This week marks the anniversary of the start of the London Blitz in 1940.
When the Blitz is invoked, a crucial part of the myth of Britain, the same images and clichés are reeled out: the black and white photos and old news reels 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… the King and Queen visiting the East End… the unity of all classes in the national interest…
It’s unlikely it will be mentioned how the working class of London reacted not by deference or defeatism but by fighting back and not just against the Nazis who had destroyed their Capital, but against the British establishment.
The revolt was on an unprecedented scale, the East End was in revolt, the King, Queen and Prime Minister, Winston Churchill were booed and parts had become a no go area.
Harold Nicholson, Minister for Information recalled in his diary;
“Everybody is worried about the feeling in the East End of London where there is much bitterness”.
The bitterness reported by Nicholson was not without substance.
The working class communities of Inner London had suffered badly during the depression of the 1920’s and 30s with its high unemployment and slum housing. Now they suffered the heaviest levels of devastation – large parts of Stepney, Bethnal Green, Poplar, West Ham, Bermondsey, Deptford, Lambeth, St Pancras & Westminster were destroyed.
The only way to provide anything like adequate protection was to build enough underground shelters to house the majority of the population.
However, the government had failed to pay any attention to the significant air raid precaution agitation preferring to leave such matters to local councils, 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 dug up parts of their gardens if they were fortunate to have one. Corrugated iron was in great demand.
The authorities feared that once down in the relative safety of underground shelters Londoners may not return to the surface to carry out vital work. This was called “Deep shelter mentality”. This abdication of responsibility was masked by a supposed concern about children falling onto the underground track.
The establishment had backed Franco, Mussolini and Hitler prior to the war. The Daily Mail had backed the British Union of Fascists. Churchill had flirted with support for Franco though he later came to dislike his politics. Even the Queen had said of Hitler’s Mein Kampf “even a skip through gives you a good idea of his obvious sincerity”. The Cliveden set, established by the Astors schemed to turn Hitler against the USSR, which was the most public peace force and supporter of collective security through the League of nations. One Tory MP Archibald Ramsay leader of the pro fascist Right Club, while detained in Brixton prison was asking questions about the number of Jews in the armed forces and resumed his seat at the end of the war.
Just as this establishment were denying working class communities deep shelter safety, they themselves were moving to the suburbs or the country. London’s exclusive hotels and clubs were busy building deep shelters under their premises.
At the beginning of the War those that spoke out in favour of deep shelters or produced leaflets highlighting the dangers of the Anderson and trench shelters found themselves harassed, arrested and their publications confiscated.
After Dunkirk (June 1940), the German Luftwaffe had concentrated their attacks upon attempts to destroy British air defences, in the Battle that became known as ‘The Battle of Britain’.
However, frustrated at the failure of the German Air Force to secure a decisive knock out, the German command sought alternative targets. Attention turned to attacking Britain’s manufacturing and munitions industries, much of which was based in cities and in close proximity to densely populated residential areas.
On the first night of what became known as the “Blitz”, on 7th September 1940 the first large scale attack against London was launched by the Luftwaffe involving some 364 bombers, escorted by 515 fighters attacked the Capital.
London’s defences were ill-prepared for such an onslaught and as a result large areas of the Capital were destroyed.
On the first night of what became known as the “Blitz” over 2,000 Londoners where killed or injured (436 killed and 1,666 injured). This compared to 250 personnel killed in the armed forces for the whole of September 1940.
“That night the East End burned, the dockside was ablaze………..
it lit up a great part of East and South East London……. It was a night when London was ringed and stabbed with fire.” (Phil Piratin)
“Yesterday, I walked through the valley of the shadow of death –the little streets of London’s East End…..Along the main roads is a steady stream of refugees – men with suitcases, women, with bundles, children with their pillows and their own cot covers – homeless in the heart of London.” (Fred Pateman, Daily Worker, 9th September 1940)
The fires caused by the bombing raged out of control for weeks and merely acted as a beacon to further waves of German bombers. London suffered according to the London County Council a further seventy six consecutive nights of enemy bombing.
The RAF retaliated at the bombing of London by bombing Berlin. Infuriated, Hitler declared to his Luftwaffe commanders,“if they think that they can destroy our cities…….then we shall wipe theirs from the face of the earth….”. Orders were given to air crews to bomb at “random” and thereby the German air force gave up any pretence of attempting avoid civilian areas.
