Updated 5 Oct 2010
The bombing of Electra House, 1941
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The bombing of Electra House, 1941
Restored Electra House
Article by John McGeorge taken from "The Zodiac", June 1944, house magazine of Cable & Wireless, centred at Electra House, London. The bombing of Electra House, 84 Moorgate, happened on the night of the 10th May 1941 (the last night of the London blitz). The building was hit by a number of incendiaries which caused serious damage. A bomb which hit an adjacent building completed the job and the building was abandoned. Fortunately there were no casualties among the staff who were moved to the other Electra House, Victoria Embankment. My father C.B.Palmer was working at Electra House in 1941 when the bombing of Electra House, Moorgate, happened but survived the war. "E.H" Moorgate was a listed building and was restored after the war. Any reader with possible connections or enquiries please contact:
Electra House at red spot
I take the message and replace the receiver as I have done a hundred times before. "City Yellow."No premonition of disaster, beloved of novelists, whispers a warning of impending events.
The Spotter is already on his way to the roof, climbing up through the silent building. Once, while London slept, these stout four walls enclosed an ant-like colony of night workers, all milling about on their lawful telegraphic occasions. But London Station has gone. In a night and like the proverbial Arab, it has folded its tents and sought pastures new. Now a mere handful of operators, telephonists, and C.A. staff maintain a skeleton service and keep watch, supplemented by three volunteer fire- watchers from the D.M./U.K.'s day staff.
At 23.00 hours precisely the familiar wail of "Moaning Minnie" sweeps over the scarred City and my stomach does its customary revolution. The Roof Patrol, now reinforced, reports a London raid.
To the uninitiated this may seem superfluous, but it is a fact that experienced spotter can, within a few minutes, forecast whether the siren implies a raid with London as its objective, bombers setting course for the Midlands, or the mere overlap of an estuary foray.
Minutes pass. The log entries are already monotonous in their regularity. There is no doubt but that we are in for a "pasting" - with seven hours to go till daylight.
At 23.58 a shower of incendiaries sweeps over the building. The alarm is raised and patrols are commenced. A search of the roofs reveals nothing and by midnight they are reported as clear. The internal patrols continue, probing and peering into darkened rooms and unlikely corners.
At 00.14 a gout of flame bursts upwards through the glass light over the Facsimile Room on Tower Chambers roof, three floors beneath the spotters' eyrie. About the same time a wisp of smoke is seen curling out of a vent in the Telephone Room, Electra House. Both reports, together with one from the street, reach Control simultaneously. There is no time
to ponder how it started. It is, literally, a case of all hands to the pumps.
The squads are concentrated outside the Facsimile Room under Garner and Hodgson, who has raced down from the roof to lend a hand, and four stirrup-pumps are speedily brought into action. The whole room, however, with all its curtained recesses, is a mass of flames and the narrow entrance impassable.
By 00.18 it is obvious that the fire is out of hand and an immediate request for assistance is passed to City Control. All available fire doors between Tower Chambers and Electra House are closed and the Compressor Room engineer in the basement of Tower Chambers warned of the position. The "Char.'s" water-point fails us, only a miserable trickle is evident and helpers are sent scurrying for water from the central staircase lavatories - a serious disadvantage as much is spilt in portage. Before our eyes the Facsimile Room floor gives way and the fire crashes through to the old Local Room beneath.
A report reaches us that Electra House is already affected. The flames have jumped the well at second floor level. In view of our inadequate resources the decision is taken to abandon Tower Chambers and concentrate on fending the fire off Electra House. There is no alternative. The Compressor Room is told to evacuate and all fire-fighters with their gear are withdrawn to the affected floor of the main building. On arrival in Gallery "C" we find the fire has burst in through the window behind the A/Supt.'s box, whence it has greedily enveloped the adjacent phone-belt. Both box and belt are ablaze. Axes are brought into play and the flaming belt hacked down, while stirrup-pumps and extinguishers are directed on to the box and window. With no little satisfaction we see the immediate danger to Electra House recede as the blaze is brought under control and the flames are beaten back to the point of entry. The lights have, of course, failed and all work is being carried out by the light of hurricane lamps and of the fire itself.
No outside assistance having arrived, a second call is put through to City Control. It is pointed out that we have 1700 gallons of paraffin, 200 gallons of heavy oil, and 20 gallons of petrol under the fire.
