(Been away a bit due to computer issues. Also exceedingly heartbrokenish lately. I am such an idiot. Words can't even describe it, really. Again, have I mentioned that I am an idiot?)
Anyway, I have nothing to offer you but blood, toil, tears, and sweat (and blood is the featured element as I have just given myself a nasty paper cut and am bleeding profusely), so three for one today.
If you gave my parents truth serum and asked them to name the most exciting parts of their lives, I suspect they would not choose things like weddings, births of children, new houses, things like that. No, I think they would say World War II. They happened to be just the right age for the war—young enough to notice all the excitement but not really old enough to understand all the bad things (my father does say that he knew that soldiers fighting could get killed but that did not seem to severely diminish all the little boy pleasures to be found in war). They remember things like factories open 24/7, gatherings around the radio every night, older cousins going off to dances with soldiers, and a general sense of togetherness. All in all, it seemed to have been a lot of fun being a six or seven year old in the U.S. during WW II.
Maureen Waller’s London 1945 makes it very clear that there was little that was fun about life during wartime in London. I don’t know which is more astonishing to a reader sixty years later, the depth of the privation or the level of organization. To the latter, it is amazing how well-run everything was—everyone had to keep registering their whereabouts so they could be accounted for if there was a bombing, ration cards were accounted for after deaths were listed, people who took shelter in the Tube stations had assigned places that were designed to fit the maximum amount of people in a space. Every possible type of event had a procedure and rules to be followed, and people seemed to follow them (there will always be an England and it will always have a mind-numbing amount of bureaucracy). One side effect of this, Waller notes, is that people became accustomed to the idea of heavy government involvement in their lives, which made a more socialist style government acceptable post-war.
The lack of anything to be had was just incredible. You have to keep in mind that England is a small country that had a very large empire and heavily imported a lot of food and other goods. So cut off from their colonies and commonwealths, they were left with virtually nothing. Food ration cards went through numerous evolutions as different types of foods became available or disappeared. All possible space was to be devoted to vegetable gardens (Waller quotes a woman who towards the end of the war daydreams about being able to grow flowers again). Endless pamphlets, magazine articles, and radio programs were devoted to ways to manage food to get the maximum nutritional value out of each item. The odd end result, according to Waller, was that thanks to this type of instruction, although the food might not have been particularly lovely, people ended up eating more healthily during the war than they might have at other times.
New clothes just disappeared from the scene, as did cosmetics and other little luxuries (forget chocolate and nylons—I would have been asking American soldiers what I’d have to do for a bar of soap). Waller talks about how it was not uncommon for British soldiers to spend the war dreaming of the fresh-faced young brides they’d left behind only to return to women admirably independent from factory work, but also tough, bitter, and prematurely aged, with dulled skin and hair, dressed in shabby clothes.
Of course I say admirably independent—a lot of the soldiers didn’t appreciate the change in the women who’d got on without them during the war, and many marriages fell apart. Also, surprisingly to the soldiers, there was a certain level of resentment towards them, a feeling that they hadn’t suffered as much as those at home. And to be honest, they were right in many cases; in any war, only a small percentage of soldiers are fighting at a given time, with a huge bulk of the army involved in support services. They had a constant supply of food and clothes. The people at home in London didn’t.
War exposes the cracks in societies. The celebrated evacuations of children from London to the countryside revealed slum children of the city whose parents didn’t want them or were unable to take care of them. Lucky ones wound up staying with their new families. Pregnant women were whisked away to residential centers outside of the bombing zones where they were given top medical treatment and were carefully fed. Many of the poorer women undoubtedly gave birth to healthier children than they would have otherwise (given this information, Dad wondered if the number of men lost by Britain in the war was balanced out by the number of children and babies whose lives were improved. Interesting contribution from Stan the Man). Lower-class women who joined volunteer services such as the Land Girls were given full uniform kits that were most likely the first new clothes that they had ever owned in their lives. And although the rebuilding of bombed out areas didn’t proceed with as much decisiveness and foresight as would be hoped, it did give an opportunity to clear out many of the Victorian era and railroad slums. So while I would never advocate war for social engineering, when it does occur, there is a certain forest fire aspect, where the old and unworkable is cleared out, sunlight is let in, and new opportunities arise.
One of the hardest parts of the war was undoubtedly the constant disappointment felt by the Londoners. The early phases of the Blitz had been conducted by piloted planes dropping bombs. . But in fall 1944, unmanned V2 rockets began to fall. There had already been a sense of letdown that the early summer D-Day invasion hadn’t brought the war to the end. Now it just seemed too much to have more bombings from the supposedly defeated Nazis; one woman committed suicide via gas oven, leaving a note saying that the war had just gone on too long and she couldn’t take it anymore. The V2s, everyone agreed were just much worse, too. Not only did they provide less warning than the little given by the V1s, but at least with the the Luftwaffe raids, there had seemed to be some kind of fair tradeoff, that a pilot was putting himself at risk in order to make the attack. The V2s seemed the ultimate in hard, inhumane warfare (well, until the nuclear bombs a few months later, but that’s another story).
