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Front Line 1940-41

The Official Story of the Civil Defence of Britain - Part Two

Go to Part One
Jump to Chapter 6: The Man in the Street | | Chapter 7: The Londoner's Home | | Chapter 8: A Borough in the Blitz.
Chapter 9: The Front Widens.|| Chapter 10: The Attack on the Arms Towns.| | Chapter 11: The attack on the ports
Chapter 12: The Countryman's Blitz. | | Chapter 13: Seaside Tip and Run.
14. The Plan of Battle || 15. The Front Line Troops || 16. The Achievement of the Many.

5
That the City might Live

"Traffic in the city appears to be completely interrupted : and from the number of fires in gas and water works, the public services must have ceased to function." Rome broadcast to Italy, 7th October, 1940.

When a bomb cratered a roadway anywhere in London it was likely not only to make a big hole, but to cut a gas main, an electric cable, a water main, a sewer, and a telephone cable at the same time.

On these encrusted arteries, lying side by side a few feet below the road surface, and on the transport services, depended the whole possibility of maintaining the community life of six or seven million people.

The Germans certainly thought so. When they could aim and were seeking a knockout blow, they did their best to strike at water- works, power stations, railway termini, gas works and sewage plants. When they did not aim, the luck of the game often brought hits on these targets. At one time or another, for longer or shorter periods, every railway terminus, the largest gas works, a sewage outfall, some power stations, and one of the largest water inlets were all out of action.

Yet it was surprising how swiftly these troubles were overcome. It is broadly true to say that no serious shortage anywhere was caused by damage to production plant or terminal points. Repair was wonderfully quick, replacement or diversion was possible. Producing plant that was at first thought likely to take months to put right was working again in a week or two.

It was the network of distribution lines that caused more trouble - the street mains and cables, the railway tracks, the roads themselves. Trouble is of course a relative word. London was never within sight of the chaos that must be created in a big city by prolonged artillery attack or continuous day bombing. But many thousands of fractures had to be dealt with during the blitz.

There were plans to meet this risk. Thousands of members of the utility services' A.R.P. squads, with valve-men and turn- cocks, all specially trained in air raid work, stood guard every night waiting for reports from the Control Centres that mains needed repair or cutting off. There were central schemes for the reinforcement of heavily pressed areas from other parts of the Region, just as with the civil defence services.

But there was a time when the mounting total of breaks seemed to be gaining on these standby squads even with their provincial reinforcements; when the craters in the road were not being repaired and filled quickly enough for the needs of traffic, and debris clearance was lagging. This was about the end of September when fresh measures were taken. A Special Commissioner was appointed. Several hundred skilled men were released from the Army to reinforce the mains repair squads; military pioneers (their total at one time reached 14,000) were loaned to do clearance ; 25,000 labourers were recruited; big cranes were quickly got from America and put to work.

As these measures took effect, the rate of repair work caught up with the rate of damage the enemy was inflicting, drew level and passed it; the arrears were overtaken and the problem solved.

The brave and toilsome feats that lay behind this unsung victory over the Nazis were seen by very few. The citizens were out of sight when some elderly turncock trotted round with his heavy key to stand turning and turning it in the blitz, while the guns flashed and the bombs dropped throughout the three-quarters of an hour that it took to close the big water main. When a gas main was broken and set alight, and the great unquenchable swaying column of fire roared upwards above the roofs of the nearby houses, there were -very properly- no admiring Londoners to applaud that old acquaintance, "the man from the gas company." He worked in the muddy crater, in the scorching poisoned air, to plug the end of the main, or forced his way past blazing debris to reach a valve and cut off the supply.

Nor were his problems confined to the streets. A gas works is one of the extreme danger spots under heavy air attack. It is interlaced with huge pipes carrying explosive mixtures- tar, benzole, and gas itself; and it is dotted with holders of the largest size.

Any incendiary may instantly start a great blaze, and the destructive power of a high explosive bomb is multiplied by what it strikes. To repair a flaming splinter hole in the crown of a gas holder in an air raid, 60 feet up, and with millions of cubic feet of gas below you, is a hazard as great as any in civil defence. It was done many times. Most of the London works were hit, some very often. Every incident meant extreme risk for the men who dealt with it.

In London 179 of them were decorated.

Electric power stations, too, had their disconcerting ways of reacting to the direct hits with heavy bombs which they often suffered. To their staffs it had long been a matter of personal pride to keep interruptions of supply to the bare minimum. Under bombing they remained at their posts as a matter of course. If explosions tore the roofs off their buildings, they worked with hand torches, unless they could see by the light of great fires nearby, which they knew must act as a magnet for bombs. Engine- room staffs carried on, sometimes below ground, in floods from burst water mains.

Out in the streets the cable networks suffered the interruptions which were the common lot of utility supplies; and the men who repaired them often did so under bombing, and shared the special risks of flood and fire which those who worked at night in the craters all had to face.

All these deeds were done behind the backs of the citizens. But one party to the struggle Londoners did see - the Military Pioneers. They came as cheering evidence that all the mess the Nazis made would soon be cleared up. They worked in squads, by daylight, and you could crack a joke with them. Some of the grim and dreadful work they did after a big incident was done behind merciful screens, and you did not see it; but even what you did see was enough to make you feel friendly. Some of the men were aliens, deeply content with this chance to oppose their muscle and will to that of the enemy who had done his best to wreck their lives. Some were coloured, good workers and very powerful, who did prodigies of strength and endurance - a lively lot who made friends everywhere and entertained passers-by on the banjo.

But there was one area where political views were extreme and independent feeling high : what would they think of a military invasion of their precincts? All the more so as the commanding officer of the detachment sent to them was an eccentric nobleman who wore a monocle and carried a long stave like a shepherd's crook instead of a swagger cane. But "although he was so very Piccadilly," he got on extremely well in the difficult area, whose people in fact turned out, as though they had been beleaguered, to cheer the arriving troops and give them cups of tea.

Twelve hundred of these pioneers once dug and cleared in twenty four hours an alternative channel of water supply when one of the city's biggest inlet courses was put out of action for a long distance by a bomb. After the pioneers came the fire brigades, with a battery of pumps to force the water from the end of the old channel to the beginning of the new. What might have been a very serious threat to the water supply turned out nothing worse than could be cured by the appearance of water carts in a few areas for a few days.

