Fighting on the Home Front - WW2 & the London Estate

As we celebrate VE Day, Tim Jones, our Planning & Heritage Director tells us about the war effort in Mayfair & Belgravia and the effect of the War on the architecture and people in these special places.

The Second World War was a war fought on the Home Front as much as overseas and as we celebrate and commemorate the Normandy Landings and D Day this weekend it is worth remembering the very direct impact the war had on London and our business’ heartland of Mayfair and Belgravia.

Air Raids

The most devastating impact of war on London was the Luftwaffe’s blitz which began in 1940 and was followed from 1944 by the infamous V1 and V2I rockets who left major scars across the Capital providing spaces for our post war architecture.

The bomb maps of wartime damage show that, compared to the more densely populated areas to the east, damage to Mayfair and Belgravia was relatively light, both in terms of casualties and destruction. Nevertheless, the Estate certainly had its share.

In one of the earliest air raids in December 1940 a massive explosion by Ebury Bridge was caused by a 5,500 “Max” bomb, the largest in the Luftwaffe’s arsenal.

It was almost certainly intended for Victoria Station but instead caused significant damage within an astounding half mile radius affecting homes and businesses as far away as Sloane Square and blowing out all the windows of the Church of St Mary, Bourne Street.

Ebury Bridge was hit again in April 1941 requiring it to be almost entirely remodelled post war.

The greatest concentration of bombs to fall in Belgravia were in and around Eaton Square, which suffered at least nine direct hits, bombs again meant for Victoria Station.

In April 1941, the Church of St Peter Eaton Square was also hit and the Priest was killed. Only a month later on the night of 11 May a shallow ‘trench shelter’ in Eaton Square Gardens received a direct hit causing a number of casualties.

Mayfair was also targeted at the same time and with less obvious strategic reasons than Belgravia. In April 1941, bombs fell close to North Audley Street and Balfour Place completely destroying a block of mansion flats and causing considerable damage to the Audley Hotel on the corner of Mount Street.

The flats were carefully rebuilt in a near facsimile so that it is now difficult to realise how complete the damage was. The Audley Hotel survived to become a popular pub and today we are mid way through works to meticulously restore the original features lost in the post-war repairs and return it to  a hotel and pub.

There was a relative lull in airborne attack until the arrival of the infamous V1 and V2 rockets in 1944 with residents again taking their mattresses down to their cellars for nights on end.

One of the earliest of these rockets fell in Belgravia in June causing extensive damage, completely obliterating the site of our Cundy Street Quarter proposals.

There were communal air raid shelters in many of the garden squares including Berkeley Square. A number of the estate’s churches were able to offer their crypts as shelters, including the Church of St Mark on North Audley Street – now the home of Mercato Metropolitano - where the bodies buried there were moved out and reburied when war was declared. However, there were no deep purpose-built shelters on the Estate and no nearby tube stations to provide additional shelter.

Garden Squares dig in to help the war effort

‘Dig for Victory’ was not just confined to the countryside. Every usable space was converted to the growth of fruit and vegetables - from window boxes to garden squares such as Eaton Square Garden and Chester Square Gardens which also were also home to various livestock for much of the war.

Belgrave Square and Berkeley Square were tarmacked over and used as parking lots for heavy vehicles like tanks as well as air raid shelters.  The problems that our Landscape team have with the grass in Belgrave Square to this day is a reminder of the impacting caused to the ground by the heavy vehicles parked there during the war.

In Mayfair, Grosvenor Square the home of General Eisenhower's HQ from 1942, became known as ‘Little America’. During the Battle of Britain the garden was turned to more practical use. A group of W.A.A.F.’s and the blimp they called “Romeo” took shelter there. These W.A.A.F.’s were the first female crew to ‘man’ a blimp. They lived in temporary wooden huts which covered what were once flower beds around the parkway.

Another visible impact of the war on garden squares was the salvage drive for metal which led to the removal of historic and valuable railings across the estate. At the time they were a prominent feature of the urban landscape, but often only replaced with wire and fencing.

The scars of this project can still be seen UK-wide today. Railings were usually cut off at the base; the stubs may still be seen outside many buildings in London and elsewhere. This loss is so much the greater because the metal content of the railings was so low grade that they were worthless for wartime use and much speculation remains as to where they ended up

Governments and Business’ Relocate to the Estate

As the war scattered the population either on active service or to the safety of the countryside, houses on the Estate either lay empty…a significant hazard in terms of incendiary bombs… or were requisitioned by the Government for offices or billets and by Westminster City Council for those bombed out of their own houses.

The cosmopolitan nature of the Estate was increased by the numbers of houses taken by Governments in exile. These were Allied Powers – foreign governments - who sought refuge in England from the German advance on the Continent.

Belgravia proved a particularly popular destination with the Belgian, Luxembourg and Polish  Government’s all taking premises in the area.

General de Gaulle and the Free French took up residence in the Connaught Hotel, and many of the exiled Royal Families of Europe took refuge in their favourite pre war hotel, Claridges.

The story of the American presence in Grosvenor Square is reflected by the fact that by 1942, the congregation at the Grosvenor Chapel was almost entirely American. Dwight Morrow made his inspiring broadcasts to America at the height of the Blitz from Grosvenor Square.

The Estate did not suffer the extent of damage inflicted upon The City of London by a lethal cocktail of high explosive and incendiary bombs. Many City firms relocated westwards and established themselves in empty residential buildings in Mayfair and Belgravia. Westminster City Council granted one off consents for such use to last until 1990 and it was the expiry of this consent which paved the way for the return of so many houses to their original use.

Perhaps until today, the six years of warfare had the greatest impact upon the Estate of any event either before or since financially, architecturally and socially but the nature of the Estate has always been to evolve with the times. Just as the Allied Victory was a tribute to the resilience of the British people so the return to normality and prosperity after the war a tribute to the resilience of the Estate.

Today as then we are supporting businesses and communities – find out more about our support for those impacted by COVID-19 here.

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