My father worked as a fire warden during the Blitz, trying to contain the damage done by the Luftwaffe, and he witnessed more death and devastation than most soldiers saw on the frontline. Over a million houses in London were destroyed and nearly 20,000 civilians killed. But the horrors of the night were made more endurable by the atmosphere in the capital as day broke. All the petty distinctions that normally characterise life in a large city had fallen away. Strangers would stop and talk to each other. If anyone looked lost or confused, people would offer to help. Most adults had been up all night in makeshift air-raid shelters, often having to cope with restless children, but instead of being tetchy and short-tempered they were full of jokes and good cheer. The sense of community was so palpable, he said, it was as if you could reach out and touch it. One people united in adversity.
The resilience of Londoners during this time has been well-documented, but it’s worth repeating a few of the remarkable statistics. The psychiatric clinics opened to help people cope with the stress were closed due to lack of use. Suicides fell to below the rate they were at during peacetime. The number of work days lost to strikes in 1940 was the lowest in history. If the point of targeting civilians was to destroy morale, the Nazi bombing campaign was a failure.
I was reminded of my father’s account of this period in his life when reading about the local reaction to Monday night’s bomb in the Manchester Arena. Off-duty NHS employees volunteering to help. Taxi drivers refusing to take money from the people they drove home. Office workers interrupting their daily commute to give blood.