The London Blitz - Terrifying five years of death and horror every day and night - could we cope with this today?
The howling rise and fall of the air-raid sirens shocked everyone awake for the second time that day only on this occasion it was during the night. The darkness only emphasized the blood red sky-line as the London docks continued to burn, punctuated by massive explosions as the Nazi bombs found new targets. The weary mother gathered up her children, still grimy from the last raid, and like some fussing mother hen guided them through the wet rubble strewn streets to the sanctuary of the nearby London underground station. The very youngest child started to grizzle, not through fear, but sheer tiredness and his older sister re-assured him as they walked hand in hand silhouetted against the burning buildings and spiralling smoke. Together the family and hundreds like them descended into the temporary safety of the deep underground and settled into their favourite spot on the platform wrapped in blankets and quickly fell into an exhausted sleep oblivious to the sound of bombing above them. In the early hours of the morning the all-clear siren sounded and bleary eyed everyone made their way to the surface to be greeted by yet more destruction and death.
This was how it was for hundreds of thousands of Londoners sometimes several times a day, day in day out for weeks and months. Each had to call on their reserves of stoicism, to do otherwise would push you to the edge of madness and indeed some did suffer that way. All you could do was to gather up your family and pick your way through the new destruction, ignore the dead covered in respect and awaiting collection and head back to where you hoped your house was still standing. Close knit communities, particularly in south and east London would rally round, for the newly homeless there would always be the offer of a room, a little food here, some warm clothing there, a kind word and always a cup of tea. The war didn’t stop everyday activity, where possible the post was collected and delivered, the milkman’s cheery whistle as he picked his way over the rubble. The streets were cleared of fallen buildings as quickly as possible, swept and the buses ran to take you to where you hoped your work still existed. Most houses didn’t have telephones and boxes didn’t work usually. Shops, even if damaged, would still find a way to stay open as would your favourite pub.
For the latter part of 1939 Britain, on the home-front, the war was referred to as the “phoney war” and it was only in July 1940 that the Nazis decided that with the Royal Navy too strong, before considering invasion, they needed to destroy the RAF. On July 1940 the first waves of the Luftwaffe struck at RAF fighter stations causing considerable damage with heavy bombing. The story of the “Battle of Britain” is well documented and after a slow start, the Luftwaffe was soundly thrashed and soon dropped the idea of putting the RAF out of action. Hitler was furious, Riechmarshall Hermann Goring had promised him he would destroy the RAF and leave the way open for invasion.
Around the middle of August the German bombers began to hit softer civilian targets and the docks in both London and other major cities in Britain. On the 7th September 1940 London was targeted in earnest, in the afternoon, by 364 bombers protected by 515 fighters and again that night by a further 133 bombers. The bombing was every day for nearly 3 months and on this first day alone more than 300 tonnes of bombs were dropped, 436 Londoners were been killed and 1,666 were injured.
This was the start of the period of the war known as “The London Blitz” (Blitzkrieg - lightening war) which lasted from 7th September 1940 until 10th May 1941. It was Britain’s darkest hour and into the breach stepped Winston Churchill, the man who was to eventually lead us to victory. Churchill, appalled at the damage and loss of life in the east-end of London and other cities, ordered a heavy bombing raid, in retaliation, on Berlin. Although it inflicted only a medium amount of damage on the German capital, Hitler was incandescent with rage as he had promised the German people that not one bomb would ever fall on German soil and psychologically it had an enormous effect.
