Brent and the Second World War

In the Second World War, Brent’s servicemen joined with others from all over the world to fight against the Nazis. Jewish and Polish refugees arrived in Britain to Brent’s relative safety – although like many areas of London, Brent also suffered bombings. Behind the scenes in Dollis Hill, top-secret work helped decipher the Nazi’s communication messages. Explore the stories below to find out more.

ARP Wardens

Between October 1940 and June 1941, 772 bombs were dropped in Brent causing a huge amount of damage to homes and businesses. Willesden was a target for bombing during the Second World War because of the industries based there, and its transport connections.

Many men and women in Wembley and Willesden joined the Air Raid Wardens’ Service (ARP). They carried out all types of civil defence tasks from ensuring that the blackout regulations were observed to rescuing air raid victims from bombed buildings. By the end of the war London had 20,000 Air Raid Precaution wardens, 16,000 of whom were full-time and paid £3 a week.

Ben Sacks worked as a scout and messenger for the local ARP wardens and recalled that:

“There was a horrendous incident in Shoot-up Hill when dead and injured people had to be dug out of the houses hit by a flying bomb”.

13 people died in the disaster on 15 August 1944.

At least six Willesden men won The George Medal for outstanding bravery while carrying out rescue work

Bevin Boys

During the Second World War, hundreds of thousands of men signed up to fight, and as a result many industries, such as coalmines, found themselves without enough workers. A scheme was introduced by the Government in 1943 whereby one in every ten men conscripted into the army was chosen to work in the mines. By 1945, 48,000 men had been sent to work in the coalmines. They were nicknamed ‘Bevin Boys’ after Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour at the time, who had announced the scheme.

To help with the war effort the government engaged workers in other countries from what had been the British Empire and in 1944 local people were asked to provide accommodation for men who travelled from India to work in the factories. The Clarkes, who lived in Kingsbury, hosted Mr Dhala, from Bombay (now Mumbai). He was a qualified engineer and, although he didn’t work in the coalmines, proudly called himself a Bevin Boy as he too was helping the war effort in a strategic industry.

The Clarkes enjoyed having Mr Dhala to stay and were sad when he returned to Bombay in February 1945.


Jewish Refugees

This passport belonged to a young Jewish woman called Marta Berdach, also known as Martha. In September 1938, having obtained a visa to work in Britain, she travelled from Vienna to London where she lived in Kensal Rise and worked as a maid. Marta was just one of the 70,000 Jewish refugees who came to Britain between 1933 and 1939 to escape persecution from the Nazis.

Brent Museum and Archives also holds fascinating oral histories from a number of other Jewish people who moved to the area before the Second World War. Inge Munroe moved with her family when she was in her twenties to Wembley. She said “My mother was very far seeing and she said out, out, out because we knew, well you know that they, they murdered millions of Jews in the concentration camps in Germany.”

The Post Officer Research Station

The Post Officer Research Station in Dollis Hill during the Second World War employed engineers carrying out top-secret work constructing and testing modules of the Colossus machine – the world’s first programmable electronic computer. Assembled at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, Colossus deciphered enemy radio signals and helped the Allies to win the war.

Important advances in technology continued at Dollis Hill after the war. In 1936 the BT Speaking Clock known as TIM was developed and in 1957 ERNIE 1 a machine that generated random numbers for the Premium Bond lottery was built.
The building had an additional hidden secret. The government worried that central London would be bombed, so they built an underground fortress there for Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the War Cabinet, and its codename was Paddock.

Willesden’s Spitfire

During the Second World War the people of Willesden bought a Spitfire fighter plane and named it Borough of Willesden. At the request of the residents, it was given to Polish Squadron No. 302 City of Poznan. It was flown by Flight Sergeant Antoni Lysek (left) and Flight Sergeant Eugeniusz Nowakiewicz..

The Spitfire was flown in action, notably by the Polish pilot Czeslaw Glówczyński, who shot down a Messerschmitt fighter plane. Sadly in June 1942, Flight Sergeant Antoni Lysek was lost in action when flying the aircraft on a mission. This plaque remembers the Willesden Spitfire, and the Polish War Memorial in Hillingdon commemorates all of the Polish servicemen who lost their lives.