The bombing raids that had been continuously bombarding London had, for the moment, now switched to other British cities. There was a little respite and time to take stock in the capital.
Air Raid Wardens came from all walks of life. As an actress, stage manager and part time writer for the theatre, Barbara Nixon found herself unemployed when war broke out. She volunteered as a part time Air Raid Warden. In the Borough of Finsbury, north of the City of London she had seen the impact of some of the worst of the bombing since September.
By December 1940 she wanted to do more and applied for a full time role with Civil Defence organisation. Somewhat reluctantly, because she was a woman, and a married woman at that, she was accepted. Being a graduate of Cambridge University might have had some bearing on that.
She was allocated a position at Warden’s Post No.13, at the other end of her Borough. Moorgate was an area she was unfamiliar with. Here she would work with a group of other Wardens, all men. Early in December she accompanied the Post Warden, Mr Harding, on a tour of her new territory:
The next morning I went down to ‘13.’ It was raining: the smell was abominable, and it looked more desolate than ever. Harding was there and we started off on a tour of the district.
Ropemaker Street was roped off, and the barricade was covered with sixty or seventy shabby little notices written in ink or indelible pencil, saying that such-and-such a firm had moved to another address. The ink and the pencil had run in the rain, and they looked very bedraggled.
This street had been one of tall, though old-fashioned, office buildings. Not one was left; there were only heaps of charred rubble and bricks. At the far end, in solitary dinginess, a public- house was still standing. Despite the fact that it was not much damaged, it was boarded up-its roof was still there, but its cus- tomers had all gone.
The next street was only a footpath between piles of bricks and beams, and for acres on each side there was complete devastation. The area had been thickly covered with factories, and warehouses, and office buildings; now, it was a fantastic tangle of girders a foot thick, twisted and curled like a child’s hair-ribbon.
During raids this was one of the most impressive sights I have seen. Occasional jagged walls were still standing, one factory building was almost intact, but was split down the middle, each half leaning outwards at a perilous angle, and only held together by a gimcraek little iron footbridge on the. roof. One expected every burst of gunfire to bring it toppling down.
We always had a large number of fires in our area, and silhouetted against the red, and sometimes greenish or white, firelight, this chaotic tangle of ruins dwarfed Pompeii, with its Vesuvius, into insignifieance. Nothing was left. The heart of the largest city in the world was a wilderness. Here and there, desultory trails of smoke curled up; the pigeons had deserted it, no gulls circled over it, the only inhabitants were occasional, scurrying rats.
Within a year, groundsel and desiccated willow-herb were growing where the hallways of world-famous firms had stood. In the middle of this annihilation a sub-surface shelter was still intact; the occupants had had to be evacuated when the fire above grew too hot, but none had been hurt.
We made a detour as there was an unexploded bomb ahead of us, and climbed over piles fifteen feet high of bricks, beams, girders, and rubble till we reached the less ruined part. This consisted, in the main, of blocks of grey, barrack-like Peabody flats—two rooms and no bath.
About one in every three was damaged, and hardly any had any windows, but the loss of life had been small. After the attack on the docks, this area had been one of the first to suffer heavy bombing, so that the population quickly developed a healthy respect for the bombs and, with few exceptions, all went to shelter.
At night it was a dead city. The few small shops were barred and shuttered, and the blocks of flats were deserted. If there was no gunfire or drone of planes, it was quieter than the countryside. Even in an open field, the soughing of a tree in the breeze, the rustle of a rat in a hedge, or the wheeze of a cow, can still be heard. But here the silence was almost tangible — a literally dead silence, in which there was no life. It was difficult to believe that this was London, whose daily uproar never sank below a steady rumble, even in the small hours. After 10.3o p.m., when the public-houses turned out the few hardy regulars, the silence was complete, only broken occasionally by the echoing footsteps of a warden, or policeman, on patrol.
All the population was underground. When the silence grew overpowering, we went down into a shelter to reassure ourselves that there still was some life in this deserted city. The shelters were much larger than those I had been used to, and would all hold three or four hundred at least. But they seemed drier, and were certainly better ventilated, and several had just had bunks installed in place ofthe benches.
We turned through an alley, and into a large courtyard enclosed on all sides by the backs of office buildings and blocks of flats. This was entirely filled with several score of surface shelters in rows. They were never used, as both the offices and the flats already had adequate sub-surface shelter accommodation, and the yard was not visible from the street. Six had been squashed by a bomb, four or five others had collapsed as a result of the attentions of the local children. Huddled together, they looked like the dwellings of some primitive tribe.
They had been built according to Government order, by a contractor who used more sand than concrete, and were a shameful monument to both local and Government officialdom. The Government had allowed certain monies for building surface shelters, so the borough, which already had almost sufficient shelters, used that money to create a white elephant in an inaccessible and unfrequented spot. Despite shortage of labour and material, it was not apparently possible for the borough to reply that it did not need the whole of the grant, or for the Government to say that some of the money could be used for improvements to existing shelters; and so they rotted in a deserted backyard.
By this time I had completely lost my sense of direction; I knew that I should not be able to remember which shelter was which, and was appalled to think that I should have to make reports of damage to a district which I did not know at all, in which what distinguishing marks there might have been had gone, where even those streets that were left had had their name-plates blown away.
After all, the first essential for a warden is to know his district thoroughly, so that reports can be accurate. And how was I ever to get any idea of the number of families in each vast block, or know whether the Harrisons and the Greenbaums went to one shelter or another? I felt that I should be of no use at all.
When Barbara Nixon’s memoir Raiders Overhead : A diary of the London blitz was first published in 1943 it sold out very quickly. There was such a shortage of paper that it could not be reprinted during the war. Fortunately a new edition was released in 1980.