A famous photograph of St. Paul’s cathedral; miraculously the church survived the depredations of the bombs of the Second World War, but it rose over a blasted and wasted city.
It began with attacks upon outer London. Croydon and Wimbledon were hit and, at the end of August, there was a stray raid upon the Cripplegate area. Then, at five p.m. on 7 September 1940, the German air force came in to attack London. Six hundred bombers, marshalled in great waves, dropped their explosive and high incendiary devices over east London. Beckton, West Ham, Woolwich, Millwall, Limehouse and Rotherhithe went up in flames. Gas stations, and power stations, were hit; yet the Docks were the principal target. “Telegraph poles began to smoke, then ignite from base to crown, although the nearest fire was many yards away. Then the wooden block road surface ignited in the searing heat.” The firemen had to race, through fire and perpetual explosion, to reach conflagrations which were almost “out of hand.” “The fire was so huge that we could do little more than make a feeble attempt to put it out. The whole of the warehouse was a raging inferno, against which there were silhouetted groups of pigmy firemen directing their futile jets on walls of flame.” These reports come from Courage High, a history of London fire-fighting by Sally Holloway. One volunteer was on the river itself where “half a mile of the Surrey shore was ablaze … burning barges were drifting everywhere … Inside the scene was like a lake in Hell.” In the crypt of a church in Bow “people were kneeling and crying and praying. It was a most terrible night.”
The German bombers came back the next night, and then the next. The Strand was bombed, St. Thomas’s Hospital was hit together with St. Paul’s Cathedral, the West End, Buckingham Palace, Lambeth Palace, Piccadilly, the House of Commons. Truly to Londoners it seemed to be a war on London. Between September and November almost 30,000 bombs were dropped upon the capital. In the first thirty days of the onslaught almost six thousand people were killed, and twice as many badly injured. On the night of the full moon, 15 October, “it seemed as if the end of the world had come.” Some compared London to a prehistoric animal, wounded and burned, which would disregard its assailants and keep moving massively onward; this was based on the intuition of London as representing some relentless and ancient force which could withstand any shock or injury. Yet other metaphors were in use—among them those of Jerusalem, Babylon and Pompeii—which lent a sense of precariousness and eventual doom to the city’s plight. When in the first days of the Blitz Londoners saw the ranks of German bombers advancing without being hindered by anti-aircraft fire, there was an instinctive fear that they were witnessing the imminent destruction of their city.
The earliest reactions were, according to the reports of Mass Observation and other interested parties, mixed and incongruous. Some citizens were hysterical, filled with overwhelming anxiety, and there were several cases of suicide; others were angry, and stubbornly determined to continue their ordinary lives even in the face of extraordinary dangers. Some tried to be jovial, while others became keenly interested spectators of the destruction all around them, but for many the mood was one of spirited defiance. As one anthologist of London history, A.N. Wilson, has put it, the records of the time reveal “the perkiness, the jokes, the songs” even “in the immediate and garish presence of violent death.”
It is difficult fully to define that particular spirit, but it is of the utmost interest in attempting to describe the nature of London itself. In his definitive study, London at War, Philip Ziegler has suggested that “Londoners made a deliberate effort to seem nonchalant and unafraid,” but this self-control may have been a necessary and instinctive unwillingness to spread the contagion of panic. What if this city of eight million people were to regress into hysteria? It was precisely that fate which Bertrand Russell had predicted in a pamphlet, Which Way to Peace?, in which he anticipated that London would become “one vast bedlam, the hospitals will be stormed, traffic will cease, the homeless will shriek for peace, the city will be a pandemonium.” It is possible that ordinary citizens, with instincts finer than those of their erstwhile “betters,” knew that this could not be allowed to happen. So the “calmness, the resigned resolution of the Londoner” was the quality which impressed those coming from outside. In all of its periodic crises, and riots, and fires, London has remained surprisingly stable; it has tipped, and tilted, before righting itself. This may in part be explained by the deep and heavy presence of trade and commerce within its fabric, the pursuit of which rides over any obstacle or calamity. One of Winston Churchill’s wartime phrases was “Business as usual,” and no slogan could be better adapted to the condition of London.
