Churchill called it his nation’s greatest trial and its finest hour. Europe had fallen to Hitler and Britain stood alone. Determined to bomb the English into submission, the German Luftwaffe attacked London nearly every night, targeting the “Square Mile,” the heart of the city and the site of some of its greatest landmarks. In this gripping historical narrative, Margaret Gaskin puts the reader into the middle of the Blitz, its horror and its heroism, by vividly reconstructing the night that Hitler tried to burn the city to the ground—the night that one of the war’s most haunting photographs was taken, showing St. Paul’s still standing amid burning ruins. Stunningly vivid and compelling, Blitz uses the voices of those on whom the bombshells fell—the ordinary and the famous, including Edward R. Murrow and FDR—to tell the story as it has never before been told.
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MARGARET GASKIN studied history at Queen Mary College in London’s East End. She lives in London.
HOME SERVICE SUNDAY 29TH DECEMBER
7 A.M. Time, Big Ben: News and summary
of today’s programmes for the Forces
— BBC Radio Times Christmas Edition, 1940
Across Britain, people were stumbling sleepily downstairs—or up from the basement, or in from the Anderson shelter—to put a match to the gas under the kettle, and to plug in the wireless and switch it on to warm up for the first news of the day: their first chance to hear how the rest of the nation had fared during the night. As they sipped their tea behind blackout curtains this Sunday morning, the familiar “bongs” transmitted live from Westminster would herald equally familiar tones declaring: “This is the BBC . . .”
THE 114TH DAY OF “THE BLITZ” had begun. And all Londoners were starting the day in the reasonable expectation that at least some of them would be dead or badly injured in an air raid before the start of the 115th.
Perhaps not—there might be no raid at all. But since this business began back in the early autumn, there had not been many nights on which the capital had not been a major or minor target. If there was a heavy one again tonight, then your odds were perhaps one in 10,000 of dying; much the same of being seriously injured. Some people’s chances were better than others, of course, depending on where they lived, the quality of their shelter and the job they did. But anyone could get caught out. It was the ultimate gamble—which, over the past four months, one in every five or six hundred Londoners had already lost. Thankfully, for Londoners at least, last night had been one of the quiet ones.
In Westminster, heart both of the British war machine and of the democracy it was defending, the deep-throated bell known the world over as “Big Ben” tolled out across the capital in profound darkness. No glow drew the eye to the familiar clock faces. On the Thames beneath, only the faint reflected gleam of the Westminster Bridge fairway lights, marking a safe channel for emergency craft, showed that the dark waters were there at all. Office lights already burning in the wartime ministries along Whitehall were masked from the street by thick curtains or blackout boards. There was no moon and, unlike yesterday morning and so many mornings before it, no burning buildings to light up the London sky.
The brief December daylight—now lasting less than eight hours from dawn to dusk—was still far off, thanks to wartime daylight-saving. A peacetime Londoner glancing at his alarm clock now would have seen the little hand pointing to the six and burrowed contentedly back beneath the blankets, relishing his Sunday lie-in. But this was wartime; this was seven
o’clock. And for many, seven o’clock on a Sunday morning was the start of just another working day—or the welcome end of one.
Gingerly, dimmed torch beams crept along unseen pavements, picking out the warning white painted on curbstones, lamp posts, street corners and the trunks of looming trees along the Victoria Embankment.
One writer had become a connoisseur of the sound of footfalls on dark mornings, mostly shelterers returning to their homes—if they found homes to return to— after a night under ground:
a light, but rather slow footstep means that it is probably a woman, carrying a child. You hear quite a lot of these. Too many—for these days in London. Then there will be the clatter of a family: the heavy tread of Dad; the swifter, tripping steps of his wife; the almost-prattle of the hurrying-to-keep-up anxiety of the kids. The stamp of the lonely man; probably if he is an old one, accompanied by the resentful tapping of a stick. All kinds of people, all ages, all states of fatigue, temper or stout-heartedness.