It is barely possible to imagine a big city carrying on its peace-time life without the telephone wires ; but impossible to imagine its effective defence against air raids without the maintenance of some immediate communication with the outside world and among the defenders within. The linesmen who guarded these vital threads had a complex job. When a cable is broken all its component wires are severed- often some thousands of them. Twice that number of connections must be correctly made and tested, insulated, and kept dry -even in a flooded crater. One cable repair involved the making of over 5,600 separate connections. Such work was done many times under bombing by men sitting cramped for hours in the mud, sometimes in foul air and under the threatened fall of tons of clay.

The railways and the underground showed themselves among the most resilient of all the services. London's hundreds of miles of track, hit again and again, seemed almost invulnerable, with more lives than a cat. In the brief daily records of the railways the words "working as normally as possible" came very often. These words conceal the work of track repair gangs to whom a job that was allowed more than twelve hours was an exceptional thing; of signalmen perched high in their flimsy boxes, with glass around them, carrying on under the bombs; of guards and engine drivers who took their trains through the blitz or past unexploded bombs. Night by night, too, the buses and trams ran sufficient services through the raids, stopping only if bomb damage forced them.

Then comes the most undeniably essential of all essential services, the household food supply. This was one of the services which Londoners paid the high compliment of taking completely for granted. It never occurred to them to raise an eyebrow over the daily appearance at the door (along with those other invincibles, the post and the newspaper) of the loaf of bread and the bottle of milk. Had they known at how many points food distribution is vulnerable they would have wondered a little more.

Bakeries, milk bottling plants and cold stores can be put out of use by power or water-main failures; trains held up, roads blocked, important messages delayed; whole- salers' warehouses and retail shops blitzed.

All these things did in fact happen- and so did others, like the bombing of food offices and the machine-gunning of key officials on their rounds. But the wholesalers had worked out mutual assistance schemes; there were plans for mobilising the bakeries - one down, t'others come on; if the milk trains were blocked outside London the contents were pumped into road tanks and delivered only a little late. The food supplies got through.

And so did the news. Fleet Street, near the heart of the danger area, was often badly bombed and set alight. Newspaper offices were hit many times, probably just when the work of "putting the paper to bed" was at its climax. But by nerve and good judgment, by mutual hospitality and quick thinking, every paper printed its main editions every night of the Blitz - printed them and got them out, under the very noses of the Nazi bombers. Some- times- it was surprising how seldom- they reached the front door a little late. But they got there. It was the reply of a free press to Hitler; an apt piece of symbolism.


6

The Man in the Street

"The legend of British selfcontrol and phlegm is being destroyed. All reports from London concur in stating that the population is seized by fear -hair raising fear. The 7,000,000 Londoners have completely lost their selfcontrol. They run aimlessly about in the streets and are the victims of bombs and bursting shells." German-controlled Paris radio to France, 18th September, 1940.

THE BLITZ required of the ordinary Londoner that he (or she) should make no needless demand on his fellows, whether by panicking, becoming a casualty, or merely making a fuss; that he should carry on with his ordinary work, despite bombs, lost sleep, and trains that did not run; and that he should himself be ready to give help where the need of it came his way. Below this standard very few fell.

No one will know how many private terrors, born in some timid or imaginative mind as the bombs whistled down and the nearby houses crashed, were stifled quietly in the cupboard under the stairs. Statisticians cannot say whether there were many families, or few, in which it took the firm leadership of the group to steady the quivering nerves of one or two as they sat together in the kitchen or the Anderson and heard horror loosed around them.

In those first few nights in the East End, when it was still strange as well as horrible to see streets of houses ripped into fragments and the midnight sky so lit that one could easily read by the light of the great flames, when the barrage had not yet begun, there seemed to many of the staggered and sleepless people nothing before them but to sit and wait night by night until they or their homes, or both, were annihilated. There was never a trace of public panic; but the blitz was not a picnic, and no fine slogan about "taking it" should obscure the realities of human fear and heartache.

Moreover, the immediate impact on mind and body of a bomb explosion near at hand should not be belittled. Some 50,000 bombs fell on the capital. Many times that number of ordinary Londoners thereby suffered such an intense shock, even if they were physically unhurt, as comes to few people in the whole length of a normal peace- time life. Here is a report from a man who was probably nearer to the explosion of a large bomb than anyone else who remained conscious and survived to tell the tales:

"Several things happened simultaneously. My head was jerked back due to a heavy blow on the dome and rim of the back of my steel helmet. I do not remember this, for, as my head went back, I received a severe blow on my forehead and at the root of my nose. The missile bent up the front rim of my steel helmet and knocked it off my head. The explosion made an indescribable noise- something like a colossal growl -and was accompanied by a veritable tornado of air blast. I felt an excruciating pain in my ears and all sounds were replaced by a very loud singing noise (which I was told later was when I lost my hearing and had my eardrums perforated).

"I felt that consciousness was slipping from me, and at that moment I 'heard' a clear, loud voice shouting, 'Don't let your- self go! Face up to it and hold on.' It rallied me and, summoning all my will power and energy, I succeeded in forcing myself down into a crouching position with my knees on the ground, my feet against the kerb behind me and my hands covering my face. I remember having to move them over my ears because of the pain in them- doubtless due to the blast -it seemed to ease the pain. Then I received another hit on the forehead, and felt weaker. The blast seemed to come in successive waves accompanied by vibrations from the ground. I felt as if it were trying to 'spin' me and tear me away from the kerb.

"Then I received a very heavy blow just in front of the right temple - which knocked me down on my left side in the gutter. (Later, in our first aid post, they removed what they described as a 'piece of bomb' from that wound.) Whilst in the gutter I clung on the kerb with both hands and with my feet against it. I was again hit in the right chest (and later found that my double- breasted overcoat, my coat, leather comb case and papers had been cut through and a watch in the top right-hand pocket of my waistcoat had the back dented in and its works broken).

"Just as I felt that I could not hold out much longer I realised that the blast pressure was decreasing and a shower of dust, dirt and rubble swept across me. Pieces penetrated my face, some skin was blown off, and something pierced my left thumbnail and my knuckles were cut, causing me involuntarily to let go my hold on the kerb.

