The Battle of London 1939-1945
Author: Jerry White
Publisher: The Bodley Head, 2021, hardback, RRP £30.00
Even for someone who was only in London after the war, this vivid and scholarly book brought back memories. My generation did not experience the terror of the bombs and rockets, nor the privations and small pleasures of wartime living, except through the conversation of older generations.
For them, though, the war was, of course, a major reference point. The former ARP post would be pointed out and another building had apparently been a gas decontamination centre. There was the spot where the Spitfire crashed (Flying Officer Waterston on 31 August 1940) and down there was where the Messerschmitt came down (Leutnant Binder on the same date). That’s where the bomb landed which broke many windows in our street.
Then there were “bomb sites”, the roofless school building, the concrete structure among trees on the golf course, the battered gas mask found in some cupboard and offered as a plaything, the army uniform hanging in the garden shed. Next door there was an Anderson shelter to be played in.
A relative did not draw curtains, she “blacked out”. Another’s house had been damaged, not by enemy action but by fall-out from a nearby AA gun. There was the family friend who had been dug out of the ruins of her home. A decade and more later she would tell of occasional pieces of glass emerging from her head and found when she combed or washed her hair.
Professor White uses extensively diaries and other accounts of daily life, such as those acquired by Mass Observation, as he tells the story from the point of view of London’s residents and workers. Dorothy Wells, for instance, was about to enter her forties when the war started. She worked as a clerk in Holborn and kept a diary. Early on, the deleterious effect of the war on employment was a theme. Later, the poor quality of food became of concern. Dorothy “Lunched at A.B.C. Cafeteria just opposite Aldwych – roast pork, lots of it but uneatable.”
White notes that: “Hers was a common experience. Few things marked the levelling of classes in London so much as the dreadful restaurant fare available even to those with well-lined pockets.”
James Lees-Milne was a significant figure in the National Trust and moved among the aristocratic, wealthy and creative. He wrote in his diary of a luncheon for two at the Berkeley Hotel, Piccadilly, which cost 17 shillings without drinks. He complained that, “It consisted of indifferent soup made of God knows what, minced chicken hash and no pudding. Really scandalous.”
The Battle of London lives up to its title and records the impact of enemy action. Tragedies from the Battle of Britain included, on the night of 13/14 October 1940, a direct hit on a public shelter beneath a tenement block, Coronation Mansions, Stoke Newington. The sewer and water mains were penetrated and the building collapsed. White writes that, despite heroic rescue efforts in pitch darkness, 154 shelterers died, many from drowning.
A perhaps better-known incident occurred the next night when a bomb exploded at Balham underground station. Again, sewers and water mains burst and many sheltering there drowned. A bus carrying no passengers fell spectacularly into the crater outside.
Plenty of the photographs used in the book are relatively unfamiliar at least to me. Two of them, censored at the time, offer further proof of the horror of war. One was taken immediately after a V-1 flying bomb fell into Aldwych on 30 June 1944, as office lunchtimes came to a close, killing 46 and seriously injuring 152. A young woman lies dead on the pavement. A stretcher bearer, seeming impassive, waits by her for assistance.
The second picture was taken shortly after a V-2 rocket hit Smithfield market on 8 March 1945, killing 115. Rescuers are arriving and a market worker, perhaps a supervisor by his garb, is directing them. Two other workers carry away an injured colleague. The four faces tell the story of what has just happened.
The heroism and devotion of such organisations as the police, fire services, ARP and the Salvation Army, less obvious groups, such as water engineers and gas fitters as well as people who happened to be in the vicinity of an incident, have probably not been sufficiently recognised by writers over the years. That general mistake is not made here.
The book also covers the seamy sides of wartime London including looting, prostitution and murdered and abandoned babies.
Jerry White has produced a volume for those interested in the subject to both keep for reference and re-read from time to time.