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London 1945: Life in the Debris of War

London 1945: Life in the Debris of War

by Maureen Waller

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When Hitler unleashed a fierce barrage of weapons on the defiant capital of England, London's resilient citizens were undaunted. With colorful detail and rich insight, historian Maureen Waller takes readers through London in the last year of war. She reveals the magnificence of human spirit that carried a besieged people through agonizing travails and the long, giddy transformation the metropolis made as it passed through battle, to celebration, and back to life as usual.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312338046
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/13/2006
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 528
Sales rank: 746,941
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.22(d)

About the Author

Maureen Waller attended University College London and Queen Mary College and holds a master's degree in British and European history. After a brief spell at the National Portrait Gallery, she has worked at several prestigious publishing houses.

Read an Excerpt


Rockets Fell like Autumn Leaves

'There is no siren warning now. No time to take shelter. For this is the most indiscriminate weapon of this or any other war. It is a sinister, eerie form of war'

– Daily Herald

New Year's Eve 1944 was the sort of clear moonlit night that had once been a gift for German bombers following the shining Thames towards the heart of the capital. Symbolic of London's long struggle and survival, St Paul's Cathedral stood majestically among the ruins, a miracle after five and a quarter years of war. In the wasteland surrounding it, the jagged outlines of bombed buildings, their foundations exposed to the elements, and the occasional surviving spire of some City church, rising naked above the ruins of its blackened structure, looked ghost-like in the moonlight.

In daytime wide-open vistas and ruined buildings afforded better views of the cathedral than had ever existed. Purple-pink rosebay willow herb softened the edges of the torn landscape. In empty cellars and vacant plots National Fire Service and Civil Defence men and women ran their poultry, pig and rabbit clubs, or cultivated vegetables where once businesses had flourished. Stray cats, refugees from thousands of bombed homes, behaved as if they owned the place. Nestling beside the cathedral, large emergency tanks promised 1 million gallons of water should incendiary bombs ever again bounce off the dome or rain down on the roof as they had done during the Blitz, and incidentally provided a home for waterfowl. It was surprising how quickly nature had reclaimed its own in the financial capital of the world.

Even after the conflagration of 29 December 1940, when nearly one-third of the City was destroyed and the smoke from its still burning buildings choked the air, St Paul's had opened its doors to worshippers next morning, so that the service tonight was part of a proud tradition. Deep inside the crypt a congregation composed mainly of the Watch – those brave, selfless men who had given up their nights to protect St Paul's – and of servicemen and -women waited expectantly for the BBC's red light, signalling they were on air. Just as it flicked on, the hush was shattered by an explosion and the prolonged rumbling, like an express train coming through a tunnel, that in the last few months had become all too familiar to Londoners: a V-2 rocket had landed, not necessarily in the vicinity, but sounding so loud after it penetrated the earth at over 3,000 mph, travelling faster than sound, that anyone could be excused for thinking it was. By some acoustic quirk, those in its direct path barely heard a V-2. If you did hear it, it had missed you. But that knowledge did nothing to quell the primeval fear each time one exploded.

Not for the first or last time in this war, Wren's masterpiece rocked and vibrated, but owing to the solidity and elasticity of its structure settled again. There was a splintering of glass and the last window in the cathedral cascaded in shards over the marble floor in the empty darkness. Damage to add to the earlier wreck of the high altar and of Wren's own monument with its words, 'If you seek a monument, look around you', which lay in rubble. Still, the monument the inscription referred to had so far survived the worst the enemy could throw at it.

For one tense moment, the Dean worried there would be panic and a rush to the exit. Instead, the congregation laughed and prepared themselves for the first hymn. There had already been a short rehearsal, since the St Paul's choirboys were not there to lead but still in their wartime billets in Truro and singing in that cathedral, but now the singing began in earnest and it was wonderful. Listeners at home in cold, draughty, damaged houses sat back to enjoy the service ushering in the New Year, fervently hoping that this year of 1945 would bring peace at last.

