In July, 1940 the German airforce began its mass bomber attacks on British radar stations, aircraft factories and fighter airfields. During the next three months the Royal Air Force lost 792 planes and over 500 pilots were killed. This period became known as the Battle of Britain.
On the 7th September, 1940 the German airforce changed its strategy and began to concentrate on bombing London. On the first day of the Blitz killed 430 citizens and 1,600 were severely injured. The German bombers returned the next day and a further 412 died.
Between September 1940 and May 1941, the Luftwaffe made 127 large-scale night raids. Of these, 71 were targeted on London. The main targets outside the capital were Liverpool, Birmingham, Plymouth, Bristol, Glasgow, Southampton, Coventry, Hull, Portsmouth, Manchester, Belfast, Sheffield, Newcastle, Nottingham and Cardiff.
During the Blitz some two million houses (60 per cent of these in London) were destroyed and 60,000 civilians were killed and 87,000 were seriously injured. Of those killed, the majority lived in London. Until half-way through the Second World War, more women and children in Britain had been killed than soldiers.
If you were out and a bombing raid took place you would make for the nearest shelter. The tube stations were considered to be very safe. I did not like using them myself. The stench was unbearable. The smell was so bad I don't know how people did not die from suffocation. So many bodies and no fresh air coming in. People would go to the tube stations long before it got dark because they wanted to make sure that they reserved their space. There were a lot of arguments amongst people over that.
We did not have an Anderson shelter so we used to hide under the stairs. You felt the next bang would be your lot and it was very frightening. My grandmother was a very religious person and when she was with us during the bombing raids she would gabble away saying her prayers. Strangely enough, when I was with her, I always felt safe.
The Blitz became a virtual institution; it killed people; it frightened people; it made life much more than difficult, but the one thing it did not do in London was to lower that strange collective reaction called morale. I was out every night of that weird period, the Finsbury group worked with courage under conditions that were certainly intimidating. The noise of descending bombs with the shake of the ground under your belly while tunnelling underground to dig out people already imprisoned by an earlier bomb leaves you with nothing to imagine. You are face to face with a form of Russian roulette in which the trigger is pulled by someone else. In those days and nights no bomb dropped in Finsbury without our Stretcher Party and Rescue personnel being on the spot in minutes. I, as MO Civil Defense, was always with them and together we developed a number of very effective techniques for extracting casualties and helping to save lives. There were plenty of others working away just like ourselves. They were wonderful people in the East End of London, they were consistently admirable. Someone in 1991 has written a book to say that there was no Battle of Britain and that the Blitz was exaggerated so that we could all give ourselves a self-satisfying ego-trip. I am sorry that this author did not share our lives during that period. It was a time when everyone had something to give and this was done with both courage and with grace in the London region. The danger and the destruction deprived the inhabitants of London of their social camouflage. The social boundaries ceased, they did no one any good during the blitz. Sometimes we were all frightened together and there was no concealment of the facts. In the middle of a night-long raid, I was picking my way up City road when I scented a most wonderful aroma of good coffee. Lipton's warehouse was blazing; it was a major incident and the Control Officer had been calling for reinforcements. Nearby there were a number of crowded air raid shelters and he feared that the major fire would serve as a marker for the next wave of bombers. The water mains had been hit and water-supplies for the Fire-engines were insufficient. The coffee aroma was real, torrents of good, freshly infused, coffee were rolling out of the carcass of the warehouse as the stocks burnt and the water from the hoses percolated back into the sewers. At that moment a very smart Fire Engine from Chalfont drew up (it must have been called in from that polite suburb as a part of the ultimate reserve force); its volunteer Fire Service crew were clearly, and with reason, worried. As the fire gained, the water supply diminished. I suggested the unthinkable: we opened a sewer manhole and pumped the torrent of newly infused coffee back on to the fire. The man who was to direct the hose went up and up that narrow ladder until it was swung over towards the blazing warehouse. He was frightened when he went to the ladder; he was a brave man on top of it, fighting an apocalypse. This must be the only example of fire-fighting with doubly infused café espresso....
