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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.

Look At London Differently on Walks.

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

If you’re Walking to work in London then why not slow your pace down and take a moment to look around you at exactly what can be seen in the streets of  the City of London.

Walks are a great way to get around the City but, let’s be honest, when we traipse our way through the streets we are, more often than not, in a hurry to get from point A to point B. We seldom take the time to actually notice what it is we are passing, and we seldom pause and look up at the buildings that surround us. It’s our loss.

On our City of London walks we are forever pointing out items in the streets and on the buildings that we pass that our clients tells us they would never have noticed had we not pointed them out.

Take Gresham Street for example. Now Gresham Street is a thoroughfare we pass along on several of our Tours of London. At first glance it looks like any other street in London and our Walkers could be forgiven for not paying it much attention.

But Gresham Street contains several true treasures. Walking along it from St Martin Le Grand (which we will be doing a history of in an upcoming blog) you will pass on the left the delightful church of St Anne and St Agnes. If you look up at the white wooden tower that surmounts it you will see its weather vane that is made up of a golden A, commemorating the two saints.

St Anne was the mother of Mary and was therefore the Grandmother of Christ. St Agnes was a 13 year old girl martyred by the Romans in the year 300AD.

The church is delightful. After bombing in the Second World War it was restored and was rebuilt exactly as Sir Christopher Wren, the architect who designed it, had planned it. It is a very simple church which is now a Lutheran church.

Turning left just after the church, a little way along Noble Street, you can look over a waist high brick wall and look down at the remnants of the Roman Fort, built in the year AD120 and incorporated into the City Wall that the Romans built around their City of Londinium in about the year AD200.

Returning to Gresham Street and turning left, you will encounter a metal arch through which is a delightful little garden. Over the arch is a golden cat. It is, in fact, a leopard and it is here because on the opposite side of Gresham Street you will see Goldsmiths Hall. The Goldsmiths had the right to test the quality of gold in London and they gave it their seal of approval by stamping their mark, the leopard onto gold and silver that they had tested here at their hall. This incidentally is where we get the word Hallmark from.

So, with in a few minutes of taking a London walk along Gresham Street, you have encountered three things that are both interesting and pleasing to look at.

That is why in London walks make a great way to explore the city. So next time you stroll down a London street, take your time and just look up, down and sideways. Who knows what hidden treasure you will encounter?

The Second World War Anniversary London walk.

Friday, August 14th, 2009

With the anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War coming up in September our London walks Blitz Blog is currently telling the story of the events of 29th December 1940 when London was set ablaze by bombs.

Yesterday we left the London Fire Crews battling against impossible odds to bring the flames of the Blitz under control.

Today we join them again for another installment of our London walks Blitz Blog.

As the evening continued, separate fires became area conflagrations. In the narrow thoroughfares of the City flames arced across the street to join hands.

Firemen had to be tied to strong points to prevent the winds caused by the intake of air to the fires sweeping them away. A fireman collapsed with an IB embedded in his back.

Others were blinded by smoke or flying sparks. Strange events were occurring; a crew fighting a massive blaze suddenly found it extinguished by the blast from a high explosive bomb landing nearby.

In King William Street, Cyril Demarne and his fellow officers from West Ham were laying hoses from the Thames north past the Bank to Moorgate, with relay pumps every regulation 700 feet.

By morning the fire hoses would be three feet deep along this route. Demarne was also learning lessons in sexual politics: he had set up a control point, a desk in the open on King William Street, and was giving directions to a queue of firemen.

A firewoman stepped forward and Demarne told her he was too busy to deal with her trivia at present. She went to the back of the queue. When she made it to the front again Demarne dismissively asked her her problem; she replied that she had a 500 gallon petrol tanker parked across the road (to refuel fire pumps) and would like to know where to deliver it!

In his memoirs Demarne tells us that it was at this point he realized the situation of the firewomen: not allowed to take the glory of fighting the fires, but able to drive through an inferno in a mobile bomb!

The bombers continued, wave on wave, until 11.40pm when the last incendiary bomb was reported at No 5 Creed Lane.

A few minutes later at 11.50pm the all-clear sounded out to the dismay and disbelief of the firefighters on the ground. They knew from previous raids that a second wave would surely follow, dropping HEs to stoke up the fires and cause further fatalities among the firemen.

This was indeed General Sperrle’s plan. But now the weather had further deteriorated over northern France and some of the returning bombers crash-landed on their airfields.

Hauptmann Aschenbrenner knew there would be no second sortie and went to bed.

was outraged to receive orders for a second strike and tried to have them rescinded. He pointed out that even in good weather his crews would be dog-tired by now and it would be suicidal to attempt take-offs and landings in these conditions.

He was told to re-arm. Major Shulz-Hein did not expect to survive the night. However, at 12.30 orders came through to stand down: the second wave was cancelled.

Our London walks Blitz blog will continue tomorrow and will describe the feeling of relief that engulfed the Fire Fighters as they realised the bombing had ended for that particular night.

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.