From pigeon pâté made of rooks to the criminal rise of ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser, an anecdote-rich account of how London survived the Blitz – even though its size made it the unmissable bullseye
The Battle Of London 1939-1945
Jerry White Bodley Head £30
Five years before the start of the Second World War, Winston Churchill was already warning that London would be ‘the greatest target in the world’.
As the pre-eminent historian of London, Jerry White, points out in this endlessly fascinating book, the sheer size of the capital made it ‘the unmissable bullseye’.
And so it proved. Over the course of the war, London was set to endure what White calls ‘the most sustained attack on a civilian population ever experienced’. In all, 29,890 Londoners were killed, almost half of the UK total.
The notorious crook ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser (above) was just one of many army deserters who had managed to fall under the radar
Of Inner London’s 1,200 schools, all but 50 sustained damage from bombs, and 290 were damaged so badly that they had to be rebuilt. To the east of St Paul’s, you could walk for half a mile without passing a single structure still standing.
In one night, December 29, 1940, the bombing ruined more of London than the Great Fire of 1666. Eight Christopher Wren churches were destroyed, and a third of the square mile of the City.
‘As I walked along the streets, it was impossible to believe that these fires could ever be subdued,’ recalled a BBC correspondent. ‘I was walking between solid walls of fire.’
On another night, May 10, 1941, 320 German bombers killed more than 1,450 civilians and started 2,154 fires.
Westminster Abbey, the Mansion House and the British Museum were all hit, the chamber of the House of Commons was destroyed and the Underground system was hit in 20 places.
White peppers the story with vivid details of ordinary people making the best of things. Ena Squire-Brown (above) leaves her bomb-damaged house in Forest Hill
As always, the individual stories prove more haunting than the bald statistics.
Earlier that day, one Finsbury air-raid warden, Henry Finch, had been awarded the George Medal for bravery. A few hours later he was dead.
Three other Finsbury wardens died that night, one of them from a piece of railing that had blown into his stomach.
Earlier in the war, a one-ton bomb had not gone off but had buried itself deep in the London clay near St Paul’s. It could not be defused, so was in danger of going off at any time.
After it had been carefully loaded on to a lorry, the leader of the bomb-disposal squad, Lieutenant Robert Davies, drove it at high speed through streets cleared of people, all the way to Hackney Marshes, where it was detonated.
White subtitles his book Endurance, Heroism And Frailty Under Fire, and it is full of stories of extraordinary grace under pressure, not least among those who worked in civil defence.
In the grateful words of one local newspaper, ‘they toiled to succour the bereaved and the wounded, to care for the homeless and the distressed, and to solve the thousand and one problems and difficulties arising from enemy bombing’.
As the pre-eminent historian of London, Jerry White, points out in this endlessly fascinating book, the sheer size of the capital made it ‘the unmissable bullseye’
The courage and camaraderie of Londoners in the Blitz soon entered into the realm of myth. White peppers the story with vivid details of ordinary people making the best of things.
For instance, before long each of the public air-raid shelters had developed a character of its own. One shelter in Lewisham, home to 300 people, became a mecca for sing-songs led by a lusty-voiced lady called Mrs Barker.
But quieter, more nervous types made a beeline for a neighbouring shelter, run by a retired post-office worker where they could all sip tea together in a hush.
In shelters near Stepney, an old cockney music-hall comedian called Nat Travers provided the entertainment, and other shelters provided amateur dramatics and classes in drawing, sewing and handicraft, as well as discussion groups covering all sorts of heavyweight topics, such as town planning and unemployment.
Small wonder that, for years after the end of the war, many felt a pang of nostalgia for that extraordinary community spirit.
As always, the individual stories prove more haunting than the bald statistics. People look on at a library burnt out in Holland House, Kensington
‘London Pride has been handed down to us, London Pride is a flower that’s free, London Pride means our own dear town to us, And our pride it forever will be,’ sang Noël Coward, and for all their sentimentality, those words still resonate.
But there were darker, more opportunistic sides to war-torn London, too, and White does not shy away from casting his wonderfully clear eyes over them.
Criminals flourished during the Blitz, the blackouts providing ideal covers for smash-and-grab raids on jewellers and other shops. Looters would take whatever they could from bombed houses, leading to the bullish Daily Mirror headline ‘Hang a Looter, and Stop this Filthy Crime’.
Heroes could also be villains, given the opportunity. A highly commended member of the Hoxton rescue squad, known to be very brave, was prosecuted for stealing lengths of suit material from a tailor and given six months hard labour.
Looting was so rife in the fire service that one of its members confided to his diary: ‘The important point about it is that everybody loots… Why don’t they put us all inside and get done with it?’
Knowing the reputation of the firefighters, one pub landlord refused to leave his bombed-out premises without his till.
Burglars concentrated on household goods in short supply – razors, paint, radios, cosmetics and, above all, clothing – so they could sell the stuff on the black market.
Lightbulbs were stolen from air-raid shelters, 6,000 a year from the district of Camberwell alone.
‘The war organised criminals,’ recalled the notorious crook Frankie Fraser.
‘Before the war thieving was safes, jewellery, furs. Now a whole new world was opened up. There was so much money and stuff about – cigarettes, sugar, clothes, petrol coupons, clothing coupons, anything. It was a thieves’ paradise. I was a thief, everyone was a thief.’
Fraser was just one of many army deserters who had managed to fall under the radar.
‘They’d been called up and didn’t fancy the army so they were on the run,’ he continued.
‘They couldn’t make money at the races because that was the first place people would look for them, and so they’d turned to thieving. And some of them turned out to be very good thieves and all. So it was a whole new world.’
From the notes at the back, I learned that Jerry White had come across this quote in Fraser’s 1994 memoir Mad Frank. And this is one of the reasons White is such a brilliant historian: he casts his net way beyond the usual territories. H
is books are consequently peppered with colourful vignettes drawn from all sorts of unconventional sources, high and low.
In a passage about rationing and food shortages, he quotes the proprietor of the posh West End French restaurant Prunier’s, confessing that, in those sparse times, all was not what it seemed: ‘I do not think many of our wartime customers suspected that the pigeon pâté they praised so highly at Prunier’s was made of rooks.’
Covering the unexpectedly prim celebrations on VE Day – alcohol was in short supply – he turns to the memoirs of Humphrey Lyttelton, first published in 1954, where he finds the much loved jazzman watching a girl entertaining three American GIs in Piccadilly Circus.
‘Amid encouraging cheers the girl began to undress and the Americans, standing round like attentive and conscientious grooms of the bedchamber, took her garments one by one and tossed them into the crowd. It was all done rather solemnly, like a long, complicated conjuring trick, and when the young lady was naked the audience responded with a sustained and rather breathless giggle of mass embarrassment.’
It’s all very British, and in a funny way The Battle Of London emerges as a celebration of this lovable country, its virtues, its vices, its indestructible eccentricities.
I loved learning about the pig clubs that, amid all the death and destruction, were established all over London, their members entitled to half the meat they bred, the rest going to the government.
Pigs were farmed right in the centre of London, often in bomb sites, and there was even a Young Farmers’ Club in Bethnal Green. ‘There’s more livestock in the heart of London than there has been for about 300 years,’ trilled the Picture Post.
Likewise, though the saucy Windmill Theatre’s famous naked Non-Stop Revue was forced to close early because of the night-time bomb raids, it still opened daily from mid-morning ‘for the eager’, as Jerry White nicely puts it.
In this, as in so many other areas, wartime London can be defined by its determination to keep going, come what may.