London was a very heartening place during the Blitz. A week later, for a split second, I thought I was being blown up, because I did leave the ground. I had beens driving along King's Cross Road in the black-out during a raid. Bombs were dropping, but you were no safer stationary than moving. I had no lights on because they bothered people; there was no moon; it was cloudy. The Luftwaffe had no special need to aim. London was a large enough target tto be hard to miss. There was a lot of noise, some of it from rail mounted AA. Then, suddenly, my car became airborne, it seemed to rise and came down with a fantastic crash. A little later, as I came to my senses, I heard a voice saying "Are you all right?" I found myself still in the driver’s seat with my hands on the steering wheel. I could not see a thing; the window was open. Looking through it I saw earth, looking up I could just identify a man looking down from three of four feet higher. I've no idea what I said, but he and his mate came down to my level. "Sure you'r OK Guv?" "You gave us a scare, never seen a car do the long jump before." said the other. They were Gas, Light and Coke Company men. The night before there had been some bad Gas ruptures; they had opened up a very big pit to get at the mains for re-routing. Bowling along without headlamps, alone in the middle of an empty totally dark road, I had not seen any difference in the quality of the black in front of my car, so I had driven smartly over the edge into the pit. The car's roof was just below street level, but there was no ramp up; there was plenty of room but no way out. Like many other Blitz problems this was instantly solved. Pure muscle power did it; the car was lifted up by some twenty willing hands and received by twenty others. Placed on its wheels beyond the pit, I started the engine. It worked; I arrived at Finsbury where we found that the steering had been badly damaged and that I had a few bruises.
In the West End, we could "take" the raids we got; whether we could have survived many more like the last two raids in the spring of 1941, when many of London's gas and water mains were destroyed, I don't know. We might not have been able to carry on, but bombs do not induce surrender. The Government had miscalculated the effect of raids; the 300,000 papiermache coffins which were ready when the bombing began were never used and the hospitals, which were cleared for patients who were expected to be driven mad by raids, remained empty. On the contrary, bombs tended to cure psychological maladies. Many people who were neurotic about the prospect of war were cured by its reality. They had too much to do to have time to be frightened.
In the late summer of 1940 German bombers for the first time began their raids on Dockland. I was one of a small company who went down to the East End in early mornings with Bob Boothby, then Under-Secretary to the Ministry of Food. We took with us a mobile canteen which provided hot drinks for people who had been bombed out. I got to know Father Groser, the happiest example of a priestly saint, who was then and afterwards beloved by co-workers of all denominations as well as by the poor he helped. I recall one morning my pleasure in being able to ring him up to say that I had just received a cheque for £1,000 to help his work in the Blitz.
Ritchie Calder wrote of the effects of the Blitz in the East End in a vivid series of articles which I published in the New Statesman. The number of dead was small, but the army of refugees was larger than expected and he pointed out that, if you were homeless and had lost everything you possessed, you were, in effect, a casualty. No provision had been made for these destitute people, and Ritchie caused a sensation when he described how many of them were herded into schools which were themselves afterwards bombed. I myself wrote an article about a vast, underground food store in Stepney where hundreds of poor people took shelter among the crates of margarine, and where stacks of boxes containing London's food supply were being used as screens for unofficial lavatories. I made a frontal attack on the Home Secretary, Sir John Anderson, and the local authorities for their total failure to deal with an increasingly shocking and dangerously unhygienic situation.
Then came the Blitz. After Coventry, the East End of London had to bear the brunt. Every night, from dusk to dawn the German bombs fell upon them. Woolton suggested that I might go down there every morning about six o'clock when the 'All-clear' sounded, and see what I could do to help. I found that, as they came out of the shelters, what comforted them most was a kiss and a cup of tea. These were easily provided. Almost overnight I got the Ministry of Food to set up canteens all over the East End, manned by voluntary workers, where the tea was free. When we took them back to their homes, often reduced to rubble, their chief concern was what had happened to the cat. I am afraid that the cat searches which I tried to organize were less successful than the canteens.
A number of people, including Kingsley Martin, the Editor of The New Statesman and Ritchie Calder, now Lord Ritchie- Calder, came down to help. But the dominant figure was a priest called Father Grozier. He never failed. He seemed to be everywhere all the time; and his very presence brought comfort, and revived confidence and courage, to thousands of people.
The people of the East End of London - the true cockneys - are a race apart. Most of the men were dockers, all the women cosy. Taken as a whole, they were warm, affectionate, gay, rather reckless, and almost incredibly brave. Sometimes the language was pretty rough, but it was so natural and innocent that it never jarred. One day I came across a small boy crying. I asked him what the matter was, and he said: "They burnt my mother yesterday." Thinking it was in an air-raid, I said: "Was she badly burned?" He looked up at me and said, through his tears: "Oh yes. They don't muck about in crematoriums." I loved them, and I am glad to have been close to them in their hour of supreme trial.
The streets were lit up like day. Houses were burning, shops were burning, it was a proper inferno. Heat was something terrible. The soles of your shoes were being burnt because of the heat of the pavement. In one period I never took my clothes off for six weeks.
