Empty London: Sheltering from the Blitz

Bus in crater during London Blitz

I think Doctor Who’s love of London perhaps even eclipses my own.  In the early 19th century, this grand city became the first in the modern world* to reach a population of one million, and over the next 100 years, that number multiplied six times over.  By the mid-20th century, London was home to over 8 million people.

Not that you’d think it at this moment as I walk the streets of late 1940.  Glass crunches underfoot.  Buildings lay in crumbling ruins.  The streets are all but empty.  Up ahead, a family hurries toward a subway station in which to shelter for the night.  Each carries their own gas mask, just in case.

History will not be kind to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who claimed to have made “peace for our time” by handing over parts of Czechoslovakia to Adolf Hitler in an act of appeasement.   The fact is, however, Britain wasn’t ready for a Blitz at the time of the Munich Agreement.  It was only after that fact that Britain started earnestly digging and constructing bomb shelters.

Shelter in the subway, London BlitzThe deepest shelters are several stories underground and hold thousands of people.  They include crude bunks which, after the war, will become storage space for nearby businesses.  Many people spent every night in one of these shelters, leaving in the morning to go about their everyday business.

Others remained in their homes but took shelter as necessary in a personal structure known as a Anderson shelter.  Peeking in through a window now, I see a mother putting her children to bed under a sturdy dining room table, as she undoubtedly does every night.

Above, somewhat comical barrage balloons float thousands of feet overhead.  The balloons themselves are no great threat.  It’s the chance of getting tangled in the cables anchoring them to the ground that scare German planes into flying much higher than they’d like where it’s harder to see their targets.

Children evacuees as part of Operation Pied PiperOperation Pied Piper

Clearly the safest place to be, I muse while standing here, is to not be in London at all.  The government figured that out too.  To that end, it enacted Operation Pied Piper, which evacuated over 3 million people in total (from a variety of industrial centers, not just London) in three major waves: Just before the declaration of war in September, 1939, at the fall of France in mid 1940, and at the beginning of the Blitz in September 1940.  Most of the evacuees were children, but it also included the elderly, the disabled, and pregnant women.

These evacuees were brought into the countryside in great waves.  Wealthy families generally made private arrangements for their children.  Everyone else was dependent on the government to find them some place to stay.  Sometimes, temporary shelters were constructed for the refugees.

Often, local families took children in.  Many times, children would be lined up and volunteers would simply take turns picking them, as if at a meat market.  Siblings were sometimes split up.  The results vastly varied.  Some children forged lifelong relationships with their foster families, while others fell victim to abuse and neglect.

London Devastation

Even with these measures in place, about 30,000 civilians will perish in London.  Hundreds of thousands become homeless, and tens of thousands of buildings are destroyed.

St Paul's during the BlitzThey benefited from Hitler’s admiration of British culture.  Seeing them as cultural cousins to the Germans, Hitler wanted beat them into submission rather than simply crushing them.  To that end, bombers were to try avoiding hitting major landmarks.

Not that it always worked.  Buckingham Palace takes a hit.  St. Paul’s Cathedral has its stained glass blown out, a shame when so many other churches took their glass out of the windows and packed it safely away.  Sandbags are stacked around various historical monuments.  Cleopatra’s Needle is strikingly missing any such protection.  Some genius decided the ancient Egyptian artifact would look more antique if it suffered shrapnel damage.

And through it all, the locals grit their teeth and carry on as the British do.

* Ancient Rome became home to over one million people 2000 years earlier, because they’re showoffs.


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