To those of us who weren’t born during the Second World War, and that will be most of you reading this, Britain’s conflict can be a confusion of dates, battles and faces. It may be a story pieced together from British telly’s never-ending fascination with the War – the Dambusters, 633 Squadron, Dad’s Army, battleships captained by Noel Coward, Trevor Howard and Jack Hawkins. There may be rousing speeches from Churchill, horrific pictures from the death camps, and images of East End kids venturing uncertainly into a countryside with different rules and strange accents.
And there will of course be images of unbelievable destruction. Of an East End aflame after nights of bombing, of St Paul’s standing defiant amid the smoke and rubble, of George VI and Queen Elizabeth visiting after Buckingham Palace was hit, and finally being ‘able to look the East End in the face’, as the Queen put it.
Yet amid all the horror there is certainty for us. We know the war ended, that Hitler was defeated and that London was rebuilt (eventually). For East Enders in September 1940, there was no such certainty. They had endured the frustration of the ‘Phoney War’. That was the period between Britain declaring war on Germany in September 1939 and the Battle of France in May 1940, when for eight months the combatants rattled their sabres but did little actual fighting. Everyone expected air raids but they didn’t come – East End kids had been evacuated by the thousands at the start of the war in ‘Operation Pied Piper’ but had gradually trickled back when the bombs didn’t fall.
And when hostilities did ensue things didn’t go well. Londoners had seen the Battle of France end in disaster in June of 1940, with France capitulating and the British Expeditionary Force cut off at Dunkirk. The magnificent efforts of the 700 or more ‘little ships’ that sailed from Ramsgate to rescue 338,000 British and French troops have entered folklore and we still talk about ‘Dunkirk spirit’ today. But it couldn’t disguise the fact that the Allies’ first major sortie of the war had ended in chaos and defeat.
Churchill knew that Britain was teetering on the edge and that an emboldened Hitler would press his advantage. ‘The Battle of France is over – I expect the Battle of Britain is about to begin,’ he told the House of Commons that summer. And during July and August it did: the RAF and Luftwaffe fought dogfights first over the Channel then over the countryside of southern England, as the Germans sought to destroy RAF bases – and clear the way for a seaborne invasion of Britain. But the RAF wasn’t wiped out; ‘The Few’ faced down a Luftwaffe which was not only fighting over enemy territory (bad news if you bailed out) but which was pretty few in number itself. Which way, Londoners wondered, would they war turn next?
The answer came on 7 September 1940 and it was devastating. Towards the end of the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe had bombed strategic and industrial targets – the Forth Rail Bridge in Scotland, Liverpool docks and Birmingham’s factories. Then, during a raid on the Shell Haven oil refinery in Essex on 24 August, bombers had strayed over north and east London, dropping death on Islington, Finchley and Bethnal Green. Whether that had been considered or simply careless of life, civilians had been hurt and the British responded by bombing Berlin the next night.
Luftwaffe chief Goering and his boss Hitler were enraged. The Fuhrer ordered ‘day and night’ bombing of British cities. So, late in the afternoon of 7 September, East Enders heard first the drone of enemy bombers then saw the bombs themselves begin to fall.
A Ministry of Health report in 1939 reckoned that the first six months of bombing would kill 600,000 and injure 1.2 million; East Enders had already evacuated once and would do so again. But no matter how long the wait and how doomy the forecasts, the true horror would always be a surprise. East Ender Joan Shaw remembers hearing the sirens on 7 September. ‘My sister looked out of the window after the sirens had gone, and said “Oh Dad! Look up there, there’s aeroplanes and all little things comin’ from them.”
It was a massive attack, with 364 German bombers, 515 enemy fighters, and another 133 bombers launching a second wave that night. The bombs were targeting the docks of course, but Hitler was also trying to destroy civilian confidence and the will to fight. By the end of the attack, 436 Londoners were dead and 1666 injured.
George Turnbull was a member of Limehouse’s Home Guard troop. He remembers: ‘This first day of bombing was most dreadful… Explosions were everywhere, there just was not a break, bang after bang after bang… You would hear a whistle as a stick of bombs came down, then a loud explosion as they hit factories and houses… the ground shook. Then as soon as that explosion happened, another whistle and another explosion. God, this seemed to go on for hours.’
If East Enders hadn’t known what to expect, they now didn’t know when it would end. And for two months it was relentless, with only one raid-free night. Every other night, until mid-November, 100 or more bombers pounded London, with the East End the focus of attacks. By 11 November, 13,000 tons of high explosive and more than a million incendiary bombs had dropped on Britain.By the end of the Blitz, 40 per cent of the houses in Stepney would be hit and 3.5m London homes damaged. An estimated 30,000 Londoners would have been killed and 50,000 injured.
There were spectacular scenes, such as the bombing of a sugar warehouse over the river in Surrey Quays. One observer remembers ‘the scene was like a lake in hell. Burning barges were drifting everywhere…We could hear the hiss and roar of the conflagration, a formidable noise, but we could not see it, so dense was the smoke. Nor could we see the eastern [Isle of Dogs] shore’. But mainly, there was the miserable expectation that tonight would bring another attack, and another, with no end in sight.
The Blitz would end on 16 May, 1941, with most of the Luftwaffe heading east for the invasion of Russia. For East Enders it was just a respite, with another four years of war and the unexpected horrors of the V1s and V2s to come. Crucially for the Allies and London though, something had changed. Hitler and Goering had attempted to destroy first the RAF then civilian morale and in both they had failed. The Axis powers had thrown their worst at the East End, and the East End had survived.