"The Battle of London 1939-45" by Jerry White (published by Vintage)

Fear and fortitude under bombardment

In the almost six years of war with Germany, September 3, 1939 to May 8, 1945, London was "the greatest target in the world”, as Winston Churchill described it. The unmissable bullseye was under sustained, sometimes unrelenting, aerial bombardment by night and day. While the agony was not continuous, in the two periods from September 1940 to May 1941 and from December 1943 to March 1945, the British nation suffered intermittent sacrifice, deprivation, disruption and anxiety, author Jerry White recounts.
6. August 2023 7:04

Throughout the Second World War, Emeritus Professor White writes, London was the nation’s front line, home in 1939 to more than one in five of the population of England and Wales, and these unfortunates bore the brunt of the misery. By spring 1945 half of Britain’s civilian war dead had been Londoners, almost 30,000 victims.

White recounts their endurance, bravery and frailty in the face of this intense savagery, his fulsome account looking at the impact of blitzkreig bombing, lockdown, blackouts, evacuation, rationing and looting, alongside many acts of individual and community heroism.

Older Londoners had experienced the Zeppelin and biplane raids of the First World War, putting citizens in the firing line for the first time. The arduous task of readying the country for civilian defence against another possible air war had been examined by a committee as early as 1924, and Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in 1933 heightened the urgency.

The huge task of actually preparing the capital began in earnest in September 1938 after Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s three visits to Germany in an attempt to avert conflict. The resulting Munich Agreement removed the imminent threat, while allowing Hitler to annexe parts of Czechoslovakia, and Chamberlain said this promised “peace for our time”.

Nonetheless, plans began to be implemented behind the scenes to coordinate the defence of Britain should it be attacked from the air. The nation moved rapidly and publicly, and in London, population 8.72 million, hundreds of thousands of gas masks were distributed, sandbags were filled and trenches were dug in public parks. No open space was too sacred for desecration.

Householders were urged to make gas-proof rooms and there was a call for Air Raid Precautions (ARP) volunteers: wardens, first-aid attendants, stretcher-bearers and rescue parties. Chamberlain’s optimism was indeed short-lived, as Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939, just six months after the shabby capitulation of Munich, and then Britain went to war over the Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939.

The 11 months between Munich and the declaration of war offered some sort of a breathing space but it was not enough, and mass evacuation of children and hospitals began, plus mothers if the youngsters were less than five years old, also teachers and helpers, pregnant women, blind persons, cripples and others.

In this strange atmosphere, the blackout caused a dungeon darkness, a German submarine blockade of merchant shipping resulted in shortages of imported food and rationing,  houses, shops and offices were boarded up, and some cinemas, theatres and music halls closed. It was a bitter winter and many people had flu in the deep freeze.

The most notable exodus of Londoners was from middle-class and better districts, but initially it was what was known as the “Phoney War”. Then Hitler’s lightning strike at Luxembourg, Belgium, Holland and France from May 1940 brought the war dramatically closer to London. Refugees began to arrive, not always welcomed but in a way they brought London back to life again, adding new colour and gaity in the quiet streets as they filled flats and homes left vacant.

The first bombs fell on Greater London in June 1940 and central London was hit for the first time in August. Londoners began to get a taste of death and injury. Still, for the moment, the fear of bombing, which people had lived with for so long, was worse than the realities. The casualties were not so enormous, the damage not so immense, the disruption not so insuperable as expected, but there would be many long trials ahead.

“Black Saturday”, September 7, 1940 was the first day of the “Big Blitz”, hundreds of German bombers and fighters smashing the London docks and flour mills, gas works, rum warehouses, sugar refineries, chemical factories, West Ham power station and jerry-built Victorian terraces.

Nerves were shaken and old wounds of class hostility were widened as it was perceived that the working class of the densely-populated East End suffered more in their multi-occupied houses than an indifferent West End. George Orwell spoke of “rich swine” bolting to the country in cars laden with luggage while leaving their mansions locked and barred. But eventually all London was hit, and disasters such as the carnage at the crowded Café de Paris nightclub beside Leicester Square was very much a West End tragedy.

Many of the underground stations or basements of buildings that Londoners used as shelters were in a filthy condition. People also had to take their valuables with them, and dead bodies or destroyed properties might be robbed. The author recounts how after a bomb strike on Bank tube station in 1941, the headless corpse of a woman was found with 950 £1 notes concealed inside her corsets, a small fortune.

Food was expensive and difficult to come by, and resulted in the cultivation of gardens and allotments. Some families kept hens, ducks, pigs, rabbits and goats for meat and milk. White points to unscrupulous shopkeepers who charged extra for goods and took advantage of shortages and rationing; “no oranges without apples”, for instance.

Books on the Blitz are plentiful, as any trading website can show, and White does not offer the usual “previously unseen documents”, “new interviews”, “recently discovered archives, letters and records” and so on that such historical reruns normally advertise when they update an oft-told tale.

Rather, White lists a lengthy 17 pages of bibliography from which he has drawn his chronicle. His archive sources include the Imperial War Museum, the National Archive, the Bodleian Library and four other archives, some three dozen newspapers and periodicals, and dozens of other published sources. Only two unpublished sources are given.

Perhaps not a great deal is added to the story of the London Blitz, then, but on the other hand it would seem certain that very little has been left out of what is an extremely comprehensive summary of the misery rained down by Hitler’s cruel German bombers. Of note is that, alongside the statistics, the author’s emphasis is on the daily lives of ordinary Londoners, and his rather drawn-out book is often told through their own voices, with anecdotes and remembrances aplenty.

PostscriptEach description of a high-explosive bomb, V-1 “doodlebug” flying bomb or V-2 rocket landing in a civilian area of London and blowing apart people’s bodies and houses, courtesy the murderous Hitler, reminds us of today, Ukraine and the vicious killer Putin.

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