Balham; October 1940

Back To The Blitz

10th September 2010

In a collaborative effort with its equivalents in Dresden and Coventry, the London Transport Museum’s new exhibition looks at the impact of the air offensives of World War Two on three very different cities. Jack Watkins goes back to the Blitz.

It’s been a full summer of commemorations and salutations to the valour of the airmen who took part in the Battle of Britain. But now, as autumn draws in, the retrospectives sound a mellower note, as they contemplate what it must have been like to be a civilian during the Blitz. The London Transport Museum’s Under Attack exhibition, however, offers another new angle. The very word ‘Blitz’ conjures up images of London in the Second World War, naturally enough, but other important cities also came under attack at various stages of the conflict. So, as well as looking (naturally) at the part public transport played in forging a sense of identity and normality during the aerial offensives, Under Attack presents with a tale of three cities: comparing and contrasting the experiences of Londoners with those in Coventry and Dresden, two other high profile targets of wartime bombing.

During the worst raid of the Blitz on London (10 May 1941), nearly 1500 people were killed and 1800 injured. Coventry’s worst night had occurred six months earlier, on 14 November 1940, when over 500 were killed, the cathedral was destroyed and over 75% of the city’s factories sustained damage. Dresden’s most serious hammering was during the ‘Firestorm’ of 13-15 February 1945, when sustained Allied bombing over three days killed 25,000 people and devastated the city centre. But as the Museum’s head curator David Bownes says, there’s nothing provocative or triumphal about this exhibition: “It’s not about who was right and who was wrong, but about three cities and their wartime experiences that, in many respects, still shape their identities, even today.”

They were three cities of vastly different sizes and complexions: London, still the heartbeat of the British Empire, with a population of 8.6 million; Coventry, a centre of manufacturing and home to 200,000 people; and Dresden – ‘the Florence of the North’ – an esteemed city of culture, the capital of Saxony, with a population of around 630,000. What they had in common were sophisticated systems of public transport. London headed the world, with its recently formed London Transport Passenger Board presiding over an integrated network of Tubes, buses and trolley buses that carried 3.8 billion passengers a year. Coventry was in the process of rapidly increasing capacity too – from 28.5 million passengers a year in the mid ‘30s to over 84 million by 1945. Dresden, like London, had won international renown for its innovative approach to design and technology in public transport.

Anyone who was in London around the time of the July 2005 bombings will have some inkling of what it must be like to live with the lurking fear of a bomb attack, but in the 1930s Britons, and especially Londoners had been living with it for several years. As far back as 1932, the then Prime Minster Sir Stanley Baldwin had delivered the chilling message that, in the event of another war, it would be well for “the man in the street to realise that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed. Whatever people may tell him, the bomber will always get through…”.

No wonder there were widespread fears of high civilian casualties as war became inevitable, with rumours of poison gas attacks doing nothing to allay public anxieties. In Germany, things were different. Nazi propaganda asserted that German cities were safe from bombing. Dresden, that beautiful city of culture, was so precious, who could possibly dare to drop bombs upon it?

Seeing it through; firefighter, by Eric Henri Kennington, 1944

From a Londoners’ point of view, one of the most interesting aspects of the show is the focus on the role of the Underground in the Blitz. In 1940, it would soon assume almost mythical status as the place where the fabled community spirit of the ‘cheerful Cockney’ was forged. In fact, for a time the government banned people from sheltering on the platforms in a raid, believing that it would not only disrupt the service, but lead to the development of a civilian ‘deep shelter’ mentality, and cause them to neglect their jobs and daily duties at surface level. The exhibition displays a forbidding ‘No Shelter’ poster made for the purpose, one of 1500 originally produced, but now a great rarity.

In the end, officialdom relented but, says Bownes, after an early flurry, no more than 4% of Londoners actually sheltered on the Tube. “It was very much a place you went to as a last resort. At first, conditions were pretty awful. They stank, and there were no toilets. If you had a garden, you also had an Anderson shelter. It was only the result of an immense publicity campaign that they came to be seen as an emblem of the capital’s spirit.”

Once the government realised that the Tube could be used for morale-boosting purposes, they began deploying artists and photographers like Henry Moore and Bill Brandt to produced idealised visions of shelter life. Photos were carefully selected to show beaming citizens rallying round the cause. The propaganda worked brilliantly – and the image of London as a symbol of defiance spread round the world.

The reality was more unsettling. One of the most striking images in the exhibition is of a double decker bus pitched down into a bomb crater, roof level deep, on Balham High Street. Civilians taking shelter in the underground tunnel below were also killed, proof that the Tube wasn’t always safe. At Bank Underground in January 1941, a direct hit killed 117 shelterers and eight staff. At Bethnal Green in March 1943, the sounding of an air raid siren caused locals to hurry for the station, but a women with a baby tripped on the stairway, and 173 people lost their lives in the panic-stricken crush that followed.

The heroes of this show are the men and women who worked on the buses and trains and were transformed, as Bownes says, “from simply being transport workers in 1939 into war workers.” In Coventry, which suffered its worst attacks from November 1940 into the following spring, the devastated tram system never ran again after that fateful night of November 1940. Yet with buses and drivers loaned from other parts of the country – the incongruous sight of red London buses on its streets becoming familiar – within days over half the city’s routes were functioning once again. In Dresden, women also replaced drafted males as conductresses, with the curiously named Work Maidens and members of the Hitler Youth co-opted for the task. They kept things running for a while, but Firestorm was so concentrated, it brought the entire network to a juddering standstill.

Piquantly, photos of the Frauenkirche, reduced to rubble in 1945, are as much a symbol of Germany crushed as St Paul’s was of Britain victorious. David Bownes recalls that it was still a ruin when he first visited the city in 1990. It was only finally restored in 2005, a complete facsimile of the Baroque 18th century building that had once soared above the Dresden skyline.

Sixty years after World War II finished, we are still dealing with its consequences, but this understated exhibition is a quiet tribute to the men and women who, while it was happening, struggled in often hellish conditions to keep the show on the road.

Under Attack: London, Coventry and Dresden runs to 31 March 2011.
See for details or call 020 7379 6344.

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