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10 Shocking Facts About London Life Amid WWII’s Air Raids
The German air raids on London during World War II came to be known worldwide as the Blitz. The Luftwaffe was relentless in its bombing of the English city between September 1940 and May 1941. The Germans dropped thousands of bombs on London, almost entirely destroying the city and leaving it in a mess of rubble. The bombing was so commonplace and endless that the British couldn’t possibly rebuild. They also couldn’t count their dead reliably.
Today, historians estimate that London lost somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 civilians during the bombings. Over 75,000 buildings were completely ruined in the nine months’ worth of nighttime air raids too. And as many as 1.7 million more homes and buildings were damaged. Many ended up being destroyed beyond repair and later written off.
By the end of May 1941, the Royal Air Force had beaten back the Germans, and the Blitz ceased—for a while. In the later years of World War II, the Germans once again raided the British Isles and delivered more deadly bombing attacks. These weren’t as extensive as the original raids, but they still killed hundreds of innocent civilians. Today, historians call this second series of air raids the “Lull” or the “Baby Blitz.”
Between the two sustained periods of attacks, British civilians were left in terror. They tried their best to get on with their daily lives, but that quickly proved impossible. At night, London’s political leaders ordered all lights put out. The total city blackouts made it harder for Germans to bomb with accuracy. But as you’ll soon read, they also created significant problems of their own for London’s citizens. In this list, you’ll learn ten fascinating, true, and terrible facts about what life was like in London amid Germany’s vicious air raids. This is how the Blitz was experienced by English civilians during some of the worst moments of World War II.
10 Minding the Gap
When the Blitz first began in earnest on September 7, 1940, Londoners panicked. With nowhere safe to go once bombs were falling from above, they did the only logical thing: They went underground. No, literally—they went into the Underground. Civilians rushed down into London’s famed metro stations and set up camp in the tunnels to avoid being killed in the shelling attacks. British officials tried to stop the madness by telling people they couldn’t live down in the stations. The Underground was only to be a last resort if bombings were happening at the moment, and one needed to find a way to stay alive.
But people didn’t listen to that directive. Instead, they bought tickets for the metro stop, went through the turnstiles, and then proceeded to set up makeshift homes and beds right down inside the tunnel lines. Eventually, the London Passenger Transport Board stepped in to assist. But even they couldn’t convince shell-shocked civilians to return to ground level while air raids were commonplace.
By the end of September 1940, some estimates hold that nearly 120,000 people were regularly sheltering inside Underground stations. It was cramped and unpleasant, of course. Sleeping on hard pavement tunnel flooring was brutal, cold, and dank. It wasn’t exactly a peaceful environment, either, with trains whizzing by and people coming in and out at all hours of the day and night.
Plus, mosquitoes were rampant in those early months before the weather got cold. And illnesses spread quickly among the people crammed together in close (and stressful) quarters. As the Luftwaffe continued their air raids into the winter, London officials realized they had to offer more to terrified civilians. So they started to set up first aid units within the Underground stations.
Some metro stops had bathroom facilities, canteens, and even vending machines. By the end of the Blitz, there were even thousands of bunk beds hastily installed so people could sleep while riding out the war. The development of more safety and lifestyle protocols within the makeshift camps also spread to the trains. By 1945, many Metro trains were re-outfitted to become traveling restaurants for war-weary Londoners. And boy, were they hungry. In addition to the food eaten in the Underground, historians now estimate civilians drank about half a million gallons of tea down there during the war.
Sadly, living down beneath the surface certainly wasn’t a party. In addition to uncomfortable and unhealthy living conditions, the constant threat of bombings often came to pass. Trafalgar Station took a direct hit one day in October 1940, leading to seven civilian deaths. The next day, at Bounds Green Station, another 19 died. And the day after that, 64 more were killed when Balham Station flooded following a bomb explosion. Stories like that were constant throughout the Blitz. While living in the Underground may have felt safer than being up on top, there were plenty of awful realities to it.
9 Regent Street’s Savior
As the Underground rush should have told you, civilians really hated being bombed. Although that probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, right? The Luftwaffe’s aerial assaults were deadly, dangerous, unpredictable, and relentless. But while the vast majority of Londoners tried to get far away from the war being brought to them, at least one man embraced it up close. His name was Dr. Arthur Merriman, and he had been a school teacher in his earlier life.
