Punishing The British

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London bomb damage in the Blitz.

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The bewilderment of a child during the German bombing of London in 1941.

It so happens that this war, whether those at present in authority like it or not, has to be fought as a citizen’s war. There is no way out of that because in order to defend and protect this island, not only against possible invasion but also against all the disasters of aerial bombardment, it has been found necessary to bring into existence a new network of voluntary associations such as the Home Guard, the Observer Corps, all the A.R.P. and fire-fighting services, and the like …. They are a new type, what might be called the organised militant citizen. And the whole circumstances of their wartime life favour a sharply democratic outlook. Men and women with a gift for leadership now turn up in unexpected places. The new ordeals blast away the old shams. Britain, which in the years immediately before this war was rapidly losing such democratic virtues as it possessed, is now being bombed and burned into democracy.

Out of the People by J.B. Priestley

At first nobody quite knew what was happening. It was such a perfect autumn day; at 2 p.m. on that sunny Saturday 7 September, it was a time to relax from the tensions of war, a time to take stock. For Londoners, it was a time for watching the ducks on the lake in St James Park or flirting on the parched grass. Others were queuing for theatre matinees—the young Michael Redgrave in Thunder Rock or Dame Marie Tempest in Dear Octopus—and the cinemas, too, were doing booming business, with Walt Disney’s Pinocchio rivalling Gary Cooper in The Westerner. At Shepperton, eighteen miles down the Thames from Westminster Bridge, the writer Basil Woon, one of the spectators at tht afternoon’s cricket match, savoured the brisk applause from the pavilion as a batsman’s stumps flew: “Oh, well bowled, sir—a beauty!”

Even over many coastal areas, random raiders were now so commonplace as to excite little comment. Thus, as the Heinkels of Oberst Johannes Fink’s Bomber Group Two droned over the cattle market at Canterbury, Kent, the sole reaction came from a newsboy by the traffic signals, who hailed them cheekily, “Hey, wait for the lights to go green!” At Shepperton, watching them slide at 15,000 feet towards the blue haze that marked the city boundary, Basil Woon thought complacently, but they’ll never get to London. The time was 4:30 p.m., and all over southern England, preserved until now by the valour of The Few, this was the mood of the moment. There was no hint of Armageddon.

The suspense was not long delayed. At this same hour, twenty-one Fighter Command squadrons were already airborne, weaving above the battered sector stations at Biggin Hill, Northolt, and Kenley. Paramount in every pilot’s mind was the belief that these and aircraft factories like Vickers Armstrong, Weybridge, attacked as recently as 4 September. would be the Luftwaffe’s target for today. Then, due east of the Isle of Sheppey, they caught their first glimpse of a sight they would remember as long as they lived: a formation of almost a thousand aircraft, Heinkels, Dorniers, glinting Messerschmitt 109s, bulking over one and a half miles high, covering 800 square miles of sky. Now there could no longer be any doubt: the target was London.

What had happened? Behind this unlooked-for assault stretched a tortuous chain of argument that was as old as the Battle itself. Two men in particular had from the first urged an all-out assault on London” Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, commanding Air Fleet Two, and General Bruno Lörzer, of the 2nd Flying Corps. Stubbornly, Hitler, still hopeful for peace, had refused. And then, on the night of 24 August, a few Luftwaffe bomber crews, guilty of a navigational error, had set off a chain reaction. Seeking the oil tanks at Thameshaven, on the estuary, they had drifted over central London. For the first time since the Zeppelin raid of May 1918, bombs were scattered across the old walled city of London.

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Thousands of Londoners took shelter in the Underground tunnels during the Blitz in 1941.

In cold anger, Churchill ordered instant reprisals, and eighty-one twin-engined Wellington, Hampden, and Whitley bombers set out for Berlin. Although fewer than ten of them found their target, the British, spurred on by Churchill, tried again and again, four times in the next ten days.

As early as 2 September, the Luftwaffe debated retaliation. At Wissant, near Calais, Major Adolf Galland and seven other group commanders heard from Oberst Theo Osterkamp: “There may be a massed attack on London on 7 September.” But all this was left in abeyance, pending a full-dress conference between Goering and his Air Fleet Commanders at The Hague on 3 September.

It was there, in a spirited no-holds-barred exchange of views, that matters came to a head. The time had come, Goering maintained, to alter tactics, to switch all resources to a massive pile-driving attack on London. Only one problem remained a cause for concern: had Fighter Command’s resources been truly depleted, or would the bombers run too great a risk?

