In the early days of World War 2, after the German Luftwaffe’s attack on Britain’s air defences failed, the planes turned their attention to bombing of civilians.
During the early days of the Blitz the 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.
The reality was very different, especially for the largely working class population of the East End, which received especially heavy bombing throughout the Blitz. This was partly due to its proximity to the vital London docks, a major Luftwaffe target, but civilian areas were also deliberately attacked in an attempt to break their support for the war.
Stepney, West Ham, Poplar, as well as Deptford and Bermondsey on the south side of the river, were particularly hit. During August 1940 there was relatively light bombing, but on September 7th very heavy bombing began, and soon the East End was burning.
The government was accused of a lack of readiness when it came to building shelters to protect civilians in East London – contrasting with the more extensive preparation in wealthier areas of the capital.
Initially, the civilian population had attempted to take refugee in the government’s proscribed trench shelters but these had 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”.
How Londoner’s paid for such stupidity, as Londoners were according to Ted Bramley “uprooted, blasted from their homes, scattered over the face of Britain”
The few deeper shelters which were situated mainly underneath large warehouses and privately owned and open to the public, once deserted werenow full to overflowing, 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 Phillips shelter in the City, a shelter for 3,000 was locked every night at 5.30pm. Ted Bramley estimated another 200,000 safe shelter places were available in the City, but locked at night.
East Enders joked in the early days of the Blitz on how when caught out during a raid they had learnt to “hug the walls”.
Many other Londoners were forced to travel “trek” from East London to North London, West London or South London and even the Kent countryside (Chislehurst Caves in the side of the North Downs), or coaches taking people out into the countryside to sleep by the roadside at 2s 6d.
To highlight the plight of the people of the East End, the Stepney Communist Party decided to stage a stunt to highlight the drastically unequal conditions of air-raid shelters for rich and poor. The Party had previously organised an occupation by 200 people from the East End of the Mayfair Hotel shelter on the night of Thursday 12th September, but this seems not have secured much press coverage. The next target was a jewel of the West End, the ultra-posh Savoy Hotel, occupied on September 14th 1940.
Phil Piratin, then a Stepney Communist Party member (later MP), takes up the story:
“The shelters, which until the blitz were deserted, were now packed to overflowing, and now the conditions were revealed. The little trench shelters in the little Stepney parks were a foot deep in water. The benches were half-a-dozen inches above the water. It was quite impossible to use them, and certainly impossible to stay in them night after night. Now the street surface shelters were being put to the test. Many of them were destroyed.
The Communist party immediately began to organise Shelter Committees in the shelters in order to secure proper conditions and to provide for the feeding and amenities in the shelters. This idea caught on, and within a short while was being carried on throughout Stepney and indeed the whole of London. Later the authorities took over certain responsibilities such as refreshments. The Communist Party was the first to organise entertainments in the shelters. The Unity Theatre did excellent work in this connection; mobile groups went to different shelters to sing songs and to perform their lighter sketches. Later, other organisations began to organise entertainment.
The conditions in the shelters were frightful. Most notorious was the Tilbury shelter, which accommodated several thousand people in conditions which I find it impossible to describe. Many people were without shelter, and every evening there was a trek from Stepney to Central and West London to take shelter in on of the basement shelters of the large buildings there. The next morning thousands of bleary-eyed East Londoners were to be seen on the buses and trains coming back to East London from the West End.
The contrast between the shelter conditions for the rich and the poor called for exposure. This was done. When the blitz had continued for some days, we in Stepney took the initiative. One Saturday evening we gathered some seventy people, among them a large sprinkling of children, and we took them to the Savoy Hotel. We had heard from building workers of the well-constructed and luxurious shelter which had been built for their guests. We decided that what was good enough for the Savoy Hotel parasites was reasonably good enough for Stepney workers and their families. We had an idea the hotel management would not see eye to eye with this proposition, so we organised the ‘invasion’ without their consent.”
Within minutes and with the help of sympathetic waiters the group had invaded and occupied the Savoy Hotel shelter:
“In fact, there was some effort to stop us, but it was only a matter of seconds before we were downstairs, and the women and children cam streaming in afterwards. While the management and their lackeys were filled with consternation, the visitors from the East End looked round in amazement. ‘Shelters,’ they said, ‘why we’d love to live in such places!’ Structurally, the lower ground floor had been strengthened with steel girders and by other means. But the appearance of the place! There were three sections. In each section there were cubicles. Each section was decorated in a different colour, pink, blue and green. All the bedding, all the linen, was of course the same uniform colour. Armchairs and deck chairs were strewn around. There were several ‘nurses’ – you could easily recognise them. One happened to be standing around and she was wearing the usual nurse’s white outfit, with a big red cross on he bosom. We were not quite sure what she was supposed to be nursing…
…We had earlier appointed our marshals to take care of all our people. They immediately made contact with the waiters, and asked for water and other such provisions. The waiters were most helpful. We were expecting trouble; we knew that the management was not going to allow us to sit there, just so easily. After a few minutes the police came. A plain-clothes officer said to me, ‘What is it all about?’ I explained. He said: ‘We will have to get you out.’ I said ‘OK – I’m curious to see what you do with the women and children.’ (The blitz was on). I said: ’Some of these men have seen mass murder, God help you if you touch the women and children.’ He wasn’t very happy. They tried intimidation, such as calling for identity cards, but we sat there.”