* * *

Londoners entered the New Year in low spirits, the lowest since the war began. After the D-Day landings of June 1944, they had hoped that the war would be over by Christmas, only to be disappointed. It was worse than disappointing. Just before Christmas the Allies had suffered a serious reverse, meeting a fierce German counter-offensive in the Ardennes. For civilians – particularly those in London Region, the front line – five years of war had taken their toll. In the coldest winter for over half a century they were living in primitive conditions with tarpaulins for roofs, blown-out boarded-up windows, missing doors, smashed or frozen water pipes and desperate fuel shortages. Many were homeless, living in tube shelters and rest centres. They were tired of rationing, queuing and making do. 'We are suffering, here at home, the worst period of the war,' George Beardmore noted in his diary. 'We are all – all of us, at the office, in the shops, and at home – weary of war and its effects.' Most of all, their nerves were stretched to breaking point by the unremitting onslaught from the skies.

The V-2, which so many listeners heard during the Watch Night Service at St Paul's, was a timely reminder that the Battle of London was far from over. 'Just as all these wonderful sounds were coming over the air,' wrote Vere Hodgson of Notting Hill, 'behold I heard a rocket bomb drop in the distance. It was a long way away but it was there to remind us that there are still some very unpleasant things about and that THE WAR IS NOT OVER.'

This cautious note was one that Duncan Sandys, the junior Minister in charge of the V-weapon problem, might ruefully have wished he had adopted at the press conference held on 7 September 1944, in which, taking his cue from Herbert Morrison's speech of the previous day and printed in The Times that very morning, he told journalists: 'Except possibly for a few last shots the Battle of London is over.' It was the most extraordinary misjudgement. As early as 1943 the Government had been well aware that the Germans were working on two new secret weapons, the first a pilotless missile, or flying bomb, the second a supersonic rocket. The Prime Minister Winston Churchill had admitted as much in Parliament on 22 February 1944. Intelligence as to the nature of the new weapons had been gathered from Poland, Sweden, France and the production site on the island of Peenemünde off the Baltic coast. Peenemünde and the launch sites in the Pas de Calais had been the subject of heavy aerial Allied bombardment – taking a huge toll of aircraft and airmen. The bombardment, Hitler's initial lack of faith in the rocket, and inter-service rivalry on the German side, had delayed the unleashing of the two weapons, while in London the Civil Defence Committee of the War Cabinet had debated how they were going to cope with the likely scale of attack.

By the time Duncan Sandys made his regrettable statement, London had taken the brunt of Hitler's first 'Vengeance' weapon, the V-1, launched indiscriminately at civilians all through the summer of 1944. At sunrise on 13 June 1944 a curious chug-chug sound, like a motorbike scraping across the sky, had suddenly stopped, followed by an almighty crash. It had landed at Grove Road, Bethnal Green, cutting the railway bridge and rendering 266 people homeless. Looking at the remains of the weapon in the enormous crater, onlookers assumed that a piloted plane had crashed, but it was puzzling that there was no evidence of a pilot. As these curious missiles arrived in salvos over the following days, the public were still unaware that they were pilotless. At St Olave's Hospital, Bermondsey, for instance, a group of young nurses – my mother among them – marvelled at the pilot's bravery in flying so low. The bombardment was so intense that on 16 June Herbert Morrison, who as Home Secretary and Minister of Home Security was responsible for Civil Defence, agreed to make a statement, announcing that London was under attack by pilotless planes, but refusing to disclose the extent of the destructive power of the weapon.

