On 13th August, 1940, of the 1,485 German aircraft which crossed the English Channel that day, forty-five were shot down, for the loss of only thirteen British fighters. The Germans were surprised by the skill of the British pilots who opposed them. Almost all the German aircrew were killed or captured where they parachuted or crash-landed; only seven British pilots were killed, the rest crash-landing or parachuting to safety on British soil. Two days later, 75 German aircraft were shot down, for a British loss of 34. However, the following day, the Luftwaffe managed to destroy 47 aircraft on the ground at 14 airfields in southern England. In the first ten days of the German attacks, a hundred British aircraft were destroyed on the ground. General Hastings Ismay, Churchill's Chief of Staff, watched that day's events in the Operation Room of No. 11 Group Fighter Command, later recalled: "There had been heavy fighting throughout the afternoon; and at one moment every single squadron in the group was engaged; there was nothing in reserve, and the map table showed new waves of attackers crossing the coast. I felt sick with fear." (1)
The Royal Air Force was desperately short of both aircraft and trained pilots. Between 1st and 18th August the RAF lost 208 fighters and 106 pilots. The second half of the month saw even heavier losses and wastage now outstripped the production of new aircraft and the training of pilots to fly them. Those British pilots that did survive suffered from combat fatigue. In the last week of August, almost a fifth of the RAF's fighter pilots were either killed or wounded. Recently trained and therefore inexperienced men had to be sent to the front-line squadrons, which reduced operational effectiveness. The result was rising losses against the more experienced German pilots. (2)
Britain appeared to be at the verge of losing the Battle of Britain. Once the RAF had lost control of British air-space, Adolf Hitler would have been in a position to launch Operation Sea Lion, the land invasion of Britain. Churchill decided to try and get Hitler to change his main target of destroying aircraft and airfields. Britain had a policy of using aerial bombing only against military targets and against infrastructure such as ports and railways of direct military importance as it wanted to reduce civilian casualties. (3)
Winston Churchill decided to change this policy and on 25th August 1940, Churchill ordered a RAF raid on Berlin and 95 aircraft were dispatched to bomb Tempelhof Airport and Siemensstadt, both based near the centre of the city. Ten civilians were killed. While the damage was slight, the psychological effect on Hitler was greater. A few days later he made a speech where he told a party rally: "When the British Air Force drops two or three or four thousand kilograms of bombs, then we will in one night drop 150, 230, 300 or 400 thousand kilograms... When they declare that they will increase their attacks on our cities, then we will raze their cities to the ground." (4) Hitler now rescinded an order forbidding attacks on civilian targets and fell into the trap created by Churchill. The Luftwaffe now shifted the target from British airfields and air defences to British cities. (5)
Some members of the government were very worried about this new strategy. Several reports had been commissioned about the possible impact of targeted air-raids on British civilians. It was calculated that 3,500 tons of bombs would be dropped in the first twenty-four hours. By the time the all-clear sounded, 58,000 Londoners would have been killed. Each ton of bombs would cause fifty casualties, a third of which would be fatal. (6) According to another report, the first week of serious air raids on the capital would leave some 66,000 Londoners dead and another 134,000 seriously injured. (7)
Many, including the Committee of Imperial Defence, anticipated that the maintenance of public order would pose the greatest problem. It was suggested that the first raids would generate mass panic and Londoners would emerge from their shelters and take part in widespread and destructive rioting. The government therefore decided that a large part of the Territorial Army should not be sent abroad but held in reserve to preserve law and order at home. (8)
Reputable scientists offered alarming statistics. John Haldane, warned that the sound wave from a bomb would "literally flatten out everything in front" of it. Those within range not immediately killed would be permanently disabled, their eardrums would burst inward and people would be "deafened for life". The Mental Health Emergency Committee agreed, reporting in 1939 that psychiatric casualties were likely to exceed physical injuries by three to one, while three or four million people would succumb to hysteria. The government rejected this advice and refused to build deep underground shelters. (9)
This information created mass panic amongst the wealthy and over 5,000 people fled in the few days leading up to the war. This included three Conservative Party MPs. One of these was Captain Alex Cunningham-Reid, the MP for St. Marylebone, who took his family to Canada. (10) After he returned in 1943 he was physically attacked by another MP, Oliver Locker-Lampson, a leading figure in the struggle against fascism. "He (Locker-Lampson) ran whirling his arms around his head and struck me in the chest. I retaliated by hitting him on the head. He went down on his knees. I helped him up and by that time other members had gotten between us". Cunningham-Reid later admitted that Locker-Lampson had accused him of leaving London during the Blitz. (11)
Churchill asked the Home Office to prepare a Bill to allow the seats of those MPs who left the country without government permission for more than six months to be declared vacant. When this was discussed at the home policy committee, Ernest Bevin argued that the MPs should be stripped of their British citizenship. However, when the war cabinet discussed the issue later that day, they agreed that introducing such a Bill would create too much undesirable publicity and alert the public to the facts that MPs had been fleeing the country. (12)
Saturday 7th September, 1940, was a warm day with an almost cloudless sky. But soon after four in the afternoon the sky darkened as 300 German bombers and 600 escorting fighters arrived over London. Sector Controllers looked up anxiously, reluctant to commit their planes to battle until the raiders split up to make for their allocated airfield targets. Fighter Command No. 11 under Keith Park did not intercept the bombers in large numbers, thus masking their true strength. An off duty fire officer in Dulwich "saw something that made him jump up and hurriedly struggle into his uniform. The sky was filled with an ever-darkening rash of black dots that he realised were planes in numbers he had never seen before - and they were all making for the East End." (13)
The Luftwaffe was heading for the Royal Victoria Docks and the Surrey Docks that were situated on the U-shaped bend of the Thames round the Isle of Dogs, and was unmistakable from the air. (14) Barbara Nixon, an actress who was a volunteer ARP warden in Finsbury, later recalled that although four miles away she could see that the people in "the East End were getting it... we could see the miniature silver planes circling round and round the target area in such perfect formation that they looked like a children's toy model of flying boats or chair-o-planes at a fair... Presently we saw a white cloud rising; it looked like a huge evening cumulus, but it grew steadily, billowing outwards and always upwards... The cloud grew to such a size that we gasped incredulously; there could not ever in history have been so gigantic a fire." (15)
Cyril Demarne, an officer in the Fire Service, later commented: "Columns of fire pumps, five hundred of them ordered to West Ham alone, sped eastwards to attend fires in ships and warehouses, sugar refineries, soap works, tar distilleries, chemical works, timber stacks, paint and varnish works, the humble little homes of workers and hundreds of other fires that, in peace time, would have made headline news. Two hundred and fifty acres of tall timber sacks blazed out of control in the Surrey Commercial Docks; the rum quay buildings of the West India Docks, alight from end to end, gushed blazing spirit from their doors." (16)
