Londoners adjust to a nightly ‘Blitz’

Members of a family taking afternoon tea in their 'refuge room', using their Morrison shelter as a table, August 1941.

Members of a family taking afternoon tea in their ‘refuge room’, using their Morrison shelter as a table, August 1941.

Mr McGregor stands amidst the debris of his house, following a Baedeker Raid on York. The Morrison shelter which saved his life, and the life of his wife and lodger is visible under rubble to the right of the photograph.

Mr McGregor stands amidst the debris of his house, following a Baedeker Raid on York. The Morrison shelter which saved his life, and the life of his wife and lodger is visible under rubble to the right of the photograph.

The mini-Blitz now established itself as a regular nightly event in London. People had to re-accustom themselves to the business of air raid shelters, both indoors and outdoors. The Morrison shelter had been introduced in 1941, and despite its discomforts had proven itself as a life saver. Considered rather more secure but less comfortable were the public shelters, in some places available on every street.

George Beardmore’s diaries are particularly useful to historians of the period because he worked as a re-settlement officer for Harrow London Borough. He gives quite detailed descriptions of the process of helping those who were bombed out. Nevertheless he and his family were just as much at risk as anyone else:

23 February

The siren goes about 2 a.m. or at almost any time. It always wakes me. I rouse Jean, we leap into our outdoor things, and while Jean grabs a bagful of valuables and papers, I come down with Victoria in my arms, as often as not fast asleep, and we hurry out to the reinforced Shelter so conveniently placed near the front gate.

This has already been opened by the Fire Guard — normally it’s kept locked against lovers, and small boys taken short — our paraffin stove is lighted, and we settle down with our neighbours in the three-tier bunks. Other Fire Guards drift in — one night while somnolent we were all roused by the most appalling crash which turned out to have been a visiting Fire Guard’s steel helmet dropping onto the concrete floor — while outside the night becomes noisy with bangs, crackles, and rumbles rolling round the heavens.

The clouds light up with gun-flashes, flares, and path-finding cascades of light- globules nicknamed candelabras. Sometimes a green or dusky red ball comes floating through the clouds. Fires are started on the horizon while behind it the clouds glow a dusky red. A plane zooms overhead. Shrapnel cracks on the rooftops. And gradually the noise dies down and the lights go out. Meanwhile I have been praying that the bombs will fall outside the Urban District because we have our hands full. It makes one think of inner suburbs such as St John’s Wood, Islington, or Dalston. How are those local authorities coping?

Last night a spectacular local fire was started on Harrow Hill and — God, what an outrage! — the school tuck-shop was gutted. The noise was tremendous. We woke to learn that a high explosive had destroyed a bungalow in Rayners Lane, while two UXBs (unexploded bombs) have put 106 people out of their homes into the Corbin’s Lane Rest Centre.

The counter this morning is crowded with applicants for Morrison shelters. These are iron-plated cages with lattice sides, about nine feet by five by four, that one erects inside one’s home, preferably in the recess provided by the chimney-breast. But sometimes I see them outside, clear of buildings, why I don’t know, because they are intended to be furnished with mattress and pillows and slept in.

Also the wretched blitzed from the London inner boroughs come to implore us for help in finding a roof for them. We can’t because we have only a small and dwindling stock of requisitioned houses for the use of our own bombed. A fine balance has to be made between immediate requirements and what houses we have to keep in reserve for the future.

Naturally the situation lends itself to abuse and complaint, which our two women welfare workers bear as best they can. Actually, I deceived one of them by telling one customer, who convinced me that she had three children, a husband in the services, and had walked from the Elephant, to come back next day and say she had originally lived in Northolt, part of which comes under our care. Naughty of me. The rule is that one must never allow oneself to become personally involved.

This is written in the Fire Guards’ Room at Harrow Weald Lodge, knowing that tonight the circus will start up again and that I shan’t be at home to lend a hand. (And it did. All the Luftwaffe seemed to be overhead.)

See George Beardmore: Civilians at War: Journals, 1938-46.

Reverend Joseph Stephens sits on a bunk and chats to shelterers in the largest shelter in his parish.

Reverend Joseph Stephens sits on a bunk and chats to shelterers in the largest shelter in his parish. According to the original caption, the shelter holds 300 people and “when raids are bad the vicar holds short services in the shelter on Sunday evenings, arranges entertainment during the week”. The shelter marshall here is Mr Nightingale (aged 76). Mr Nightingales has lived in the parish for 50 years, regularly attends church and voluntarily trims the 100 yards of privet hedge in front of the church.

Women war workers use magnets to salvage nails from amongst the debris of a bomb-damaged factory, somewhere in Britain.

Women war workers use magnets to salvage nails from amongst the debris of a bomb-damaged factory, somewhere in Britain.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Editor February 26, 2014 at 7:06 pm

I have been looking for a German perspective on this ‘blitz’ but so far no luck. They did suffer very heavy loses during the period – so much so that by June there was hardly any German bomber fleet left to attack the Normandy beachhead.

Harry February 25, 2014 at 11:22 pm

Operation Steinbock, the ‘Baby Blitz’, January to May 1944: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Steinbock

Allen G. February 25, 2014 at 3:42 pm

Craig Gleason’s is an excellent question. How many bombers did participate in the mini blitz and what types of aircraft were employed? Were these raids against London specific or simply a diversion for a larger attack on military bases, air fields, etc.?

craig gleason February 23, 2014 at 6:40 pm

I’m curious about the size of the German raids. The British and Americans by now were visiting German cities most days with several hundred bomber raids not to mention that allied bombers probably carried much larger bomb loads. How many German bombers participated in the mini blitz and what kind of bombers usually made up the attacking force?

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