Meanwhile, Franklin, alone on the higher roof of Electra House, has been attacking the fire single-handed from above, carrying
and slinging buckets of water over into the blaze three floors below. It is, of course, a gallant but futile gesture from one man. None realizes this better than he, yet after an abortive effort to obtain assistance and despite the appalling conditions, he continues until the rising heat, billowing smoke, and flying embers force him to abandon his efforts.
At 00.34 the first appliance arrives. What comfort and encouragement we derive from the sight of these uniformed blitz-veterans. The leader, having been shown the position, quickly gets to work in a business-like way. Three lines of hose are laid up the central Electra House stairs, but, alas, these never come into operation owing to the lack of water; another hose is hoisted by our own men from Salisbury House Courtyard up to and in through the window of Gallery "D". This is speedily trained on to the entrance to the Local Room, now a furnace, but again, apart from a few spasmodic bursts, water is denied us.
The position is serious; fire completely envelops the second and third storeys, of Tower Chambers and is rapidly burning through to the first, though Electra House is still clear, the flames being held in check by the pump parties.
A message is received from Franklin reporting that his position on the roof is rapidly becoming untenable and he is instructed to come down. It is then that tragedy most nearly takes a hand in the night's happenings. The upper floors of Electra House have become an impenetrable wall of smoke and Franklin, despite desperate efforts, is unable to make his way through. He returns to the roof and calls to the spotters on Salisbury House, adjoining us, thinking to make his way to them over the leads, but can obtain no reply. They have long since withdrawn. Rather than trust himself alone in a strange building so near the fire, he determines to make a final attempt to penetrate the smoke- filled upper floors. We, meanwhile, have tried unsuccessfully to make contact with him from below, the smoke defeating all our efforts. A suggestion of Hodgson's to rush a lift through the smoke-area is attempted but there is no current. Sheer desperation and iron will-power, however, win the day and it is with unbounded relief that we see the familiar lanky figure and shock of black hair emerge from the fog,
groggy but alive and well. A short rest below and he is back with us, a veritable tower of strength for the remainder of the battle.
A reconnaissance of the third floor, as high as one can ascend owing to smoke, reveals that, while we have been taken up with our spotter's troubles, the fire has jumped the well at that level and the heavily florigened floors of both Galleries "E" and "F" are now ablaze. The A.F.S. unit has been reinforced but the water position is pitiable. Matters are certainly beyond the powers of a dozen amateurs with stirrup-pumps, so the fire is left to the uniformed force and the Company's staff are put to salvaging the instruments from the Cable Galleries. Volunteers are also called for from those in the shelters, and, while Garner unjacks the instruments in rotation, a steady file of porters carries away synch's, and k.b.p.'s to the comparative safety of the nether regions.
The last instrument is hardly out of Gallery "B" when the building shudders to its foundations and a perfectly appalling crash is heard. Halfway down the staircase with a synchronising unit in my arms, I watch the guts of two windows sail past me and hunch my shoulders as the terrifying rumble of falling masonry continues for what seems minutes. My vivid imagination pictures floor after floor above us collapsing and I wait for the inevitable, the synch.- I regret to say - unheeded at my feet. The air is gritty with dust. Though we are not then aware of it, we, or rather Salisbury House, adjoining us, have been hit by a heavy bomb. Almost immediately I become aware of a peculiar roaring sound, steady and sustained like some great water-fall. It is a foolish simile for the element responsible is not water but fire. Electra House, stripped of its doors and windows, has become one vast draught funnel and the noise is of flames roaring skywards.
A hasty tally shows Barham, of the Compressor Staff, to be missing but a search reveals him still under the burning and evacuated Tower Chambers, quite unperturbed, tending his precious engines. All foregather at the foot of the Electra House lift-shaft and to our amazement we find there are no casualties, though some have been badly shaken up. Monty Garner in particular has been bowled half the
length of the seemingly empty Cable Room only to find it a mass of flames as far as the numbering point when he picks himself up. Hodgson and one or two others were also knocked flat by the blast. Wordlessly I thank my Maker that we had nobody on the roof. A member of the staff reports the carpenter's shop is ablaze. Situated at the bottom of the well, it has caught alight from burning debris falling on its unprotected roof. This means there is now fire on every floor of the South wing from roof to basement; from the first floor upwards
it is a major conflagration, extending from the central lift-shaft to London Wall, embracing as it does Tower Chambers. The remainder, or North wing of the building, is full of dense smoke and is impenetrable above the ground floor. There is nothing one can do and it is decided to evacuate all superfluous staff and shelterers to Moorgate Underground station. These include the evening staff 'phone girls who, unable to get home, sleep in the basement when their duty is completed, and some members of the public who had sought permission to shelter earlier in the raid, as well as the skeleton night staff. A policeman is co-opted to shepherd all across, carrying files and live traffic with them. Blankets from the shelter store follow them across. The West Street exit is now that in general use for all purposes.