When war came to England, Dr. Merriman joined the Department of Scientific Research. That’s because he was a tinkerer with a unique skill set: He knew how to take apart complicated machinery. Learning this, the DSR sent Merriman around to defuse bombs in the name of Britain. Officially, he was working as an “air raid shelter inspector.” And while he did some of that, his most important job was defusing German ordnance that dropped from the sky.
One September night in 1940, a German bomb landed right smack dab in the middle of Regent Street. Then—just as now—the area was the most prestigious part of London. Shopping centers, clothing stores, and high-end retailers were all over. Had the bomb gone off right as it was dropped, most of the West End would have been completely obliterated. Thankfully for London, it didn’t explode. Not so thankfully for Merriman, he had to go defuse it as quickly as possible.
For nearly 24 straight hours, Merriman wrestled with the 550-pound (250-kilogram) bomb. First, he carefully drained explosive material from it bit by bit. Then, he refilled the bomb with sandbags. As he worked to defuse it, he removed more shrapnel and explosive ignition piece by piece. After he was done, the DSR set off a controlled detonation. The now-weak bomb merely blew out a few shop windows and nothing else. Unfortunately, Regent Street was more heavily damaged during a bombing only a month later.
For the rest of the war, Merriman went around doing this same thing again and again. He wasn’t only working in London, either. He proved to be so adept at defusing German bombs that the Americans and other allies started to consult him about their construction and dismantling. Thanks to the former teacher’s incredible wartime achievements, Arthur Merriman was later awarded the prestigious George Cross. And Regent Street was saved from total destruction that night in London’s darkest hour.
8 Raids Covered for Big-Time Crime
Unfortunately, not everybody living in London during the Blitz was as honorable and brave as Arthur Merriman. During the air raids, London officials knocked out nighttime power all over the city to make targeting more difficult for the Germans. The ensuing blackouts hampered bomb strategy high in the air, but they also severely affected civilians down on the ground in unpredictable ways. Sadly, for much of the Blitz—and even during the ensuing years of the war—crime spiked across London.
For many criminals, their method of taking what they coveted remained pretty consistent. Whether burglary or mugging, they would use the cover of darkness during the nighttime blackouts to raid what they desired across London. Wartime ration rules were in place, too, so it was difficult to get certain goods and full meals. Thus, criminals seeking more than what the average British subject had access to were predisposed to swipe stuff and make off into the night. Besides, the police were busy with much bigger problems—and those were just the remaining officers who hadn’t been called to fight in Europe on the front lines.
Some criminals got very creative with their thievery. Rationing coupons were much-desired by most of the general public. Shrewd scofflaws stole them wherever they could. Some even forged them to then resell for pure profit. Elsewhere, those seeking more than their fair share were known to dress as Air Raid Inspectors, wearing special gear for the “job.”
They would enter homes and businesses, fake like they were there on official jobs, and take whatever they wanted. Ambulances were well-known to be used as getaway cars too. In the chaos of air raids, criminals would get behind the wheel of the emergency vehicles, flip on the lights and sirens, and be gone in a flash.
The worst of these criminals would go right for the dead. In some instances, thieves were known to rob people who had been killed moments before in bomb blasts. And since London was in a state of near-total chaos, fraud ran rampant, too. While politicians set aside money for people to rebuild their homes after air raids, it was difficult to verify who had lost what. Notorious fraudsters were known to file fake documents about losing their homes merely to collect money for the “rebuild.” One notorious man even got away with that scheme over and over again—nearly 20 times in total—before he was arrested and jailed for it.
7 The Fight for St. Paul’s Cathedral
London’s iconic St. Paul’s Cathedral was thought to be the Germans’ main target throughout the Blitz. It was—and remains—one of the most memorable and notable places in all of London. During the war, Winston Churchill intuitively understood its importance for British morale. He famously said the church had to be saved from air raids. If it were destroyed by German bombs, Churchill worried, the psychological well-being of British subjects and the nation’s soldiers could be significantly hampered.