On this score, opinions were divergent. Kesselring, the eternal optimist, maintained that Fighter Command was finished; a study of combat reports made that plain. He pointed out with truth that he had always urged a mass attack on one key objective rather than the divergent targets that had characterised Goering’s approach to the battle—with ports, airfields, and factories singled out in turn, then just as capriciously abandoned.

Sperrle, who liked to differ with Kesselring on principle, disagreed now. He sided with Oberst Werner Junck, his regional fighter commander, who maintained that a spent force could not inflict such losses—“This is a Verdun of the air.” In Sperrle’s estimation, the RAF still had 1,000 operational fighters left. (The truth: exactly 746 were then serviceable and available.)

General Kurt Student, the commander of all airborne troops for “Operation Sea-lion,” always nourished the intriguing theory that Goering’s 7 September attack was an all-out bid to force Hitler’s hand. Taking tea at Karinhall on the afternoon of 2 September, Student had been shocked to hear the Reichsmarschall’s sudden admission, “The Führer doesn’t want to invade Britain.” When Student pressed him for an explanation, Goering’s sole answer was a massive shrug: “I don’t know. There’ll be nothing this year at any rate.”

To the relief of all, on 4 September, Hitler’s final angry decision had been spelt out at Berlin’s Sportpalast: “If they attack our cities, we will raze theirs to the ground. We will stop the handiwork of these air pirates, so help us God.”

The die was cast, and to every man in the Luftwaffe, the decision made impeccable sense. To the jubilant Kesselring, it was proof that his logic had carried the day: on 7 September, successive waves of bombers and fighters, 1,273 in all, were scheduled to cross the coast from 4 p.m. onwards. To Goering, who had codenamed the raids operation Loge, after the old German god who had forged Siegfried’s sword, it was a day he would commemorate by personally taking command on the Channel coast. At fighter level it was welcome news to Major Adolf Galland: “Only then would the English fighters leave their den and be forced to give us open battle.”

Ironically, it was a decision, once known, that was welcome in the British camp too. “London was like some huge prehistoric animal, capable of enduring terrible injuries,” Churchill noted with satisfaction, already scenting victory in this abrupt switch of targets. As his Hurricane, codenamed OK 1, twisted above the blazing docks at Rotherhithe, Air Vice Marshal Keith Park, too, breathed a sigh of relief: “Thank God for that.”

As Park was to elaborate the next day: “I knew that the Nazis had switched their attack from the fighter stations, thinking they were knocked out. They weren’t, but they were pretty groggy.”

From the sober viewpoint of military logic, it was a judgement that could not be faulted. In switching strategic priorities at this eleventh hour, Goering had been guilty of one of the battle’s cardinal blunders. But for The Few in the sky, no less than the fire fighters and wardens on the ground, it was an altogether different story.

One man, at least, Pilot Officer Roger Hall, of No. 152 Squadron, Middle Wallop, was conscious of a threat looming as never before over British soil. “I saw a whole stick of bombs in a straight line advancing like a creeping barrage.” He remembered, mindful of films like Journey’s End and All Quiet On The Western Front, “but this time they were not over the muddy desolation of No Man’s Land, but over Croydon, Surbiton, and Earl’s Court.” Another precise memory was that of Flight Lieutenant Johnny Kent of 303 (Polish) Squadron. “It was like a picture out of a book on air firing,” was his impression of sighting a ME110’s silhouette, “At this angle place your sights there and FIRE,”—which is precisely what I did and his starboard engine flew to bits.”

In truth, both Hall and Kent were lucky; few men were to retain such coherent impressions of 7 September. “The sky became a seething cauldron of aeroplanes, swooping and swerving in and out of vapour trails and tracer smoke,” recalled Squadron Leader Sandy Johnstone of 602 Squadron, “Everything became a maelstrom of jumbled impressions—a Dornier spinning wildly with part of its mainplane missing; black streaks of tracer ahead, when I instinctively put my arm up to shield my face …”

Even twenty-four miles from central London, at Gravesend, on the Thames estuary, the inexorable fury of the raid struck home. Crouched beside a haystack, three seasoned American war correspondents—Edward R. Murrow of CBS, Vincent Sheean, of the North American Newspaper Alliance, and Ben Robertson of the New York daily P.M.—had journeyed thus far for purely professional reasons: to gain a fresh perspective on the Battle of Britain from well outside the city limits. Now they realised that the battle as they had witnessed it from Dover’s Shakespeare Cliff was drawing to a close. They had booked ringside seats for the Battle of London, a battle which was to continue for fifty-seven nights without respite.

