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.
PART FOURAcross the river, in Poplar, Mr. Cotter was Deputy Chief Warden. This is how he later described his experience on that first day of the Blitz:-“First, let it be said that it has been impossible to compile a complete record of he bombs dropped on the borough on that afternoon and night of September 7th and the morning hours of September 8th. In twelve hours, twenty-two of our thirty-five telephones were put out of action with the result that wardens were only reporting casualty-producing incidents either by runner or over some odd telephone that happened to be working. For instance, a stick of six bombs would fall in a Post area. Two of them causing casualties and the other four creating more or less serious damage. Almost invariably, the warden confined his reports to the casualty incidents, with a mental promise to compile a complete list of other damage in the morning. Unfortunately, Sunday, September 8th brought a continuation of enemy activity and the mental promise was never put into effect. Throughout the first week or ten days, everyone was occupied with the task of locating and getting casualties to hospital.; it was, I think, natural that many of the missiles were missed when a check-up was eventually put in hand. In addition, quite one-third of our members were themselves in difficulties; relatives had been killed or injured, homes had been totally demolished or so badly blasted that they were unfit for further habitation and alternative accommodation had to be found at once for wives and families. At ten or a dozen Posts, wardens were sleeping in chairs, cooking scratch meals and generally living a hand-to-mouth existence. All around them they saw friends and neighbours packing and preparing to move off to into safe areas; never knowing what was to come, they decided, with very few exceptions, to stick and do their job.
“September 7th and 132 Incidents – a single night’s bombing which reached the total suffered by more fortunate areas in five years of war. When, on the lines quoted above, one reckons the bombs which were not reported, the multitude of I. B., the missiles falling inside the Dock enclosures, and the number of bombs dropped on the huge Devas Street fire, the total for this area of some 2½ square miles must have reached the saturation point for the whole of London. From all outlying parts of the metropolis, eyes were turned towards that Devas Street conflagration and tens of thousands of people wondered what was happening. They could not see stick after stick of bombs dropping into the flames and hurling burning wood, embers and showers of sparks hundreds of feet into the air; they could not see gangs of A.R.P. workers clearing earth from buried Anderson shelters and bringing the occupants, dazed and half suffocated, out into the revivifying air which was, none the less, heavy with smoke and redolent of charred timber; they could not visualise wardens picking their way through debris and, since phones had gone, making their way hurriedly to Control to report fresh incidents; they could not imagines the A.F.S. crews, many of them literally receiving their baptism of fire, being hurled away from the blaze with hose and branches still gripped grimly in their hands; they cold not see the Control staffs, perspiring, exhausted, foodless, endlessly ordering our fresh parties, nor could they hear the gasp of the telephone girl taking the air-raid message dealing with her own home.
“It would be impossible to relate fully the accounts of bravery and devotion to duty of members of all the Civil Defence services. Most of them were seeing violent death and wholesale destruction for the first time. At the rate missiles were falling and in view of the number of casualties on every side, there could have been no one who, at some time or another during that first night, did not estimate his or her own chances of survival; the obvious conclusion would be that their chances were pretty slim.
“In one way, our task was tremendously simplified by the exodus of September 7th and during the succeeding weeks. At 7 p.m. on the first day, during an ‘all clear’ period, a positive convoy of motor vehicles, filled with entire families and piled high with luggage, rolled from side streets towards Bow Road and east India Dock Road and proceeded westwards. Some were proceeding to friends n the more fortunate London bo0roughs, whilst others were definitely on their way to the country for the duration. During the first few days every available means of transport was used to remove the essentials for making a home elsewhere – crockery, pots and pans, and a few articles of furniture. Pony carts, hand-drawn barrows, perambulators and cycles with heavily laden carriers, all rolled out of the borough in a steady stream. At the metropolitan Tube Station and at almost every bus stop, families burdened with suitcases and packages could be seen making their way out of the danger area; many of them no longer had a home and all they carried was the clothes in which they stood with perhaps an odd item or two salvaged from the wreckage.
“What kind of people were our wardens? In Poplar we had a very rough-and-ready crowd indeed. If they liked you they probably called you ‘mate’ irrespective of your rank; if they thought you were just passable they’d call you ‘mister’, and if they disliked you they usually called you ‘Sir’. There was only one thing kept ’em together – they had a kind of discipline imposed by themselves, and that was the fear that their mates wouldn’t think that a man was doing the job – they were afraid of heir mates, definitely. We had one rather tragic case of a Warden, a good one too, indeed, who was by chance seen in a Tube shelter one night. He was with his wife. He went back to the Post the following morning with his usual cheery greeting; everybody refused to talk to him. They even took his name off the roster in the Post, and he was promptly sent to Coventry [ignored by everybody]. We had of course to transfer him to another Post. The sad part of that story was that the man would never have gone into a deep shelter by himself. But his wife insisted that he go along with her. And married men will know what I mean. . .”Such was the toll in Poplar on that first day. In our next instalment we will visit the neighbouring borough of West Ham across the river Lea to witness the devastation and suffering endured by its inhabitants.