This wasn’t even the first time London officials had worried about the cathedral during air raids. Back in World War I, British volunteers got together to create the St. Paul’s Watch. These civilians took turns putting out fires and running patrols around the site 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When the Blitz came in the fall of 1940, the watch was reinstated. For days and then weeks on end, locals patrolled around St. Paul’s to be ready if the worst happened.
On September 12, 1940—just a few days into the Blitz—a huge one-ton (907-kilogram) bomb landed in the middle of Dean’s Yard. Alarmed at the size and worried (but thankful) that it hadn’t exploded, the watchmen immediately called in the military. For the next three days, soldiers carefully dug the bomb out of its massive crater. The bomb was big enough to destroy St. Paul’s and most of the rest of the few blocks around it, so the military was ordered to keep things as calm and cool as possible. For 72 hours, amazingly, that worked.
Then, after three days of digging and defusing, a daredevil lieutenant named Robert Davies agreed to jump into a truck and drive the bomb far out into the countryside to be detonated. It was thought to be a suicide mission of its own. After all, the bumping and jostling from the truck ride could have detonated the bomb at any moment. But Davies was up to the task, and he successfully drove the bomb to the Hackney Marshes for detonation. Once he returned from the gig, he took everybody at St. Paul’s out for pints at a local pub. Why not, right? After all, the English know how to do that above all else!
Like Dr. Arthur Merriman before him, Davies was eventually awarded the George Cross for his efforts. And amazingly, St. Paul’s Cathedral withstood the barrage of bombings for months on end. That’s not to say there weren’t bad days, though. On December 29, 1940, an amazing 29 different bombs hit various parts of the cathedral grounds. One even landed smack dab in the middle of its world-famous library. They didn’t destroy the cathedral’s chapel, though, and the iconic site soon outlived the war itself.
6 Keeping Safe in Kent’s Caves
The Chislehurst Caves in Kent are one of the most fascinating sites in all of England. They were around during Roman times, and historical findings suggest the Druids used them too. Then, in 1940, thousands of Londoners rushed down into them far underground to get away from the Blitz. Just like those who used the Underground, as we’ve already learned, these new cave-dwellers hoped to avoid Luftwaffe bombs by going deep into the ground.
As war broke out, the tunnels had been on the property of a local mushroom farmer. At first, he let his neighbors and other locals around Kent use them as an emergency shelter during particularly bad bombing runs. But soon, word got out. Eventually, more than 15,000 Londoners rushed into the caves and set up makeshift homes, beds, and kitchens. Civilians crammed themselves into the full 22-mile (35-kilometer) run of the caverns and crannies. The caves were dank and cramped, but they successfully kept war-ravaged locals away from the cemetery.
After the early weeks of the Blitz, cave life became more organized. The “Caves Committee” was formed by enterprising dwellers. Soon, neighbors instituted a public transport system so people could get out of the caves to go to work and school during the day. Even churches popped up down under the ground.
Amazingly, there was a movie theater, a makeshift hospital, and even a barbershop down there after a while. Of course, that doesn’t mean cave life was preferable to what these people had before the war. But it sure beat dying in a bombing raid—and the British showed off their stiff upper lip by making the most of it.
Years later, the BBC interviewed Londoners who had shuttled off to the caves during the Blitz. One man was 12 years old when his family rushed down underground. They had just narrowly escaped a bombing raid that killed several of the boy’s classmates, and his family couldn’t bear the above-ground danger any longer.
So the boy recalled how cave life worked during the worst parts of the war. “We had our own spot that we went to,” the boy remembered. “There was a strange smell in there. It was the smell of the chalk, a kind of cold and dank smell. It was horrible. But you couldn’t hear the bombs down there… We didn’t feel scared, as down there, we felt safe.”
5 Fighting Back with… Balloons?
As the Germans continued to raid England relentlessly, the British came up with a unique method of defense: balloons. You may not think of them as a weapon, but they were actually very common above London and other cities. They acted as mid-air obstacles that made it hard for fighter jets to fly between. And they were tethered to the ground with large, thick ropes and metal cables. When a fighter plane ran into one, propellers often snapped, and the German pilots spiraled down to their deaths.
