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Part 1: 1. Approach to the Battle || 2. The thing happens || 3. The Battle of the Flames | | 4. The fight for human life
Part 2: 5. That the City might live | | 6. The Man In the Street | | 7. The Londoner's Home | | 8: A Borough in the Blitz.| | 9: The Front Widens
Part 3: 10: The Attack on the Arms Towns | | 11: The Attack on the Ports.
Part 4: 12. The Countryman's Blitz | | 13. Seaside Tip and Run. | | 14. The Plan of Battle
Part 5: 15. The Front Line Troops || 16. The Achievement of the Many.
P R E F A C E
"Front Line" is a tale of individual effort and performance, and to omit every personal name was a hard decision. But where tens of thousands are known to have done brave deeds, and ten times more did deeds as brave, but unmarked and unrecorded, choice was impossible. Those- whose deeds and stories are recounted in these pages speak now, as then they acted, not for them- selves but for Britain.
What follows is a narrative of action, not an account of organisation. It tells of the fall of bombs and of what was done about them by the men and women on the ground. It says nothing of administration, national or local, except the little that is necessary to explain the deeds of those in the field of conflict who coped directly with raids and their after-effects.
The Ministry of Home Security, in preparing the story, enjoyed the help of many other Government Departments which deal with civil defence. Foremost among these was the Ministry of Health, whose concern with the subject is especially wide. Valuable assistance was also given by the Ministry of Works and Planning, the General Post Office, the Scottish Office, the Northern Ireland Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, the Ministry of Food, the Ministry of War Transport and the Assistance Board. Grateful acknowledgment is made to each of them, and also to the Electricity Commission, the London Gas Centre, and the- Metropolitan Water Board.
The Approach to the Battle
The first bomb fell upon Hoy in the Orkneys on 17th October, 1939. The first civilian was killed at Bridge of Waith, Orkney, on 16th March, 1940, a half-year after the outbreak. The first bombs on the mainland of Britain for 22 years fell near Canterbury on the night of 9th May. On 24th May, the first industrial town was attacked - Middlesbrough. The first bombs on the London area hit plough-land at Addington in Surrey on 18th June.
This was on the night after the day of the French surrender, and the German Air Force gave quick token of its next intentions by sending night bombers over Britain in some numbers. Strategists call the movements and field preparations leading up to a battle the approach. The 18th June opened the Approach to the Battle of Britain. From that day until 8th August, the Luftwaffe reorganised after its continental exertions, prepared its newly won bases, and gave its heavy bomber squadrons practice in the neglected arts of night navigation. It reconnoitred British coasts as far round as the Bristol Channel, and smelt out by night what was later to be its northerly rat-run across Bristol and up the Welsh border to Merseyside. There were night attacks on various towns, no doubt for practice, and also some rather ineffective raids on aerodromes. The first daylight attacks were on 1st July at Wick and Hull. As the weeks went on reconnaissance of ports and aerodromes increased. These flying visits were often made in force, and Dover had three sharp bombing attacks in the last days. of the month: after this there were no more daylight attacks until the Battle of Britain.
Three hundred civilians were killed in this approach phase. The civil defence services, long trained and not yet tried, were finding their feet, making some remarkable reports on the dropping of sinister white powders by enemy planes,and the attraction exerted from the beach, by a derelict magnetic mine exploded there, on potatoes, which were "drawn towards the crater over the brow of a hill 90 yards distant".
Wardens inviting the public to take shelter on the warning were sometimes answered disrespectfully. The British did not yet quite know themselves as citizen warriors, and there was a certain amount of concern - though on no particular evidence-- about the possibilities of panic, "especially among women workers in factories." Few would then have thought it possible that some weeks later a bomb falling directly on a warehouse above the largest shelter in London, and driving dust and debris down upon thousands of the poorest and most mixed of the capital's population, would cause no panic at all.
Until after the war no one will be able to say for certain what the enemy's mind was at this time. He gave every outward sign of working up to all-out air assault as a preliminary to invasion. On 19th july Hitler delivered his "last appeal to reason" and his planes dropped it here and there about the countryside. He did not, however, neglect to prepare for the delivery of other arguments that may have seemed to him still more cogent. Meanwhile the British sold copies of his leaflets to one another for the benefit of the Red Cross.
The Battle of Britain began over the sea on 8th August, over land on 10th August. The first bombing attacks made on ports in substantial force were both costly and unproductive. On 12th August the enemy turned his attack to the southern aero- dromes, with some later attention to ports and aircraft factories, and began those sallies towards London that culminated on 7th September.
The story of the month in the air has been told and is known. Ground activities were little more than the shadowy image of events above. Noise filled the whole expanse of sky above the Kentish fields - the vibrating hum of engines and the rattle of machine-guns, sometimes high and faint, but sometimes loud and near, as an unattended Nazi fighter saw civilians on the ground and came down to practise what he had been taught.
The land girls took their hands from the plough for long enough to put on their steel helmets, and carried on. The tractor drivers worked in pairs, facing opposite ways across the field, for their engines drowned the noise of planes, and if they were to be machine-gunned they wanted warning.
As the bombers hammered at our aerodromes, cows were slaughtered in the nearby meadows, and the craters multiplied hourly. Children at tea in the trim gardens of Sevenoaks and Tunbridge Wells defied their harassed nannies' orders to come to shelter and stared at the combats overhead. Jettisoned bombs, or deliberate attack, wrecked villages and battered towns.
There were tragic happenings in the frontier counties, inviolate since Hastings, and there was magnificent courage on the ground as well as in the air. The Civil Defence Services had work to do among the wrecked streets and farmhouses; and they had the honour of some direct part in the Battle of Britain itself.
Firemen of Kent, Sussex and Surrey had heath and forest fires to fight, house fires, ship fires in the Dover and Ramsgate harbours, fires in crashed aeroplanes. But the aerodromes mattered most; the fires upon them num- bered scores and hundreds, big and small, and to fight them under bombing became almost a matter of routine. At Manston, late in August, firemen fought fires in hangars and stores for two days and nights on end. Both then and afterwards they had some stern tests under the dive-bombing of that much- battered airfield. Ambulance and rescue workers also shared some of the hazards of the R.A.F. on aerodromes all the way from the coast to the London outskirts.
But the enemy had a thought to spare for other parts of the country, too. When the Luftwaffe, after its first rough handling, took five days off from 18th August to the 23rd, it was not quite idle. On the 19th bombers started an oil fire that burned for many days, and gave hundreds of firemen their first taste of wartime firefighting. It was a gruelling and a gallant struggle, and it saved many of the threatened tanks.