The Fire Service had difficulty in dealing with the large number of fires that had been started by the bombing raid. Calls went out for additional fire engines. Over a thousand were being used in the dock area alone. West Ham Fire Brigade asked for another 500. They came from all over London, and from as far away as Birmingham and Bristol. Over 300 pumps were fighting one blaze. The fire officer at the Surrey Commercial Docks called central officer: "Send all the bloody pumps you've got. The whole bloody world's on fire." (17)
Another major target was the Beckton Gasworks, the largest in Europe, which supplied central London, was badly damaged. Rumours quickly spread that the enveloping sulphurous smell meant that the Germans had dropped mustard-gas canisters. Acrid black smoke came from the bombed warehouse of the Silvertown rubber factory. "Molten tar from another factory flowed across the North Woolwich Road, bogging down fire engines, ambulances and Civil Defence vehicles... An army of rats swarmed from a soap factory in Silvertown. A grain warehouse was on fire too - and when a large quantity of wheat burns, as the fireman found, it leaves a sticky residue that was in danger of pulling off their boots." (18)
An underground shelter in Shoreditch suffered a direct hit and over forty people were killed: "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." (19)
Soon after 6 p.m. the All Clear went, and stunned East Enders emerged from public shelters. They discovered that the Fire Brigade was having terrible difficulty controlling over 40 major fires. Water pipes and gas mains were shattered by explosions and telephone cables were severed. Communication between the fire services and Civil Defence was kept going only by the courage of motor-bike dispatch riders or teenage messenger boys on bikes painted yellow and with a tin hat and an armband to identify them. Driving through tunnels of fire, and dodging unexploded bombs to carry messages from fire crews to control rooms. (20)
Just after 8 p.m., 250 German bombers came back and using the fires below as a marker, dropped 330 tons of high-explosives and 440 incendiary canisters. The docks were the principal target, but many bombs fell on the residential areas around them resulting in 448 Londoners were killed and another 1,600 were seriously injured. The government had miscalculated the effect of the first great air raid on London. The prediction had been there would be many more deaths. However, they under-estimated the number of houses that would be destroyed. It has been claimed that 35 times as many civilians were made homeless as were killed. (21) At precisely 8.07 that evening, as the air bombardment was at its height, the code word "Cromwell" was sent to military units throughout Britain. The code's message was "the German invasion of Britain was about to begin." (22)
The docks of Bermondsey and West Ham were pulverised and the destruction fanned out to Stepney, Whitechapel, Poplar, Bow and Shoreditch. The next morning, Winston Churchill paid a visit to the East End, where he and General Hastings Ismay, his chief of staff discovered the seriousness of the situation. "Fires were still raging all over the place, some of the larger buildings were mere skeletons, and many of the smaller houses had been reduced to heaps of rubble... Our first stop was an air-raid shelter in which about forty persons had been killed." Ismay pointed out that someone in the crowd shouted: "Good old Winnie. We thought you'd come and see us. We can take it. Give it to them back." Churchill broke down and one old woman said: "You see he really cares; he's crying". (23)
The main criticism made by civilians after the first day of the Blitz was a lack of response from the British armed forces. Violet Regan, the wife of a member of the Heavy Rescue Squad in Millwall, reported: "We had depended on anti-aircraft guns... and apart from a solitary salvo loosed at the beginning of the raids, no gun had been shot in our defence... we felt like sitting ducks and no mistake." (24)
There were seven anti-aircraft (or ack-ack after the noise the guns made) divisions, but there was a grave shortage of weapons. Only half the heavy and a third of the light guns that had been considered essential before the war were in place. Most of these guns had been deployed to guard airfields during the Battle of Britain and so on 7th September, London was being defended by only 264 anti-aircraft guns. (25) The men often lacked the skills needed to operate these anti-aircraft guns. One report suggested that most training consisted of "so-called silent practice inside a drill hall." (26)
General Frederick Pile, commander-in-chief of the Anti-Aircraft Command, realised that "something must be done immediately" and "within twenty-four hours... reinforcements from all over the country were on their way to London and within forty-eight hours the number of guns had been doubled". Pile instructed "that every gun was to fire every possible round... every unseen target must be engaged without waiting to identify the aircraft as hostile". It was only on 10th September, the fourth night of the Blitz, men, many of whom had only just finished training, were ready to protect London. They were firing blind and "few bursts can have got anywhere near the target" since the tactic was to throw a enormous barrage of time-fused shells in front of a bomber formation and just hope that some of the planes would fly into it. (27)
It was pointed out: "It isn't easy to shoot down a plane with an anti-aircraft gun...In stead of sitting still, the target is moving at anything up to 300 m.p.h. with the ability to alter course left or right, up or down. If the target is flying high it may take 20 or 30 seconds for the shell to reach it, and the gun must be laid a corresponding distance ahead. Moreover the range must be determined so that the fuse can be set, and above all, this must be done continuously so that the gun is always laid in the right direction. When you are ready to fire, the plane, though its engines sound immediately overhead, is actually two miles away. And to hit it with a shell at that great height the gunners may have to aim at a point two miles farther still. Then, if the raider does not alter course or height, as it naturally does when under fire, the climbing shell and the bomber will meet. In other words the raider, which is heard overhead at the Crystal Palace, is in fact at that moment over Dulwich; and the shell which is fired at the Crystal Palace must go to Parliament Square to hit it." (28)
It was estimated that it took a lot of shells to bring down a German aircraft. However, coming as it did after three nights of the Luftwaffe having an almost uninterrupted passage to their targets, the non-stop barrage, seems to have forced the bombers to fly higher and even some to turn back. General Pile admitted that the anti-aircraft guns were not effective but it was important as "it bucked people up tremendously" and those Londoners sheltering from the raid could feel some confidence that there was, at last, some semblance of a battle. (29)
During September, 1940, AA batteries fired 260,000 rounds of heavy ammunition. It is estimated that it brought down only one aircraft for every 30,000 shells fired. This dropped to 11,000 in October and by January 1941 the experience gained by the operators, had reduced this figure to 4,000. Another reason was the establishment of a chain of radar warning stations. Once these had been integrated with operational control rooms to plot the movements of bombers and fighters and linked to radio direction of fighter squadrons, Britain had an effective defence system. (30)
As the commander-in-chief of the Anti-Aircraft Command pointed out: "Anti-aircraft guns take a little time to become effective after they have been moved to new positions. Telephone lines have to be laid, gun positions levelled, the warning system co-ordinated and so on." (31) Although official claims that 45 per cent of raiders were forced to turn back by anti-aircraft fire was not true and was merely government propaganda. German aircraft were forced to fly "higher as a result of the barrage, but since this made it more likely that the bombs would miss docks or railway stations and hit civilian homes instead, the advantage to the average citizen was not immediately noticeable." (32)
It has been claimed that on some occasions the barrage above London was so intense that as many civilians were killed and injured by shrapnel and unexploded shells as by enemy action. A survey was carried out after one raid and it was discovered that six people were killed by shell splinters; four wounded by a shell in Enfield; a sailor severely injured by a shell splinter in Gipsy Hill; two civilians killed by another shell elsewhere; one man killed and two injured by a shell which hit a wall in Battersea; and two more killed in Tooting." (33)