Yet there was another aspect of the calmness and determination of Londoners in the autumn and winter of 1940, springing from some deep sense that the city had suffered before and had somehow survived. Of course nothing could equal the fury and destruction of the Blitz, but the sheer persistence and continuity of London through time lent an intimate yet perhaps at the time unidentifiable reassurance. There was always the intimation of eventual renewal and reconstruction. The poet Stephen Spender, in north London in the aftermath of one raid, related: “I had the comforting sense of the sure dark immensity of London.” Here is another source of consolation; the city was too large, too complex, too momentous, to be destroyed. Then he recognised that “The grittiness, stench and obscurity of Kilburn suddenly seemed a spiritual force—the immense force of poverty which had produced the narrow, yet intense, visions of Cockneys living in other times.” This has the “spiritual force” of revelation, since Spender seems to have concluded that poverty and suffering had somehow produced a kind of invulnerability to even the worst onslaughts which the world can unleash. “We can take it” was one of the often recorded comments by those who had been bombed out of their homes, with the unspoken addition that “we have taken everything else.”
The attitude of self-sufficiency was often accompanied by an element of pride. “Every one absolutely determined,” one observer, Humphrey Jennings, wrote, “secretly delighted with the privilege of holding up Hitler.” There was, according to Ziegler, “a strange lightness of heart … Londoners felt themselves an elite.” They were proud of their own sufferings, in the same way that earlier generations of Londoners claimed an almost proprietorial interest in their noxious fogs, in the violence of their streets, in the sheer anonymity and magnitude of their city. In a sense Londoners believed themselves to be especially chosen for calamity. This may in turn help to explain the evident fact that “macabre exaggeration became a hallmark of many Londoners’ conversation,” particularly on the numbers of the dead and the wounded. The innate theatricality of London life affords one explanation; it has been said that there “was never any conflict in the city’s history to match the drama of the Second World War.” London firemen claimed that half their time was spent in dispersing crowds of interested spectators rather than fighting the conflagrations. If it were not for the sheer blank monotony of tiredness and suffering, suffused with the horror of the bombs, one might almost sense a gaiety or delight in destruction itself.
There are other images of these early months. One was of the blackout which plunged one of the most brilliantly illuminated cities of the world into all but total darkness. It became once more the city of dreadful night, and aroused in some inhabitants sensations of almost primitive fear as once familiar thoroughfares became lost in blackness. One of Evelyn Waugh’s characters notes that “Time might have gone back two thousand years to the time when London was a stockaded cluster of huts”; urban civilisation had been established upon light for so long that, in its absence, all customary certainties fell away. Of course there were some who took advantage of the darkness for their own purposes, but for many others the predominant sensation was one of alarm and insufficiency. The lure of shelter under the ground has already been discussed, together with the fear of administrators that London would breed a race of “troglodytes” who would never wish to come to the surface. The reality, however, was both more stark and more prosaic. Only 4 per cent of the city’s population ever used the London Underground for night shelter, largely on account of the overcrowded and often insanitary conditions which they would have found there. In implicit compliance to the tradition of London as a city of separate family dwellings, most citizens elected to stay in their own houses.
And what might they have seen when they emerged at daybreak? “The house about 30 yards from ours struck at one this morning by a bomb. Completely ruined. Another bomb in the square still unexploded … The house was still smouldering. There is a great pile of bricks … Scraps of cloth hanging to the bare walls at the side still standing. A looking glass I think swinging. Like a tooth knocked out—a clean cut.” Virginia Woolf’s description registers the sensation of almost physical shock, as if the city were indeed a living being which could suffer hurt. “A vast gap at the top of Chancery Lane. Smoking still. Some great shop entirely destroyed: the hotel opposite like a shell … And then miles & miles of orderly ordinary streets … Streets empty. Faces set & eyes bleared.” It might seem that nothing could obliterate these “miles & miles” of streets, that London could as it were “soak up” any punishment, yet its citizens were not so sturdy; fatigue, and weariness, and anxiety passed over them in waves. In the following month, October 1940, Woolf visited Tavistock and Mecklenburg Squares where she had lived. She passed a long line of people, with bags and blankets, queuing at eleven thirty that morning for a night’s shelter in Warren Street Underground Station. In Tavistock Square she found the remnants of her old house—“Basement all rubble. Only relics an old basket chair … Otherwise bricks & wood splinters … I cd just see a piece of my studio wall standing: otherwise rubble where I wrote so many books.” And then there was the dust, like the soft residue of obliterated experience. “All again litter, glass, black soft dust, plaster powder.”