Instantly, although the blast was dying down, I felt myself being slowly blown across the pavement towards the wall of a building. I tried to hold on - but there was nothing to hold on to. Twice I tried to rise, but seemed held down- eventually I staggered to my feet.

"The front of the building was lit by a reddy-yellow light - the saloon car was on fire to the left of me and the flames from it were stretching out towards the building and not upwards. Pieces of brick, masonry and glass seemed to appear on the pavement, making- to me- no sound. A few dark, huddled bodies were round about, and right in front of me were two soldiers - one, some feet from a breach in the wall of the building, where a fire seemed to be raging, was propped up against the wall with his arms dangling by him, like a rag doll. The other was nearer, about 12 feet from the burning car. He was sitting up with his knees drawn up and supporting himself by his arms. His trousers had been blown off him. I could see his legs were bare and that he was wearing short grey underpants.

There appeared to be one or two dark huddled bodies by the wall of the building. I had not the strength to lift any of them. "I wondered where the water was coming from, which I felt dripping down my face, and soon discovered that it was blood from my head wounds."

All this will put in their proper perspective two more quotations. The first is from a telegraphic report by the Metropolitan Commissioner of Police on 12th September, when the blitz was five days old.

"My latest reports are that there is no sign of panic anywhere in the East End. . . . In (censor) and (censor) the inhabitants are shaken by continued lack of sleep but no sign of panic and no wish to evacuate. No defeatist talk."

The second is from one of the weekly "appreciations" built up in the Home Security Operations Room by officers working on reports and messages coming in from the scene of action. It is dated 25th September, 1940, the very day when (as measured by the numbers taking shelter in the tubes) pressure on civilian resistance was at its peak.

"The German attack upon London has had no fundamental ill effect either upon the capital or on the nation. Its first impact caused bewilderment and there was some ill-temper both on account of its apparent success and because some remedial measures did not operate with time-table accuracy.

This loss of temper . . . has almost completely vanished and a general equanimity prevails. . . There is little appearance of nervous or physical overstrain and the fear and shock, only attendant upon actual explosion, very quickly passes over in most cases. Nothing has affected the unconquerable optimism of the Cockney nor has anything restricted his ready if graveyard humour. . . Without over-emphasis people take the obvious precautions to ensure sufficient sleep. Having done so they regard the event philosophically. During the day they continue their ordinary business.
" . . . It is still necessary to canvass some classes of the people to leave London."

The report might have added how greatly Londoners in the most-bombed areas were steadied and heartened in the early days of upheaval by the frequent coming among them of the King and Queen, whose own London home had been made the target of deliberate daylight attack.

It is no secret now that, misled by the knowledge of what had happened in some instances abroad, the authorities had prepared for a great panic exodus straggling out from the eastern boroughs along the roads into Essex and Kent. These were the boroughs that took the heaviest weight of attack, and the facts of what happened bore no relation to the forecast. There was a steady evacuation, but it was controlled and realistic, and did not use up shoe leather.

It seemed to result not from panic but from a cool assessment of the position that arose when whole streets and blocks of houses were put temporarily or permanently out of use.

The "trickle" of children out of London, under public auspices, reached 1,500 a day. Great numbers, of course, had gone at the beginning of the war, but some had returned, while many had never left London. By 24th September half the children were in the reception areas; by 31st October, 70 per cent; by the end of the year only one in six was still in London.

Mothers, too, went out, with Government assistance - their numbers rising to 30,000 in one week. More still went out by themselves. Mother and children, with father taking a day or two off to get them settled, lumped their belongings to Paddington or Euston, took tickets to some station in the Home Counties, and there found billets.

East London's annual September trip to the Kentish hopfields took on a new timeliness and value. This year it provided not only a fortnight's holiday but refuge, and a grandstand view of the Battle of Britain.

So far was all this from panic that it took three months for the population of the twenty-eight central boroughs to drop by about 25 per cent. from a little over 3,000,000 (the figure before heavy bombing began) to 2,280,000 at the end of November. In a group of the most heavily bombed eastern boroughs the pre-war population of 800,000 had fallen to 582,000 before the blitz began; for four months it had dropped steadily to 444,000; by 31st December a fall of 23 per cent. These figures do not spell panic, and a further substantial fall in 1941, after continuous heavy raiding had ceased, completes the evidence that those who went did so in cold blood, for practical reasons as valid for their hard-pressed city as for their private selves. Moreover it was not those with work to do who went; a labour shortage did come to London, but later, and it was the demands of the capital's own war machine, not the impulsion of bombs, that caused it.

What of those who stayed? Did they all spend their nights in picturesque squalor, underground and in droves, as the impressionists of the time may have suggested to readers and listeners at home and abroad?

There was no doubt about the squalor at first, when the all-night raids put to dormitory use big shelters which had been equipped for nothing beyond an hour or two's day- time occupancy, and when people silently broke the official barriers that would have kept them out of tube stations never intended for such use. For weeks in the big shelters there were no beds, not enough sanitation, no proper food, no hygiene, and no organisation to save women and children from queueing in the streets for hours to get a place.

All these things were put right in time. The tubes and the other big shelters were equipped with bunks and a ticket system, with canteens, medical aid posts, and sanitary provision. Indeed they came to have cinema shows, concert parties, lectures, and other communal luxuries all just as faithfully publicised as the earlier miseries had been.

But what did all this mean to the average Londoner? In November, inner London (the county) contained some 3,200,000 people. Not more than 300,000 of these were in public shelter of any kind, half of that number at most in those larger shelters on which the limelight shone so exclusively.

Nor is this all; in domestic shelter (Andersons, small brick shelters and private reinforced basements) there were no more than 1,150,000 people. Thus of every hundred Londoners living in the central urban areas, nine were in public shelter (of whom possibly four were in " big " shelters), 27 in private shelter, and 64 in their own beds- possibly moved to the ground floor - or else on duty.

Particular big shelters, and for a few nights the tubes, were overcrowded, but there was public shelter for twice the number who made use of it. In outer London, with a population of some 4,600,000, there were in November 4 per cent in public shelter, 26 per cent in domestic shelter, and 70 per cent. at home or on duty.

Probably the numbers in shelter had been higher at the end of September, before systematic censuses were taken. But, at the very peak, not more than fifteen metropolitan Londoners in a hundred can have been in a public shelter, six or seven of these in "big" shelters, including the tubes.

