The cruel cost of the Blitz

The German bombing of Britain from 1940–45 exacted a terrible price, in lives lost, infrastructure wrecked and nerves shattered. Daniel Todman reveals how Britons rebuilt their lives, and their cities, in the aftermath of the raids

Blitz

“Each one of us,” declared a newsreel commentator on 12 September 1940, over footage of crowds cheering King George VI as he visited their wrecked houses, “has now either endured bombardment or has close friends and relatives who have. So we know that we can stand up to havoc as well as Abyssinians and Chinese and Spaniards. In fact, we can do it better. These days are vital to the cause in which we fight; the hope of victory depends now immediately on us… in this time of tragedy, these people are still the same – ready to wave and laugh and cheer. Oh yes – this is the spirit that wins a war.”

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Five days on from the Luftwaffe’s greatest daylight raid on London, all the components of the ‘Blitz Spirit’ were already there: patriotic pride, mass endurance and irrepressible good humour, unity across the social divide. But for most of those caught up in the explosive maelstrom of the German air attack on the UK during the Second World War, the struggle was only just beginning. How would they pick up the pieces in the aftermath of the bombing raids?

The experience of the Luftwaffe attacks on Britain from 1940–45 varied greatly by place and time. The most intense bombing was very geographically concentrated. In places like east London, and parts of Portsmouth, Plymouth, Coventry, Liverpool, Clydebank and Hull, the evidence of destruction was all around.

Even in quieter periods of the war, individual episodes could still stand out for the loss of life. Of the 62 people killed and 82 seriously injured during the last week of September 1942 – more than a year after regular heavy raids on Britain had ceased – half became casualties in a single incident when a stick of bombs hit a boys’ school in Petworth, Sussex. The relative infrequency of such attacks did not make their consequences any easier for the bereaved to bear.

Though much of the focus within Air Raid Precautions (the organisation dedicated to protecting Britons from air raids) was on household preparations against attack, people often experienced bombing outside their homes – in the street, on the train or the bus, at work, or in the pub, the cinema or club. It was also something that could happen to the same family in different circumstances more than once – a fact made tragically clear in the story of the Smiths (whose names have been changed to preserve anonymity).

John and Jill Smith lived with their two children in the East End of London before the war. Early on in the Blitz, the house they rented was wrecked by bombing, and Jill and the children were evacuated to a village near Cambridge. John stayed in London, only to see the factory he worked in bombed out. The Smiths subsequently returned to London, moving in with Jill’s parents, before another child was born, and Jim was called up into the army. He was at his base in Shropshire at the end of June 1944 when a flying bomb dropped on the family’s new home, killing all the other Smiths apart from the youngest child.

This was one of countless tragedies. During the war, 60,595 British civilians were killed by enemy action in the UK. Of them, 7,736 were children. Civil defenders worked hard to exhume corpses, and parts of corpses, from the rubble of wrecked buildings for identification and burial. Except after the most severe raids, when health risks forced mass burials, bodies were usually returned to families for interment. Bereaved relatives often had a body and a gravestone to mourn over.

A mother’s grief

More than a decade after the war’s end, the writer Constantine Fitzgibbon spoke to a woman in Bermondsey whose mother and eight-year-old daughter had both gone missing after a big raid. After four days of searching, she went to the mortuary: “And when I looked, I’d never seen such a shock in all my life. All her little hair was burned, and her face where she’d put her fingers right across, all the fire was there, and I thought: ‘Oh dear now, can it be true?’. … And then I thought to myself: ‘Well, what about my mother?’ And we never did find anything of mother at all. And I don’t think a day goes by without we don’t talk of my mother and my little daughter.”

Another 86,182 people, including 7,622 children, were seriously injured by enemy action during the Blitz. Many more had lighter wounds – typically cuts from broken glass and eyes clogged with dust – that could be treated at the scene.

The extent of mental and emotional damage resulting from the bombing is much harder to know. Contrary to prewar fears, the psychiatric wards were not over-run. Psychiatrists reported that, although survivors of bad raids often showed signs of extreme shock, almost all of them recovered fairly quickly, without much more treatment than a kind word, a blanket and a cup of tea.

Those with more severe reactions to the horrors they witnessed, however, may have been discouraged from reporting by the media’s celebration of stiff-upper-lip endurance. Mental distress seems to have presented in other ways: blitzed areas saw an upsurge in stomach complaints and chronic indigestion that could not just be put down to the quality of wartime food.

Under legislation rushed through on the very first day of the war, civilians who suffered injuries from bombs were entitled to a pension from the government, providing they could show that these were the direct result of enemy action. But the Ministry of Pensions expressly ruled out compensation for psychiatric conditions “induced merely by apprehension and fears occasioned by enemy activity in which there is no physical injury”. A mental breakdown occasioned by the noise of bombs falling elsewhere would not be compensated by the state.

