The VE day 75th anniversary set me thinking about the war and my experiences. A little while ago someone wrote a letter to the Independent about the London Blitz and it provoked a woman to write saying that, whilst she understood that London had suffered and she did not wish to minimize it, but it was nothing like Coventry. My thoughts were, she’s right nothing like Coventry.
Coventry suffered one particular raid by the Luftwaffe on 14th November 1941. It was a very concentrated raid involving 500 German bombers using high explosives and incendiaries. It was intended to seriously disrupt manufacture of aircraft, aero engines and other war material produced in and around the city. It was devastating, 43,000 buildings were destroyed or seriously damaged, roughly half of the total buildings in the town. The official death toll was 550 killed, although it was thought the actual total was nearer 700.
There was a number of other raids on Coventry, but nothing as intensive as that big raid, the total number killed in Coventry through the war was put at 1236.
Between 7th September 1940 and 10th May 1941, considered to be the time of the Blitz, there were 71 raids on London of similar magnitude to the Coventry raid, 22,000 were killed and over 60,000 seriously injured. Hundreds of thousands of homes were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable and hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes. The Luftwaffe concentrated on the City of London and the East End around the docks, but not entirely, during that period the bombing was very widespread also. One must assume that the object was to destroy the morale of the population.
My father, who was a London taxi driver and had been a London bus driver, was conscripted to drive a removal van to collect furniture and possessions from bomb damaged houses and transport them to wherever the authorities had found homes for the people. I was seriously ill towards the end of 1940 and in early 1941 I was convalescing, so I had the opportunity to ride in the furniture van. Many of the houses that we had to go to were in the East End and that usually meant driving through the City. I saw at first hand the devastation, the roads had been cleared of debris but all around was rubble. I never saw Coventry, of course, but the Luftwaffe had also made a pretty good job of destroying the City of London. Travelling on through the East End there were acres and acres of flattened, burnt out and completely ruined houses. I saw the ruins, but couldn’t help thinking of the dead and injured that must have been amongst them immediately after the raids.
After collecting the furniture my father had to take the van to a convenient area of waste land or cleared bomb site, away from people, the gaps around the rear doors were sealed with tape, except for the tailboard, a can containing something that looked like sawdust was opened, the contents were tipped over the top of the tailboard into the interior of the van. The tailboard was quickly closed and the last gaps sealed. I was told that the contents in the can released cyanide gas that was intended to kill any infestations in the contents of the van. We had to leave the van for a time, I can’t remember how long. Then we would go and remove the tapes, throw open the doors then get away from the van for, I think, two hours, before we could go back and close the doors and deliver the furniture. Then it was ‘get home before the next night’s attack’.
We lived in Brixton through the 1930s, In September 1940 our rented house was largely destroyed by an HE-bomb close-by. Fortunately, we had and Anderson shelter in the garden. We moved just over two miles away to Streatham, where we spent the rest of the war. The picture shows where bombs fell on London during the Blitz, it shows that the Germans did a pretty good job of plastering the whole town. The cross marks where we lived in Streatham. We did have a number of bombs fall near to our house. On a larger scale map, I was able to count 34 HE bombs within 400metres of our house, far too close for comfort. There was a significant number of incendiary-bombs a lot closer. There was no swearing in our house, I never heard my father swear, but one or two of those near HE bombs did provoke a spontaneous outburst.
He was a ’fire watcher’. The street was divided up and a rota was established where groups of four neighbours took it in turns on a rota to be on fire watch duty. When on duty their job was to help in any situation but, in particular, to be aware of any incendiary bombs, alert householders if they thought that a bomb may have gone through their roof and to tackle the bombs. Each group had at least one stirrup pump, everyone was required to have a bucket of water and a bucket of sand handy so that the bomb could be tackled immediately, it became more hazardous when the Germans started dropping exploding incendiary bombs. My father was a smoker, not one who would usually keep a cigarette in his mouth but, on one occasion when he was on duty, the air raid had quietened down and he was having a break sitting in the arm chair in our living room, which served as our shelter. He was beginning to doze off, with a cigarette still in his mouth, the local ani-aircraft guns were quiet, but others could be heard from further away. I could hear a bomber overhead. (There was something odd about German bombers, always twin engines, but the engines ran at slightly varying speeds so that the sound used to vary in intensity in a regular pattern as the engines came in and out of sync. This produced a regular slow droning in wave form, making them readily distinguishable.) Suddenly there was the familiar whistle of a falling bomb, not loud enough to wake my father from his doze. The bomb fell quite near with an almighty bang. The house shook. That disturbed him alright. He got up, grabbed his tin hat, pulled the strap under his chin taking the lighted cigarette with it and clamping it firmly beneath is jaw. He did yell.
The bombing did not end in May 1941 it went on in a less intense way through 41, 42 and into 43, and we had more bombs uncomfortably close in that period. In 1944 we were bombarded with the VI flying bombs, these had larger explosive charges causing more damage than the normal bombs dropped from German aircraft. They killed a further 9,000 Londoners and destroyed nearly as many homes as the Blitz.
No, London was not like Coventry