Shortly after the bombing, the Isle of Dogs, one of the worst affected areas, was visited by a Mass Observation investigator. He found considerable damage in the area, with a bomb having fallen about every 50 or 60 yards. Many shops were shut or destroyed, although all the pubs were open. Transport was chaotic, with the main routes out of the area (the Blackwall Tunnel and the Greenwich foot subway) closed. The only way out was to walk or wade through mud to an improvised ferry. Gas and electricity supply was non-existent, which meant that most food had to be consumed cold. Immediately after the raid there had been no water for 12 hours. Telephone services were only available from the police station and postal deliveries were unreliable. After the raid there had apparently been a certain amount of panic and many had left with the few belongings they could muster. Some had decamped to Greenwich Park but others had trekked into the country. All told, the MO investigator estimated that two-thirds of the population of 5,000 had gone, with the caveat that most of the men seemed to be at work. He added apprehensively that there ‘was very little smiling and few jokes’. We will return to this theme later.
For London this was just the beginning. During the remainder of September the capital was bombed on most days and every night, the emphasis gradually shifting to night bombing because of the toll taken on the bombers by the RAF. That month on average 238 tons of high explosive and 14.5 tons of incendiary bombs were dropped on London every 24 hours. About 7,000 people were killed in the raids and about 10,000 seriously wounded. In all 15,000 fires were started, the worst night being 19 September when there were 1,142 fires.
Bad weather reduced the number of large raids in October. The days when more than 100 tons of high explosive were dropped decreased to 19 out of 31. However, London suffered some form of raid on every day and the total tonnage dropped was approximately 5,000. The number of incendiaries is not known with any accuracy but the Germans, for reasons that are obscure, seemed to use fewer per raid than in September. About 4,300 people were killed in these raids and 6,500 seriously wounded. Some 8,200 fires were started, the worst night being that of 14 October when there were over 1,000.
In November, London was raided on most nights but on a much reduced scale. Bad weather often kept German incursions to a minimum. In all there were just eight occasions when over 100 tons of high explosive were dropped and only four occasions on which more than 100 people were killed.
This was not the end of London’s ordeal. It was heavily bombed on 28–29 December, 11 January, 8 March, 17 and 19 April and, finally, on 10 May 1941. Nevertheless these were sporadic raids and it is the experience of the concentrated raids that will be dealt with in depth here. By the time that bad weather in November 1940 limited the raids, London had been bombed for 56 consecutive days. This was unprecedented in the history of aerial bombing. Before the war, the small town of Guernica had been destroyed in an afternoon, Rotterdam had been bombed on just one occasion and Warsaw for eight days. The civilian population of London had therefore undergone an unparalleled and shocking experience – 13,000 had been killed, 18,000 severely wounded and about 24,000 fires started. Homes were damaged or destroyed at the rate of 40,000 per week in September and October 1940 but the severe raid on 19 April 1941 in itself affected 178,000 houses. The number of homeless in rest centres was never much less than 20,000 on any given night in the first months of the Blitz. A total of 200,000 people were made homeless from September 1940 to June 1941.
How did this onslaught further the German aims of breaking the morale of the country and crippling its industry? There are a number of factors that have to be considered. The first is the sheer size of London. In 1939 it encompassed 1,156 square miles of territory and had a population of 8,500,000. It was the largest city in the world. However, it has been estimated that just over 1 million people (evacuated women and children, and men moving into the armed forces) had left London in 1939 and they were followed by another 900,000 during the period of the bombing. Offsetting this was a considerable drift back to London from evacuation points during the whole period. Perhaps it would be conservative to estimate the population at about 7 million during the Blitz. If, taking the figures already cited, we estimate that about 12,000 people were killed in the concentrated bombing period, this amounts to 0.17 per cent of the population. If the seriously wounded are added in we have a figure of about 30,000 or 0.43 per cent. This means that the vast majority of Londoners came through the Blitz unscathed so far as major injury or death is concerned. The Luftwaffe had a long way to go before it could kill or maim widely across the capital. In this sense London was just too big a target for the Luftwaffe.
Some light is shed on this by examining the composition of the force that was attempting to reduce London to ruins. The Luftwaffe had about 1,400 bombers operational during the period of the Blitz. But in order to conserve aircraft and rest crews it was usually impossible for the Germans to send more than 300 or 400 bombers over London on any given night. When they occasionally exceeded this number, as they did on 7 September 1940 and on 17 April and 10 May 1941 (to select just three examples), they were not able to match this effort again for some days. And it must be remembered that in the pre-war years the Germans had built up a force of tactical bombers, well designed to aid the army but unable to carry the heavy bombloads of the later Allied aircraft such as the Lancaster and the B17. Most German bombers could carry approximately 1 ton of bombs and in a large raid drop 300 or 400 tons of high explosive. With the introduction of the Max, a bomb of 2,500 kilograms, the Luftwaffe was occasionally able to deliver a heavier load, but their efforts never matched the raids on Hamburg when Bomber Command was able to deliver 10,000 tons of bombs on just four nights.
