Buried alive, shot at from planes, homes turned to rubble… Eighty years after Britain’s worst-ever bombardment, Kate Thompson salutes the bravery of the women who lived through it.
Oxford Street, London, 1940. Young mum Dorothea Medhurst is pushing her baby along the street in her pram when the air-raid siren wails. She stops, heart hammering in her chest. Where to take shelter?
‘Run and get your kiddies safe,’ shouts an elderly gentleman. ‘I am right behind you…’ He doesn’t finish the sentence because in that moment, a bomb drops nearby. She hears a bang, a whoosh and a whistling. Dorothea instinctively ducks as the ground beneath her feet tremors. A piece of plate glass explodes out of a shop window. It misses Dorothea, sails over the top of her pram and slices the man horizontally in two. For a moment, Dorothea is paralysed as she watches the two halves of his body fall away. Then she turns and runs, pushing the pram, and she doesn’t stop until she reaches her home in Kensington.
This true story is unspeakably horrific, but it does illustrate the spectre of loss and random horror that was the daily backdrop to life during the Blitz. The memory remained indelibly etched in Dorothea’s mind – so much so that she included it in her memoirs, which is how I came to discover it.
Anyone who lived through the Blitz has a story to tell and now that generation will remember once more. This 11 May officially marks 80 years since the all clear sounded and the Blitz (short for the Blitzkrieg, German for ‘lightning war’), the eight-month period of German bombardment that decimated British towns and cities, came to an end. This anniversary is particularly poignant, as it will be the last significant one in which many survivors are alive to tell their stories. As a historical author, I have listened spellbound to hundreds of wartime survivors relive their memories. Eighty years on, the need to remember overcomes the desire to forget.
Over 43,000 lost their lives. A million houses in London alone were destroyed. Powerful forces of social change were put into motion that would alter the face of Britain. And, perhaps most importantly, Britain resisted invasion.
But one story sings out to me louder than all the others. The Blitz was the first time women and children found themselves consistently in the firing line. Rather than buckle under the pressure, the so-called gentler sex were proving themselves in ways never predicted. The way British women collectively confronted the challenge remains one of our country’s greatest hidden histories.
Kay Coupland, from Lytham St Annes in Lancashire, was just 18 when she went from a job in dressmaking to working on ambulance duty for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). ‘The 29th of December 1940 was particularly bad for fires – even the hoses were burning,’ she recalls. ‘We were sent on a job to a point in North London with sweeping views and, oh my! The whole of London was on fire! Countless churches and all the spires were blazing. Suddenly, there was a terrific clap of thunder. Rain came down in buckets, drenching the fires. It felt like divine intervention. “Now we’ll see what God can do,” I said to my colleague.
‘There were more sad times to come,’ Kay told me. ‘My good pal Joan, who worked with me in the WAAF, was killed soon after. One minute she was working right by my side on the switchboard, the next moment she was dead on the floor. A piece of flying shrapnel had caught her in the neck. I didn’t have time to grieve for her or dwell on the dangers – I just had to get on with things.
‘I wasn’t brave,’ she insisted. ‘I just had no choice.’
Kay’s modesty about her work in the Blitz is humbling. For a year, she worked at the Eastern Fever Hospital in Hackney. ‘It was the East Enders I felt most sorry for,’ she said. ‘The raids were terrible in that quarter, but those proud cockney women were marvellous. I’d never seen anything like the scenes I saw in areas like Bethnal Green and Stepney, with everyone pulling together. There was always a street “auntie” on hand, directing the clear-up operation, a big sister looking after a horde of kids while the mum went off to work in a factory. I even saw one young woman sweeping the glass off the streets in a siren suit, red lipstick and heels!’ Sadly, Kay died shortly after recounting her memories to me, aged 96.
The same December night Kay was ferrying casualties to hospital, East Ender Marie Butwell was entombed below ground. ‘It was a bomber’s moon (a full moon) and all you could see were Jerry planes. You couldn’t put a pin between them,’ 87-year-old Marie told me. ‘My mum Alice dragged me up the street and into our neighbour’s Anderson shelter.’
Up above, 136 German bombers were readying themselves to deliver 127 tons of high-explosive bombs. It was one of those bombs that landed on a railway siding in Stepney, covering the Anderson shelter in an avalanche of debris.
‘We were buried alive,’ Marie recalls. ‘It was hot and stuffy and we lost track of time. When the candles finally flickered out, we were plunged into an inky underground coffin. You couldn’t see a hand in front of you.’
Marie and her neighbour were trapped for three days before rescuers finally pulled them into the gritty dawn of New Year’s Day 1941. Marie suffered many ordeals during the war – her parents’ separation, the deaths of her friends in a V1 rocket strike – but it was this ordeal that left her with lifelong claustrophobia. ‘To this day, I have to know where the exit is and I can’t go to bed without filling the kettle, because during the Blitz you never knew when the water supply would be cut off.’
It fell to mothers like Alice to not only clock on for war work, but ensure the safety of their children, because contrary to popular belief, not all children were evacuated.
‘My mother had us evacuated but missed us so much she brought us home again,’ says Glad Westfallen, 84, from Colchester. ‘She raised seven children in Poplar by the docks, the worst hit area. I remember her in the shelters reading us bedtime stories to try to drown out the thump of bombs. When the bombs got louder, her fingers would curl around the spine of the book, but she kept on reading. She loved us with a fierce maternal pride.’
