London during the Blitz: a landscape of fear and shadows

During the Second World War, Nazi Germany conducted a sustained bombing campaign on cities and towns across Britain. The raids killed 43,000 civilians and lasted for eight months. Here Greg Buzwell examines how novelists have woven the effects of the Blitz into their work, from Graham Greene and Elizabeth Bowen in the 1940s to Sarah Waters in the 21st century.

Introduction

Beginning on 7 September 1940, one year into the Second World War, London was bombed by the German Air Force for 57 consecutive nights. The resulting devastation altered the landscape and the character of the city beyond all recognition. Over 40,000 people were killed; churches, houses, shops and offices were reduced to rubble; blackouts transformed formerly well-lit streets into areas of sinister darkness, and the presence of anti-aircraft guns and searchlights gave the city the air of being permanently under siege. The Blitz, as the air raids were known (the term being a shortened form of the German word blitzkrieg, meaning ‘lightning war’) continued until May 1941. As the attacks spread to include other cities such as Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol, Glasgow and Coventry, the civilian population of Britain found itself in the front line as never before.

The Blitz in literature

The purpose of the Blitz was to disrupt the British economy and destroy morale. Although it failed in both objectives, the common conception of London’s population heroically rallying together in the face of adversity, as promoted in propaganda films such as London Can Take It! (1940), is rarely mirrored in the portrayal of the Blitz presented by authors who lived through the events. In novels such as Henry Green’s Caught (1943), Graham Greene’s novels The Ministry of Fear (1943) and The End of the Affair (1951), and Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day (1949), London under aerial bombardment becomes a world of moonlit-ruins and shadows, haunted by the spectres of those killed and inhabited by people with secrets to hide.


Orwell's political diary 1940–41

Orwell's Political Diary 1940-1941

George Orwell’s ‘Political Diary’ for 1940 contains a fascinating account of London during the Blitz

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Portraying the Blitz in literature posed difficulties. The scale was vast and the human cost in lives lost too great to be set down adequately on paper. As a result, most novels set during the Blitz tended to concentrate on the aftermath of the raids: the rubble-strewn streets and the houses with walls blown away to reveal the private interiors of bedrooms and bathrooms. To portray the raids themselves, with descriptions of apocalyptic flames, violent deaths and scenes of panic was to run the risk of appearing unpatriotic; while anything resembling an ‘artistic’ approach to the carnage would have been regarded as being in extremely poor taste. Of the novels mentioned above only Henry Green’s Caught, which recounts the experiences of a group of men and women in the Auxiliary Fire Service, tackles the raids themselves in graphic detail, and even here the descriptions only take up a few pages. Interestingly, the publisher of Caught, Leonard Woolf of the Hogarth Press, voiced concerns about the realistic scenes of destruction and the portrayal of the Fire Service’s attempts to tackle the blazes – heroic, but overwhelmed by conflagrations that leave London ‘hushed below the stupendous pall of defeat’ (p. 177). Woolf felt that the book might damage the morale of a public still very much at war.

Photograph of a Blitz fire in the area surrounding St Paul's Cathedral, 1941

Photograph of a Blitz fire in the area surrounding St Paul's Cathedral, 1941

Firemen tackle a fire in the city of London, May 1941.

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Copyright: © Fox Photos/Stringer/Getty Images

Heroes and villains

London during the Blitz provided novelists with a setting in which the traditional notions of ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ could be questioned. In Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear, heroism and villainy become distorted by wider events to such an extent that they are rendered almost unrecognisable. The book is a thriller – one of the titles Greene classed as ‘an entertainment’ – but its setting during the Blitz makes it very different from the thrillers that had gone before. The central character, Arthur Rowe, even reflects upon how the sustained bombing, with its nightly destruction of famous landmarks, has rendered the distinction between ‘thriller’ and ‘real life’ obsolete:

I’m hiding underground, and up above the Germans are methodically smashing London to bits all around me. You remember St Clement’s – the bells of St Clement’s. They’ve smashed that – St James’s, Piccadilly, the Burlington Arcade, Garland’s Hotel, where we stayed for the pantomime, Maples and John Lewis. It sounds like a thriller doesn’t it, but the thrillers are like life … (Book 1, ch. 5)