After the renewal of the air battle, the enemy's thrust at London intensified. Croydon aerodrome had been attacked on 15th August and the neighbourhood had suffered. Often there were bombers over the outlying parts of the capital in daylight, but never in force. At night reconnaissance went on steadily, with occasional bombs. The first general night attack on the London Region was on 24th August; another widespread raid followed on the 30th, and by 5th and 6th September the attacks could have been called heavy. It was clear that the two rising curves of attack by day and by night would soon meet.
London's share in the Battle of Britain was about to begin. The story of civil defence is not itself concerned with the high strategy of enemy air attack. But the bombing of London on 7th September and for the four weeks following can be understood only if it is seen as something different from the subsequent attacks on the capital and the onslaughts on other cities.
Until the beginning of October the enemy sought to vanquish London by a knock-out blow, as part of the same total operation that included the attacks on the R.A.F. and its aerodromes. He was plunging for a quick finish. When he finally accepted the R.A.F.'s mastery and ceased to use his big bombers by day, on 5th October, the strategic aim of the attack on London changed. Its weight hardly lessened, but the enemy was able to find some night bombers for the provinces.
If the enemy launched no heavy daylight attack on the capital in the four weeks after 7th September, it was by no means for want of trying. Many times after that day he had bombers driving at the heart of London, but when they got through, which was not often, they evidently had other things to occupy them than the question where best to loose their bombs.
Except for two attacks on Buckingham Palace, other odd sorties, and some harassing visits to the East End, the day onslaught so hopefully launched on 7th September had no future, the night was another matter.
London KNEW what was in store. The Air Minister had given warning that the Battle of Britain had thus far left the enemy's heavy-bomber force mainly inactive, waiting on its cross-Channel aerodromes. Goering had said bluntly that the night raids of July and August were mere armed reconnaissances.
For years Londoners had been instinctively aware of the shape of things to come. Now they understood that things were coming to them, and they were ready. Ready, that is to say, as far as any city could have been ready for a test that can never be understood until it is experienced; ready for sacrifice and mentally stripped for action against the unimaginable.
On 7th September Goering told the German people; "This is the historic hour when our air force for the first time delivered its stroke right into the enemy's heart." And on 7th September it came. That gloriously fine Saturday afternoon a senior Fire Officer off duty was having a leisurely tea in the shade on a Dulwich lawn. There were planes about, and some gun noise - when had there not been? But suddenly, soon after five o'clock he saw a great rash of black dots breaking out to the north against the summer sky - hosti1e planes, in numbers - never yet seen over any great city, moving up-river from the East.
There were the heavy thumps of distant bomb explosions, and then column after column of black smoke, growing up like trees, merging into a curtain, spreading out into a great rolling cloud. The Fire Officer knew that this was business. He was out of his flannels, into his uniform and in five minutes on his way to Headquarters and to a greater fire-fight than any he had seen or imagined.
There were in all 375 bombers, and
fighters, in waves.
They dropped their bombs on Woolwich Arsenal, on the immense gas - works at Beckton - London's first civil target - on the docks at Millwall, on the docks at Limehouse, and at Rotherhithe, on the docks by Tower Bridge, on the Surrey Docks, on the West Ham Power Station; they went on across the City and Westminster and bombed a crescent in Kensington.
This was daylight bombing; the Germans could see, and while many of their bombs went wide among the little dockland houses and the tenements, many found more legitimate marks. It was London's only big day attack; and it taught her Civil Defenders, when later they looked back upon it, how much the Royal Air Force did for the capital when it forced the enemy into night- bombing.
The docks blazed along all their miles, on both banks of the river, and the wondering watchers looking down-river from the central bridges saw the sun's own light grow pale beside the crimson glare that hung and flickered above the eastern boroughs. By 6 o'clock the day raiders had gone. There was a two-hour break in the attack.
At ten minutes past eight the night raiding force appeared, guided straight to its targets by huge riverside fires which it set out to stoke with high explosive and incendiary bombs. Until 4.30 next morning the droning procession went on.
Some 250 bombers were over the city. When the last departed, there were, as product of the day and night attack, nine conflagrations (huge spreading areas of flame), nineteen fires that would normally have called for thirty pumps or more, forty ten-pump fires, and nearly a thousand lesser blazes, of which no more can be said than that scores of them would have been front-page stories in peace time.
In the dockside boroughs thousands of houses were destroyed or damaged by bomb and fire, though many of them not irreparably. The factories that sprinkle London and the railway lines that run so plentifully near the river had their inevitable share of hits. Three of the main line terminal stations were out of action.
Four hundred and thirty men, women and children lost their lives and 1,600 were seriously wounded. Fire did little of this slaughter: it was wreaked by collapsing walls and ceilings, by the direct impact of bombs, by flying brick and stone, by swift javelins of splintered glass.
[NOTE: The Guardian newspaper has placed online a detailed list of 843 London sites bombed on this day, 7th September 1940, with times, locations and damage done, from data held by the London Fire Service.]
Sunday saw no more raiders. The sun rose and shone above gradually diminishing flame, while dazed East-enders rubbed their smoky eyes, picked their way among the stony rubbish in their streets, and worked, many of them, to clear their city and their home.
But that night at half-past seven the procession of bombers began again. For nine- and-a-half hours some 200 bombers dropped their tonnage of destruction, once again on the East End, but this time on the City proper as well.
(Explanatory note: London Region includes some outer semi rural
areas; Greater London is the built up area with a population
of eight million; Inner London (Metropolitan London) is the principal inner area with a
peace time population of four million; the City with a capital C is a square mile, the financial district.
In this work, city with a small c refers to Greater London)
The night's fire-raising tally was no less than twelve conflagrations in the docks and the City. As before, factories were hit, and a great number of houses damaged. By Monday morning every railway line from London to the south was out of action, but now Londoners began another stage in their education, learning how quickly such injury could be made good, how soon by repair or the improvisation of other methods vital functions could be resumed.
On that Sunday night, 412 civilians were killed and 747 seriously injured. Monday night was the third of the bombardment, and the attack was widened beyond the previous limits. Two hundred bombers attacked all districts, apparently indiscriminately, from 8 o'clock in the evening till 4.30 in the morning. The pattern of destruction was much as before except that the long tale of injury to famous Metropolitan landmarks began with damage to the Royal Courts of Justice and to Somerset House. On this night 370 were killed, 1,400 injured.