When the sirens sounded and the ack-ack began its urgent pounding, that was no more than routine from Dover days. When the first British fighters soared overhead, intercepting the first wave of German bombers, that too was routine. But when more waves of German bombers, a second, a third, then a fourth passed overhead in glinting dragonfly formation, heading for the docks, and the vast columns of smoke began to rise over London, this was very far from routine.

Nor was it a routine day for Park’s squadrons. Outnumbered, scrambled too late and too low, few of them had the chance to operate at full strength. In essence it became a day for lone wolves. Pilot Officer John Bisdee from 609 Squadron, swam as stealthily as a shark beneath a ME110 for seven long seconds, all the time pumping lead into its belly. Eighteen-year-old Sergeant John McAdam of 41 Squadron, who had never before flown at high altitude, found himself, to his intense alarm, 19,000 feet above the grey mushroom dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, hosing tracer at a line of Dorniers. The same concentrated fury possessed Flying Officer Dennis Parnell, the one member of the unlucky 249 Squadron to score. At 6,000 feet above the blazing boundary line of the estuary, he played a grim game of hide-and-seek with a homeward-bound Heinkel 111, hammering at its starboard engine each time it broke smoke cover. He did not let up until it belly-flopped on the mudflats at Sheerness. In that crowded sky, men recalled later, it was almost impossible to single out friend from foe. Sergeant Cyril Babbage of 602 Squadron saw his friend Andy McDowall, with six ME 109s on his tail and yelled, “Hang on, I’m coming,” it was weeks before McDowall forgave him for that quixotic gesture. The rallying cry brought down another dozen 109s on top of them both.

A German reconnaissance targetting photo made in 1939.

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London hospital staff in the Blitz.

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Shelterers in the London Underground.

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English children being evacuated from the city.

Flying Officer Keith Ogilvie, a Canadian from 609, found the 109s “zooming and dancing round us like masses of ping pong balls,” equally disconcerting. Taking careful aim at the first of the swarm, he was mortified to find that he had hit the second.

These men were at least professionals, who were learning little by little, the skills of survival. But for the gunners of General Sir Frederick Pyle’s Anti-Aircraft Command, unblooded until now, the day was followed by a night of sheer futility. Untrained to deal with the twisting jinking flight path of a bomber under fire, they failed to wing even one plane. For London’s 9,000 air raid wardens and their part-time unpaid volunteers, the picture was no brighter. In Finsbury, bordering on the city, one of them, Barbara Nixon, recalled that when the sirens sounded around 5 p.m., she was armed with little more than a whistle, a tin hat, the knowledge that Lewisite was a poison gas smelling of geraniums and that bomb blast travelled in all directions. Thus equipped, she, like all the others, set out to face her first Blitz.

The true onus, as Assistant Divisional Geoffrey Blackstone of the London Fire Brigade knew to his disquiet, lay squarely on his own firemen.

Blackstone had valid reasons. Among the Brigade, 30,000 strong, 28,000 were wartime auxiliaries, some of them conscripts, more of them volunteers, but all with one factor in common: at least ninety per cent of them had never tackled a fire of any kind. And while a very serious peacetime fire called for thirty pumps, as fire engines were known, midnight on 7 September would see the Brigade battling to control nine 100-pump fires, across dockland, Woolwich Arsenal and Bishopsgate Goods Yard.

At Surrey Commercial Docks, on the Thames at Rotherhithe, the thirty-year-old Blackstone, a six-foot-plus ex-public schoolboy, had hastened from a friend’s tennis party in Dulwich, South London, to take command. From his control car he watched in fascination as 250 acres of resinous timber, stacked twenty feet high, burned with a dry and terrible crackling. Even the wooden blocks that formed the dockland roadway were blazing like a Guy Fawkes night bonfire. From Paget’s Wharf fire station in the true heart of the conflagration, the hard pressed Station Officer Plimlett was urging Fire Brigade headquarters at Lambeth: “Send every pump you’ve got. The whole bloody world’s on fire.”

By now the heat was so intense that the paint was blistering on fireboats slipping past 300 yards away on the opposite shore. Solid embers were tossed like cabers into far-off streets to start fresh fires. Telegraph poles took light, along with fences, and rum fires, their barrels exploding like liquid oxygen cylinders, mingled with the white hot flare of paint fires and black choking noxious fumes from rubber fires. The whining shuddering roar of high explosive bombs drowned out the sizzling of cannisters of incendiaries, and armies of rats, driven from the warehouses, were scurrying in terror through the streets. And the Auxiliary Fireman Bill Ward voiced what most of them felt: “I don’t think any fireman has ever seen anything like it before.”