And then even when the war did end, things didn’t return to normal as had hoped. Instead deprivation and uncertainty lingered on, with no end in sight for many years. This was probably the worst disappointment of them all. As one radio comedian quipped about postwar life compared to the Blitz, “At least we had ‘All Clear’ to look forward to.”
Waller’s book is very, very organized, textbookish and prim. There isn’t a narrative so much as discrete chapters covering different topics—food, clothing, children, crime, etc. Still, it’s very readable, with great primary sources (the benefit of doing history where many participants are still alive). If I was writing a story about life during WW II in London, I would run to this book for help in setting the scene. But I also would give it to anyone who just wants to know about life in this very particular time and place.
Margaret Gaskin covers a much smaller canvas in Blitz: The Story of December 29, 1940, yet somehow this book feels much less organized than Waller’s.
It’s hard to say exactly what went wrong for me in this book. One obvious problem is that I read it immediately after London 1945, and that covered such a large amount of territory in such detail that there really weren’t any surprises in this one. Although Gaskin’s plan seemed to be to give an hour by hour account of 12/29/1940, she does wander off to give background material on various wartime things, all of which are done better in Waller’s book. This would be fine if the description of the day itself and the bombing were done in a particularly gripping way, but it just isn’t.
As I said (yeah, I know, I’m not winning any writing prizes tonight either), I think the plan was to introduce a variety of people in different places or situations—stay at home types, volunteer fire service people, journalists, telegraph operators, etc.—then follow them through ordinary hours before the bombing, the actual bombing, and then the aftermath. However, this is done in a rather unfocused way—people who are brought in at the beginning of the book are never heard from again, before all the people and the day is established, Gaskin wanders off to background about Churchill and the Luftwaffe. Information about the London Fire Brigade and volunteer services seems to leak in haphazardly and she seems unsure about whether she wants to make the attempt to protect St. Paul’s Cathedral the feature story of the book or not. The pace is sluggish and Gaskin fails to build tension leading up to the bombing.
This is not to say that the book is a total bore—the quotes from people who lived through the day and night of bombing and fire are often gripping. The story of an American journalist, Bill White and one of his colleagues, making their way through the heart of burning London is particularly good. But there just seems to be a failure of structure here that turns what should be tense and exciting into something meandering and ho-hum.
And from the persnickety nitpickety file: The book is admirably footnoted; that’s a plus. Gaskin certainly seems to have done her research. But the index isn’t complete, which always annoys me. A map of London marked with places featured in the book appears in the endpapers when it would have been much more useful in the beginning of the book. At the beginning of each chapter, Gaskin lists a few events, with time marked in 24 hour clock form, as in 18:00 hours. But then in the text, she seems to switch back to standard (? is that the term?) time. So when she suddenly mentions “6:30” in the middle of a chapter I wasn't sure whether she meant 6:30 in the evening or 6:30 in the morning, as would follow with the 24 hour clock. This inconsistency is a problem.
Anyway, I was disappointed in this book. Wouldn't rush out to recommend it.
Gavin Mortimer makes his case for the worst night of the Blitz in The Longest Night: The Bombing of London on May 10, 1941. This book is better paced and structured than Gaskin's, but is still not a page-turner. Okay, it is in a way--I whipped through it very quickly (you should have seen me turning those pages!), but that's because I wasn't riveted and just kind of felt like getting through it. Again, coming now not only after the highly detailed and informative London 1945, but also the "one night of the Blitz" Gaskin book, there was an excess of familiarity for me (no fault of the book). The biggest difference between this one and the latter (aside from better writing) is that Mortimer includes in his group of folk who are still alive to be interviewed several RAF pilots who tried to fight back that night as well as some crews that worked with finding and disposing of unexploded bombs. Otherwise he has the same usual suspects of volunteer fire men and women, young teens out having fun with their friends, ambulance drivers, telephone operators, vicars devoted to saving their churches, etc., etc.
A few of the vignettes stand out. A coffee warehouse is bombed and after running out of water from their trucks, the firemen pump back the coffee water that has run into the streets back into their hoses and try to contain the fire with a dose of caffeine. Probably the best smelling fire in the area that night. Then there was a fire brigade, that upon seeing several buildings on their street aflame, decided to concentrate on saving the bakery where they usually bought their breakfasts. One young boy in the London suburbs heard a crash and rushed out with his father to find a Luftwaffe airplane, with several crew members alive, tangled in their trees. Then there is the stoic volunteer who crossed a courtyard between falling bombs carrying a tray of tea and made it without spilling a drop.
Perhaps that stoicism is part of the problem with these Blitz books. While that quality may have been what helped Londoners survive, maybe it has also dampened the colors of the recollections of the interviewees, or their memoirs, or diary entries. In an effort to remain calm and show no fear, to be able to stand quietly in line or wait without panic for the night sky to clear, maybe they've drained some of the drama out of the story. It says something that I felt an intense sens of relief when Mortimer described some of the looting that went on in the aftermath of the bombing. Good heavens, these people are human after all.