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.
Today, West Ham is in the London Borough of Newham but at the time of the Blitz was part of the county of Essex. Until the mid-nineteenth century it wa largely countryside, but the creation of the Royal docks in the 1850s to accommodate the new large steamships brought rapid industrialisation to the area. This was accompanied by the creation of large slum estates, especially in the south of the borough, to house the new workers at these, the largest docks in the world.
By the time of the Blitz there were approximately 260,000 people crammed into these "stinking slums" the vast majority of them casual workers in the docks, drawn from all parts of the globe, including China, as we shall shortly hear. By this time, too, the economic significance of the docks had declined sharply and unemployment n the area was at a very high rate. It has been said that those who could get out of West Ham wasted no time in doing so. The most densely populated areas were Canning Town, north of the Victoria and Albert Docks and Silvertown, on a virtual island between the docks. (It is now the site of the London City airport.)
Because of the low-lying nature of the land, the provision of adequate shelters for the population was extremely difficult. The Anderson Shelters which sprouted up across greater London and provided effective shelter from bombing were useless here. They, and the alternative trench shelters, rapidly flooded and proved impossible to keep dry. It is telling that the government sent great quantities of shrouds to West Ham and advised all inhabitants to make a proper Last Will and Testament. The situation was made infinitely worse by the attitude of the local council who refused to allow any pacifist individuals or organisations to join the civil Defence forces. They even doubted whether the excellent Women' Voluntary Service should be allowed into the borough. As a result, West Ham was dreadfully unprepared for the onslaught the fell from the skies on September 7th. and 8th.
Our first eyewitness is Mrs Nancy Spender, who went down to Silvertown with an ambulance on the 7th.
"At 9.15 the call came through they wanted one ambulance to go to Oriental Road. I was very luck because I had a driver who was in the last war and was very experienced. I was the conductoress. Well we went off and we weren't allowed any lights at all, and the streets were absolutely pitch-black except when we got the full glare of the coppo-coloured fire. In our next instalment we shall hear how the terrible confusion over a pub called "the George" led to one of the worst disasters of the night of the 7th. September.
"On we went and I kept urging my driver to go faster. He sais there was no hurry and we'd get there just as soon in the end. And sure enough, two ambulances that raced past us had got themselves ditched con the pavement, and we passed them. Every mile or two we came across white-hatted officials who passed us on the way we went on, and then after a bit we came to a sort of formation of ambulances, green buses, Green Line buses, , all sorts of vehicles . . . and things, and we took our place and we waited.
"After a bit I asked the incident officer Is this right for Oriental Road? Good Gracious he said no. Oriental Road's in Silvertown. Well, we tried to get our ambulance started up, being old it didn't start, and we had to get four men to push us off. Well, we went on a bit and then I met a man, and I said Is this right for Silvertown? And he said Oh that's about two miles further on no good going there, it's entirely ablaze from end to end.
"Well, we went on and now we found we were completely alone, there wasn't a soul in any street. One minute we were going down a little pitch-black street, and on and on, and hen eventually we came to a sort of swing bridge into the Victoria Docks. And as we went along the whole thing was absolutely one blazing fire, I've never seen anything like it, you know, right across the sky there was nothing but blazing things and everything going up. As far we could see, everything was on fire great, red flames were going up and down the brick walls, piles of houses all collapsed or on fire, warehouses like blazing cathedrals standing up and then falling down, bricks going up, bombs coming down, there was a most terrific muddle of fire, everything reflected in the water.
"Then in the Basin, which was just like a sheet of flame because it reflected the entire glow of the fire, I saw two steamers completely on fire except for their black funnels, which looked absolutely jet-black against everything else. Well, by now we were in a complete jam, there was nothing but fire-fighting apparatus, ambulances, hosepipes, the whole thing a complete and utter traffic jam, and we just had to take our place in the rather narrow road and wait.
"We waited there for about ten minutes or so, then my driver got rather fed up and we edged our way along and got up to the top; just as we were getting near the top, to see what was holding everything up, a warehouse crashed right across the road, and we had blazing stuff right across our roof and it was impossible to go on.
"Well, then we were truly jammed it was very uncomfortable because about four feet away there was a blazing patch of flame and a large pile of tar barrels waiting to be caught. My driver said to me Do you see what I see? And I said Yes, I do. And then he said Well, it'll be the hell of a job to get out of here. However, we did manage to turn, with people helping us and firemen pushing, we got back and we went back along our tracks. The other ambulances all shouted to us - You can't get through and we said Don't we know it, we can't get through, but we know another way. And they said Wait for us and I said We cant wait for you because we can't stop here, we're jamming the roads so we went on, and was an absolute mercy that no bomb hit the swing bridge because if it had we should all have been trapped.