Tuesday night it happened again. But Wednesday was a landmark. The anti- aircraft barrage went into full action, and the people were delighted and exhilarated by its shattering intimation that London could give it back as well as take it. The barrage was more than a comfort; though no planes were brought down, the enemy was plainly affected by no longer having the sky to himself. His attacking force was as large as before, and the death roll was 356, but damage to railway, factories and utilities was a good deal less, and so was the list of big fires.
To pursue the narrative of nightly attack further, and in detail, would produce only monotony. By the end of five or six days, Londoners appreciated the fact that they were in for a long siege. Of their thoughts and doings on the ground some account will be given. For the present we will outline the tale of enemy attack.
The capital was bombed every night in September, by forces averaging roughly 200 planes, fluctuating between 50 and about 300. There were 5,730 people killed and nearly 10,000 badly injured. Railways and railway stations were hit, telephone exchanges temporarily put out of action, roads blocked by craters or the debris of shattered buildings, gas, water and electricity mains were fractured and districts here and there out off from their supplies for a time.
The capital's heterogeneous industries did not escape; and scores of thousands of houses suffered different degrees of injury, from the loss of a few tiles or a window to complete demolition. Hospitals were marked out, it seemed to many by malignant design, for special attention, and the list of famous buildings struck is too long to reproduce. It was the record month of the air blitzkrieg. The enemy had intended it for the knockout blow.
But by the first week in October German propaganda began to present the air cam- paign as a war of attrition. In that month the attack was slightly less intense. Yet it was bad enough. Heavy loads of bombs were dropped every night but one; and the bomb proud may take comfort from the fact ~ that even on that one night (the 6th) a single bomb fell, giving at least formal support to Londoners' claim that they endured continuous bombing for fifty-seven nights (7th September to 2nd November, inclusive).
The greatest attack of the month took place on the night of the 15th-full moon.
The moon-goddess had a long flirtation with the Nazi bombers, attracting them power- fully in those early months. Later our night-fighter pilots proved the lady frail and won her favour for themselves, to the enemy's great discomfiture. But that is another story.
On this night over 400 bombers crossed the capital; and they dropped well over a thousand bombs. They killed 430 civilians and wounded about 900. Five main line termini were put temporarily out of action and four others interfered with. No London worker needed to offer excuses for late arrival on the morning of 16th October.
But they got to work somehow - then, and on all the other mornings of the month, though the bombers kept coming in their hundreds every night.
November's long nights at first told the same tale of destruction. There was an attack on every night of the month but three. But on 14th November came the great attack on Coventry - very far from the first, but up till that time much the heaviest, attack on a provincial city.
On the following night, the 15th, London had its biggest attack of the month, and looking back with later knowledge we can call this raid the beginning of the end of the German attempt to wear London out by continuous night raiding. There were more raids, nearly every night of the second half of the month, but most of them were fairly light. The Germans' thoughts were elsewhere in the island.
No one can say exactly what number or weight of bombs was dropped on London in those three months. The Germans have published figures, worth as much credence as their other war statistics. In fact they do not know, for their pilots dropped their loads sometimes where they had been told (more or less), sometimes where the counter attack forced them, and sometimes on the healthier side of the barrage which ringed the city - a circumstance unlikely to have figured in their reports.
The defenders' own ways of counting were incomplete at first. But some fairly reliable estimates can be made. Something like 10,000 high explosive bombs were dropped on London region in September, of a total tonnage well above 1,000. The main weight fell upon Stepney, Poplar, Bermondsey, Southwark, Lambeth, Deptford, Shoreditch, Bethnal Green, Holborn and the City itself, but the riverside boroughs further west as far as Fulham also had a heavy load. There were at least three boroughs where, in those twenty-four nights of raiding, over a hundred bombs fell for every square mile of the area.
In October nearly 10,000 bombs were dropped, in November about 7,500. The spread was wider than in the first month, and the area of main density was a little further west, centring, on Westminster.
In the three months 12,696 civilians in the London Region were killed and about 20,000 seriously injured, by something like 36,000 bombs weighing perhaps 6,600 tons.
In the central boroughs (the County of London) the air raids doubled the normal death rate for those who remained in the blitzed area; but this, of course, must not be allowed to obscure the fact that the chances of mortality were far more than doubled for those younger citizens whose expectation of life in peace time was far above the average.
Thereafter the story of London's attack ceases to be the unique thing it was for those first ten weeks, and begins to resemble the record of the great provincial centres. The strategy of the knock-out blow gave way to that of the bombing of ports and commercial centres, which was to last as long as the enemy's bombers remained in the West.
London had, in December, January, February and March, what Londoners called light months. In fact, the capital had only eight more big raids (two of them two-night affairs) in the long half-year that ended with the invasion of Russia.
Two of these eight were in December, on the 8th and the 29th. The first was made by between 300 and 400 bombers. They dropped a well-mixed collection of explosive and incendiary bombs widely over most of the city's area, killing 250 and wounding over 600. The House of Commons suffered its first bad injury, to the cloisters.
At the end of the month came the great fire raid on the City proper, when over 100 planes showered incendiary bombs on the capital's least defensible area for just over three hours, and in that short time started fires which burnt out six great sections. The whole area between St. Paul's and Guildhall was impassable while the flames burned and for hours afterwards. The conflagration around Fore Street was abandoned to burn itself out.
Another great blaze covered an area of about half a square mile, from Moorgate to Aldersgate Street and Old Street to Cannon Street. The district remains to-day perhaps the largest area of continuous air raid desolation in all Britain.
The Guildhall was greatly damaged, eight Wren churches suffered seriously, the Law Courts and the Tower of London were hit. St. Paul's stood up almost unscathed, surrounded though it was by fires.
The night's fuller story belongs to another, chapter, but here we may record how at 10 o'clock the astonished firemen and civil defence workers found that the enemy had deserted his magnificent target. With the greatest fires of the war raging below him and the entire City of London with its neighbouring boroughs at his mercy, he called the attack off. And so the overborne firemen were left to cope with their broken mains and limp hose-pipes, without more hazard than they might encounter from 100- yard flames, acres of falling walls, and thousands of flying embers.
From that night British citizens were forced to the realisation that civil defence was everybody's business, and that the answer to concentrated fire attack required the watchful eyes and quick hands of roof and street patrols twenty times more numerous than tire brigades could ever be.
London's next adventure came on the two nights of 11th and 12th January. On each night a bombing force came over nearly as large as that which had raided the City. A nice proportion of high explosive mingled with the incendiaries was perhaps intended to make things difficult for the new citizen fire-bomb-fighters out on the job in their hundreds of thousands. The recipe was not a success.
