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 the final article of this short series we learn of the first terrible, useless, tragedy of the Blitz.
PART FIVEA few hours after Mrs. Spender and her ambulance had got out, Ritchie Calder went down to west Ham.”I sought out my old friend, ‘The Guv’nor,’ the militant clergyman, the Rev. W. W. Paton. I found his Presbyterian church in ruins. His pulpit still stood, but the roof and the front wall had gone. The streets all around were wrecked. They were poor ‘Dead End’ streets, running down to he dock wall, but these heaps of rubble had once been homes which sheltered the families of the East London dockers – tough decent folk who had deserved better conditions than they’d ever had in peace-time and who were having the worsdt in war. Some of these battered wrecks of bricks and rubble, with shabby furniture now reduced to kindling, had been the only homes which old pensioners had ever known. They had ‘married’ into them; they had brought up their families in them; they had seen their children married out of them; and were eking out an ill-cared for old age in them – when the bombers came.”I found the ‘Guv’nor at last. He was ashen grey with the anguish of the night. He had been out in the raids, helping his people throughout the night. His lips trembled and his eyes filled with tears when he spoke of those of his friends who were dead, injured or missing. But his main concern was with the living. He was dashing round the streets seeking out the survivors whose homes had been wrecked.”I went with him. We found many hundreds of them sheltering in a school in the heart of the bombed area. I took a good look at this school. From the first glance it seemed to me ominous of disaster.”In the passages and classrooms were mothers nursing their babies. There were blind, crippled, and aged people. There were piccaninnies, the children of Negro firemen then at sea. There were youngsters whom I knew by name, like the red-headed impish ‘Charlie’. Whole families were sitting in queues, perched on their pitiable baggage, waiting desperately for coaches to take them away from the terror of the bombs, which had been raining down on them for two nights. Yes, for two nights! For the blitzkrieg had started in that fore-doomed corner on the Friday night before London had felt the full weight of it.”The crowded people in the school included many families who had been bombed out already, on that first night. These unfortunate homeless people had been told to be ready for the coaches at three o’clock. Hours later, the coaches had not arrived. ‘The Guv’nor’ and I heard women, the mothers of young children, protesting with violence and with tears about the delay. Men were cursing the helpless local officials who knew only that the coaches were expected ‘Where are we going?’ ‘Can’t we walk there?’ ‘We’ll take a bus!’ There’s a lorry we can borrow!’ The crowd clamoured for help, for information, for reassurance. But the harassed officials knew no answer other than the offer of a cup of tea.”One mother complained that her children had been forbidden to play in the playground. The official could only say that he was sorry and evade her questions. But he showed me the answer. In the playground behind the school was a crater. The school was, in fact, a bulging, dangerous ruin. The bombs which had rendered these people homeless had also struck the school, selected by the authorities as their ‘Rest centre’. Note that the school had already been bombed at the same time as ‘The Guv’nor’s” church had been bombed. So had the parish church which, because it was the favourite ‘church-wedding’ place of the poor, was known as the ‘Cathedral of East London.’ So had other buildings and streets in a direct line with it. And then I knew, on that Sunday afternoon, that, as sure as night would follow day, the bombers would come again with the darkness, and that school would be bombed.“It was not a premonition. It was a calculable certainty. These hapless people told me how the bombers had ranged over the Docks, shedding their bombs – one. Two, three, four, then a pause as the ‘planes banked in a tight turn ans that remorseless fifth bomb, dropped each time on the same corner.”all these hundreds of people spent another night inside the shelterless school. Some were taken to another school – providentially – although it was only the breadth of a street away! This was done to make room for a new flood of homeless victims of the Sunday night raids. During yet another night of raids and terror, the fourth in the school in the school for some of the shelterers, the inevitable bomb hit the crowded building.”The next morning I saw the crater, I saw the rescue men descending perilously into it, with ropes around them, saw them pause, every now and then, in a hushed, painful silence, listening for sounds of the living; saw the tomb of whole families, of many of my ‘Dead End Kids’. By then, two days after the coaches had been due, the survivors mainly from that second school, were boarding buses. They were struggling for places as crowds clamber aboard a the rush-hour. I spoke to men, fathers of families, who had been cursing on the Sunday. They were speechless and numbed by the horror of it all now. They had been saved by the breadth of that road!”An enquiry was started. It was found that the coaches had been ordered on the Sunday all right. The drivers had been told to rendezvous at ‘The George’ public-house in a neighbouring borough. The leader of the convoy thought he knew ‘The George’. He did, but it was ‘The George’ in a different borough. So the coaches just went home. Next day, coaches arrived at the school, but as the homeless were boarding them the sirens went. Local officials decided to abandon the transfer that day and attempt it the following day. The next day was too late.”This tragedy was one of the first and grimmest lessons of London. About 450 homeless lost their lives in that school – a figure to be dismissed lightly by those who measure casualties in terms of Passchendaele or the Somme. It was the needlessness of the tragedy which made it so terrible.”REFERENCES:
Churchill, Winston S., The Second World War, Volume II – Their Finest Hour. Cassell & Co. London, 1949.
FitzGibbon, Constantine, The Blitz, Allan Wingate, London 1957.
Matthews, W R, Saint Paul’s Cathedral in Wartime 1939-1945, Hutchinson & Co, 1946.