There was one outside shelter with I suppose fifty or sixty were in the shelter. When I got to the shelter we could do nothing for them. They were literally blown to pieces. The next morning you could see pieces of them in the trees. Another time I came across nine bodies dead at a factory bench with no visual signs of injury. Blast had caused it. It had blown all their clothes off, including their socks.
On another occasion people were walking over heads that had been blown off bodies. We brought out forty people on pieces of corrugated sheets. We used anything we could find. I remember bringing out one fellow who had lost his face down one side. His arm was gone. His leg was gone. He looked up at me and said: "Have you got a cigarette, mate? I lit it up for him and put it in his lips. He took a couple of puffs and said: "Will you tell me landlady I shall not be home to tea." And with that he closed his eyes and was gone.
I spent five hours this afternoon on the outskirts of London. Bombs fell out there today. It is indeed surprising how little damage a bomb will do unless, of course, it scores a direct hit. But I found that one bombed house looks pretty much like another bombed house. It's about the people I'd like to talk, the little people who live in those little houses, who have no uniforms and get no decorations for bravery. Those men whose only uniform was a tin hat were digging unexploded bombs out of the ground this afternoon. There were two women who gossiped across the narrow strip of tired brown grass that separated their two houses. They didn't have to open their kitchen windows in order to converse. The glass had been blown out. There was a little man with a pipe in his mouth who walked up and looked at a bombed house and said, "One fell there and that's all." Those people were calm and courageous. About an hour after the all clear had sounded, people were sitting in deck chairs on their lawns, reading the Sunday papers. The girls in light, cheap dresses were strolling along the streets. There was no bravado, no loud voices, only a quiet acceptance of the situation. To me those people were incredibly brave and calm. They are the unknown heroes of this war.
The strange first air raid of the war - it was, of course, a false alarm, came to Rodmell on a lovely autumnal or late summer day. It came, I think, just after or before breakfast and I walked out onto the lawn which looks over the water-meadows to Lewes and the downs. It was absolutely still; soft, bright sunshine with wisps of mists still lying on the water-meadows. There are few more beautiful places in England than the valley of the Sussex Ouse between Lewes and Newhaven.
It was curious that this Ouse valley should be so visually connected in my mind with peacefulness and beauty while I listen to the first air-raid sirens of the 1939 war, for, during the next six years, as soon as the phony war ended and the real war began, it was over the peaceful water-meadows and above our heads over Rodmell village that again and again I watched that many strange phases of the war in the air being fought.
The real air war began for us in August 1940. On Sunday, August 18, Virginia and I had just sat down to eat our lunch when there was a tremendous roar and we were just in time to see two planes fly a few feet above the church spire, over the garden, and over the roof, and looking up as they passed above the window we saw the swastika on them. They fired and hit a cottage in the village and fired another shot into a house in Northease. Through between 1940 and 1945 I must have seen hundreds of German planes and many of them dropping bombs of fighting British planes, except in this incident I never saw or had real evidence of a German plane firing bullets at people or buildings on the ground.
When the Battle of Britain and the bombing of London in earnest began, one watched daily in Rodmell the sinister preliminaries to destruction. First the wail of the sirens; then the drone of the German planes flying in from the sea, usually to the east of Rodmell and Lewes. On a clear fine day one could see the Germans high up in the sky and sometimes the British planes going up to meet them north of Lewes. There was very little fighting in the air immediately over the Ouse valley for the Germans flew regularly in a corridor more to the east.
I like best to remember Mr Winston Churchill on the day after the House of Commons was bombed. As a journalist, I knew - as most M.P.s did not yet know - of this disaster, and I went down to Westminster to see what it looked like. The bomb had fallen almost directly above the Speaker's Chair, which was crushed under a steep hill of smoking rubble. A cloud of dust still hung over the place. The stone of the doorway into the Chamber - later to be preserved and to be named after the Prime Minister - had been flaked and eroded in one night so that it looked as old and as weather-worn as the ruins of Ancient Rome. As I clambered up the hill of rubble, I was suddenly confronted by a figure clambering up from the other side. There stood Winston Churchill, his face covered with dust, through which the tears that ran down his cheeks had made two miniature river-beds. " I am a House of Commons man," he used to boast; had that boast not been true, he would doubtless have surrendered to the temptation and the clamour to put a stop to Question Time, which caused him and his ministers so much extra work and worry, but which provided that safety-valve for public bewilderment or discontent, and which gave the British an advantage of morale over all the other belligerents. "I am a House of Commons man." And Churchill wept as he saw his beloved House in ruins.
