WWII Reminders of a Nightmare That Never Was | Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours

WWII Reminders of a Nightmare That Never Was

London during the BlitzIn Senior Historian Chris Anderson’s recent History Hikes dispatch, he stumbles upon a tangible reminder of the fears of pre-World War II Londoners. Read on to find out what he discovered when he inadvertently ended up in Tabard Gardens and how it tells the larger story of civilian life during WWII.

History Hikes Dispatch: Reminders of a Nightmare That Never War

By Chris Anderson, Senior Historian

Sunday, September 3, 1939, was a glorious day and despite the disturbing news coming out of Poland, many in Britain were trying to squeeze the last little bit of sunshine out of summer. Their idyl came to an end at 11:15 when Neville Chamberlain addressed the nation from Number 10 Downing Street. The prime minister announced that the 11:00 AM deadline for Germany to withdraw its troops from Poland had passed and that, consequentially, “this country is at war with Germany.”

Novelist Margery Allingham remarked that she listened to the prime minister’s announcement with, “a breathless feeling of mingled relief and intolerable grief. Well, it’s come,” she later remarked, “This is where our philosophy led…This is what comes of not interfering when you see something horrible happening, even if it isn’t your business. This was our portion after all.”

Seven minutes after Chamberlain’s address finished, the air raid sirens sounded across London. People were stunned. Derek Barnes, a 39-year-old Great War veteran, broke down in tears of sadness and rage. People could be seen rushing from their homes to find shelter while others scrambled for long-neglected masks to defend themselves against imminent gas attack. Even the imperturbable Winston Churchill made his way to a shelter.

Command of the Air bookGiven that we now know that it would be almost a year before the first bombs would fall on London, it is easy to make light of the terror many in Britain felt. But if you understand that people in the 1930s feared aerial bombardment in much the same way as we were terrified by the prospect of nuclear Armageddon, then it is perhaps easier to have some sympathy for Londoners that afternoon.

I was reminded of this recently while walking around the neighborhood that surrounds London Bridge Station with Anna. I was looking for the location of Stainer Street, where, on the evening of February 17, 1941, some ninety people were killed when the entrance to the railroad archway they were sheltering in collapsed due to the bombing. As usual, I had gotten a bit turned around and found myself in nearby Tabard Gardens. The estate that surrounds the gardens looked like typical pre-war housing so I took a few pictures to remind myself where I had been and returned to my search.

When I got home I started going through my pictures of the day’s walk. When I got to the pictures of the estate, what intrigued me the most was the fencing thar ran around all the buildings. It was unusual. I did some quick digging and was amazed to discover that the rusty old bits of iron fencing had begun their lives as something much different and that, eighty-plus years on, they served as a telling reminder of the fear that gripped Britain in the years leading up to the start of World War II.  

The list of terrible consequences of World War I is a long one. Among them is the impact on civilians. Of the nearly 20 million dead of the war, some 10-millions had been non-combatants. Not since the Thirty Years War had civilians suffered so greatly. Breaking the will of an enemy’s civilian population was now seen as a legitimate military objective. By the end of the war, it was accepted as a given that in any future war civilians would be a target.

One of the ways this would be achieved was through aerial bombardment. Between 1915 and 1918 the Germans had staged 118 raids on British cities and killed 1,400 people. The British reciprocated by dropping 660 tons of their own bombs on Germany. Although the damage caused by these raids was mostly psychological, after the war they served as a source of inspiration for military theorists who were looking for a way to avoid the bloodletting of the trenches if war came again.

Italian General Giulio Douhet
Italian General Giulio Douhet

One of the most famous of these theorists was Italian general Giulio Douhet. In his hugely influential, Command of the Air (1921), Douhet advocated for the use of aerial bombardment to destroy an enemy quickly and completely.  “A man who is fighting a life and death struggle—as all wars are nowadays—has the right to use any means to keep his life.” This included mass bombing of civilian targets with explosive and biological weapons to destroy an enemy’s will to fight. As historian Brett Holmes has pointed out, “Collectively, they (military theorists) argued that the coming of aviation had fundamentally changed war, making it fast and more destructive. And crucially aimed principally at civilians rather than soldiers and sailors.”