Life had become uncertain again. This was far worse than the earlier conventional bombardments. In the Blitz, there had been sufficient warning of impending attack to take shelter. Sirens at local police stations had given clear warning of an 'Alert' and of the 'All Clear', when it was safe to emerge again. The V-1s were arriving so thick and fast – on average 73 every 24 hours, although in overcast weather as many as 200 might evade the fighters sent out to deflect them – that alerts would go on all day with only brief periods of respite or even continue for days at a time. It was easy to lose track as to whether there was an alert on or not. Alerts were a huge interruption to the working day, so much so that many offices and factories employed roof spotters, to inform them if a V-1 was getting sufficiently close to warrant the staff taking shelter. Such precautions were impractical for the ordinary household, although some might have followed the practice of Joyce Barrett, living in Sutton Dwellings, Shoreditch, who acted as lookout while her mother and the other women in the block defied the warnings in order to cook the Sunday lunch.

Frightening and exhausting as the constant alerts were, Londoners had not lost their sense of humour. A member of the Women's Voluntary Service for Civil Defence (WVS), who was helping a family in Clapham, recalls that the father 'grabbed each of his small children almost as if they were puppies and popped them into the Anderson shelter. He then turned round to look for his wife. Things were hot. But she was upstairs. He called out to her to hurry up. She yelled: "Wait a moment, I've got to find my dentures." "Listen, you," came the reply, "they're dropping doodlebugs, not sandwiches."'

Londoners took to staring at the sky, now bereft of the silver barrage balloons that had protected them throughout the war. Briefly missed and soon forgotten, the balloons had been moved south, part of three lines of defence against the new weapon: first the fighter pilots over the Channel and patrolling the Dutch and Belgian coasts – some became adept at using the wing to tip over the flying bomb, so that it would crash outside urban areas; then a gun belt stretching along the south coast, where they had a clear line of vision to blast the missiles as they were catapulted from their camouflaged launch sites at 350–400 mph, flying as low as 1,000–2,300 feet; then the barrage balloons on London Region's outer rim.

Above all, Londoners' ears were constantly attuned to the possibility of attack, listening for the distant hum which would ascend to a raucous rattle as it drew closer. They flinched at sudden noises, such as a slamming door or a car backfiring. It was the peculiar mechanised sound and the unpredictability of the weapon that suggested the terms 'buzz bombs' and 'doodlebugs'; perhaps it was also the Londoners' natural urge to poke fun at something Hitler had so portentously called his Vergeltungswaffe, literally, Vengeance Weapon – his retaliation for the bombing of German cities.

They found themselves praying that it would keep moving and land somewhere else.

The V-1 played tricks. Sometimes as it drew close it would suddenly veer away again, or make a circle and return, just when you thought the danger was past. A sudden cutting out of the engine when the fuel ran out and the missile began its descent signalled the moment to dive for cover. In the street people launched themselves on to the pavement or in the gutter. Inside, they crouched under tables and desks, or the Morrison shelter if they had one. The tenseness of those few seconds, waiting for the explosion, was unbearable.

The never-ending vigilance and frequency of explosions were wearing on the nerves. As George Britton of Walthamstow told his daughter in California, it 'makes you feel that you are just waiting your turn'. A chunk of his letter had been removed by the censor, but he continues, 'I can't make myself go far from home, in fact I can't stand any noise in the house, for fear of not hearing one of the robot planes coming over ... everyone seems to feel the same, we are all on edge.' Irene Byers worried about her elderly parents, especially her father: 'He dreads the doodlebugs so much that he is in danger of a nervous breakdown. They have even stopped using the Hoover because the noise blots out the cutting of the bug's engine. Just the effect Hitler wishes for us all. Total dread.' Even the bells of St Paul's had been silenced since June, when it was decided they 'might drown out the sound of an approaching robot'.

The impersonal nature of the new weapon, the fact that death was being doled out by a robot rather than a human being risking his own life in the process, had a strange psychological effect. 'You accepted a plane with a man in it,' Odette Lesley said, 'you couldn't accept something that was automatic. It was this that struck psychologically at us in such a way that it destroyed our nerves.'