Many fires were started, but few developed, and none got right out of hand. By six in the morning none was showing a light. Other damage was equally limited. Then there came two months by no means without activity, but without heavy raiding, and it was not until 8th and 9th March that a big attack occurred. On each of these nights some 150 bombers appeared, leaving the usual wreckage and killing over 200.
Ten nights later a very large force, some 300 planes, launched on London what proved to be the much stricken Capital's most costly attack, so far as human life was concerned, up till that date. By a series of particular misfortunes, 751 civilians were killed on that night and 1,170 injured.
The damage, too, was heavy, and the raid as a whole was as great as anything yet endured, ranking with the "previous biggest" of 15th October. Next came the two great April raids- "the Wednesday" and "the Saturday" as all Londoners who lived through them will always identify them. They were 16th and 19th April. On the earlier night some 450 bombers were estimated to be over London. They dropped a great tonnage of very large bombs mostly over the South and Centre.
They killed over a thousand and injured twice as many. Eighteen hospitals and thirteen churches were damaged and over sixty public buildings affected, including (again) the Houses of Parliament and the Law Courts. St. Paul's was directly hit Several telephone exchanges were damaged, but on the whole the utility services did not suffer as might have been expected.
Three nights later about 350 bombers came again. Interrupted for an hour or so by drizzling rain, they nevertheless achieved another attack, more concentrated in area, just as grievous in its casualty results, but with rather less material damage.
It says much for the Capital's increasingly well-developed repair and restoration services that they took in their stride the combined effect of these two great raids and reduced them, on their material side, to the level of temporary inconveniences.
Just at this time the Royal Air Force had heavily raided Berlin, and these two London raids may have been among the instances when the enemy suspended his planned operations to indulge in angry retaliation.
On 10th May came the Luftwaffe's final fling before its journey to - or towards- Moscow. For five moonlit hours over 300 bombers dropped great numbers of incendiaries and heavy explosives, causing a serious fire situation, setting a new record for casualty figures (1,436 killed and 1,792 injured) and doing great damage to public buildings.
The House of Commons Chamber was destroyed. Westminster Abbey was hit, so were the British Museum; the Law Courts, the War Office, the Mint, the Mansion House and the Tower. Five of the Halls of the City Companies were destroyed and many famous churches damaged.
Certainly the Luftwaffe had left London something to remember it by. But it had its own reason not to forget 10th May, for on that night the Royal Air Force (with the help of the A.A. gunners) built a real landmark by destroying at least thirty-three heavy bombers - and very likely more. Even the figure of "certainties" was almost surely a good deal more than 10 per cent of the enemy force, since it is well known that at that time a number of the Nazi planes were making two trips a night. Great as was the raid damage the Royal Air Force's achievement was perhaps the more significant.
After this London had, by her own standards, but small raids, the last of all on 27th July.
In the eleven months from September, 1940, to the end of July in the next year, it is computed that, not counting incendiaries, between 45,000 and 50,000 bombs were dropped on the London Region, of a total weight of about 7,500 tons.
No one can pretend to offer exact accounts of what the enemy sought to achieve by his onslaught on London in its various phases. All over London people in the know and people in the street will tell you, of this bomb or that group of craters, "he was aiming at the town hall" or "those were meant for the station." But taking all the facts together, no such theory finds proper support.
The enemy's objectives were, in fact, generalised - especially at first. He aimed at the docks at large, at the administrative and commercial centres, at some big areas containing complicated railway systems. It may be open to question whether as a regular policy he aimed at hospitals and public buildings, but he often hit them.
Moreover, the special interest which he showed at first in the docks, railway networks, power and gas works and administrative centres soon died away. More and more nakedly there emerged his purpose to achieve the greatest possible destruction- any kind of destruction, since every kind might help to break morale, and to bring the Capital's life to a halt through general administrative chaos and the failure of essential services.
Even with the example of Rotterdam fresh in their memory, some found it hard to believe that London was being subjected to a process of simple bully- ing. Civilised people in 1940 could not quite part with the idea that war had something to do with military objectives; they knew that Zulus and Red Indians had killed mothers and babies as a normal part of battle, but they were slow to credit modern Europeans with the same ideas.
Besides, to Londoners the strategy of sheer bullying directed against themselves seemed such an unpromising one for a nation of scientific war-makers to adopt. But the evidence mounted up, and in sum it is overwhelming. None of the purposes that can reasonably be attributed to the Germans was realised.
Except for short times in limited areas they did not stop the docks working, nor the railways, nor any essential service. Where they wanted stoppage, they achieved brief interruption. Where they aimed at annihilation they wreaked, for a time, some confusion.
As for the bullying, it took the citizens by surprise, and had some of them a little off balance for the first few days. For months it shortened their sleep and lengthened their day's work. It brought to all of them a great deal of strain, anxiety and discomfort, to great numbers moments of sharp peril, and to not a few such sights and sounds of horror as the British islands had not known for many centuries.
It subjected all London to an ordeal such as no other modern city had endured and survived. The Germans did their bullying, as they wage their whole war, not by halves. Mrs. Jones and Warden Smith went through hell for months. But they are a tough pair - too tough for the worst the Nazi air fleet could do. London was not induced to sue for a separate peace.
When THE BIG RAIDS began, four-fifths of London's auxiliary Firemen had never seen a fire. Itching for experience, those who could had gathered in quite unnecessary numbers round any "peace- time" fire that they could reach. There had been a big air raid fire in the City on the night of 24th August, and the Thames- side oil fires were an especially pungent appetiser for those who partook. But on 7th September the auxiliaries, four-fifths of them with no prior experience of actual firefighting, faced the greatest incendiary attack ever launched.
In normal times a fire requiring thirty pumps to fight it is a very big fire. Shortly after midnight the first night there were nine fires in London rating over 100 pumps. In the Surrey docks were two, of 300 and 130 pumps; at Woolwich Arsenal, 200 pumps; at Bishopsgate Goods Yard and at five points on the docks, hundred-pump fires. All these were then technically "out of hand," that is to say unsurrounded, uncontrolled and spreading.
In Quebec Yard, Surrey Docks, was the night's biggest fire - immense in its area, moving with disconcerting speed, generating terrific heat. (It was thirty or forty times larger than the great Barbican fire of 1938, the biggest in London's recent history).
It set alight the wooden blocks in the roadways, a thing without precedent. A blaze covering such an area is not only worse than a smaller one in direct proportion to its area, but is far harder to fight than its mere extent would suggest. The greater the cumulative heat the fiercer the draught of cold air dragged in to feed it, and thus the quicker the movement of the fire and the greater the length of its flames. They were so long and their heat so great as to blister the paint on fireboats that tried to slip past under the lee of the opposite river-bank 300 yards away.