The destruction of the city’s landmarks is echoed by a similar destruction in the ideals of bravery and decent behaviour. In a thriller from an earlier age, such as John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), the hero was charismatic and honest while the villain was sinister and clearly allied to an evil cause. In The Ministry of Fear, however, these conventions are broken apart. The nominal hero, Arthur Rowe, is a guilt-stricken criminal, someone who as an act of mercy (in his own eyes) murdered his sick wife, while the behaviour of the villains – an amateurish collection of traitors and infiltrators – is no worse than the oppressive forces of British law and order. For example the officer charged with rounding up the traitors threatening British interests, Mr Prentice, trashes the house of Mrs Bellairs (who is part of the enemy plot), before threatening to have her hanged. ‘They don’t hang women, not in this war’, Mrs Bellairs replies with a touching faith in British justice, only for Prentice to remark ‘We may hang more people ma’am … than the papers tell you about’ (Book 3, ch. 2).

In a city fighting for its survival notions of decency and ‘doing the right thing’ are inevitably discarded in favour of the easy solution and the quick result. National security takes precedence over chivalry. As Rowe reflects, looking at the destruction of London, even admirable qualities now result in death and chaos: ‘It wasn’t only evil men who did these things. Courage smashes a cathedral, endurance lets a city starve, pity kills … we are trapped and betrayed by our virtues’ (Book 1, ch. 6).

Photograph of the City of London after air raids during the Blitz, September 1940

Photograph of the City of London after air raids during the Blitz, September 1940

Destroyed buildings after heavy air raids targeting central London; the Old Bailey is at the centre of the photograph.

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Copyright: © William Vandivert/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Men and women

The Blitz also removed barriers between men and women. With so many men in the services, several essential roles necessary to keep London safe now fell to women. Women took on roles such as ambulance drivers, air raid wardens and munitions workers. In The Ministry of Fear, the death of Doris Wilcox, an air raid warden, provides a perverse excuse for national pride. Her husband, Henry, is numbed by the news, but Henry’s mother, perhaps glad to have her son back all to herself comments: ‘She was playing for England, Henry’, as though the war were nothing more than a game in which Doris had played her part to the utmost (Book 1, ch. 6). Throughout the novel the men remaining in London are portrayed as weak, shifty or criminal. There is Mr Rennit, for example, a private detective who only deals with divorces and breaches of promise – his nerves so debilitated by the bombing that he cannot face the thought of murder cases; and Arthur Rowe himself, whose status as a murderer after the mercy-killing of his sick wife places him outside respectable society altogether, while all around him the governments of European powers actively pursue the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians on a massive scale.

Another example of the way in which the Blitz subverted traditional male and female roles appears in Sarah Waters’s novel The Night Watch (2006). Written over 60 years after the Blitz, the book looks at the freedoms war-torn London created, together with their often unfortunate aftermath. In particular, one of the characters, Kay Langrish, finds her life given new purpose by her wartime career as a London ambulance driver, only to suffer a comparable loss of purpose when the war ends and her role is no longer required. This raises two questions which have no easy answers. Firstly, it highlights the way in which the Blitz, for all its horror, added excitement and purpose to many people’s lives and left them unable to cope with peacetime’s dreary routines. Secondly, it provokes the reader to reflect upon who most deserved particular jobs after the war ended – the women who had carried out their duties under appalling conditions, or the men who had been forced to give up the jobs originally to fight for their country?