Some of these mothers unwittingly found themselves immortalised as icons of the Blitz. Caroline Wright from Stepney was 21 when it began. Her husband was away in the Army and she was working two jobs, as well as caring for her baby son, Harry, when her home took a direct hit. With a babe in arms and nothing but the slippers she stood up in, she walked to the People’s Palace theatre in Mile End to get a change of clothes. While there, she was photographed tenderly holding her baby by the Picture Post. The photo (below) became a symbol of a mother’s stoicism. It was only after Caroline’s death in 2001, aged 82, that her family were stunned to discover the sculptor Henry Moore had used the photo as the basis of one of his famous shelter paintings, now on display at The Imperial War Museum. Harry, the baby in the photo and painting, is now an 80-year-old great-grandfather from Sellindge in Kent.
‘It was wonderful to discover that Mum and I had been immortalised by the famous artist and are now a piece of social history,’ he said. ‘It also prompted a deeper reflection on what Mum had endured. She never discussed it, but now we see how brave she was to contend with such a terrifying time. We have even more respect for her, and for all those women on the Home Front who were left to keep their families together and survive. They were war heroes, too.’
Dolly Simpson agreed. Her voice was laced with anger when she leant forward to tell me this shortly before her death aged 96: ‘We went from being mothers and wives to workers and fighters. It’s us who deserved the medals. We risked our lives, working and raising families in a war zone. My friend’s brother came home on leave during the Blitz. He couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t wait to go back into the Army.’
Caroline wasn’t the only woman to find herself propelled on to the front pages. Further east in Poplar, Irish mum of 12 Mary was frantically bundling her three smallest children and what belongings she could salvage into a pram, while her home burnt behind her. She was photographed as she fled and the image (below) has since been held up as an example of Blitz fortitude. The middle child in the pram is now an 85-year-old grandmother.
‘Mum is the lady on the far right of the picture and the man on the left is my father,’ recalls her daughter Mary Ashmore from Canning Town, East London. ‘I remember feeling frightened as my mum bundled Molly, Maureen and me into the pram. From Poplar, we found ourselves in a tiny Oxfordshire village. After the sooty streets of London, it was paradise.
‘When the Blitz ended, Dad insisted we come home. In the photo, he looks like a brave protector, but in reality he was a hard man. I overheard Mum discussing this move with my auntie. “If I go back to the smoke, it’ll kill me,” she said. Tragically, her words turned out to be true. Three years after the war ended, she died. Kidney failure killed her, but I’ve no doubt the Blitz hastened her demise,’ Mary says.
But not all experiences were so salted in despair. For some, the Blitz was strangely life-affirming. Daisy Woodard, 93, has rarely left her Isle of Dogs home and certainly wasn’t about to when war was declared. ‘I remember waving goodbye to all my pals as they disappeared from the street on the back of a lorry as they were being evacuated. Little did I know what lay ahead. When the Blitz began on Black Saturday, 7 September 1940 [when around 1,000 bombs were dropped in areas such as the Royal Docks], we only had a street shelter, and the noise was tremendous.’ Daisy ran to the arches in Mudchute, with her mother in hot pursuit. ‘It felt like the whole world was on fire,’ she said, shaking her head at the memory of running through flames and rubble. ‘On my 13th birthday, I woke up under the arches and said to my mum: “I wonder what Hitler’s brought me for my birthday?” We got home to find a smoking pile of rubble where our house used to be.’
Daisy’s sang-froid at being bombed out masks what must have been an intensely frightening experience. They were rehoused and spent the rest of the war on the Isle of Dogs, despite a memorable Blitz experience in which Daisy was machine gunned by a plane.
‘I was walking down Newcastle Street when a Jerry pilot flew down so low I could see his face. He was actually laughing as he fired! Bullets cracked the pavement around my feet as I dived through my doorway.’
‘How did you cope?’ I asked her. She shrugged. ‘No choice. I’ve always tried to make the best of things.’
The evocative photo of Daisy and her workmate Dolly on a tea break outside the rope factory where they worked (above) sums up the resilience of so many wartime women I have had the privilege to interview. As we leafed through her family album, I realised that for Daisy, emerging from the fiery furnace of the Blitz varnished her into the strong woman she is today. The ‘no choice but to get on with it’ generation can teach us so much, if only we listen.
The Blitz did have one good side-effect. Hitler’s best efforts hastened the slum clearance programme. Noreen Smith, 89, was evacuated from her Stepney home, but when she returned, her parents’ pub, The Victory, was the only building left standing in the street.
‘The pub had to come down, but we were just grateful to be alive. The Labour Party won by a landslide and the Welfare State came into being, and what a wonderful thing that was. New housing with hot and cold running water, unimagined luxury. It eased the dark poverty and squalor of the past.’ War-weary people deserved a better standard of living and ironically it was the Blitz that ushered in these reforms.
These stories are focused on the women of the East End, because that’s where I set my novels, but these experiences were replicated in towns and cities all over Great Britain. So as the country looks back, perhaps ask yourself this, who do you know who lived through these momentous times. What is their Blitz story?
Kate Thompson’s book The Stepney Doorstep Society is published by Penguin, price £9.99. To order a copy for £8.49 until 2 May go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.