It was remarked at the time that upon everything lay a fine coat of grey ash and cinders, prompting further comparison between London and Pompeii. The loss of personal history was another aspect of the city bombings; the wallpaper, and mirrors, and carpets were sometimes stripped bare and left hanging in the air of a ruin as if the private lives of Londoners had suddenly become public property. This encouraged a communal feeling and became one of the principal sources of the evident bravado and determination.
The Second World War also created a climate of care. It became a question of saving the children, for example, by a process of mass evacuation from the city to the country. In the months preceding the outbreak of hostilities on 3 September 1939, a policy of voluntary evacuation was drawn up to deal with the movement of approximately four million women and children, yet the curious magnetism of London then began to exert itself. Less than half the families wished, or decided, to leave. Those children about to be sent to reception areas in the country departed reluctantly. The children of Dagenham were despatched on boats and John O’Leary, author of Danger over Dagenham, has recorded “awful silence. The children did not sing.” One of a childhood contingent from Stepney, the writer Bernard Kops, recalled that “this was the place where we were born, where we grew up, where we played and sang, laughed and cried. And now all the grey faces as we passed were weeping. It was strangely quiet.” When they arrived in the country they seemed, and were, quite out of place. A minority were unwashed, lice-ridden and disruptive. Here the old image of the savage rises forcefully. Others “would not eat wholesome food but clamoured for fish and chips, sweets and biscuits” and “would not go to bed at reasonable hours.” They were the unnatural progeny of an unnatural city. And there “were children who refused new clothes and who fought and clung desperately to old and dirty things.” The image of the London child as somehow “dirty” and woeful is here reinforced. Then, within a few weeks, they began to return home. By the winter of 1939 approximately 150,000 mothers and children had come back; by the early months of the following year, half of the evacuees had made their way back to the city. “London was, for me, like a return from exile,” one is reported as saying in Ziegler’s history. “My pet cat met me at the gate, the neighbours welcomed me and the sun shone.” Here is a palpable sense of belonging, of being part of the city, which is the strongest sentiment among Londoners.
In the summer of 1940, when the German forces began to conquer Europe, another attempt was made to remove the children, those of the East End in particular. One hundred thousand children were evacuated but, two months later, 2,500 children were coming back each week. It represents the strangest, and perhaps most melancholy, instinct—the need to get back to the city, even if it becomes a city of fire and death. The curious fact, even during the air-raids themselves, was that the children proved “more resilient” than the adults. Like their predecessors over many eras, like the children depicted by Hogarth in the eighteenth century, they seemed to revel among all the suffering and privation, and in part reclaimed that state of semi-savagery which had been the mark of the street-Arabs of the previous century. One visitor to Stepney after a raid noted that the children were “wild-looking and grimy outwardly, but full of vitality and enthusiasm. One child said, ‘Mister, let me take you to see the last bomb round the corner.’”