"However, it didn't and we edged along, on every side roofs fell in with the most terrific explosions, gas mains blew up, there were constant bangings of bombs and A.A. guns, but it was quite impossible to feel frightened because it was all on such an enormous scale. Every few minutes one of those blazing piles shot like a fountain into the sky. It reminded me very much of an eighteenth-century print of hot geysers in America, because the of the fountains of stuff that jetted up and fell down with a crash. Anyway, we did get through and we got over the bridge and then my driver thought he knew another route.
"Well, we went on for some time and then we got blacked and we couldn't go through and we had to go back and take another fork, which we did. We went on for a bit more, past piles of burning stuff, and we couldn't get through again. Then he had an inspiration and he left the road completely and cut across the wharf. Now we were in a sort of maze of cinder tracks and little truck lines going here and there and nothing but hosepipes and fire people fighting the fires, everywhere there was nothing but hosepipes. They were awfully good, and they gave us pushes to get over the worst debris.
"The we came to a place that seemed to be a sheet of flame, but my driver said Oh, I think this is nothing much, we'll get through this, and he put a terrific spurt on and we got through it and that was all right. Well, then we came to a whole group of firemen, all wearing masks fighting one of the warehouses which was blazing, and I said to one of them Anybody hurt here? He said No, all dead, go on. So we went on, and then we came across a man completely distraught, his face absolutely black with soot of course our own faces were black but we didn't notice it. He'd lost his wife and his mother and so we gave him a lift on the way where to, I have no idea, but he wanted to come that way so he came, and we went on.
"Then we asked a man Is this right for Oriental Road he said that's absolutely hopeless, it's ablaze from end to end , you'll never get there. Well, we did, we went on and then left the worst of the fire behind us, and quite shortly we came to a little sort of deserted village, everything quite quiet except of course for the tremendous bomb racket which went on all the time, a little deserted village, with two storey houses and not a house had a roof, not a single house had a roof, just a little pub without anything on top of it, a lamp-post right across the road, enormous craters and in each crater there seemed to be a burning jet gas main or something which had broken, the usual prams, stoves, anything across the road. We had an awful job to get by because the craters were so big and the road was so narrow and half the time we had two wheels on the pavement and two wheels over the crater.
"Then we came across another car, also looking for Oriental Road, and he joined in behind us, and we went on for a bit and then we came to another road and there wasn't a single house standing there was nothing, nothing at all except holes. Out of several of these holes little people popped their heads exactly like a Chinese war film. I said Is this oriental Road? And they shouted The Ambulance? And I said Yes, anybody hurt here? They said Over in the shelter. I said Where's that? And they said Under the arches. So then we tried to go on, and they said Oh you can't get your ambulance there, there's no possible road, you'll have to leave it. So we left the ambulance and I got out a stretcher and we went over to the shelter and put our heads in.
"I suppose there were about forty people there. I said Anybody hurt? and not a soul answered. So I said again Anybody hurt? and still nobody answered, so I went up to one woman and tapped her and said Is there anybody hurt here? and she said Over there there's a mother and a two-day old baby, they've both been dug out, and I think further up there's a boy with a very bad knee, he got dug out, he was buried up to his waist, but I don't know about the others. So I went over to the mother, she didn't speak, and I wrapped her I na blanket and put her on the stretcher, and I said Is there a Warden here? and somebody said No, he was killed half an hour ago. So I got a couple of men, anyway, to help me, and we took her back on the stretcher, out her in the ambulance, then I came back again and collected the boy, with some help, and then we got back to the ambulance with him and after that I just filled the ambulance with as many people as I could cram n, about fifteen or sixteen.
"Still nobody spoke, it was all the most deathly silence, and I go in beside them this time, not beside the driver, and drew the curtains to shut out the ghastly glow, and deafen the noise a bit, and we drove off. About half-way back there was a most tremendous explosion and the whole ambulance left the ground and I thought This time we've had it and the man has hit a crater but he hadn't. It was a bomb which dropped in Liverpool Street Station, and we were very close then. Anyway, we got them all back and we got them all to hospital and we got back to our station, I suppose, about half-past one in the morning."
TO BE CONTINUED.
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.