At the start of the Blitz, London was inadequately defended and a corridor existed along the Thames estuary right into the heart of the city with little ground defences at all. Few of the 92 available anti-aircraft guns had fire-control systems, and the searchlights were underpowered and usually ineffective against high altitude aircraft. General Sir Frederick Pile, the Commander-in-Chief of Anti-Aircraft Command, quickly uprated the defences and by 11 September twice as many guns were available, with orders to fire at will. Whilst visually impressive and boosting civilian morale it had little effect on the raiders, other than to encouraging them to jettison their bombs before they were over their target. In November 1940, the cruiser HMS Arethusa, that had been refitting at Sheerness following arduous service in the Norwegian Campaign and covering the evacuations from France was moved close to Tower Bridge to add her impressive anti-aircraft armament of eight four inch guns plus smaller calibre two pounder ‘pom poms’ to the nightly barrage against the Luftwaffe. The RAF did sterling work but each raid of several hundred bombers was accompanied by hundreds of fighters which the Hurricanes and Spitfires had to deal with before they could reach the bombers. As far as the night raids were concerned Britain was initially short of night fighters and radar sets. It wasn’t until July 1941 that a series of anti-aircraft forts were built in the Thames estuary to rectify this shortcoming, but by then the Blitz was over.
By the end of the Blitz period around 20,000 people had been killed in London and a similar amount elsewhere. More than a million houses had been destroyed in London and irreplaceable historical monuments flattened. Hitler’s intention was to bomb London into oblivion and destroy the population’s morale. He may have partly achieved his first intention but he didn’t come close to breaking the British spirit, all he did was to harden our resolve.
Much of the damage was due, not so much to the 40,000 high explosive bombs but to the millions of incendiaries which in the dockland areas particularly created “firestorms”. Just a word of explanation here - a “firestorm” is created when the centre core of the fire is so fierce it consumes all of the available oxygen and as a consequence sucks in massive amounts of oxygen from the surrounding area. By doing this massively powerful winds are created and everything else is sucked into the fire, consumable materials, buildings, people, vehicles etc. In order to encourage this Nazi aircraft would often attach drums of flammable liquid to the bomb clusters. The worst night for fire bombing was 29th December 1940, when everything was concentrated on the City of London.
At the start of the war the authorities did not want the civilian population to use the underground stations as air-raid shelters but the actual public air-raid shelter facilities were so inadequate and incomplete that they relented and started to provide facilities for the public. Toilets, washing facilities and basic wooden bunk beds were built on station platforms to improve comfort and hygiene. In the disused tunnels power was turned off to the rails and lighting provided together with more wooden bunk beds. The problem of feeding thousands of people underground was solved by running “Refreshment Special” tube trains each night that would provide basic food and tea to those staying overnight on the platforms, who had not brought their own. Altogether a relatively safe underground world was created away from the death and destruction above and while undoubtedly saving thousands of lives there were, nonetheless, casualties from the bombing.
Marble Arch station in September 1940. While taking shelter 20 civilians were killed by a direct bomb blast.
Balham station, Wandsworth, in October 1940. A fragmentation bomb exploded at street level creating a large crater. A bus subsequently crashed into it, fracturing a water pipe. Water and debris flooded the station causing the deaths of 111 people and numerous injuries. Some of the dead were thrown into the path of an incoming train by the blast.
Bank station in January 1941. A bomb hit the ticket office of the underground station, killing 56 people, and injuring 69. The damage was quite considerable and the station was forced to close for two months with a bridge built over the crater to allow traffic to use the road.
Later in the war in 1943 The Bethnal Green tube disaster happened not as the result of mass panic (as was the official version) but was caused when a new anti-aircraft rocket battery was fired next to the station. This resulted in a woman and child tripping at the bottom of the stairs and the people queuing behind to fall over them and thus others to fall down a long flight of rough wet stairs. 173 were killed
There was another option, not well publicised, called “Mickey’s”. It was quite notorious and revolved around taking over suitable underground places without permission. They started with the underground vaults of the Fruit and Wool Exchange in Brushfield Street which could take about 5,000 people. In the event some 10,000 crammed in there, with no facilities, leaving the place disgustingly filthy the following morning. The venue was eventually recognised and the authorities installed toilets. Initially it was hardly regulated and attracted the worst of society and criminal elements. Each night it was the site of uncontrolled fighting, sex, music and a surprising amount of laughter. The person elected to control this system was Mickey Davis a dwarf optician who eventually cleaned up the shelter introducing cleaning rotas, first aid and separate facilities for men and women.