In Watson’s Wharf, off Wapping, a gang of children congregated under the name of the “Dead End kids.” Their story is told in East End Then and Now, edited by W.G. Ramsey. They were the unofficial fire-fighters of the East End. “Some of these children were very poor, and dressed in cheap clothes … They were split into sections of four. Each section was responsible for a district on Wapping Island.” They had iron bars and a hand-truck as well as sand buckets and spades to assist them in their work. They roped in time bombs, and tossed them into the Thames; they carried the wounded away from incendiary scenes. One intense night of bombing in Wapping brought them out and, in the words of one witness, “In a moment ten boys rushed up the stairs, ready, as it seemed, to eat fires.” They entered a burning building in order to lead out some horses trapped within, and emerged “with the clothes of some of those boys … smouldering.” Some of them were killed in the fires and explosions but, when casualties depleted their ranks, others willingly filled their places. It is a most extraordinary story which emphasises in vivid and poignant detail the hardiness and self-reliance bred within London children. A little girl from the Elephant and Castle, when asked if she wished to return to the country, said, “No fear.” No fear—that is the key to their self-containment or recklessness.
There was also a different kind of community. Elizabeth Bowen, in her novel of wartime London, The Heat of the Day, suggested that those who had died in the fire and destruction were not forgotten. “These unknown dead reproached those left living not by their own death, which might only be shared, but by their unknownness, which could not be mended now.” The war had revealed the essence of the city’s conditions of solitude and anonymity. “Who had the right to mourn them, not having cared that they had lived?” As a result there was an attempt by the citizens “to break down indifference,” and in some sense to ignore or mitigate the usual restrictions of life in London. “The wall between the living and the living became less solid as the wall between the living and the dead thinned.” So strangers would say, “Good night, good luck” as they passed each other in the evening.
There was also a marked and pervasive sense of unreality, as if the familiar outlines of the city had suddenly changed their aspect and become unknown or intangible. “Everybody and all familiar things and jobs seemed so unreal,” one recalled, “we even spoke differently to each other as if we should soon be parted.” This sense of fragility or transitoriness helped to form the atmosphere in what was called “a besieged city,” and one Londoner who made a brief visit to the countryside professed himself surprised “at buildings unthreatened, at mountains that could not be overthrown.” As a result of his experience “All permanence was astonishing. So unnatural had his own life been, that Nature seemed not to belong to him nor he to Nature.” The city had always been deemed “unnatural” by atavistic moralists, but now that sense was shared by its citizens. It was unnatural to be congregated in a place where bombs would fall; it was unnatural to be part of so vast and manifest a target. Yet this was the condition of their lives; perhaps it was the condition of being human.
The bombings of 1940 culminated in the most celebrated and notorious of all raids, that of Sunday 29 December 1940. The warning was sounded a little after six in the evening, and then the incendiaries came down like “heavy rain.” The attack was concentrated upon the City of London. The Great Fire had come again. The area from Aldersgate to Cannon Street, all of Cheapside and Moorgate, was in flames. One observer on the roof of the Bank of England recalled that “the whole of London seemed alight! We were hemmed in by a wall of flame in every direction.” Nineteen churches, sixteen of them built by Christopher Wren after the first Great Fire, were destroyed; of the thirty-four guild halls, only three escaped; the whole of Paternoster Row went up in flames, destroying some five million books; the Guildhall was badly damaged; St. Paul’s was ringed with fire, but escaped. “No one who saw will ever forget,” William Kent wrote in The Lost Treasures of London, “their emotions on the night when London was burning and the dome seemed to ride the sea of fire.” Almost a third of the city was reduced to ash and rubble. By curious coincidence, however, the destruction was largely visited upon the historical and religious aspects of the old City; the thoroughfares of business, such as Cornhill and Lombard Street, remained relatively unscathed while none of the great financial centres was touched. The deities of the city protected the Bank of England and the Stock Market, like the City griffins which jealously guard its treasure.
One who walked through the ruins the day after the raid recalled that “The air felt singed. I was breathing ashes … The air itself, as we walked, smelt of burning.” There are many accounts of the craters, the cellars opened to the outer air, the shattered walls, the fallen masonry, the gas-mains on fire, the pavements covered with dust and broken glass, the odd stumps of brick, the broken and suspended stairs. “For some days the church walls steamed and smoked,” according to James Pope-Hennessy in an account entitled History Under Fire. Yet the workers, the temporary inhabitants, of the City came back. After the raids, “the whole City seemed to be on the tramp” as the clerks and secretaries and office boys all took circuitous ways through the ruins to their destinations. Many had arrived to find their places of employment “gutted” or absolutely destroyed, and then returned on the following morning “simply because they had nothing better to do.” The power of the City then became manifest in their behaviour; they resembled the prisoners of Newgate who, after it had been fired by the Gordon rioters, returned to wander among the ruins of their cells.