To the German bombers which had powered those fires, the run up to the target had been child’s play, as trouble-free as a peacetime run-in over a bombing range. In Bomber Group Two, as Oberleutnant Karl Kessel recalled it, the mood was so light-hearted that every time shrapnel beat a tattoo on his Dornier’s fuselage, his gunner Oberfeldwebel Felix Hipp, cheerily called “Herein!” (Come in), as if to a room service waiter. For some, the dangers were more in the mind than in the reality. Ahead of Oberst Johannes Fink, an excitable rear-gunner, convinced he was under heavy attack, was heedlessly riddling his own tailplane with bullets. It was the fatherly Fink who eventually broke it to him: “You yourself were your own worst enemy, my dear boy.”

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Portsmouth citizens filling protective sandbags at Southsea Beach in 1939.

Back in northern France, Goering’s fighter pilots were already rendering succinct reports on the day’s sortie. At Guines, near Calais, Major Johannes Trautloft, commanding Fighter Group 54, spoke for most: “Only single British fighters, which could do nothing … there were thick black clouds drifting with the wind all the way across the Channel.” Major Max Ibel of Fighter Group 27, added a rider: although the fighters had stuck close to the bombers it had been a close run thing. Every warning bulb was glowing red—signalling ten litres of petrol, twenty minutes flying time at most—as they reached the Channel, and on the return journey, with the defenders alerted, the going had been that much tougher.

One vigilant defender was twenty-year-old Sergeant John Burgess, a Spitfire pilot who had been operational with 222 Squadron at Hornchurch for exactly ten days. Late on that chaotic Saturday Burgess found himself about three miles behind a formation of Heinkels heading back towards France. Dogging them some two miles to the rear were what he took to be a pair of Hurricanes and he had joined up with them, planning on a concerted attack, when he spotted the yellow noses which marked a German fighter: And as if by reflex, Burgess “pulled in behind the leader and opened up on him … he immediately rolled onto his back and went down and a stream of white smoke came out.” Now, at almost 500 miles an hour, “absolutely vertical and full throttle” Burgess was diving in pursuit and “at this point I suppose I was down to about 2,000 feet, but he kept straight on, straight into the ground.” His first emotion was one of extreme contrition. “I was very shaken … I was shaking because I’d obviously killed a man and … I had never killed anyone before.”

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A Heinkel bomber over the Thames in 1940.

What followed was a dismal anti-climax. His vision was reduced to “a white opaque view” following the dive, Burgess was making for Hornchurch’s satellite drome, Rochford, when his tanks ran dry; he side-slipped steeply to land in a ploughed field, bending his propeller and breaking his propeller blades. Among the reception committee of villagers was a teenage girl who asked abruptly, “Is this a Spitfire?” When Burgess admitted it, she confided, “We’re saving for a Spitfire in our village. We’re saving £5,000. “Then the triumphant air ace of 7 September was abruptly cut down to size, “I don’t think that thing’s worth £5,000.”

For Londoner’s living far from dockland, the first intimation of disaster came from an apparent freak of nature: tonight the sun was not setting in the west, over Richmond and Chiswick, but in the east above Stepney, its entire skyline a shifting orange glow. Many were already conscious of a night of apocalypse. “One day this will be history,” a London girl explained, recording her impressions for Mass Observation, “and I shall be one of those who actually saw it.” On the colonnade of St Paul’s Cathedral, the Dean, the Very Reverend William Mathews, heard someone mutter close at hand, “It’s like the end of the world.” Another voice responded quietly, “It’s the end of a world.”

At Gravesend, after seeking shelter in a pub for a pie and a pint, Ed Murrow and his companions had once again returned to the hay stack. Yet out of that long and awful night they afterwards retained only fleeting impressions. Robertson recalled it as “a night like the Revelation of St John,” he had no memory of repeating over and over the childish jingle, “London is burning, London is burning.” Sheean remembered prophesying that “The fire they set this night would consume them too, before it was quenched,” but though fluent in five languages, he did not remember cursing in all of them. Murrow remembered most, for on the Sunday his CBS broadcast from Studio B4 in the basement of Broadcasting House would be followed by thirty million American listeners, tuned to his sepulchral lead-in “This … is London.” In Murrow’s recollection, “The fire up the river had turned the moon blood-red. Huge pear-shaped bursts of flame would rise up into the smoke and disappear … the world was upside down.”