We have learned with horror and disgust that while London was suffering all the nightmares of aerial bombardment a few nights ago, there was a contrast between the situation of the rich and the poor which we hardly know how to describe. There were two Londons that night. Down by the docks and in the poor districts and the suburbs, people lay dead, or dying in agony from their wounds; but, while their counterparts were suffering only a little distance away, the plutocrats and the favoured lords of creation were making the raid an excuse for their drunken orgies and debaucheries in the saloons of Piccadilly and in the Cafe de Paris. Spending on champagne in one night what they would consider enough for a soldier's wife for a month these monied fools shouted and sang in the streets, crying, as the son of a profiteer baron put it, 'They won't bomb this part of the town! They want the docks! Fill up boys!'
We had to wait until the second alarm before we were allowed to go to the shelter. The first bell was a warning they were coming. The second was when they were overhead. They did not want any time wasted. The planes might have gone straight past and the factory would have stopped for nothing.
Sometimes the Germans would drop their bombs before the second bell went. On one occasion a bomb hit the factory before we were given permission to go to the shelter. The paint department went up. I saw several people flying through the air and I just ran home. I was suffering from shock. I was suspended for six weeks without pay.
They would have been saved if they had been allowed to go after the first alarm. It was a terrible job but we had no option. We all had to do war work. We were risking our lives in the same way as the soldiers were.
When the Germans started their air raids, they progressively got worse and therefore we only attended school on Monday mornings in order to collect books and homework and this was returned to the school on Friday mornings (air raids permitting).
This lack of attendance to school did not effect my education to badly as my father, who was a stickler for good education would help me and my friends with our lessons and I do recall he certainly made sure we worked hard.
I left school at the age of fourteen to start work and my mother escorted me to get suitable work and I recall leaving school on a Thursday and starting work on the Friday. This was literally "being thrown in at the deep end" as I had no time to adjust to this change to my life. I worked forty-eight hours a week as a machinist at an hourly rate of three pence three farthings, (which is less than one and halfpenny nowadays).
All was not gloom and doom at this time especially as a young girl who perhaps was sheltered to a certain extent, not realising the full extent of what was happening. When the air raids got extremely bad we had to go to the air raid shelters, that's where I learned to dance and do the Jitterbug to the sounds of the bombs falling around us. We all made a point of enjoying our lives to the full because we were all aware that each day could be our last. It was really strange on reflection as facing the reality of death at any time no one seemed to moan or complain too much unlike nowadays when such problems are a thing of the past for us in this society.
I had a dog, a Selium named Bob, and I walked him daily and I do recall on one particular day when there was a bad air raid shrapnel was falling all around us. An Air Raid Warden shouted at me to take cover but they would not let me take my dog in the shelter and I was not prepared to abandon him so I ran all the way home, we were very lucky to get home safely.
Children sleeping in perambulators and mothers with babies in their arms were killed when a bomb exploded on a crowded shelter in an East London district during Saturday night's raids. By what is described as "a million-to-one chance" the bomb fell directly on to a ventilator shaft measuring only about three feet by one foot.
It was the only vulnerable place in a powerfully protected underground shelter accommodating over 1,000 people. The rest of the roof is well protected by three feet of brickwork, earth, and other defences, but over the ventilator shaft there were only corrugated iron sheets.
The bomb fell just as scores of families were settling down in the shelter to sleep there for the night. Three or four roof-support pillars were torn down and about fourteen people were killed and some forty injured. In one family three children were killed, but their parents escaped.
Although explosions could be heard in all directions and the scene was illuminated by the glow of the East End fires civil defence workers laboured fearlessly among the wreckage seeking the wounded, carrying them to safer places, and attending to their wounds before the ambulances arrived.
I well remember the worst nights of the Blitz. I watched the old city in flames from the roof of the Air Ministry, with St. Paul's standing out in the midst of an ocean of fire-an incredible sight. One could hear the German bombers arriving in a stream and the swish of the incendiaries falling into the fire below. This was a well-concentrated attack, though the number of aircraft which actually got to the city and the weight of bombs they dropped was a mere nothing as compared with our subsequent attacks on German cities. Even on the worst night the majority of the German aircraft failed to reach the actual target area.
London still stood this morning, which was the greatest surprise to me as I cycled home in the light of early dawn after the most frightening night I have ever spent. But not all of London was still there, and some of the things I saw this morning would scare the wits out of anyone.
When the sirens first shrieked on Saturday, it was evident we were in for something, but dinner proceeded calmly enough. It was when the first screaming bomb started on its downward track that we decided the basement would be healthier.
The whole night was one of moving from the basement to the first floor, with occasional sallies to make sure that no incendiaries had landed on the rooftop.
