Joshua Neicho: London, the ‘Blitz Spirit’ and coping with Covid

Joshua Neicho: London, the ‘Blitz Spirit’ and coping with Covid

Boris Johnson’s press conference speech on Wednesday, announcing new limits on social gatherings and ARP warden-style “Covid marshals” was serendipitous, for this week has seen the 80th anniversary of the start of the London Blitz. The Luftwaffe’s assault on London began late afternoon on “Black Saturday” – 7 September 1940 – dropping incendiaries and high explosives on the docks from North Woolwich to Tower Bridge. The planes then returned after nightfall to pound the same areas, more of the East End and upriver around Chelsea and Victoria. There are spectacular eyewitness descriptions of the river as a tunnel of fire, with gas installations exploding and a technicolour night sky. 

“Afterwards, when London established its famous anti-aircraft barrage, we got used to it, but on that first night it was just Hell,” wrote auxiliary fireman FW Hurd. A bomb in Columbia Road crashed through the ventilation shaft of a shelter, killing about 40 people. Across the city, 436 people were killed and 1600 seriously injured. Over the next few nights of heavy bombing, the docks remained the prime target, as they did for the remainder of the Blitz: the river was easy for bombers to pick out and the German strategy was to bring the Port of London to its knees, explains London historian Peter Stone. St Thomas’s Hospital and Buckingham Palace were hit and on 12 September 12 an unexploded bomb lodged itself into the ground next to St Paul’s.

On the third night, there was an appalling tragedy as people sheltering in the basement of South Hallsville School, Canning Town, were not evacuated as planned due to an administrative mix-up. A parachute bomb caused the school building to collapse on top of the basement. Officially it was announced that 77 had died, though the real death toll may have been several hundred. Local government across much of London was labelled “futile and incompetent” for this fiasco and others in the media. Stepney and West Ham councils had powers taken away by central government.

In his book The People’s War, socialist historian Angus Calder suggested the popular image of “Blitz spirit” extreme stoicism and togetherness is a simplification. Some people would flee, to towns like Oxford or to Epping Forest, though fewer than at the start of the war. Most got on with life, fearful and clinging to superstitions, such as the idea you would be safe in a house that had already been bombed or that putting out a cigarette would make a difference to German pilots 20,000 feet up. There was also an evolving, pitch-black sense of humour. Former Newham Recorder editor and historian Colin Grainger says a frequent remark by family members and locals was that there was a “quite calmness” about the way East Enders carried on.

As Juliet Gardiner sets out in her 2010 survey The Blitz: The British Under Attack, the government went into the war with a dispersal policy for the population during air raids, sending people into surface shelters, reinforced basements or – if they had a garden – Anderson shelters. Because it was assumed bomb attacks would come during the day, these were ill-equipped for sleeping and sanitation. Public shelters were foetid and sometimes foul. The authorities gradually rolled back on a reluctance to officially sanction Underground stations as shelters. Home Secretary Herbert Morrison belatedly took action over building deep shelters, which had been called for by Communist activists he had bitterly opposed on the London County Council, although these only opened in 1944.

While nominally bomb “incidents” were the police’s responsibility, it was volunteer ARP [Air Raid Precautions] wardens, recruited and trained by local authorities who co-ordinated rescues and cut victims free from masonry. In the run-up to the Blitz, Gardiner writes, they had generally been derided as Little Hitlers as they tried to enforce blackout regulations.

The burden of caring for bombed out people fell on local authorities, who lacked anything approaching the resources to do this. The pre-war expectation had been “more corpses than homeless, which would have been easier to handle”, says Stanford Emeritus Professor Peter Stansky. If the destitute fled to the next door borough, however, they became evacuees and central government’s responsibility.

The task of requisitioning empty properties and rehousing the homeless was a grey area between the London County Council and the boroughs: by late October 1940 only 7,000 people across the London Civil Defence Region had been rehoused out of 250,000 Londoners who had been made homeless. But these efforts were stepped up and the Blitz became the watershed, Professor Stansky argues, for “the government [recognising], with some foot-dragging, its responsibility to all its citizens, deserving or not”.

For an event which has assumed such a place in the national story and political discourse, it’s surprising that more hasn’t been made of the Blitz anniversary, though there have been some commemorations and events. Mayor of Newham Rokhsana Fiaz and council colleagues laid wreaths on Monday at the memorial and mass grave to Blitz victims at Manor Park cemetery. The Museum of London Docklands has put online an exhibition – derailed by the pandemic – of photographs of the East End at war. The Imperial War Museum has posted mythbusting videos examining the truth about the “Blitz Spirit”. It is currently redesigning its Second World War galleries to put the national experience of the war into global context, for example comparing the Blitz to the bombing of Chinese cities in the 1930s. On the wider cultural circuit, a forthcoming immersive theatre show at a Covid-secure London venue, Doctor Who: Time Fracture, begins at the height of the Blitz then takes audiences into the Doctor Who universe.

