The London Blitz 1940
The role of the Communist Party in the campaign for Air Raid Precautions (ARP).
The Communist Parties expertise and leading role in campaigning for adequate Air Raid Precautions (ARP) during the Second World War, undoubtedly saved the lives of thousand's of British civilians, yet little has ever been written about their fight to protect civilian lives.
LESSONS FROM SPAIN:
The Communist Party was able to play a vital role in Air Raid Precautions (ARP) campaign during the Second World War, primarily because of the experience it's members had gained first hand while fighting or nursing during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1938) in the famous International Brigade.
It was in Spain the fascist had homed and perfected their skills in using air attacks (blitzkrieg) to terrorise the civilian population, most famously on the 26th April 1936, when German and Italian planes bombed the beautiful Basque City of Gurnica, destroying the historic city. Heavy bombings of Madrid and Barcelona followed soon after.
The Mayor of Barcelona warned in the Daily Worker on February 24th, 1938. that
"Instead of the small gas and incendiary bombs, for which officials are trying to prepare the British public, the real danger in Barcelona, just as it would be here, came from large high explosive bombs.
The only way to provide anything like adequate protection was to build enough underground shelters to house the majority of the population. These must be deep and soundly built; cellars under houses were no use at all."
THE LONDON BLITZ
Up until August 1940, the German Luftwaffe had concentrated their attacks upon attempts to destroy British air defences and as a consequence the relatively few bombs that fell on London were of the 250 pounds type.
However, by the end of August the failure of the German airforce to secure a decisive knock out lead them to seek alternative military targets and accordingly turn their attention to attacks upon Britain's wartime manufacturing industries, much of which was based in cities and in close proximity to densely populated residential areas.
On the night 7th September 1940 the first large scale attack against London was launched, some 364 bombers, escorted by 515 fighters attacked the Capital.
London's defences were ill prepared for such a heavy attack and as a result large areas of the Capital were destroyed.
Particularly hard hit areas of London were the areas of Stepney, Poplar, West Ham in the East End and Bermondsey, Deptford in South East London
On the first night of what became known as the "Blitz" over 2,000 Londoner's were killed or injured in the Capital (436 killed and 1,666 injured) this compared to 250 personell killed in the armed forces for the whole of September 1940)
According to Phil Piratin (future Communist Member of Parliament for Stepney)
"That night the East End burned, the dockside was ablaze...........
it lit up a great part of East and South East London....... It was a night when London was ringed and stabbed with fire."
Ernie Pyle a famous news reporter stated,
"They came just after dark, and somehow you could sense from the quick, bitter firing of the guns that there was to be no monkey business this night".
Daily Worker journalist Fred Pateman writing in the 9th September 1940 edition of the Daily Worker stated
“Yesterday, I walked through the valley of the shadow of death –the little streets of London’s East End.....Along the main roads is a steady stream of refugees – men with suitcases, women, with bundles, children with their pillows and their own cot covers – homeless in the heart of London”
A young reporter on the Evening Standard, Michael Foot (later Labour Party leader) wrote on Friday 13th September 1940 that...
"The story of the East End of London is a terrible, tremendous story, a story of anger, hate, love,-defiance; a story of whole streets where you can see women's eyes red with tears, but women's, hearts overflowing with kindness towards their neighbours" .........
"A woman sits on, a rickety chair in the middle of a shattered row of dolls', houses, her family about her. She waves her hand at the pile of ruin which was once her own home and her neighbours'. " We don't care about all this stuff," she says, " our only feeling is for the lives of our folk." "How do you like this sort of life ? " says a passer-by. "Well," she replies, "it's nice and airy." She ties up in a paper bundle the last remnant of her possessions in this world. She hoists her child into her arms".
"She is off in search of shelter for the night. She is the mother who in " The Grapes of Wrath " stood up at the end after suffering afflictions beyond those of Job and boasted, "You can't lick the people." ........
"That is why the defection of France can never be repeated here. French courage rested on the Maginot Line, when it was overturned, the rulers failed the masses. British courage rests on no system of defence, not even on the sea, it is rooted in the hearts of the people. Our rulers dare not fail us. Out of the colossal defeat of Flanders we plucked the glorious victory of Dunkirk. Today, out of the raging hell of the Dunkirk of Dockland, rises the prideful shout of the ordinary Briton: " You can't lick the people !" (end)
The fires caused by the bombing raged out of control for weeks and merely acted as a beacons for further waves of German bombers.
London suffered according to the London County Council a further seventy six coconsecutive nights of enemy bombings.
The RAF retaliated at the bombing of London by bombing Berlin, Hitler infuriated ordered his Luftwaffe to "if they think that they can destroy our cities.......then we shall wipe theirs from the face of the earth...." and orders were given to air crews to bomb at "random" and thereby the German airforce gave up any pretence of attempting avoid civilian areas.