The cables were hard to see from far away, so planes couldn’t always navigate around them. In total, historians now estimate those balloon cables actually brought down more than 100 German planes during the Blitz. Many more had their courses altered by balloons strategically placed above key points in population centers. That’s not a small number of thwarted bombings!
As the Blitz continued, the balloons began to serve another purpose as offensive weapons of war. This came about by accident, though. It all started after a group of balloons became untethered from their cables. They flew eastward with the wind and rose above Denmark and Scandinavia.
On the ground, Danish intelligence officers realized their communications programs had been abruptly cut out. Upon looking into it, they discovered the cause: These loose balloons had come into contact with electrical wires and shorted them out. By accident, these air raid balloons destroyed much of the Danish communications system!
Suddenly, Churchill and his men got an idea—do the same thing but with German military outposts. So the British began what they termed “Operation Outward.” In it, they started using large balloons as offensive weapons meant to take out power and radio networks around German-held land.
The success rate was difficult to ascertain at the time, but years later, leaked reports suggest the operation did actually work somewhat well. Regardless, the British kept up this “barrage balloon” operation for several long years during the fighting, only discontinuing the operation late in 1944.
4 Don’t Hit Headquarters!
There was no shortage of mythmaking going on during World War II. For those who suffered through the Blitz, the chief myth was one claiming Adolf Hitler supposedly ordered German gunners not to bomb the University of London’s library—commonly known as Senate House. According to the rumor, that iconic building was said to be what Hitler wanted to use for his Nazi party headquarters if the Germans ever made it all the way to the British Isles.
As the story goes, Hitler was supposedly planning on putting up Third Reich offices in the expansive library once the Nazi assault on London was successful. Thankfully for the British (and all the rest of us), Hitler and the German Army never made land well enough to set up shop in England. And thus, the Senate House’s reported Nazi future was not meant to be.
But was the theory about the Senate House being the future Nazi headquarters even true? Well, Hitler really did have extensive maps of London ready for his would-be invasion. And the Nazis did seem to know quite a bit about some of the intricacies in and around the library itself. But the Senate House was hit by bombs—again, and again, and again. During the Blitz, the library’s grounds were actually hit by more than 100 bombs in total. The building itself was directly struck by at least five large charges raining down from above.
On November 7, 1940, one particularly brutal hit crashed through a key central location within the library’s administrative offices and destroyed several rooms. Just like most of the rest of London, the Senate House would need to be reconstructed and rebuilt in parts after the war. So while Hitler may have fancied the Senate House, it’s improbable he ever gave orders to avoid hitting it.
3 The Tale of the London Palladium
The London Palladium is one of the most famous theaters in one of the most famous theater districts in all of the world. But it has only survived until today because of a couple incredible acts that took place during the war. Late in the first Blitz offensive, in May 1941, the Luftwaffe went into overdrive in the district around the Palladium. On the night of May 10-11, the Germans dropped more than 700 bombs on London, spanning more than 500 bombing runs in less than twelve hours. Those bombs wreaked havoc and killed civilians all over the city. And the Palladium was just as affected as anywhere.
After a bomb struck a direct hit on the theater, the Royal Navy sent a sub lieutenant named Graham Maurice Wright to defuse it and get it out of there. Along with an able seaman named William Bevan, Wright found the bomb lodged high up in the theater’s rafters. The only way for the pair to get up that high was to climb the battered side wall of the theater, tie themselves to the rafters, and get to work while hanging dangerously far above the ground.
With blackout restrictions in effect, they had no light to work with, either. So, Bevan grabbed a flashlight and dangled it from his hanging perch while Wright frantically (but carefully!) went to work. Like something out of a Mission Impossible movie, the bomb was ticking down to a detonation time.
So Wright put a spoofer on the detonation clock to delay the countdown. For a while, it worked—and then it didn’t, and the two men found the bomb counting down to disaster. Alarmed at the timing, Wright and Bevan wriggled out of their ropes and got down from the rafters. They ran out of the theater, preparing to lose it completely to the bomb.