Initially, the civilian population had attempted to take refugee in government prescribed trench shelters but these soon filled with water, the 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 splinters.
Anderson shelters were named after Sir John Anderson who stated in the House of Commons in 1938, “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 underground” and on 12th June 1940 “I am devoutly thankful that we did not adopt a general policy of providing deep and strongly protected shelters”.
The working class paid for such stupidity. At Kennington a trench shelter took a direct hit, killing 104.
The few deeper shelters, which were situated mainly underneath large warehouses, once deserted, were now full to overflowing. They were poorly lit, wet, and unsanitary. People lined up from 12 in Stepney to enter the Tilbury shelter, originally planned for 1,600 now holding 10,000. Meanwhile, Godfrey Phillip’s shelter in the City, a shelter for 3,000 was locked every night at 5.30pm. Somewhere around another 200,000 safe shelter places were available in the City, but locked at night.
Many Londoners were forced to “trek” from East London to North London, West London or South London and even the Kent countryside (Chiselhurst Caves in the side of the North Downs). Others took coaches into the countryside to sleep by the roadside at a cost of 2s 6d.
By mid November 1940, it was reported that some four out of every ten houses in the London Borough of Stepney had been destroyed or damaged. Many factories suffered a similar fate.
The Government rejected advice about the need for a comprehensive and universal air raid precautions, preferring to leave it to individual councils, employers or individuals to do the best they could. Yet many of the Government’s own appointed observers such as the famous scientist J B Haldane were pressing for deep shelters.
It is unsurprising that faced with whole sale destruction, looting and a lack of support, working class communities took it in their own hands to stop the looting, secure alternative housing, shelter and when Churchill or the Royal Family turned up to show sympathy they were booed and pelted with rubbish..
Meanwhile, the rich secured access to their own private shelters. None was more famous or elaborately decorated than the shelter beneath the Savoy Hotel, which even boasted nurses on standby.
During the early days of the Blitz Government controlled media tried to show that life in London was carrying on as normal, and there was much coverage in the press of 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 all at odds with the experience of the people in the working class areas of London, who were now being systematically bombed day and night.
A the beginning of the Blitz, the doors to the Underground stations were surrounded by barbed wire and systematically locked by the Police during air raids, in order to stop civilians seeking refuge.
One Kennington resident stated, “The public shelter was horrible, smelly, it had a mouldy slab of concrete for a roof. But you couldn’t go anywhere else as the Oval station was full of barbed wire they wouldn’t let you near it”
Finally, on 8th September at Liverpool Street underground station, with the East End shelters overcrowding due to intense bombing, huge crowds of East Enders forced entry and surged down to the platforms.
Warren Street, Goodge Street and Highgate underground stations were “broken open”… “every inch of stairs, corridors and platforms taken by the people. Working men, women and children of all types and trades, from all parts of London, including soldiers and their families, were and are united in their resolve to share the Tubes”.
At other underground stations crowds of people swept past police guarding the stations and used crowbars to force open the underground station network to thousands of Londoners seeking refugee from the bombs.
The people established shelter committees in order to secure proper conditions such as provisions for feeding and amenities from the authorities.
On Saturday 14th September 1940 to highlight the plight of the people of Stepney, the communist councillor Piratin took fifty workers, including a group of what Time magazine called “ill-clad children” from Stepney and burst into the Savoy Hotel.
Within minutes and with the help of sympathetic waiters the group had invaded and occupied the Savoy Hotel shelter, stating “ if it was good enough for the rich it was good enough for the Stepney workers and their families”.
The next day the press was full of stories about the audacious occupation of the Savoy Hotel shelter and the terrible conditions of the shelters in Stepney.
At St Pancras, a picket was organised of Carreras, the tobacco factory, demanding its shelter – capable of holding 3,000- be opened to the public at night. In Walthamstow councillor Bob Smith went with some homeless “bombed out” families to occupy empty houses. Similar actions took place in Chiswick (Heathfield Court) and at Kensington.
Finally, Herbert Morrison the Labour Home Secretary in the War time Coalition was forced to reconsider the issue of the underground being used for shelters and finally allow civilians to use the underground for shelter.
By the end of September 1940 it was estimated that 79 underground stations catering for 177,000 people were being used for shelter at night.
Nicked without apology from here
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online