London Burning

A fresh account of how Londoners responded to the impact of the Second World War. 

Mrs Ridley (fourth left) queues for a bus to her evening class in the West End of London, 1940. Ministry of Information/Imperial War Museum/Wiki Commons.

In this, his eighth book on London’s history, Jerry White gives us a fresh and masterful account of how Londoners responded to the impact of the Second World War. This is well-trodden territory, but White offers a distinctive perspective on the appalling toll from the air raids and how officials and volunteers came together to save lives and their city. 

It became fashionable in the 1990s to write of ‘the myth of the Blitz’ and White usefully contextualises this trend. He points out that observers in 1940 needed ‘a story’ and critical assessments based on local failings had a lasting effect. Even Mass Observation could be ‘constitutionally disposed to look on the gloomy side of life’. The reality was more complex. 

There are expert insights into the politics of local civil defence. Labour fiefdoms could be resentful of the arrival of well-intentioned volunteers. Poplar was ‘a model of civil defence’, in contrast to Stepney, where there were failings of leadership. The better-run boroughs had the good sense to bring their post-raid facilities into one building to save the bombed-out from having to traipse from one office to another. As for central government, it was known to be penny-pinching and was often under suspicion. 

There is interesting material on London’s economy, including the adaptability of companies to the demands of the war. Ford Dagenham, for example, produced nearly 350,000 army lorries, RAF tractors and troop carriers. We get a sense of the physical changes to the city – the huge pile of rubble trucked over from the devastated areas and heaped up in Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park. Everyone was conscious of class differences, but there was greater equality now: air raid warden Barbara Nixon observed how a number 38 bus conductor neatly reproved a well-to-do woman who complained about the presence of a wretched-looking passenger with her two children. With dust and glass in their hair, the conductor could see that they had just survived a raid.

Throughout the book White deploys the words of a handful of diarists: typists, a clerk, a warehouseman, a social worker. ‘Hope to goodness my nerve doesn’t break’, confided Olivia Cockett. ‘How I hate myself for being sick with fear’, worried Vivienne Hall. With them we sense the relentless arrival each year of Christmas, somehow needing to be celebrated despite shortages and there being no end in sight. 

The rest of the nation knew that London had had it the worst. White gives us little-known episodes, like the selfless support that came from the provinces at the time of the V1 flying bomb attacks: 1,000 air raid wardens from across Britain travelled to the capital to help defend it against this new and terrifying phenomenon. The WVS (Women’s Voluntary Services) ingeniously organised the ‘adoption’ of London boroughs by regions in the rest of the UK. Warwickshire adopted Shoreditch, Shropshire adopted Hackney and so forth, supplying them with all manner of furniture and appliances. 

Eventually the war ended, but the scale of the destruction meant that there was desperate overcrowding and homelessness, with thousands in temporary billets and shelters. Nearly 30,000 Londoners had lost their lives and over 50,000 had been hospitalised by injury. The collectivism that had been ‘woven into the fabric of every neighbourhood’ had produced extraordinary bonds but, as White shows us in this masterful account, the city’s recovery would take decades.


The Battle of London 1939-45: Endurance, Heroism and Frailty Under Fire
Jerry White
The Bodley Head 448pp £30
Buy from (affiliate link)

Suzanne Bardgett is Head of Research and Academic Partnerships, Imperial War Museum Institute.