In 1938 the RAF Balloon Command was established to protect cities and key targets such as industrial areas, ports and harbours. The main objective was to prevent low fights and pinpoint bombing by the Luftwaffe. This forced them to fly higher and into the range of concentrated anti-aircraft fire - anti-aircraft guns could not traverse fast enough to attack aircraft flying at low altitude and high speed. These silver-coloured barrage balloons, were 66 feet long and 30 feet high, filled with 20,000 cubic feet of hydrogen and tethered to the ground by steel cables. By the middle of 1940 there were 1,400 balloons, a third of them over the London area. (34)
These large serene and beautiful shapes were to stay poised over British cities for the rest of the war. The journalist, James L. Hodson, described them as "shinning silver in the sun, or turning pink or golden or shades of blue in the varied lights from dawn to evening, their cable singing some kind of tune, maybe, in a high wind, and just occasionally, the balloon itself, if something has gone wrong, turning over and over like a playful porpoise or, again, lashing about with the fury of a wounded whale." (35)
Each balloon was moored to a wagon by a cable. These cables were strong enough to destroy any aircraft colliding with them. On the wagon was a winch that enabled the men of Balloon Command to control the height of the barrage balloon. It has been claimed that in the first months of war, the balloons inspired an irrational sense of immunity among civilians. This was encouraged by an early propaganda film, The Lion Has Wings (1939), which depicted a mass raid Luftwaffe bombers turning back in fear and confusion at the sight of Britain's terrifying balloon barrage. (36)
As Ada Ryder pointed out, these balloons were difficult to control: "The balloon could behave very dangerously, and the weather was the number-one enemy. In high winds we had to 'storm bed' it; that was, to bring it down to the concrete base and anchor it with concrete blocks, each one weighing fifty-six pounds. The nose had always to be in the wind, otherwise it would break away, dragging thousands of feet of steel cable with it. That cable was lethal. The corporal would stand on site, eight of us each by a concrete block, and at her command we'd all move together about six inches at a time. The wind would be howling, rain and hail lashing us, and it would take about two hours to get the balloon into wind. We'd just finish, all tired out, and the wind would change, so out we'd go again. It wasn't funny, I'll tell you, in tin hat, pyjamas, greatcoat over the top, and big boots on our bare feet! Sometimes we were machine-gunned trying to fly the balloon as a raid came in." (37)
Barrage balloons were fairly easy to destroy but they did have their successes. "One Saturday we were clearing up the billet when the crackle of machine guns and cannon guns was heard. The men grabbed their rifles and dashed out to the Balloon site. The sky was full of AA shell bursts while machine guns were going off everywhere. Several balloons were coming down in flames, ours included. The next balloon to us was being hauled down just as fast as the winch could pull it. It was about 800 feet off the ground when one of the Messerschmitt 109s decided that he would try and get it. He swept over our heads and brought it down all right. But as he turned and banked away to sea again he seemed to be standing still in the air for a few seconds. The range was about 700 feet. The NCO yelled 'Fire!' Everyone pumped as many rounds as he could into it. The plane kept straight on with his dive out to sea, while a thin trail of smoke poured out from behind. When we last saw it, it was going down behind a breakwater out to sea. We did not stand about wondering if we had got it as we had a new balloon to inflate and fly. It was when we had finished this and had the balloon barrage up again that we leant we had been given the credit for shooting down a Messerschmitt 109." (38)
The record for Balloon Command was not very good. During six years of war balloon barrages brought down approximately 100 aircraft, yet three-quarters of these were Allied planes. Just 24 German aircraft are known to be victims of these balloons. They were also dangerous to civilians on the ground. On 13th June, a Heinkel He III struck a balloon cable over Newport, and plunged into a built-up area, killing two children. In October, an exploding barrage balloon killed two firemen in Lambeth. However, they undoubtedly boosted civilian morale, and would later bring down 278 VI flying bombs. (39)
On 8th September, 1940, 200 German bombers attacked London's electricity power stations and railway lines. This time Fighter Command fully engaged the enemy and 88 German aircraft were shot down, for British losses of 21. The Luftwaffe made its last great effort on 15th September. The British government reported that 185 German aircraft had been destroyed. The true figure was 56 but both sides were guilty of exaggerating the number of aircraft that had been shot down. (40)
After these two days of heavy bombing frightened and homeless people in London trekked out to the open spaces outside the city. Several thousands "trudged off to Epping and sat down in the forest" where camps were set up for them. A local Tory councillor, confronted with the idea that the homeless should be compulsorily billeted there, commented: "I will not have these people billeted on our people". (41) As Angus Calder has pointed out: "Even now, when the need for evacuation was obvious enough, some of the well-to-do people of the suburbs and countryside still revealed the bleak class hatred which had underlain the first response to evacuation a year before." (42)
In 1939 Sir John Anderson, the Home Secretary and the Minister of Home Security, commissioned the engineer, William Patterson, to design a small and cheap shelter that could be erected in people's gardens. (43) Within a few months nearly one and a half million of these Anderson Shelters were distributed to people living in areas expected to be bombed by the Luftwaffe. Anderson shelters were given free to poor people. Men who earned more than £5 a week could buy one for £7. The main problem was that under a quarter of the public had no gardens. Made from six curved sheets bolted together at the top, with steel plates at either end, and measuring 6ft 6in by 4ft 6in (1.95m by 1.35m) the shelter could accommodate six people. These shelters were half buried in the ground with earth heaped on top. The entrance was protected by a steel shield and an earthen blast wall. (44)
People who did not like going into their Anderson shelters. "We had an Anderson shelter in the garden. You were supposed to go into your Anderson shelter every night. I used to take my knitting. I used to knit all night. I was too frightened to go to sleep. You got into the habit of not sleeping. I've never slept properly since. It was just a bunk bed. I did not bother to get undressed. It was cold and damp in the shelter. I was all on my own because my husband was in the army. You would go nights and nights and nothing happened." (45)
A persistent problem was damp. The shelters often flooded after a rainstorm, and it was unwise to leave bedding there. As they were usually sited at the end of the garden when the alert went families had a trek through a dark and often muddy garden carrying supplies for the night. Heating was another major problem. Oil and paraffin heaters were not recommended since if knocked over they could start a fire, and in a confined space such appliances used up oxygen, while electricity could short-circuit in the damp. However, one of the main disadvantages of the shelter is that they did not shut out the terrifying din of explosives and falling masonry. In fact, the metal shelters magnified the noise. This problem was eventually recognised by the authorities and one borough issued 140,000 pairs of earplugs free to its citizens. (46)
Some people adapted their Anderson shelters to give them extra protection: "I think that a dugout is fairly safe if the people inside are a foot or two below the general surface of the ground. A bomb would have to fall right on it to make sure of killing the occupants. But so many of the Andersons I have seen in London are practically on the surface with the soil piled round them and very little on top: not enough to stop a bullet. Our Anderson is in a bank of clay and the top of it is several feet below the high ground at the back. (47)