To the two-thirds who slept at home, the air raids brought their own problems. Day after day in the early weeks the trains ran very late, or not at all. Emergency buses filled gaps between severed stations, but they too ran slowly. The Central London buses had day by day to find new variations on their usual routes: the yellow sign "Diversion" hung on its barrier across so many of the traffic arteries, East, West, North and South.

The bus wheels might, like the feet of pedestrians, crunch over broken glass and splash through newly-flung mud, but they could not ford craters or climb heaps of rubble like a tank, and had to pick their way round small back streets, where they looked as misplaced as an ocean- going ship in a Thames back-water.

All this meant early rising for the clerks, the shop-girls, warehousemen, waitresses, and the rest - early rising after short, broken nights. But one had to look far to find any uninjured Londoner who could not say that he or she had got to work, even if sometimes a little late, everyday of the blitz. Damage to their own homes did not stop them; often bereavement did not.

Indeed the unchanged routine of the place of work helped them to face these things. Much that had been familiar all their lives was being torn away in the blast of high explosive, and Londoners did not weep to see it go. But, being human, they needed the feel of something fixed and persistent. In their normal daily work they found it and gripped it hard.

In the last great war there had been out- bursts of hate against the distant enemy, and shops with German names had been wrecked. This time the citizens did not stop for such things. After the first shock of realisation they found no more need for direct recrimination than does the soldier. Like him, they got on with the job and waited their chance. Neither in this nor in any other way was there a sign of instability ; no panic running for shelter, no white faces in the streets (though plenty of taut, grim ones), no nerve disease.

In all London, the month of October saw but twenty-three neurotics admitted to hospital. The mind- doctors had rather fewer patients than usual. Some of them said that this was because "escapism" of any kind was out of favour. Those who wanted escape had got it, literally. Those who stayed meant to see it through.

There were hardly any blitz superstitions, though a few idiosyncracies. Sometimes fatalism expressed itself in the myth that "if your name was on the bomb it would get you" - otherwise, why worry? There grew up a saying that bombs never hit the same place twice. (They sometimes did.)

Some people feared that any mention of particular areas would attract the Germans' attention to them. Occasionally rumour exaggerated the early tales of damage and casualties, but not for long.

The feeling that the plane above was directly overhead - was, in fact, circling about and looking for you personally - did become quite general, and so did the civilian's special delusion that he knew just why jerry had dropped. that one in that place.

There were two universal solaces for those suffering from strain of any degree, whether it was a sleepless night in bed at home or being bombed out and losing one's possessions or one's kinsfolk. These two were Tea, and Telling about it. At the Rest Centre, at the mobile canteen on the blitzed street-corner, in the kitchen at home, the cup of tea was the current coin of sympathy and comfort. Here was a national institution which rose to greater heights even than in peace, not only in London but every- where the bombs fell. And then the added comfort of talking. Everyone did it.

Those who had no more to say than the proverbial "Couldn't have been more than fifty yards away" -—the mere onlookers- were labelled Bomb Bores and frowned or joked into comparative silence.

But the real sufferers were allowed, by wise helpers at Rest Centres and Information Bureaux to "Cleanse the stuff'd bosom of that perilous stuff That weighs upon the heart"

One thing that showed up strongly was the powerful attachment of many Londoners to their own locality. Not perhaps in the sprawling outer suburbs, but in the East End and some other areas, the spirit of neighbourhood proved that it had survived even the disintegrating effect of metropolitan life on the largest scale.

There was a working man who returned from the house of relatives half a mile away in Fulham to live alone in his own badly damaged house under the shadow of a great power-station "because," he said, "I'm a Chelsea man."

Further East a woman of forty-five, her nearest relatives killed and her home smashed, was being urged to go to the country. She almost yielded, but then, with an angry lift of her shoulder, said, "No. Why should I let Hitler drive me out o' Poplar?" Not "London," not "my friends," but Poplar.

In Bermondsey they waged their own war against Hitler, sure of the superiority of their borough, its spirit, and its civil defence services to those of any neighbour on either bank of the river -- if indeed those distant strangers "across the water" on the north bank could properly be called neighbours. The Hams, East and West, treasured the words of a Regional Commissioner with insight and sympathy enough to tell them that the stand they made in the early days saved London.

Lastly, this must be said. British people, and Londoners not least, are traditionally ready to criticise their leaders and to fasten upon authority the blame for trouble.

Before the raids some armchair psychologists had foreseen an angry people visiting punishment for death and destruction on the nearby civil defenders who had not prevented them. In fact there grew up as the raids went on a substantial if unspoken confidence in the civil defence services.

People knew that the warden would put his head round the shelter door every hour or so as the bombs fell, to ask " Everything all right? "The rescue men could be counted on to do the job until the job was done. If the shelter was hit or almost ringed by fires, a warden would be there to lead the occupants through the glaring streets to another. The first aid men and the ambulance girls would not fail, in the extremity when their service was needed. Without stopping to think about it, people were aware as the bombs fell of a firm grip on the problem that they and their leaders had to face. This was true nearly every- where, and the exceptions proved the rule that good spirit and good civil defence services went together.


7.
The Londoner's Home

"Now here it must be very definitely stated that the objectives in London at which our Air Force aim are all of either military nature or of those industrial categories pertaining to England's war effort." Hamburg broadcast, 8th September, 1940.

IN THEIR WELL-PLANNED attack on Europe, the Germans made use of a new strategy, new tactics, and a large number of new weapons. Their enemies for the most part had to contend with little preparation against a series of innovations. The strategy of air attack on civilian life in large cities was not itself unforeseen, nor entirely new, but the tactics to be employed were a matter about which the defenders had to make reasoned guesses and anticipations.

Some things were not anticipated ; some guesses were wrong. No one estimated high enough the amount of material damage that modern high explosive would do in proportion to the casualties it caused. No one was optimistic enough to expect that the Royal Air Force would force the enemy to confine himself almost entirely to night bombing, where, in default of deliberate aim at military objectives, he could not fail to drop a big proportion of his bombs on houses.

A third and consequent short- coming was that no one foresaw the enemy making a virtue of necessity and adopting technical methods deliberately designed to achieve the greatest possible destruction of houses and disorganisation of domestic life.