By mid November 1940, it was reported that some four out of every ten houses in the London Borough of Stepney had been destroyed or damaged.
Ted Bramley stated in October 1940, In September...."Sometimes six times a day the raiders come. For weeks every night, as regularly as clockwork, from sunset to sunrise. Ten long, weary hours. Hour after hour the drone of the Nazi planes, the pounding of guns, the whistle and scream of bombs. The tense, clenched teeth and hands, waiting for the explosion. The quiet calculation " How near is it? " The deep breath of relief to be still alive. " Did it go off! " " Is it a time bomb? " " How far away? " A desperate effort to snatch some sleep in the cramped space and the foul air of the basements and shelters where we crouch. Then to stagger out to face another day, pale and weary, more exhausted than the night before."Initially, the civilian population had attempted to take refugee in the government's proscribed trench shelters but these had soon filled with water, the street level shelters had been destroyed and the famous back garden Anderson shelters, made of corrugated steel, offered only limited protection from bomb blast and splinters.
Anderson shelters were named after Sir John Anderson who stated in the House of Commons in 1938 "I do not think we are prepared to adapt our whole civilisation, so as to compel a large proportion of our people to live and maintain the productive capacity in a troglodyte existence deep underground" and on 12th June 1940 "I am devoutly thankful that we did not adopt a general policy of providing deep and strongly protected shelters".
How Londoner's paid for such stupidity, as Londoners were according to Ted Bramley "uprooted, blasted from their homes, scattered over the face of Britain"
The few deeper shelters which were situated mainly underneath large warehouses and privately owned and open to the public, once deserted were now full to overflowing, poorly lit, wet, and unsanitary. People lined up from 12 in Stepney to enter the Tilbury shelter, originally planned for 1,600 now holding 10,000. Meanwhile, Godfrey Phillips shelter in the City, a shelter for 3,000 was locked everynight at 5.30pm. Ted Bramley estimated another 200,000 safe shelter places were available in the City, but locked at night.
East Enders joked in the early days of the Blitz on how when caught out during a raid they had learnt to "hug the walls".
Many other Londoners were forced to travel “trek” from East London to North London, West London or South London and even the Kent countryside (Chislehurst Caves in the side of the North Downs), or coaches taking people out into the countryside to sleep by the roadside at 2s 6d.
Communist Party who had campaigned for effective Air Raid Precautions before the War, now sought to secure effective and immediate protection for the civilian population.
The Government had failed seriously to listen to the Communist Parties advice about the need for a comprehensive and universal air raid precautions, preferring to leave it to individual councils, employers or individuals to do the best they could.
Ted Bramley states "The real reason is to be found in their callous refusal to provide for the people and their cynical disregard for the suffering and lives of working people. they value the lives of the workers cheaply. There are 800,000 unemployed - Left on the scrap heap. So long as their own families, their own privilefes and profits are secure they dont care".
One look at Winston Churchill lunch and evening meal menu, shows that he for one was not ready to make some sacrificies.
Meanwhile, the rich had already secured access to their own private shelters, and their was non more famous and elaborately decorated than the shelter beneath the Savoy Hotel, which even boasted of their own nurses on standby. The Sunday Express revealed that fourteen Ladies and Twenty Three lords were living at the Dorchester Hotel, sharing luxurious bombproof shelter among them Lord Halifax (who as Foreign Secretary had followed a line of appeasement with Hitler) and other Tory Government Ministers.
During the early days of the Blitz the Government controlled media tried to show that life in London was carrying on as normal, and there was much coverage in the press of people going to parties, dining out and clubbing in the West End.
This sham, was at great odds with the experience of the people in the Working Class areas of London, who were now being systematically bombed into oblivion.
To highlight the plight of the people of Stepney, the Stepney Communist councillor Phil Piratin took on Saturday 14th September 1940, some fifetyworkers, including a group of what Time magazine called “ill-clad children" from Stepney and burst into the Savoy Hotel.
Within minutes and with the help of sympathetic waiters the group had invaded and occupied the Savoy Hotel shelter, stating “ if it was good enough for the rich it was good enough for the Stepney workers and their families”.
During the confusion an air raid alert, (all to helpfully), was sounded, and the Savoy Hotel manager realising that that could not be seen to send the "invaders"out into danger was forced to allow them to remain until the "all clear" siren was sounded.
The group soon settled down and after an element of negotiations the catering staff agreed to provide silver trays laden with pots of tea, bread and butter and for the children.
The next day the press was full of stories about the audacious occupation of the Savoy Hotel shelter and the terrible conditions of the shelters in Stepney. The Communist Party had succeeded in its objective. At St Pancras The Party organised a picket of Carreras, the tobacco factory, demanding its shelter - capable of holding 3,000- be opened to the public at night.
