On Thursday, August 31, 1939, three days before war against Germany was declared, London was gripped by a sudden panic. A mass exodus began as cars laden with luggage headed out of town. Nine of the main routes away from the city were made one-way and sealed to incoming traffic. Almost overnight some 393,000 schoolchildren, plus a further 257,000 mothers and children under five, were ferried from the capital. Elsewhere, in what has been called “the great cat and dog massacre”, 400,000 animals were killed in a few days in anticipation of the coming conflagration.
For city dwellers who have recently been through lockdown, those first days and weeks in the wartime capital have an oddly familiar feel. Cinemas and theaters were temporarily closed, and prosperous districts emptied as “To Let” notices went up outside well-heeled homes. Bicycles became popular as petrol rationing began, and people worried about jobs as firm after firm closed down. Guy Fawkes Night was canceled, and school closures meant that those children left behind suddenly found themselves without any education at all. Walking home one night through north Harrow in the eerie pre-Blitz blackout silence, one Londoner remarked that “all the streets were deserted as though plague had struck and the death-cart had made its daily collection”.
Jerry White is one of London’s best historians — he has done close-up studies of the city in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, plus a history of the capital in the First World War — and in this enveloping book he tries to scrape away the myths that have obscured our view of the Second World War and reintroduce us to what life in the city between 1939 and 1945 was actually like. In this ground-level approach, which draws heavily on diaries and letters and barely ventures into Whitehall, there is a lot that is familiar, but much that is markedly less so.
The War Zone
We learn about the Blitz tourists who would visit bomb sites after the worst strikes, and the taxi drivers who “had a suitcase beside the driving seat filled with clothes in case they should find their home blitzed at the end of a shift”. White talks about the looting, and the anti-Semitism that was a persistent curse; the filthy conditions in many early shelters, and the danger in the first months from IRA bombs rather than German aircraft (there were 59 IRA explosions in 1939). And he comments on Londoners’ common habit as the Blitz began of taking their valuables with them when they went underground — one headless corpse recovered from a direct strike on Bank Tube station in January 1941 was found with 950 £1 notes concealed inside her corset.
Before 1939 there had been terrifying predictions of what the coming bombing war would be like. A 1937 Whitehall estimate reckoned there would be 200,000 casualties a week, of which 66,000 would die, and in a 1934 speech Winston Churchill called the city “the greatest target in the world, a kind of tremendous fat cow”.
In the event, it was London’s size that allowed it to cope with what was the world’s most sustained attack on a single city. Over the course of 58 months — from the first bombs on the outskirts of Greater London on June 19, 1940, to the last rocket attack, which injured three people in Waltham Abbey on March 28, 1945 — more than 2.4 million houses were damaged by successive waves of bombers, V1 and V2 rockets. In Streatham, south London, 88 percent of houses suffered damage. The desolation around St Paul’s, where you could journey for a quarter of a mile without passing a standing building, was likened by many to Ypres in the First World War. The writer James Lees-Milne, walking to the devastated north of the cathedral, thought it “was like wandering in Pompeii”. And yet the city survived.
Winston Churchill called London “the greatest target in the world, a kind of tremendous fat cow.”
Some couldn’t cope. Before Christmas 1941, Harry Gostling, a 55-year-old stretcher bearer from Hackney, gassed himself in his kitchen after becoming nervous and depressed about dealing “with some very bad cases”. A month later John Stone, a part-time warden, did the same in East Dulwich, convinced he was a coward. But what remains astonishing to any modern-day reader, despite the clichés, and despite the 29,890 deaths in the capital (just under half the UK civilian death total), was how resilient most Londoners were under the most appalling stress and strain.
Morale, as we have learned over the past two years, is a mercurial thing. After “Black Saturday” on September 7, 1940, when in the first big raid of the Blitz much of the East End went up in flames, George Orwell talked to a working-class youth from south London and thought him “very embittered and defeatist about the war”. A few days later, though, on September 11, after every available anti-aircraft gun had been rushed to the capital, many Londoners were exultant when the batteries opened up in one deafening roar. “Well done, London. Well done, We, Us, & Co. Unlimited,” wrote one diarist the next day.
A lot of White’s material centers on the organized effort to contain the damage, and he can sometimes get bogged down in the detail. But his book is full of insights — about the class divisions that rumbled on bitterly beneath the surface, or the clamor for housing that by 1944 had become most Londoners’ single most urgent concern. And if he has one hero, it is the “soldier-civilians” army of air raid wardens, firemen, first-aid workers, doctors, nurses and civil defense volunteers who faced the most extraordinary burdens in the course of the conflict — people like bomb disposal expert Lieutenant Robert Davies, who, called to an unexploded bomb next to St Paul’s Cathedral, had to pull the one-ton device out of 27ft of London clay after it was discovered it couldn’t be defused. Using steel hawsers attached to two lorries, Davies oversaw the extraction of the bomb, so saving the cathedral, then drove it himself at high speed through the streets cleared of people before detonating it harmlessly on Hackney Marshes.
Davies and Sapper George Wylie got the George Cross for their actions, but their bravery seems emblematic of the whole city during the war.
Andrew Holgate is the literary editor for The Sunday Times of London