Solid embers a foot long were tossed into streets afar off to start fresh fires. Stocks of timber which the firemen had drenched began at once to steam, then to dry, then themselves to burst into flame in the intense heat radiated from nearby blazes.
While the men fought this monster the enemy naturally did not spare so promising a target. Bombs fell incessantly all night. Time and again they would rekindle an area that had just been laboriously conquered. Only with daybreak could real progress begin. The exhausted men could not be relieved after a normal interval because the brigades were fully extended. Many firemen were at work here for forty hours, some officers for longer. In the end, of course, the fire was mastered, and London's novices who helped to fight it had had, with their regular comrades, a concentrated experience without parallel in years of peace- time fire-fighting.
This was but one of the night's events. At Woolwich Arsenal men fought the flames among boxes of live ammunition and crates of nitro-glycerine, under such a special hail of bombs as the enemy could then devote to London's No. 1 military target. But in the docks themselves strange things were going on, as they did on many nights there- after.
There were pepper fires, loading the surrounding air heavily with stinging particles so that when the firemen took a deep breath it felt like breathing fire itself. There were rum fires, with torrents of blazing liquid pouring from the warehouse doors (nor any drop to drink) and barrels exploding like bombs themselves. There was a paint fire, another cascade of white-hot flame, coating the pumps with varnish that could not be cleaned for weeks.
A rubber fire gave forth black clouds of smoke so asphyxiating that it could only be fought from a distance, and was always threatening to choke the attackers.
Sugar, it seems, burns well in liquid form as it floats on the water in dockland basins. Tea makes a blaze that is "sweet, sickly, and very intense." It struck one man as a quaint reversal of the fixed order of things to be pouring cold water on to hot tea- leaves: and the resulting brew was like nothing but the morning-after slops that the W.A.F.S. (Women's Auxiliary Fire Service) girls threw out of the canteen.
A grain warehouse on fire brings forth unexpected offspring - banks of black flies that the firemen's jets wash off the walls, rats in hundreds, and as the residue of burnt wheat, "a sticky mess that pulls your boots off."
Into this infernal bazaar the firemen had journeyed at once and they kept coming back as long as the enemy did. This narrative from an auxiliary fireman gives something of the atmosphere of the first nights.
"Most of us had the wind up to start with, especially with no barrage. It was all new, but we were all unwilling to show fear, however much we might feel it. You looked around and saw the rest doing their job. You couldn't let them down, you just had to get on with it. You began to make feeble jokes to each other and gradually you got accustomed to it. The fires had a stunning effect. Wherever the eye could see, vast sheets of flame and a terrific roar. It was so bright that there was no need for headlights.
"On 7th September we took our pumps to East India Dock, to Rum Wharf. The first line of warehouses was ablaze from end to end. . . I walked down between the two warehouses by myself. Half-way down was a staff car in the middle of the causeway. Standing nonchalantly by it was a young W.A.F.S., outwardly not taking a blind bit of notice of the stuff that was falling pretty thick all round.
Seeing her I strolled past as if I was used to walking out in the middle of falling bombs every Saturday afternoon. We gave each other a sickly smile and I passed on.
"The fire was so huge that we could do little more than make a feeble attempt to put it out. The whole of that warehouse was a raging inferno, against which were silhouetted groups of pigmy firemen directing their futile jets at the wall of flame.
While we were working on our branch - we had to keep in the same position for hours on end, unable to let go of the branch to take cover when bombs fell - a large cargo ship took fire for'ard. . . We put this fire out in half-an-hour and then returned to our warehouse.
"In spite of the numbness you have time to think a little while you crouch over the branch and I remembered the crowd of women and children whom we had met as we rode in, streaming away from the danger area, carrying bundles over their shoulders.
Some would run out into the roadway and
call to us to come and attend to their fires. . .
"Occasionally we would glance up and then we would see a strange sight. For a flock of pigeons kept circling round overhead almost all night. They seemed lost, as if they couldn't understand the unnatural dawn.
It looked like sunrise all round us. The pigeons seemed white in the glare, birds of peace making a strange contrast with the scene below.
"When the real dawn came about five, the Germans eased off their blitz. The All Clear raised a weary cheer. By 7 o'clock I was hunched half-asleep across the branch holder. At last the relief crews arrived.
Knowing that we were returning home gave us that extra ounce of strength without which we could hardly have hoisted the rolled-up lengths on our shoulders."
The first twenty-two days and nights of the London raids were the testing time of the fire brigade. During those nights they, and their Regional and other reinforcements, attended nearly 10,000 fires. After the first two nights they began to get the enemy's measure, and the number of conflagrations grew much less.
The nightly total of fires attended exceeded 1,000 on three nights, and the total on other nights fluctuated between 40 and 950. Not all these engagements were fought without local retreats and some confusion.
The early nights confronted the brigades with unheard of problems of mobilisation- the task of having the right number of pumps turned out from the right stations and present at the right fires -and of transport along roads pitted with craters and littered with debris.
Experience taught its lessons, however, and the fire brigades' officers began to apply more and more successfully the strategy appropriate to the blitz, regarding each fire not as an objective in itself, but an element in the general situation of an area that needed to be appreciated and tackled as a whole.
If it had been a question of sending to each fire what it required, first come first served, there would have been no problem. But to adjust limited resources to the relative needs of a whole district, sorting the hopeful prospects from the predestined "burn-outs" and concentrating on the fires that might spread dangerously, at whatever sacrifice of other fighting hopes - this called for judgment indeed, and judgment built upon no precedent, experience or teaching.
In October the enemy's attack was not as heavy, but even so the brigades turned out to about 7,600 fires, nearly 2,000 of them on two nights. This particular double onslaught was comparable in weight to September's worst; yet in the entire month there were no conflagrations and only twelve fires of more than thirty pumps.
In the ensuing weeks the attack was lighter again, with a heavy night on November 15th; there were but one conflagration and seven major fires in that month. This was encouraging evidence of the proficiency and success of the fire-fighters; and it was strikingly confirmed by the result of one heavy attack. This raised 1,724 fires, by far the largest number the London Fire Brigade and the associated brigades of the outer Region had had to face.
High explosive and incendiaries - many of them explosive --fell together for many hours of the raid, yet the firemen kept the number of major fires down to six, and there was no conflagration.
But if we had been learning, so had the enemy; and on 29th December he achieved the great City fire. He had a favourable prospect, for the vulnerability of the City had never been a military secret. He used skill, choosing a time when the City was empty- far emptier of fire-watchers than it should have been. He had luck, too, doing damage to mains which could not have been aimed for, but affected vitally the fire- fighters' prospects.