That was perhaps more frightening than the sound of constant bombs punctuated by guns near and far. For the London air was heavy with the burning smell. The smoke sometimes brought tears to the eyes, and the glow around the horizon certainly looked as though the entire city might be up in flames any minute.
On one occasion I dropped off to sleep on a basement floor and slept probably forty-five minutes, when two screamers sounding as though they had landed right next door brought me, startled, to my feet. A few minutes later a couple of incendiaries arrived just around the comer, but the fire equipment came within seconds.
Most of the time we felt that the entire center of the city had probably been blasted out of existence and we ticked off each hit with "That must be Buckingham Palace - that's Whitehall." It was staggering, to say the least, to cycle for a mile through the heart of London and fail to see even one pane of glass shattered and eventually to find ones own house standing calm and in one piece.
A later tour, however, showed that while none of the bombs hit any objectives we had picked out, they had landed squarely on plenty of places. I walked through areas of rubble and debris in southeastern London this morning that made it seem incredible that anyone could be alive, but they were, and very much so. Fires for the most part were put out or were well under control by early morning.
It was a contrast to find one section of "smart London" that had as bad a dose as the tenement areas. Near one of many of Sir Christopher Wren's masterpieces, houses were gutted structures with windowpanes hanging out, while panes in a church were broken in a million pieces.
For three hours after the night attack got going, I shivered in a sandbag crow's-nest atop a tall building near the Thames. It was one of the many fire-observation posts. There was an old gun barrel mounted above a round table marked off like a compass. A stick of incendiaries bounced off rooftops about three miles away. The observer took a sight on a point where the first one fell, swung his gun-sight along the line of bombs, and took another reading at the end of the line of fire. Then he picked up his telephone and shouted above the half gale that was blowing up there, "Stick of incendiaries, - between 190 and 220 - about three miles away." Five minutes later a German bomber came boring down the river. We could see his exhaust trail like a pale ribbon stretched straight across the sky. Half a mile downstream there were two eruptions and then a third, close together. The first two looked as though some giant had thrown a huge basket of flaming golden oranges high in the air. The third was just a balloon of fire enclosed in black smoke above the house-tops. The observer didn't bother with his gun-sight and indicator for that one. Just reached for his night glasses, took one quick look, picked up his telephone, and said, "Two high explosives and one oil bomb," and named the street where they had fallen.
There was a small fire going off to our left. Suddenly sparks showered up from it as though someone had punched the middle of a huge camp-fire with a tree trunk. Again the gun sight swung around, the bearing was read, and the report went down the telephone lines: "There is something in high explosives on that fire at 59."
There was peace and quite inside for twenty minutes. Then a shower of incendiaries came down far in the distance. They didn't fall in a line. It looked like flashes from an electric train on a wet night, only the engineer was drunk and driving his train in circles through the streets. One sight at the middle of the flashes and our observer reported laconically, "Breadbasket at 90 - covers a couple of miles." Half an hour later a string of fire bombs fell right beside the Thames. Their white glare was reflected in the black, lazy water near the banks and faded out in midstream where the moon cut a golden swathe broken only by the arches of famous bridges.
We could see little men shovelling those fire bombs into the river. One burned for a few minutes like a beacon right in the middle of a bridge. Finally those white flames all went out. No one bothers about the white light, it's only when it turns yellow that a real fire has started.
I must have seen well over a hundred fire bombs come down and only three small fires were started. The incendiaries aren't so bad if there is someone there to deal with them, but those oil bombs present more difficulties.
As I watched those white fires flame up and die down, watched the yellow blazes grow dull and disappear, I thought, what a puny effort is this to bum a great city.
Matt, my boyfriend, was exempted from call-up for a while because he was needed at home. He worked at Devonport Dockyard building ships.
Then the Germans started bombing Plymouth. When Matt got home he found the house in which he was living was destroyed. After helping to pull out the dead and the wounded he helped the fireman put out the fires.
Matt had nowhere to live and everybody's nerves were stretched so we decided to get married and live in furnished rooms. You could get married quickly in those days. The registry office had been bombed. All the windows were gone. The floors were just bare boards. The room we got married in had a rough wooden table and a few odd chairs. Most of the guests had to stand. It wasn't a bit like a wedding.
We were married on 21st May, 1941, and the following September, Matt was called up. I only saw him a few times after that until the war ended.
Our house was built on a rocky slope that reached right down to the beach. When the Germans came to bomb us we would go down to the boathouse and use it as a shelter. We felt the rocks around the boat-house would protect us.
