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Part 4 - The London Blitz

by RonMitchell

You are browsing in:

Archive List > Books > The London Blitz

Contributed by 
RonMitchell
People in story: 
no names - no pack drill!
Location of story: 
London - and Germany
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A6655647
Contributed on: 
03 November 2005

Did you notice that earlier - I generally forgot to mention something - directly at least?
Which just goes to show that we got so used and accustomed to things at the time of the constant raids, we hardly even
noticed.

The sounds and smells! The sound of bombs exploding. The sounds of the anti aircraft fire - "snap, crackle, pop" just like the
cereal (but much, much louder) when it was distant - and the sharper sound when it was overhead or the anti aircraft guns firing
were close (there were a couple of batteries of them close by our house in a nearby London park) - like a whip
cracking but again much louder.

The birds kept singing - the birds never deserted London through all its trials. The cats and dogs suffered with their owners.

That calls to mind another incident I had forgotten to mention - it happened earlier, during the "real blitz" -
sometime in the spring of 1941 while we were still living in our "original" house, at which time on some nights the
raid was a bad one, but then there would be four or five nights when the Luftwaffe would just send a bomber or two
every hour or so, just to keep everyone from getting a sound sleep - we used to call those the "nuisance" raids -
anyway if it seemed like a "nuisance" night my old school mates and I would go out at about 7pm for "something to
do" and one night we went to an "amusement parlour" - (pinball machines) - up by the old Hackney railway station -
we had heard they were giving real eggs as prizes if you won - anyway, I won three - and they were precious in that
rationed time - but then - at about 9 I think - the raid started developing into a nastier one and we decided we had
better get home but found the London bus service and the electric trolleybuses had stopped running so we had to walk
- we were several miles from my home - and we dived for shelter several times when one sounded as though it was
coming close - you would have laughed to see me going flat in the gutter by the kerb - the safest place to shelter if
you were passing shops with plate glass windows - flat on my face but always the last down because I had to go down
carefully to protect my eggs (the others hadn't won any), holding them above my head so as not to break one. There
were four of us originally but one lived close by Hackney so he left us first, then another lived further away but ran
off ahead because his mother was alone and there was just one other and I left - both of us lived in the same street. I
clearly remember having to dive for cover again close to the old Victoria Chest Hospital - which was on fire that night
- still with my eggs held high, fool that I was. When we eventually got home - it took us about an hour and a half in
total I think - I thought I was going to get a heroes welcome for the eggs (one of which turned out to be bad!) but
instead I got hell from my mother and sisters who were standing in the areaway of our house, worrying about me!
Well there's another silly little episode of what those nights were like!...............I can smile at them now.........it
wasn't funny then.

However, from 1942 on the RAF, utilizing newly developed radar, inflicted increasingly heavy losses on Luftwaffe
bombers. British Fighter Command was able to track and plot the course of German bombers from the moment they
took off from bases in Europe. RAF fighter planes were then dispatched to attack the incoming bombers at the best
possible position. As a result, the Luftwaffe never gained air supremacy over England, a vital prerequisite to a land
invasion. Failure to achieve air supremacy eventually led Hitler to indefinitely postpone Operation Sea Lion - the actual
invasion of Britain, although at one time it had progressed as far as assembling huge fleets of barges and other marine
vehicles for troops at the French ports closest to Britain.

During the nightly bombing raids on London, people took shelter not only in their own homes (the Anderson shelters
were basically a waste of money for the use they got) but also in warehouse and factory basements and underground
(subway) stations where they slept on makeshift beds amid primitive conditions with no privacy and poor sanitation
facilities. There were no such things as air or plastic mattresses and as many as five hundred people could be
sheltering at some underground stations such as Liverpool Street on the edge of "The City" - which station only had
one toilet for ladies and one for men! As many as 150,000 civilians were "overnighting" at various Tube
stations during the real blitz - and the "tube" trains kept running until midnight!.

Other British cities intermittently targeted during the Blitz included; Portsmouth, Southampton, Plymouth, Exeter,
Bristol, Bath, Cardiff, Birmingham, Coventry, Nottingham, Norwich, Ipswich, Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool, Hull,
Middlesbrough, Sunderland, Newcastle and also Glasgow, Scotland and Belfast, Northern Ireland. But these attacks
were usually one-offs or two-offs only - London was the only regular target. Hitler's intention was to break the
morale of the British people so that they would pressure Churchill into negotiating for peace. However, in that first
eight months of the real blitz" the bombing seemed to have the opposite effect, bringing the English people together to face a
common enemy. Encouraged by Churchill's (and The King and Queen's) frequent public appearances and radio
speeches, the people became determined to hold out indefinitely against the Nazi onslaught. "Business as usual," could
be seen everywhere written in chalk on boarded-up shop windows. But whether that resolve could have lasted
indefinitely if the Luftwaffe had kept up its initial pressure is questionable.