For those living outside of central London there were less public air-raid shelters within easy reach, even though the Nazi aircraft had a tendency to drop their entire bomb loads and scarper back home, immediately they were confronted by the RAF or heavy accurate anti-aircraft fire. The people who lived in these areas relied mostly on Anderson shelters (built in the garden from corrugated iron sheets covered in earth) or indoor Morrison shelters (steel framed heavy wire which could double as a table).
In central London eight deep shelters were eventually completed, measuring 80ft to 150ft under the ground. Each of them could hold some 8,000 people but none of them was ready until the end of 1942, long after the Blitz had started, and thousands of British citizens died because the Government were slow to prepare for war.
The Fire service had an unenviable job and faced fires and damage on a previously unprecedented scale. In 1940 the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) was established composed of volunteer men and women who were equipped with trailer pumps and pressed cars and taxis into service to tow them to the scene of a fire. The AFS, various regional and town services were amalgamated together later into what became known as the National Fire Service and previously polished red appliances were repainted light grey with just the letters NFS.
In London there were nine fire boat stations with three pre-war fire boats in service, an additional 20 fire boats and 4 fire barges were quickly built. The boats were fitted with powerful pumping equipment which could provide up to 14,000 gallons of water a minute. The Brigade’s most noted boat is the Massey Shaw, built in 1935, and prior to the Blitz played an important role in the evacuation of Dunkirk rescuing some 500 troops. These fire boats played an absolutely essential role in dealing with the dock fires.
During raids using incendiary bombs there could be hundreds of small fires that could grow into something more major if untreated. The NFS couldn’t reach all of them so civilian street fire groups were set up using little more than buckets and stirrup pumps. These groups also included what were termed as “fire watchers” who would report on the exact location of small fires so they could be dealt with quickly. These intrepid bands of civilians saved many buildings including St Pauls that was hit many times by incendiary bombs.
Necessity being the mother of invention all sorts of home-made equipment joined the fight against fires. A new fire appliance emerged during this time: the “Soap Box Fire Engine”. These unusual vehicles were constructed mainly out of cardboard boxes and wood, mounted on baby buggy wheels. They held hand pumps, sand bags and water buckets and allowed this essential equipment to be moved easily to small fires.
London ambulances were more often than not driven by women who took tremendous risks and showed extreme bravery to help those injured. They would not wait until the air-raid was over but at first sound of the siren would head towards the area being bombed. They are reported as saying “They don’t need us hours after the event but on the spot as the victims are pulled from the rubble to get them to hospital”. In total, 36 Ambulance Service crew in London lost their lives during the Blitz. A further 121 members of staff were seriously injured but they managed to transport 30,000 casualties of air raids to hospital. Three George medals and nine British Empire medals were awarded to London Ambulance staff for heroism during the war.
As war was announced in 1939, the heavy doors of the country's prisons opened and released any inmate with less than three months left to serve and all the Borstal boys who had completed six months. Many of these were hardened criminals who had no intention of serving King and country but saw a golden opportunity to use the war as cover for their criminal activities. Many young men instead of joining the police force instead chose to join the armed forces which obviously would soon lead to a weakened police force, as indeed it did. The professional criminal gangs were not slow to take advantage of this lack of manpower and of the terrible events going on around them. Soon London was facing major ration coupon thefts, crooks impersonating ARP wardens and breaking into shops or looting damaged shops or homes. In the first two months of the Blitz a total of 390 cases of looting in London were reported and on 9th November 1940 the first 20 cases were tried at The Old Bailey. Although the prescribed punishment for looting was hanging, the courts, initially handed out rather lenient sentences of 5 to 8 years hard labour. The more despicable thieves would stoop as low as robbing corpses from the bombing. Teenage “blackout gangs” became a common problem (not too dissimilar to today).
