The Longest Night: 10-11 May 1941, Voices from the London Blitz
This week sees the sixty-fifth anniversary of the worst night of the Blitz, when London became a sea of flames. Time Out interviewed hundreds of people who survived the onslaught. These are their voices
On Saturday May 10 1941, the Luftwaffe launched an unprecedented assault on London. At 11pm, as the air raid sirens echoed across the city, the first explosions occurred. By the following morning, the German bombers had claimed 1,486 lives, destroyed 11,000 houses, and hit the Houses of Parliament, Waterloo Station, the British Museum and many other landmark buildings. It was a night that would change the face of the capital forever.
At 30 minutes past midnight, the storm broke over London. The smoke from the Fireraisers [incendiary bombers] had dissipated and people on the ground looking up saw a sky lousy with German bombers. Thirty Junkers 88s from [unit] KG1, 29 Junkers of KG77, 59 Junkers of KG54, 42 Heinkel He111s of KG55 and 28 Heinkels of KG27, with a hundred more half an hour behind.
Special Constable Ballard Berkeley was patrolling his beat when the first bombs dropped. He was standing outside the Lyons Corner House in Coventry Street talking in his actor’s voice [Ballard went on to play the Major in ‘Fawlty Towers’] to the customers coming in and out of the restaurant, when a cataract of incendiaries fell from the sky at 250mph. They hit the ground with their curious and distinctive plop-plop sound and then erupted in a sizzle of bluish-white flame. Ballard watched ‘helpless’ with mirth as a man put a steel helmet over one of the incendiaries: ‘The helmet went red hot, white hot and then disintegrated.’ It also amused the news vendor standing on the Corner House with the evening edition stacked in front of him. ‘Star, News, Standard!’ he bellowed with a grin on his face. ‘Star, News, Standard! Cup final result! Cup final result!’
‘He just stood there,’ recalls Ballard, ‘and the bombs came down and he kept selling his papers.’ Another bunch of incendiaries fell, just a few yards in front of a prostitute coming up from Piccadilly. ‘She had an umbrella up,’ said Ballard, ‘and she was singing, “I’m singing in the rain…”. The only rain coming down was the incendiary bombs. And I remember thinking: I wish Hitler and Goering could have a look at this.
It was quite extraordinary.’
Bombs fell everywhere in those bedlam hours. They fell in the north, in Purcell Street, Islington, where a HE bomb flattened 17 houses and left eight dead. They fell in the south, in Cunard Street, Southwark, where a landmine exploded on a row of houses owned by the RWhite’s Lemonade Company killing 14. They fell in the east, in Redmead Lane, Wapping, where a bomb landed on the premises of T Allen Ltd, a cartage contractor, wrecking his ten horse-drawn vans, killing a driver and several horses. They fell in the west, in Notting Hill, where a covey of high explosives pulverised Bomore Road hewing out Nos 12 to 40 on one side and 29 to 41 on the other. Seven civilians died and 13 were wounded.
The bombs were no less arbitrary than usual on May 10 1941. They picked their victims at random, indifferent to sex or age or godliness. At 15 Mann Street, Southwark, a couple were sitting either side of their kitchen table when an explosion dislodged the chimney breast above them. It fell noiselessly, shattering the table but leaving the pair without a scratch. In Walworth, 19-year-old Hereward Barling was guiding a doctor to an incident in Rodney Road when a bomb dropped, killing Barling instantly but sparing the doctor. In Clapham, 15-year-old Maggie Meggs got out of bed to tell her parents they have to leave the house. ‘Something bad is going to happen,’ she told them. Muttering at the whims of teenagers, Mr and Mrs Meggs took their daughter to the shelter. On their return they found a two-foot spear of glass embedded in Maggie’s pillow.
Other buildings were hit just as indiscriminately, like the Queen’s Hall in Langham Place. Just a few hours earlier, the Hall had held 2,400 people listening in rapture to Malcolm Sargent conduct the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Now, the only voices were those of Tom Clark, the electrician, and Bob Rhodes, a fireman permanently stationed in the 21,000 square foot of the Queen’s Hall. The pair had just swept the building for incendiaries and found nothing amiss. They put their feet in the caretaker’s room just inside the artists’ entrance in Riding House Street and filled the kettle with water. Suddenly they heard a heavy thud on the roof. They ran into the Hall and saw through the skylights sparks and flames coming from the side of one of the oval windows at the back centre of the ceiling, as though one of the workmen up there was ‘welding an acetylene lamp’. Rhodes thanked his good fortune. A 50-foot hose was positioned just at that spot, and with the help of Clark the incendiaries were quickly extinguished. Clark told Rhodes he could turn the water off, but before Rhodes had moved the hose went dry. ‘It’s turned itself off, Tom,’ said Rhodes. Then there was a hiss, a sudden tremendous explosion of energy and the flames were roaring from the incendiary once more. Clark hurtled into the caretaker’s room and phoned the fire service. They said they would be there as quickly as they could.
Half an hour later flames were threshing back and forth across the entire roof of the Queen’s Hall. When debris from the roof began to fall into the Hall there was still no sign of a fire engine; nor was there when the seats caught fire or when the blue-green paint started to wriggle down the walls. They hadn’t appeared when the gilded pipes of the towering organ cracked and toppled, nor when the flames writhed their way underneath the platform into the band room where the instruments were stored. Inside they destroyed without discretion, devouring Amatis and Guearnerius and Stradivarius and cheap, worn instruments that lay beside them.
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