(One of a series of weekday posts on the life of Winston S. Churchill.)
Very soon after London came under bombing attacks, a fire-watch system was developed roughly as follows: thousands of citizens, most volunteers, would go to watch stations, often on roofs, to spot and report fires resulting from the bombing. It was a hazardous but essential duty that saved many lives even as some fire-watchers lost their own.
For much of the war, most members of the House of Commons volunteered to serve as fire-watches at the Palace of Westminster which houses Parliament. The Palace towers provide excellent views of nearby government buildings, Westminster Abbey, and St. Margaret’s Church (The Churchill’s were married there; Sir Walter Raleigh’s buried beneath its alter.) as well as of the South bank of the Thames.
Commons Member Harold Nicolson’s diary entry for Oct 7, 1943 records his fire-watching that night:
It is my night for fire-watching in the House. I go up to the Victoria Tower platform and remain there rather cold for three hours. I hear Big Ben chime 9 and 10 and 11.For those wondering, yes, in the text it’s spelled “milkily.” __________________________________________________
The guns spit and fire all around us, the river lies milkily in the misty moon, the searchlights sweep and cluster, and suddenly converge to a cone, and there high above our heads is a little white gadfly which is a German bomber. Our own night-fighters, dropping identification flares, go up to meet it. Another cone towards the east catches another little gadfly driving along in a different direction. The guns boom and crackle, the rockets soar, and we hear two bombs whistling down from the stars in the direction of Lewisham.
There is a lull, and then it all begins again.
Finally, at 11:45, we retire to rest. The deep drone of our own bombers going out to Germany throbs through the night.
Harold Nicolson, The War Years, 1939-1945. (vol.II ), edited by Nigel Nicolson. (Atheneum, 1967) (pg. 324)