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What The Blitz Was Really Like For Those Who Lived Through It

After the fall of France and the evacuation of Allied forces from Dunkirk in 1940, the British were subjected to an aerial onslaught by the German Luftwaffe as the skies above Britain became the key front of World War II. As the opposing air forces dueled for superiority, the civilian population had to endure near-daily, or rather nightly, bombing runs as the Germans attempted to force the British to capitulate. London was hit especially hard and people from all walks of life found hidden depths of resolve to keep calm and carry on (those famous propaganda posters never actually saw the light of day).

This collection looks at what daily life was like during the Blitz from a wide array of perspectives. These include the famous author George Orwell, who lived through it in London; the children who grew up amongst the rubble; the American journalist sent to document events on the ground, and even some German views. These firsthand accounts provide an authentic look at the reality of the Blitz. 

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  • George Orwell: 'As I Write, Highly Civilized Human Beings Are Flying Overhead, Trying To Kill Me'
    Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-363-2258-11 / Rompel / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

    George Orwell: 'As I Write, Highly Civilized Human Beings Are Flying Overhead, Trying To Kill Me'

    The author best known for seminal classics Animal Farm and 1984, George Orwell (real name Eric Arthur Blair)saw the events of the Blitz up close. He was living in London when the Second World War broke out. His 1941 essay England Your England examined British - and specifically English - identity and its resilience even in the face of the existential threat of fascism. 

    The essay opens with a sobering reflection on the circumstances under which it was written:

    They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are "only doing their duty," as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law-abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it. He is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil.

  • Ken Long: 'Some Fortunate Children Were Sent To Canada And America But They Were Certainly NOT From East London, Us Lot Were Considered Too "Lower Class" And Rough!'
    Photo: Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Ken Long: 'Some Fortunate Children Were Sent To Canada And America But They Were Certainly NOT From East London, Us Lot Were Considered Too "Lower Class" And Rough!'

    In all, some 3.5 million British children were evacuated from British cities to the countryside and beyond in the early days of the conflict. As evacuee Ken Long recalled, some of the children were too young to understand what was going on and thought they were being punished. While those with means could make it out of the UK, most urban children were sent to host families in the countryside. Some enjoyed the new surroundings and fresh air, while others were miserable and longed for home. When the unusually quiet opening months of the war saw the expected bombing runs fail to happen, many returned to their cities, against government advice.

    Another wave of evacuations took place once the Blitz began in earnest, but these were voluntary and many children remained home. There wasn't much in the way of luxuries, but children found ways to make an adventure of the adversity, as Long recalled:

    We had no sweets, no chocolate, no toys, no comics, no bananas, and no oranges. But the sky was always full of planes, it was never still, the newspapers and radio mainly reported war news of course, us boys all became expert in identifying all kinds of aircraft, I was even better at it than my Uncle who was a Sgt. in an anti-aircraft battery.

    In Coventry, another child of the war remembered passing many long nights in the shelters trying to identify the aircraft in the skies above:

    It was really quite exciting in that earth smelling atmosphere drinking hot tea or milk and listening to the planes overhead. We would play a guessing game as they approached to see who could identify friend or foe. 

  • Ernie Pyle: 'Except For The Ghastly Scenery, Life Seemed Thoroughly Normal'
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Ernie Pyle: 'Except For The Ghastly Scenery, Life Seemed Thoroughly Normal'

    Ernie Pyle was an American journalist known for his highly accessible style of writing and penchant for digging up human interest stories by going right to the heart of the action. He arrived in London during the Blitz for a whirlwind tour of the British Isles in December 1940. His account of his four-month sojourn would be published as the book Ernie Pyle In England.

    He was immediately struck by the way the British found ways to get along despite the destruction; members of the public managed to get on with their lives in spite of the nightly carnage. Their fear from the initial bombing raids subsided. There was a difference in feeling between watching the destruction on newsreels and seeing it up close:

    The only different thing is that now it’s real and you feel a revulsion and a small sinking feeling with the knowledge of the awful power of a single bomb. You feel what it could do to you personally.

  • Ernie Pyle: 'How In Heaven’s Name Am I Going To Find Anything In This Blackout?'
    Photo: Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Ernie Pyle: 'How In Heaven’s Name Am I Going To Find Anything In This Blackout?'

    It was especially hard for Ernie Pyle to get around London, as his unfamiliarity with the city was compounded by the blackout in effect. From the beginning of the war until its conclusion, the cities of Britain were shrouded in total darkness to make it harder for German bombers to hit them. Special blackout curtains were made in the run-up to the conflict to blanket the towns at night. Even locals had a hard time getting around at first. A Londoner described the scene: 

     For the first minute going out of doors one is completely bewildered, then it is a matter of groping forward with nerves as well as hands outstretched.

