Paradise Built in Hell: The Blitz

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written by

Rebecca Solnit

May 27, 2020

Excerpted from A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. Courtesy of Rebecca Solnit. All rights reserved. This excerpt was published in Stir Magazine, Autumn 2018. To support our journalism, purchase this issue or an annual subscription.

In this extract from Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit explores how unlike the political narrative of a subdued and fragile population, the threat of social breakdown, and uncontrollable criminality, Londoners showed a remarkable resoluteness when faced with more eight thousand tons of bombs during the Blitz. Like other communities experiencing mass tragedy and loss, Solnit largely finds conviviality and co-operation.

The Blitz

On September 7th, 1940, flashes lit up the darkness of wartime London and the first of fifty-seven consecutive nights of aerial attack by the Luftwaffe began. The sky buzzed with fighter and bomber planes, the latter of which dropped more than a thousand bombs and incendiary devices, causing 250 acres near the London docks to burn, and igniting forty other major fires. The initial bombs targeted industrial areas, but during the Blitz, homes, shops, churches, offices, factories, warehouses, streets, and buses would be smashed and splintered, Buckingham Palace would be hit while the king and queen were in residence, and a vast archipelago of craters began to dimple the city. Civilian air-raid wardens would try to guide their neighborhood’s denizens to safety; the newly formed civilian fire squads would rush to put out the fires, knowing that the bombers would use the flames as targets for another round; and ambulance teams would make their way to the sites that had been hit. Spotter lights raked the night sky; anti aircraft fire rattled. Over the course of the war about sixty thousand British civilians were killed in the attack on their island, and tens of thousands of buildings were destroyed. About half of the total losses in buildings and lives were in the London area, where more than eight thousand tons of bombs fell, and only a small percentage of buildings survived unscathed. 

Military and government officials had worried for decades about how the civilian public would react to an air war and presumed they would react appallingly. As social scientist R. W. Titmuss summarized in 1950, “The experts foretold a mass outbreak of hysterical neurosis among the civilian population ... Under this strain, many people would regress to an earlier level of needs and desires. They would behave like frightened  and unsatisfied children.” Eighteen “eminent psychiatrists ... privately warned in 1938 that in the coming war three psychiatric casualties could be expected for every one physical.” By one estimate, this would have meant three to four million mental cases within months of the beginning of the Blitz. Certainly those directing the bombing raids on both Britain and Germany (and later, Japan) believed that the onslaughts would have profound psychological impact with important strategic consequences, and so the bombing campaigns were immense, taking a huge toll in human life – of both civilians and bomber crews – and city structures. 

Benito Mussolini himself wrote, “Once a raid has been experienced false alarms are incessant and a state of panic remains in which work comes to a standstill.” Churchill worried that a helpless, hopeless public would overwhelm the army with the chaos of their neediness. The historian Mark Connelly adds, “The British working class was thought to be particularly susceptible to panic and disillusionment in the face of an aerial onslaught ... When it came to shelters, the government considered it best to protect people in small groups. Communal shelters, it was argued, would create conditions for an agitator’s field day. It would also encourage a 'deep shelter mentality’, leading people to become mole-like tunnel dwellers who would never resume their jobs in vital war industries.

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People did take to the tunnels, despite the discouragement, and did so communally. The London public began buying tickets to ride the Underground system but went down there only to shelter overnight. “Thousands more turn the tube stations into vast dormitories every night – a kind of lie-down strike which at first perplexed the authorities, who could not think what to do with passengers who paid their three hapence and then proceeded to encamp quietly on the platforms”, wrote the journalist Mollie Panter-Downs in 1940. “The latest semi official ruling is that the practice can be continued. The Ministries of Transport and Home Security, however, have appealed to the public not to use the tube as a shelter except in cases of urgent necessity. The urgent necessity of many of the sleepers who doss down on the platforms nightly is that they no longer have homes to go to.” They had been bombed out. Eventually, those in charge were obliged to install bunks, sanitation facilities, and more, though the Underground never held more than a small percentage of the London area’s eight million. People found reassurance in the deep-underground station platforms and in proximity to others, though photographs from the time make it clear the concrete labyrinths were neither particularly comfortable nor clean. Some spread out to camp in forests, caves, and the countryside outside London. Many became so inured to falling bombs they chose to stay home and chance death for a good night's sleep. Connelly says, “The people’s role in their own defense and destiny was downplayed in order to stress an old-fashioned division of leaders and led.” 