The Party had previously organsed an occupation by 200 people from the East End of the Mayfair Hotel shelter on the night of Thursday 12th September, but this seems not have secured much press coverage.
In Walthamstow Councillor Bob Smith went with some homeless "bombed out" families and occupied empty houses, and similar actions took place in Chiswick (Heathfield Court) and Kensington
Meanwhile, The Communist party who had long demanded that the London’s underground stations be made available for shelter.
However, the reality was that at the beginning of the Blitz, the doors to the Underground stations were systematically locked by the Police during air raids, in order to stop civilians seeking refuge in them. The authorities fearing that once down in the relative safety of the underground network, Londoners may not not return to the surface to carry out vital war work "Deep shelter mentality" or that children would fall onto the track.
Finally, one night (some state 8th September) at Liverpool Street underground station, with the East End shelters overcrowding due to intense bombing huge crowds of East Enders forced entry and surged down into onto the platforms.
Warren, Goodge Street and Highgate underground stations were "broken open" and according to Ted Bramley "every inch of stairs, corridors and platforms taken by the people. Working men, women and children of al types and trades, from all parts of london, including soldiers and their families, were and are united in their resolve to share the Tubes".
Meanwhile, at other underground stations crowds organised by the Communist Party swept past police guarding the stations and used crowbars to force open the underground station network to thousands of Londoners who sought refugee from the bombings.
Finally, Herbert Morrison the Labour Home Secretary in the War time coalition (and who loathed the Communist Party and its campaigns) was forced to reconsider the issue of the underground being used for shelters and finally allow civilians to use the underground for shelter.
By the end of September 1940 it was estimated that 79 underground stations catering for 177,000 people were being used for shelter at night. However the authorities had tried various attempts to limit people using the tubes for shelter, no shelter before 4pm then 7pm, then no able bodied men, then ticket only. In Stepney a wealthy military man, Captain Beaumont was appointed advisor to to the Town Claerk (another "Dictator" according the local Communist party) usurping the role of the local councillors accountable to a Regional Commissioner (Tory) Captain Euan Wallace and his boss was London Regional Commissioner for Civil Defence ( The new Shelter "Dictator") a retired Admiral Edward Evans of the Broke. The Communist Party claimed they knew nothing of working peoples lives in the East End and were not accountable.
The Communist Party soon established effective shelter committees (initially Stepney) in order to secure proper conditions such as provisions for feeding and amenities from the authorities. These Shelter committees soon spread across London. The Communist Party even organised the first entertainment in the underground shelters, through the auspicious of the "Unity Theatre" Group.
The Communist Parties main slogan during this period was to "stand firm and demand bomb proof shelters”, they also demanded that private shelters be made available to the general public, that empty flats and houses be commandeered for the homeless who should be entitled to compensensation for lost furniture and clothing.
The Party also did vital work with evacuated families and children from London, to towns and villages outside London to areas such as rural Berkshire and Northamptonshire. campaigning for decent accommodation, rations, and schooling for the evacuees.
Undoubtedly, during this period of the War it was the East End and it's women in particular who were on the front line. It was East End women who were forced to search for shelter for their families, try to salvage possessions from bombed out houses, it was the women upon whom the burden fell to find enough food for their families, despite rationing and a 25% rise in the cost of living. All this while trying to organise childcare so that they could carry out vital war work.
"No one who witnessed it will ever forget the courage of the mothers of London's East End during those terrible days and nights of the second week of September. Their houses were not palaces, their belongings few, but they spelt home to them, Their world came crashing round their ears on those awful nights, but with grim faces red with crying but alive with righteous anger they marched on - solders all" said War illustrated.
At its peak 1,500 fires raged across London during the Blitz. During the War over 20,000 Londoner's were killed including 327 firemen and women, as well as numerous Anti Aircraft personnel, nurses, police, rescue, salvage specialists, bomb disposal staff
In just two nights in April 1941 148,000 London homes were damaged by German bombs. By the end of the war increadiablly only one house out of ten had not recievied some kind of bomb damage.
The London County Council emergency services, alone employed 50,000 people, providing vital services such as fire, ambulance, salvage, hospital, canteens, nurseries and orphanages. The LCC ambulance personnel for example had gone from a pre war figure of 420 t0 8,500. At Bethnal Green Museum Restaurant 1,000 hot meals a day were being organised.
The German (and Italian) bombers continued to bomb London for the rest of the War, however the continued relentlessly bombing started on 7th September 1940 and continued daily until 2nd November and lasted until 11th May 1941 (the official end of the Blitz).
Anti Aircraft defences (ack Ack) were also improving throughout the month of September, on September 29th accounting for six out of ten downed German aircraft in the South East of England. This success rate also made them targets, such as the AA unit at Borough maned by the local Labour Party which was wiped out by a direct hit.
