Sunday, 5 September 2010

The East End Blitz myth?

The story is well established in the national historical memory. Even those who should know better, such as Corelli Barnett writing today in the Indie, repeat the story to some extent. Of how the Blitz was directed against the East End of London, the docks and industries, and of how the resilient cockneys flipped the bird to Herman Goering; of how the Queen and Churchill were filmed walking amongst the East End bomb rubble, of how it was 'business as usual', of the dome of St Paul's wreathed in smoke. The East End, the story goes, bore the brunt of the Blitz.

In fact we know now that morale in the East End was decidedly shaky and close to panic. I've also seen a captured Luftwaffe training film held by the IWM, viewed on one of their huge Steenbeck flatbeds at the film archive and as far as I know never otherwise released. The film shows an approach along the ribbon of the Thames, with intermediate targets of Barking, Dagenham and the Royal Arsenal to right and left, but the destination point for the navigator and bomb aimer was Tower Bridge; once reached, the area all about was fair game.

The bombing density map below, for the period up to October 1941, declassified in 1971, tells a story that supports the IWM's training film. That in fact it wasn't the East End, but the West End that bore the brunt of the bombing. The Arsenal appears as a blank, bomb damage there being even too secret for 'Most Secret' classification.

Until further information is found we can only speculate on the 'why' of this elaborate wartime disinformation, but be wary as you watch the slew of poorly researched TV pieces on the London Blitz this month, all of which will probably repeat the myth.


11 comments:

Frank Davis said...

What do you call the West End? West of what? From my recollections of London, the areas of Soho, Regent Street, Oxford Street, and points west of there were relatively undamaged. Most of the buildings there survived. e.g. Kensington and Chelsea.

But the City of London and points east of that were pretty much flattened, and little of the old architecture remains. And this is where most of the post-war rebuilding took place, and where most modern architecture is found.

So, regardless of the bombing density maps, the East End of London was far more badly damaged than the West End.

Frank Davis said...

It was similar in Bristol, where I lived for many years. The West End of Bristol - Clifton - was almost completely undamaged. But the centre of Bristol was flattened, and is now full of dreadful post-war architecture.

Raedwald said...

Frank - much of the difference we see now between Kensington and Newham wasn't the result of the Blitz but of post war 'slum clearance'.

I remember coming out of a conference in Whitechapel for a quick smoke on a large traffic island surrounded by 1960s concrete. I got chatting to an old boy leaning on the cattle-pen fence. I commented with a sweep of the hand that the wartime damage must have been dreadful; he looked at me with incredulity and replied "It wasn't the Germans; it was the bloody Council that knocked all this lot down!"

Woodsy42 said...

My mother spent the war in the East end, her father being an engine driver based at Stratford, a very significant transport hub and prime target. They were bombed out 3 times by raids and had to find alternative accommodation. I don't think they were at all exceptional. That sounds like an uncomfortable amount of bombing to me. I agree with frank Davis, and I suspect you are wrong

Frank Davis said...

May I offer a compromise? Perhaps we could say that much of the East End wasn't very well built in the first place, unlike the West End, and the same amount of bombing tended to do much more damage in the East End than in the West End. After the war, when the planners looked at the West End, they thought it could mostly be repaired or rebuilt. But when they looked at the East End, they thought it best to pull it all down and start again.

So half German bombs, half local councils.

Raedwald said...

Frank - Yes, that's much closer to the truth of it. Also much of the damage was done post-Blitz by the V1s and V2s later in the war - the map only catalogues damage to 1941.

And we know now that due to our intelligence operations, we got the Germans to set most V1s to fall in East and South East London rather than central or North West London - so later damage, post-blitz damage, was disproportionate.

And yes, the Abercrombie Plan for the post-war reconstruction of London was implemented savagely in the East and resisted strongly in the West. Even very lightly bomb-damaged structures were pulled down in the East, with the curious effect that scars from shrapnel damage are still today highly visible to buildings in central and West London but all but invisible in East London.

