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The London Blitz

In the early part of the Second World War as England faced the very real prospect of a full scale German invasion.

However, this invasion was effectively canceled by Hitler in September 1940.

Although the invasion had been called off, the bombing of London continued and if you take one of the many London walks routes that follows the trail of destruction caused by the bombing you get some idea of the sheer task that faced Londoners as they attempted to fend off these attacks.

From 18 September 1940 the Luftwaffe tried to reduce losses by only mounting night raids, and these continued without break until November, by which time London had been bombed continuously for fifty-two days.

Poor weather in late November and early December brought a brief respite, and as Christmas came and went it seemed that the Luftwaffe was on holiday. It was an illusion.

It is time to turn to the scene on the ground in England. Preparations for the defence of Britain against air attack were put in hand after the Munich conference of 1938.

Trenches were dug in public parks in London, gas masks issued to the entire population, air raid drills organized. The actual planning of Civil Defence was delegated to the different County authorities, some of which did much, others virtually nothing.

A reason for the lack of activity on the part of many County Councils was the anticipated results of civilian bombardment. The Government, heavily influenced by the works of such theorists as the French Air General Douhet, believed that the effects of civilian bombing would be cataclysmic and that preparations to protect civilians would be useless: the only thing to do was to prepare for mass burials, injuries, etc., and contemplate how best order could be maintained in the breakdown of local civilian government that would surely follow city bombing.

A clear idea of the popular image of civilian bombing can be drawn from the 1938 Alexander Korda production of H G Wells’s The Shape of Things To Come. The Home Office, believing that there would be 20,000 civilian dead within the first week of the bombing of London, was largely concerned with the ordering of cardboard coffins, and very few purpose-built bomb shelters were constructed before the Blitz actually began.

However, the County government of London was a different matter. London County Council (LCC) was under the control of the Labour Party led by Herbert Morrison (later Lord Morrison of Lambeth). The LCC was politically at odds with the government, strongly anti-fascist and not at all convinced by Prime Minister Chamberlain’s assurances of ‘peace in our time’.

The LCC consulted with veterans of the British Battalion of the International Brigade, which had fought in the Spanish Civil War. These veterans, led by Tom Wintringham, had experienced the bombing of Madrid by the Italian and German bombers of Mussolini and Hitler, and so had some idea of the likely outcome of such attacks and what could be done to minimize casualties.

They advised Morrison that the decisive matter was the reorganization of the Fire Brigade and its expansion to deal with the task ahead.

Morrison heeded this advice. Twenty-eight thousand men and women were recruited to the Auxiliary Fire Brigade and given a brief training course, after which they returned to their regular occupations to await the emergency.

The LCC ordered several thousand trailer fire pumps and began the construction of 300 sub-fire stations (the peacetime strength of the LCC Fire Brigade was approximately 4,000 firefighters based on 30 fire stations).

The LCC also ordered the manufacture of shelters which could be constructed within the home; steel frames into which three or four people could huddle and so, hopefully, survive the collapse of the building above them. These shelters were known as ‘Morrison Shelters’ and were later to be superseded by the government issue ‘Anderson Shelter’ which could be constructed in a back garden.

Plans were also commenced to recruit Air Raid Wardens and Heavy Rescue Squads (to dig people out of the ruins); church, school and other halls were marked down for use as local information centres, temporary accommodation for those made homeless by the bombing, etc. Companies were instructed to designate certain employees as fire- watchers and first line fire fighters for their premises.

The net result of these and other plans was that London was, if not fully equipped to deal with the onslaught, better prepared than most of the rest of the country.

The Fire Brigade was reorganized throughout the entire London region (which was more extensive than the London County area), with Sir Aylmer Firebrace appointed as Regional Fire Officer commanding sixty-six Fire Brigades from his underground control room at London Fire Brigade headquarters in Lambeth.

Our story of the London Blitz will cotinue in tomorrows blog. But for now why not peruse our previous blogs or just read through the rest of the site for a choice of the exciting and fascinating London walks that we offer.

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