One of the worst attacks other than on London occurred on the night of November 14/15 1940 against Coventry, an
comparatively small industrial city east of Birmingham in central England. In that raid, 449 German bombers dropped
1,400 high explosive bombs and 100,000 incendiaries which destroyed 50,000 buildings, killing 568 persons, and
causing over 1,000 to be badly injured. The incendiary devices created fire storms creating super-heated gale force
winds drawing in torrents of air to fan enormous walls of flames.

In London, on the night of December 29/30, 1940 the Germans dropped mostly incendiary bombs resulting in a fire
storm that devastated the area between St. Paul's Cathedral and the Guildhall, destroying several historic churches.
Other famous landmarks damaged during the Blitz included Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, and the Chamber
of the House of Commons. When the blitz climaxed in May of 1941, in addition to the dead and injured, 375,000
Londoners were homeless - "bombed out" - and very close to running out of the courage to withstand more.

Most bombs poured down on the dock areas of West Ham and Bermondsey, and on adjoining Poplar, Bethnal Green,
Bow (where I lived then), Shoreditch, Whitechapel and Stepney and their neighbouring Boroughs south of the Thames. Thousands
of tons of bombs had been dropped and the fires that raged were greater than the Great Fire of 1666.

Birmingham was raided in October and the whole of the centre of Coventry (where one of my sisters lived with her
husband) was totally devastated. The effects of such devastation on areas so much smaller than London was much
worse in a way. It seemed as if the whole of Coventry had been put out of action. But my sister and her family were
unharmed. We lost neighbors and friends killed in the bombings - but none of my family was ever more than
superficially injured. Such is fate.

Further bombing raids took place throughout the rest of the war. The 'Baedeker Raids' against historic and beautiful
cities such as Bath and York in 1942, and the V1 and V2 rocket campaigns of the later war years kept the civil defence
services on alert almost to the end of the war in Europe, but nothing approached the seemingly never-ending nagging
intensity, horror and devastation of the original Blitz.

The final toll of casualties caused by the various air raids on Britain was over 60,000 civilians killed, (30,000 in
London), and 90,000 admitted to hospital (50,000 in London). Over 25,000 men, more than 29.000 women, and over
5,000 children were killed - in addition there were almost 1,000 bodies so badly charred that they could not be
identified as to sex and age. But - there are two sides to every story - and what happened to the German civilian
population was eventually far worse that what happened to Britain.

From 1943 onwards the air warfare turned sharply against Germany, especially after the entrance of the
USA to the British side. Between them the US and RAF Bomber Commands then had at least twice as many aircraft as
the Luftwaffe had ever possessed. The RAF experimented with daylight raids but - like the Luftwaffe earlier - found
them too expensive in aircraft and crews and from there on specialized in night bombing, while the US Airforce
specialized in precision daylight raids, with its heavily armed bombers (the amount of ammunition for their multiple guns
was so heavy that it tended to force them to carry a lighter bomb load than the RAF bombers) flying in close formation
where the field of fire from their multiple .5 calibre gun turrets was successful in protecting each other against
Luftwaffe defensive fighters - and later the USAAF also equipped their own fighter aircraft for longer ranges so that
they could protect their bombers for a large part of each journey. Therefore, from 1943 onwards the combined
RAF night and USAAF day raids gave the German air defences no rest. For German civilians it must have been at least as
bad as the blitz on London - added to which they were eventually being pounded by the Russians from the east tool.

I have not - as yet - been able to obtain any "official" German records of the number of their civilians killed by air
raids during WWII - but from the fragments I have found - it is obvious that, by the end of the European War, their civilian
dead and injured far exceeded the casualties that Britain suffered. I recently found a book, which, while a British
publication, presents a well written narrative of war from the German side. At its end it lists the total civilian casualties
from RAF and US Air Force bombings at "just under 600,000 - including 56,000 "foreign workers" and 40,000 Austrians."
One photograph from that book - taken just after the end of the war - shows an elderly lady, carefully dressed, - she looks
a little like my mother - shopping bags in hand, walking down a ruined street. It might well be in Britain but it is not -
it is in Dresden, Germany and it is typical of many German cities even after the streets were cleared - devastated and ruined
far more completely than any London area. Where is she going - what was there to buy? Or was she just leaving her home
forever? At 18 I thought "war" was just "the thing - adventure" - past 80 I know it is stupid. But we ordinary people were
(and are) at the mercy of our masters. And our masters are often not wise.

I cannot publish, as I would have wished my large archive of photographs of the London Blitz and other places, things and
people of the Air War - The People's War as I now call it, which, like many pictures, "are worth a
thousand words" it but I lack permission of the owners (even if I could find them) to publish them and I respect the BBC's
careful protection of their copyright.

Examples of the air war on Germany - from semi official sources chronicling the European Air War -

10/06/1943 A co-ordinated air offensive was begun, with the US 8th Air Force flying precision bombing missions
by day and RAF Bomber Command, flying area saturation missions by night.

24/07/1943 Operation 'Gomorrah' took place when 746 RAF bombers dropped 2,300 tons of bombs on Hamburg in
48 minutes, during which only 12 aircraft were lost. This tonnage was as much as Germans dropped in the five
heaviest raids on London. Fires were visible for 200 miles from Hamburg.

