The cruel cost of the Blitz

The Ger­man bomb­ing of Bri­tain from 1940–45 ex­acted a ter­ri­ble price, in lives lost, in­fra­struc­ture wrecked and nerves shat­tered. Daniel Tod­man re­veals how Bri­tons re­built their lives, and their cities, in the after­math of the raids

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - Com­ple­ments the BBC Two se­ries Blitz: The Bombs That Changed Bri­tain

Daniel Tod­man re­lates the chal­lenges fac­ing Bri­tons seek­ing to re­build their lives in the wake of Ger­man bomb­ing raids

“E ach one of us,” de­clared a news­reel com­men­ta­tor on 12 Septem­ber 1940, over footage of crowds cheer­ing King Ge­orge VI as he vis­ited their wrecked houses, “has now ei­ther en­dured bom­bard­ment or has close friends and rel­a­tives who have. So we know that we can stand up to havoc as well as Abyssini­ans and Chi­nese and Spa­niards. In fact, we can do it bet­ter. Th­ese days are vi­tal to the cause in which we fight; the hope of vic­tory de­pends now im­me­di­ately on us… in this time of tragedy, th­ese peo­ple are still the same – ready to wave and laugh and cheer. Oh yes – this is the spirit that wins a war.”

Five days on from the Luft­waffe’s great­est day­light raid on Lon­don, all the com­po­nents of the ‘Blitz Spirit’ were al­ready there: pa­tri­otic pride, mass en­durance and ir­re­press­ible good hu­mour, unity across the so­cial di­vide. But for most of those caught up in the ex­plo­sive mael­strom of the Ger­man air at­tack on the UK dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, the strug­gle was only just be­gin­ning. How would they pick up the pieces in the after­math of the bomb­ing raids?

Blitzed ar­eas saw an up­surge in stom­ach com­plaints and in­di­ges­tion, pos­si­ble signs of men­tal dis­tress

The ex­pe­ri­ence of the Luft­waffe at­tacks on Bri­tain from 1940– 45 var­ied greatly by place and time. The most in­tense bomb­ing was very geo­graph­i­cally con­cen­trated. In places like east Lon­don, and parts of Portsmouth, Ply­mouth, Coven­try, Liver­pool, Cly­de­bank and Hull, the ev­i­dence of de­struc­tion was all around.

Even in qui­eter pe­ri­ods of the war, in­di­vid­ual episodes could still stand out for the loss of life. Of the 62 peo­ple killed and 82 se­ri­ously in­jured dur­ing the last week of Septem­ber 1942 – more than a year after reg­u­lar heavy raids on Bri­tain had ceased – half be­came ca­su­al­ties in a sin­gle in­ci­dent when a stick of bombs hit a boys’ school in Pet­worth, Sus­sex. The rel­a­tive in­fre­quency of such at­tacks did not make their con­se­quences any eas­ier for the be­reaved to bear.

Though much of the fo­cus within Air Raid Pre­cau­tions (the or­gan­i­sa­tion ded­i­cated to pro­tect­ing Bri­tons from air raids) was on house­hold prepa­ra­tions against at­tack, peo­ple of­ten ex­pe­ri­enced bomb­ing out­side their homes – in the street, on the train or the bus, at work, or in the pub, the cin­ema or club. It was also some­thing that could hap­pen to the same fam­ily in dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances more than once – a fact made trag­i­cally clear in the story of the Smiths (whose names have been changed to pre­serve anonymity).

John and Jill Smith lived with their two chil­dren in the East End of Lon­don be­fore the war. Early on in the Blitz, the house they rented was wrecked by bomb­ing, and Jill and the chil­dren were evac­u­ated to a vil­lage near Cam­bridge. John stayed in Lon­don, only to see the fac­tory he worked in bombed out. The Smiths sub­se­quently re­turned to Lon­don, mov­ing in with Jill’s par­ents, be­fore an­other child was born, and Jim was called up into the army. He was at his base in Shrop­shire at the end of June 1944 when a fly­ing bomb dropped

on the fam­ily’s new home, killing all the other Smiths apart from the youngest child.