The result of these three factors in combination was the unexpected size of the problem of the homeless.

Destruction of houses was, of course, expected, but on a scale that would allow the homeless to be absorbed fairly readily. Some would go at once to neighbours, friends and relatives. For others, billets or new homes would be found; and while they waited they would camp, for a few hours or a day at most, in Rest Centres.

The event dwarfed and stultified these plans. Concentrated bombing destroyed or put out of use entire streets and neighbourhoods. The Germans were using a proportion of large bombs whose blast extended far and wide, tossing roof- slates about as the wind tosses dead leaves, doing superficial but for a time effective damage to hundreds of houses at once. Exact figures for the early weeks are lacking, but after four months about half—a- million houses in London had been damaged in some degree, and in September the temporary loss of homes may well have been at a rate of from 40,000 to 50,000 weekly.

In nine months up to the end of May, 1,150,000 houses in the London Region were damaged.

And this was far from the whole story. Unexploded bombs, until the Bomb Disposal Squads were expanded to cope with them, were an accumulating menace. Each one falling in a residential area meant that for a time the nearby houses had to be cleared and their inhabitants added to the growing roster of the homeless.

The assumption that many people would look after themselves was fulfilled. They went to friends, near at hand or in other parts of London, or they left the city for the country. But the rest were far too many for the billeting schemes of that date. They crowded and choked the Rest Centres and could not be moved out to billets, so that instead of camping at the Centres for a day at most they stayed for days and even weeks on end.

Before the end of September the Rest Centre population of the Region had reached 25,000, and while many of these were going out, there was a hard core that did not and could not go.

The result was to overcrowd and overtax the Centres, and to leave unmet for a time the need of the homeless not only for a home but, more immediately, for comfortable sleep, good food, cleanliness and understanding human contact. Moreover, they wanted to know about their damaged furniture, lost ration book, or injury allowance; whether they could go back to their house or when they would get another; how to replace their tools or clothes; where to get a little money to tide them over.

They had at first to pursue this knowledge from one authority's office to another, walking miles up and down their borough with their children at their heels. If they went to look at their damaged house they might find their precious belongings unhurt by the bombs, but unrescued from dust and dirt or from the rain dripping through the broken roof.

When Londoners were bombed out they reacted defiantly; their spirit was toughened. But if this mood was tried by days of rootless uncertainty, discomfort, a regime of tea and sandwiches, and a disheartening quest for help, there was apt to be another reaction of despondency and resentment.

In short, it looked as though the enemy had, as on other fields of battle, found an unsuspected weak point and might achieve a break through. But the defences rallied quickly.

On 28th September a special Regional Commissioner for the homeless was appointed, and the basic question of accommodation tackled three ways at once.

The Rest Centres were given better equipment all round, and staffs with social training. The streets were combed for billets and the corps of billeting officers strengthened. The repair of lightly damaged houses was pressed on. The enemy's attack did not slacken, but inroad was made into the heavy arrears of unexploded bombs, and this was itself a great relief.

By 8th October the Rest Centre population was down to 10,000. The great raid in the middle of the month sent it up high again, but it soon fell to a manageable level which itself masked a brisk flow not only in, but out, to new homes or billets. The chiefs of staff of the defending force felt that the victory was won. On Christmas Eve the Rest Centres housed just over 10 per cent. of their September peak.

After the end of the year that sector of the front, though attacked again, and powerfully, was never seriously threatened.

During the nine months of attack, 375,000 were billeted as homeless, and 120,000 given permanent new homes in London. Great numbers, too, had gone back to life in their own homes within walls and roofs made sound again by the great repair drive.

Quick repair came to be known as the most powerful of all remedies for low spirits. Only second, perhaps, was the prompt salvage of furniture - everything from budgerigars and insurance policies to the bedroom suite that stood for comfort and the familiar past, and perhaps for so many months' sacrifice at three-and-six a week.

As the months went on all the varied agencies of help and information came to be grouped together in each borough under one or perhaps two roofs. The machinery for paying out those essential few pounds to meet urgent needs for clothes and fares was simplified and lubricated with the oil of a sympathetic comprehension not always attributed to the financial offices of State.

Good supplies of clothing from America as well as home were in the depots of the Women's Voluntary Services, who in many boroughs also staffed some of the Rest Centres and sometimes the Administrative Centre.

When the last great raid of 10th May fell at its heaviest, in one big East End borough where the problem had originally been most severe 5,000 homeless or other sufferers had their need of help and information met - each as she came, within a few hours.

The story is only half told without an account of the Kitchen Front. In September at first there were only the tea and sandwiches of the Rest Centres to meet the needs, not only of the homeless but of the gas-less and wifeless alike. Volunteer mobile canteens very soon drove into the breach - one of the best instances of that civilian self-help which so often blazed the trail for public action in the chaotic early days.

Food Officers too did some unorthodox things with retail and wholesale food stocks and utensils, and thousands of good improvised meals were served out of quickly dug cooking trenches.

At the end of September the decision was made to embark on a wide programme of communal feeding. More than one local authority had not waited for official sanction, but when it came the pace quickened. By the third day afterwards, a communal meal was being served to every homeless person; gas and electricity were not always there, but schools and institutions had ranges, field and mobile kitchens could be improvised, catering firms pressed into service.

The Londoners' Meals Service was set up; its centres multiplied, serving a good two- course dinner for about a shilling. Every Rest Centre was equipped to provide proper meals or was within reach of a feeding centre.

The new British Restaurants played their part when emergency needs arose. Mobile units and Queen's Messenger Convoys appeared with a special eye to the needs of the outer part of the Region. Mobile canteens were pooled and their work centrally co-ordinated. All big shelters had canteens.

Some months passed before all these developments reached their fullness. By the end of the attacks they could have coped with emergencies far greater than any that had arisen. But in about a month from the beginning of heavy attack, certainly by mid- October, the main problem had been solved.

For three weeks from 7th September, the enemy's attack on the social front had matters rather its own way. The counter attack, launched on the 28th with all arms, showed in about a fortnight that the line could be restored. For some weeks afterwards ground was being gained and positions consolidated.