25/07/1943 At 8 a.m. German radio saidt Hamburg was still burning, leaving 100,000 homeless. The USAAF
bombed the city again in daylight. That same day the allies blitzed Essen with 2,000 tons of bombs.

28/07/1943 The second mass raid on Hamburg by 722 RAF bombers resulted in nine square miles of the city being
set aflame.

29/07/1943 The German Government ordered a mass evacuation of a million civilians from Hamburg after these
heavy bombings.

02/08/1943 The ninth attack on Hamburg in eight days. More bombs had then been dropped on Hamburg than on
London during the whole of the Blitz. Estimated 50.000 killed, almost equal to Britain’s entire civilian losses by bombing in
the war so far.

06/08/1943 The German Government ordered a partial evacuation of Berlin in order to avoid another Hamburg "Gomorrah.".

23/08/1943 The heaviest raid to date on Berlin, when 727 RAF bombers dropped more than 1,700 tons of bombs on
the city.

24/08/1943 A blanket of smoke covered Berlin to a height of 20,000ft. First estimates put German dead at
5,860 after the previous night’s raid.

31/08/1943 The RAF again pounded Berlin (over 600 bombers) with more than 1,000 tons dropped, killing about
5,000 civilians.

03/11/1943 The USAAF launched a 400-bomber daylight raid on Wilhelmshaven with 600-fighter escort. At night the
RAF dropped over 2,000 tons of bombs on Düsseldorf in 27 minutes.

18/11/1943 The RAF began the ‘Battle of Berlin’ with 700 tons dropped. Other areas were also pounded in the
biggest RAF operation so far.

22/11/1943 The RAF gave Berlin its worst pounding to date, with more than 2,300 tons of bombs dropped in less
than 30 minutes for the loss of just 26 planes.

23/11/1943 Berlin hit again by the RAF, making it the worst bombed city in Germany with 12,000 tons dropped on
it in 1943 alone.

24/11/1943 Berlin reported as a ‘sea of flames’ - casualty estimates put at between 8 - 10,000
killed.

26/11/1943 The largest USAAF raid so far on Bremen. A fifth consecutive night raid on Berlin by the RAF.

16/12/1943 A further blitz of Berlin brought the allied total to 18,500 tons of explosive dropped on the city.

20/12/1943 The heaviest raid of war on Frankfurt with more than 2,000 tons dropped by RAF bombers. RAF
Mosquito fighter/bombers followed half an hour later to hamper the fire fighters efforts.

29/12/1943 The eighth 2,000-ton air raid was flown against Berlin by the RAF on the third anniversary of the fire
bombing of London.

In 1944 things got even worse for Germany - By then the combined RAF/USAAF bomber forces totalled at least 5
times as many aircraft as the Luftwaffe had ever had - witness -

06/01/1944 The allies announced that jet-propelled aircraft would soon to be in production. The Air Ministry said
that Bomber Command dropped 157,000 tons of bombs on Germany in 1943, while the Luftwaffe dropped only 2,400
tons on Britain.

27/01/1944 The thirteenth heavy raid on Berlin inflicted a further estimated 6,000 dead.

15/02/1944 The heaviest raid ever on Berlin was conducted, during which 2,500 tons of bombs were dropped.

08/03/1944 The US 8th Air Force carried out another heavy attack against Berlin.

15/03/1944 The heaviest RAF raid of war is made against Stuttgart, with 3,000 tons dropped from 863 bombers.

24/03/1944 The Luftwaffe attacked London with 90 medium bombers (He-111s and Ju-88s), while the RAF bombed
Berlin with 810 heavy Lancaster bombers. The RAF lost 72 bombers in this, the 16th and heaviest RAF raid of war on
Berlin.

07/05/1944 The US 8th Air Force launched a 1,500-bomber raid against Berlin.

Then the RAF and USAAF switched to bombing the German installations in France - in preparation for "D-Day" and
the allied invasion of France -

20/05/1944 A record 5,000 bombers raid 12 railway targets and nine airfields in northern France and Belgium.

04/06/1944 The RAF carries out heavy night raids against German coastal batteries and fortifications in Normandy.

09/06/1944 The RAF fly from French airfields for first time since 1940.

Effectively - although the war did not end for almost another year - the air war was over and Germany probably
suffered ten times the number of civilian casualties that Britain did. A "bomb the civilians" campaign - arising
out of what was originally an error - had created bloody slaughter to both sides in what - in retrospect - was a
completely uncivilized and barbaric war of attrition, whose only real heroes and heroines were the civilians. Which
achieved no "victory" - no military purpose - but the deaths of thousands upon thousands of non-combatants,
the injuries to thousands more and the obliteration of some of the finest architecture of the western world as it then was.

I think it also savaged and forever ruined a gentler way of life than exists today. "Maybe its because I'm a Londoner."

Consummatum Est - It Is Finished

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