The prime minister spent Sunday, September 8, 1940 walking from one bomb site to another. Fires were still burning across the East End and on both sides of the Thames. Surrey docks was a square mile of flame. The raid had been no mere warm-up. Swarms of Heinkel and Dornier bombers – 250 of them, plus 50 Messerschmitt fighters – flew in over the east coast at 4.30pm on September 7. Meeting no resistance, they tracked west along the Thames.
The high explosive bombing began at the Ford car factory in Dagenham. Next to be hit was Europe’s largest gasworks and then the docks with their warehouses packed with ammunition and food. Tar, rubber and soap factories were reduced to rubble, as were hundreds of homes in the streets squeezed in and around the docks.
The attackers returned to their bases in France at 6.30pm, leaving East Enders to stumble out from homes and shelters to start tackling the fires, fix up the injured and count the dead. The Luftwaffe returned two hours later and did it all again, knocking off, as it were, at dawn on September 8. The body count was 436 and 1,600 had serious injuries.
Some of the government officials who accompanied Churchill on his bombsite tour that Sunday feared a hostile reception, especially at an air raid shelter in which 50 people were killed when a bomb fell through a ventilation shaft. The PM’s chief of staff, Major-General Hastings ‘Pug’ Ismay, noted: “… the big crowd, male and female, young and old, all seemingly very poor … one might have expected them to be resentful against the authorities responsible for their protection.”
But that wasn’t what happened. The welcome he got was joyful. He was mobbed and up went a cry from the crowd that would define the spirit of resistance and endurance during the Blitz and the rest of the war, and help to forge British cultural and political attitudes to external threats that last to this day: “It was good of you to come, Winnie. We thought you’d come. We can take it. Give it back.”
Juliet Gardiner’s outstandingly detailed social history of those eight make-or-break months recounts the deeds of courage, bravery, sheer bloody-minded stamina of the British as the frontline came to the criminally unprepared home front. Drawing on diaries, letters, mass observation reports and official records, she demonstrates that the spirit of the Blitz was no myth.
While London is the main focus of her compelling narrative – inevitably, since half of the 43,500 civilian deaths were in the capital – she overlooks neither the other parts of those blitzed islands nor the evidence that for all those who risked or lost their own lives to save others, there were more than a few villains out to make the most of the chaos.
At the start of the war, the optimistic view in Belfast and London was that Northern Ireland would be very low on the Luftwaffe’s hit list. Its distance from German bases would protect the province. The Nazis would have no shortage of more attractive targets on the British mainland.
Some were encouraged by a rumour reported by a Belfast letter-writer: “De Valera indicated to the German Legation that Ireland is to be regarded as a whole. As long as the English keep out of Éire, this will be respected.”
Belfast’s port, shipbuilding and aircraft manufacturers proved to be targets the Luftwaffe couldn’t resist. The docks and the Harland & Wolff shipyard were hit on April 7-8, 1941. On April 15, Easter Tuesday that year, the city was subjected to a five-hour raid by 180 bombers. After two further intensive raids, Northern Ireland’s Blitz death toll was 1,100. More than 56,000 houses were destroyed or damaged and some 100,000 were left homeless.
For a while, however, Hitler bridged Ulster’s sectarian fault-line and punctured the north-south border. Catholics and Protestants from the Shankill Road shared the shelter offered by a monastery. Fearing the chapel might be hit, one of the priests put on a tin hat and offered absolution to everyone there. Asked by Stormont for help, De Valera sent 13 fire engines and their crews to Belfast.
“They are,” he said, “all our people.” The border was opened up to refugees seeking safety in the republic – a risk to Irish neutrality that was overlooked by the Germans and welcomed by the Irish Independent: “If anything further was needed to demonstrate the utter unreality of the artificial border that divides our country, the welcome that has been given to the refugees from Belfast provides it.”
The province’s Blitz spirit was not long-lasting. When the clearing up began, so did the sectarian sniping. Unionists insisted the raids confirmed Ulster’s status as an integral part of Britain and its war. Gardiner points out that more Protestant than Catholic homes were hit because they were more likely to be in industrial areas, not because, as some were alleging, “the Pope was in the first aeroplane”. It wasn’t too long before walls in Catholic districts were being decorated with IRA exhortations: ‘No conscription here’, and ‘ARP stands for Arrests, Robbery and Police’ (ARP actually stood for the Air Raid Precautions organisation).
Back across the Irish Sea, attacks on targets throughout Britain were stepped up. There were shocking losses in Plymouth, Bristol, Hull, Liverpool and Cardiff. Coventry entered the language as a definition of total destruction. Two nights of raids on Clydebank left more than 1,000 dead and only eight of its 12,000 homes undamaged. Stray, scavenging dogs – 1,800 of them – had to be put down.
London took 57 consecutive night raids. There was a brief respite in November, when low cloud and fog kept the bombers away, and at Christmas. Having flattened the East End, the target areas were widened. Hospitals were not spared. The picture of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral emerging unscathed from the flames and smoke is the iconic image of the Blitz, but eight of Christopher Wren’s other churches were wasted.
Much was made about the fortitude of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, who shared sacrifices being made by the rest of the country. This was untrue. The book has 23 poignant pictures, one of which records Londoners spending a night on the platform and tracks of the Aldwych tube station. The king and queen, of course, aren’t among them. They didn’t decamp to Canada, but on most nights they were driven in an armoured car to Windsor Castle, which appears to have been off-limits to the Luftwaffe, presumably on Hitler’s orders.
The queen found time to discuss with her frock-maker, Norman Hartnell, the clothes she should wear when meeting the dispossessed in her bombed-out kingdom.
Continuous disarray and the blackouts created perfect conditions for pickpockets, racketeers, burglars and looters. After raids on Sheffield, courts sat for two days hearing looting cases and handed down severe prison terms. In Portsmouth, four policemen looted the bombed homes they’d been sent to protect; they each went down for 10 years. “Hang a looter and stop this filthy crime” was a Daily Mirror headline in November 1940.
False claims for bomb damage and loss of ration books were also made. A Londoner who dishonestly claimed he’d been bombed out 19 times in five months got three years. And amid all the grumbling, there were mild eruptions of the anti-semitism that had never been far below the surface in the 1930s. One complaint was that Jews seemed to be taking more than their fair share of space in air raid shelters.
Churchill wept when he visited that Shoreditch shelter on September 8. But what could not be known then was that he wanted London to be bombed. An early RAF raid on Berlin was designed to invite retaliation, the dual purpose being to relieve pressure on the Western Front and demonstrate to Hitler and the Americans Britain’s resolve and ability to resist.
If, as he believed, the Bletchley Park code-breakers shortened the war by two years, there’s a strong case for crediting the Blitz spirit with an achievement of equal significance in 1941: ensuring it went on. Churchill did as those Londoners asked: he gave it back. In February 1942, the RAF was ordered to focus bombing “on the morale of the enemy civil population and in particular of the industrial workers”. From Cologne in 1942 to Dresden in 1945, Allied bombing raids killed 635,000 German civilians at a cost of 85,000 airmen.