The City had become unfamiliar territory. The area between St. Mary le Bow in Cheapside and St. Paul’s Cathedral reverted to wasteland, where the long grass was crossed by beaten paths bearing the names of Old Change, Friday Street, Bread Street and Watling Street. Signs were nailed up, with the names of these streets and others, to prevent people from losing their way. Even the colours of the city had changed; concrete and granite had “been scorched umber” while church ruins were “chrome yellow.” There are some remarkable photographs, taken by Cecil Beaton in the aftermath of the December raid. Paternoster Row is a mound of broken rubble with odd pieces of ironwork sticking out among the brick and stone; the premises of thirty publishers were destroyed. In the last Great Fire the Row was similarly struck and, according to Pepys, “all the great booksellers almost undone.” Outside the church of St. Giles, Cripplegate, the statue of Milton had been blown off its plinth by the blast of a bomb but the tower and walls of the church survived as they had done almost four hundred years before. It was recorded on 12 September 1545 that “Sant Gylles was burned, alle hole, save the walles, stepall, and alle, and how it came God knoweth”; now, almost by a miracle, they were saved again. There are photographs of many ruined church interiors, with monuments tumbled down, screens fallen into fragments, and cherubs’ heads scattered across the floor; there are photographs of the ruined Guildhall, of the bombed Middle Temple, of craters and falling roofs. It seemed to many that the tangible and textural history of London was without meaning, if its glory could disappear in a night; it was too fragile, and frail, to be relied upon. It was the invisible and intangible spirit or presence of London that survived, and somehow flourished, in the period of devastation.
There were, however, unexpected discoveries. A section of the Roman Wall, hidden for many hundreds of years, was uncovered by the bombing of Cripplegate. An underground chamber paved with tiles emerged below the altar of St. Mary le Bow, and a “Gothic blocked-up doorway” was recovered in St. Vedast’s, Foster Lane, after its bombardment. Roman relics were found by Austin Friars, one of them a tile with the paw-marks of a dog in pursuit of a cat. Behind the organ of All Hallows Church, hitherto concealed by panelling which the bombs destroyed, was found a seventh-century arch formed out of Roman tiles. The parish priest described how “out of the wall adjacent to the arch great fragments fell which had for at least eight hundred years been embedded as the capstones in the strong Norman pillars of that date. Some of these stones were most remarkable … They represent a school of craftsmanship whereof we have no other evidence. They form a portion of a noble Cross which once upreared its head on Tower Hill, before the Norman William conquered London.” The emblematic significance of the discovery was not in doubt; the German bombs had fortuitously uncovered a Saxon cross representing defiance before an invader. So those who believed that the city’s history could be easily destroyed were mistaken; it emerged at a deeper level with the implicit assurance that, like the ancient cross, London itself would rise again. There was even a natural analogy. Air damage to the herbarium in the Natural History Museum meant that certain seeds became damp, including mimosa brought from China in 1793. After their trance of 147 years, they began to grow again.