Unscrupulous people would commit fraud by claiming the prescribed £500 for loss of their house and £50 for furniture and £20 for clothes. Destruction was so widespread that claims were often met with few or no checks. One man, Walter Handy, was found guilty of making 19 false claims and sent to prison for 3 years. Another fraud was claiming for non-existent evacuees which amounted to 10shillings and 6pence per week for the first and 8shillings and 6pence each for any subsequent children. In some cases claims continued to be made after the child had returned or claims were made for phantom children. The terrible death toll from the bombing provided an ideal cover for a murderer who would dispose of the body in the rubble of a recently bombed building. The number of real victims was so great that bodies were buried quickly usually with no post-mortem. The total number of murders in England and Wales rose from 115 in 1940 to a peak of 141 in 1945.
The police were not only restricted by lack of manpower but even the police cars and motor cycles suffered from petrol rationing the same as everyone else. High speed pursuits were pretty much out of the question due to the blackout and damaged streets.
Prostitution became widespread and the “Piccadilly commandoes”, as they were nicknamed centred their trade on Soho and provided their services to the many thousand soldiers waiting to go to war.
The British Red Cross
The much respected British Red Cross had a crucial role in supporting the emergency services and thousands of their volunteers were trained in how to provide first aid. In 1939, 140 of their volunteers became instructors on air raid precautions and they taught civilians in their communities what to do if their town was attacked by gas, high explosives, or incendiary bombs. During the Blitz volunteers set up first aid posts, organised games for children and helped run bomb shelters and sick bays for evacuees. They also set up temporary homes for elderly people who had become homeless. Their first aid posts and mobile first aid units, helped free up the ambulance services to treat the most serious cases and volunteers also acted as stretcher bearers and carried out first aid on people pulled from the rubble.
Gifts came from almost all parts of the world and more than half of the gifts in kind from overseas was made by or donated through the American Red Cross. In addition they received considerable donations of hospital supplies from America.
However, medical posts were bombed and volunteers were killed while on duty. In the first six weeks of the Blitz, 19 Red Cross volunteers were killed and 14 injured in bomb attacks. In the following year, 21 volunteers were killed and 14 injured.
St Johns Ambulance
In addition to the British Red Cross, St. Johns operated an ambulance service and mobile first aid units. They joined forces under the name of JWO (Joint War Organisation). Their trained people worked with those sheltering in the London Underground and supervising the food trains.
Together with the British Red Cross, the Salvation Army worked to improve the facilities in air raid shelters and the London Underground. This was in addition to their usual work of helping the homeless and food and clothing for those who had none. They also helped to find those who had gone missing in the raids.
During the worst raids the death toll was so great that rescue workers could only lay out the bodies, under blankets, in a quiet street, until they could be collected and taken to the mortuary. The A.R.P. had the unenviable job of checking and cleaning bodies to allow for identification of those who had been killed in great numbers, in the bombing and taken to swimming pools, used as temporary morgues. The authorities had prepared for an even greater death toll and prepared 600,000 papier-mâché coffins in halls and swimming pools that had been requisitioned as emergency mortuaries.
The Scout Association guided fire engines to where they were most needed, and became known as the "Blitz Scouts". They also assisted in all forms of civil defence, acting as police messengers, stretcher bearers, fire fighting and locating and rescuing victims from the rubble.
The WVS (Women's Voluntary Services for Civil Defence) was set up under the direction of Samuel Hoare, Home Secretary in 1938 specifically to cope with air raids. Hoare considered them to be the female branch of the ARP. They organised the evacuation of children, established centres for those left homeless by bombing, operated canteens, salvage and recycling schemes. By the end of 1941, it had one million members and they had been responsible for the distribution of 50 million Gas Masks. Records show that after providing on the spot refreshment to the rescue groups and fire-fighters, after each raid they then went on to provide assistance to some 10,000 civilians each night. They always worked in the thick of it and by the end of the war sadly 241 WVS had been killed.