The Home Guard was established in 1940 and was again the brain child of a Communist Party member Tom Wintringham, who had fought with the International Brigade in Spain.
DISASTER AT BETHNAL GREEN
On a wet evening Wednesday March 3, 1943 The East End was once again under attack (retaliation for the RAF bombing Berlin), a crowd of over one thousand people surged into Bethnal Green underground station, a women with a young child tripped on slippy steps deep within the system and those behind fell ontop of her, piling up behind her, as yet more rushed in to avoid the bombing.Despite the best efforts of rescuers, 173 people: 27 men, 84 women and 62 children died in the tragedy.
WEST HAM DISASTER
In the worst single incident in the Blitz 450 were killed when a bomb hit an air raid shelter at a school in West Ham.
PRE WAR CAMPAIGN FOR ARP
The well respected Communist scientist Prof "Jack" J.B.S. Haldane headed the Communist Parties campaign for effective Air Raid Precautions. Crucially, Prof Haldane was keen to move away from the initial poistion of simply condeming the authorities into provided practical advice and suggestions.
Accordingly, the Communist Party had organised a ARP Co-ordinating Group. This committee included architects, engineers and scientists and was established and chaired by Prof Haldane.
Despite producing vital information on the effects of bombing and the need for adequate safety precautions, few local authorities took on board their reccomendations until the first bombs fell. The Labour Party paranoia with regard to the Communist Party even lead them to proscribed Prof Haldane's organisation in 1938 because of it's links to the Communist Party. Prof Haldane's 1938 recommendations included building a system of tunnels in London to provide shelter. A project not begun until the first bombs fell on the Capital.
However, the Party was active locally on ARP matters as early as July 1938, Sheffield had produced a detailed pamphlet, and preliminary memorandums had been produced in Hull, Leeds and St Pancras. ByJuly 1939 Norwich Communist Party had produced a four page leaflet outlining the party’s position regarding ARP and what steps Norwich City council should take take to protect the civilian population.
The Norwich leaflet headed air raid precautions, the leaflet announced in bold type the communist party demands adequate protection for the workers of Norwich,
The Norwich Party demanded
Bomb proof shelters for all
Effective gas masks for all
plans for evacuation (of children)
The Party also helped establish many local ARP groups across the country, including women’s ARP committees such as those in Liverpool, Portsmouth, and St Pancras by July 1939.
In ARP Act Now by the Communist Party printed first in May 1938 and which sold over 50,000 copies the Party called for
1. Bomb-proof shelters for all
2. Democratic control of all Air Raid Protection schemes
3. Adequate Government grants to local authorities
4. Make the rich pay
The Communist Party estimated in the booklet the cost of various form of protection
Bomb proof shelters £14 per head
Evacuation (new accomidation) £30 per head
Evacuation (existing accomidation) nil
they estimated that some 45,000,000 would need increased protection at a total cost of £596,000,000
Communist Party ARP Demands 1938
1. A Ministry of Civilian Defence to be formed.
2. Air Raid Precautions personnel to be appointed democratically, including evacuation wardens where needed.
3. Landlords to provide materials for covering lights with Government assistance. Showing of lights to be made a crime.
4. Gas protection for babies to be provided at earliest moment: and pending this, immediate evacuation of children-in-arms with their mothers.
5. Civilians to receive instructions in use of respirators (" gas-masks ") in tear-gas chambers. Reserves of gas-masks (respirators) to be formed to meet loss or damage.
6. An expert committee to investigate existing respirators.
7. Steel helmets for wardens, and allowances during period when they are training their neighbours.
8. Increase in fire brigades and rescue squads. Landlords to provide fire-fighting apparatus in houses.
9. Trenches to be dug in open spaces, as a temporary measure.
10. Compulsory powers of billeting in steel-frame buildings in crowded areas.
11. Underground railways to be made flood-proof and gas-proof.
12. Compulsory billeting of refugees in country and preparation of small camps.
13. Schoolchildren to be evacuated under teachers: and not only from London but from all vulnerable towns.
14. Evacuation schemes to include use of roads as alternative to railways. Private vehicles to be taken over and controlled.
15. Food stores to be accumulated in country for refugees.
16. Negotiations to be opened for evacuation to the Free State and Northern Ireland.
17. Peers to be created if Lords obstruct.
18. Labour movement to be mobilised behind the scheme.
MORE LESSONS FROM SPAIN
Catalan engineer, Ramon Perera, supervised the building of some 1,400 public shelters in Barcelona, his unique design had been proven in battle but the British government refused to learn lessons.
I once heard a recollection that the Communist Party who led the invasion of the underground was a women teacher from Stepney ?.
This article while not highlighting the role of the Labour Party in ARP recognises that many Labour Party members also carried out vital ARP campaigning work.