Before the war started the government made money available for materials for local authorities to build public outdoor shelters, although they had to foot the bill for the construction costs. New buildings had to incorporate spaces for shelters, and employers with a workforce of fifty or more in a designated target area were obliged to provide shelter accommodation for their employees (they would receive government funding to help pay for this). Once war started the government urged local authorities to provide purpose-built public shelters, above ground heavily protected brick and concrete constructions capable of holding up to fifty people. Progress was slow and by the time of the Blitz of the 27.5 million people living in areas likely to be attacked, only 17.5 million had been provided with some sort of shelter, domestic or public. (48)
Barbara Nixon, an air-raid warden in London later wrote: "It is now generally admitted that during September 1940 the shelter conditions were appalling. In many boroughs there were only flimsy surface shelters, with no light, no seats, no lavatories, and insufficient numbers even of these; or railway arches and basements that gave an impression of safety, but had only a few inches of brick overhead, or were rotten shells of buildings with thin roofs and floors... In our borough... we had two capacious shelters under business firms, which held three or four hundred, also fifteen small sub-surface concrete ones in which fifty people could sit upright on narrow wooden benches along the wall. But they were poorly ventilated, and only two out of the nine that came in my province could pretend to be dry." (49)
Many people sheltered under railway arches. One of the most popular was Tilbury railway arch in Stepney. The borough council made it into a public shelter for 3,000 people. However, it is claimed that as many as 16,000 used it on some nights. It was visited by many journalists and Negley Farson found its "vital, impulsive life... inspiring". (50) Harold Scott agreed and described how "a girl in a scarlet cloak danced wildly to the cheers of an enthusiastic audience; a party of Negro sailors sang spirituals while someone played the accordion." (51)
Another popular shelter was the Spitalfield Shelter in Stepney. The London Fruit & Wool Exchange was opposite Christ Church in Spitalfields. Built in 1929, as well as having a grand wood-panelled auction room seating 900, it had a maze of basement tunnels that could be used as an underground shelter. (52)
Mickey Davies was an optician but on 13th September, 1940, his business was destroyed by a bomb. Mickey, with time on his hands, decided he would organize the Spitalfield Shelter. Although designed for 2,500 people, some days over 5,000 crammed into the shelter. "The heat of the cellar", Davies wrote, "became literally hardly bearable. A steady stream of semi-conscious or unconscious people was passed towards the doorway." It was a chaotic situation and Davies inspired his fellow shelterers to create their own order. A shelter committee was democratically elected and Davies became chief shelter marshal. (53)
As Steve Hunnisett has pointed out: "To begin with, conditions were appalling, with almost non-existent sanitation, no proper bedding (people initially slept upon bags of rubbish) and minimal lighting. The floors soon became awash with urine, faeces and other filth. Mickey Davies was appalled by what he found and by the apparent lack of interest, or at best, will from the authorities to get things better organised. Davies was highly intelligent and more importantly, a superb organiser and he quickly became invaluable to the shelterers and a thorn in the side of the local authority in his efforts to improve the conditions for those using the shelter." (54)
Mickey Davies only 4 feet 6 inches tall and became known as "Mickey Midget". (55) The Daily Mirror reported: "In charge of one of London's biggest shelters is a dwarf - a little man who has performed wonders during the air raids and whose judgement is never questioned by any of the 2,000 shelterers whose safety is under his supervision." (56) Joseph Westwood, Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, was very impressed when he Mickey and told an audience in Edinburgh: "I wish you could have met Mickey. He is a dwarf. But in mind and spirit he is a giant. He is lord of one of the biggest shelters in London. Two thousand shelterers elected him chief shelter marshal." (57)
J. B. Priestley wrote about people like Mickey Davies who emerged as leaders during the Second World War: "It so happens that this war, whether those at present in authority like it or not, has to be fought as a citizen's war... They are a new type, what might be called the organized militant citizen. And the whole circumstances of their war-time favour of a sharply democratic outlook. Men and women with a gift for leadership now turn up in unexpected places. The new ordeals blast away the old shams. Britain, which in the years immediately before this war was rapidly losing such democratic virtues as it possessed, is now being bombed and burned into democracy." (58)
There is evidence that members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) were involved in organising people in air-raid shelters. Euan Wallace, a Conservative Party cabinet minister, wrote: "There is little doubt that the Daily Worker and the Communist Party are taking the opportunity of creating trouble." (59) Ritchie Calder argued in his book, Carry on London (1941) that "Mickey's form of common sense community socialism" was seen by some as "Communism". When told that there were "Communists" amongst the Shelter Committee, he replied that "There may be bigamists amongst them for all I care!" (60)
The poor sanitation in Mickey's Shelter increased the risk of disease and infection. "Mickey set up first aid and medical units, and raise money to equip a dispensary. He even persuaded stretcher bearers and others to come in on their off duty times to minister to the sick and injured." (61) Davis also persuaded Marks and Spencers to install a canteen. When the leading American politician, Wendell Willkie, visited London during the Blitz, he was taken to "Mickey's Shelter as a showplace of British democracy." (62) His daughter has pointed out that his shelter was "visited by people from American ex-Presidents to Clementine Churchill (all signed his visitors' book)." (63)
The most expensive London hotels and restaurants provided secure underground accommodation for their customers. Some restaurants provided camp beds in their cellars. The Dorchester Hotel, which was considered to be secure because of its reinforced-concrete structure, turned its basement gymnasium into an air-raid dormitory. Lady Diana Cooper felt "quite secure" spending time "with all that was most distinguished in London society, including members of the government such as Lord Halifax. (64)
The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was very active in London. Phil Piratin, a Communist councillor in Stepney, became an ARP warden. He was also active in converting pre-war East End tenants' associations into Shelter Committees to keep up the battle for deep shelters and to press for better facilities in public surface shelters. As the government did not respond quickly enough members of the CPGB decided to take direct action against The Savoy Hotel had turned its underground banqueting hall as a shelter for its customers. (65)
As the government did not respond quickly enough members of the CPGB decided to take direct action. Piratin decided to lead a party of seventy of the borough's residents to the Savoy to demand access to its shelter. "We decided what was good enough for the Savoy Hotel parasites was reasonably good enough for Stepney workers and their families. We had an idea that the hotel management would not see eye to eye with this so we organised an invasion without their consent." (66)
On 15th September, 1940, about a hundred East Enders, rushed on the hotel after the air-raid sirens sounded and occupied the shelter. However, the protesters were soon removed. (67) The government became worried about public order and one of its junior ministers wrote in his diary: "Everyone is worried about the feeling in the East End... There is much bitterness. It is said that even the King and Queen were booed the other day when they visited the destroyed." (68)
Communist shop-stewards threatened to go on strike if their employers did not provide deep shelters. The CPGB newspaper, The Daily Worker, claimed: "The shelter policy of the government is not just a history of incompetence and neglect, it is a calculated class policy... A determination not to provide protection because profit is placed before human lives... the bankruptcy of the government's shelter policy is plain for all to see... safe in their own luxury shelters the ruling class must be forced to give way." (69)