And then they realized something: the bomb had not exploded. When the countdown time came and went with some room to spare, the men realized something was wrong with the detonation device. So they went back into the theater to investigate. Realizing this could be their only shot to disarm it once and for all, Wright climbed back up into the rafters and laid right on top of the bomb. Worried that it could actually explode at any moment, they worked quickly to defuse the live ammo. After minutes of frantic work, their bid succeeded. The bomb was rendered useless, and the Palladium was saved.
2 Catching the Air Raid Killer
Remember how we talked about the rise in crime during the Blitz? Sadly, it wasn’t all just petty theft and grand larceny. The brutal blackout restrictions aimed at making air raids difficult for German fighter pilots also made London life much more dangerous. Violent budding criminals and sadistic veteran ex-cons alike used the lights-out nights to wreak havoc on unsuspecting citizens. With police officers spread thin and most able-bodied men serving elsewhere on military duty, law enforcement was stretched to its limits. In one awful case, a brutal killer got away with unspeakable horrors because of it.
While many people were murdered by neighbors and other London attackers during the Blitz, the most famed killer among them was a man named Gordon Cummins. On February 8, 1942, the body of a 41-year-old woman named Evelyn Hamilton was found. The pharmacist’s corpse had been discovered at an air raid shelter. At first, cops assumed it was a robbery gone horribly wrong. But then, over an awful six-day period, other dead women started popping up all over London.
Evelyn Oatley was brutally tortured and murdered. Margaret Florence Lowe met the same fate. Days after that, Doris Jouannet was beaten and stabbed to death. Then, two pieces of (relatively) good fortune for police came in the next week: Victims Mary Haywood and Catherine Mulcahy escaped their attackers. Interrogating them led to valuable clues. Quickly, cops learned they were dealing with one depraved serial killer. His method of killing and habit of tracking his victims reminded many older Londoners of Jack the Ripper. And now, the task was obvious: catch him before he could kill again.
As cops worked backward, searching for more clues, they came upon an interesting one. At a prior murder, the killer had left behind an air raid respirator. The device had a serial number on it. Cops tracked down the number and linked it back to Cummins. They showed up at his house and arrested him.
When they took his fingerprints, cops learned they came back positively linked to several of the murder scenes. Cummins, who by then had been deemed the “Blackout Ripper” by London media, was charged. He was tried in court for the murders while the war raged on around him. On June 25, 1942—just four months after the murders—he was hanged for the horrible crimes.
1 Wait, WHO Was Born During the Blitz?
As the Blitz raged on around (and above) Londoners, daily life had to go on. Remember those Chislehurst Caves we mentioned a few facts ago? During the war, a little girl named Rose Cavena was born deep inside those caves. The shelter became a maternity ward when her parents were stuck underground, and her mom came to term. But that birth has nothing on the person who (perhaps) became the most famous Blitz baby of all time!
As the Nazis were expanding their empire across Germany, Poland, and other parts of northern Europe, Jews from all over the region were fleeing persecution. Two of those Jewish adherents worried about the future were a young couple who went by Margot and Richard. They were from Poland and loved life in their homeland. However, the Nazi Party rose to power quickly and fiercely, and by the mid-1930s, it was clear to Margot and Richard that they had to leave.
So they emigrated to London, where they made a new home among many other Jewish immigrants. While they were living there, family members back home in Poland were brutally killed in concentration camps. But while Margot and Richard luckily didn’t face death in the camps, they still had it rough in London. They were there when the Blitz was on, and like thousands of other Londoners, they were nearly killed in air raids.
In 1944, Margo was pregnant with a child. On February 13 of that year, a particularly relentless raid ran overhead. Margot and Richard rushed down into the Highgate Underground station to wait out the raid—and then the woman’s water broke. Right there in the Underground station, she gave birth to a baby boy.
But beyond the uncommon Underground birth, what’s newsworthy about that? Well, five years later, after the war ended, Margot and Richard immigrated again. This time, they moved across the Atlantic to New York City. They brought their now-5-year-old boy with them, of course. He was raised in New York as a London-born immigrant to the United States. He went into the media and entertainment space and, decades later, became a household name. It’s one you’ve heard, too: the Underground-birthed bomb shelter boy is none other than longtime daytime television host Jerry Springer.