Their Finest Hour II

By the end of October the Nazis were forced, by mounting losses, to give up daylight bombing and shift to night attacks-less accurate but no less murderous. An American newspaperman in London described the effect of one such night attack:

It was a night when London was ringed and stabbed with fire. They came just after dark, and somehow you could sense from the quick, bitter firing of the guns that there was to be no monkey business this night.

Shortly after the sirens wailed you could hear the Germans grinding overhead. In my room, with its black curtains drawn across the windows, you could feel the shake from the guns. You could hear the boom, crump, crump, crump, of heavy bombs at their work of tearing buildings apart. They were not too far away.

Half an hour after the firing started I gathered a couple of friends and went to a high, darkened balcony that gave us a view of a third of the entire circle of London. As we stepped out onto the balcony a vast inner excitement came over all of us-an excitement that had neither fear nor horror in it, because it was too full of awe.

You have all seen big fires, but I doubt if you have ever seen the whole horizon of a city lined with great fires-scores of them, perhaps hundreds.

There was something inspiring just in the awful savagery of it.

The closest fires were near enough for us to hear the crackling flames and the yells of firemen. Little fires grew into big ones even as we watched. Big ones died down under the firemen’s valor, only to break out again later.

About every two minutes a new wave of planes would be over. The motors seemed to grind rather than roar, and to have an angry pulsation, like a bee buzzing in blind fury.

The guns did not make a constant overwhelming din as in those terrible days of September. They were intermittent-sometimes a few seconds apart, sometimes a minute or more. Their sound was sharp, near by; and soft and muffled, far away. They were everywhere over London.

Into the dark shadowed spaces below us, while we watched, whole batches of incendiary bombs fell. We saw two dozen go off in two seconds. They flashed terrifically, then quickly simmered down to pin points of dazzling white, burning ferociously. These white pin points would go out one by one, as the unseen heroes of the moment smothered them with sand. But also, while we watched, other pin points would burn on, and soon a yellow flame would leap up from the white center. They had done their work-another building was on fire.

The greatest of all the fires was directly in front of us. Flames seemed to whip hundreds of feet into the air. Pinkish-white smoke ballooned upward in a great cloud, and out of this cloud there gradually took shape-so faintly at first that we weren’t sure we saw correctly-the gigantic dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

St. Paul’s was surrounded by fire, but it came through. It stood there in its enormous proportions-growing slowly clearer and clearer, the way objects take shape at dawn. It was like a picture of some miraculous figure that appears before peace-hungry soldiers on a battlefield.

The streets below us were semi-illuminated from the glow. Immediately above the fires the sky was red and angry, and overhead, making a ceiling in the vast heavens, there was a cloud of smoke all in pink. Up in that pink shrouding there were tiny, brilliant specks of flashing light-antiaircraft shells bursting. After the flash you could hear the sound.

Up there, too, the barrage balloons were standing out as clearly as if it were daytime, but now they were pink instead of silver. And now and then through a hole in that pink shroud there twinkled incongruously a permanent, genuine star-the old-fashioned kind that has always been there.

Below us the Thames grew lighter, and all around below were the shadows-the dark shadows of buildings and bridges that formed the base of this dreadful masterpiece.

Later on I borrowed a tin hat and went out among the fires. That was exciting too; but the thing I shall always remember above all the other things in my life is the monstrous loveliness of that one single view of London on a holiday night-London stabbed with great fires, shaken by explosions, its dark regions along the Thames sparkling with the pin points of white-hot bombs, all of it roofed over with a ceiling of pink that held bursting shells, balloons, flares and the grind of vicious engines. And in yourself the excitement and anticipation and wonder in your soul that this could be happening at all.

These things all went together to make the most hateful, most beautiful single scene I have ever known.

#

Winston Churchill said:

These cruel, wanton, indiscriminate bombings of London are, of course, part of Hitler’s invasion plans. He hopes, by killing large numbers of civilians, and women and children, that he will terrorize and cow the people of this mighty imperial city, and make them a burden and an anxiety to the Government and thus distract our attention unduly from the ferocious onslaught he is preparing. Little does he know the spirit of the British nation, or the tough fiber of the Londoners, whose forebears played a leading part in the establishment of Parliamentary institutions and who have been bred to value freedom far above their lives. This wicked man, the repository and embodiment of many forms of soul-destroying hatred, this monstrous product of former wrongs and shame, has now resolved to try to break our famous Island race by a process of indiscriminate slaughter and destruction. What he has done is to kindle a fire in British hearts, here and all over the world, which will glow long after all traces of the conflagration he has caused in London have been removed. He has lighted a fire which will burn with a steady and consuming flame until the last vestiges of Nazi tyranny have been burnt out of Europe, and until the Old World-and the New-can join hands to rebuild the temples of man’s freedom and man’s honor, upon foundations which will not soon or easily be overthrown.

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An Englishwoman, Mollie Panter-Downes, describes how it was for the people 0V1 whom the rain of fire and destruction fell.

