First Day of BlitzThe First Day of the Blitz
by Peter Stansky

In less than 200 brisk and deeply engrossing pages, this book takes us hour-by-hour through the experiences of a single day — September 7, 1940 — in the city of London. At the time, it was just another day during the early months of WWII, with an air-raid beginning about tea-time. Unlike previous air-raids, though, this one didn’t end with the all-clear in an hour or two. With just one brief reprieve in early evening, the bombs kept falling heavily as the hours of darkness wore on, continuing throughout the night until morning. When it was over, there was barely time to assess the damage before the realization came that it wasn’t over. That first night had been just the beginning. The following night, the entire horrible experience was repeated — and again the night after, and the night after that. Between September and November, London was bombed on 56 out of 57 consecutive nights, spared on one night only because of bad weather.

For eight months, from September 1940 until May 1941, during the endless bombings known as the Blitz, the citizens of London learned to expect sleepless nights, demolished homes and businesses, terrifying fires, overcrowded bomb shelters, weary efforts to supply common daily needs, along with the nightly threat of injury or death.  How Londoners reacted to the events of September 7th set a template for coping with the situation during the months that followed.

One thing that became obvious almost immediately was that however well you think you’ve planned for disaster, a disaster is by its nature unpredictable. Rigid planning never serves in the midst of chaos, while the ability to adjust in mid-stream and respond to the situation as it develops is the skill that will serve best. Before the Blitz began, there had been a certain amount of rehearsal for expected bombings, but when the time came, ad-libbing was necessary.

It was assumed, for instance, that air-raids would occur as short interruptions in a work day, lasting perhaps an hour at a time. Public air-raid shelters were designed with this in mind. Some were merely covered trenches in public parks. Others were narrow brick boxes on street corners, intended to pack people in for temporary protection from flying blast debris. None of these options were planned with the thought of thousands of people staying there all night, for weeks and months at a time. There were no toilets, no cots, no blankets, no water to drink or wash. The London Underground became packed with tens of thousands of people nightly, while complaints arose of the stench and lack of sanitation.

Prefabricated corrugated metal boxes known as Anderson shelters might be purchased and installed in your own backyard, set in a hole and covered with the recommended 15 inches of dirt. These were popular with householders who had a knack for do-it-yourself projects, as a more comfortable alternative to the public shelters. But as the Blitz wore on, a surprising number of weary folks began to adopt a fatalistic preference for their own beds, or at least for a mattress under their own back stairs. After all, there was another working day ahead, usually made more tiring by the added burdens of Blitz cleanup, and a good night’s sleep was hard to get in a chilly hole in the ground.

Another bit of advance planning that proved to be off the mark was the unexpected survival rate. It had been assumed that heavy bombings would create dead bodies, and that public health would require some system to remove and bury them expeditiously. Shrouds and coffins were stockpiled in readiness. But the number of people who were not killed but buried alive in rubble with injuries in need of medical treatment changed the game plan. Heavy equipment rubble-clearing is fine if you’re recovering the dead, but digging delicately through a collapsed building for survivors is a more complicated task, taking more hands and more resources. People who had originally been delegated for one job learned to adapt themselves to the job at hand, whatever it was.

Once survivors were rescued, where were they to go? The fires burning in London on the night of September 7th were the worst in the city’s history, worse even than the Great Fire of 1666. During the first two months of the Blitz, 13,000 fires raged in various parts of the city. As the Blitz wore on, uninhabitable buildings in London grew to unheard of numbers. The problem of housing the homeless grew pressing. At first, it was assumed that emergency overnight housing would be enough, and that a bombed-out family would contact friends or relatives the next day and move in with them. But what do you do if your relatives have also been bombed out? What if your friends are already cramming two families into one flat? What if there simply are no more undamaged rooms to let anywhere in the city? Long-term housing for the displaced survivors turned out to be the biggest gap in the city’s disaster planning.

  • “The government did not come close to predicting how many homes would be destroyed by German bombing, let alone addressing where all the newly homeless citizens should go…Virtually no provision had been made for those who didn’t have a place to stay. The number of homeless in London — ultimately at least 1.5 million — was equivalent to how many people the authorities had expected would be killed by the air raids. Corpses would have been far easier to deal with than the dispossessed.”

 At first, the agency which in peacetime provided shelter for the destitute was assigned the task, but they soon realized that they were now dealing with an entirely different problem. In peacetime, there had been plenty of rooms, merely a question of people who couldn’t afford them without help. Once the Blitz began, there were suddenly thousands of families, including small children and elderly people, searching for any roof overhead, and not enough undamaged buildings left in the city in which to put them all.

One situation on the second and third days of the Blitz became symbolic of the gaps in emergency response. After the first night’s bombing, hundreds of refugees from the East End were housed in a temporary shelter hastily set up in a school. Buses were supposed to take them away before the next night, but due to a series of glitches — (an address mix-up, road detours,  confusion over where they were to be taken and who was to give the instructions) — the rides never came. After two days of waiting for rescue, the school took a direct hit by a bomb on the third night of the Blitz, collapsing half the building, killing and maiming the refugees crowded inside it. (The author points out that “this is eerily similar to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when buses intended to evacuate residents from the Superdome and convention center took days to arrive.”)

After the war, the thoughts of ordinary men and women on the home front were collected and cataloged thanks to the Mass Observation project, a public call for people from all walks of life to keep diaries recording their observations and experiences of the war, creating a giant mosaic assembled from each individual’s small bits. Accounts by auxiliary firemen, housewives, retirees, air raid wardens, and teenage students each contribute individual angles to the scene. Reading these records today, we find the reactions of the average citizen ranged from cranky to heroic, flurried to stoic. Despite the unpreparedness, miscalculations, and stress, Londoners proved to be more adaptable and less panicky than the authorities had feared.

Overall, the English trait of suppressed emotion may have done the most to contribute to a calm public response. Referring to horrific bombings offhandedly as “incidents”, for instance, is a typical example of English understatement. Many of the Mass Observation writers confess to having felt fear, but go on to add that they felt called upon to hide it, to present a calm front, to set a good example. The “Myth of the Blitz” — the story of how well the average Londoner rose to the occasion — has been passed down as an encouragement to others facing similar challenges. “If London could survive the Blitz, we can get through this” — whatever “this” may be — has become a motto for people facing tough challenges ever since.