Half a dozen of us remain to watch the stricken building, and fill in our time by moving Power Samas files into Shelter I. Castel, Williams, and Melhado of the Electra House staff also stand by.
It is after 2 a.m. and, with young Manning of the D.M./U.K.'s Department (now in the Forces), who throughout has looked on the whole thing as a joyous adventure, I contact the officer in charge of the now reinforced brigade. There are four pump units and a water-tower working on Tower Chambers from London Wall, the only adjacent street where the mains are functioning. The Electra House fire is at no time tackled by the Brigade, presumably owing to the priority danger imposed by the Tower Chamber fuel store, though shortage of appliances may have something to do with it. The officer tells us he has asked for twenty pumps and five water- towers, also a foam appliance. No further reinforcements arrive, however, except the foam wagon. We guide its crew to where the foam inlet should be, only to find masses of rubble and debris. Despite an indicator-plate we are unable to find the inlet. Working close under the walls, red-hot embers keep falling on the backs of our necks as we grovel in the wreckage. Barham is sent for and after further fruitless search he volunteers to make his way to the fuel store and tap the position from inside. This he does and the inlet is found. the foam crew lay out their gear then
request Manning and myself to assist them by taking their hose from inside as they pay out. We make our long detour via West Street and the basement corridors to reach the inside of the inlet but no hose appears. The position is far from pleasant, water up to our knees and no knowledge of just how far the fire has burnt above us. We yell for the hose but without success and finally decide to beat as hasty a retreat as decency allows. After all that we find they have changed their minds and decided the time for foam is not yet!!! At 04.20 the smoke has cleared sufficiently to allow an inspection of the upper floors. The intensity of the blaze has died out leaving an angry glowing shell with smouldering fires creeping slowly northwards. With the aid of a few volunteers collected by Franklin from below where some of the staff have returned from the Tube, stirrup-pump parties are established on all the affected floors to arrest the fire-spread. In view of the final result we can surely claim to have met with some measure of success. The fires are held at the Clock-Control Room on the first, the old Board Room (later the Pay Office) on
the second, and the multiplex room on the third floors. This despite the assertion that we are wasting our time by three A.F.S. men who, having delivered themselves of this helpful criticism, promptly return to our shelters. They must have been the original black sheep of their service, for none will deny the magnificent work of London's auxiliary fire-fighters and their small professional nucleus. God knows the vast majority had proven themselves in the past six months.
The rest of the story is just sheer hard work and weariness, moving from point to point as danger spots flare up. All of us are hungry, thirsty, and tired. At 05.30 dawn is breaking and Jerry is still dropping stuff. It has been a hideous night, but at
least we have been too busy to worry about the raid proper. For all that I have some not unhappy recollections of the night, perhaps the most pleasant being the gin and tonic with which we spliced the main brace when the raiders eventually passed. Other vivid, if varied, pictures include the W.U. courier trying to hand us live traffic as we fight the flames in Room 4 from the Main Hall; Freddie Jones's empty sleeve flapping in the breeze as he works a stirrup- pump with his one sound arm; a tin of mess biscuits, perfect in every respect even to the packing, but coal black and of the finest charcoal; the counter clerk passing the night in a pub with the day's takings and bringing them out intact; Goodyear, medically unfit, yet carrying buckets of water till there is none to carry; and finally the complete stranger who, at the height of the raid, paused to enquire the winner of the Cesarewitch! Londoners all - and unbeatable.
The last bucket of water in the building is used at 10 a.m., just as our reliefs start to trickle in. We hand over - phones gone, lights gone, gas gone, half the b***** building gone. Thoroughly dispirited, we prepare to leave and Fate throws down its final card. The Police have found a large delayed-action bomb in Finsbury Circus and order the complete evacuation of what is left of the building.
So passed "E.H." as we knew it, that well-loved forcing house of so much that is good in modern overseas communications and in those who man them. To some of these latter it is given to know of her passing; to others, in far-off corners of the globe, the news has yet to filter; but of one thing we may be sure - wherever T.C.'s gather and yarn "E.H." will always be spoken of with pride and affection. So listen, V.E - for all your modernity you hear an old name, an honoured name with a tradition behind it. It is given to you to take up the torch. Be worthy of it.
Compiled, formatted, hyperlinked, encoded, and copyright © 2010, John Palmer, All Rights Reserved.