How to Survive the BlitzBreaking News
tags: World War II, britain, 1940s, coronavirus, blitzkrieg
They thought it would be worse than it turned out to be. In the years leading up to World War II, British planners estimated the effects a German bombing campaign would have on England. They figured that London would be flattened, 200,000 Brits would die in the first barrage, and millions would go insane. In The Splendid and the Vile, his gripping history of the period, Erik Larson quotes one military planner: “London for several days will be one vast raving bedlam. The hospitals will be stormed, traffic will cease, the homeless will shriek for help, the city will be a pandemonium.”
The Blitz did turn out to be pretty bad. The bombing went on for months, sometimes by day, always by night. Hundreds or more than a thousand were killed each night—occasionally dozens in one blow, when a bomb would hit an underground shelter. There were scenes of horror: a dog walking down the street with a child’s arm in its mouth; a young girl tossed into a neighboring backyard by a blast that decimated the rest of her family. Early in the Blitz, a man named Len Jones emerged from his shelter and found two heads protruding from a mass of rubble. One was his neighbor’s. “He had one eye closed and I realized he was dead,” Jones recalled in an interview with The Telegraph. “I just convulsed. I was shaking all over. I thought, well, I must be dead because they were, so I struck a match and tried to burn my finger. I kept doing it to see if I was still alive. I could see, but I thought, I cannot be alive. This is the end of the world.”
But the worst-case projections did not come to pass. People generally did not lose their mind. Few called for surrender, and only a handful criticized the government. Social solidarity was not shredded—it was enhanced. During the months of the bombings, war production actually increased.
Government censors found that morale was actually highest in the most badly hit places. When you read through diaries and letters from during the Blitz, you do come across some passages that describe raw terror—but mostly they are filled with descriptions of surreal circumstances, rendered in a quotidian, unemotional, and matter-of-fact tone.