The idea was that, minutes after a declaration of war, a belligerent nation would appear in the skies over its foe’s country and deluge their opponent with tons of bombs and clouds of poison gas. So devastated by what was called, “the knock-out blow,” the nation that failed to control its airspace would be doomed. Throughout the 1920s pacifists and futurists spoke and wrote frequently on the knock-out blow. Not alone, leading military thinkers and strategists warned of the dire consequences of falling behind in the aerial arms race.

Famed military thinker J.F.C. Fuller wrote of the aftermath of an airstrike on Britain’s capital. “London, for several days, will be one vast raining bedlam. The hospitals will be stormed, traffic will cease, the homeless will shriek for help, the city will be in pandemonium.”

J.F.C. Fuller
Military thinker J.F.C. Fuller

In 1924, just 13-years after the first bomb was dropped from an aircraft in combat, the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) Sub-Committee of the Committee of Imperial Defense was formed. The ARP was tasked with identifying the threat and coming up with possible countermeasures. Within the first few hours of a declaration of war, the ARP declared, up to 450 tons of bombs could be dropped on London. As many as 25,000 Londoners a month would become casualties.

As the years rolled on, these predictions became more and more nightmarish as technological improvements led to the development of long-range bombers that could carry increasingly large payloads. Fear of what these new aircraft could accomplish was stoked amongst the public by a whole new genre of apocalypse literature written by authors like H.G. Wells. Nothing, it seemed, could stop the bombers.

In an off-quoted speech in Parliament in 1932, Stanley Baldwin said,

I think it is well also for the man in the street to realise that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed. Whatever people may tell him, the bomber will always get through. The only defence is in offence, which means that you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves… If the conscience of the young men should ever come to feel, with regard to this one instrument [bombing] that it is evil and should go, the thing will be done; but if they do not feel like that – well, as I say, the future is in their hands. But when the next war comes, and European civilisation is wiped out, as it will be, and by no force more than that force, then do not let them lay blame on the old men. Let them remember that they, principally, or they alone, are responsible for the terrors that have fallen upon the earth.

Stanley Baldwin
Stanley Baldwin

By the time the ARP became a stand-alone organization under the auspices of the Home Office in 1935, the international situation had changed markedly. Adolf Hitler had come to power and Nazi Germany, which prided itself on its modern air force, was now seen as the greatest threat. Experts within the ARP now began looking at the results of a hypothetical attack on London by the Luftwaffe. In his outstanding, Britain at War, Alan Allport remarks that,

Their calculations produced grim data. It was anticipated that for every ton of bombs dropped on a densely crowded urban area, twenty-four people would be killed and forty-eight injured, half of them seriously. The Air Ministry anticipated that the Luftwaffe would be able to begin a major attack against London by dropping 3,5000 tons of bombs in the first 24 hours and 700 tons a day for the two weeks following. This meant that the first fortnight of war would see roughly 300,000 Britons killed. Within 60 days twice as many might be dead. Perhaps one quarter of the Luftwaffe’s bombs would be filled with poison gas, which would kill even more people.

The question was what to do? Pacificists believed that spending large sums of money on defense would only set off another arms race. Fiscal conservatives fretted that expenditure on armament would further weaken economies still reeling from depression and recession. And no one, it seemed, wanted to do anything that would antagonize Adolf Hitler or his crony Benito Mussolini. For much of the interwar period, Great Britain’s Ministry of Defense had to deal with a downward spiral of repeated cuts. In 1921 the defense budget had been 189 million GBP. By 1932 it had shrunk to 102 million. Also, for much of this period, Britain planned its military expenditure around the “10-year rule,” which stated that since no large-scale military conflict was likely to occur, new weapons development could be manage on a 10-year time cycle. When Hitler came to power in 1933, the RAF was still flying biplanes.

