Wednesday, August 10, 2016

World War Wednesdays: A Hateful, Beautiful Scene: The London Blitz, 1940

Firemen battle to control flames raging through a town house ravaged by a direct hit in 1940

     One thing I feel like we haven't talked about enough on this blog is the Blitz during the Second World War. Since we're coming up to another anniversary of the start of the Battle of Britain, I thought it would be interesting to compile some of the coolest resources related to that iconic period in British history and hopefully give you a good overview.
Stiff upper lip: A man determined to keep a sense of normality reads a book on a park bench as a moored barrage balloon, designed to scupper air attacks, floats in the background and a second, right, soars above
     When the war began in September 1939 the British people were warned that air attacks on cities were likely and that civil defense preparations on a local and national level were already underway. Those who did have backyards built corrugated steel Anderson shelters and covered them over with earth. Larger civic shelters made from brick and concrete were established in British towns, and a blackout was rigorously enforced.
Wreckage: Workers wielding pick-axes and shovels are tasked with clearing away the remains of bombed building that would have once stood next to this Central London church
     Until late summer 1940, the German Luftwaffe (air force) had targeted RAF airfields and radar stations for destruction in preparation for a German invasion of the island. When the invasion plans were put on hold and eventually scrapped, Hitler turned his attention towards demoralizing the British population and forcing its leaders to come to terms. At around 4:00PM on 7 September 1940, 348 German bombers blasted London for two hours. Two hours after that, guided by the fires started during the first assault, a second group of raiders began a second attack that lasted until 4:30 the following morning. 
In this extraordinary picture, the double-decker bus is still visible amid crumbling tarmac and bent girders left in an enormous crater caused by a bomb which landed in the middle of a Balham high street, south London
      This marked the beginning of what the British press called the Blitz, the German word for lightning. For the next 57 consecutive days, London was bombed either during the day or night. The concentrated, direct bombing of civilian and industrial targets in Great Britain continued until May 1941, when the Germans began focusing their attention on the Russian theater.

     "They came just after dark... "
Ernie Pyle was one of World War Two's most popular correspondents. His journalism was characterized by a focus on the common soldier interspersed with sympathy, sensitivity and humor. He witnessed the war in Europe from the Battle of Britain through the invasion of France. In 1945 he accepted assignment to the Pacific Theater and was killed during the battle for Okinawa. Here, he describes a night raid on London in 1940:
"It was a night when London was ringed and stabbed with fire.
They came just after dark, and somehow you could sense from the quick, bitter firing of the guns that there was to be no monkey business this night.
Shortly after the sirens wailed you could hear the Germans grinding overhead. In my room, with its black curtains drawn across the windows, you could feel the shake from the guns. You could hear the boom, crump, crump, crump, of heavy bombs at their work of tearing buildings apart. They were not too far away.
Half an hour after the firing started I gathered a couple of friends and went to a high, darkened balcony that gave us a view of a third of the entire circle of London. As we stepped out onto the balcony a vast inner excitement came over all of us-an excitement that had neither fear nor horror in it, because it was too full of awe.
You have all seen big fires, but I doubt if you have ever seen the whole horizon of a city lined with great fires - scores of them, perhaps hundreds.
There was something inspiring just in the awful savagery of it.
The closest fires were near enough for us to hear the crackling flames and the yells of firemen. Little fires grew into big ones even as we watched. Big ones died down under the firemen's valor, only to break out again later.
About every two minutes a new wave of planes would be over. The motors seemed to grind rather than roar, and to have an angry pulsation, like a bee buzzing in blind fury.
Children sit among the rubble
of their home September 1940
The guns did not make a constant overwhelming din as in those terrible days of September. They were intermittent - sometimes a few seconds apart, sometimes a minute or more. Their sound was sharp, near by; and soft and muffled, far away. They were everywhere over London.
Into the dark shadowed spaces below us, while we watched, whole batches of incendiary bombs fell. We saw two dozen go off in two seconds. They flashed terrifically, then quickly simmered down to pin points of dazzling white, burning ferociously. These white pin points would go out one by one, as the unseen heroes of the moment smothered them with sand. But also, while we watched, other pin points would burn on, and soon a yellow flame would leap up from the white center. They had done their work - another building was on fire.
The greatest of all the fires was directly in front of us. Flames seemed to whip hundreds of feet into the air. Pinkish-white smoke ballooned upward in a great cloud, and out of this cloud there gradually took shape - so faintly at first that we weren't sure we saw correctly - the gigantic dome of St. Paul's Cathedral.
St. Paul's was surrounded by fire, but it came through. It stood there in its enormous proportions - growing slowly clearer and clearer, the way objects take shape at dawn. It was like a picture of some miraculous figure that appears before peace-hungry soldiers on a battlefield.
The streets below us were semi-illuminated from the glow. Immediately above the fires the sky was red and angry, and overhead, making a ceiling in the vast heavens, there was a cloud of smoke all in pink. Up in that pink shrouding there were tiny, brilliant specks of flashing light-antiaircraft shells bursting. After the flash you could hear the sound.
Up there, too, the barrage balloons were standing out as clearly as if it were daytime, but now 
Dec. 29, 1940 - St. Paul's Cathedral
emerges from the flames during
one of the most devastating raids.
they were pink instead of silver. And now and then through a hole in that pink shroud there twinkled incongruously a permanent, genuine star - the old - fashioned kind that has always been there.
Below us the Thames grew lighter, and all around below were the shadows - the dark shadows of buildings and bridges that formed the base of this dreadful masterpiece.
Later on I borrowed a tin hat and went out among the fires. That was exciting too; but the thing I shall always remember above all the other things in my life is the monstrous loveliness of that one single view of London on a holiday night - London stabbed with great fires, shaken by explosions, its dark regions along the Thames sparkling with the pin points of white-hot bombs, all of it roofed over with a ceiling of pink that held bursting shells, balloons, flares and the grind of vicious engines. And in yourself the excitement and anticipation and wonder in your soul that this could be happening at all.
These things all went together to make the most hateful, most beautiful single scene I have ever known."
   This eyewitness account appears in: Pyle Ernie, Ernie Pyle in England (1941), Reprinted in Commager, Henry Steele, The Story of the Second World War (1945); Johnson, David, The London Blitz : The City Ablaze, December 29, 1940 (1981).

     Many thanks to BBC History,, and the Daily Mail for the information and images used in this post. 
     Thanks for reading,
Delany (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)

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