Lucy Worsley on Blitz Spirit: the courageous stories of six Londoners

Lucy Worsley tells the stories of six people who endured the London Blitz, and finds that it was a time of courage and resilience, doubt and despair

Volunteers shovel sand in Fulham in 1941, filling bags used to protect windows from bomb blasts. Our clichés of the Blitz don’t tell the whole story, writes Lucy Worsley. (Photo by Mary Evans)

What does “Blitz Spirit” really mean? It’s a concept that’s frequently invoked in times of crisis: a curiously British commitment to keeping calm and carrying on.

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Eighty years on from the Blitz, though, it’s worth remembering that the eight months of intense bombing between September 1940 and May 1941 did not comprise just one single, homogeneous experience for the people living in London and the many other British cities affected.

Those eight months were indeed a time of remarkable resilience, and of terrible suffering. Yet our clichéd images of the Blitz – jolly singalongs in the air raid shelters, milkmen continuing to deliver as usual to bombed-out houses – don’t tell the whole story.

It seems timely, while we’re facing a national crisis of our own, to drill down deeper into the nature of the “Blitz Spirit” – and one way to do that is to look in detail at the personal recollections of Londoners who were there, living and dying beneath the bombs. The government issued propaganda declaring that “London Can Take it” – but would these ordinary people have agreed?

A closer look shows us that Londoners experienced a whole spectrum of doubt and despair as well as the courage and resilience about which we more often hear. And it’s hard to generalise: every person had their own unique experience of the Blitz, as the recollections of these six individuals reveal.


NAME: Robert Barltrop

AGE IN 1940: 17

JOB: Porter at Sainsbury’s

You knew that if you didn’t see your friends and have a good time, then you were never going to

The day of 7 September 1940 had been a normal one for Robert, preparing chickens at the Sainsbury’s in east London where he worked. But that afternoon he took up his lookout post on the roof of the building to see the very first raid of the Blitz coming in from the east. The German planes “were flying across my line of vision”, he recalled. “I had a perfect view… they were heading straight for London, and it was going to be the docks that were going to get it… I began to hear thumps, and those were bombs falling, and clouds of smoke were rising up… until you couldn’t see anything but a huge bank of smoke, and still they were coming.”

Robert, however, was determined that life should go on; he rushed home that very evening – to go on a date. “It sounds daft but perhaps we both thought it was a bit romantic meeting in an air raid,” he wrote. “We could smell the smoke and hear the raid.”

He wasn’t alone in thinking that some things were too important to give up, despite the Blitz. “You also had your own living life,” he recalled. “Particularly if you were young, you felt a very strong need to make some kind of social life for yourself. You knew you were going to be called up before long and if you didn’t see your friends and have a bit of a good time, then you were never going to.”

Robert and his family survived a hit to their home, sheltering under their dining room table. But despite his insistence on living as normal a life as possible, the Blitz changed him. “Opportunities were taken away and intentions cancelled. Circles of friends were broken up and pursuits left behind: a great many of us were put on paths we had never envisaged.”


Listen on the podcast: Jonathan Boff explains how ordinary people coped with the privations of World War Two and considers what parallels can be drawn with the current Coronavirus crisis


NAME: Ita Ekpenyon
AGE IN 1940: 41
JOB: Student and air raid warden

People believe that because I am a man of colour, I am a lucky omen

Ita was born in Nigeria, where he worked as a teacher before coming to London in 1928 to study law. When war broke out he was living at 146 Great Titchfield Street; he became an air raid warden, with Marylebone his local patch. Ita’s job was to make sure that people obeyed the blackout rules, to keep order in the shelters, and to help people to safety during raids.

One of a small community of only 15,000 Londoners of African origin, Ita is among the most well-known of the black people who experienced the Blitz, largely because he wrote a memoir of his service.

Some of the people on his patch considered it “lucky” to have a black warden. ”It amuses me,” he wrote, “that in the district where I work the people believe that because I am a man of colour, I am a lucky omen. I had heard of such child-like beliefs, but I am delighted that such beliefs exist.”

But he also experienced the casual racism that was common in 1940s London. Once he had to intervene to prevent some foreigners from being ejected from a shelter, recalling that: “Some of the shelterers told the others to go back to their own countries.” Ita told them that he “would like to see a spirit of friendliness, cooperation and comradeship prevail at this very trying time in the history of the empire”.

Calm and friendly, Ita noted that his very presence “seemed to cheer the people, for they felt the wardens were looking after them”. After the war he became a postman. He died in 1951.


NAME: Frances Faviell

AGE IN 1940: 34

JOB: Artist and nurse

These frightful pieces of flesh had once been living, breathing people

Well off, living in Chelsea, working as an artist: Frances seemed to have life sorted. But the Blitz turned her world completely upside down.

She trained as a volunteer nurse, along with her housekeeper, and they took turns to pretend to be wounded. “It did seem ridiculous to have to lie flat on a piece of marked pavement pretending to be a casualty,” she recalled.

But as Frances listened to wireless reports of the war’s progress, she began to feel a new seriousness. “I could listen in my beautiful room surrounded by comfort and with a good meal waiting downstairs,” she wrote, “but I could not eat.”