The News Chronicle, Daily Mail and Evening Standard. also became involved in the campaign to force the government to build more public shelters. The authorities remained opposed and ARP lecturers were instructed to point out the dangers. "What happens if the doors get blocked? asked a warden in the Mile End Road. "Then people won't be able to get up from the bowels of the earth and will just have to remain there with RIP written on top." (70)
The government decided that it did not like deep shelters such as underground tube stations because they feared that once people entered them they would be reluctant to come back above ground and continue normal life. Before the Blitz started, the government ordered London Transport not to allow people to use the tube stations as shelters. Underground station staff found, however, that it was impossible to stop people entering and setting up their own primitive camps below ground. Churchill's private secretary, John Colville, wrote in his diary that although the Prime Minister was happy to use a disused underground station as a refuge himself, he was "thinking on authoritarian lines about shelters and talks about forcibly preventing people from going into the underground." (71)
The public ignored government instructions about using the underground as a public shelter. They were dry, warm, well lit and the raids were inaudible. In October, 1940, Herbert Morrison, was appointed as Home Secretary and he changed government policy. A short branch line to Aldwych station was closed and given over to the public. Three disused stations were specially opened to the public. An uncompleted extension running from Liverpool Street under the East End became one vast shelter holding about ten thousand. Some seventy-nine stations in Greater London became shelters, and by the end of September, 1940, around 177,000 people were sleeping in the Underground system. (72)
Evelyn Rose was one of those who used underground stations but did not enjoy the experience: "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." (73)
Tube stations were not as safe as people believed. A high explosive bomb could penetrate up to fifty feet through solid ground. When a small bomb scored a direct hit on the Marble Arch subway, filled with shelterers, on 17th September, 1940, its blast ripped the white tiles off the walls as it burst and made them deadly projectiles killing twenty people. On 7th October, seven people were killed and thirty-three at Trafalgar Square station when an explosion caused the concrete and steel casing over an escalator to collapse. The next day nineteen were killed and fifty-two injured at Bounds Green station. (74)
The most destructive incident was on 14th October, at Balham station, when a 1400 kg fragmentation bomb fell on the road above the northern end of the platform tunnels, creating a large crater into which a double decker bus then crashed. The northbound platform tunnel partially collapsed and was filled with earth and water from the fractured water mains and sewers above. Although more than 400 managed to escape, 68 people died in the disaster, including the stationmaster, the ticket-office clerk and two porters. Many drowned as water and sewage from burst mains poured in, soon reaching a depth of three feet. (75)
Despite these tragedies people continued to shelter in underground stations. An account in the South London Press described the scene at the Elephant and Castle tube station: "From the platforms to the entrance to the platform was one incumbent mass of humanity.... it took me a quarter of an hour to get from the station entrance to the platform. Even in the darkened booking hall I stumbled over huddled bodies, bodies that were no safer from bombs than if they had lain in the gutters of the silent streets outside. Going down the stairs I saw mothers feeding infants at the breast. Little girls and boys lay across their parents' bodies because there was no room on the winding stairs. Hundreds of men and women were partially undressed, while small boys and girls slumbered in the foetid atmosphere absolutely naked... On the platform, when a train came in, it had to be stopped in a tunnel while police and porters went along pushing in the feet and arms which overhung the line. The sleepers hardly stirred as the train rumbled slowly in." (76)
Queues started to form outside tube stations as early as ten in the morning - only a couple of hours after people had left the underground. There was a thriving black market trade in pitches selling for as much as 2s 6d. The only solution was some form of ticketing. Printed reservation tickets were issued by shelter marshals and wardens appointed by the various local authorities in whose borough the tube stations were located, though roughly 10 per cent of the accommodation was unallocated so people who found themselves in the area in the event of a raid could use it. (77)
Bernard Kops, aged 14 at the time, spent a large amount of time in underground stations in 1940. "We were underground people... The soldiers forced us to get into trains, to go further up the line. Liverpool Street was the closest geographically and umbilically, was the most popular. So we were forced to move on and we tried the next station along the Central Line, and then the next and the next... I would scoot out of the train ahead of the family and under the legs of people... and I bagged any space I could along the platform. The family followed and we pitched our tent, then we unravelled and unwound and relaxed.... Here we were back on the trot wandering again, involved in a new exodus - the Jews of the East End, who had left their homes and gone into the exile of the underground." (78)
In early 1941 local councils were authorised to provide waterborne sanitation in large shelters, including chemical toilets. Changes were made to those underground stations that were closed to trains. The walls were whitewashed, the lighting improved, the track was boarded over and 200 three-tier bunks were installed, improved lavatory facilities replaced the original buckets, and a system of tickets was introduced to provide a bunk or reserved floor space for regular shelterers. Westminster Library donated 2,000 books and educational lectures were arranged to take place on the underground platforms. (79)
Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) gave a series of concerts throughout the winter; there were film shows and Shakespearean plays. The London County Council ran classes on a wide variety of different subjects. People also organised their own entertainment including quizzes and sing-songs. One night the people sheltering at Marble Arch tube station were treated to an impromptu concert by Glenn Miller and his band, who had been practising in a nearby theatre when the air raid siren was sounded. (80)
During the first couple of days of the Blitz some 600 East Enders who had been bombed out of their homes were taken to a temporary rest centre housed in South Hallsville primary school in Canning Town. They were told to wait for buses to take them out of the area. The buses never arrived and on 9th September, 1940, another German raid took place. South Hallsville received a direct hit and the roof caved in, crushing people under slabs of concrete, burying them under layers of bricks. It was later reported that of the 370 people killed that night, the council claimed 73 were in the primary school. The people were buried in a mass grave. However the locals reckoned nearly 200 had died, and believed that more than a hundred still lay incarcerated in the site the authorities concreted over. (81)
In Stepney, four out of ten houses had been destroyed or damaged by 11th November 1940. After six weeks of bombing, some 250,000 people in London had been made homeless. Of these 25,000 were still in the rest centres, and only 7,000 had been rehoused by official action. The authorities requisitioned houses that had been abandoned by the wealthy who had gone to live in the countryside or had fled the country. Attempts to billet East Enders in deserted mansions created unhappiness. It was reported that homeless people from West Ham found it hard to adjust to life in the better-off parts of London. (82)
In February, 1941, it was announced that public shelters were available for 1,400,000 people in the London region, and domestic shelters for 4,500,000. This still left about one Londoner in five "unprotected". In March 1941 it was decided that all the brick surface shelters made without cement should be demolished at Government expense. By the autumn of that year, most of the dampness in the remaining shelters had been countered. (83)
