The destination for history

London in the Second World War


London is a fascinating place, that is something we all know, but I find it even more so when looking back at the city as it was during the Second World War. Despite all the bombing, a vast amount of Second World War history has survived. However, for every building that has an obvious link to the war there are, I’m sure, several more that have faded into obscurity.

My absolute favourite story is that of the Wilkinson Sword offices which could be found at 53 Pall Mall. Now it’s just a rather plain fronted building and I very much doubt that the people inside realise that the fighting knife that is still issued to Royal Marine Commandos was born in an office in that very building. The whole story is so good that it couldn’t possibly be made up.

A fighting knife was requested of Wilkinson’s (who were still making swords and bayonets at this time) by Captain Leslie Woods of SOE as apparently SOE and the newly formed Commandos were having problems dealing with German sentries.

With nothing appropriate available misters Fairbairn and Sykes were drafted in from the Shanghai Police Department to demonstrate to Wilkinson’s the qualities required of a fighting knife - something thin bladed, not too long, pointed and deadly sharp. A small demonstration later (thankfully with a ruler substituting for a knife) and the first design for the now iconic weapon had been drawn up.

This is, of course, just one building and one story, but what might have happened next door I wonder? Just down the road you have St James’s Palace where, in 1941 with some frankly amazing faith and foresight since Germany were far from beaten, the ‘Declaration of St James Palace’ was signed. This is widely seen as the foundations of the UN. Amazing things were happening in buildings all around London, all you need to do is scratch the surface.

With nations from around the world converging on London, office space was at a premium, especially as German bombing began to erode that which was available. SOE ran roughshod around London, taking on buildings at will, while dignitaries and royalty from occupied countries started filling up the hotels, every resource had to be used. So now, cycling through London, I pass hundreds, thousands of old buildings and wonder ‘what might have happened there during the war?’ Every story that can be told is another building block to mapping the whole of London. My eyes and ears are open for more stories like those of 53 Pall Mall and St James’s Palace.

By James Beardon

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