THE LONDON BLITZ

The first aerial onslaught on London started in September 1940 when the Luftwaffer switched its tactics from bombing air-fields and strategic targets to direct attacks on the main cities of Britain. The raids disrupted the lives of everyone; sleep was lost and fear unleashed as the nightly bombardments from the skies brought images of instant annihilation or maimed survival to the city-dwellers’ thoughts.

When factual transmission of news about the deaths and damage done was not forthcoming next morning, rumours replaced or added to what had not been stated over the radio or was not discernible. For those, like himself, who travelled to London each day to work, the evidence was clear enough all around. Shattered buildings, burning fires and sombre figures dealing with the devastation. The frequent craters caused by bombs on the railway tracks severed London from its suburbs and in-going trains stopped to disgorge their load of passengers for them to walk along the tracks through the junk and the rubble to their places of work. Sometimes another train would be waiting on the London side for them to clamber on and continue their journey’s. Gangs of workmen would be filling in the craters for the tracks to be re-laid before London became a paralysed city.

The office workers picked their ways over shattered glass and debris as the fire-fighters, with smoke-blackened faces, struggled with writhing hoses directed on burning buildings. They, or their replacements,, would still be there in the evenings, when the office workers left the City to return to their homes before the sirens sounded the arrival of the first wave of bombers and another harrowing night.

Night after night they came spreading death and destruction. At first, at the height of an attack, with the intensity of bombs falling and anti-aircraft guns firing, his mother herded her children downstairs into the cupboard space beneath the stairs, which was supposed to give some protection from a direct hit; but the inadequacy of the space, the loss of sleep and the discomfort, made this effort of limited duration and eventually they discontinued this illusion of survival and returned to their ice-cold beds to fatalistically pass nights that were a mixture of sleep and disturbed fear. A sleeping pattern developed whereby the noise left them fearfully awake until tiredness brought sleep. only for a nearby falling bomb to wrest them awake again to listening alertness.

The mornings brought a hurried dressing and a simple breakfast, limited by the rationing that prevailed; with the wireless turned on to listen to the censored accounts of the nightly toll and the resulting score – so many German planes brought down and so many RAF planes. Boundaries were stretched to give these results and the damage done was played-down.

It was always dark when he set off for the station to catch the workmens’ train that arrived in London before 7 o’clock. It was the cheapest fare his meagre pay packet could afford. Ten passengers sat five aside on the compartment’s benches, others standing. With windows closed and many smoking, they sat in a dim opaqueness. In the stifling atmosphere they were mostly silent, but sometimes two would discuss some nightly horror in whispered tones. Once someone said what madness it was for countries to be spending their wealth to destroy one another instead of creating plenty for all. But no one wanted to hear such talk. It had a dangerous ring to it. We were fighting for our lives and our leader had promised us that very soon we would be replying in kind a hundred-fold.

At the Victoria terminal he headed for the waiting room; even at that hour it was filled with people sitting and standing; he knew he would get a seat by waiting but the bulb that lit the room gave insufficient light to read. There was a coal fire burning in the grate and he would sit and muse in the noise-muted smokey place with people coming and going all the time. Nearly two hours of this and then he was walking down Victoria Street to his place of work.

When the raids began that September, the Government had rushed through laws on how to deal with the consequences. All men between the ages of l6 and 65 were obliged to do a maximum of 48 hours fire-watching each month – all households were issued with 2 buckets, one for water and one for sand – stirrup pumps were distributed to street groups, steel helmets arranged for the fire-watchers and air-raid precaution (ARP) wardens nominated. Later, women were called up for military service or war work.

He liked the fire-watching in London, on a roof of office blocks with a steel hat, watching the roving searchlight beams probing the skies for enemy planes, the mysterious looking barrage balloons stretching out to the dim horizon, there to prevent dive-bombers or low-level machine gun attacks. But besides these there were the burning fires, wherever one looked and the ultimate gut-wrenching fear as one heard the piercing shriek of a falling bomb, growing louder and louder until, the combined sound of impact crunch and explosion brought the soft uncoiling relief when it was somewhere else and not on his building. It was always difficult to see a bomb exploding in the darkness, but immeasurably poignant when one did.

The fire-watchers were paid and he loved the mornings when the all-clear sirens sounded and he set off to search for an open cafe to use the money to buy tea and toast, dried eggs scrambled and even bacon and listen to the talk around him about the past night. Then, through the streets now filling with people moving by the newly wrecked and smoking buildings attended by the ubiquitous firemen; sometimes an ambulance crew pulling out the living and injured, to his place of work.

Lack of sleep and a poor diet left not much energy for other pursuits; one just got through each day and hoped to catch up sleep at week-ends, though the Luftwaffer did not break for week-ends and experimented with what were called ‘nuisance raids’ when individual planes would dive out of cloud cover and drop a string of incendiary bombs on suburban houses. One such cluster straddled the houses and gardens of his road and the activity involved in extinguishing these was a clear sign that the people behind the front doors were ready, attentive and vigilant as they waited out the dreaded hours. Once again his mother led them out to tackle the blazing fire bombs with buckets of sand. (His father was fire-watching in London).

The cinemas were the most popular form of relaxation and entertainment and queues formed there to get tickets. A sign would be flashed on to the screen announcing the start of a raid and people decided whether to remain or leave.
This was a time of group cohesion and to achieve this one needed to join with others. He volunteered for the Royal Air Force and, while still underage, was preparing for this through membership of the Air Training Corps (ATC). He became a member of the Home Guard; also joining a trailer pump team and did fire-watching locally and in London.

It was only in June of that year that he had seen the defeated British Expeditionary Force soldiers, evacuated from France and put on to trains which had passed through his local station at Beckenham Junction. Within a few months the Battle of Britain had been fought out in the skies as he watched while fruit picking a-top a ladder at a farm in Sittingbourne Kent organised by schools; (BLOG – War-Time, a schoolboy and his bike) and now, a few months on, he was in the midst of the London Blitz, barely aware of the portentous times and the rapidly changing scenes he was living through. It was only much later that he understood he was at the heart of an historical event.

1940