But none of this answers the point I was making; that the impact of the Blitz, that is the bombing campaign that ended in 1941, fell mostly on the centre and West, yet the myth persists that it was confined to the East End. Why?

Old Londoner said...

Why? Possibly because by the time the bombers got to their "target area" of Tower Bridge, coming in along the river they would already be well past much of the east end. In a matter of moments at 150mph they would be over Battersea and other points west of the City centre. That may help explain your theory.

William Gruff said...

Why? I think the answer lies partly in the fear of those in authority, as expressed later, on the occasion of the Labour Party victory in 1945 for example, that the masses might not have followed the officer class quite as blindly as they did in 1914.

There's a seldom retailed anecdote about one of Churchill's visits to the East End after a raid. As he posed for the photographers, in the hearing of the assembled journalists, he growled 'we can take it' and was met with a volley of abuse from the dockers' wives standing about: 'You fucking take it,' they are said to have told him, 'we're sick of it.'

The dockers, and other workers in the East End, were notorious for their lack of 'commitment' to the war effort (striking for danger money when unloading munition ships for example) and I suspect that it was thought necessary to 'celebrate' the sufferings of the most working class of the working classes, perhaps in the interests of holding together a coalition government, that was never entirely behind its Prime Minister, and least so in the latter part of 1940. I've always thought 1940 the most significant year of the war where social history is concerned: In January 1940 it was still possible for a public school boy to walk into a commission; in January 1941 it was not.

The politics of blitz propaganda are probably not so easily discerned now but there is enough evidence to suggest that those working for the post-war peace were able to shape it to their purpose.

Raedwald said...

William - that's probably the best explanation I can imagine, and not one that had occurred to me. I shall keep my eyes out for corroborative evidence.

Bessie said...

I have to disagree in part. The stories I have heard from my Eastender in-laws certainly do not suggest that the East End Blitz was wartime propaganda. But that's the point. Many stories of personal experiences in the East End have been passed down through families because there were an awful lot of ordinary people living there. It was an area of high-density, low-quality housing, not offices, theatres, shops, or city apartments for those who could escape to the countryside. And the adults living there -- unlike their children, safely evacuated -- had nowhere else to go.

You are partly right about slum clearance. My mother-in-law's huge family had to leave their house after the explosion of the Haggerston gasworks, just across the road from them (caused by a V1 or V2, I think, not the Blitz). The house was not destroyed, but it was judged to be structurally unsound and later demolished. Of course, we like to think that those houses could have been preserved and would now be worth a fortune. But I live in a cheaply built Victorian terraced cottage, similar to those of East London: the bricks are so crap that they crumble at the slightest touch of a power drill. If there were a big explosion over the road from my house, nothing would induce me to stick around!

Chris said...

Um, I really don't see any great problem here.

The map shows heavy bombing over the docks in the East End; mainly the Royal Albert and Royal Victoria docks within the larger area at the right which appears to extend to the north to include Stratford, the smaller area within contains the West India docks, and the larger blob over the City and central London, which fairly obviously includes the central business districts, all the major railheads, government offices etc.

The map appears to be consistent with a wartime aim of disrupting economic and government activity.

Second, your definition of the East End must be different from mine; I've always considered the East End to start at Aldgate East and extend to the docks area but not much further beyond (which would be East London but not the East End).

Beyond the obvious wartime propaganda (Edward Morrow, the King and Queen Mother mooching around bomb sites) I'm not aware of any "myth" specifically being built around the East End. Only London generally.

And the only reference to the East End in Barnett's article comes at the end of the second para; "Huge new fires were started around the London docks and in the City of London. The close-packed houses of the East End were smashed by high-explosive bombs or burned down by phosphorus firebombs."

The East End had a much higher housing density than the City (bugger all housing), central London (again, pretty much bugger all). Further out, the housing density is lower. So any raid on the docks would be likely to damage more housing than elsewhere.

Barnett then goes on to say "In climactic raids on 29 December 1940 and again on 10 May 1941, the Luftwaffe started colossal conflagrations in central and eastern London".

Really, what point are you trying make here?