As the Blitz continued, Frances became increasingly committed to her new vocation, taking on extraordinarily challenging duties – not least piecing together the broken bodies of the dead in preparation for burial. “It was a very difficult task,” she recalled. “There were so many pieces missing… the stench was the worst thing about it – that, and having to realise that these frightful pieces of flesh had once been living, breathing people. We went out to smoke cigarettes when we simply could not go on.”

By the time of the penultimate big raid on London in April 1941, Frances was living with her second husband, Richard Parker, and was four months pregnant. Her house was hit, but she was able to crawl out of its smoking ruins – and her son, John Parker, is still alive today.


NAME: Nina Masel

AGE IN 1940: 18

JOB: Reporter for the Mass Observation project

Press versions of life going on normally were grotesque

 

Nina was a working-class teenager living in Stepney in the East End of London, and a talented writer. She was working in her family’s local shop when she got a job recording her community’s attitudes to the Blitz for social research reports that were then used by the media and government.

Nina was, perhaps more than most people, conscious of the gap between what the papers said about “Blitz Spirit” and the reality of the bombing in the East End. “Of course the press versions of life going on normally in the East End on Monday are grotesque,” she wrote. “There was no bread, no milk, no elec- tricity, no gas… The press version of people’s smiling jollity and fun are a gross exaggeration. On no previous investigation has so little humour, laugh- ter or whistling been recorded.”

Nina is known particularly for her accounts of the enormous and notorious Tilbury air raid shelter in Stepney. “The first time I went in there, I had to come out,” she wrote. “I felt sick. You just couldn’t see anything, you could just smell the fug, the overwhelming stench… There were thousands and thousands of people lying head to toe… The place was a hell hole.” Nina’s report caught the eye of Winston Churchill, who insisted that conditions in the Tilbury Shelter be improved.

But when the Ministry of Information twisted a Mass Observation report on the safety of shallow air raid shelters, which East Enders widely believed to be dangerous, Nina felt that she and the other researchers were being misrepre- sented, and she resigned. “I left soon afterwards,” she said, “in a blaze of indignation and fury.”


NAME: Frank Hurd

AGE IN 1940: 44

JOB: Fireman

Thank God we can laugh at this sort of thing

By September 1940, Islington-born Frank was more than ready for action, having prepared for months before the Blitz began. He and his colleagues in the Auxiliary Fire Service had “half-hoped for something to happen”, though they also “felt ashamed for letting the monotony get us down”.

When the first bombs finally fell, though, Frank had more than enough excitement. On the first night of the Blitz he was called to Beckton Gas Works in east London, where he first experienced a bomb falling, describing “a weird whistling sound… then a vivid flash of flame, a column of earth and debris flying into the air, and the ground heaved”.

Night after night, Frank fought fires; his diary, now in the Imperial War Museum, tells a story of steady, unremitting, cheerful service. He never seemed to lose his nerve, nor his commitment to his work. “Perhaps I have made light of a serious situation,” he wrote, “but thank God we can laugh at this sort of thing.”

If ever a Londoner kept calm and carried on, it was Frank. Tragically, though, on the night of 29 December 1940, during the so-called “Second Great Fire of London”, he was seriously injured fighting fires near Smithfield Market, and died in hospital the following day.


NAME: Barbara Nixon
AGE IN 1940: 33
JOB: Actor and air raid warden

This wasn’t war – it was murder

 

Until the war threw her career off course, Barbara had worked as an actor. In May 1940, though, she went to Finsbury Town Hall to sign up as one of the first female air raid wardens.

A practical person and a socialist, Barbara joined up because, she explained, it seemed “the most active and obviously helpful Civil Defence occupation open to women… I wanted an active job; I particularly wanted to avoid the position of many women in the First World War – of urging other people to do work they wouldn’t think of doing themselves.”

Barbara and her fellow wardens were given a tin hat and a whistle, but only a vague idea of their duties. The priority seemed to be to report where bombs had fallen, followed by providing reassurance to members of the public. “Our only asset,” she thought, “was our zeal to help.”

On the late afternoon of 7 September, Barbara witnessed the first big raid on Lon- don – a devastating onslaught that set fire to the East End. Then, coming off duty, she went into Soho for dinner. Along with many others, Barbara hadn’t yet grasped that this first raid had been merely the overture: the intention of the initial attack had been to start fires to act as beacons, guiding in the many more bomb- ers that would follow that night.

“That day, London had changed,” Barbara said, “like a drunk man suddenly sobering up when he receives tragic news.”

The following morning’s newspapers were positive, declaring that London could “take it”, and that the damage had been surprisingly slight. But Barbara observed that, despite the censorship of the press, people suspected the truth: “The most common saying by men, as well as women, was that this wasn’t war, it was murder.” There was a sense of defeat.

Once British artillery began to return fire, though, a more conventional glimpse of “Blitz Spirit” emerged in Barbara’s account. “On Wednesday they brought up the guns at last,” she wrote. “There had never been such an exhilarating uproar… it was a splendid and deafening cacophony. It was said that they fired 20,000 shells that night; it may have been extravagant, and not particularly effective, but it was worth it. It revived the spirit of the Londoners.”

Lucy Worsley is a historian, broadcaster and author. Her documentary on the experiences of Londoners who lived through the Blitz is due to air on BBC One soon

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This article was first published in the February 2021 edition of BBC History Magazine