During the confusion an air raid alert, (all to helpfully), was sounded, and the Savoy Hotel manager realising that that could not be seen to send the “invaders”out into danger was forced to allow them to remain until the “all clear” siren was sounded.
“The management was in a dilemma. They urged the police to throw us out. We were able to impress the management that any such attempt would meet with some opposition, and that some of his guests in the dining room were likely to be disturbed. The manager left. He agreed to ignore us; that was what we wanted. Then we settled down. The first thing the marshals did was to call for refreshments. Many of our people had sandwiches with them, and therefore we asked one of the waiters to provide tea and bread butter. The waiter explained that they never served tea and bread and butter, and in any case the minimum price for anything was 2 shillings 6 pence. We said to the waiter: ‘We will pay you 2 pence a cup of tea and 2 pence a portion of bread and butter, the usual price in a Lyons restaurant. Three of four of the waiters went into a huddle, with one in particular doing the talking. He was evidently convincing the others. How they convinced the chef and management. I do not know, but within a few minutes, along came the trollies and the silver trays laden with pots of tea and bread and butter. The waiters were having the time of their lives. They were obviously neglecting their duties, standing around, chuckling and playing with the children.
The next day this news was flashed across the world. The contrast was made in bold headlines between the terrible conditions of the shelters in Stepney and the luxury conditions of the shelters of West London.”
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. The Communist Party had succeeded in its objective. At St Pancras The Party organised a picket 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 and occupied empty houses, and similar actions took place in Chiswick (Heathfield Court) and Kensington.
“As a result, the Home Office took special steps to improve conditions in the Tilbury shelter and others. But this militant action led to further developments. A demand had been made for the Tubes to be made available as shelters. The Home Secretary, Mr Herbert Morrison, said that this was impossible. The only valid reason he could give was that children might fall on to the line and be killed. This was not a very impressive argument, when you consider the hundreds who were being killed because they had no shelter. The police were given instructions to allow no-one to use the Tubes for shelter. Loiterers were moved on by the police. The Communist Party decided that the Tubes should be open for shelters. This was done.
Two or three days after the Savoy incident preparations were made to break open the gates of the Tubes which the police were closing immediately the air-raid siren was sounded. At a number of stations these actions were taken. Various implements such as crowbars happened to be available, and while the police stood on duty guarding the gates, they were very quickly swept aside by the crowds, the crowbars brought into action, and the people went down. That night tens of thousands sprawled on the tube platforms. The next day, Mr Herbert Morrison, solemn as an owl, rose to make his world-shattering announcement: the Government had reconsidered its opinion in the matter of the Tubes being sued as shelters. From now onwards, they would be so employed. They were expected to accommodate 250,000. Arrangements would be made for refreshment and first-aid facilities. Later. Bunks were being installed. ‘The Government had reconsidered the matter.’ They had indeed! They had been forced to by the resolute action of the people of London which they had been powerless to prevent.”
(Phil Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red).
Another account of the Savoy occupation gives a slightly different take on the numbers involved…
“There were forty of them. There were eighty. There were a hundred. They marched. They sauntered. They were angry. They were bewildered. They came with two dogs and they came with none. Theirs was a daring act that saved thousands of lives. Or it was a pretty piece of propaganda, gift-wrapped for the Führer. What happened beneath the Savoy Hotel on 14th September 1940, the eighth night of the Blitz, depended on the position of the observer: whether she or he was Red or anti-Red; East Ender or West Ender; dreaming of revolution or restoration. That Saturday night, when those forty or eighty or a hundred arrived at the doors of the hotel – with their dogs, or dogless – a small army of journalists was on the premises for a briefing by the Ministry of Information. Few, however, wrote about their uninvited fellow guests until the war was safely over. The government also maintained a public silence on the story, despite the urgent Cabinet discussion held the following Monday morning – a discussion with sinister undertones. But old comrades, years later, made that West End outing into a famous victory, a second Battle of Cable Street. It worked its way into plays and novels, into the mythology of the British Left. And though no horses charged and no batons swung, the Savoy Hotel invasion was the most serious political demonstration of the war – and dramatic evidence that conflict with Germany did not bring the class war to an end.
