For fifty-seven successive days and nights between September and November 1940, London was repeatedly bombed by the Nazi Luftwaffe. For the following six months, she continued to be bombed frequently and heavily. This was the Blitz. More than 20,000 Londoners lost their lives and hundreds of thousands men women and children were injured as the city was in many places reduced to a smoking ruin. In his celebrated account of that winter, Constantine Fitzgibbon recorded the first-hand accounts of some of the Londoners who experienced the terror of the fires that engulfed their lives in the first days of the Blitz. In this short series we will attempt to re-capture the terror and stoicism of Londoners during that long winter. And, with the help of the great Winston Churchill, try to frame it in the overall dark and terrible context that confronted his government as Britain “stood alone” in the face of the Nazi evil engulfing Europe.
The vast Commercial Docks complex at RotherhitheThe night seemed endless and the hail of bombs indiscriminate. One Warden described the effect on his own Post:-“A bomb dropped down at the back of the A.R.P Post, my Post, it blew the back windows in, because we had no blast wall then – afterwards they put a blast wall up – and it blew the personnel what was left inside the post all over the place. And of course they were just enjoying a cup of tea and threy didn’t expect it, but still we got it all the same, and after that I had tea for the people, sent down for the people that was in the shelters all the way round and we done the best we could for them.”The evacuation of the residents of Down Town has been described by the leader of the stretcher party in the Redriff School, a Mr. Julius, as follows:-It looked one flaming mass and the flames were terrifically high. To us it seemed a remarkable thing that the people could get out of that area, and when we saw – when we saw the people come streaming down from dockland we were absolutely amazed. They seemed to come like an army marching and running from the area. The people coming from Down Town looked in a very, very bad condition, they were dirty, dishevelled and hurrying to get away.”Fortunately, the bridges leading out of Down Town escaped the bombs. Had they been hit the inhabitants would have been trapped in the inferno. This actually happened at Silvertown further east and on the north bank of the river. There, people were trapped and had to be rescued by whatever boats could be mustered in he mayhem.One of those rescued from Down Town was Mrs. Finnis who described her experience as follows:-“It was a Saturday afternoon, and we was indoor on the top floor of Surrey House, Rotherhithe Street, and I’d been doing some shopping and was going out again in the afternoon to do some more shopping when the guns went off, and the planes come over, incendiary bombs were dropped all round us, on to the boats, in the dock, on to the other side of the river, and the place was just like a ball of flame. We couldn’t get out. And they came and fetched us, the wardens come and fetched us, and took us in the shelter, and there we stayed, my husband and me, the two young boys was away evacuated, Ronnie was at the First Aid Post and me other son was in the Home Guard, and we stayed there till the ambulance came along, taking the people to Keeton’s Road School. But we just walked along Rotherhithe Street to my mother’s, and there we stayed till the rest of the raid was over.”One of those who did go to the school was a Miss Greenwood:-“That afternoon the docks were on fire, people were going past our house, which was nearby, like refugees more or less, with just bundles, turned out of their places, nowhere to go really. Then it subsided. Then they returned again, and dropped more bombs and eventually the police came along to our houses and demanded that we should come out – we couldn’t stay there any longer, so we were made to get out of the homes and were transferred to Keeton’s Road School which is quite a distance away. When we got there we found that nearly all the people from Down Town had been placed there and there wasn’t much room. Then our own people came and we took an elderly couple from next door along with us, and we were standing most of the time there, which was a very short time. Then all of a sudden the most horrible roar came along and the place got hit. There was miles of us got buried there, and the A.R.P. fellows were very, very good trying to dig us out and transfer us on to stretchers in the roadways. There was no conveyance, everything was going on allarouns us, they couldn’t get by the holes in the road to get you through to hospital. We laid there for quite a time. Eventually they got vans and things to put you to different hospitals . I’m afraid I don’t remember very much more about that because I was unconscious.”The Public Baths in Bermondsey had been designated a casualty station and was staffed by doctors and nurses who had being quietly, but intensively, trained to deal with the likely effects of a major raid. They and their training were now put to the test. One of the lady doctors, Dr. Morton, has spoken of her experience on that night and the months that followed:-“When we were training the first-aid workers, we took a great deal of time explaining how they should be aseptic: how they should scrub their hands before touching any wounds, how the should take care of asepsis when putting dressings on. But the very first night of the Blitz that just went by the wind. What struck one was the tremendous amount of dirt and dust, the dirt and dust of ages blown up in every incident. Everyone came in looking absolutely filthy. Their heads were full of grit and dust, their skin was engrained with dust, and it was completely impossible to do anything about antisepsis at all.
In the Bermondsey baths, where we had our first-aid post, some of the bath attendants were using hose pipes to wash the people down. This cleaned their hair and gave them a good shampoo before we got going, and very grateful they were to get the grit out of their hais and their ears and their noses and so on.
all our knowledge of what to expect was taken from various books, mainly about what had happened in Spain. And I think it was a surprise to all of us, when the first Blitz did start seriously, how very few casualties there were. We had enormous numbers of shrouds sent round for us to use, and of course we expected gas. There was a general apprehension, an expectation of casualties which for people like myself, who are not surgeons – well, we wondered if we’d be able to cope, but in actual fact the whole thing was much more manageable than we had expected.”But of course there were many deaths. Police sergeant Peters, based at the Tower Bridge police station, takes us vividly back to the Keeton’s Road School:-The first incident to which I attended was at keeton’s Road School. The people had been evacuated from Rotherhithe owing to the docks being well on fire, and some were taken to Keeton’s Road School along with all their belongings and their families and food. Soon after ten o’clock a bomb fell on the school and I, along with a number of others, were ordered down. On reaching the school we entered by the playground. Fire had started going through some of the rooms. In one room I saw an A.F.S. man laying on a makeshift bed, and his face looked as if it had been skinned. A little further along I, with another officer, was searching amongst the debris and after a while my brother officer bent down and pulled something out. He thought it was a piece of bread. But it turned out to be part of a small child, the upper part, the upper limbs of a small child. This so upset us that we came out into the street. There were a number of bodies laying on the footway and in the road. I stood and watched these for a few moments. Eventually some of them stood up, and to my relief they were not all dead. But there were some of them who were dead.”Such was the first night of the Blitz in Bermondsey. Similar scenes – or worse – were to be found in the neighbouring Boroughs of Southwark and Greenwich and at the other prime targets at Deptford and Woolwich. And across the river in Stepney, Poplar, East Ham and West Ham the horrors experienced by the people were no less, as we shall hear in our next instalment.