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The London Blitz

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

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.

Our London walks go abstract

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

When Salvador Dali painted Mountain Lake in 1938 a feeling of distinct unease was gripping Europe as leaders tried to avert war with Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

Of course, this didn’t work and, within two years of Dali completing the painting Europe was plunged into war.

We offer several London walks that look at London in the Blitz but for know we will tie up our look at Mountain Lake by looking at how its somber mood reflects the mood in Europe at the time it was painted.

The sense of foreboding that that emanates from the  picture is far from just being personal for Dali, for he is also commenting on the aforementioned feeling of general tension that was gripping Europe over the impending Second World War.

The telephone is intended to represent the talks that, at the time, were taking place between the British Prime minister, Neville Chamberlain and the German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler.

The phone, as was mentioned in an earlier posting, is being supported on a crutch. We also mentioned how, for Dali, the snail that is crawling up the crutch symbolised vulnerability, the hard outer shell with the soft interior.

Taken against the background of impending war the snail represents the fragility of the talks then taking place in the hope of averting the Second World War.

You wil also notice that the wire which streches from the telephone receiver and which is draped over a second crutch is in fact cur, so the telephone is not functional and dialogue between the two leaders is not possible – so Dali is making the observation that war is actually inevitable.

So a painting that at first glance seems to be a straightforward landscape  painting is in fact a glimpse into the Surreal world of the nightmares and dreams that lurk in Dali’s subconscious.

But it is also a very disturbing work because the peaceful tranquility of this mountain lake is, like that of much of Europe, about to be shatterred as talks between two leaders stall and plunge the world into its own horrific nightmare.

Go back to our main page of London walks.

London Walking – A Surreal Experience.

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

In our earlier post we took a look at a work in Tate Modern by the Surrealist painter Salvador Dali which is entitled Mountain Lake.

We explained how the painting emphasises an important point that we make time and again on our London walks, that you really have to look at things in London not just  see them.

So what is Mountain Lake about.

We ended our earlier post by explaining that the painting confronted some of Dali’s own deeply buried issues.

Before Dali was born his parents had had another son, who would have been his older brother, whose name was also Salvador. However, this son died before Dali was born and his grief stricken parents went to the Catalan region of Spain to recover from their loss.

It was a mountainous coastal region, and it is in fact the region that Dali Depicts in Mountain Lake.

Throughout his childhood Dali’s parents would take him on an annual pilgrimage to the region and his mother would often burst into tears when she beheld the beautiful landscape.

So Dali’s feelings about the landscape you can see in the picture were very mixed. he had happy memories of it but he also had some very sad memories, which could account for the dark and somber mood that seems to emanate from the work.

So when set against that background Mountain Lake  takes on a whole new meaning and you start to see something of the autobiographical aspect that Dali introduced into his painting.

But the painting’s sense of foreboding could also be taken to refer to a sense of unease and foreboding that was gripping Europe at the time that Dali painted it, for it was becoming more and more apparent that war was about to break out in Europe.

We will discuss this aspect of the picture  further in out next blog.

We have several tours that look at London in the Blitz and in addition our Shakespeare London walks cover the area where Tate Modern is located.

In addition you can join us on any one of our fascinating London walks that take you all over the historic streets of London.

London walks that cover the Blitz.

Monday, August 10th, 2009

London walks are a great way to get the true measure of the damage inflicted on London by the Blitz.

In yesterday’s blog we told of how the first wave of bombers swooped onto the City and dropped bombs on Guy’s hospital, the city of London and other places covered on our walks.

Today’s installment is truly gripping as we capture the excitement and fear that gripped the city residents and fire fighters as they battled to save London.

Over at Guildhall — the City Hall of the City of London — the firewatch commanded by Mr F A George was desperately trying to protect the early fifteenth century building, one of the few survivors of the Great Fire of 1666.

