Commentary: London, in 1940 it looked like this.
Words of Stacey Simkins (Volunteer Auxiliary Fireman, 1940): The noises more or less ran into each other. You know, instead of hearing like, how can I put it, bang, bang, bang, it was just sort of a complete rumble noise. The anti-aircraft guns going off, the aircraft engines up there and sound of bombs going off, and buildings and things like that, it all sort of came together and it was just a mass, and you just went through it, you know.
Professor Richard Overy: I think the Blitz is very important, but not I think for the reasons that are often suggested. I think it’s very important because the Blitz was the moment at which British society fought the war it thought it was going to fight in September 1939. It went to war to fight this moral crusade against a barbarous enemy, and then they ended up with nine months of doing nothing. And I think the Blitz was very important because suddenly people came face to face with what they’d been told was going to happen.
Wartime archive narration: Now Adolf Hitler stood, just as Napoleon had stood more than a hundred years before, and looked across the English Channel to the one fighting obstacle that stood between him and world domination. The fall of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, France, had given him more than one hundred million slaves to work for him or starve. The preliminaries were over, it was time for the main event.
Commentary: On September 7th 1940, German planes flew towards London in the first of a series of concerted raids on the capital. London would be bombed for the next 57 days in a row. And it was the East End of London that was most often the target.
Words of Stacey Simkins (Volunteer Auxiliary Fireman, 1940): I saw this pump, and a bomb landed on one of the buildings and I saw the pump operator sort of standing there suddenly go up in the air, straight across. He went straight across and head first into a wall the other side, and of course he just lay there, that was it, finished, he’d broken his neck.
Dr Juliet Gardiner: The initial start of the Blitz was not aimed at the civilian population, it was aimed at putting war production out. You know, destroying war industries, shipping, transport, all this sort of thing. But of course round docks and the river and factories tend to live the poorer, tend to live the workers. They also tend to live in less good housing. There was a certain degree of sort of bitterness that, you know, the East End have to take it.
Words of Harold Nicholson (Minister of Information): It is said that even the King and Queen were booed the other day when they visited the destroyed areas. If the Germans had had the sense not to bomb west of London Bridge there might have been a revolution in this country.1
Dr Juliet Gardiner: The government were always aware that the war could be won or lost on the Home Front every bit as much as it could on the battlefield. I mean if you actually had a population who were in revolt or who refused to, you know, down tools, walked out of the war munitions factories or whatever, then Britain would have lost the war.
Commentary: But the rest of London was not completely spared. Subsequent German raids also damaged the homes of the rich.
Wartime archive narration: Bombs fell on Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, Fleet Street, the centre of the news, Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Bombs blasting the historic past out of the lives of Englishmen.
Commentary: And it wasn’t only London that was hit. The Germans bombed other cities in England, as well as in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In total they dropped more than 30,000 tons of bombs on the United Kingdom. And 40,000 people died in London alone.
Words of Stacey Simkins (Volunteer Auxiliary Fireman, 1940): I decided that one of the things that kept everybody going was jokes, or sense of humour. In my opinion one of the main things that was different between them and us was that things could happen and we’d make a joke out of it and they didn’t. We used to laugh about anything.
Professor Richard Overy: Of course there was lots of grumbling, there were difficulties, the government didn’t do everything it said it was going to do. But, you know, you read diaries and letters in fact in which people are enormously exhilarated by the bombing. It seems quite extraordinary, you know, why would anybody want to be bombed? But there is a sense of excitement, a sense of exhilaration, a sense of adrenalin, and I think we shouldn’t ignore that either. And it had exactly the opposite effect from the one that Hitler wanted. He thought it would demoralise them, very soon the workers would put their tools down, etc. A classic view of what would happen. And instead the opposite happens, you know, the British don’t just say we can take it, but we can take this kind of terrible war which we’ve been told nobody can bear. We can take it and we’re going to fight back.
1 Juliet Gardiner, Wartime: Britain 1939-1945, Headline Book Publishing, 2005, p. 344
'We Must All Stick Together' by Billy Cotton used with permission of River Productions.