‘War, she thought, was sex’

The Blitz also allowed secrets to flourish. In Elizabeth Bowen’s novel The Heat of the Day two of the central characters, Stella and Robert, are engaged in ‘war work’, the nature of which is so hushed up that we have no idea what it actually involves. More powerfully still, literature set during the Blitz reveals the sexual secrets of individuals. With its blackouts and its reminders that death was never far away, the bomb-damaged landscape of London became the setting for illicit liaisons of all kinds. Elizabeth Bowen, again in The Heat of the Day, puts this rather poetically, viewing the atmosphere in London as seen by people in the surrounding countryside, relatively free from the threat of imminent death: ‘There was a diffused gallantry in the atmosphere, an unmarriedness: it came to be rumoured about the country, among the self-banished, the uneasy, the put-upon and the safe, that everybody in London was in love.’ (ch. 5)

To be perpetually so close to death is, perversely, to be intensely aware that you are alive. Pleasure was to be pursued at every opportunity, and there was little point in thinking ahead to the future, or considering long-term faithfulness to one partner, when death was so close at hand. In Henry Green’s novel Caught, the rather reserved auxiliary fireman, Richard Roe, dives into a shelter as a raid begins and is confronted not by death, but by sex:

And in the near corner a girl stood between a soldier’s legs. He had been kissing her mouth, so that it was now a blotch of red. He held onto her hips, had leant his head back against the white painted brick. Hair came down and trembled over his closed eyes with the trembling in the wall. (p. 95)

Later in the book, Prudence, one of the women who lives in the vicinity of the fire station, reflects upon this more directly still, concluding: ‘War, she thought, was sex’ (p. 119) as all around her she sees people embarking on fleeting and unsuitable liaisons. Even as the sirens start up to warn of a raid, the firemen regularly see prostitutes in doorways, with punters all too willing to pay for what might, quite literally, be their final fling. A similar episode also occurs in Greene’s The End of the Affair:

It was dark and quiet by this time in the streets, though up in the moonless sky moved the blobs and beams of the searchlights. You couldn’t see faces where the women stood in doorways and at the entrances of the unused shelters. They had to signal with their torches, like glow-worms. All the way up Sackville Street the little lights went on and off. (Book 1, ch. 4)

The novel also highlights how war itself acts as a pimp. The central character, Maurice Bendrix, notices how the air raids provide a fortunate backdrop the consequences of which allow his affair to flourish:

I suppose Germany by this time had invaded the Low Countries: the spring like a corpse was sweet with the smell of doom but nothing mattered to me but two practical facts – Henry had been shifted to Home Security and worked late, my landlady had removed to the basement for fear of air-raids, and no longer lurked upon the floor above watching over the banisters for undesirable visitors. (Book 1, ch. 4)

In Sarah Waters’s novel The Night Watch, two of the characters – Helen, who works for the government and Julia, a friend of Helen’s lover Kay – begin their own affair while taking shelter from a raid amidst the ruins of blacked-out London. Huddled together in the darkness, the breath of one against the cheek of the other, passion takes over in a situation which would not have arisen without the circumstances put in place by the Blitz. At one point a warden runs past, oblivious to their presence – ‘Now we’re invisible again’, whispers Julia, a comment that is true not only of their present situation but also true in a much wider context (Part 2: '1944', ch. 4). With so much destruction raining down upon London and with the attention of the authorities directed elsewhere, it wasn’t only heterosexual affairs that had the opportunity to blossom.

Conclusion

In conclusion, novels set during the Blitz show people both at their very best – the fire crews in Henry Green’s Caught battling near-impossible odds for example – and at their most flawed and human, such as Maurice Bendrix in Greene’s The End of the Affair taking advantage of the bombing raids to conduct an affair with somebody else’s wife. Perhaps, ultimately, the simplest way to explain such extremes of behaviour is to consider a line from Henry Green’s novel Caught in which Richard Roe reflects, as he waits for the raids to begin: ‘All that was real to him then was his death in a matter of days’ (p. 25). Everything else – the heroism, the bravery, the fear and the desire to seize happiness no matter how fleeting or sordid, follows on as an inevitable consequence of living so intensely in the present moment.


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  • Greg Buzwell
  • Greg Buzwell is Curator for Printed Literary Sources, 1801 – 1914 at the British Library; he is also co-curator of a major exhibition on Gothic literature, Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination, which runs at the Library from October 2014 to 20 January 2015. His research focuses primarily on the Gothic literature of the Victorian fin de siècle. He is also editing a collection of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s ghost stories, The Face in the Glass and Other Gothic Tales, for publication this autumn.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.