This could cause huge problems for patients whose internal injuries were not immediately diagnosed – as the case of ‘Mrs T’, a cinema usherette and air raid warden in Hull, reveals. Hit by a collapsing ceiling during a raid in 1943, Mrs T escaped but was rendered mute. When her voice returned, she had a stammer. She lost her job, but could not claim War Injury Allowance because her doctor refused to certify that her condition was a result of the bomb. Only after the Lord Mayor’s Fund intervened was she re-examined, admitted to hospital, then awarded an allowance until fit to return to work. Advised “to leave Hull lest there should be further raids… she preferred to stay in her own home”.

Emerging from the shelters, creeping out from under the stairs – or taking a ghoulish pause on the way to work to stare at a bombsite – it was the material damage that many observers found most striking. Alan Seymour, a mortuary van driver in London, thought it was the destruction of familiar buildings that struck him most forcefully during the Blitz: “It seemed impossible that so much damage could be done in so little time… To see the result of years of work swept away in a second leaves one with an awful feeling of instability.”

The infrastructure of daily life could be badly hit. Road and railway bridges were knocked down; streets blocked by rubble; water mains cut. People wanted to work – quite aside from any patriotic motive, rapid wartime price rises meant they needed the cash – but just getting to a factory that might itself have been damaged became hard. Wrecked bakers, grocers and pubs threatened supplies of food, cigarettes and beer, and removed the landmarks by which people had navigated their daily lives.

Despite fears about the vulnerability of its populace, London was well able to withstand this sort of physical damage: the complexity of the city’s networks proving adaptable and resilient. In smaller cities, the devastation of central shopping areas meant that carrying on required a still greater effort.

Then there was the damage to homes. High explosive blasts and incendiary fire ripped through walls and roofs and sent shock waves and debris clouds smashing through surrounding property. During the war, about 220,000 dwellings were destroyed or so badly damaged that they had to be demolished, and at least 3.5 million more suffered some form of damage. According to Richard Titmuss – whose official history of wartime social policy became a vivid description of evacuation and the Blitz – calculating that figure was complicated by the fact that many in the most severely bombed areas were hit more than once. Even on a moderate estimate, about 29 per cent of the country’s prewar housing stock was affected in some way. As with fatalities, most of the damage was done in concentrated geographical areas.

‘Damaged’ spanned everything from boarding up broken windows, to houses so badly wrecked that they had become uninhabitable until major repairs were complete. For every civilian killed, 35 were forced out of their homes by the Blitz. For those ‘bombed out’, the end of the raid was only the start of their problems. They had not only to find shelter, clothing and food, but also often to replace the documents – identity cards and ration books – that had become central to wartime domestic life.

During the autumn of 1940, the inability of some local authorities in London to move the homeless on swiftly – from the rest centres set up for their immediate care to safe new accommodation, before a fresh wave of victims poured in – aroused great anger and a strong sense of abandonment.

Bombed out or forced out by the strain of life in a blitzed city, many people simply left. Some were evacuated by the authorities, but the majority of those who lost their homes did not pass through the official system. Instead they fell back, often for lack of any alternative, on their own resources. Some sought refuge with relatives in the suburbs. Others moved to take up jobs in booming war factories. Men might stay to work and guard a wrecked house from looters but send their families to the countryside. From the smaller cities, the phenomenon of ‘trekking’ – leaving at dusk to spend the night in the countryside, but returning at dawn – became notorious. The government worried it was an indicator of poor morale, before realising that it could do little but aid a form of existence that people had adopted in order to cope.

Rebuilding impossible

In 1939, the government announced that it would pay postwar compensation for buildings, furniture and clothing damaged by enemy action. In June 1940, it agreed to make advanced payments to some bombed out families. Then in March 1941, a new War Damages Act levied a compulsory annual premium on all property owners, backed by Treasury funding, to provide contents and buildings insurance against bombing for every dwelling in the country. Though advance payments were to be made to the bombed out to help them set up home again, the business of submitting and verifying claims took years. The scheme eventually paid out £117m in compensation for household goods (the real-terms equivalent of about £4.5bn today) and another £1,300m, over the next 20 years, for damage to buildings.

While the war was still being fought, however, rebuilding was all but impossible. Raw materials and production capacity were being ploughed into the military effort – including the construction of arms factories, army bases and airfields (some of which used the rubble from blitzed cities for foundations). Household goods and furniture were scarce or expensive. Central and local authorities carried out more than 10 million building repairs, but the pace was slow and the work often consisted solely of enough patching to make some rooms habitable until the end of the war. New house building – a significant part of the economy in the late 1930s – effectively ceased.

The resultant increase in overcrowding and deterioration in living conditions was probably the most widely felt consequence of the Blitz. The war encouraged an elite urban planning movement that drew up detailed schemes to rebuild cities as modernist utopias of ring roads, flats and shopping centres. The provision of well-built accommodation for all was a fundamental part of visions of the postwar welfare state. A desperate popular desire simply for more and better housing played a large role in the 1945 election, and would be a dominating theme in domestic politics for years to come.

Daniel Todman is a senior lecturer in modern British history at Queen Mary University of London. His most recent book, Britain’s War: Into Battle, 1937–1941, was published by Allen Lane in 2016.

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This article was first published in the December 2017 edition of BBC History Magazine