Seventy years ago today, on the 7th of September 1940, the aerial bombardment of the United Kingdom by Nazi Germany began. The Blitz would last for eight months spreading beyond its initial focus on London. The sheer scale of destruction was most vividly displayed to me in the Guardian’s map, based on London Fire Brigade records, showing where bombs fell on just the first day of the Blitz. Three bombs landed within a block of my flat in the East End and there were many more along routes I travel frequently or places I visit regularly. The map is worth a look, even if you haven’t lived in London; the sheer scale of the bombing represented visually is almost incomprehensible to someone who did not live through it. Much of the press coverage of the anniversary has also focused on the stories of those who did live through the Blitz. Many of these accounts reveal the everyday heroism and steadfast determination to endure that make up the popular idea of the Blitz, featured in such propaganda films as “London Can Take It.” But others highlight another side of the Blitz: the terror, ordinary human greed and the disorganization and bureaucratic bungling that led to unnecessary loss of life.
Juliet Gardiner’s article in the Telegraph showcases the story of Len Jones, who spent the first night of the Blitz in a public shelter in Poplar, East London,which:
lifted and moved, almost as if it was a ship in a rough sea. And the suction and the blasts were coming in and out of the steel door, smashing backwards and forwards, bashing us against the walls… The worst part was the poor little kids, they were screaming and crying and clutching their parents. The heat was colossal; the steel door was so hot you couldn’t touch it. And everybody was being sick, and people were having to carry on their normal bodily needs, and the smell was terrible.”
Francis Beckett’s article in the Guardian includes the story of David Clark, whose family survived a bombing raid in Ilford only to emerge from their Anderson shelter and discover that their house had been looted of everything but the fish knives and port decanter. Though the threat of aerial bombardment had been looming since the Spanish Civil War, Beckett argues, the government had not properly prepared for the possible onslaught, overlooking the fact that most homes were not large enough for Anderson shelters and neglecting to plan for the accommodation of the thousands of people rendered homeless by the bombardment. John Rennie’s article in East End Life similarly highlights bureaucratic incompetency, recounting the story of the South Halsville School in Canning Town. The school was housing local residents made homeless by the raids of September 7th, despite being identified as a probable bombing target. Buses were promised to evacuate the refugees on the afternoon of September 9th but never arrived having been sent to Camden Town by mistake. Later that night the school was hit and 73 people were killed.
Such individual stories help to the bring the story of the Blitz and wartime Britain to life in all its complexity. And attention to the tragedy and terror as well as the heroism of the Blitz does not diminish the bravery of many of those who lived through it. Instead, it reinforces how extraordinary it is that the Blitz did not bring Britain to her knees.