This victory, like others won in the air and on the ground against the Luftwaffe, was not appreciated in its full significance by the world until well afterwards. As for those who won it, they were busy with other thoughts and other things.


8
A Borough in the Blitz

" One thing is certain, namely that London's power of resistance, both as far as material resources and human nerves are concerned, has been gauged to perfection. However immense London is, however enormous her resources, the day will come - it must come- when it can no longer be held."
Rome broadcast to Italy, 12th September, 1940.

THAMEBBOROUGH represents no place but itself. Some notes are here made upon its air raid history because, without focusing briefly on an area smaller than all London, the narrative of the bombed Capital would be unbalanced. And also, though Thamesborough is not typical, there is something about it that suggests the quality of a portion of Britain very much larger than itself.

It lies to the east, on the river. There was a dock at the place in the fourteenth century and a shipyard in the sixteenth. The first of the present Port of London docks was opened there by Pitt at the beginning of last century, and ever since then it has been a channel of trade with most of the world.

The bustling growth of the nineteenth century made slums, some of which are still there, but there are fine spacious streets and squares, too. In the eighteen sixties the docks and shipyards throve; prosperous business men did not disdain to live near their work, and they left good architecture behind them. This airy historical back- ground helps to explain the Thamesborough of to-day.

The awakened social conscience of the late nineteenth century found a major objective in the "East End." Thamesborough was by then a fruitful ground for social work. Vigorous movements and some remarkable men went to work in its precincts, bringing both help and leadership. They liked the place and became part of it. This middle- class infiltration forged links with wider kinds of life outside and left its mark on the people and their way of thinking.

In this century, home-grown working class leadership in good quantity and of rare calibre has been a notable factor in Thamesborough's life. The borough has played a part in the vanguard of some hot social struggles within the past generation, not always unsuccessfully.

Whatever may be the general advantages or disadvantages of a strong political atmosphere in local life, leadership in Thamesborough turned it to good account in establishing civil defence. From the start, the achievement of protection against the reactionary menace from the Continent was held to be on all fours with the struggle for social progress at home.

The Borough Council could build civil defence on the firm if unusual foundation of a highly developed political organisation in the wards of the borough. It could draw upon a reservoir of local leadership, already discovered and trained.

Wardens volunteered in plenty-- solid dockers and labouring men, not too ready with a pen, but able to turn a hand to anything else. They would put in time out of shift hours, meeting together in the little shelters they built above their posts, discussing civil defence problems as they were used to discussing the building of a new library or a local baths. Each division of the borough had a wardens' committee-- elected- which in turn sent its delegates to the Central Wardens' Committee, whose representations would carry, considerable weight with the Civil Defence Committee of the Council itself.

In a well-governed borough which is socially homogeneous (Thamesborough today is all working-class) close ties are apt to grow up between the Council and its citizens. This leads to a form of social discipline as valuable in war as in peace. There was one important illustration of this fact. The people were taught the value of dispersal, of sheltering in small groups at home, and when the test came they did not forget. There were a very few large shelters in the borough, but the great majority of people sat tight in their Andersons or small brick shelters, and only a tiny percentage made their way to the tube stations and the large underground shelters that lay to the west.

By the time the first bombs fell on the docks, Thamesborough's pre-war population of 130,000 had been reduced by evacuation to 104,000. The men were dockers, labourers and workers in the mills, shipyards, engineering plants, and small mixed industries of the locality. The tremendous bombings and fires of September destroyed or damaged many houses. In some of the dockside neighbourhoods half the people had to take themselves elsewhere in the first few weeks. The men stayed near at hand to work; the women and children went away.

The social dislocations of the first days hit dockland hard; people had to fend for themselves in the matter of food and often of shelter. The dockside settlements, like others of their kind, did marvels of improvisation. One settlement chief might have been seen taking her joints of meat around the streets to women whose kitchens were still in working order, and who prepared the food and returned it to the settlement for communal eating. Another settlement cooked 70 dinners a day in its garden, in camp equipment fuelled with salvaged timber, using water brought by garden hose from a park nearby. In the streets, or in backyards, fires of derelict timber were made for communal cooking.

The shops were bombed in large numbers- those "little shops round the corner" that mean so much to workers' households with neither the purse nor the storage space for buying ahead. At first communications were so bad that it was hard for the women to go farther afield for their purchasing and shopping became a daily adventure. Most of the churches near the river were unusable and institutional religion became an uncertain and intermittent thing for many months. But life did go on. Certainly the factories did.

Nearly all the little houses in the borough (two floors and a semi-basement, two rooms to a floor, an outhouse-scullery in the back yard; two or three families to a house) were damaged in some degree. Thamesborough had 25,800 houses in all, and there came a time when it could boast of an arithmetical miracle-- 45,000 of its houses having had first-aid repairs and 42,000 secondary repairs. In other words, an average of four repairs per home. There were other losses and tragedies- those "big incidents" that ill-fortune brought at intervals to every bombed borough, when a score or two of people were killed at a blow-- but these were not as numerous nor as costly of life as in areas where the policy of dispersal into small shelters had been less faithfully followed.

More typical of Thamesborough's incidents was one in a residential estate at-- let us say- Colwyn Street. A very large bomb brought down hundreds of small houses, and the next morning the neighbourhood was a muddy wilderness of heaped rubble. Here and there the observer, climbing over untidy piles of brick, would come across a small aperture-- the entrance to an Anderson shelter, nearly buried under debris, where half-a-dozen people had spent the night.

Looking more closely about him he would see quite a number of these little mud-covered igloos humping their backs out of the desolation. When the people crawled out in the morning they were covered in dust and mud, and hard to pick out from their surroundings. But there was one touch of colour- the crimson varnished nails of the girls, rubbed clean against their skirts as the first instalment of a return to normal life. The Andersons had done their work. Nearly eight hundred people were made homeless in Colwyn Street- only three people were killed.

By the end of 1940 the population had fallen, along with that of the rest of inner London; and it went on falling for six months more. But the garrison's spirits left nothing to be desired. An increasing number of men and women- over 5,000 by the Spring- paraded the streets at night in small parties, competing with one another in the number of incendiary bomb fins they could deliver to the Town Hall as signs of the number put out. Another outlet for the sporting instincts of the borough was the laying of bets on the extent of damage. After the last big attack odds of ten to one were freely laid against the chance of finding any house in Thamesborough with all its windows intact. There were a number of children who did not leave London; and very expert shelterers and blitz citizens they became.