When unfamiliar explosions went off near the Bethnal Green Underground entrance, hurrying people slipped on a wet, dimly lit stairway and fell atop each other – and 173 were suffocated, including 62 children. (This was due not to panic or selfishness but to the poor design of the place and the physics of tightly packed crowds: those in the back cannot see what trouble is up front, and any movement is amplified and extended by the mass of people – as happens annually in the crush during the hajj in Mecca nowadays.) That story was long suppressed. There was trauma, crime, and opportunism, and people knew it – but most people endured the bombings without losing their minds, principles, or sense of purpose. Despite early fears, Churchill and the government found the idea of unshakable British morale useful and made much of it. A 1940 film showing the nocturnal bombing, the defense, and citizens in the morning carrying on daily life amid craters, rubble, and shattered windows was titled London Can Take It. It featured an American voice-over saying in tough tones, “The army of the people swings into action” and “There is no panic, no fear, no despair. London can take it.” In recent years, the story of their resolve has been challenged from the left as right-wing propaganda, though the resoluteness can be spun many ways: as superior national disposition, as patriotic dedication, or as resilience that had nothing to do with nationalism, nationality, or deference.

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As people strove to save themselves and their community, some lost conviction in the reality or the rightness of many hierarchies. Olivia Cockett, a government clerk in her late twenties, wrote at the time, “On the first night of the Blitz I put out an incendiary bomb, alone for some minutes, though help came after I had dealt with it. This incident has come back to my mind on unexpected occasions. I was being ‘put on by my boss, and had resented it for some time. After the bomb, I stood up to him, thinking, ‘If a blasted incendiary didn't frighten me and I dealt with it, why should I be afraid of him?’ This has resulted in a general boldness of thought and action.” A mother of two Cockett's age wrote that after surviving the raids, “I feel much more certainty and self- confidence ... as a result of the discovery that I am not the coward I thought, and have more good in me ... than I would have believed.” Drawn away from personal problems and old concerns, people entered the intensified present of disaster. Virginia Woolf’s nephewQuentin Bell reported that “from the time when she literally came under fire, the talk of suicide ceased” and commented, “Fate provided a sort of cure, or so it seems, in the form of actual rather than imagined dangers.” Woolf herself wrote on September 22nd, 1940, “This wet day – we think of weather now as it affects invasions, not as weather that we like or dislike personally.” 

Tom Harrisson, who was there at the time directing the Mass-Observation surveys of wartime behavior, writes in his history Living Through the Blitz, that there had “in particular, been a massive, largely unconscious cover-up of the more disagreeable facts of 1940-1 ... It amounts to a form of intellectual pollution: but pollution by perfume.” Still, he concluded that though the “blitz was a terrible experience for millions” it was not “terrible enough to disrupt the basic decency, loyalty (e.g. family ties), morality, and optimism of the vast majority.” The Blitz is unusual as a disaster in which public behavior is remembered in a positive glow, though that memory singles out the Britons in wartime as anomalies rather than akin to those in most other disasters. Three weeks into the London Blitz, Panter-Downs wrote, “The courage, humor, and kindliness of ordinary people continue to be astonishing under conditions that possess many of the features of a nightmare.” People adjusted to the horrific circumstances; wonderful or horrible, the extraordinary becomes the ordinary. One survivor said of the beginning, “Once you've been through three nights of bombing, you can't help feeling safe the fourth time. So the only real panic I saw was then.”

Many felt private fear and enormous strain but braced themselves by putting on a good front, and one famous effect of the Blitz was the relaxing of boundaries between strangers  and between types of people. Privilege mattered: the wealthy were often able to get out of harm's way, while the poor and often the middle class were not, but some divides softened. Cockett describes herself whistling on her way to work after a particularly bad night of bombing and going up to a porter who was also whistling to say, “The tune for today is Serenade in the Night, please”, at which they both laughed. An American witness, Mary Lee Settle, noted that “the English were discovering each other with the freedom of strangers, lurched by war out of their silences, often friendly, sometimes with the direct belligerence of the stripped down.” A British writer added, “New tolerances are born between people; offsetting the paleness of worn nerves and the lining of sorrow there occurs a marvellous incidence of smiles where smiles have never been before; an unsettling vista of smiles, for one wondered how unsympathetic life could have been before, one was ashamed to reflect that it had needed a war to disinter the state of everyday comradeship.” Disinter – as if it were that something vital had been buried during peacetime and was resurrected amid carnage and ruin. The Blitz was like most disasters: one in which some were killed, many bereaved and injured, many escaped death by a hairbreadth, and the great majority were witnesses and survivors in a drama that left them relatively unscathed. By some accounts, the greatest trauma of the London Blitz was the mass evacuation of London-area children that tore apart families and placed children in unfamiliar, sometimes unfriendly, homes. Many, however, stuck it out in the epicenter of danger, some by choice, some for lack of choice.

Writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit is the author of twenty books on feminism, western and indigenous history, popular power, social change and insurrection, wandering and walking, hope and disaster.

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