When the Night Blitz began, haste at daybreak could have ensured a couple of hours in your own bed before work. But as the weeks went by, the days shortened and hours of danger increased, workers scurrying home just had time to dump their shelter things, tidy themselves and set out again, still in darkness. Soon, they “considered themselves lucky if they could find the time for a nice, quiet cup of tea.” The writer, American but a long-time Londoner, knew the importance of that.
“THIS IS THE BBC . . .”
Unseen by listeners, Broadcasting House dress code had relaxed from the perpetual evening dress of Lord Reith’s regime into wartime’s “jerseys and sports coats, flannel bags and shirt sleeves.” And, three floors down for safety, the first newsreader of the day often rose to his work from a camp bed. But the traditional sangfroid with which the BBC News was delivered remained undiminished.
Though there had been that one night in October. Edward R. Murrow, writing in the tiny underground studio shared by the three big U.S. radio networks, had heard the window separating him from the BBC engineers crack suddenly. And across Britain, listeners to the evening news had heard newsreader Bruce Belfrage pause momentarily at a muffled explosion. A distant voice called, “It’s all right,” and Belfrage gave a slight cough. “I beg your pardon,” he said, before continuing.
A delayed-action bomb entering an upper window of Broadcasting House had exploded while being investigated, killing six and injuring many more. In the early hours, Ed Murrow had told early evening America of friends being carried on stretchers past his door to the first aid room, and of a pervading smell of iodine.
There had been more than stiff upper lip to Belfrage’s reticence. Nor had the British censor who sat, finger poised on the cut-off switch, during Ed Murrow’s broadcast had to enforce what Murrow’s own common sense told him. Broadcasting House was target enough, without betraying more information to the German monitors listening in.
The same self-censoring caution lay behind the bland phrasing of news bulletins on so many mornings past. RAF “jammers” were working flat out to confuse the Luftwaffe’s radio direction finding; it made no sense to say whether their night-bombers were on target. “Fires were started, casualties have been reported,” became standard raid-speak, in which even London might become “a town in southern England.”
The anonymous city “taking it” last night had been Plymouth. An intense raid, an hour long, eleven dead and about three times as many seriously injured. The death toll for a major raid was usually in the hundreds, with many more seriously injured. Though even the worst raids in this bombardment, the heaviest so far in human history, were killing only a fraction of the numbers envisaged in Britain’s pre-war preparations. Bigger news than last night’s raid, on this lastSunday morning of this most momentous year, was further progress for Empire troops against the Italians in North Africa, and an RAF raid on the Channel ports from which any Nazi invasion of Britain must be launched.
THE NEXT NEWS would be at nine on the Home Service. Later the “Forces” station would offer News From India: tidings from home for Britain’s Indian community, including those troops evacuated from Dunkirk but not yet fighting with their compatriots in North Africa.
After the fall of France in June, a newspaper cartoon had shown British defiance as a Tommy brandishing a fist from a small rock battered by stormy seas and declaring, “Very Well, Alone.” But that brilliant graphic simplicity hardly captured the complexity of all that Britishness represented in 1940. For though friends and enemies alike spoke of “England” as the last bastion of democracy, what stood alone against Hitlerism now was not just the nation, or clutch of nations, occupying these islands, but a worldwide Empire and Commonwealth— as the cartoonist David Low, a New Zealander working for the Canadian Lord Beaverbrook, knew well enough.
This Empire and Commonwealth, made up of a bewildering array of colonies, protectorates, dependencies and independent dominions, meant that every fourth person alive was—in theory and largely in fact—a loyal subject of George VI, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas, King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India. The issue was not as cut and dried as that for many of the King’s subjects around the world, as you would see if you opened a newspaper this morning. But then again, for many—and for now—it really was. One young man growing up in the Caribbean later recalled his pride then in the world map on which so much was painted red:Big Australia, big India, rich Burma— little Jamaica! We felt proud to have the same colour, to be a family of nations. We felt proud that we had huge battleships like the Hood, which was the best in the world. We accepted all of the British traditions. We felt safe.
© M. J. Gaskin, 2005
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