This was one of count­less tragedies. Dur­ing the war, 60,595 Bri­tish civil­ians were killed by en­emy ac­tion in the UK. Of them, 7,736 were chil­dren. Civil de­fend­ers worked hard to ex­hume corpses, and parts of corpses, from the rub­ble of wrecked build­ings for iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and burial. Ex­cept after the most se­vere raids, when health risks forced mass buri­als, bodies were usu­ally re­turned to fam­i­lies for in­ter­ment. Be­reaved rel­a­tives of­ten had a body and a grave­stone to mourn over.

A mother’s grief

More than a decade after the war’s end, the writer Con­stan­tine Fitzgib­bon spoke to a woman in Ber­mond­sey whose mother and eight-year-old daugh­ter had both gone miss­ing after a big raid. After four days of search­ing, she went to the mor­tu­ary: “And when I looked, I’d never seen such a shock in all my life. All her lit­tle hair was burned, and her face where she’d put her fin­gers right across, all the fire was there, and I thought: ‘Oh dear now, can it be true?’. … And then I thought to my­self: ‘Well, what about my mother?’ And we never did find any­thing of mother at all. And I don’t think a day goes by without we don’t talk of my mother and my lit­tle daugh­ter.”

An­other 86,182 peo­ple, in­clud­ing 7,622 chil­dren, were se­ri­ously in­jured by en­emy ac­tion dur­ing the Blitz. Many more had lighter wounds – typ­i­cally cuts from bro­ken glass and eyes clogged with dust – that could be treated at the scene.

The ex­tent of men­tal and emo­tional dam­age re­sult­ing from the bomb­ing is much harder to know. Con­trary to pre­war fears, the psy­chi­atric wards were not over-run. Psy­chi­a­trists re­ported that, although sur­vivors of bad raids of­ten showed signs of ex­treme shock, al­most all of them re­cov­ered fairly quickly, without much more treat­ment than a kind word, a blan­ket and a cup of tea.

Those with more se­vere re­ac­tions to the hor­rors they wit­nessed, how­ever, may have been dis­cour­aged from re­port­ing by the me­dia’s cel­e­bra­tion of stiff-up­per-lip en­durance. Men­tal dis­tress seems to have pre­sented in other ways: blitzed ar­eas saw an up­surge in stom­ach com­plaints and chronic in­di­ges­tion that could not just be put down to the qual­ity of wartime food.

Un­der leg­is­la­tion rushed through on the very first day of the war, civil­ians who suf­fered in­juries from bombs were en­ti­tled to a pen­sion from the gov­ern­ment, pro­vid­ing they could show that th­ese were the di­rect re­sult of en­emy ac­tion. But the Min­istry of Pen­sions ex­pressly ruled out com­pen­sa­tion for psy­chi­atric con­di­tions “in­duced merely by ap­pre­hen­sion and fears oc­ca­sioned by en­emy ac­tiv­ity in which there is no phys­i­cal in­jury”. A men­tal break­down oc­ca­sioned by the noise of bombs fall­ing else­where would not be com­pen­sated by the state.

This could cause huge prob­lems for pa­tients whose in­ter­nal in­juries were not im­me­di­ately di­ag­nosed – as the case of ‘Mrs T’, a cin­ema ush­erette and air raid war­den in Hull, re­veals. Hit by a col­laps­ing ceil­ing dur­ing a raid in 1943, Mrs T es­caped but was ren­dered mute. When her voice re­turned, she had a stam­mer. She lost her job, but could not claim War In­jury Al­lowance be­cause her doc­tor re­fused to cer­tify that her con­di­tion was a re­sult of the bomb. Only after the Lord Mayor’s Fund in­ter­vened was she re-ex­am­ined, ad­mit­ted to hos­pi­tal, then awarded an al­lowance un­til fit to re­turn to work. Ad­vised “to leave Hull lest there should be fur­ther raids… she

pre­ferred to stay in her own home”.

