Empty London: Sheltering from the Blitz

Bus in Crater, London Blitz

In the early 19th century, this grand city became the first in the modern world* to reach a population of one million, and over the next 100 years, that number multiplied six times over.  By the mid-20th century, London was home to over 8 million people.

Not that you’d think it looking at London at the height of the Blitz in 1940.  Buildings lay in crumbling ruins.  Millions of people are missing, either serving in the armed forces or having been evacuated.  And each person remaining is to carry his own gas mask at all times, just in case.

History is not kind to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who claimed to have made “peace for our time” by handing over parts of Czechoslovakia to Adolf Hitler in an act of appeasement.   The fact is, however, Britain wasn’t ready for a Blitz at the time of the Munich Agreement.  It was only after that fact that Britain started earnestly digging and constructing bomb shelters.

Sheltering in the subway, London Blitz
Thousands of Londoners took cover in the subway system every night for months.

The deepest shelters were several stories underground and held thousands of people.  They included crude bunks which, after the war, became storage space for nearby businesses.  Many people spent every night in one of these shelters, leaving in the morning to go about their everyday business.

Others remained in their homes but took shelter as necessary in a personal structure known as a Anderson shelter.  Some families took precautions such as sleeping under dining room tables.

Above, barrage balloons floated thousands of feet overhead.  The balloons themselves are no great threat.  It’s the chance of getting tangled in the cables anchoring them to the ground that scared German planes into flying much higher than they’d like where it’s harder to see their targets.

Children evacuees during Operation Pied PiperOperation Pied Piper

Clearly the safest place to be was to not be in London at all.  The government figured that out too.  To that end, it enacted Operation Pied Piper, which evacuated over 3 million people in total (from a variety of industrial centers, not just London) in three major waves: Just before the declaration of war in September, 1939, at the fall of France in mid 1940, and at the beginning of the Blitz in September, 1940.  Most of the evacuees were children, but it also included the elderly, the disabled, and pregnant women.

These evacuees were brought into the countryside in great waves.  Wealthy families generally made private arrangements for their children.  Everyone else was dependant on the government to find them some place to stay.  Sometimes, temporary shelters were constructed for the refugees.

Often, local families took children in.  Many times, children would be lined up and volunteers would simply take turns picking them, as if at a meat market.  Siblings were sometimes split up.  The results vastly varied.  Some children forged lifelong relationships with their foster families, while others fell victim to abuse and neglect.

London Devastation

Even with these measures in place, about 30,000 civilians perished in London.  Hundreds of thousands become homeless, and tens of thousands of buildings were destroyed.

St Paul Cathedral survives London BlitzThey benefited from Hitler’s admiration of British culture.  Seeing them as cultural cousins to the Germans, Hitler wanted beat them into submission rather than simply crushing them.  To that end, bombers were to try avoiding hitting major landmarks.

Not that it always worked.  Buckingham Palace took a hit.  St. Paul’s Cathedral has its stained glass blown out, a shame when so many other churches took their glass out of the windows and packed it safely away.  Sandbags are stacked around various historical monuments.  Cleopatra’s Needle strikingly lacked any such protection.  Some genius decided the ancient Egyptian artifact would look more antique if it suffered shrapnel damage.


* Ancient Rome became home to over one million people 2000 years earlier, because they’re showoffs.

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