Yet there was also a curious interval when the natural world was reaffirmed in another sense. One contemporary has described how “many acres of the most famous city in the world have changed from the feverish hum and activity of man into a desolate area grown over with brightly coloured flowers and mysterious with wild life.” The transformation was “deeply affecting.” In Bread Street and Milk Street bloomed ragwort, lilies of the valley, white and mauve lilac. “Quiet lanes lead to patches of wild flowers and undergrowth not seen in these parts since the days of Henry VIII.” The connection here with the sixteenth century is an appropriate one, when this part of London was laid out with gardens and pathways, but the bombed city travelled further back to the time when it was prehistoric marshland. The author of London’s Natural History, R.S. Fitter, suggested after the war that “the profusion of wild flowers, birds and insects to be seen on the bombed sites of the city is now one of the sights of London”; he mentioned “269 wild flowers, grasses and ferns, 3 mammals, 31 birds, 56 insects and 27 kinds of other invertebrates” which had appeared since 1939. Pigs were kept, and vegetables cultivated, in wasteland beside the bombed Cripplegate Church; this earth had been covered with buildings for more than seven centuries, and yet its natural fertility was revived. It is indirect testimony, perhaps, to the force and power of London which kept this “fertility” at bay. The power of the city and the power of nature had fought an unequal battle, until the city was injured; then the plants, and the birds, returned.
After the great fire-raid at the end of December 1940, the attacks were more sporadic but no less deadly. There were raids in January 1941, with a brief cessation in February, but they began again in earnest in March. On 16 April the city was visited by what the Germans described as “the greatest air-raid of all time”; the bombers returned again three nights later. More than a thousand people were killed on each night of the bombardment, which hit areas as diverse as Holborn and Chelsea. London became confused and misshapen, while anxiety and loss of sleep marked the faces of Londoners. It was the crushing sense of unreality, and meaninglessness, which now weighed heaviest; the weariness combined with the destruction to create a light-headedness among the population. “So low did the dive-bombers come,” one witness recalled, “that for the first time I mistook bombers for taxi-cabs.” The heaviest and most prolonged raid of all occurred on Saturday 10 May 1941, when bombs fell in Kingsway, Smithfield, Westminster and all over the City; almost 1,500 were killed. The Law Courts and the Tower of London were attacked, the House of Commons reduced to a shell. The church of St. Clement Danes was destroyed, so devastated that its rector died “from the shock and grief” in the following month. His wife died four months later. This perhaps represents a small amount of suffering, compared to the totality of misery endured during these years, but it marks one pertinent aspect of London’s destruction; certain individuals can become so attached to, or associated with, certain buildings that their destruction provokes death itself. The city and its inhabitants are intertwined, for better or for worse. On the following day “the smell of burning was never so pronounced as on that Sunday morning.” It seemed then that the city could not withstand the onslaught for much longer. An American journalist, Larry Rue, noticed that male workers in the City were travelling to their offices unshaven. “I began to realise,” he wrote, “to what deep depths of their being the 10 May raid had shocked and shaken the people of London. It was just one raid too much.” Yet it was to be the last significant attack upon London for three years.
The German invasion of Russia had indirectly saved the city from more destruction, and there succeeded a relative peace. Then “life” went on. The city seemed to resume its normal course, with its postmen and bus-drivers and milkmen and errand boys, but there was the strangest feeling of ennui or despondency after the spectacular damage of the Blitz. Philip Ziegler in London at War has described it as an “enervating lull.” With the conflict taking place in other cities and over other skies, “Londoners felt that they had been left on the sidelines, they were bored and dejected.” Those who still used the Underground shelters had established a network of friendship and camaraderie but this subterranean spirit was an odd token of London’s general condition, in what Elizabeth Bowen called “the lightless middle of the tunnel,” enduring the discomforts and disadvantages of a war over which it had no control. The citizens were frustrated at, and bored by, the privations of life. And this in turn affected the very atmosphere and character of London itself. The people were shabbily dressed and, in instinctive and intimate sympathy, their houses became shabby. The windows were cracked, the plaster was flaking away, the wallpaper manifested signs of damp. The public buildings of the city were also showing signs of fatigue and depression, as their façades became more grimy and decayed. The atmosphere was woebegone, with a strange symbiosis between the city and its inhabitants which suggests—as Defoe had discovered during the Great Plague—the presence of a living, suffering organism.
Then, at the beginning of 1944, the bombs returned. But the “little blitz,” as it was called, was the unhappy end of unfinished business; there were fourteen raids in all, the heaviest in February and March, directed against a city which had been wearied and to a certain extent demoralised by the prolonged and uncertain conflict. “London seems disturbed by the raids and less ebullient than in 1940–1,” Jock Colville noted.