Ellen Wilkinson was made responsible for air raid shelters and was instrumental in the introduction of the Morrison Shelter in March 1941. Named after the Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, the shelters were made of very heavy steel and could be put in the living room and used as a table. One wire side lifted up for people to crawl underneath and get inside. Morrison shelters were fairly large and provided sleeping space for two or three people. This shelter was suitable for flats and houses without gardens. (84)
Four-fifths of all bombs dropped during the Blitz were high explosives. They were made of thin steel to maximise the effect of the blast, and varied greatly in size. Some had a cardboard tube like an organ pipe attached. These emitted an eerie whistling sound as the bomb plunged to earth and were expressly designed to terrify the civilian population. The smallest and most common were the 110lb bombs, There was also the 2,200lb bomb, nicknamed "Hermann" (named after the portly Hermann Goring). Then there was the "Satan" (4,000lb) and the largest bomb dropped on Britain was the "Max" that weighed 5,500lb. (85)
Parachute bombs were very effective. Since they floated down and did not penetrate the ground, the damage they caused was widespread. Designed to smash through modern pre stressed-concrete industrial buildings in residential areas. Philip Ziegler, the author of London at War: 1939-1945 (1995) has pointed out "as soon as one was seen falling, people would begin to move towards it: partly, perhaps, because they mistook the mine for a descending German pilot who needed to be lynched or apprehended; more probably because they wanted the silk of the parachute to make skirts or dresses." (86)
Incendiary bombs were small, but were very dangerous, as they could start fierce fires where they fell unless they were extinguished immediately with sand or water. Thermite magnesium incendiaries were about eighteen inches long and only weighed around two pounds each, so thousands could be carried by a single plane. When ignited by a small impact fuse, the magnesium alloy would burn for ten minutes at a temperature that would melt steel, and metal particles would be thrown as far as fifty feet. (87)
It has been claimed that in the first week of the war over 400,000 pets were destroyed. The RSPCA reported that their ovens "could not burn the bodies fast enough". The Animal Defence League started a scheme for evacuating pets, and other pet owners responded to advertisements in the press, and found that the going rate was roughly ten shillings a week for an average-sized dog. During the Blitz animals were not allowed to enter tube stations or public shelters. This resulted in large number of cats and dogs being put down. (88)
One air raid warden pointed out: "Some families tried to take their dogs with them into shelters, and were heartbroken when we had to insist on turning them out. For childless couples and single people, their dog was often their child. But it could not not be allowed. Apart from hygienic reasons, an animals's reactions to a nearby bomb burst are unpredictable, and it was not safe... Fortunately, the majority of dogs had been evacuated or destroyed, but sometimes one would howl for hours in an empty house, thereby adding considerably to our nervous discomfort." (89)
Some people kept their dogs and claimed that their superior hearing acted as a personalised alert system as they heard enemy aircraft before the sirens wailed. However, inevitably animals were killed in the raids, injured or abandoned, or ran off. By the end of 1940 a feral colony of homeless and dispossessed cats was to be found roaming bomb sites scavenging for food. (90)
People working in munitions factories were not allowed to leave the premises when they heard the air-raid sirens. Muriel Simkin later recalled: "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." (91)
One of the roles of the air raid wardens was to deal with casualties before doctors and nurses arrived. Barbara Nixon later described her reaction to the first air-raid she encountered: "As the blast of air reached me I left my saddle and sailed through the air... The tin hat on my shoulder took the impact, and as I stood up I was mildly surprised to find that I was not hurt in the least... The damage was thirty yards away, but the corner building, which had diverted some of the blast from me, was still standing. At four in the afternoon there would certainly be casualties. Now I would know whether I was going to be of any use as a warden or not, and I wanted to postpone the knowledge. I dared not run... I was not let down lightly... In the middle of the street lay the remains of a baby. It had been blown clean through the window and had burst on striking the roadway. To my intense relief, pitiful and horrible as it was, I was not nauseated, and found a torn piece of curtain in which to wrap it." (92)
A nurse from Hampstead explained what it was like after a bombing raid: "On arrival we were told that there were a number of trapped people and several dead... Demolition Squad asked doctor and me to stand by as they were trying to reach a woman (trapped by legs) in 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... We were then called to a heap of debris where a girl was trapped. While taking a short cut with Anne and Sarah, who 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 girl remained conscious, but was in pain and was very brave. As I came out of the whole 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." (93)
During the war, Father John Groser, the priest-in-charge of Christ Church, Watney Street, in Stepney, became one of the main spokesman for the people suffering from the results of the Blitz. His biographer points out that he "displayed characteristically heroic care for his people and wrote scathingly about the arrangements made for East Enders. In 1940, he broke into an official food store and distributed rations to homeless people and organised buses to take them to safety. He was involved in the creation of a railway arch air-raid shelter in Watney Street." (94)
Ritchie Calder, the author of Carry on London (1941), has pointed out that he Father John Groser often "took the law into his own hands" and carried out a series of illegal acts: "He smashed open a local food depot. He lit a bonfire outside his church and fed the hungry. There wasn't a cabinet minister or an official who would have dared to stand in his way or to challenge this 'illicit' act.... He broke open a block of flats. He put them in. He got hold of furniture by hook or by crook, he got the electricity, gas and water supply turned on, and he brought them food." (95)
Hannen Swaffer arranged for William Maxwell Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, the press baron and member of the War Cabinet to meet Father Groser. "It was a terrible story we told Beaverbrook - how scores of thousands of people were still enduring conditions comparable with those in Flanders. While approximately 100,000 are homeless, or living in wrecked houses, many have to walk over eight miles, from centre to centre, in the vain hope of obtaining relief from their sufferings!" (96)
Father Groser was interviewed by The People newspaper. "He (Groser) had huddled with them through nights of terror under dripping railway arches dimly lit by hurricane lamps, watched the stolid men play draughts together, and the shivering ill-clad women sharing their tea and bread with others less fortunate comforting the aged, the sick, and the poor worried mothers with too many babies." (97)
It has been claimed that Father John Groser led the way in persuading the different churches to work together during the war: "Other clergymen, Anglican and Nonconformist, rose spectacularly to the occasion in the East End, and asserted their leadership in almost uncontrollable conditions. Such practical witness to a humane faith made the divisions between the denominations seem more than ever absurd, and the bombing provoked acts of mutual friendship between the churches which exceeded the hopes of those who had worked for inter-denominational co-operation between the wars: a service in the biggest of all Tube shelters, for instance, in which a Roman Catholic priest, a rabbi, a Nonconformist minister, a Salvationist and the Anglican Bishop of London all took part." (98)
