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Echoes of Life in London During the Blitz


The gritty, determined response of Londoners to Thursday's bombings prompted immediate comparisons to the time during World War II of the Blitz. Beginning in the summer of 1940, hundreds of German bombers appeared above London, literally bringing the war into British homes. Luftwaffe planes maintained the attack for months. At one point, for 57 consecutive days, the bombers returned to the skies over the British capital. More than 40,000 civilians died in the raids. Americans learned of the bombings from CBS correspondent Edward R. Murrow.

(Soundbite of 1940 news broadcast)

Mr. EDWARD R. MURROW (CBS News): This is Trafalgar Square. The noise that you hear at the moment is the sound of the air raid sirens. A searchlight just burst into action off in the distance, one single beam sweeping the sky above me now.

KAST: The attacks went on until May 1941, when Germany turned its bombers toward the east for war with Russia.

Charles Wheeler has been a BBC correspondent for nearly 60 years. At the time of the Blitz, he was working for a newspaper in London. We spoke with Charles Wheeler early this weekend, and he told us what it was like to be in London during the Blitz.

Mr. CHARLES WHEELER (BBC): Well, I was very young. I was about 17 or 18. And to be honest with you, I quite enjoyed a lot of it. It was exciting. The main thing about it was we expected bombing. We'd been told for years that the bomber always gets through. I think we felt quite tough after Dunkirk, when we brought our defeated army back from France. We were united behind the leader who'd warned us that the war was coming and was now striking all the right notes as defined from self-confidence and so on; that was Churchill. And most importantly, we knew exactly who the enemy was, and we were shooting his bombers down, really quite a lot of them.

Also, those surface shelters that Murrow mentions there in that clip were not the only refuge. Interesting--And there's a strange irony here, isn't there? We had the Underground railway. And night after night, the people in the East End of London, who were getting most of the bombing and had reason to fear, used to spend the nights on those platforms and then go to work the next day. In fact, you couldn't use the Tubes at nighttime because there were too many people sleeping on the platforms.

KAST: Hitler is said to have ordered the Blitz in an effort to demoralize the British, but it seems to have just made them more determined to go on with the war.

Mr. WHEELER: Well, I think that's true. I mean, one doesn't want to get too romantic looking back 60 years, you know, and talking about how they are the plucky British and so on. But I think it is true. It certainly didn't demoralize people, and it must have demoralized individuals, and particularly people who ...(unintelligible).

No, we stuck it out, but then really one didn't have an alternative. And, of course, it lasted about a year. I think the difficult period was with the whole thing started again with the V weapons right towards the end of the war when we knew we were winning. Now that was really tough. For one thing, these things arrived and you had no means really of destroying them. You could knock out their first ones, the flying bombs, the V-1s. But the V-2s coming out of outer space without any kind of warning at all and creating a huge amount damage did affect morale. But by that time, it was too late to affect the outcome of war.

KAST: As you said, London's Underground subway system was used as a bomb shelter during the Blitz. But last week, that place, which had been a haven, was turned into a place of death and fear.

Mr. WHEELER: I was on the Underground literally at--I must have been on one of those trains on the Inner Circle line, got off three stations before not knowing anything about it and didn't discover until I got up on the surface that there was an emergency. I happened to get out because that was the station I was getting out. They then closed the whole Tube. And the thought went through my mind--the thought goes through everybody's mind and has done for years now--that, `My God, if somebody exploded a bomb in this situation, hundreds of people would be killed.' And the thought that somebody can leave a rucksack near one of those doors and when the doors open just get out and leave the thing behind is a terrifying one. We've faced that thought now for quite a long time since the war in Iraq began, and we're very much aware of it, and we're going to be more aware of it in the future.

KAST: BBC correspondent Charles Wheeler spoke with us earlier this weekend from his home in Sussex, south of London.

(Soundbite of music)

KAST: It's 18 minutes past the hour. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sheilah Kast
Sheilah Kast joined NPR in November 2003 as the weekend newscaster for "PBS/NPR Newsbrief," the hourly 30-second television news reports produced by NPR for PBS stations.