At 6.25pm Mr George ordered all sand buckets refilled and it was reported to him that all lBs had been extinguished. He could not know it, but this was only for the moment.

By now whole areas of Southwark, Islington and the City itself were in the grip of fires burning out of control.

At 6.30pm Aschenbrenner turned for home, sending a radio message to Sperrle: ‘Target bombed, fierce fires raging, more bombers approaching’.
At 6.20pm Major Shulz-Hein, commanding I Wing KG 51, was approaching London, leading the second squadron on this fire-raising night.

Shulz-Hein thought the whole raid was idiotic, conducted as it was in a blanket of low cloud. His semi-pubescent air-crews wanted to know how they were to find the target. Shulz-Hein didn’t know. Even more importantly, how were they to find their way back home? For this Shulz-Hein had an answer — hadn’t they heard of the compass and dead-reckoning?

Nevertheless, Major Shulz Hein was a worried man as he flew blind towards a target he thought he would never find.

Then, as he flew over Dorking, Shulz-Hein saw a ‘rose glow through the cloud’ — the fires of KG 100 marking the way to the City of London.

There was no perceptible pause in the bombing as far as people on the ground were concerned, but at 6.30pm Aschenbrenner left the scene of the crime and Major Shulz-Hein moved in. KG 51 managed a concentration of HE mixed with IBs on the Paternoster Row and Square area, immediately north of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Our London walks that cover this area really do help you to get the feel of what it was like as the buildings that surrounded St Paul’s erupted in flame.

On tomorrow’s blog we will focus on this area and tell of the events as the flames spread out of control.

London In the Blitz – A Ciy Walk

Saturday, August 8th, 2009

One of the City of London walks that we offer takes participants through the areas that were devastated by the London Blitz.

Over the next ten days our London walks blog will concentrate on how London faced the prospect of being razed to the ground by the bombs of the Blitz. We start on Sunday 29th December 194.

Early on that Sunday morning, Hugo Sperrle (General Commanding Luftflotte III) received a call direct from Fiihrer HQ Berlin ordering him to organize a raid on the City of London that night.

Sperrle called a planning conference in his headquarters at the Hotel Luxembourg with General Kesselring (commanding Luftflotte II) attending.

The plan evolved was that some 300 bombers of both Luftflotten would attack with incendiary bombs and high explosives in a series of waves beginning at 6.05pm (British time) that night.

There would be two sorties per plane with the aircraft rearming, refuelling and returning to the attack.

The bomber squadrons involved would be led by KG 100 based at Vannes in Brittany. KG 100 was largely staffed by pre-war aircrews, infinitely more experienced than the crews of other squadrons, where the average age was nineteen.

The squadron commander was Hauptmann Friedrich Aschen¬brenner, who had led the raid against Coventry and also bombed Rotterdam and Warsaw. Aschenbrenner had earlier flown with the Condor Legion in Spain and may well have bombed Guernica too. KG 100 was equipped with twenty special Heinkel 111 H2s, fitted with the X apparatus, and of higher performance than the standard He 111.
KG 100 would strike first, lighting up the target through the clouds as a beacon to the later squadrons. It would be followed wave on wave by the other squadrons: KG 27 (2 wings of 40 planes), KG 54 (2 wings of 40 planes), KG 51 (1 wing of 20 planes), and LG 1 (Lehrgeschwader —Demonstration Bomb Group) with 3 wings totaling 60 planes.

These squadrons, based at stations in Brittany, Normandy, Orleans and Orly near Paris, would be backed by several squadrons from Luftflotte II based in the Lowlands, bringing the total strength to 300 bombers. An escort of 600-700 fighters would be provided.
The bombers would be armed with high explosive and/or incendiary bombs. Each Heinkel or Ju 88 with a bomb capacity of 4,400 Ibs, could carry 8 550Ib high explosive bombs (HEs) or 8 canisters of 36 incendiary bombs (lBs). The incendiary bomb canisters were known as ‘Molotov Bread¬baskets’ and would open at a pre-set altitude, showering the bombs over the target area.

