from Sept 7, 1940 to May 21, 1941.