But even a retrospective account as vivid as Murrow’s paled beside the actuality of of living through 7 September. In King Street, Poplar, eighteen-year-old Len Jones recalled how “the suction and the compression from the high explosive blasts just pulled and pushed you … you could actually feel your eyeballs being sucked out. I was holding my eyes to try and stop them going,” In the nearby street shelter, which he shared with several Chinese families, that same awful suction was still a presence—“It was lifting and moving, rolling almost as if it was a ship in a rough sea … the suction and the blasts coming in and out of the steel door … was smashing backwards and forwards and bashed us all around against the walls.”

Later, surveying the mangled remains of the family home and the corpses of Chinese neighbours, Len Jones was “just convulsed … “I thought, well, I must be dead … so I struck a match and tried to burn my finger. I kept doing this to see if I was still alive.”

For the RAF, from first to last, it had been a bitter and frustrating day At Middle Wallop, despite all the cajoling of the Mess Steward Joseph Lauderdale, Flight Lieutenant James MacArthur of 609 Squadron could not be tempted to eat, even though the cold buffet boasted a prime Scotch salmon. “I couldn’t face a bite of it, Mr Lauderdale” he protested,” “We’ve been up there all afternoon and done nothing—there wasn’t a British plane in the sky.” Although this was scarcely an accurate situation report, MacArthur had come uncomfortably close. The Lutwaffe’s losses had totalled forty-one planes, the bulk of them bombers, and for this toll the RAF had paid dearly, with a loss of twenty-eight fighters. Nineteen of Dowding’s pilots were dead and only one German plane in thirty had been harmed in any way.

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London Blitz bomb damage, 1941.

Yet almost as if in mockery, it was the Luftwaffe, not the RAF, who faced an inquest. At Cap Blanc Nez, near Wissant, Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering had arrived in his private train, code-named Asia, with its ornate mahogany-panelled saloons, determined to infuse his fighter arm with the valour he was convinced they lacked. Although a meeting with four of Galland’s pilots—Gerhard Schöpfel, Joachim Müncheberg, “Micky” Sprick and Hans Ebeling—all claiming seventeen victories apiece, momentarily cheered him, he was less gratified by the sight of Hauptmann Heinz Bär, a dour Saxonian, shot down by a Spitfire, within sight of France. When he enquired as to the pilot’s thoughts over the Channel, Bär harked back grumpily to a Goering pronouncement of 16 August: “Your speech, Herr Reichsmarschall—that England isn’t an island any more.”

As the teleprinter clattered out its first reports, Goering grew progressively more angry. The loss of almost forty bombers out of 247 despatched in the first wave, was insupportable. The commanders of each fighter group and wing were ordered to report to his private train without delay. What the Reichsmarschall failed to see—or refused to admit—was that a fighter escort 600 strong had created the havoc in the sky over London to which the RAF had borne witness. The fighters had been too busy dodging one another to prevent the Spitfires and Hurricanes singling out the bombers.

But Goering, as every commander saw plainly, was insensible to reason. “Your job is to protect the bombers” he castigated them roundly, “and every time you fall down on it.” To every question of RAF tenactity he turned a deaf ear: “Don’t tell me the sky is full of enemies—I know they haven’t more than seventy fighters left.” In vain, commanders like Galland resurrected their earliest contentions: the ME 109 was a plane built for attack, not protection, and thus, on escort flights, was forever throttling back.

If Goering could have witnessed the devastation that was London’s East End on the morning of Sunday, 8 September, he might have taken heart. The sights that Ed Murrow and his companions witnessed, as their car inched its way through rubble-blocked streets, were at first beyond belief: the truckloads of shattered glass, the cars “with stretchers racked on the roofs like skis,” the ruptured gas mains, searing and flaring, the red buses lined up to evacuate the homeless. Nine miles of waterfront were still burning unchecked, despite all the endeavours of Blackstone’s men. Already the flight of bombed-out East Enders was on—to Epping Forest, to Reading and Windsor, Oxford and Kent—from a carnage that had claimed 448 civilian lives and 1,600 injured. “Moving, ever moving,” noted Vincent Sheean, “like the poor in all wars, taking to the roads.”