All our daily social relationships are overthrown; people are deprived of sleep, and in many cases of food. Gas, electricity and water supplies are interrupted. We are being reduced to a primitive and nomad condition of subsistence. It is expected that pestilence and plague will break out. We have not seen nearly the worst ... if this continues, every one of our cities will be wiped out. Existence in this country is bound up with industry. The land cannot feed one quarter of the population. For better or worse, we are linked up with industrial production, and if that goes, we all come to grief. Our means of life are being literally destroyed every hour, and there will be left in this island nothing but a destitute population, unless the process is stopped. Do you intend to wait until our last machinery has been put out of action, before considering whether it would not be wiser to make peace, more especially as the Government will not tell us why we are supposed to be fighting? This great population of 50 millions will find itself without means of subsistence. People will starve by the million. Pestilence will creep through the land, and no means will remain of creating order out of chaos. Unless we want this to be the fate of our country, we must summon up both courage and common sense, dismiss from office the corrupt and incompetent politicians, and save ourselves by demanding peace, as a whole people, which has been governed too long by rulers without conscience.
The spire of Coventry Cathedral today stood as a sentinel over the grim scene of destruction below following a dusk-to-dawn raid on the town which the Nazis claimed was the biggest attack in the history of air war. Casualties are officially estimated as being in the region of 1,000.
Some fires were still alight when, with the coming of dawn, the German bombers flew off to terminate a night of merciless, indiscriminate bombing. The Luftwaffe, carrying through the raid (which Berlin, claiming that 500 'planes took part, described as reprisal for the R.A.F. attack on Munich), used terror-bombing tactics. From dusk to dawn there was seldom a period of more than two minutes when a bomb could not be heard falling. The centre of the city bears witness to the savagery of their attack.
In the first six hours of the attack wave upon wave of 25 or more bombers in quick succession scattered hundreds of bombs of all types over a wide area. Brilliant moonlight was not sufficient for the German airmen, who dropped flares and incendiary bombs to light up the scene soon to be bathed in a great red glow. The barrage from the ground defences never slackened and for most of the night the raiders were kept at a great height from which accurate bombing was impossible.
The famous Cathedral is little more than a skeleton, masses of rubble forming huge mounds within its bare walls, while other targets including two hospitals, two churches, hotels, clubs, cinemas, public-shelters, public baths, police station, and post office.
The Provost (the Very Rev. R. T. Howard) and a party of cathedral watchers attempted to deal with twelve incendiary bombs. They tackled them with sand and attempted to smother them, until a shower of other incendiaries, accompanied this time by high explosives, rendered impossible their efforts to save the cathedral, only the tower and steeple of which remain. "The cathedral," said the Provost, "will rise again, will be rebuilt, and it will be as great a pride to future generations as it has been to generations in the past."
Tonight the Cathedral was a reeking shell. Blackened arches and window faces of fretted stone, still stately for all their disfigurement, framed a picture of hideous destruction. Blocks of masonry, heavy pieces of church furniture, and plaques commemorating famous men were merged into a common dust. In addition to the two churches, a Methodist chapel was wrecked, as well as a library (with thousands of volumes and treasured manuscripts), a hall, a ward and operating theatre of one hospital, the outbuildings of an isolation hospital, two hotels, and a newspaper office. Some retail shops, large stores, and office buildings were destroyed by fire or damaged by high-explosive bombs.
It is very disputable whether bombing by itself will be a decisive factor in the present war. On the contrary, all that we have learnt since the war began shows that its effects, both physical and moral, are greatly exaggerated. There is no doubt that British people have been stimulated and strengthened by the attack made upon them so far. Secondly, it seems very likely that the ground defences and night-fighters will overtake the air attack. Thirdly, in calculating the number of bombers necessary to achieve hypothetical and indefinite tasks, it should be noted that only a quarter of our bombs hit the targets. Consequently an increase of bombing to 100 per cent would in fact raise our bombing force to four times its strength. The most we can say is that it will be a heavy and I trust a seriously increasing annoyance.
He said he would repeat these raids night after night until the English were sick and tired of terror attacks. He shares my opinion absolutely that cultural centres, health resorts and civilian resorts must be attacked now. There is no other way of bringing the English to their senses. They belong to a class of human beings with whom you can only talk after you have first knocked out their teeth.
10th July, 1943: People who try to tell you what the Blitz was like in London start with fire and explosion and then almost invariably end up with some very tiny detail which crept in and set and became the symbol of the whole thing for them. Again and again this happens in conversations. It is as though the mind could not take in the terror and the noise of the bombs and the general horror and so fastened on something small and comprehensible and ordinary. Everyone who was in London during the Blitz wants to describe it, wants to solidify, if only for himself, some- thing of that terrible time.
