29 September, 2010

Day 82 - Battle of Britain

H N Brailsford, writing in the Reynolds News, described what he had seen in the East End. "All of us have read what we were permitted to read about the calamity that has befallen the East End of London", he told his readers. "From the best of motives it has been minimised, even in the Press of the Left. No one wished to spread "alarm and despondency". Some vivid pictures had, indeed, been drawn, but even they did not convey to my mind the extent of the disaster, that can be realised only when one has seen it with one's own eyes".

What he wanted to convey could be said in a sentence, he then wrote: "A part of the riverside area is no longer habitable. The destruction varies in degree and in kind. I saw one area which is now a heap of rubbish. It is hardly possible to guess the plan of the streets which once stood there. Here is a depression, there is a crater. The rest is unintelligible. Bricks and planks, fragments of beds and chairs testify that once this desert was inhabited. Round the streets still standing on its edges the blast rushed and neatly shaved off the facing of brick on their outer walls".

To reach this desolation, Brailsford's taxi had "passed through street after street of mean little houses" that still stood erect. But they had all been abandoned. Their windows were broken; their timbers sagged, and cracks in their brickwork declared that they would crumble if the blast of even a distant bomb should strike them. In these doomed streets not a sign of life remained, "unless it be the cry of a starving cat". There were other streets, apparently intact and still inhabited, but only by day. "One wonders how the women cook", he remarked, then adding:
At nightfall, and long before it, the population of these streets troop out to such shelters as it trusts. It does not trust the long rows of surface shelters of bricks, which could instantly be annihilated. It makes for coal holes under the level of the street, for distant tube stations, or for vaults under churches or warehouses. 
To one of these the people were already trooping at five in the afternoon – Christians and Jews together, with a few Lascars, and, here and there, a negro, laughing as Negroes will, at the absurdity of their misery.
This warehouse is a vast structure of several stories, where tea is stored. In its dimply-lit labyrinth of vaults, lorries and carts and horses were standing, while families made their beds beside the wheels. They laid their rugs on ground that stank from horses' dung. Stacks of cardboard boxes labelled margarine stood around the walls: on these the children were already sleeping. I hope these boxes are empty. Some lavatory buckets behind canvas screens have lately been provided, but they are scandalously few. They stank, even at this hour, as one drew near.
The floor around them was stained, and I could believe my guide who said that, after midnight it is a pool, through which men and women must wade. One such place I saw in another shelter, deeply flooded with human mire.  In all directions stretched the shelters. Some were low cellars, some lofty vaults; the best of them had wooden floors. In these, every inch of floor-space was already occupied. Men and women and children law, tightly packed, side by side in endless rows, and other rows stretched at right-angles to their feet.
Already the air was foul and my legs were itching from vermin. The crowding was no worse than it is on the platforms of the tubes, but here there is no through draught of air. How many were here? Estimates varied from 10,000 to 14,000. One water tap served this multitude.
Three weeks have passed since Hitler's first surprise attack on the docks, and this is the best that the authorities in this area have yet managed to achieve … some of these authorities are helpless: all of them overlap. Up until Friday there was no central authority to bring order into this chaos. Hitherto we have hidden the problem, toyed with it, shirked it. Little remedies will not solve it, nor yet little men. I say deliberately that if we prolong this misery it may cost us our victory.
That was the left wing press, but the Sunday Express was asking whether the raid on the Friday might have been something more than "merely an unusually vicious air attack", speculating that it might have been part of another invasion attempt, smashed once more by the RAF. The paper also recorded Churchill sending his message congratulating Fighter Command on the results of that day.

But there was no respite. The Luftwaffe came soon after dawn, clocking in just before seven and again at nine, the bombers visiting Berkshire, Essex, Kent and Surrey. But, in the dry words of the official log, "no incident of importance
took place". Later in the morning it was the turn of east and south-east England.

Just before eleven thirty, eighteen bombs were dropped near the naval base at Lowestoft. A land mine detonated and some ammunition exploded, causing damage to property, water mains and telegraph wires. There were several casualties. Then came a sweep by about a hundred Me 109s, shortly after four in the afternoon, flying at great height from the Dover–Dungeness direction.

Part of this force approached central London, but most of it had remained over Kent. In the evening, Sittingbourne was heavily bombed.

The night brought a fresh wave of bombers. They started their murder at about eight in the evening, hitting London but spreading death around south and south-east England once more. South Wales and the Midlands suffered visitations. Bombs were dropped just after nine at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. Unfortunately, as some averred, the only result was a burst water main. Many bombs were dropped on the Guildford–Sevenoaks line.

Liverpool's visits were later, but before midnight, when fires were started at Duke's and Salthouse Docks. Four warehouses, including one containing grain, caught fire. Birkenhead Docks were also attacked. Railways generally took a hit again, but not on any great scale. A number of factories were damaged and the City of London received its quota of bombs.

From just after midnight, they caused several fires, the most serious being in Upper Thames Street. An unexploded bomb was also reported in the south-east corner of St Paul's Churchyard, causing major traffic disruption. Cheapside and Queen Victoria Street were already closed. Horse Shoe Wharf, Cannon Street and Carter Lane were also affected. So went the war. The Luftwaffe dropped their bombs, and the people endured.