It was during these “wilderness years,” of the 1930s, when he was out of power and many thought his political career was over, that Winston Churchill railed against fascism and the weakened state of his own country’s defenses. In fact, it was largely his constant decrying of appeasement and neglect of the armed forces that kept the future prime minister in the public eye. In part due to Churchill and the “troublesome young men” who supported him, public perceptions of the need to stand up to totalitarian governments began to shift.

Never generous enough, slowly defense budgets increased. It is very fortunate given what was to come. Largely due to fear of the knock-out blow and a resulting “aerial Armageddon,” what money was spent on armaments was largely directed into areas that were to be critically important once war came. According to historian Richard Overy, “Between 1937 and the outbreak of war this meant devoting the lion’s share of resources to Fighter Command, the air defense network and civil defense.”

Rather than spend limited funds on the Army or Royal Navy, in an effort to come up with some sort of defense against aerial attack, money went to the establishment of the chain radar stations that would alert the RAF to approaching waves of Luftwaffe bombers and the development and production of the Hurricane and Spitfire fighter aircraft that would stop them. Between 1937 and 1939, Fighter Command doubled in size. In addition, huge sums began to be spent in civil defense preparations.

From 1935 until 1939, the ARP budget was increased from 100,000 to 830,000 GBP and an additional 6 million was set aside for the acquisition of gas masks and other civil defense measures. By 1938 some 35 million gas masks had been issued. Just as important, civil defense volunteers were recruited and systems were put in place to deal with mass casualties.  

Much of the work for planning to confront the challenges of aerial attacks on civilians were handled by local councils. In the case of the London County Council (LCC) this included the acquisition of a half a million stretchers. Unlike ordinary stretchers of the day, which were constructed of wood and canvas, those built for the LCC were made of metal so they could be easily washed down for re-use and decontaminated after a chemical attack.

The bombers finally came on September 7, 1940, and for the next eight months German bombs rained down on British cities—the majority of London. While the casualties suffered were terrible—some 43,000 were killed, 139,000 wounded-they were nothing like the nightmare predictions of men like Baldwin and Fuller. Britons’ will to fight had not been broken. At the height of the Blitz, one American observer wrote, “By every test and measure I am able to apply, these people are staunch to the bone and won’t quit…The British are stronger and in a better position than they were at the beginning.”

Even after the Blitz ended in May 1941, periodic nuisance raids were launched against the city and, in 1944, Londoners endured a “mini-Blitz” of V1 and V2 rockets. None of this, however, brought the city to its knees or fulfilled the wildest imaginings of the doomsayers.

Part of the reason this was so, was because of the measures taken in the 1930s as a result of the fear of a knock-out blow.

The war over, in 1945 Britain began to rebuild. Housing was in incredibly short supply—an estimated 2 million homes had been destroyed as a result of German bombardment—as were building supplies needed to construct new homes. The situation was particularly bad in London. One solution hit on by the LCC to help speed things along was to make use of the stockpile of half a million stretchers it no longer had use for. Purpose built to deal with the nightmare imaginings of pre-war planners, the iron stretchers were now used as ready-made fencing material at housing estates around London. These were the unique reminders of the fears of pre-war Londoners that I had stumbled upon at Tabard Gardens.

Over the years as the city was rebuilt and transformed, most of the unique fences—and the housing estates they surrounded—have disappeared. There are still a few places, however, like Tabard Street, where you can see a tangible reminder of the fear that gripped Londoners before the war. You just have to know what to look for.

Learn More About the Early Years of WWII

Britain at Bay: The Epic Story of the Second World War 1938-1941, Alan Allport. This is a fantastic new account of the early years of the war. Highly recommended.

The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945, Richard Overy. This is a very thoughtful analysis of the evolution of strategic bombing. His explanation of the “knock-out” blow theory is particularly insightful.

There is also a Stretcher Railing Society that works to raise public awareness of the stretcher fences and to work to preserve the few fences that are left. Sadly, their web site seems to be down. They have a Facebook page that has a good archive of posts and some wonderful pictures. You can also find the locations of the remaining fences there.

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