National Geographic : 1941 Apr
Everyday Life in Wartime England BY HARVEY KLEMMER S OMEHOW, under the stress of war, we are inclined to forget that the ordinary pursuits of life continue and, what is more, continue pretty much as in time of peace. This is especially true in England today. Britain has been living in a state of war for 18 months. Thousands have been killed and wounded; hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of property has been destroyed; the country is bombed almost nightly, and it is faced with the ever-present threat of invasion. Yet the people manage to keep going. Gov ernment and industry continue to function. Life goes on. The thing that impresses me most about war time England is the attitude of the people.* Their morale is magnificent. After the fall of France and the Low Countries, especially after the bombing of Rotterdam, some of us were afraid they would be unable to take it. They have been under intensive bombardment now for about six months. Unless the Germans have something much worse than what they have used to date, the chances are that the civilians of England can go on indefinitely. I think there was a brief period, at the very beginning of the Blitzkrieg, when the people might have cracked. I remember vividly the first terrible night (September 7, 1940). More than 300 persons were killed and some 1,400 seriously wounded. The East End of London was one vast inferno. Surely, we thought, human beings cannot stand such punishment. Another night went by. Five hundred more were killed. The people stood fast. A week passed. . . . two weeks. By that time, in my opinion, the crisis was over. The people adjusted themselves to the nightly attacks from the skies. They resisted the impulse to flee. They obeyed the Gov ernment's injunction to "stay put." It may well be that the fortitude of the ordinary people of London in the terrible nights of September will mean the difference between defeat and victory for the British Empire. Civilians in "Front-line Trenches" Today the citizens of London-and of the other cities of Britain as well-have adapted themselves to a way of life which is not much different from that endured by front-line sol diers of the last war. Millions of them nightly go underground to seek such safety as there is from flying splinters. In the blackout, the people of Britain have joined the Piltdown man. In the daytime, however, life goes on more or less as usual. We had an extremely heavy raid one night just before I left London late in January, 1941. Bombs came shrieking down at the rate of one a minute. A number of fires were started, and a good share of the City-London's financial district-was wiped out. The crash of bombs and the glow of the fires gave us the feeling of living through some sort of medieval nightmare. Few got any sleep that night. It was almost with dread that I opened my curtains in the morning. But there was no reason for dread, then. The sun was shining brightly. Traffic moved in Berkeley Square as usual. I noticed that an old street sweeper, with whom I had become acquainted, was on the job. The attendants in apartment houses stood on the sidewalk, resplendent in their various uniforms. Models and seamstresses tripped into the gown shop up the street. Large posters in a travel agency window ad vertised cruises to Australia. In my own building the valets went about preparing breakfast and laying out clothes. When I went through the lobby, I noticed that one of the porters was very carefully shining the brass about the main entrance. The difference between that morning and the experiences of the night before is symbolic, to me, of the two kinds of life that now exist in England. Bridges Stand; Trains Run One of the surprises of the Blitzkrieg has been the ability of public utilities to take pun ishment and still keep going. When I left London, late in January, every railway station was functioning more or less as in time of peace. The 20-odd bridges over the Thames were all open. Thousands of double-deck buses wound through the twisted streets just as they have done for the past thirty years. Al though 150,000 people nightly crowded into the tubes to sleep, service was being main tained on all lines (pages 505, 507). The ancient taxicabs of London, with their equally ancient drivers, continue to operate. They remain in the streets throughout the heaviest raids. * For three years Mr. Klemmer, as an attache of the United States Embassy in London, traveled ex tensively in the British Isles. Thus he had exceptional opportunity to observe the transition from peacetime to war-beleaguered England. He is author of They'll Never Quit (Wilfred Funk, Inc., publisher).