Emerg­ing from the shel­ters, creep­ing out from un­der the stairs – or tak­ing a ghoul­ish pause on the way to work to stare at a bomb­site – it was the ma­te­rial dam­age that many ob­servers found most strik­ing. Alan Sey­mour, a mor­tu­ary van driver in Lon­don, thought it was the de­struc­tion of fa­mil­iar build­ings that struck him most force­fully dur­ing the Blitz: “It seemed im­pos­si­ble that so much dam­age could be done in so lit­tle time… To see the re­sult of years of work swept away in a sec­ond leaves one with an aw­ful feel­ing of in­sta­bil­ity.”

The in­fra­struc­ture of daily life could be badly hit. Road and rail­way bridges were knocked down; streets blocked by rub­ble; wa­ter mains cut. Peo­ple wanted to work – quite aside from any pa­tri­otic mo­tive, rapid wartime price rises meant they needed the cash – but just get­ting to a fac­tory that might it­self have been dam­aged be­came hard. Wrecked bak­ers, gro­cers and pubs threat­ened sup­plies of food, cig­a­rettes and beer, and re­moved the land­marks by which peo­ple had nav­i­gated their daily lives.

De­spite fears about the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of its pop­u­lace, Lon­don was well able to with­stand this sort of phys­i­cal dam­age: the com­plex­ity of the city’s net­works prov­ing adapt­able and re­silient. In smaller cities, the dev­as­ta­tion of cen­tral shop­ping ar­eas meant that car­ry­ing on re­quired a still greater ef­fort.

Then there was the dam­age to homes. High ex­plo­sive blasts and in­cen­di­ary fire ripped through walls and roofs and sent shock waves and de­bris clouds smash­ing through sur­round­ing prop­erty. Dur­ing the war, about 220,000 dwellings were de­stroyed or so badly dam­aged that they had to be de­mol­ished, and at least 3.5 mil­lion more suf­fered some form of dam­age. Ac­cord­ing to Richard Tit­muss – whose of­fi­cial his­tory of wartime so­cial pol­icy be­came a vivid de­scrip­tion of evac­u­a­tion and the Blitz – cal­cu­lat­ing that fig­ure was com­pli­cated by the fact that many in the most se­verely bombed ar­eas were hit more than once. Even on a mod­er­ate es­ti­mate, about 29 per cent of the coun­try’s pre­war hous­ing stock was af­fected in some way. As with fa­tal­i­ties, most of the dam­age was done in con­cen­trated ge­o­graph­i­cal ar­eas.

‘Dam­aged’ spanned ev­ery­thing from board­ing up bro­ken win­dows, to houses so badly wrecked that they had be­come un­in­hab­it­able un­til ma­jor re­pairs were com­plete. For ev­ery civil­ian killed, 35 were forced out of their homes by the Blitz. For those ‘ bombed out’, the end of the raid was only the start of their prob­lems. They had not only to find shel­ter, cloth­ing and food, but also of­ten to re­place the doc­u­ments – iden­tity cards and ra­tion books – that had be­come cen­tral to wartime do­mes­tic life.

Dur­ing the au­tumn of 1940, the in­abil­ity of some lo­cal author­i­ties in Lon­don to move the home­less on swiftly – from the rest cen­tres set up for their im­me­di­ate care to safe new ac­com­mo­da­tion, be­fore a fresh wave of vic­tims poured in – aroused great anger

‘ Trekking’ – leav­ing at dusk to spend the night in the coun­try­side, but re­turn­ing at dawn – be­came no­to­ri­ous

and a strong sense of aban­don­ment.

Bombed out or forced out by the strain of life in a blitzed city, many peo­ple sim­ply left. Some were evac­u­ated by the author­i­ties, but the ma­jor­ity of those who lost their homes did not pass through the of­fi­cial sys­tem. In­stead they fell back, of­ten for lack of any al­ter­na­tive, on their own re­sources. Some sought refuge with rel­a­tives in the sub­urbs. Oth­ers moved to take up jobs in boom­ing war fac­to­ries. Men might stay to work and guard a wrecked house from loot­ers but send their fam­i­lies to the coun­try­side. From the smaller cities, the phe­nom­e­non of ‘trekking’ – leav­ing at dusk to spend the night in the coun­try­side, but re­turn­ing at dawn – be­came no­to­ri­ous. The gov­ern­ment wor­ried it was an in­di­ca­tor of poor morale, be­fore re­al­is­ing that it could do lit­tle but aid a form of ex­is­tence that peo­ple had adopted in or­der to cope.