    Not everyone agreed with the policy, as the lack of visibility was incredibly dangerous. Road casualties exploded, with 9,169 fatal accidents in 1940 alone. The King's surgeon wrote in the British Medical Journal in 1939:

    By frightening the nation into blackout regulations, the Luftwaffe was able to kill 600 British citizens a month without ever taking to the air.

  • Ernie Pyle: 'These Things All Went Together To Make The Most Hateful, Most Beautiful Single Scene I Have Ever Known'
    Photo: New York Times Paris Bureau Collection / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Ernie Pyle: 'These Things All Went Together To Make The Most Hateful, Most Beautiful Single Scene I Have Ever Known'

    The ever-present danger of the bombers overhead brought a mixture of feelings for those who endured the raids. There was at once great fear, helplessness, and even excitement at the carnage that unfolded nightly. Ernie Pyle offered a vivid description of the strange kaleidoscope of emotions he felt from seeing it all unfold up close:

    The thing I shall always remember above all the other things in my life is the monstrous loveliness of that one single view of London on a holiday night - London stabbed with great fires, shaken by explosions, its dark regions along the Thames sparkling with the pinpoints of white-hot bombs, all of it roofed over with a ceiling of pink that held bursting shells, balloons, flares and the grind of vicious engines. And in yourself the excitement and anticipation and wonder in your soul that this could be happening at all. 

    People could usually do little more than hope the next bomb didn't fall on them. The anti-aircraft guns offered some comfort, but nothing compared to seeing a German plane brought down, as George Orwell recorded in his diary on September 15, 1940: 

    This morning, for the first time, saw an aeroplane shot down. It fell slowly out of the clouds, nose foremost, just like a snipe that has been shot high overhead. Terrific jubilation among the people watching, punctuated every now and then by the question, “Are you sure it’s German?” So puzzling are the directions given, and so many the types of aeroplane, that no one even knows which are German planes and which are our own. My only test is that if a bomber is seen over London it must be a German, whereas a fighter is likelier to be ours.

    While most people experienced bombing raids in the shelters or in their homes, some were unfortunate to be caught in less comforting surroundings. Frank Hiley, a worker in a munitions factory in Birmingham, described the horrifying scene of being caught in an air raid at work. His factory suffered a direct hit:

    Then comes a dull thud, and bright lights stab the darkness for a second, then a rumbling noise, as though the whole building is being crushed in a pair of huge pinchers. The one thing I had always said would never happen had happened. A bomb had hit the outside wall and the whole building had collapsed like a pack of cards. Hundreds of tons of machinery had descended on us.

    What happened next I hardly know, for I must have been knocked out by a blow on the head. How long I was unconscious I do not know, but perhaps not long, for I came round to find that my two companions had been killed and crushed beside me.

    Hiley survived with minor injuries, but many others were not so lucky. More than 40,000 Britons perished over seven months during the Blitz, with more than half of them from London. 

  • A London Policeman: 'Imagine Bombing A Quiet, Homey Suburb Like Ours! What Military Advantage Could That Possibly Have?'
    Photo: German Air Force photographer / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    A London Policeman: 'Imagine Bombing A Quiet, Homey Suburb Like Ours! What Military Advantage Could That Possibly Have?'

    While touring some areas of London directly hit by bombs, Pyle struck up a conversation with a police officer who questioned the purpose of bombing a suburb. When Pyle suggested the Germans probably intended to try to break the spirit of the British by aerial bombardment, the officer opined that it was "having the opposite effect." 

    That was not to say the bombing campaign did not cause great fear, especially in the first few weeks. Pyle spoke to a warden who took off his badge because of the fear he showed on that first night. A barber also told Pyle:

    A fellow who doesn’t get his wind up [frightened] at the first experience isn’t a man at all. He’s just an animal with no nerves in his body.

    The fear gave way to a determination to stick it out. After a few days in the British capital, the American journalist determined the city was weathering the storm. The people had adapted to the new reality quickly: 

    So far, the blitz on London is a failure. London is no more knocked out than a man who smashes a finger is dead. 

    Pyle was not the only foreigner to be taken with the British sense of purpose. German Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt reflected on the resolve of the British after the war, ruefully concluding that the Germans should have learned from World War I:

    We should have known better after the first war. The French came close to collapse in 1917; der Englander, even after our 1918 offensive, never. 

    Like the British, the German civilians weren't daunted by the deliberate targeting of civilian centers. Terror bombing by both the RAF and Luftwaffe had the opposite of the intended effect and only served to harden the resolve of the victims. Postwar surveys of strategic bombing by the British and the Americans ultimately concluded that strategic bombing wasn't nearly as decisive a factor in the war's outcome as hoped.