"It's the glass," says one man, "the sound in the morning of the broken glass being swept up, the vicious, flat tinkle. That is the thing I remember more than anything else, that constant sound of broken glass being swept up on the pavements. My dog broke a window the other day and my wife swept up the glass and a cold shiver went over me. It was a moment before I could trace the reason for it."
You are going to dine at a small restaurant. There is a ruin across the street from the place, a jagged, destroyed stone house. Your companion says, "On one of the nights I had an engagement to have dinner with a lady at this very place. She was to meet me here. I got here early and then a bomb hit that one." He points to the ruin. "I went out in the street. You could see plainly, the fires lighted the whole city. That front wall was spilled into the street. You could see the front of a cab sticking out from the pile of fallen stone. Thrown clear, right at my feet as I came out of the door, was one pale blue evening slipper. The toe of it was pointing right at me."
Another points up at a wall; the building is gone, but there are five fireplaces, one above another, straight up the wall. He points to the topmost fireplace. "This was a high-explosive bomb," he says. "This is on my way to work. You know, for six months there was a pair of long stockings hanging in front of that fireplace. They must have been pinned up. They hung there for months, just as they had been put up to dry."
"I was passing Hyde Park," says a man, "when a big raid came over. I went down into the gutter. Always did that when you couldn't get a shelter. I saw a great tree, one like those, jump into the air and fall on its side not so far from me - right there where that scoop is in the ground. And then a sparrow fell in the gutter right beside me. It was dead all right. Concussion kills birds easily. For some reason I picked it up and held it for a long time. There was no blood on it or anything like that. I took it home with me. Funny thing, I had to throw it right away."
One night, when the bombs screamed and blatted, a refugee who had been driven from place to place and tortured in all of them until he finally reached London, couldn't stand it any more. He cut his throat and jumped out of a high window. A girl, who was driving an ambulance that night, says, "I remember how angry I was with him. I understand it a little now, but that night I was furious with him. There were so many who got it that night and they couldn't help it. I shouted at him I hoped he would die, and he did."
Its basis certainly came from the torn, wounded, dismembered houses; from the gritty dust of dissolved brickwork, masonry and joinery. But there was more to it than that. For several hours there was an acrid overtone from the high explosive which the bomb itself had contained; a fiery constituent of the smell. Almost invariably, too, there was the mean little stink of domestic gas, seeping up from broken pipes and leads. But the whole of the smell was greater than the sum of its parts. It was the smell of violent death itself.
On arrival we were told that there were a number of trapped people and several dead. Four of these we saw, but they had been certified by a private doctor as dead before arrival. We stood by and then found a man who was suffering very severely from shock. Miss A. helped to put him into a bed in a basement nearby; he was given hot tea, hot water bottles, and generally treated for shock. Dr S. saw and ordered 1 gram Phenobarbitone. I gave this and was able to obtain particulars. MFC 46 given. We also found slight cuts over several parts of his body, and DR S. queried embedded glass. The casualty was told to see his own doctor in the morning (later sent for treatment to Post "C" first aid post). Demolition Squad asked doctor and me to stand by as they were trying to reach a woman (trapped by legs) in a lavatory. She was quite cheerful, and kept up a conversation with the men and also spoke to me. I did not see her, and she had not been rescued when I left at 0700 hours. Screams were also coming from debris nearby; men were working to release trapped people. These also were still trapped at 0700 hours. We were then called to a heap of debris (No. 16 was on the gatepost) where a girl was trapped. While taking a short cut Miss S. tripped over a body; this was a female who was decapitated and disembowelled. We helped to put her on a stretcher and then went on to the trapped girl - who was too ill to give her name. The demolition men got debris away as far as her feet and I was able to give her hot water bottles (provided by neighbours). At 0634 hours, DR S. ordered another quarter of a grain of morphine (checked by DR S. and given by me). The girl remained conscious, but was in pain and was very brave. As I came out of the hole I noticed the back part of a body in a green skirt under the above girl's trapped legs and told demolition men. The demolition men then unearthed a girl's hand (not the girl in the green skirt). The men made a hole and the girl made noises - I gave them a rubber tube which the girl was able to put into her mouth to help her to breathe. Fires started to break out under this debris and the firemen were ordered to keep it down with a gentle flow of water. We stood by until 0700 hours when I was relieved by Sister S. ... Both Miss A. and Miss S. were excellent in helping us and looking after me. Miss A. pulled aside a man when a beam fell and Miss S. shouted to me and I was able to fall over backwards out of its way. Thanks to them, a nasty accident was avoided.