Re­build­ing im­pos­si­ble

In 1939, the gov­ern­ment an­nounced that it would pay post­war com­pen­sa­tion for build­ings, fur­ni­ture and cloth­ing dam­aged by en­emy ac­tion. In June 1940, it agreed to make ad­vanced pay­ments to some bombed out fam­i­lies. Then in March 1941, a new War Dam­ages Act levied a com­pul­sory an­nual pre­mium on all prop­erty own­ers, backed by Trea­sury fund­ing, to pro­vide con­tents and build­ings in­sur­ance against bomb­ing for ev­ery dwelling in the coun­try. Though ad­vance pay­ments were to be made to the bombed out to help them set up home again, the busi­ness of sub­mit­ting and ver­i­fy­ing claims took years. The scheme even­tu­ally paid out £117m in com­pen­sa­tion for house­hold goods (the real-terms equiv­a­lent of about £4.5bn to­day) and an­other £1,300m, over the next 20 years, for dam­age to build­ings.

While the war was still be­ing fought, how­ever, re­build­ing was all but im­pos­si­ble. Raw ma­te­ri­als and pro­duc­tion ca­pac­ity were be­ing ploughed into the mil­i­tary ef­fort – in­clud­ing the con­struc­tion of arms fac­to­ries, army bases and air­fields (some of which used the rub­ble from blitzed cities for foun­da­tions). House­hold goods and fur­ni­ture were scarce or ex­pen­sive. Cen­tral and lo­cal author­i­ties car­ried out more than 10 mil­lion build­ing re­pairs, but the pace was slow and the work of­ten con­sisted solely of enough patch­ing to make some rooms hab­it­able un­til the end of the war. New house build­ing – a sig­nif­i­cant part of the econ­omy in the late 1930s – ef­fec­tively ceased.

The re­sul­tant in­crease in over­crowd­ing and de­te­ri­o­ra­tion in liv­ing con­di­tions was prob­a­bly the most widely felt con­se­quence of the Blitz. The war en­cour­aged an elite ur­ban plan­ning move­ment that drew up de­tailed schemes to re­build cities as mod­ernist utopias of ring roads, flats and shop­ping cen­tres. The pro­vi­sion of well-built ac­com­mo­da­tion for all was a fun­da­men­tal part of vi­sions of the post­war wel­fare state. A des­per­ate pop­u­lar de­sire sim­ply for more and bet­ter hous­ing played a large role in the 1945 elec­tion, and would be a dom­i­nat­ing theme in do­mes­tic pol­i­tics for years to come.

A Lon­don street lies in ru­ins fol­low­ing a Ger­man raid, 1944. More than 60,000 civil­ians were killed in the UK by en­emy ac­tion dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, but the emo­tional im­pact of the bomb­ing was far harder to quan­tify

A no­tice painted on an air-raid shel­ter in 1940 ex­horts Lon­don­ers to “keep smil­ing”. Over the fol­low­ing months, Bri­tons’ fa­mous ‘Blitz Spirit’ would be tested to its lim­its

Women give the thumbs up through union flags used to cover a bomb-shat­tered win­dow, Lon­don, 12 Septem­ber 1940

The after­math of a V1 at­tack, 1944. Tens of thou­sands were se­ri­ously in­jured dur­ing the Ger­man bomb­ing, and many more sus­tained lighter wounds

Women emerge from their An­der­son shel­ter fol­low­ing an air raid in south­ern Eng­land. One Lon­doner said of the Blitz: “To see the re­sult of years of work swept away in a sec­ond leaves one with an aw­ful feel­ing of in­sta­bil­ity”

The smok­ing ru­ins of cen­tral Coven­try fol­low­ing a raid. Pro­vin­cial cities were of­ten less re­silient to bomb­ing than Lon­don, with its mul­ti­ple cen­tres

Sh­effield trams crip­pled by a raid in De­cem­ber 1940. Wrecked in­fra­struc­ture made it far more dif­fi­cult for peo­ple to buy food or travel to work

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