They made a practice of using as their special play-pitch the sites of their demolished homes, where they could on summer evenings in 1941 be seen soldiering with sticks and mounting guard in some symbolic play understood only by themselves. Sometimes there were fierce disputes between these old inhabitants and returning evacuees about the use of a particular pitch. The passer-by might be asked to give judgment. The old inhabitants put their case. "We stayed 'ere all through. We won this. Didn't it ought to be ours?"


9
The Front Widens


THE ENEMY MUST have given up hope of an outright victory in the Battle of Britain by the early days of October. He withdrew his long range bombers from the daylight air on 5th October.

Until then, the bombs he dropped on cities and the countryside may be best understood as part of an immediate attempt to make ready for invasion, by hitting at aerodromes, aircraft factories and southern ports, and by giving cities as far afield as Liverpool a preliminary taste of terror. (He had used the same tactics in the notorious lunch-time attack on threatened Paris, two weeks before France surrendered.) When October came, with neither the R.A.F. nor London knocked out and invasion no longer a lively prospect, the Germans sent such bombers as they could spare from the capital on the long term mission of striking at industry.

There were 27 lesser raids in the month, nearly all by night, seven each on Coventry and on Birmingham. In these two cities 445 people were killed during the month; the attacks were not negligible.

During the next month, November, the Battle of London properly so-called drew to its close, the character of raiding changed, and attacks on the provincial cities moved from the margin to the centre of the picture. London had failed to yield quick results; and the German Air Force, well exercised over the Thames, was becoming proficient enough in the once despised art of night bombing to undertake attacks on smaller and more elusive targets than the sprawling capital. There was to be no knock-out blow --that was clear. But the enemy may have thought it still possible to achieve the same ultimate result, given time, by striking intermittently at industrial centres and ports.

The new policy was inaugurated by the big raid on Coventry on the night of 14th November. On the limited area of the small Midland city some 400 aircraft dropped a much greater weight of bombs than any part of London of the same size had had to endure in a single night; 600 incidents were counted. As it happened, London was raided on the following night; it was a heavy attack by any standard, yet in the central area, with a population about sixteen times greater than Coventry's there were less than three times the number of incidents. This fact illustrates the special quality of the raids on provincial cities, which it will be well to examine.

No provincial target had to endure anything like the long-drawn-out continuity of the first three months' nightly attacks on London. None of them suffered a comparable sum total of damage. Parliament has been told that in the London Civil Defence Region twice as many houses were made uninhabitable by air attack up to the middle of 1941 as in the whole of the rest of the country. This makes London's ratio of destruction, in proportion to population, eight times as great as that of the balance of the country.

The death rate from air attack throughout the period of raids was several times greater in a collection of the hardest hit London boroughs than in heavily raided provincial cities of similar population. About half the country's total of deaths and serious injuries occurred in London.

But neither these facts, nor the peculiar military importance and world significance of the London attacks, could soften the special ordeal which the raids brought to inhabitants of the smaller cities elsewhere. Such a concentration of missiles as the Germans achieved in Coventry meant, for instance, that most of the inhabitants heard, or felt, the fall of every bomb. There was no question of the attack moving from one part of the target to another, some distance away, as the night wore on. Every moment the onslaught bore down upon the centre of the city and its nearer environs; by the same token, every moment it bore down upon the nerves and eardrums of the people.

Despite never-failing schemes of reinforcement there is something fearfully exposed, naked and unbefriended about a city of limited size under heavy attack- something which Londoners were not called on to experience.

The visible after-effects matched this comparison. London was deeply scarred and widely desolated. In the City and part of the East End, great blocks and neighbourhoods were brought down or burnt out, and few parts of the central area were left unmarked. But the heart of the West End, London's playground, the famous shopping centres, are at worst recognisable and at best unharmed. Piccadilly, Regent Street, Oxford Street; Clubland; Theatreland-- still there. In many of the other great cities it is a different story.

After some of the heavy raids it was possible to stand at certain points in or near their centre, and hardly know where one was. Not only did the raw wounds gape and the smoke curl weirdly among endless arcades of twisted steel, but the very contours of the city had been battered out of recognition. People had to take their bearings carefully, and peer about to be sure of their direction.

In Coventry itself the great Cathedral spire, towering still above its fallen walls, gave the key and starting point to the maze of ruins around. But in one after another of the target cities, the whole centre was wiped out, either in one night or by the accumulation of bombs and fire spread over several raids. True, in Southampton, though whirlwinds flung away the shops of the long High Street, the Bargate still stood, defying bombs as it had defied the centuries. But in Portsmouth, the bright shopping centre of Southsea was gone. In Liverpool the great homes of the shipping companies were hollow shells. In Manchester one side of Piccadilly stood like the ruins of Ypres.

Hull is scarred from side to side and end to end. In Swansea, Bristol, Plymouth, a large part of the centre of the town is now a levelled expanse of soil pitted with broken brick and scored here and there with the remains of walls. Though these cities may have had one or two raids, half a dozen or a dozen, against London's tale of scores of attacks, there are few indeed where minds and memories, like the physical fabric of the streets, are not deeply marked by the white heat of intense experience.

After the first raid on Coventry, there came in the latter part of November, more heavy raids, two on Birmingham, one on Bristol, one on Liverpool, one on Southampton. None compared in relative weight with the Coventry attack, but each was a grievous blow. In Birmingham the city's death-roll, with earlier figures from the seven October raids, rose to well over a thousand. Bristol lost some hundreds of people and some of her finest buildings.

December saw nine nights of heavy raiding outside London. Besides repeating his attacks on Southampton, Bristol, Birmingham and- on an extended front-- Merseyside, the enemy broke new ground in Sheffield and Manchester. The strategy was becoming obvious: attacks were distributed equally between the arms manufacturing centres and the ports. No special attention was reserved for either: the enemy was evidently just as well pleased to try to cripple Britain's own resources as to paralyse her centres of import.

The tactics of attack were taking shape, too. In the van of each raiding force came the Luftwaffe's skilled navigators and marksmen, laden with incendiaries, looking for the centre of their objective and loosing their loads to start the biggest fires they could. These beacons became targets for the high explosive bombs carried by later arrivals. It may well have been a part of the enemy's idea that to wipe out the civilian centre was the best way to break the spirit of the inhabitants.