The night's total was some 1,500 fires, intensely concentrated on and around the City, and they included six conflagrations and sixteen other major fires. The greatest were the half a square mile of fire in the Moorgate-Aldersgate Street area, and another, half this size, in the Minories. The damage in the City was very largely civil, though there was injury to a number of telephone exchanges.
The partial loss of the Guildhall was a sad blow, all the harsher in that the old building's fire defences proved quite adequate to defend it from its own bombs. It was the fire in the neighbouring church of St. Lawrence Jewry that did the damage.
By 7.30 in the evening, an hour and a quarter after the raid began, the church was in flames, and the wind carried great showers of sparks and embers on to the Guildhall roof. At 8.30 the roof just above the Lord Mayor's screen caught fire. Just as it was almost extinguished the water supply failed and the wind increased. The whole roof was soon ablaze and fell in flames on to the floor where a huge fire burned. It was attacked whenever water was available, reduced to smouldering and finally put out without having done serious damage to the wa1ls..
During these hours the flames seemed
to be roaring and raging from one end
of the City to the other; the glare
was like daylight, and the streets were
filled with driving galaxies of sparks. A
watcher away across the river in Lambeth
"An unforgettable sight. The whole of London seemed involved, one great circle of overwhelming disaster save in one corner where the night sky was clear. One could not distinguish known buildings through the great clouds of smoke, except when there was a sudden spurt of yellow flames which lit a church tower . . . it seemed impossible that the City, that London, could be saved.
"There was only that one small bit of calm sky in the distance as a symbol of hope that the circle would not be completed. At last the news came through that water supplies were being restored - that the miracle had happened - St. Paul's was saved and the City, devastated, was still the City."
The brigades and their reinforcements were at full stretch, with many painful and strenuous interludes in search of water. Firemen on top floors got unparalleled views of St. Paul's dark bulk silhouetted against the blaze - and above it that clear patch of sky noted by the Lambeth watcher.
There were wonderful escapes of firemen and civilians trapped by encircling flames and managing to find safe passage in the nick of time. But many of the human stories had no happy endings.
fireman and his team, fresh from a successful
struggle to keep the flames away from
Dr. Johnson's house, lost their way in the
smoke down a narrow street and happened
upon a trailer pump crew working hard at
a printing press building.
"I thought when I saw them that they were too near. Just at that moment a wall, which looked as if it was bulging dangerously, crashed down on them. As we looked round all we could see was a heap of debris with a hose leading towards it."
There were some heavy fire raids in January, February and March, but the lesson of 29th December had been learned, and the brigades found a fire fighting force on the scene before them. Citizens who had for many months been carefully trained to go to shelter when a raid developed, now came out, faced high explosives, and fought the incendiary bombs to a finish.
The result was that despite some very heavy attacks the enemy achieved no mastery over the fire brigades for many weeks.
But 10th May was the climax, with nine conflagrations and a further twenty-one major outbreaks. It was a night that must have graven on many a fire-fighter's heart the words "no water." The breakage of mains was very great and the plans for multiplying the emergency water supplies were as yet far from fully carried out. The sheer weight of the calls on the brigades set the mobilising officers a formidable problem.
In many a control room all pumps were ordered out before midnight, reinforcements were in strenuous demand, and the pile of slips representing unattended fires grew on the tables. The women of the control staffs, inured to strain and steadfast through months of bombing, found their nerves stretched by this new test, and their sympathies tried by the messages they had to receive and transmit, ordering grimy men near the last stages of exhaustion out again to some pressing task.
At the Elephant a medium-sized fire grew into a great conflagration because every water main was dry, and a succession of lucky bomb hits defeated for hours every attempt to get water by other means. A group of pumps relaying water from a big emergency basin not far off was hit by a heavy bomb which killed seventeen men and blocked the only entrance to the water supply.
A hose line laid with toil and sweat from a point on the river a mile and a half away was crushed and burnt by a collapsing building. Another mile and more of hose was laid from another point, but sparks and embers fell upon and holed it into uselessness before water came through.
At last it was replaced. Water was beginning to appear when a bomb fell and broke it. It was repaired, but splinter holes and burns reduced its flow almost to a trickle. The fire, which had reached immense proportions, was finally controlled next day by relaying water through nine miles of hose from the river and a canal.
The tale of damage that night was crowned by the entire demolition of the House of Commons Chamber, with its Press Gallery, Strangers' Gallery and Ladies' Gallery.
Fire was the villain - no one knows exactly how caused. Some say high explosives also fell on or near the Commons, but this is uncertain. The fire buckled the roof trusses of the Chamber and expanded the stone- work of the outer walls. The whole roof and part of the upper wall collapsed.
The roof of Westminster Hall suffered, and so, though not severely, did the Abbey itself. The lantern was ringed with a crown of flames, which happily were quickly put out by the emergency water with which the ancient building is well furnished. Just before daylight a fire officer outside the main door heard " a loud roar which tailed off into a long echo. I rushed inside to find a mass of burning debris in front of the High Altar. The whole of the roof above the lantern had collapsed, leaving a blue gap high above from which a few red cinders would occasionally drop."
The weight and persistence of incendiary attack which the enemy achieved in this raid, as he had done in some others both in London and the provinces, presented to the defence two problems which it was not then fully equipped to solve.
One was how to fight fires when main water supplies failed - the problem of emergency water. This could be solved only by an elaborate constructional programme which did not approach completion until much later. The other was how to concentrate defensive forces on the ground at a speed to match the intensity of concentration which the enemy could sometimes secure for his attack from the air. This was the problem of mobilisation and reinforcement.
To solve it required radical reorganisation. In August, 1941, came the constitution of the National Fire Service, which absorbed, reshaped and superseded the separate locally controlled brigades. Its formation is both the concluding episode in the battle of the flames of 1940-1 and also the opening chapter of another and a different story, not yet enacted.
Every one of the 50,000 high explosive bombs and uncounted masses of incendiaries that fell on London was part of a plan, or, to speak more strictly, of two successive plans. Against both plans, the general nature of which had been foreseen, the civil defence services were designed to provide the counter. In September the enemy sought a knockout blow; perhaps in October, too.
Later, he aimed at attrition and blockade. But the real object was the same; only the pace and the intensity of the method were different. The enemy sought to destroy the bodily life of the capital : to cut the nerves, pierce the veins, sever the muscles, lacerate the tissues, and by those means to expel the indwelling life or deprive it of all effective strength.