Between 7th September and 13th November 1940, London was the main, almost the exclusive, target of the German raiders - 27,500 high explosive bombs and innumerable incendiaries were dropped. An average of 160 bombers attacked nightly; a figure reduced by bad weather on 2nd November, the only raid-free night of the whole period. The worst night was on 15th October when 410 raiders dropped 538 tons of high explosive bombs, killing 400 people. Throughout this period the authorities made steady but slow progress in defending the civilian population. (99)
The Germans had been working on a new system that would improve the accuracy of its bombing raids. This project, named "Knickebein" involved beams from two radio stations on the Continent that could be arranged to intersect over any target in the midlands or southern England, and would guide bombers "blind" to it. The British learnt of this method and countered it effectively by deflecting or jamming the beams. The Germans revised their methods and "Kampfgruppe" was used as a "pathfinder" force, employing a different radio guide to set a target area on fire with incendiaries so that the rest of the bombers could steer for the flames. The British could also have jammed this device if one British scientist had not made an error of calculation. (100)
On 14th November, 1940, Coventry was the first city attacked with this new method. "The raiders first fired the medieval centre, crowned by its beautiful cathedral, which was gutted. They then poured hundred of tons into the city, in an attack which lasted for ten hours. Approaching one-third of the city's houses were made uninhabitable, over half its buses were damaged or wrecked, and six out of seven telephone lines were put out of action. All the main railway lines passing through the city were blocked. A hundred acres of the city centre were destroyed. Five hundred and fifty-four people were killed, eight hundred and sixty-five seriously wounded." (101)
Coventry was a relatively small and compact town with a population of 213,000 people. One observer reported: "There were more open signs of hysteria, terror, neurosis, observed in one evening than during the whole of the past two months together in all areas. Women were seen to cry, to scream, to tremble all over, to faint in the street, to attack a fireman, and so on... There were several signs of suppressed panic as darkness approached. In two cases people were seen fighting to get on to cars, which they thought would take them out into the country, though in fact, as the drivers insisted, the cars were going just up the road to the garage." (102)
Herbert Morrison, the Home Secretary, Lord Beaverbrook, Minister of Aircraft Production and Ernest Brown, the Minister of Health, visited Coventry the following morning. Local officials complained that there had been no fighter or anti-aircraft defences and that the German planes had been allowed to fly over the city for hour after hour while they systematically destroyed it. Morrison attempted to control the release of information on the raid. The censorship policy was to delay reports of raids for several days and then in general not to release the names of localities bombed in order not to give the Germans information on the results of their raids. (103)
Germany knew that the British government would try to stop the public from discovering details of this raid. William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw) therefore broadcasted the news: "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." (104)
Between September 1940 and May 1941, the Luftwaffe made 127 large-scale night raids. Of these, 71 were targeted on London. Other places bombed included Exeter (19), Liverpool (8), Birmingham (8), Plymouth (8), Bristol (6), Glasgow (5), Southampton (4), Hull (3), Manchester (3) and Portsmouth (3). The first German air raid on Exeter took place on 7th August 1940. A further 18 raids were made against the city over the next 18 months, mostly hit-and-run raids by lone raiders. (105)
Southampton, with a population of 180,000, suffered very badly from air-raids. At first its docks and factories were targeted. On 23rd November, 1940, the German aircraft attacked the city centre with 77 people being killed. A week later, Southampton was "Coventrated". A local man reported: "Every second or two, the town was shaken to its foundations. The air was a whirling frenzy; hot blasts swept the streets... To one who watched from high ground in a suburb, it looked as if "the town had become a blazing furnace in which every living thing seemed doomed to perish." (106)
On 30th November, 1940, Southampton's main telephone exchange was demolished and its water mains were wrecked. The next night, with the fireman, either dead, injured or exhausted, the bombers came back. Firefighters arrived from 75 other districts. It was reported that apart from the ancient Bargate, "the central portion of the town had largely vanished... Nothing remained that was not wilting, wasted or warped... Such walls as remained standing were wet and dripping." A 137 people lost their lives and nearly 250 had been seriously injured in two days bombing. (107)
Cyril Garbett, the Bishop of Winchester, visited the city on 1st December. He found "the people broken in spirit after the sleepless and awful nights. Everyone who can do so is leaving the town... Everywhere I saw men and women carrying suitcases or bundles, the children clutching some precious doll or toy, struggling to get anywhere out of Southampton. For the time, morale has collapsed. I went from parish to parish and everywhere there was fear." (108)
It was several weeks before water and gas supplies were restored. A report at the end of December showed that only a fraction of the population was sleeping in the city. By February, 1941, most facilities were now back to normal, but public transport stopped at seven p.m., and most cinemas, cafes and restaurants which had not been bombed also closed early. The better-off had moved out of Southampton. The attitude of those who stayed on was summed up by one working-class woman who said, "I don't think they will come back, there's nothing to bomb now, is there?" (109)
On the 13th and 14th, February, 1941, Clydebank, had a two-night blitz of classic ferocity. The shelters in the town were either of the infamous brick surface type, or strutted closes, "often no more than the roughly protected entrance passage to a block of crowded, murky tenement dwellings into which the occupants could throng together when the time came." After this raid all but seven of Clydebank's 12,000 houses were damaged, and 35,000 of its 47,000 inhabitants were made homeless. Over the two days 528 civilians were killed and over 617 people were seriously injured. "Its night population dropped to two thousand, as the overwhelmingly working-class population took to the moors." (110)
During the Blitz some two million houses (60 per cent of these in London) were destroyed by 46,000 tons of high explosive and 110,000 incendiary bombs. In the central London area, only one house out of ten escaped damage of some kind. Over 32,000 civilians were killed and 87,000 were seriously injured during the Blitz. 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. (111)
Angus Calder argues that: "The Luftwaffe effected a much overdue programme of slum clearance; after the war, Stepney and Poplar were replanned on the basis of four people living where ten had lived before... Before the war, psychologists had speculated gloomily that bombing would cause an enormous increase in mental disturbances and illnesses; it was even suggested that mental cases might outnumber physical casualties by two or three to one... But the war led to no great increase in neurotic illness in Britain, none, at least, which could be measured in the usual ways. There was no indication of any increase in insanity, and the number of suicides fell, while drunkenness statistics dropped by more than a half between 1939 and 1942." (112)
Between 1939 and 1945 the German air force dropped an estimated 64,393 tons of bombs on Britain, killing 63,635 and injuring approximately 211,000. (This compares to the 264,443 British servicemen and 30,248 merchant seamen who were killed). Around 50% of these casualties came from the period of the Blitz. Overall, air raids on Britain signally failed to live up to pre-war government fears, with each ton of bombs killing or injuring an average of four and a half people. (113)
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 been 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 to 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're 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.