Among a series of 20 monologues he’s penned for his Lockdown Theatre Company, Rohan Candappa has written London Calling, comparing the Blitz to the experience of Covid. It was prompted by the fact that more people died from the virus at its peak than from enemy action in the equivalent phase of the Blitz. With the caveat that it’s “a crass parallel between then and now, between an evil man and a non-sentient virus”, the piece performed by actor Guy Hughes compares the bombing of specific areas of the capital in 1940 with particular demographics most heavily impacted by Covid. And it finds echoes from unexploded bombs (UXBs) in the sense of the virus planting metaphorical “economic, psychological, societal bombs just waiting to explode”. 

Candappa says he’s not out to deny people enjoying celebrating the triumphalist aspects of war, but that “if you’re going to do that, you need to capture the totality”. He finds it “interesting, things we remember, other things we don’t remember”. He’s also written a monologue called Hill 235 about Britain’s widely-forgotten involvement in the Korean War.

Former North Woolwich police officer Alan Godfrey, born in 1938, who spoke on a Royal Docks History Club Facebook Live panel on Monday night remembers eating whale meat and the terrible smell of a newly bombed site as a young child. After the war, he found out that his mother and her best friend had shockingly talked about and agreed that they would rather kill their children than let them fall into the hands of the Nazis. Among his concerns now are that the police are in a very difficult position over enforcing Covid rules against congregating in numbers. He believes that today, unlike in wartime, there are plenty of young people who would turn around and assault officers. He predicts, wistfully, that London life won’t get back to normal in his lifetime, but takes inspiration from people’s thoughtfulness about their neighbours and friends during the Blitz. Kindness and love will get us through whatever befalls us, he says.

King’s College Emeritus Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman is sceptical about appeals to “the Blitz spirit”, and says a fundamental difference between 1940 and 2020 crises is that the Blitz was part of a wider war effort and continuing waves of attacks, while Covid-19 “at its worst will peter out once we get vaccines.” In comparing the two, “I don’t think there are lessons other than that people cope as best they can and are capable of impressive resilience,” he says. Leeds Beckett Public History lecturer Dr Henry Irving, who chaired a roundtable in March about the lessons of the Blitz for tackling Covid-19, is also wary of direct comparisons with the past (and thinks “Blitz spirit” talk can gloss over the trauma felt by individuals). But he suggests historical perspective is a useful way of “getting a sense of the type of questions and problems” we now face. 

Irving points to today’s government underestimating the response to the call for NHS Volunteer Responders, just as the numbers volunteering for Home Guard duty during the war far exceeded expectations. The Blitz and Covid, he says, each highlight the importance of agility when information is changing rapidly. Yet even the best made plans bump against physical constraints, like the availability of testing kits or of concrete to build air raid shelters. Irving thinks both events highlight the tensions between the local and the national. The solutions, however, point in opposite directions, as the wartime authorities got to grips with problems by centralising things, while devolving responsibilities from the centre may boost accountability and improve effectiveness in the fight against coronavirus. 

 Nigel Fletcher, lecturer in contemporary history at King’s College London and a Greenwich Conservative councillor says 1940s politics were a lot more fractious than patriotic recollections might suggest: “We can now see how the reaction to a major national emergency becomes more complex over time – just as it did in the Blitz. We perhaps choose not to remember the wave of petty crime and looting of bombed-out houses, or the occasions when the Prime Minister and even the King and Queen were booed on bomb site visits. And while we now remember Churchill’s speeches as rousing patriotic calls, many who heard them at the time openly mocked his verbose style and accused him of being drunk.” 

We can see many of these elements very much in evidence now, with people increasingly fed up with the major disruption to their lives and livelihoods,” he adds. Fletcher thinks Covid marshals will become objects of “ridicule and resentment”. Columnist and editor Daniel Johnson is more sanguine: “If the ban on gatherings of more than half a dozen were taken literally, the Conservatives would undoubtedly be seen as the anti-party party” he writes. “As it is, however, the British will probably muddle through as usual, with police using a light touch and trusting the public to use common sense”.

A further point raised by Irving is about perspective – that we are only at the beginning of tackling Covid. Notwithstanding Freedman’s cautiously optimistic prognosis, if vaccines take time or prove ineffective the infection could come and go in phases, like wartime bombing. At times, many people might feel there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

UK government communications about Covid have included the much-mocked Stay Alert slogan, but so far – unlike the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention – steered clear of anything closely referencing the Keep Calm And Carry On propaganda that has become a pop culture staple. It was never actually used in wartime, after market research discovered that people found it patronising. But with a whole season of Brexit deal-making and what looks like epic political and economic instability ahead, journalists and politicians will not be short of Blitz comparison opportunities. We must all hope that 2020s London emerges as unbowed and as valued as in the war.

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