Each IB was one foot long and about three inches in diameter at the base, which tapered conically to a point. Each contained one kilo of magnesium that would generate a heat of 4,000°F in one minute and burn for ten. lBs were easily extinguished if caught early on by shovelling sand on them or smothering them with a fire blanket.

The most dangerous (in fact almost suicidal) thing to do was to douse them with water. Many IBs would fall harmlessly to burn spectacularly in the street, but others would punch their way through rooftops to become lodged in the rafters and so ignite the building; the soft lead roofs of the City’s Wren churches were particularly vulnerable to these devices.

Once HEs had blown gaping holes in buildings they would be open to the showers of IBs falling into them. Later in the Blitz, tackling IBs was made more dangerous by the inclusion of an explosive charge.

Our London walks through the Blitz blog will continue tomorrow as we tell the story of how the City faced up to the terror that was about to fall from above.

Walking London in the Blitz

Sunday, July 19th, 2009

Continuing with the information on London in the Blitz as covered on our historic City of London walks, we begin by looking at the role played in protecting Londoners by the Underground Stations.

Many of our London walks begin outside London Underground Stations and few people who use these stations on a daily basis spare a thought for the fact that, during the Second World War, whole communities would move into the stations seeking the safety that they hoped they would afford.

However, as we show on our East London walks, sometimes this seeming protection was illusory.

In Ministry of Information propaganda films much was made of the shelter provided by underground stations. There are films showing happy Londoners settling down to sleep on tube platforms being serenaded by travelling concert parties.

The reality was somewhat different. When the Blitz began the government ordered the closure of the tube stations and troops prevented large crowds at Liverpool Street Station from entering.

There were two reasons for this: fear of typhus spread through inevitable lice that would be acquired by masses sleeping in such conditions, and the knowledge that, appearances to the contrary, many stations were not at all deep and would provide little protection. However, popular pressure (and near riots) forced the government to climb down and open the stations, though these only provided accommodation for seven per cent of the London population.

The government’s fears about the safety of the stations were tragically confirmed when a high explosive bomb hit Balham Underground Station causing the collapse of the tunnel roof, which fractured a water main and drowned 180 people on the platform in a sea of mud.

Ever since the bombing of Berlin in August 1940, Hitler and Goering had been contemplating a raid on London that would obliterate its historic and commercial centre, the City of London — the ‘square mile’ around St Paul’s — and the Bank of England.

As yet there were no means to secure the precise concentration of bombs on such an area to ensure its complete destruction, but a means was soon to be available — the X apparatus. The X apparatus or ‘Anton Beam’ was a system of radio beacon beams which provided cockpit guidance on to targets. The beams were projected from three points on the Channel coast — the primary beam, ‘Anton’, from Station Anton on the Cherbourg peninsula, secondary beams from Station Cicero at Fecamp, Normandy, and Station Bertha in the Pas de Calais.

Bombers would fly along the primary beam (which could be varied in direction) until the secondary beams intersected with it. At the first intersec¬tion a signal would be emitted from the receiving apparatus indicating ‘ten miles to target’; the second intersection indicated ‘over target’. In early November Kampfgeschwader 100, the ‘Fire Raisers’ were equipped with the new device and acted as pathfinder squadron for the famous raid on Coventry on 12 November 1940 with devastating success.

The success of the Coventry raid led to the planning of an attack on the City of London, which Goering boasted he would ‘Coventryize’. Several factors were required for the London raid to have maximum effect: low spring tide in the Thames, low cloud cover, the raid needed to take place on Sunday.

