Untold story of People’s War in London Blitz
THE media dusted off the black and white photos and the TV showed old newsreels of Londoners clambering out of the dust and rubble of their devastated homes, smiling for the camera while Union Jack flags flutter in the wind. They recorded how the King and Queen were pleased that Buckingham Palace had been bombed because “(We) can look the East End in the face.” No bombs, in fact, landed on the Palace itself.
But the media did not show how London’s Working Class reacted—fighting not just to survive the German air raids, but the British Establishment as well.
The East End was in revolt. Parts had become a ‘no go’ area to the King, Queen and Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
The wartime Minister for Information, Harold Nicholson, recalled in his diary: “Everybody is worried about the feeling in the East End of London where there is much bitterness.”
Working Class communities had suffered badly during the Depression of the 1930s with high unemployment and slum housing. Now they suffered the heaviest devastation, with large parts of Stepney, Bethnal Green, Poplar, West Ham, Bermondsey, Deptford, Lambeth, St Pancras, The City and Westminster destroyed.
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These communities knew more about the impact of ‘total war’ than any other, outside the Armed Forces. Many had already had sons who had been fighting fascism in the Spanish civil war a few years before. They knew from first hand the impact of aerial bombing by Hitler and Mussolini of Madrid, Barcelona and famously Guernica.
Unlike the Government, they recognised the need for deep-level underground shelters for the civilian population.
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The Government failed to pay attention to the agitation, preferring to leave it to local authorities, employers or individuals to do the best they could. Those in the know began to strengthen the spaces under their stairwells, opened up disused cellars and dig up parts of their gardens if they were fortunate to have one. Corrugated iron was in great demand.
The authorities feared ‘deep shelter mentality,’ that Londoners may not return to the surface once down in the relative safety of deep underground shelters.
Those that spoke out at the beginning of the War for deep-level shelters or produced leaflets highlighting the dangers of the Anderson and trench shelters found themselves harassed, arrested and their publications often confiscated.
Sir John Anderson, after whom the back garden shelters were named, said in the Commons two years before the Blitz: “I do not think we are prepared to adapt our whole civilisation, so as to compel a large proportion of our people to live and maintain the productive capacity in a troglodyte existence deep under ground.”
Then just three months before the Blitz began, he said on June 12, 1940: “I am devoutly thankful that we did not adopt a general policy of providing deep and strongly protected shelters.”
How the Working Class paid for such stupidity! Things were soon to change from the days of the ‘Phoney War,’ after British and Allied forces had to be evacuated from Dunkirk in June, 1940.
That’s when the Luftwaffe began concentrating its attacks on British air defences in the Battle of Britain.
But its failure to deliver a knock-out blow to the RAF led the German Command to seek alternative targets, Britain’s manufacturing and munitions industries, much of it in cities, in densely populated areas. That meant London first—and particularly the docks along the Thames.
Communist Party London leader Ted Bramley noted at the time: “Londoners were uprooted, blasted from their homes, scattered over the face of Britain.
“Sometimes, the air raids come six times a day. For weeks every night, as regularly as clockwork, from sunset to sunrise, 10 long, weary hours. Hour after hour the drone of the Nazi planes, the pounding of guns, the whistle and scream of bombs and the tense, clenched teeth and hands, just waiting for the explosion. The quiet calculation ‘How near is it?’ The deep breath of relief to be alive still. Did it go off? Is it a time bomb?
“A desperate effort to snatch some sleep in the cramped space and the foul air of the basements and air-raid shelters where we crouch, before we stagger out to face another day, pale and weary, more exhausted than the night before.”
The Luftwaffe’s large-scale air-raid on London on that first night, September 7, 1940, came with 364 bombers, escorted by 515 fighters.
London’s defences were ill-prepared for such an onslaught. Large areas were destroyed, with 2,000 killed or injured (436 killed, 1,666 injured), compared to 250 killed in the Armed Forces for the whole month.
“That night the East End burned,” wrote Stepney borough councillor Phil Piratin. “The dockside was ablaze—it lit up a great part of East London and South East London, a night when London was ringed and stabbed with fire.”
The RAF retaliated by bombing Berlin. Hitler was infuriated and declared to his Luftwaffe commanders: “If they think they can destroy our cities, we shall wipe theirs from the face of the earth.”
Orders were given to German air crews to bomb at random, the Luftwaffe thereby giving up any pretence of attempting avoid civilian areas.
Journalist Fred Pateman wrote in the Daily Worker on the third day, September 9, 1940: “Yesterday, I walked through the valley of the shadow of death—the little streets of London’s East End. Along the main roads was a steady stream of refugees, men with suitcases, women with bundles, children with their pillows and cot covers—all homeless in the heart of London.”
Fires caused by the bombing raged for weeks and acted as ‘beacons’ for further waves of German bombers. London suffered a further 76 consecutive nights of enemy bombing, according to the London County Council.