The Home Guard (Dads Army) Originally known as the Local Defence Volunteers and made up of able bodied older men or others in reserved occupations. Their weapons initially were little more than shotguns and WW1 relics, even clubs or farm implements. They generally assisted in all air-raid work and arresting German air crew that had bailed out. The Home Guard provided an essential service in the defence of the country and released many full time troops to carry out the offensive fighting. In addition there were various sections that carried out covert work using older personnel with previous military experience.
The Royal Army Pay Corp.
This comprised mainly of the unemployed and those able bodied but unfit for first line army duty. Their primary task was salvage and keeping the streets clear. They worked together with the Pioneer Corps.
Although subject to some ridicule and distaste, many COs carried out important work as ambulance crew, first aiders and hospital orderlies. Far from being cowards they often worked in the most dangerous conditions.
Of course we must not forget the contribution from such essential workers as post men and women, bus/tram/train drivers and conductors, milkmen, bakers and many others who kept the capital fed, clothed and working.
The most devastating raid of the Blitz occurred on the evening of 29th December 1940 when the City of London was attacked with incendiaries and high-explosive bombs. This resulted in a firestorm that has been called the Second Great Fire of London. Some 1500 fires were started, including three major conflagrations. The largest continuous area of Blitz destruction anywhere in Britain stretched south from Islington to St Paul's Churchyard. St Paul's Cathedral itself was saved by the dedication of the London firemen who kept the fire away from the Cathedral and the volunteer firewatchers who fought to keep the flames from firebombs on its roof from spreading to the building itself. On the night of 29th December 1940, the night of the 'Second Great Fire of London,' Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris, had stood on the roof of the Air Ministry with the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal and had said quietly to him "They are sowing the wind, now they shall reap the whirlwind." These words were to echo in the great German cities of Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt and Dresden.
The last major attack on London was on 10th May 1940 when 515 bombers destroyed or damaged many important buildings, including the British Museum, the Houses of Parliament and St. James's Palace. Material damage aside the raid caused more casualties than any other: with 1,364 killed and 1,616 seriously injured. Six days later 111 bombers attacked Birmingham; this was the last major air raid on a British city for about 18 months.
The main targets in London were the dockyards, the destruction of which was intended to prevent shipments of essential war supplies getting through to our factories. London’s docks are predominantly located in the east end and just south of the river. Both are areas of high population and high density old housing together with extensive warehousing and railway marshalling yards. As a measure of the importance the Nazis placed on this target some 25,000 bombs were dropped.
The first night more than one thousand bombs were dropped on Surry Commercial Docks and its timber ponds, Woolwich Arsenal and Beckton gasworks. The bombing of the docks continued throughout the Blitz and Surrey Commercial Docks suffered a fire storm in September 1940. The heat and winds generated were so intense that windows in buildings some distance away shattered and even ships on the other side of the river had their paintwork blistered. Before all the fires could be finally extinguished a third of all sheds and warehouses plus their goods had been destroyed and the fires had covered an area of 250 acres needing 300 fire engines from as far away as Bristol to deal with it. As a dock specialising in timber, fire was its greatest enemy and in the morning light much was just a smouldering waste land with sunken ships and twisted steelwork. As devastating as the material damage was there was a terrible waste of life with charred bodies lying in the debris. In addition to timber the dock also handled spices and smoke contained particles of pepper and others which stung the eyes and burned the lungs of the firemen.
One of the terrible incidents of this time occurred at South Hallsville School, in Canning Town. Several hundred people left homeless by the bombing had gathered at the school to await evacuation to safety. The school suffered a direct bomb hit and 73 people, mostly women and children, lay dead.
The incessant bombing continued into the raw winter of 1940. One of the heaviest air raids came on 8/9th December when a raid by 400 bombers killed 250 and injured more than 600. Many fires were started by over 3000 incendiaries and 1700 fires started. There was damage to Westminster Abbey, the Port of London Authority Building and the Royal Naval College.