Death could fall out of the sky at any moment and was completely random, as Stanley Rothwell, a Civil Defence worker from Lambeth, recalled:

The doodlebugs kept us busy both day and night. Our services were extended almost to the limit. No sooner had we attended one incident than we were met with another even before we had time to get back to our depots to report the casualties. We had been detailed to West Norwood, there was a heavy casualty list there which we cleared. On our way back we could hear the oncoming doodlebug behind us chugging like a motorbike. In front of us on a rise to the left we saw two semi-detached houses. A man was digging in a garden alongside, a little boy was running up the garden path towards the house, his schoolbag slung across his shoulder. At the doorway was a woman beckoning him to hurry indoors. The engine of the flying bomb shut off, we crouched waiting for the crunch. It glided over and past us and settled on the two houses all in the space of seconds. There was a loud explosion, a mushroom cloud of dust. Everything went up; no houses, no man, no mother and no boy. We picked up three dustbins full of pieces out of the rubble. The only way to identify where they were was the dampening dust and the cloud of flies.

If death was random, so too was survival. When Mary Beazley, an admiral's daughter working in a parachute factory in Heal's in Tottenham Court Road, was kept awake all night by the noise of ack-ack guns, she decided to give her usual service at the Guards Chapel a miss that Sunday morning, so avoiding the V-1 which totally destroyed it, killing half the congregation and injuring the rest. Later, during the V-2 period, someone cursed missing a bus; catching the next one, he found that the one he had missed had been completely destroyed by a rocket a mile up the road.

The effect of a V-1 with its one ton of explosive power (equivalent to a 1,000 kg bomb) crashing on a dense urban area was devastating. Within a half mile radius of the point of impact, roofs would be ripped off, doors blown out, window frames wrenched from their casements and glass shattered – the crunch of glass underfoot was a constant sound. In the West End the modern steel-reinforced buildings stood up reasonably well to blast, but the flimsy Victorian back-to-backs of the working-class districts were extremely vulnerable. Whole streets would collapse like packs of cards. The force of the explosion would hurl victims against obstacles, crash them into walls, knock them down and in some cases rip them apart. Anyone in the vicinity might be lacerated, even blinded, by flying glass and injured by flying debris. Blast played funny tricks, good as well as bad. Its tendency to rip off clothing left two elderly spinsters in Belgravia emerging from the ruins stark naked but clutching their Pekinese. On another occasion the blast from a V-2 rolled a sheet of linoleum into a tube, which allowed the baby boy wrapped inside to breathe until the rescue men found him buried in the debris of his home.

As it was being catapulted at London day and night, the V-1 caught people in the rush hour, or out at the shops. They might die in the office or in the lunch hour, as many did at the Aldwych when a V-1 exploded outside Bush House. Five young WAAFS leaning out of the window at Adastral House, the Air Ministry, 'to see the beastly thing', were drawn out by the blast, their bodies flying through the air to crash on the pavement below. Walking back to Fleet Street from Simpson's after lunch that day, Ronald Hyde, the news editor of the Evening Standard, noticed that the trees had lost their leaves and were adorned instead with human flesh. Someone had stepped from the shelter of a doorway after the explosion and been sliced vertically in two by a falling sheet of glass. Victims generally would be covered with dust or with soot, sucked out of chimneys by the blast. A three-year-old boy covered in soot was found in a ruined house. While being washed he kept repeating, 'Nasty, dirty, noisy chimney-man.'


Excerpted from "London 1945"
by .
Copyright © 2004 Maureen Waller.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
List of Illustrations,
Composition of Groups in London Region,
London Region map,
A Tribute to London,
1. Rockets Fell like Autumn Leaves,
2. The Word from the Ministry,
3. Shelter,
4. Don't Waste It,
5. Shabby Chic,
6. Off the Back of a Lorry,
7. A Brief Period of Rejoicing,
8. Vote for Him!,
9. Little Hooligans,
10. Reunion of Strangers,
Epilogue: A Planner's Dream,
Picture Acknowledgements,
Also by Maureen Waller,

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