In reply, while the active defences did what they could to turn the attack aside or blunt its edge, the civil defence services must staunch the wounds and mend the torn tissues.
Or again, the enemy's onslaught could be likened to the assault of the sea upon a dyke; the rampart might be weakened either by a few great tidal blows, or by the scooping fall of hundreds of waves. In either case, the defending air force and guns must seek to provide an outer breakwater; the civil defence services must hasten to every breach and subsidence in the dyke itself, patching, building and thickening up, so that nowhere could the breaches link up into a continuous gap through which the sea might come in to overwhelm all.
While the bombs were actually falling, the defence on the ground against material damage was provided by the Fire Brigades.
The A.R.P. services were there to guard and succour the very heart and citadel of the city's strength - its men, women and children.
note: In September, 1941, the original title A.R.P. (Air Raid Precautions) was officially superseded by the phrase Civil Defence, which includes the Fire Service as well as the former A.R.P. services.
To the site of every bomb fall, duly noted and reported by the wardens to headquarters, there must come rescue parties to release the buried, casualty workers to care for the injured, wardens to point the way for both and to comfort and direct the people under the first shock.
Had these services failed, had men and women seen their kin unrescued and untended, and had they themselves been left without guidance or a sense of control, the fight for London could not have gone as it did. It was essential that every one of all those thousands of battles on the ground should be well fought; the parties must be quickly on the scene, the rescue work done- and obviously done--thoroughly and with skill, the injured quickly cared for and removed, and a never-failing leadership in evidence.
It is impossible to tell the story of this fight as a connected campaign, one episode paving the way for another. Such is not the nature of civil defence. There were 50,000 episodes, alike in their underlying pattern, though different in their size and detail. Something of what they involved may be read in the final section of this narrative, where the work of the civil defenders is described.
Here is one contemporary report of a big incident south of the river, inserted not as something spectacular, but as something quite ordinary, because it conveys a little of what the task was, and the workmanlike spirit in which it was tackled.
"On the night of 15th October at precisely 19.55 hours a heavy H.E. bomb fell, entering the roof on the King Edward Walk side of the college and exploding on the floor above the room used as the restaurant.
The bomb shattered the building from one end to the other, only the new extension escaping destruction. The force of the explosion broke up and threw huge sections of masonry, brickwork and reinforced concrete into the air which in turn fell on the adjoining houses on both sides of King Edward Walk, totally demolishing them.
"The wardens on duty at Post No. 3, about 200 yards away, felt a heavy thud at the time the bomb fell, preceded by a terrific swishing noise. They went out to investigate and ran into a huge cloud of dust in Westminster Bridge Road that completely blotted out the general view, and it was some moments before they were able to discern the actual spot, although it was a bright moonlight night. Making their way towards the cloud of dust, huge sections of debris impeding their progress, the wardens came upon a scene of desolation and immediately noting the position of the occurrence sent an express report to the Post which was 'phoned to the Report and Control Centre at precisely 20.00 hours.
Whilst the express message was being 'phoned the M.1 (the standard report form) was being made out. The M.1 report was received at the Control Centre at 20.10 hours and before this time the express services of ambulance, stretcher party and sitting case cars were on the spot.
"Meanwhile the wardens were conducting several people from the college to the Post and minor injuries were attended to. At 20.20 hours rescue squads and more stretcher parties arrived on the scene and very soon the whole area was alive with rescue parties and first aiders attending to the casualties.
At 20.30 hours the A.D.W. (Assistant Dis- trict Warden) took over as Incident Officer and organisation was set up to deal with the situation. In order to relieve the work at the post where sixty people were being attended to, the Hall at St. Thomas's Church, opposite the college, was opened up as a temporary first aid post. A mobile hospital unit arrived and doctors administered morphia to trapped casualties who were seriously injured and were being released from the debris. Many people were trapped between the floors and walls of the upstairs rooms which had collapsed into the basement. Many were dead in this wreckage and the bodies were taken out in the morning, the time being utilised to seek those who were still alive.
"The wardens and rescue parties (some twelve in all, including two parties from Southwark who did excellent work at the beginning) carried on with their work throughout the night. During the whole time heavy A.A. fire was going on directly overhead and bombs were falling in considerable numbers in the locality. Whilst there were many runnings and duckings for cover the work went on until dawn, when a better opportunity availed to survey the damage caused and plan out the continuation of the work. Relief systems had to be evolved in order to give wardens and rescue workers some rest.
"This incident, the first major incident that the Post had experienced, gave the wardens many practical lessons, and they were able to learn much from their successes and mistakes. The Control and Report Centre was continually in touch with events by the various supplementary reports and messages that were sent from time to time and we are pleased to say that all our requests were promptly dealt with. In conclusion, out of 195 persons actually in the building at the time of the occurrence, 84 came out alive and unhurt, 54 were sent to hospital and 57 were killed, 10 of whom died in hospital and one of whom is still unidentified."
There were - let it be repeated - 50,000 incidents, some still larger and more terrible than the one described, some few small and even trivial, like the fall of a small bomb on a derelict house - "no services required."
At the beginning they provided the first test of an organisation untried not merely in action but in its whole plan and conception.
The higher authorities themselves could not but wonder how their effort to provide against the unknown would work out. They could not quite say, like the Duke of Wellington pointing to the private soldier before Waterloo, "It all depends on that article."
It depended on whether the basic plan was sound; whether the risks had been rightly estimated. Theirs were well trained forces, but might they not prove to have been equipped against unreal menaces, and left unprepared against what would turn out to be the real ones?
When the answer came it was wholly reassuring. Many a time in operational reports from local services in the early days of heavy attack there came the remark, "It all went exactly like an exercise." No service fell below the best its sponsors had hoped from it. The wardens exceeded expectations, because so many of the unforeseen aspects of heavy attack fell to them to deal with and they rose to all occasions.
The work of every service was of a kind to bring out the best in any man and woman.
They were protectors, not destroyers. They were guarding life, their own neighbours' lives at that, and property often in its simplest, most appealing forms -homes and little personal possessions. So they did their work well, and their fellow citizens turned to them in trust and gratitude.
"It all went exactly like an exercise."
This was more than a conscious testimony to sound planning. It was a perfect, and quite unconscious, picture of the attitude of mind of the civil defenders themselves. At exercises there had in fact been one or two elements lacking. No one had arranged for the frequent descent of large pointed canisters of high explosive, detonating at temperatures beyond scientific measurement, hurling jagged strips of steel in all directions and causing blasts of air so powerful that even 50 feet away they were thirty times as strong as the pressure of a 60-mile gale.