However that may be, it is certain that during December the Luftwaffe quickly developed a reliance upon incendiary attack on city centres. They must have been aware of the fact that at night, especially on week-end nights, and most of all on Sunday nights, those centres were empty of the workers who could otherwise have dealt with a good number of incendiaries as they fell. So every Sunday night in the month a heavy fire attack was launched on the old, congested, inflammable centre of some city. On 1st December it was Southampton; on the 8th, London; on the 15th, Sheffield; on the 22nd, Manchester; on the 29th London again.

In the New Year the weather, and the active defences, slackened the attack for the first two months. The Luftwaffe came over on most nights, but achieved only four heavy raids, on Cardiff, Bristol, Portsmouth, and the three-night raid on Swansea in the middle of February. When flying weather improved in March, the numbers of attacking planes went up, to 150, 200, 300, more than once to 350 machines. The last phase of the blitz began; In this phase, which lasted just over three months, the air war on Britain was almost entirely confined to the ports. From 10th March to 10th May there were 34 very heavy night raids outside London. All but three of these were on the ports.

About Easter time, Coventry had two big raids and Birmingham one. Otherwise it was Merseyside, Clydeside, Bristol, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Belfast, Hull- the changes were rung upon one after another. Merseyside had nine nights in all, Plymouth seven, Clydeside four, Belfast three. In the final fortnight, the first two weeks of May, the enemy put forth his greatest strength. He bombed Merseyside every night for the first week. This was a form of continuous attack inflicted on no other provincial target (though Plymouth had endured five big raids in nine nights late in April). In the same period he went to Tyneside, twice to Belfast, twice to Clydeside, and twice to Hull. The visitation upon London on 10th May will be borne in mind.

For the first week of the month an average of over 200 bombers a night came over; but defending night fighters and the guns were becoming much more formidable, and 53 bombers were brought down. In the second week the average attacking force fell below 200 but the total loss was 107.

The last visit in great force to any area was to the Midlands on May 16th. After that the Luftwaffe moved East, and the light forces left in the West seldom came much farther than the coast, where however they launched for many months to come a number of trying attacks on Hull, and a series of "tip-and-run" raids up, down and round the coast from Cornwall to Aberdeenshire.

Thus six months elapsed from the first great attack on Coventry to the Luftwaffe's parting blow in the middle of May. In all that half year, its bombers were over Britain five nights out of six. The ports and a few armament cities were hit hard many times. But besides such spectacular attacks there was many another raid, not referred to in the communiques because of uncertainty whether its target was bombed by accident or design. There is no doubt it was sometimes by accident-- a case of mistaken identity.

Names were never mentioned in the British announcements until it was certain that the enemy knew where he had been. Often our reticence was strikingly justified by the German communiques, which boldly claimed the destruction of a target that had not in fact been touched. So these "spill-over" attacks, or near misses, were apt to visit on some small town a great weight of bombs that was part, or even the whole, of a load intended for a bigger target.

Whether by accident or design, there were raids on Nuneaton, on Jarrow, on areas of Tyneside, on Newark, Scarborough, Brighton, Weston-super-Mare, and other towns not officially acknowledged at the time, which will live long in the minds of their citizens. By the giant measuring-rod of the raids on big cities, they do not show as very great affairs. But to those who lived through them, even if only once, they loom up in the memory like a major earthquake, to be gossiped about for years to come, and used as a mark in the calendar for dating other and lesser events of the war.

To the civil defence services of the provincial target cities, the raids brought the same problems as to their brothers and sisters in London, and their achievement was the same. Indeed, what has been written of the performance of these men and women in the capital is just as much a part of the story of every other heavily raided town. It cannot be repeated in detail for each, but must be taken, broadly, as true for all. When the first bombs fell on each city, they brought the same swift test of fibre as in those early September days by the Thames, and they evoked the same response. It was some help and reinforcement to know that the thing had actually happened elsewhere, and been withstood by one's own fellows, trained and equipped like oneself. But if the nature of the onslaught was no longer a complete mystery, it remains true that no one really knows what a blitz means until he has lived through it; and the tremendous weight of many of the provincial attacks on their limited targets brought special tests and problems for the civil defence services just as for the general body of their fellow-citizens.

Nowhere was there anything but a heartening story to tell of the bravery of firemen and the fortitude, competence and humanity of wardens, rescue men, first aid men and ambulance drivers, control staffs, messengers and the rest. After six months of harsh endurance and strange adventure, these men and women could hold their heads high, and their fellow-citizens spoke gratefully and proudly of them. This was true also in a special degree of the police, who for historical reasons have different relations to the civil defence services in London and in the provinces. In London they turned their hands many a time to whatever civil defence work had to be done; but they stood, officially, apart from the locally controlled services. In the provinces they were part, and a great part, of civil defence: elder brothers to the wardens (the Chief Warden was usually the Chief Constable) designated as Incident Officers, and encouraged to serve as guides, philosophers and friends to all the services.

In the following pages the more detailed story of the air attacks outside London will be told in two longer and two shorter chapters-- The Arms Towns, The Ports, The Countryman's Blitz, and Seaside Tip-and-Run. The first two deal with attacks on the cities. They do not attempt to give such an account of the raids on each one as its own inhabitants might wish to read, and as its sufferings and achievements richly deserve if they are considered in isolation.

Three points must be considered. The first has already been hinted at: the story of London is in many respects the story of other heavily attacked areas. What has already been written of the achievement of the civil defence services, the endurance of the general population, and the successful maintenance of essential services is true in broad terms of the whole country. Secondly, there is not space to do full justice to the separate story of each of the thirteen main target areas, while to attempt to summarise the whole of each story would produce but a bare and colourless outline-- an injustice to the deeds it touched upon. Thirdly, one heavy air raid is not wholly unlike another, and it therefore becomes the task of a narrative such as this to dwell chiefly upon the features which distinguished the particular story of each target area from the rest, taking for granted those things which all shared in common.

It is hoped that from the sum of these separate special features there may emerge a total impression not entirely unjust to the many-sided, grim, and heroic reality.


Move on to Part Three of the book


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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.