Bomb sights: stoicism and suffering in the capital

Peter Gruner talks to Jerry White, whose new book provides a vivid portrait of the capital during the Second World War

Thursday, 24th February — By Peter Gruner

Harrington Square Mornington Crescent September 1940

Harrington Square, Mornington Crescent, in September 1940, in the aftermath of an air raid; 11 people were killed in the houses

A LUNCHTIME crowd had gathered in wartime Aldwych when there was a roar in the sky and then deadly silence. Suddenly an enormous explosion shattered Kingsway, two buses were wrecked, and people lay dead and dying in the street.

Charing Cross Hospital received 220 casualties and nursing staff worked without a break throughout the day and night, writes historian Jerry White, Emeritus Professor at Birkbeck University, in The Battle of London 1939-45.

On that day in Aldwych – June 30, 1944 – 46 people were killed and 152 seriously injured by a V1, a jet engine flying bomb.

White’s fascinating and comprehensive book about stoicism, suffering and heroism during the Second World War has won plaudits and resonates with what is happening in the Ukraine.

The author describes how almost 80 years ago an army of wartime air-raid wardens put their lives on the line in the struggle to keep people safe. I was reminded of today’s health workers.

Interviewed by Review, White revealed how he was always fascinated by the impact of the war. “I think the main surprise was the depth of Londoners’ agony after D-Day, just as they thought the war was quickly coming to an end, and when the rest of the country knew almost nothing about the impact of the V1 on the capital.”

The flying bombs, armed with almost a ton of explosives, flew at 350mph and looked like small monoplanes. In just four months 2,340 V1s hit London.

White describes how in wartime the local civil defence formed the backbone of resistance during the greatest sustained bombardment experienced by any city in history. During the first nine months of the Blitz, 1940-41, the capital suffered 85 bomb raids with almost 20,000 killed. By the end of the war almost 30,000 were dead and around 25,500 injured and detained in hospital. On top of that a further 45,672 slightly injured were treated at first aid posts and other facilities.

Jerry White

Finsbury air raid warden Henry Finch had been awarded the George Medal for bravery. A few hours later he was dead. Three other Finsbury wardens died the same night, one of them from a piece of railing that had blown into his stomach. Earlier in the war, a one-ton bomb had not gone off but had buried itself deep in the London clay near St Paul’s. It could not be defused, so was in danger of going off at any time. After it had been carefully loaded onto a lorry, the leader of the bomb disposal squad, Lieutenant Robert Davies, drove it at high speed through streets cleared of people, all the way to Hackney Marshes, where it was detonated.

In one of the earliest attacks on the city, December 29, 1940, 163 people died and 509 were badly injured. The attack by the Luftwaffe involved 136 bombers who dropped 22,000 incendiary bombs on central London.

Not everyone hid in shelters or moved to the country. The upmarket Hungarian restaurant, in Lower Regent Street, moved underground, offering tables, a dance floor, a band and even a bed for the night in the event of a raid. And if you didn’t fancy staying the night a team of tin-hatted chauffeurs would drive you home.

Westminster Council marshalled 1,900 volunteers to measure and fit 120,000 residents with gas masks. Moorfields Eye Hospital in Finsbury opened for general surgery and sent home patients to make beds available for bomb victims. Trenches were dug on open spaces, including Hampstead Heath, for air raid shelters. Shelters were also dug at St Pancras and for lawyers in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Author JB Priestley had built an apparently bomb- and gas-proof room in the cellar of his grand home at The Grove, Highgate.

In the early days road and public transport were packed with people desperate to get out of the capital, including many children being evacuated.

Novelist George Orwell was bombed out of his flat in Mortimer Crescent, St John’s Wood. He and his partner Eileen Blair hired a trolley for their books and furniture and pushed it all the way to a new home in Canonbury Square.

The worst bombed areas were Holborn (568), Stepney (442), the City (392), Bermondsey (373) and Southwark (342). The single biggest disruption, other than bombs, were the blackouts. Courts were filled with residents who defied the order to turn off lights, and streets were so dark that there were many accidents and thefts. Food shortages inspired the government’s Dig for Victory campaign to encourage people to grow their own. Most foods were rationed and people complained that what there was available was unappetising and unvaryingly dull.

But prime minister Winston Churchill was full of the most colourful rhetoric. He declared: “London is so vast and so strong that she is like a prehistoric monster into whose armoured hide showers of arrows can be shot in vain.”

Talking about the book, White, a former Islington resident, added: “It took me quite a time to pluck up courage to tackle a topic that so many others have written about in different ways over the years. It was only when I convinced myself that I had something new to say that I decided to take it on.

“I’ve been struck by the number of people who have told me of their elderly relatives who lived as children through the war and who have taken great pleasure from reading the book, or having it read to them. It really does help make all the effort worthwhile.”

The Battle of London 1939-45: Endurance, Heroism and Frailty Under Fire. By Jerry White, Bodley Head, £30

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