Then something else happened. In June of that year pilotless jet planes carrying a bomb known as the V1, alias doodlebug, alias flying bomb, alias buzz bomb, alias robot bomb, began to appear in the skies above London. They were recognised by the sharp buzzing of the engine followed by sudden silence, as the engine cut out and the bomb fell to earth. They came in daylight, with infrequent intervals between them, and were perhaps the hardest to bear. “One listens fascinated to the Doodle Bugs passing over,” one contemporary wrote, “holding one’s breath, praying that they will travel on … The atmosphere in London has changed. Back into the Big Blitz. Apprehension is in the air. Buses half empty in the evening. Marked absence of people on the streets. Thousands have left, and many go early to the shelters.” The novelist Anthony Powell was on fire duty and watched the V1s travelling through the air to their unknown targets, “with a curious shuddering jerky movement … a shower of sparks emitted from the tail.” He saw them as “dragons” and “In imagination one smelt brimstone,” so that the city under threat becomes once more a place of fantasy and myth. Almost two and a half thousand flying bombs fell upon the capital within ten months—“droning things, mercilessly making for you, thick and fast, day and night.” It was the impersonality of the weapons, often compared with giant flying insects, which compounded the fear. The intended victims themselves became depersonalised, of course, so that the condition of living in the city was the condition of being less than human. Londoners, according to Cyril Connolly, “grow more and more hunted and disagreeable; like toads, each sweating and palpitating under his particular stone.” The general mood was one of “strain, weariness, fear and despondency.” “Let me get out of this” was the unspoken wish visible upon every tired and anxious face, while at the same time the inhabitants of London carried on with their customary work and duties. The mechanism continued to operate, but now in a much more impersonal manner; the whole world had turned into a machine, either of destruction or of weary survival.
Just as the frequency of the flying bombs began to diminish, in the early autumn of 1944, Vengeance Two—the V2—was targeted upon the capital. For the first time in the history of warfare, a city came under attack from longdistance rockets which travelled at approximately three thousand miles per hour. No warning could be sounded; no counter-attack launched. The first one hit Chiswick and the explosion could be heard at Westminster about seven miles away. Their power was so great that “whole streets were flattened as they landed.” One resident of Islington recorded: “I thought the end of the world had come.” That phrase has been repeated before in the history of London, at moments of crisis or terrible conflagration. Almost a thousand rockets were aimed at the capital, with a half reaching their targets. There were open spaces where streets had been. One rocket hit Smithfield Market, and another a department store in New Cross; the Royal Hospital in Chelsea was struck. “Are we never to be free of damage or death?” one Londoner complained. “Surely five years is long enough for any town to have to suffer?”
It was the coldest winter for many years, and the bombs continued to fall. Illness was in the air, as it has been throughout London’s troubled history, along with rumours of epidemics and mounting deaths. Yet there was also a certain insouciance abroad; the V2s were so unpredictable and random that they revived the gambling spirit of Londoners who now retired to bed without knowing if they were necessarily going to rise on the following morning.
And then, suddenly, it was all over. At the end of March 1945 a rocket fell upon Stepney, and another on Whitefield’s Tabernacle on the Tottenham Court Road. But then the raids ceased; the rocket-launching sites had been captured. The skies had cleared. The Battle of London was finally won. Almost 30,000 Londoners had been killed, and more than 100,000 houses utterly destroyed; a third of the City of London had been razed.
On 8 May 1945 there were the usual celebrations for victory in Europe, VE Day, although by no means as garish or as hysterical as those of 1918. The participants were more weary, after five years of intermittent bombing and death, than their predecessors on the same streets twenty-seven years before; and the war against Japan was continuing (VJ Day was 15 August 1945). Yet something had happened to London, too. In the phrase of the period the “stuffing” had been “knocked out of it,” the metaphor suggesting a thinner and more depleted reality. Certainly it had lost much of its energy and bravura; it had become as shabby as its inhabitants and, like them, it would take time to recover.