September 7th 2010 marks the seventieth anniversary of the London Blitz. The real story differs from the one so often recounted writes Michael Walker.
The media will dust off the black and white photos and the TV will show 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.
They will record 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 infact landed on the Palace)
Of course these programmes will not record how the working class of London reacted not by deference or defeatism but by fighting back and not just against the Nazi’s 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.
These communities were more aware of the of the impact of “Total war” on society than any other grouping outside the military. They were not only politically aware but had already given up their best sons and daughters to fight fascism in Spain. They knew from first hand report backs the impact of aerial bombing by Germans and Italians of Madrid, Barcelona and famously Guernica. Unlike the Government, they recognised the need for deep underground shelters for the civilian population. The Republican Mayor of Barcelona stated in early 1938 that:
“Instead of small gas and incendiary bombs, for which officials are trying to prepare the British public, the real danger in Barcelona, just as it would be here, came from large explosive bombs”.
“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” 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.
According to Phil Piratin (future Communist Member of Parliament for Stepney)
"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."
Daily Worker journalist Fred Pateman writing in the 9th September 1940 edition of the Daily Worker stated
“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.
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.
Ted Bramley London leader of the CP stated in October 1940, In September...."Sometimes six times a day the raiders come. For weeks every night, as regularly as clockwork, from sunset to sunrise. Ten long, weary hours. Hour after hour the drone of the Nazi planes, the pounding of guns, the whistle and scream of bombs. The tense, clenched teeth and hands, waiting for the explosion. The quiet calculation " How near is it? " The deep breath of relief to be still alive. " Did it go off! " " Is it a time bomb? " " How far away? " A desperate effort to snatch some sleep in the cramped space and the foul air of the basements and shelters where we crouch. Then to stagger out to face another day, pale and weary, more exhausted than the night before."
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".
How the working class paid for such stupidity, as Londoners were, according to Ted Bramley, "uprooted, blasted from their homes, scattered over the face of Britain" . 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. Ted Bramley estimated 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 (Chislehurst 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 had failed seriously to listen to the Communist Party 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 and came up with many novel ideas to defend the people.
Ted Bramley states "The real reason is to be found in their callous refusal to provide for the people and their cynical disregard for the suffering and lives of working people. They value the lives of the workers cheaply. There are 800,000 unemployed - left on the scrap heap. So long as their own families, their own privileges and profits are secure they don’t care".
One look at Winston Churchill lunch and evening meal menu, shows that he for one was not ready to make some sacrifices.
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..
SHELTERS FOR THE RICH
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.
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.
OPEN UP THE TUBES
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, one night (some state 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" and according to Ted Bramley "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 organised by the CP 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.
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.
WOMEN ON THE FRONTLINE
Undoubtedly, during this period of the War it was the East End and it's women in particular who were the front line. It was they who were forced to search for shelter for their families, salvage possessions from bombed out houses and find enough food for their families, despite rationing and a 25% rise in the cost of living. This was in addition to organising childcare so that they could carry out vital war work.
At its peak 1,500 fires raged across London during the Blitz. During the War over 20,000 Londoner's were killed including 327 firemen and women, as well as numerous Anti Aircraft personnel, nurses, police, rescue, salvage specialists and bomb disposal staff.In just two nights in April 1941 148,000 London homes were damaged by German bombs. By the end of the war incredibly only one house out of ten had not received some kind of bomb damage.
Despite the bravery of Londoners’ and the British people, it would take another year after the Blitz (December 1941) before the American’s joined the war, until then the full force of the fascist military was waged against Britain and our Russian allies
The German bombers continued to bomb London for the rest of the War until the front was pushed back so far making it impossible for raids to be effective. At that point Hitler launched his unmanned rockets known as the V1 and V2.
In total, Nazi bombs killed 40,0000 in Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, Belfast, Cardiff, Birmingham, Southampton, Bristol, Portsmouth, Bath, Plymouth, Exeter, Nottingham, Newcastle, Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Hull, Ipswich and Norwich.
The official date for the ending of the Blitz is 11th May 1941.
The blitz is a special moment in our working class history. Troops fighting desperately on the war front were in constant fear for the safety of their family on the home front.
As a result of these sacrifices the Nazi’s never got to fly the swastika from Senate House, in Central London as they had planned to use it as their English Head Quarters of the Third Reich
When the War in Europe finally ended in 1945, the people of London as elsewhere in the country swept away Churchill and the establishment and gave victory to a landslide Labour Government.
The failure of the government to act is part of our history. That failure led to many unnecessary casualties. The failure of the rich to share the burden, evidenced throughout the economy did much to raise consciousness of class. Most of all it clarified that victory over fascism would only arise from a Peoples’ War in which the people took the lead.
Maya Angelou - History despite its wrenching pain cannot be unlived but if faced with courage need not be lived again-