75th anniversary of VE day: Tilbury in World War II

FPs VE Day Poster

All photos courtesy of the Thurrock Museum and Tilbury Riverside Project unless where otherwise stated.

Tilbury in World War II

By Sue Yates, Chair of Thurrock Historical Society and Director of Tilbury on the Thames Trust

Tilbury Docks built in 1886 were an immediate target for the Luftwaffe in the World War II.

Tilbury played a very important role during the war not only as a dock but for evacuating Thurrock school children as well as its part in building Mulberry Harbours and P.L.U.T.O.

Before the outbreak of war it had been decided that Thurrock would be a danger area because of its docks, oil refineries and large factories. A plan was therefore formulated to evacuate school children and their teachers from Thurrock. On 2nd September 1939 the children were escorted to Tilbury Landing Stage. An advert to this effect appeared in the Thurrock Gazette of 2nd September 1939 stating the evacuation day for Tilbury children was 2nd September whilst the rest of the youngsters from the area would go on 3rd September.

Children including Eileen Webb and her sister Jill assembled in their school playground at 6.00a.m. complete with gas masks, night clothes and a change of clothing. They were taken by bus to the docks where they boarded the ‘Royal Daffodil’, ‘Crested Eagle’ or ‘Golden Eagle’ which would take them to safety in Suffolk.

Tilbury Cruise Terminal post air raid
Tilbury Cruise Terminal post air raid

On Friday 16th August 1940 there were two air raids. The first from 12.30p.m. to 2.30p.m. and the second from 4.30p.m. to 6.30p.m. So quickly did these raids begin after the sirens sounded that men working in Tilbury out in the open had no time to escape prior to the bombs falling. One house was destroyed, 204 Feenan Highway, Tilbury and a number of others were damaged. This was the first house to be destroyed by enemy bombers in Tilbury.

A de-gaussing monitoring point was set up at Coalhouse Fort operated by WRNS. It was here that the outgoing vessels had their magnetic reading checked. If de-gaussing was required the work was done in Tilbury Docks. Tilbury Docks was also a gathering point for the small ships who were to evacuate British Troops from Dunkirk in 1940.

Tilbury played a very important part in the British war effort. Its residents were bombed regularly as they lived in close proximity to the docks. In 1941 The Basin Tavern was hit by a bomb. On the night of 14th/15th March 1941 Tilbury Landing Stage was hit by a bomb and it was not until after the war that it was fully repaired. In 1943 the eastern block of The Dwellings was demolished because of war damage.

Tilbury docks June 1944 -troops loading for D-day
Tilbury docks June 1944 -troops loading for D-day

On 4th February 1944 the iconic local landmark The Tilbury Hotel was hit by enemy incendiaries. They lodged in the ceiling of the saloon bar. Frantic efforts were made to control the fire but all to no avail as due to the hotels wooden construction fire spread rapidly. The hotel was destroyed.

In 1943 plans were being made for a Normandy landing and to help in this the United Kingdom invented the Mulberry Harbour. These were two temporary portable harbours developed by the United Kingdom during the Second World War to facilitate the rapid offloading of cargo onto beaches especially fuel. They had extending legs, like North Sea oil rigs, to jack them off the seabed and were connected to the shore by a floating road. These were made up of 213 units and 22 were made in Thurrock most of these were made in the dry dock at Tilbury.

10th June 1944 - Argyle arrives at Tilbury Docks with wounded troops
10th June 1944 – Argyle arrives at Tilbury Docks with wounded troops

22nd September 1944 saw another important contribution of Tilbury because this was the day that P.L.U.T.O. (pipeline under the ocean) was laid. This was invented to enable the constant supply of fuel to the Normandy beaches. This was a very long pipeline wound on to reels which were used on specially adapted vessels.

At Tilbury Docks two assembly sheds were built in the north east of the docks and a line of concrete supports, with rollers on, ran diagonally across. The pipeline was rolled along this track and coiled on drums at the far end.

8th May 1945 V.E. Day at last. At 3p.m. on Tuesday 8th May 1945 Winston Churchill announced in his radio broadcast Victory in Europe and that hostilities would cease at one minute past midnight that night.

The photo below is courtesy of Michael Hampson, son of James Derrick ‘Lofty’ Hampson of 4 troop.

1945 – No.3 commando arrive at Tilbury landing stage on Landing Ship Tank (LST). Stan Scott No.3 Cdo recalls they made the journey from Bremerhaven, Germany, on a LST
1945 – No.3 commando arrive at Tilbury landing stage on Landing Ship Tank (LST).
Stan Scott No.3 Cdo recalls they made the journey from Bremerhaven,
Germany, on a LST

The air was filled with the sound of church bells ringing out across the country and not the sound of bombs. Everywhere, and Tilbury was no exception, people were out in the streets singing and dancing, hanging from lampposts, waving flags. There were parades and tables appeared in the streets laden with food. People made bunting and decorations. Children wore Union Jack hats. It was mainly the women as they were still awaiting the impending return of their menfolk from war. Over two million homes had been damaged during the war the lights had been out but now everyone turned them on and went out in the streets to see what it looked like.

Tilbury landing stage Argyle Red Cross ship with first wounded soldiers from D-Day landing 1944
Tilbury landing stage Argyle Red Cross ship with first wounded soldiers from D-Day landing 1944

In Grays the Police Station now the former Court House was floodlit. The pubs were permitted to stay open until 11p.m. but began running out of beer long before that. At 1.30 a..m. the lights were switched off but the crowds chanted for their return so they were turned on again. People in Tilbury too celebrated wildly in to the night and next day partying in the streets. No more sleeping in air raid shelters no more blackouts. “The War in Germany is at an end. Advance Britannia! Long live the cause of freedom! God save the King!

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