Raymond and I went to see the Brenans. Gerald, back after his two weeks wardenship in London, looking young and lean. All the time he didn't see one person killed. Each night had its "incidents", houses demolished, people buried or cut by glass, or with all their clothes blown off shot up into trees, or starred all over with cuts from glass so as to be bright red with blood all over. The amount of blood was the one thing that struck him. Arthur Waley is a stretcher-bearer, and was called in when the Y.M.C.A. off Tottenham Court Road was hit. He said the whole place was swimming in blood and it was dripping down the stairs, yet hardly a person was killed. All were superficial cuts from glass. He believes that most people cannot resist the temptation to exaggerate. The really terrified people leave London or else go down to the tube others make themselves as safe as possible somewhere where they can sleep. And he says most people do manage to sleep now, and that many people are enjoying finding themselves braver than they knew.
We who lived in London through the Blitz were constantly observing pathetic and heroic sights, and constantly experiencing some fresh excess of outrage; even the violently altered appearance of the city was a shock to the system. It was disorientating to find a well-known area transformed into a nightmare territory of shattered buildings, horrifying craters and acres of rubble. Places to which you had attached importance were suddenly no longer there. Eight Wren churches were destroyed in a single night. Everyone had stories of their own lucky escapes or those of friends. Many, of course, weren't lucky at all. Shelterers in the Underground were among the earliest casualties: Trafalgar Square, Bounds Green, Praed Street and Balham Stations all suffered direct hits before the end of 1940. A night-club in Leicester Square, the Cafe de Paris, a haunt of mine, was bombed in the spring of 1941 and turned, in seconds, from a place of gaiety to a shambles. Like Hatchetts restaurant, it was believed to be safe because it was underground.
Through it all, of course, things kept going. A milkman picking his steps across a newly ruined road, a postman collecting mail from a letter box mysteriously left intact in the middle of a wasteland - these, among other potent images, symbolized the Londoners' particular refusal to be intimidated. I know of no one who lost heart, gave way to nerves, or experienced despair. Those who suffered most, it seemed at times, gained from somewhere the hardihood to endure it. My ex-colleague John Dickson Carr, whose house was twice demolished around him, was able to joke about these experiences.
After one night of savage shelling I had to walk back through the town picking my way warily over all the debris. In the half light I came across a shocking sight. A gang of men was working in the flickering light of a fire blazing through the roof of a nearby house. They moved great pieces of masonry and charred beams, moving them carefully to avoid the rest of the pile from collapsing onto bodies pinned beneath it all. Some had already been moved to the other side of the road, and ambulance men were lifting them onto stretchers. I came across a young woman lying face downward on her arm, a pool of blood on the pavement under her chest. She moved her free hand slightly as I touched her shoulder. She was dying. I stayed with her until she too was lifted gently onto a stretcher and taken away. I often think of that poor woman now.
Coventry is, as you might know, the most important place in England for the manufacture of aeroplane motors and such like. One bright night about 500 German aeroplanes flew over Coventry. They dropped about 1,000,000 lbs. of bombs. If you have any imagination at all you can imagine what kind of a hell they let loose in Coventry that night. Swedish and American papers say that nothing has happened that can be used as a comparison. It was formidable, the worst hell that mankind can imagine. And that went on almost the whole night through. When dawn came there was nothing left but one pile of rubbish. The factories were gone altogether. Coventry will manufacture no more engines for months and months to come. It was the heaviest blow for British industry. Even Americans express their doubts after Coventry, as to whether England can last much longer.
The Coventry raid was, of course, appalling in its intensity and as it was the first serious attack on a provincial town it goes down in history for the creation of a new word for human brutishness - coventrated. London with its sixty consecutive nights of bombardment received the greatest tonnage of bombs, as well as daylight raids, but London is very big and as the world knows London could, and did, take it. But don't underestimate the troubles, anxieties and sufferings of the Londoners. Plymouth, as a naval town and easily identifiable on the coastline, received a terribly concentrated series of attacks and Liverpool had a nasty week. Manchester, Belfast and Clydeside had nasty times. There were others.
But in my experience and from remembrance of the reports, I would say that the town that suffered most was Kingston-upon-Hull. We had reason to believe that the Germans did not realize that they were bombing Hull. Morning after morning the BBC reported that raiders had been over a 'north-east town' and so there was none of the glory for Hull which known suffering might produce.
The raids on Hull were only occasionally concentrated so that the devastation of a few houses did not produce stories of disaster and heroism to repeat far and wide. Hull often suffered for what might be said to be no rhyme or reason except that it was an easy target. But it was night after night. Hull had no peace. I have since been honoured by this courageous town by being appointed High Steward and it was a privilege for me to tell the citizens that the government was fully aware of their sufferings during the war and the heroic manner in which they had endured them.