German bombers

This is the time of the annual River Thames ‘Draw-Off’. You may have noticed. The weirs at Richmond Lock have been raised and the river allowed to settle down to its natural depth and flow. For long periods of the day, from Richmond Lock to Teddington, the river is now un-navigable for larger vessels. Local boat people know that and on 19th February 1944 so did the German Luftwaffe.

At the beginning of the 2nd World War there were large oil refineries on the Thames Estuary at Thameshaven and Shellhaven suppling London with most of its petrol and fuel oil. Realising that they were extremely vulnerable to enemy attack the British Government developed new oil terminals to the west, on the River Severn. To keep the petrol and oil flowing into London a pipeline was laid across England to a receiving depot at Walton-on-Thames. There the fuel was pumped into large ‘tank barges’ and transported down the Thames.

The German High Command, aware that this pipeline was vital to the viability of London, decided to do something about it…

“The Germans knew that if they could disrupt the (river) channel they would seriously interfere with our war effort. They decided that the best way to do it was to strand the barges by destroying (Richmond) lock and the weir.”


During the war fuel pipelines were all across Britain, supplying industry and airfields. Probably the most famous of them is “PLUTO” laid from huge spools under the English Channel. It carried petrol and fuel oil to Allied troops in the months following D.Day. Most people think that PLUTO stands for ‘Pipe Line Under The Ocean’ but the official name was ‘‘Pipeline Underwater Transport Of Oil’. A bit like “Drawers Cellular, Mans, Olive Green for the Use Of!” (Ask on old soldier.)


Unlike our own 617 Squadron who on the night of 16th/17th May1943 managed to breach the Möhne and Edersee Dams in the Ruhr Valley using Barnes Wallis’s ingenious ‘bouncing bomb’ the Luftwaffe relied upon an old favourite - the 1000 kilogram SC 1000 Sprengbombe Cylindrisch high explosive demolition bomb, known to the crews that used it as Hermann in reference to their portly commander, Hermann Göring. On 19th February 1944 they acted…

“It was not until 19th February 1944 that the guns barked out fiercely. The sky was alight with flares and the gunners did some fine work in shooting down these guides… During the night three 1000 kilo bombs fell close to Richmond Lock, one damaging the lock gate, another falling on the towpath, and a third in the Old Deer Park….Other bombs fell that night at Watkinson’s Field and Mortlake Road.”


1000kg Herman Bomb

There was little weight placed upon this particular raid and its full significance wasn’t revealed to the public for some months when one local paper dismissed it with ….”It was something in the nature of a ‘dam-busting’ operation which did not succeed in its effort to disrupt London’s supply of petrol.”

Once the war was safely over a fuller account of the raid finally revealed that the raid had been partially successful…


The lock gate was damaged - the result was to slow down the flow of the petrol to some extent. It was a close call, but the airmen did not succeed. Had they done so, they would, in addition to interfering with the supply of petrol, have affected Richmond’s water supply.


Draw Off at Twickenham

The Thames ‘Draw Off’ takes place every year in November. The weirs at Richmond Lock, which are usually raised and lowered twice daily to maintain the river at a constant navigable state, are permanently raised for a few weeks to allow the river to settle back to its natural ‘low and slow’ depth. Engineers use the opportunity to examine the general state of the waterway and boat owners and the like to check the underside of docks, grounded boats and moorings. The weirs at Richmond Lock will return to their usual operating cycle on November 27th - and so will the Thames!

– from Martyn Day