For Londoners, there are no longer such things as good nights; there are only bad nights, worse nights, and better nights. Hardly anyone has slept at all in the past week. The sirens go off at approximately the same time every evening, and in the poorer districts, the queues of people carrying blankets, thermos flasks, and babies begin to form quite early outside the air-raid shelters. The air Blitzkrieg continues to be directed against such military objectives as the tired shop-girl, the red-eyed clerk, and the thousands of dazed and weary families patiently trundling their few belongings in perambulators away from the wreckage of their homes. After a few of these nights, sleep of a kind comes from complete exhaustion. The amazing part of it is the cheerfulness and fortitude with which ordinary individuals are doing theirjob under nerve-racking conditions. Girls who have taken twice the usual time to get to work look worn when they arrive, but their faces are nicely made up and they bring you a cup of tea or sell you a hat as chirpily as ever. Little shopkeepers whose windows have been blown out paste up “Business as usual” stickers and exchange cracks with their customers.

On all sides, one hears the grim phrase: “We shall get used to it.” Everyone takes it for granted that the program of wanton destruction, far from letting up, will be intensified when bad weather sets in and makes anything like accuracy in bombing impossible. Although people imagined early in the war that vicious bombardments would be followed by the panic-stricken departure of everybody who could leave the city, outwardgoing traffic on one of the major roads from London was only normal on the day after the worst of the raids so far. The government, however, has announced new details concerning the evacuation of children who were not sent away under former schemes of removing them to the country or whose mothers last week had the unhappy inspiration to bring them back to town for a holiday at home.

The East End suffered most in the night raids this week. Social workers who may have piously wished that slum areas could be razed to the ground had their wish horribly fulfilled when rows of mean dwellings were turned into shambles overnight. The Nazi attack bore down heaviest on badly nourished, poorly clothed people-the worst equipped of any to stand the appalling physical strain, if it were not for the stoutness of their cockney hearts. Relief workers sorted them out in schools and other centres to be fed, rested, and provided with billets. Subsequent raids killed many of the homeless as they waited.

The bombers, however, made no discrimination between the lowest and the highest homes in the city. The Queen was photographed against much the same sort of tangle of splintered wreckage that faced hundreds of humbler, anonymous housewives in this week’s bitter dawns. The crowd that gathered outside Buckingham Palace the morning after the picture was published had come, it appeared on closer inspection, less to gape at boarded windows than to listen to the cheering notes of the band, which tootled away imperturbably at the cherished ceremony of the Changing of the Guard. This was before the deliberate second try for the Palace, which has made people furious, but has also cheered them with the idea that the King and Queen are facing risks that are now common to all.

Broken windows are no longer a novelty in the West End, though the damage there so far has been slight. In getting about, one first learns that a bomb has fallen near at hand by coming upon barriers across roads and encountering policemen who point to yellow tin signs which read simply “Diversion,” as though the blockage had been caused by workmen peacefully taking up drains ahead. The “diversion” in Regent Street, where a bomb fell just outside the Cafe Royal and remained for hours before exploding, cut off the surrounding streets and made the neighborhood as quiet as a hamlet. Crowds collected behind the ropes to gaze respectfully at the experts, who stood looking down into the crater and chatting as nonchalantly as plumbers discussing the best way of stopping a leaking tap. Police went around getting occupants out of the buildings in the vicinity and warning them to leave their windows open, but even with this precaution, when the bomb finally went off that evening there were not many panes of glass left.

The scene next morning was quite extraordinarily eerie. The great sweep of Regent Street, deserted by everyone except police and salvage workers, stared gauntly like a thoroughfare in a dead city. It would have been no surprise to see grass growing up out of the pavements, which were covered instead with a fine, frosty glitter of powdered glass. The noise of glass being hammered out of upper windows, swept into piles at street corners, and shovelled into municipal dust vans made a curious grinding tinkle which went on most of the day. The happiest people there were two little boys who had discovered a sweet shop where most of the window display had been blown into the gutter, and who were doing a fine looting job among the debris. Around the corner, the florid facade of Burlington Arcade had been hit at one end, and an anxiousjeweller was helping in the work of salvaging his precious stock from the heap of junk that a short while before had been a double row of luxury shops. Scenes like these are new enough to seem both shocking and unreal; to come across a wrecked filling station with a couple of riddled cars standing dejectedly by its smashed pumps makes one feel that one must have strayed on to a Hollywood set, and it’s good to get back to normality among the still snug houses in the next street.

Wednesday night’s terrific, new-style anti-aircraft barrage reassured people, after scaring them badly. A. R. P. Workers, who have been heroic all the week, were told to warn as many as possible that something special and noisy was going to be tried out that evening, but all over town persons who hadn’t been tipped off thought that the really terrifying din was a particularly fierce bombardment. Houses shuddered unceasingly until the all-clear sounded in the dawn, when everyone felt better because, although Londoners had had a bad night, the raiders must have had a worse one. The behavior of all classes is so magnificent that no observer here on the spot could ever imagine these people following the French into captivity. From the point of view of breaking civilian morale, the high explosives that rained death and destruction on the capital this week were futile.

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London proved that she could take it. Frustrated, the Luftwaffe turned to the industrial midlands and the North, and November and December witnessed the “ordeal of the provinces.” Not the largest, but perhaps the most murderous of all the attacks on industrial centers was the great nightlong bombing of Coventry on November 14.

Other midland cities suffered just as cruelly-and rose just as heroically to the challenge. Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, one after another were subjected to devastating raids. The toll of civilian dead mounted to over 40,000; hundreds of thousands of houses were wrecked or damaged; essential services-gas and electricity and water and transport-were paralyzed; factories were laid in ruins. But somehow Britain survived-survived and grew miraculously stronger with each week.

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