Of course some areas of London were bombed much more heavily than average figures indicate. We have noted that after the raid of 7 September two-thirds of the population of the Isle of Dogs decamped. Although Chelsea was not a prime target for the Germans, the vagaries of bombing in 1940 meant that because it was on the river and proximate to Westminster it was hit hard. One air-raid warden in the area (Jo Oakman) noted every ‘event’, as bombings were called, which she attended. Between 4 September and 29 December she was called out on over 400 occasions. If these are plotted on a map of an area bounded by Sloane Street, Cheyne Walk and the Brompton Road, the detail on the map disappears under a mass of red dots. And some of the ‘incidents’ she attended had multiple victims. On 11 September she visited 57 Cadogan Square, only to find that a shelter had been hit and some occupants ‘crushed beyond recognition’. Her comment ‘heaven help us all’ summed up the helplessness of those in the Air Raid protection squads. Almost every diary from the period contains the words ‘frightened’, ‘terrified’ or something similar. One account was entitled ‘Journal Under The Terror’, a reference to the period under Maximilien Robespierre during the French Revolution. The diarist described the night of 8 September as ‘a night of horror, a hell on earth’. The proprietor of a cinema in East Ham, one of the worst affected areas, wrote:
This week has turned us into a very frightened and a very desperate crowd of people … Men on my staff that were in the last war show their misery in the present situation more openly than the rest … Stranded in the theatre all night with half a dozen of them it was very pathetic … These old sweats are very defeatist in their views and keep rubbing in the terrible future they think we have in store for us. All my friends and acquaintances are quite sure they ‘can’t stand much more of this night after night’.
Nevertheless, despite the anxiety and fear, we know that even in areas that were badly bombed the Germans failed in their attempt to induce mass panic. Certainly some left the city. There were 25,000 ‘unauthorised evacuees’ to various towns and villages in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire by 15 September. Others trekked out to areas such as Epping Forest and the Chislehurst Caves at night, but many came back to work during the day. Indeed, special trains were laid on to assist them. In this regard it is worth noting the MO finding that of the 301 inhabitants of one street, 23 per cent of the women and children had gone but just 3 per cent of the men – no doubt because most of the men had to remain in reasonable proximity to their work.
How did people cope with the Blitz and carry on with their normal lives? Many factors seemed to have helped. Some are quite mundane. Most people simply had to go to work, for without work there was no pay and without pay there was no sustenance. And for most people work was an ingrained habit. This factor is often overlooked in analyses of the Blitz but it cannot be emphasised too strongly. Work was the bedrock of industrial society then as it is now. Many diarists mention this. Phyllis Warner made much of the fact that the horror was mixed with everyday routine. She picked her way to work past bomb craters and still did her job although there was a large hole in the roof. Even in the most difficult of circumstances people would stick to their jobs. One bank employee walked to and from work, although it was a journey of 12 miles and it took him three and a half hours each way. Only unexploded bombs kept him away. Others were just too busy or were in such key areas that stopping work never occurred to them. A sister on a children’s hospital ward records the daily terror, regularly notes her lack of sleep, but is only concerned about the babies and children under her care and their screams of terror when the bombs fall. There are innumerable other examples, but work and the routine of work should not be underestimated as providing the spur to continue.
Another factor was the sheer difficulty of leaving. Those who left either had a relative in the country or trekked back during the day. But for most, their support network in the form of family and friends was nearby. And the services they needed to sustain them if their house was demolished were also local. There were rest centres, mobile canteens and other facilities run by the local council. Few had the resources to move away from this network. Indeed, the majority of people did not own a car, the most immediate and personal means of transport. There was always the railway and some availed themselves of it, but the question remained of where to go and to whom to appeal for support on arrival. At other times it was German bombing that prevented this particular escape route from functioning. In short, there were powerful reasons to remain in the familiar surroundings of street and suburb.
It is in this context that statements to the effect that ‘over the first weekend, the nerve and spirit of those in the East End came close to breaking’ should be taken. That there was some panic is beyond doubt. That some of these people fled to safer areas is unquestionable. It also seems unquestionable that for many, removing themselves from where the bombs were falling was not so much a panic reaction as a sensible precaution. But most remained – either because they had no alternative or to utilise the local support networks. How many of these ‘came close to breaking’ can never be known. All we can observe is what actually happened. Most stayed in place and went to work when they could, hardly indicative of broken morale or mass panic. Perhaps the last word should be that of a keen observer of Britain (and of human nature). Before the Blitz had even started, Raymond Chandler predicted its outcome. He wrote to a friend, ‘as for bombing it will be bad but … the English civilian is the least hysterical in the world’.