The streets were not punctuated with raging fires. The nights were not filled with the deadly flight of broken stone or glass. The "casualties" were dummies, not human beings so brutally mutilated as sometimes to be almost beyond recognition.
In military warfare the baptism of fire is held to be the greatest test of new troops. The wise commander tempers the wind to them, and puts them if he can in a place where the wild music of war will at first play softly in their unpractised ears. The great majority of the men and women of the London civil defence services were plunged untempered, between tea and supper, into the central fury of the Blitz- krieg. Yet so workmanlike, so matter-of- fact, so selfless was their attitude to the task for which they had been trained that these terrors seemed to them less significant than the fact that they appeared, after all, to know their job.
Here may be quoted some contemporary reports, not from the local authorities who bore the direct responsibility for the work of the services, but from officers whose business was oversight and general direction, and who found fault if there was fault to find.
A Home Security report on the first week:
"Remarkable examples of skill and determination have been reported from all services, and in at least one area they have been officially thanked for their work by a deputation of members of the public."
A Regional Officer:
"All the services worked for five or six hours without relief- in fact, they refused to be relieved- and they were joined by members who were off duty. This is not an unusual happening."
A Group Controller :
"The civil defence services throughout the attacked area acquitted themselves with the skill and courage which one expects. Observation everywhere leads one to believe that they are willing to face any amount of active service, even of this severity."
An Operations Officer (Region)
"In a brief tour of some of the more important boroughs one cannot fail to be impressed by the remarkable keenness and efficiency of the personnel of all services which had exceeded all expectations . . . speed and accuracy . . . far ahead of that displayed in dealing with imaginary incidents during exercises."
A Regional Officer :
"All this may sound like over-enthusiastic eulogy, but you may take it that I have not exaggerated"
It is against this general background that some of the early teething troubles may briefiy be regarded, since this is the best way to make clear what it meant for the London services to be the first to face the unknown. Occasionally, in the first weeks, the size of an incident was misjudged, either by the warden on the spot or by Control on the basis of his report. Too many parties would be sent; and the central resources weakened without need. Worse still, though more rarely, there would be an underestimate and help would be short. But experience taught the art of assessing damage and the required amount of help, so that before long wardens working in the black darkness, among clouds of dust and smoke, stabbing their torch-beams here and there among the debris, moving about and exchanging notes, could sum up the meaning of an incident with a speed and precision that to the unpractised would seem uncanny. And Control, working "blind" from their simple report, came to know just what help to send.
One result of the unexpectedness of all- night bombing was that working in the dark at first presented problems to some of thc parties. The rescue workers could hardly make proper progress without some light; there was a natural reluctance to invite the enemy's attention by using a flare, and the public was quick to protest. Later, ways and means were found to enable the rescue parties to make full speed without waiting for daylight.
Tracing the casualties was a never-ending anxiety. How many were there, and where had they been? The householders were supposed to let the warden know where they would spend the night. But they forgot, or they changed their habits. If the bomb fell during the evening, there might or might not be friends with them. Under that formidable heap of brick and timber there lay how many human beings unconscious and in pain? Perhaps fire was creeping forward and minutes were precious; had they been sitting in the kitchen, at this end of the house, or in the parlour, at the other? Where should work begin on the debris of the great block of flats? That injured little boy mustn't be taken away before he tells where his granny and sister were sitting when it happened. Did any- body see the caretaker? Is it true the old couple have been going to shelter lately and weren't here at all?
These were grim and testing questions to be answered in the noisy darkness. A wrong decision might waste precious time and labour to no good end, or it might condemn a victim to wait unrescued for long, perhaps too long. This was an inherent difficulty never to be quite overcome. But as time went on the methods for keeping tally of the public got better and better, and the officer in charge of the incident learned more and more about how to fill gaps in knowledge after the event.
Rescue services, too, came to know the almost endless power of resistance of human bodies and minds and the strange freaks of collision and repulsion that could leave them alive in an avalanche. Beneath the mountainous pressure of tons of brick and stone there might against all reason be somebody, and that somebody alive, guarded by the precarious balance of one brick upon another bearing the weight of the mass above. The boundary between doubt and unhappy certainty must be pushed further and further back. Life was at stake and peace of mind and confidence, too. For the relatives and the neighbours must be assured past all questioning that every stone had been turned, and that no one was there - or no one living. Until that certainty was reached, search must go on in turns, hour after hour, through the night and the next day and into the next night's raid. That was how before very long it came to be done.
It was learned, too, that the system of telephone communication on which the whole system depended might be thrown for a time out of action. However manfully and fast the Post Office engineers strove to restore it - and they spared neither nerve nor muscle in the care of their vital wires -it must be backed up by a system of messengers on foot, cycle, and motor bike that could be relied on if need be to carry every needed message between the Control Centre and its scores or hundreds of incidents.
Lastly, there were the unexploded bombs.
They deserve a chapter to themselves. Falling thick and fast, they were a new problem at the beginning. There were the delayed action fuses and the mere duds - only the experts knew which was which.
Moreover, there were the fairy tales -the ones that didn't fall at all. Lumps of metal or stone tumbling earthward in the dark would start the suspicion. So might a mere dent in the ground, or a tennis ball, or just a rumour. And it was important to distinguish fact from fiction: important for the people who would otherwise be bundled needlessly out of their homes for a time, for the factory held up, and the railway awaiting a clear line. Important no less for the Army's Bomb Disposal Squads themselves.
They had enough on their hands, in those first weeks before their numbers were multiplied and multiplied again, without wasting time on might-have-beens.
The wardens came to the rescue. They learned, and learned quickly, the art of rough diagnosis; they reported accurately and at once what they knew; they cut down the tale of false starts to a small figure.
The unexploded bomb -familiarly and briefly the UXB - was the warden's speciality. The jack-of-all-trades of civil defence had here a mystery he alone could master.
He made it as familiar as the incendiary, the whistling bomb, or anything else out of Goering's box of fireworks.
Continue to next section: That the City Might Live.
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Highly recommended further reading: Written by a London resident during the early days of the War, finishing in November 1940, so appropriately timed to couple with Front Line: England's Hour by Vera Brittain, ISBN 0-8264-8031-4.
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Copyright Note: This set of articles is Crown Copyright and carries a publication date of 1942. The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (c. 48) applies as follows: (3) Crown copyright in a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work continues to subsist - if the work is published commercially before the end of the period of 75 years from the end of the calendar year in which it was made, until the end of the period of 50 years from the end of the calendar year in which it was first so published. Therefore the copyright is this material appears to have been spent.