The Blitz: The British Under Attack Juliet Gardiner

Harper Press, pp.431, 25

The craters are all filled in, the ruins replaced, and the last memories retold only in the whispery voices of the old. Apart from celebrating the resilience of our parents and grandparents 70 years ago, why remember the Blitz?

It was triggered by the desire to retaliate, either Churchill’s to the random dropping of bombs on London in the summer of 1940 (heightened by the prior example of Nazi bombing of Guernica and Warsaw) or Hitler’s to the subsequent raid on Berlin. ‘This is a game at which two can play,’ he ranted on 4 September. ‘When they declare they will attack our cities in great measure, we will eradicate their cities.’

The shock and awe felt by Londoners in the first ten weeks of the campaign are well conveyed by Juliet Gardiner in her new book. From the first sighting of bombers ‘on the skyline coming up the Thames like swarms of flies’, her narrative describes the events of 7 September, the opening day of the Blitz, through the spell-binding quotation of first-hand testimonies. The astonishing thunder of the first bombs is followed by the night-time burning of the Surrey docks in a half-mile explosion of fire:

And as she makes unblinkingly clear, no amount of staring at the flames or at the patterns of searchlights in the night sky altered the reality of the carnage on the ground. Once the firemen quench the flames, and the all-clear sounds, and the stretcher parties clear body parts from the ruins, someone has to assemble them for burial: ‘The stench was the worst thing about it’ remembered one re-anatomist,

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The Blitz has a sharp eye for details like that — for the heroism of volunteer workers, the viciousness of looters stealing valuables from ruined houses, and even rings from dead bodies, and the headlong rush into an unofficial air-raid shelter as ‘the swarming multitude careered down the slope, tripping, tumbling, fighting and scrambling for the choice of sleeping berths’.

All this is commendable, but seven decades on, it is not enough to recapitulate, however movingly, a familiar story. It is time to make sense of what happened, and understand why, apart from the honour due to forebears and to the demands of History GCSE gobbets, we should remember this moment of our past.

Traditionally the Luftwaffe’s bombing campaign used to be termed the London Blitz, as though only the capital were involved. It is worth bearing in mind, therefore, that between September 1940 and May 1941 when Hitler’s invasion of Russia brought the bombing to an end, more than half the deaths, 23,000 out of a total of 43,000, occurred outside London, together with almost two-thirds of the buildings destroyed, approaching two of the three million, and perhaps four-fifths of the manufacturing capacity put out of action.

A greater tonnage of bombs fell on London than on any other city, but they were spread over a wider area, and Croydon’s damage hardly impacted on Hampstead. By contrast, in Plymouth, Bristol, Liverpool, Coventry, Belfast, Clydeside, and most devastatingly Hull, swathes of history, people and buildings were wiped out by a week of fire-bombing. It took a generation to restore the fabric, but it is arguable whether we have ever recovered from the destruction of the municipal structure that had been the glory of Victorian Britain.

Unable to cope, local councils were made subject to a blizzard of regulations from Whitehall. Enforced by centrally appointed Regional Administrators and their staffs, London used its power to unify fire and rescue services, pool resources, and police local responses to the national emergency. To her credit, Gardiner glimpses the outline of what began to happen — civil servants sent in to run Southampton and Bristol, local attempts to build deep shelters over-ruled — but she misses the consequences. Because London’s Blitz services served as the template for those in the provinces, the metropolitan bias of her book — the bombing of Chelsea gets as much space as that of Coventry — blinds her to the momentous change that still haunts us.

Whereas defeat persuaded Germany to dismantle its attempt to centralise political decision-making, leaving in particular the repair of its ruined cities to local government, victory had the reverse effect in Britain. For the last 70 years, while British politics might veer left or right, governance has moved in one direction only, towards the centralisation of power, first under the bureaucratic directives of leftish Butskellism, then by the financial diktats of rightish Thatcherism. A proper celebration of the Blitz would be the repair of our bombed-out system of government.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book reviews, Britain, History, Literature, Non-fiction, War, Wartime