Everyone is worried about the feeling in the East End... There is much bitterness. It is said that even the King and Queen were booed the other day when they visited the destroyed.
Anti-semitism persisted, and was inflamed to some extent when better-off Jews (like better-off Gentiles) bought their way out of London. Fascists still scrawled "This is a Jewish War" on some of the walls which still stood, and anti-semitic feeling in the shelters was always a problem. But what could have been more ludicrous than to smash up Jewish homes when the Luftwaffe was smashing up Jewish homes? What rescue worker asked himself, as he burrowed into a shattered building, whether the girl trapped inside was Gentile, Jewish, or, as was likely enough in Stepney, Indian or Chinese.
Statisticians may amuse themselves by calculating that after making allowance for the working of the law of diminishing returns, through the same house being struck twice or three times over, it would take ten years at the present rate, for half the houses of London to be demolished. After that, of course, progress would be much slower.
In the middle of the street lay the remains of a baby. It had been blown clean through the window and had burst on striking the roadway. To my intense relief, pitiful and horrible as it was, I was not nauseated, and found a torn piece of curtain in which to wrap it.
There was very little absenteeism caused by the raids; in part because we all felt that the raids gave an added importance to our work, but much more because we knew that if we didn't turn up our mates would be worrying. You would see men staggering at their work from lack of sleep, snatching a ten minutes' doze in the canteen over their food, and still, when knocking off time came, going off with a cheerful, "See yer in the morning, boys!"
It become a sort of war cry, a common affirmation of faith pregnant with unstated defiances and resolutions, that phrase. We threw it at each other gaily, but always with the implication very near the surface, "If I don't see yer, it means they'll be digging me out."
It was really extraordinary to see all these people who had spent so much time avoiding each other in the past now giving each other cups of tea or handing over chocolate, which was then unrationed and very scarce. It was the first - and last - time that big block of flats ever came near to having a soul and indivuality of its own.
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. Anne helped to put him into a bed in a basement nearby; he was given hot tea, hot water bottles, and generally treated for shock...
Demolition Squad asked doctor and me to stand by as they were trying to reach a woman (trapped by legs) in 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... We were then called to a heap of debris where a girl was trapped. While taking a short cut with Anne and Sarah, who 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 girl remained conscious, but was in pain and was very brave.
As I came out of the whole 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.
Then came the Blitz.... 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.
Father John Groser, one of the historic figures of the `blitz', took the law into his own hands. He smashed open a local food depot. He lit a bonfire outside his church and fed the hungry. There wasn't a cabinet minister or an official who would have dared to stand in his way or to challenge this `illicit' act. Similarly, in another London borough a local official of the Ministry of Food found a crowd of homeless uncared for. He broke open a block of flats. He put them in. He got hold of furniture by hook or by crook, he got the electricity, gas and water supply turned on, and he brought them food.
Two East End clergymen, Father Groser an Anglo-Catholic, and the Rev. W. W. Paton, a Presbyterian, had spent over three weeks seeking a solution of a vast area's air-raid problems. They were almost in despair.
When I was with them yesterday I met Lord Beaverbrook, and introduced them, so that, as a member of the War Cabinet he should hear the truth.
It was a terrible story we told Beaverbrook - how scores of thousands of people were still enduring conditions comparable with those in Flanders.
While approximately 100,000 are homeless, or living in wrecked houses, many have to walk over eight miles, from centre to centre, in the vain hope of obtaining relief from their sufferings!
Streets of happy homes, where men smoked, women gossiped and kids played tag with ear-splitting whoops are but silent deserts of rubble and seas of broken glass.
But I found he (Father Groser) was right, for though a bomb can shatter an East End home it cannot affect an East End heart. For despite all the squalor, misery and anxiety of the lives, his people have not and will not lose faith.
Not for riches, honour or glory do they strive, but for that liberty no good man would consent to lose but with his life...
"Good help the man who lets them down," said Father Groser and I know now what he meant. He knows that people and the wounds they have to bear..
He had huddled with them through nights of terror under dripping railway arches dimly lit by hurricane lamps, watched the stolid men play draughts together, and the shivering ill-clad women sharing their tea and bread with others less fortunate comforting the aged, the sick, and the poor worried mothers with too many babies.
There were more open signs of hysteria, terror, neurosis, observed in one evening than during the whole of the past two months together in all areas. Women were seen to cry, to scream, to tremble all over, to faint in the street, to attack a fireman, and so on... There were several signs of suppressed panic as darkness approached. In two cases people were seen fighting to get on to cars, which they thought would take them out into the country, though in fact, as the drivers insisted, the cars were going just up the road to the garage.
General Morale: Very unsteady. This has been a week of gruesome rumours which were briefly as follows - (1) Train loads of unidentified corpses have been sent from Merseyside for mass cremation. (2) Martial law has had to be put in operation in several heavily raided industrial areas. (3) Homeless and hungry people have marched around in bombed areas, carrying white flags and howling protests. (4) Food riots are taking place.
When they heard distant gunfire, they would sit up in bed and whimper like puppies. One little girl had gone completely dumb through terror, and another small child I knew went as stiff as a ramrod every time she heard the sirens. Her face turned scarlet, and she opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came.
My missus was just making me a cup of tea for when I come home. She was in the passage between the kitchen and the washhouse, when it killed her. She was burnt right up to her waist. Her legs were just two cinders. And her face was gone – the only thing I could recognize her by was one of her boots… We used to read together. I can't read myself. She used to read to me like. We had our armchairs on either side of the fire, and she read me bits out of the paper. We had a paper every evening. Every evening.
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. (pages 92-93)
Sleep replaced food as the simplest, most everyday, object of desire. Whenever he (the air raid warden) had anything over half an hour to spare during the day, he had not the slightest doubt as to what to do with the time. He slept. (page 44)
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.