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’.

So it was. Over the course of the war, London was set to endure what White calls ‘the most sustained attack on a civilian population ever experienced’. Nearly half the deaths in London were caused by this war, with 29,890 Londoners killed. 

The notorious crook 'Mad' Frankie Fraser (above) was just one of many army deserters who had managed to fall under the radar

One of the many army deserters that managed to slip under radar was Frankie Fraser, a notorious crook.

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.

On December 29th 1940, more London was destroyed by the bombing than by the Great Fire in 1666. One-third of the Square Mile of London was destroyed when eight Christopher Wren churches burned. 

‘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.’

The German bombers also killed over 1,450 civilians on another night of May 10, 1941 and set 2,154 fires. 

The British Museum, Westminster Abbey and Mansion House were all destroyed, and the House of Commons chamber was also destroyed. In addition, 20 people died in the Underground.

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

White adds vivid details about ordinary people trying to make the most of life. Ena Squire Brown (above), leaves Forest Hill’s bomb-damaged home

Like always, individual stories outweigh the statistics. 

Henry Finch was the Finsbury air-raid commander who had earlier received the George Medal for valor. He died a few hours later. 

The night ended with three other Finsbury wardens dying, one from an injury to his stomach by a railing.

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. This bomb was not able to be neutralized and could explode at any moment. 

It was carefully loaded onto a truck and Lieutenant Robert Davies drove it through the streets, clearing out all obstructions to the route to Hackney Marshes where the explosion took place.

White sub-titles Endurance, Heroism and Frailty under Fire. It is filled with stories about extraordinary grace, especially among civil defense workers.

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’

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’

It was soon a myth that the courage and camaraderie displayed by Londoners during the Blitz became legendary. White adds vivid details about ordinary people trying to make the most of life.

Each of the shelters for public air-raid had a personality by then. The shelter that was home to 300 Lewisham residents became a haven for singing-song lovers, headed by Mrs Barker.

However, the quieter and more anxious types made a run for the nearby shelter where a retired worker at the post office ran it. They could enjoy tea in peace while sipping on their favorite cup of tea.

Nat Travers was a cockney-music-hall comedian who entertained the shelters close to Stepney. There were also classes for drawing, sewing, handicraft and discussion groups that covered all heavyweight topics such as planning and unemployment.

No surprise that people still feel a sense of nostalgia many years after the end, when they first experienced the incredible 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

Like always, individual stories are far more powerful than the statistical data. A library that has been destroyed in Holland House is seen by people from 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.

White isn’t afraid to look over these darker, more opportunistic aspects of war-torn London. 

Blitz years were a period of criminal activity. The blackouts made it easy to launch smash-and-grab attacks on jewellers or 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’.

If given the chance, heroes could become villains as well. One of the Hoxton rescue crew members, a highly-commended individual, was charged with stealing suit material from an tailor. The sentence included six months of hard work.

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?’ 

One pub landlord was so impressed by the fire fighters that he refused to let his burnt-out building go without paying his bill.

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. 

The lightbulbs were taken from Camberwell’s air-raid shelters. They average 6,000 per year.

‘The war organised criminals,’ recalled the notorious crook Frankie Fraser. 

‘Before the war thieving was safes, jewellery, furs. A whole new world 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 not the only army deserter who managed to slip under 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. Some turned out be good thieves. 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. White’s genius as a historian is due to his ability to see beyond the normal boundaries. H

The books include a variety of colourful illustrations from both high- and low-cost sources.

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.

The pig clubs were established in London amid the chaos and loss of life. Members received half of the meat produced by the club, while the government got the remaining portion.

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.

As in many other places, the determination of wartime London to continue its efforts, whatever the cost, is what defines it.