It is even possible that the bombing stiffened the resolve of Londoners. Certainly they developed, unsurprisingly, a deep antipathy for the people bombing them. Most diarists record this fact. Vere Hodgson, that most sane and broad-minded of Londoners, thought she might never bother with Germans again.63 Ida Naish hoped to see Hitler in Hell. Winifred Bowman spoke of ‘those swines of Jerries’. Mrs Brinton-Lee compared British soldiers with the ‘bombastic’ or ‘craven’ German prisoners she had met. Finally a survey taken by Home Intelligence recorded that after three months of bombing 68 per cent of the people were in favour of subjecting Germany to a harsher peace settlement than Versailles. The diaries certainly show no overwhelming desire by Londoners to come to any kind of settlement with the country that was bombing them.
And even in these circumstances people displayed that normal tendency to come to terms with their situation. Phyllis Warner, who found the first days of the Blitz an appalling experience, reported on 18 September ‘that I’m glad to say that I’m not as frightened as I was. Last week I couldn’t sleep at all, and found the greatest difficulty in getting through my day’s work, but this week I feel much stronger … It’s just a case of getting over the first shock.’ Others felt the same. G. Thomas reported that by 15 September ‘we seem to be getting used to these battles’, while Ann Shepperd, although near an anti-aircraft battery, was sleeping well by 17 September. These individual impressions are supported by the statistics. Mass Observation noted that those getting no sleep decreased from 31 per cent on 12 September to 9 per cent on 22 September and 3 per cent on 3 October. And the numbers recorded by Home Security as sheltering in Underground stations reached a peak of 178,000 on the night of 27–28 September, but decreased to 105,000 on 5 December, 84,000 on 15 January, and just 63,000 on 11 March as more and more people decided to sleep at home. As the head of Mass Observation put it:
For the first few days of the London blitz, social life was shocked almost to a standstill: one left work in the evening to go home to an air-raid. One emerged from the air-raid in the morning to go back to work, maybe late, that was all; and while it was new, exciting, overwhelming, it was enough. Few had the time or the emotional energy for anything else – at first. Gradually, as the nights went by, priorities began to shift. Home life began to acquire some patterns again. New infrastructures were evolved, suited to the new conditions. Routines were established – going to the shelter or not going to the shelter; eating early before the sirens or packing up a picnic. The repetition of bombing on London, every night, helped give such routines both urgency and rhythm.
A comment is needed at this point on the shelters, both public and private, that were made available by the government. Mass Observation reports are highly critical of public shelters. They were unsanitary, there were too few of them, and some of the surface shelters were shoddily built and in effect little more than death traps. The government, including the new Minister of Home Security, Herbert Morrison, who had replaced the rather ineffectual Sir John Anderson in October, was reluctant to allow the Underground stations to be used as deep shelters. Why, given this situation, was there not some kind of rebellion? There was of course anger – after specific incidents – and many local authorities suffered a backlash due to the inadequacy of the shelters provided. The fact is, however, that most people did not repair to shelters during the Blitz. At its peak only 15 per cent of the population of London used a public shelter and this figure declined from late October to under 10 per cent. Hence the dissatisfaction that did exist had no widespread implications for the war effort.
The final factor to thwart the Germans was Churchill. It is easy now to adopt a cynical attitude to politicians touring disaster areas. But this was 1940 and Churchill’s visits to bomb-damaged areas fulfilled a number of needs. He was often moved to tears at the sight of the homeless and he developed an instant empathy with those whose houses and lives would never be the same. But he also represented something else. He had come to power at a desperate time when a fear was expressed that a British government might go the way of the French. A common call to him as he toured the devastated areas was ‘Give it ’em back’ or ‘when are we going to bomb Berlin?’ His resolute responses were invariably described as ‘reassuring’. In the course of the Blitz, Churchill toured most of Britain’s major cities, cheering people with his obvious concern but also letting them see that as long as he was in charge the war would be fought to the end.
This symbiotic relationship between Churchill and the people is often overlooked. He was seeking to comfort them and assess the response of the local authorities to their plight, but they were also assessing him as an indicator that there was no defeatism in the higher ranks of the government.
He made other interventions as well. It was his minute of 21 September in favour of allowing people to shelter in the Underground that broke the paralysis on the issue that had developed in Cabinet. And it was his experience of destroyed homes on the south coast that resulted in the War Damages Act that saw compensation paid to people for bomb damage.
If the German bombing did not cause a breakdown of society in London, to what extent did it achieve its other aim, that of stifling the capital’s war effort? During the war the ‘key points’ in the city were identified. These were facilities that, if hit or destroyed, could substantially damage the functioning of London as part of the war economy. They encompassed transport facilities, water storage, telecommunications, factories, radar, government buildings and docks. In 1940, 840 such points had been identified in London, a number that increased to 1,109 in 1941. One half to two-thirds of these were factories, 35 were electricity power stations, 23 were gas works, 15 ordnance factories and so on.