"A Grateful Nation Soon Forgot". The War Story of Southend Pier

Date: January 2021

At the end of the article, I made a plea to the public for any additional information I could obtain. For me the principal character overseeing 6 years of Southend’s momentous contribution to the defence of our nation in wartime, was Capt. John Pelham Champion CBE., DSO., RN.
I could never have imagined that a lady from Leigh who read the article would contact me stating that her sister Rita Barham was Capt. Champion’s secretary throughout the war.

A visit to Rita (then in her 90’s) at her home in Norfolk was to reveal a goldmine of information and unique memorabilia to fuel my passion about the greatest period in Southend’s history.

  • 84,297 ships sailed in convoys from Southend Pier 1939 – 1945
  • Here at the gateway to the River Thames in Southend came together more merchant ships’ masters and the greatest number of convoys sailed than ever in the history of the world
  • Wm. Joyce (Lord Haw Haw) in one of his earliest propaganda broadcasts on 21st October 1939 addressed directly the people of Southend.
    “The Luftwaffe is coming”
  • On a hunch, Capt. Champion, OIC Naval Control Services in Southend, predicted the attack on Southend Pier by the Luftwaffe as the first clear night, 22nd November 1939
  • The Pier was defended and the Luftwaffe thwarted. The River Thames and access to the nation’s capital stayed open for the duration of the war, contrary to Churchill’s stated belief that it would have to close
  • Has one man’s hunch ever had greater consequences in the defence of a nation?

It was the great A. P. Herbert (Sir Alan Herbert), when giving his first-hand account of Naval Control Service (NCS) operations in Southend-on-Sea throughout WWII, who wrote “A Grateful Nation Soon Forgot”. In a 32 page booklet written for the Southend Corporation in 1945, A. P. Herbert wrote of great events in the town’s history. A foreword to the booklet is a tribute to Southend by A. V. Alexander, First Lord of the Admiralty. In a post war autobiography, A. P. Herbert wrote "Southend Pier deserves the George Cross”.

In the Oracle article I complained bitterly at the lamentable lack of recognition by successive Southend Councils of what was clearly the most important time in our history. Southend Pier, by which we are known worldwide, was post war regarded as a maintenance cost liability.
In 1980 the Council proposed its demolition.


Up stepped local girl Peggy Dowie whose save the pier campaign with rallies and the establishment of a campaign committee made the Council change its mind. We owe Peggy Dowie a very great debt. She also created and ran the Pier Museum for many years with her small band of volunteers.


Recognition has now arrived

The shore base name of NCS facilities in Royal Terrace and The Palace Hotel was “HMS Leigh”. This is now the name given to a big celebration event. It was intended to occur in May 2020 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of VE Day and jointly with The British Legion in their centenary year. Covid-19 put paid to that and the event has been postponed until May 2021. A key organiser of this event, which will have Lottery, Heritage and Arts Council funding, is Southend Councillor Beth Hooper. I have agreed to cooperate with Beth and her Committee and hopefully by next May will have all of my collected work published in book form.

Please Google “HMS Leigh – Guardian of the Thames” and learn about this great coming event and how you can participate.

 

I am not done yet

I will not be satisfied until there is national / international recognition of great events I can only pay scant reference to here. In 2011 I wrote to Her Majesty the Queen enclosing an original 1945 copy of the A. P. Herbert booklet.

I mentioned that Prince Philip as a young officer aboard the Destroyer HMS Wallace carried out escort duties along the deadly East Coast convoy route between Scotland and Southend. Did he walk the boards of Southend Pier? My letter coincided with Southend’s bid that year for City Status. In a polite reply from Her Majesty I was informed that my papers had been lodged with the Cabinet Office in support of Southend’s bid which predictably was unsuccessful. The letter was read to Southend councillors in the chamber by the late Gwen Horrigan a lone supporter of a wish for at least proper local recognition.

As a proud Southender I believe it may be time for another plea to those higher authorities!

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