Why low tide? The Thames is tidal throughout the London region with two high tides and two low tides a day; the rise and fall varies between fifteen to twenty-six feet at London Bridge, and once a month the low tide is such that the river is reduced to a stream about ten feet wide at London Bridge. The Luftwaffe knew that their high explosive bombs would soon fracture the City water mains and leave only the river as a fall-back for the Fire Brigade. Low cloud at about 5,000 feet was required as a shield against anti-aircraft fire since KG 100 would lead the raid at 6,000 feet, thereby ensuring maximum accuracy of bomb placement. Sunday was the day on which the City would be virtually deserted, office workers at home in the suburbs, and consequently no key-holders in the office buildings.

This would leave the Fire Brigade forced to break into buildings set alight by incendiary bombs which would have generated intense fire by the time this had been achieved. All these factors came together on Sunday 29 December 1940.

Our Historic City and Fleet Street London walks take you through the area that was virtually razed on the night of December 29th 1940. In our next London in the Blitz Blog we will take and breathtaking walk through the events of that day.

City Walks – London In The Blitz

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

London is a survivor. It has been destroyed by fire, decimated by plaque, and, as we discuss on our London walks that follow the trail of devastation that rained down on the capital during the Second World war, razed by bombing. Yet each time the city rises, phoenix like from its ashes, to stand proudly again upon the ruins of bygone ages.

One of the most enduring and emotionally striking images of London over the centuries is the photograph of St Paul’s Cathedral taken on 29 December 1940. On our London walks that cover you get to see this photograph.

It shows the building surrounded by smoke made red and orange by fire. More than any other this picture conveys to those of us not there at the time the essence of the Blitz: heroic London, the city that would not die, Britain standing alone, ‘Britain can take it’.

Children born in London after World War Two experienced the aftermath of the Blitz: the extensive bomb sites, the devastated areas were their playgrounds. They reveled in the open spaces of the City of London.

Walks around the great wasteland of rubble and free standing walls that stretched north and west of the Tower were their entertainment. This area is where a vast mass of concrete now stands.

That wasteland was created on one night — 29 December 1940: the night of what became known as the Second Great Fire of London. This is the story of how those open spaces came into being, and of the great attack on London —the Blitz (so called due to an incorrect understanding of the German term ‘Blitzkrieg’, meaning ‘lightning warfare’).

For Britain the Second World War began with the declaration of war on Germany on 3 September 1939. Air raid sirens moaned out over London within minutes of the Prime Minister’s radio broadcast to the nation.

It was a false alarm. There were to be nine months before the bombs began to fall on England, the period known as ‘the Phoney war’.

In May 1940 German troops swept through the Lowlands and into France, which fell within three weeks. The British Expeditionary Force in France retreated to Dunkirk, abandoning most of its heavy equipment, and was evacuated across the Channel. Britain now stood alone against German occupied Europe.

It was Germany’s intention to take Britain out of the war in order to concentrate on attacking the Soviet Union (planned for the following summer). Preferably, political means would be used to achieve this but, if these failed, force would be applied. The German strategy was outlined on 30 June 1940 (three weeks after Dunkirk) by General Jodl, Chief of German Armed Forces Command Staff, in a memorandum entitled ‘The Continuation of the War Against England’.

This document was produced at Jodl’s trial at Nuremberg as Document 1776 PS, and reads as follows:

If political methods should fail to achieve their objective, England’s will to resist must be broken by force.

a. By attacks on the English homeland.
b. By an extension of the war peripherally.
So far as (a) is concerned there are three possibilities:
1) Siege. This includes attack by land/sea against all incoming and outgoing traffic.
Attack on the English Air-Arm and on the country’s war economy as a whole.

2) Terror attacks against English centres of population.

3) Invasion with the purpose of occupying England. The final victory of Germany over England is now only a question of time. Offensive enemy operations on a large scale are no longer a possibility.

Jodl’s strategy was carried into action with the exception of point 3 — the invasion of England (codenamed ‘Operation Sealion’), and it was the Battle of Britain that caused the failure of this scheme.

We will continue our story of London in the Blitz in tomorrow’s blog. Meanwhile why not have a look at the various and varied London walks that we offer.