Within five days, almost 150,000 of them were to seek shelter in the London Underground Railway, eighty feet below street level, a fait accompli which the government was powerless to avert. Yet one factor, amorphous in itself, might have escaped Goering: more than half of them were children, evacuated in September 1939, who had returned to the city, feeling that at such a time London was the place to be. “That they were prepared to do so,” wrote the historian Laurence Thompson, “is as essential a part of the Battle of Britain as the numbers and dispositions of Park’s fighters or of Pyle’s anti-aircraft guns.”

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One of the night raids’ on London in the Blitz of 1941.

Ed Murrow saw it in much the same way, and he made that plain to his CBS listeners. He had looked out over the city from a rooftop on a late September afternoon, he recounted, and the dominant impression was of “many flags flying from staffs.” Essentially it was a spontaneous act—“No one told these people to put out the flag. They simply feel like flying the Union Jack above their roof.” It was a gesture that to Murrow pointed its own moral. “No flag up there was white.”

Next morning a Pompeiian pall of dust and smoke / Loomed over all, with hosepipes snaking Slimily in black mud across the thoroughfares. / One errant spray trespassing into our too, too-open windows / Unkindly moistened our National bread and marge, / Our ersatz coffee, and soya porridge / and straw-pale tea.

—from Bomb Story by Margery Lea

It may be a privilege to see history in the making, but we have a feeling that it is being overdone at the present time.

—Hampstead A.R.P. Warden’s Bulletin, 1 August 1940

Remains of lives and forever lost days, / Families ended, minds that were dazed, Clutched to the breast / Was all they had left / Of life that had gone and homes that were wrecked. Where shall we put the shopping bag, the picture of Grandma / The doll of rag? / Covered with dirt and with soot and with dust—How to begin to clean them up, / To uncover the faces, / Identify people when nothing is left of human features. / What shall we say to the waiting friends? / How shall we know such anonymous ends?

—from Bomb Incident by Barbara Catherine Edwards

The sky over London was glorious, ochre and madder, as though a dozen tropic suns were simultaneously setting round the horizon … Everywhere the shells sparkled like Christmas baubles.

—Evelyn Waugh

I burn for England with a living flame / In the uncandled darkness of the night, I share with her the fault, who share her name, / And to her light, she has my arm, / Who shall not have my unborn children’s arms. / I burn for England, even as she burns, In living flame, that when her peace is come / Flame shall destroy whoever seeks to turn her sacrifice to profit—and the homes / Of those who fought—to wreckage, / In a war for freedom—who were never free.

—from Poem by Gervase Stewart

I was pushing the glass across the counter for a refill when we heard it coming. The girl in the corner was still laughing and for the first time I heard her soldier speak. “Shut up!” he said, and the laugh was cut off like the sound track in a movie. Then everyone was diving for the floor. The barmaid (she was of considerable bulk) sank from view with a desperate slowness behind the counter and I flung myself tight up against the other side, my taxi-driver beside me. He still had his glass in his hand and the beer shot across the floor, making a dark stain and setting the sawdust afloat. The soldier too had made for the bar counter and wedged the girl on his inside. One of her shoes had nearly come off. It was an inch from my nose: she had a ladder in her stocking. My hands were tight-pressed over my ears but the detonation deafened me. The floor rose up and smashed against my face, the swing door tore off its hinges and crashed over a table, glass splinters flew across the room, and behind the bar every bottle in the place seemed to be breaking. The lights went out, but there was no darkness. An orange glow from across the street shone through the wall and threw everything into a strong relief. I scrambled unsteadily to my feet and was leaning over the bar to see what had happened to the unfortunate barmaid when a voice said “Anyone hurt?” and there was an AFS man shining a torch. At that everyone began to move, but slowly and reluctantly as though coming out of a dream. The girl stood white and shaken in a corner, her arm about her companion, but she was unhurt and had stopped talking. Only the barmaid failed to get up.

—from The Last Enemy by Richard Hillary

In Coventry there were more open signs of hysteria, terror, neurosis observed than during the whole of the previous two months together in all areas. Women were seen to cry, to scream, to tremble all over, to faint in the street, to attack a fireman, and so on. The overwhelmingly dominant feeling on Friday was the feeling of utter helplessness. The tremendous impact of the previous night had left people practically speechless in many cases. And it made them feel impotent. There was no role for the civilian. Ordinary people had no idea what they should do.

—Mass Observation report on Coventry after the major attack in November 1940

When people’s ill, they come to I. / I Physics, bleeds, and sweats ‘em; / Sometimes they live, sometimes they die. / What’s that to I? I lets ‘em.

On Himself by Dr J.C. Lettsom

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London school children are given identity tags in preparation for evacuation from the city.

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