Thurrock History: Coalhouse Fort in WW2

Coalhouse Fort in WW2 – The Story of Wrens and Naval Detachment

By Kevin Diver – 19 Oct 2018

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AT our October meeting Kevin Diver, a local historian, treated us to many photographs of the Sea Scouts, Women’s Royal Naval Service (Wrens), other naval personnel and civilians who carried out the serious and important job to defend London’s river at Coalhouse Fort during WW2. The fort was known as HMS St Clements and had two 5 ½” guns from HMS Hood, with a brick observation post on the roof. It was surrounded by trees and camouflaged from the air with netting. Their main task was monitoring the degaussing or de-magnetising of our ships which passed along the Thames. This was a process whereby the magnetism that had built up on the ships, which could be detected by the enemy, was neutralised by magnetic coils. They used Aldis lamps and semaphore to communicate with ships and even gave a degaussing demonstration to Russian delegations.

The radar tower, disguised as a water tower and built in 1940, detected submarines; next to it was searchlight equipment. This helped vessels to navigate the mine field in the Thames. The sea scouts and Wrens enjoyed their work and some marriages occurred between Wrens and the naval staff. They lived near Tilbury Hotel at first, later moving to the vicarage opposite St Catherine’s church. The vicarage was cold, with poor quality food; staff picked mushrooms and foraged for berries etc. to supplement rations. They were plagued with mice and rats but it was cosy and hospitable, almost like a holiday camp. The naval ratings had pets such as goats and rabbits. It was a relaxed atmosphere and not strict on uniforms.

The Wrens came from different backgrounds and some signed up just for the uniform, especially the tricorn hat which was worn by officers. Leading Wren Eileen Grimley was good fun and full of life – she had 30 ditties, for singing at parties. One of the Royal Marines, Black Jake (or Jack) was a colour sergeant and put the fear of God into his marines with strong discipline. However he had party piece when he sang ‘this old shirt of mine’ and stripped naked. One of the RNVR reserve was ‘Peter’ Potter, deputy editor of the Daily Express.

This illustrated lecture gave us an insight to the work carried out Coalhouse Fort in WW2, Kevin providing photographs from an archive he was able to access. The photo was taken in 1942.

Our next meeting is at 8pm on Friday 16 November at the Adult Education Centre in Richmond Road, Grays, when our speaker will be Tim Luard, giving an illustrated talk on his local ancestor nurse Kate Luard, recently awarded a green plaque. Visitors are welcome.

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