The Blitz against London lasted until May 1941 as in that month the treacherous pairs Stalin and Hitler declared war on each other and Hitler, tiring of his lack of success in London, needed the Luftwaffe to open the Eastern front.
The final night of the Blitz on 10th May 1941 was the worst with more than 500 aircraft dropping over 786 tons of high explosives and incendiaries. The casualties of the raid were 1436 people killed and 1800 seriously injured. 5500 houses were destroyed and over 12,000 homes were damaged and many commercial premises destroyed.
Although the Blitz was officially over the bombing did not cease and consequently neither did the damage or the dying. Many families were homeless or had little or no facilities and to help, the authorities set up mobile laundry services which travelled to the worst affected areas and, of course the WVS helped with food and clothes.
The government had not expected the level of home destruction that would be caused by the Blitz. At first, provisions were hopeless leaving the majority of people dependent on relatives or friends for shelter when their homes were bombed. The authorities rest centres could not initially cope with the numbers, although the situation did gradually improve. There were few workmen available to do repairs, so workers were drafted in from the services and other regions. By August 1941 over 1.1 million houses had been made weather proof and just about habitable again. People were forced to live in temporary Nissen huts in areas where the old run-down houses had been destroyed. These Nissen huts and the prefabs that followed proved to be very popular as they were better equipped and more comfortable than the old terraced houses.
The 'Little Blitz'
In June 1944 what became known as the 'Little Blitz' began. During the last year of the war Hitler's V1 and V2 rockets presented a new threat to Londoners. During the 'Little Blitz' 9238 people were killed by rockets and flying bombs. That was almost half the number killed in the 'Great Blitz' of 1940-41. To explain fully will require another article.
Does this article explain the true horror of the event?
Awesome Thames Forts
- Awesome Thames Forts
In 1941 Britain stood alone against the ruthless Nazi war machine and was ill prepared to fight a major world war following the mauling at Dunkirk. London became the target of nightly bombing raids which used the River Thames to navigate to the heart
Gravesend Airfield and WW2 fighter station
- Gravesend Airfield and WW2 fighter base
In 1933 a tiny provincial airport was built at Gravesend. It grew gradually until WW2 was declared when it expanded rapidly into a front line fighter station. It was the home for many nationalities that flew as RAF.
The Russian Arctic Convoys
- The Russian Arctic Convoys
Following the treacherous invasion of Russia by the Nazis, convoys of vital goods were set up through some of the most dangerous waters in the world. Many ships and men were lost.
Operation Jubilee - Dieppe 1942
- Operation Jubilee: Dieppe 1942 - Canadian Landings.
In August 1942 a major assault was undertaken by a primarily Canadian force against the German defences at Dieppe. It was an unmitigated failure with a huge loss of life.
Tunnels and underground sites
- Tunnels and underground sites in and around Gravesend from pre-Roman times to date.
Gravesend is an area full of tunnels and deep caverns. The reason is smugglers tunnels, very deep Dene Holes, under river tunnel, air raid shelter tunnels, secret underground sabotage hide outs and underground nuclear bunkers.
Peace, refugee and hell ships
- Peace ships, Refugee carriers and Ships that died of shame.
This article looks at peace ships, transport for refugees of war or oppression and those used in both the European and Pacific theatre to transport prisoners and slaves during WW2
SS Richard Montgomery - massive explosion waiting to happen
- SS Richard Montgomery - Massive explosion waiting to happen
In 1944 the American Liberty ship Richard Montgomery ran aground, broke in half and sank while still containing between 1400 to 3600 tons of high explosives. Nearly 68 years later she still sits on the bottom only a mile from the town of Sheerness.
Great British fishermen - Feeding the nation WW2
- The great fishermen of Britain - Feeding the nation during WW2
With the Nazi U-boats strangling the food supply to a battered Britain, the supply of fish was absolutely essential, but many of the fishing boats had been requisitioned for use as minesweepers.
Were you taught anything about the London Blitz at school ?
© 2013 Peter Geekie