Max Levitas has spent most of his long life on the front line of that conflict. He was part of the famous human barricade that halted the Blackshirts’ progress through the East End in October 1936. He stood his ground at Brady Mansions during a twenty-one-week rent strike – brought to an end only by the government’s decision to freeze rents for the duration of the war. He was one of the dozen Communist councillors elected to the Borough of Stepney in 1945, during that giddy moment when the electorate could still see the avuncular side of Joe Stalin. He was there in 1991 when the Communist Party of Great Britain voted for dissolution and secured victory in the long war of attrition against itself. He was there, too, on that Blitz- struck Saturday night in 1940, shouldering the red banner of the Stepney Young Communist League as his group of demon- strators marched from the Embankment towards the silvered canopy of the Savoy. They marched for better air-raid shelters in the East End. They marched against the myth that the Luftwaffe had brought equality of suffering to Britain. And they received their marching orders from a series of urgent editorials in the Communist newspaper, the Daily Worker: ‘If you live in the Savoy Hotel you are called by telephone when the sirens sound and then tucked into bed by servants in a luxury bomb-proof shelter,’ the newspaper asserted.‘But if you live in Paradise Court you may find yourself without a refuge of any kind.’ And above these words, in thick bold print:‘The people must act.’
Max Levitas nods in agreement when I read the article back to him. ‘The surface shelters protected you from shrapnel, from flak, but not much else,’ he reflects. ‘If a bomb fell on one of those it would collapse and kill everybody in it. The Communist Party argued for deep shelters. But the National Government wouldn’t listen. They wouldn’t even open the Underground. It was easy to ignore that message if you were sitting in the basement of a very nice hotel. So we decided to march on one.’ I ask him why they chose the Savoy. Max Levitas smiles a tolerant smile. ‘It was the nearest.’
I meet Max Levitas at the Idea Store, that gleaming cultural institution planted in the East End to compensate locals for the assimilation of their much-loved public library into the Whitechapel Art Gallery. He is a small, cloth-capped nonagenarian, wrapped tightly in a raincoat and muffler. Standing on the studded purple rubber floor of the foyer, he looks like a preserved fragment of the old Stepney. It is a chilling morning in February, and he can spare me an hour before he goes for his Turkish bath – a weekly ritual since the 1920s, when his father took him to the long-vanished Schewik steam rooms on Brick Lane. We catch the lift to the top-floor café, secure two cups of tea and a table with a view of the bristling City skyline, and he tells the story of his association with the area: how his parents fled the Lithuanian pogroms in 1912 and made landfall in Dublin, where Max was born three years later; how his father took the family first to Glasgow, and finally to Stepney, where work could be found among a supportive community of Jewish exiles. History radicalised those members of the Levitas clan it did not destroy: Max’s Aunt Sara and her family were burned to death in the synagogue of the Lithuanian shtetl of Akmian; Max’s father became a leading member of the distinctly Semitic, distinctly Red-tinged International Tailors and Pressers’ Union; Max’s elder brother, Maurice, fought against Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War; Max gave his youth to the Communist Party of Great Britain and was name-checked by Oswald Mosley in a speech denouncing the enemies of British Fascism.
The organisers of the Savoy invasion shared a similar ideological background: they were all revolutionaries. ‘And they’re all dead,’Max sighs. ‘Some were clothing workers. Some were bootmakers. Some were dockers.’ It is an inventory of lost trades. The first names he sifts from his memory are two stevedores, Ted Jones and Jack Murphy, veterans of pre-war campaigns for unemployment relief. The rest comprise a knot of men from the Stepney Tenants’ Defence League, which organised rent strikes against slum landlords in the East End: George Rosen, its bullish secretary, known as ‘Tubby’; Solly Klotnick, a furrier and a veteran of the Battle of Cable Street; Solomon Frankel, a clothing worker who took a bullet in Spain that robbed him of the use of his right hand. Michael Shapiro, a wiry young academic from the London School of Economics. At the head of the group stood Phil Piratin, Communist councillor for Spitalfields, chief spokesperson of the invaders, and the author of the most widely read account of their night at the Savoy. His memoir Our Flag Stays Red (1948) puts seventy in the hotel lobby, among them a number of children and pregnant women. Max’s memories are different. ‘There were forty of us,’ he affirms. ‘I’m sure of that.’ I ask if there were any dogs. He shakes his head. ‘No dogs,’ he says. ‘It was the Savoy.’ ”
An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.