The civilian population, initially, had attempted to take refuge in government-prescribed trench shelters.
But these soon filled with water. Many street level shelters had been destroyed and the famous back garden Anderson shelters made of corrugated steel offered only limited protection from bomb blast and shrapnel.
The few deep-level shelters underneath large, deserted warehouses were now full to overflowing. They were poorly lit, wet, and insanitary.
People lined up from 12 noon in Stepney to get into the Tilbury shelter, housed in the massive Fenchurch-Tilbury railway goods terminal just off the Commercial Road. It was originally planned for 1,600 people, but now held 10,000.
Meanwhile, the shelter in Spitalfields nearby, under Godfrey Phillip’s cigarette factory in Commercial Street which was big enough for 3,000 people, was locked every night at 5.30pm. Ted Bramley estimated another 200,000 ‘safe shelter’ places were available in London, but locked at night.
Many East Enders were forced to trek to the West End, or North London, South London, or Kent and the Chislehurst Caves in the side of the North Downs. Others took coaches into the countryside, costing half-a-crown (12.5p), to sleep by the roadside.
By mid November, 1940, four-out-of-10 houses in the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney had been destroyed or damaged. Many factories were also hit.
The Government had failed to listen to advice about the need for comprehensive and universal air raid precautions, preferring to leave it to local borough councils, employers or households to do the best they could.
Yet many of the Government’s own appointed observers such as the famous scientist JB Haldane were pressing for deep shelters.
Meanwhile, the rich had their own private shelters. None was more elaborately decorated than the shelter beneath the Savoy Hotel in the Strand, which even boasted nurses on standby.
Government censorship of the media in the early days of the War tried to show that life in London carrying on as normal, with people going to parties, dining out and clubbing in the West End. Buckingham Palace had been hit, but in reality involved minor damage to out houses.
This was at odds with the experience of the people in the Working Class areas of London, who were now being systematically bombed day and night.
Stepney councillor Piratin, who became the post-War Communist MP for Stepney, took 50 workers and what Time magazine called ‘ill-clad children’ up to the Strand and forced his way into the Savoy on the second Saturday of the Blitz, September 14.
He invaded and occupied the Savoy’s posh shelter with his workers, stating, “If it is good enough for the rich, it is good enough for the Stepney workers and their families.”
The newspapers were full of stories the next day about the audacious occupation of the Savoy and the terrible conditions of the shelters in Stepney.
A picket was later organised at Carreras tobacco factory at St Pancras, demanding that its shelter which could hold 3,000 people be opened to the public at night. Walthamstow borough councillor Bob Smith went further, taking homeless ‘bombed out’ families to occupy empty houses.
The gates to Underground stations at the beginning of the Blitz were surrounded by barbed wire and systematically locked by the police during air raids, to stop civilians seeking refuge.
But a crowd forced their way into Liverpool Street underground station on the night of September 8 and surged down to the deep-level Central Line platforms, because public shelters in the East End were overcrowded due to intense air raids.
“The public shelter was horrible, smelly and had a mouldy slab of concrete for a roof,” said one resident. “But you couldn’t go anywhere else as the Underground station was full of barbed wire. They wouldn’t let you near it.”
Three deep-level stations on the Northern Line at Warren Street, Goodge Street and Highgate were broken open and, according to Ted Bramley, “every inch of stairs, corridors and platforms was taken by the people.”
Crowds also swept past police guarding the entrances at other Underground stations, some using crowbars to force the Tube network to open up to thousands of Londoners seeking refugee from the nightly bombing.
Herbert Morrison, the Labour Home Secretary in the Wartime Coalition, was finally forced to reconsider using the London Underground as air-raid shelters and allowed civilians in during air raids.
By the end of that first month, September, 1940, some 79 Underground stations were being used as air-raid shelters at night by 177,000 people.
At its peak, 1,500 fires raged across London during the Blitz. In just two nights in April, 1941, around 148,000 homes across London were damaged in air-raids.
It would take another year after the Blitz before America joined the Allies, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. Until then, the full force of the Hitler’s madness had been waged against Britain—standing alone—and later the Soviet Union.
The London Blitz which ended on May 11, 1941, is a special moment in our history. Hitler’s failure to knock out the RAF and his miscalculation thinking he could bomb L0ndon into submission cost him any chance of invading Britain.
It meant Senate House in Russell Square, in Central London, which he had planned as the Third Reich’s English Nazi headquarters, would not be flying the Swastika after all.
But the failure of the Wartime British government to act promptly over deep-level air-raid shelters is also part of London’s history. That failure led to unnecessary casualties, the failure of the rich to share the burden of war with the Working Class.
The War years claimed the lives of 20,000 Londoners, including 327 firemen and women and numerous Anti Aircraft personnel, nurses, police, rescue and salvage crews and bomb disposal experts.
Many lives could have been saved—if only they had listened in time.