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London: The City that Shaped the World

February 11, 2015

IV. London Defiant

The Second World War


This is the final installment of a four part series looking at London's turbulent history up to 1945. The Then pictures are courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, while I took the Now photos in January 2015.

In the Summer of 1940 Britain stood alone against Germany. Her leaders expected an invasion any day and her capital was bombed relentlessly for months. Even after the threat of invasion passed the V-1 and V-2 flying bombs wreaked havoc on London. In all there were over 28,000 civilian deaths in London alone, not to mention the tens of thousands injured and hundreds of thousands left homeless.

Yet people found a way to carry on. The British 'stiff upper lip' became renowned around the world as people slept in shelters under German bombs and still got up to go to work every morning, often picking their way through rubble and bodies. This determination and spirit of shared sacrifice made victory all the sweeter when the war ended, paving the way for the creation of the modern social welfare state in which Britons hold so much pride.

Then and Now Mouse

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A German bomb has penetrated into Bank Station in central London after a particularly heavy air raid.

The famous statue of Eros in Picadilly Circus has been removed and the pedestal covered with sandbags to protect it from bomb blasts. London's experience of aerial bombardment in the First World War meant the city took no time in preparing for a second onslaught.

George Rance changing the weather in the Churchill Bunker underneath Whitehall. George Rance managed the intensely secretive operations in the bunker. Many of the staff would spend days or weeks underground coordinating Britain's global war effort without seeing the light of day. "Windy" was the tongue in cheeck way of notifying the bunkers staff the Germans were bombing London.

Anti-aircraft positions sprang up all over the city. Here we see Clapham Common has been converted into a military encampment with a battery of 3.7 inch AA guns at the ready. On the right we can see a unit of WACs training.

To escape German bombs thousands of Londoners slept in tube stations. Here we see sleepers on the platform of the Elephant and Castle station.

Sometimes even these most secure of places became deathtraps. On 14 October 1940, a bomb crashed into the road above Balham Tube station, seen here. It caused the roof of the platform to collapse on the heads of the civilians sleeping there, bursting the water mains and flooding the station. At least 64 were killed.

A double-decker bus drove straight into the crater at Balham. Here it is being hoisted out of the hole.

You have all seen big fires, but I doubt if you have ever seen the whole horizon of a city lined with great fires - scores of them, perhaps hundreds.

There was something inspiring just in the awful savagery of it.

The closest fires were near enough for us to hear the crackling flames and the yells of firemen. Little fires grew into big ones even as we watched. Big ones died down under the firemen's valor, only to break out again later.

About every two minutes a new wave of planes would be over. The motors seemed to grind rather than roar, and to have an angry pulsation, like a bee buzzing in blind fury...

Into the dark shadowed spaces below us, while we watched, whole batches of incendiary bombs fell. We saw two dozen go off in two seconds. They flashed terrifically, then quickly simmered down to pin points of dazzling white, burning ferociously. These white pin points would go out one by one, as the unseen heroes of the moment smothered them with sand. But also, while we watched, other pin points would burn on, and soon a yellow flame would leap up from the white center. They had done their work - another building was on fire.

-Ernie Pyle, American war-correspondent

The London Fire Brigade battles blazes on Queen Victoria Street on the night of May 10. This was the heaviest air raid of the Blitz, the last before the bulk of the Luftwaffe was diverted to the east for Operation Barbarossa. The destruction of water mains in many areas deprived firefighters of the means to combat the flames. On that single night 1,486 Londoners were killed, though this horrifying toll would pale to insignificance beside the casualties of the Allied firebombing of German cities only two years later.

The Windmill Theatre, the only one in London to remain open throughout the Blitz, as the "We Never Closed" sign reminds us. Londoners fought to maintain whatever semblance of normalcy possible despite the almost nightly air raids.

Led by an honour guard of sailors and high-ranking officers, the funeral cortege of First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Pound leaves the Horse Guards Parade.

Deputy First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Chas Kennedy-Purvis inspects the Admiralty Company of the Home Guards at the Horse Guards Parade.

East African troops take time off their duties to be tourists in London. A salvation army volunteer is showing them Buckingham Palace. Britain could count on men and women from across the empire to support her war effort.

Two Polish pilots stroll through Picadilly Circus. Men and women from all over occupied Europe also came to Britain to continue the fight against Germany, most notably the Poles and the Free French. By 1942 London was home to nine different governments in exile.

Members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force feed pigeons in front of a poster-plastered Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square.

Here we see the Marble Arch in Hyde Park has also been covered in posters, reminding Londoners to invest in Britain's war effort.

This vehicle is collecting books as part of the Supply Directorate's campaign to rebuild libraries destroyed by bombing. The photo was taken behind the Senate House.

Traffic leaves Trafalgar Square past the National Gallery. This is from a series of photos created by the government to remind people around the world that life continued in London despite the Germans' best efforts to disrupt it. "London is still London."

Despite the carnage and destruction people went about their daily lives. Here's a shot of busy Oxford Street, with a man waiting for a bus at Wardour Street Stop.

Another shot of Oxford Street. It's busier than you would expect in wartime, but compared to the traffic today it looks positively tranquil. The famous Selfridge's Department Store can be seen on the right.

You can have little understanding of life in London these days. There are no words to describe what is happening. The courage of the people, the flash and roar of the guns rolling down the streets, the stench of the air raid shelters.

In three or four hours people must get up and go to work, just as though they had a full night's rest free from the rumble of guns and the wonder that comes when they wake and listen in the dead hours of the night.

At dawn Londoners come oozing out of the ground, tired and red-eyed and sleepy. I saw them turn into their own street to see if their house was still standing.

No one can avoid being impressed by the patience and calm determination of these people who dwell in little houses. This morning Mr. Churchill walked through the East End after a heavy raid. The people cheered him. He said, "They act as though I bring them a great victory." And there were tears in his eyes.

-Edward R. Murrow

Girls leave their lessons at the Royal Academy of Music in Marylebone.

Victory in Europe Day on May 8 caused a spontaneous outpouring of celebration on the streets of London. Here confetti falls from rooftops onto Davies Street.

In confetti strewn streets people celebrate the surrender of Japan several months after VE Day, and the end of the Second World War. Nelson's Column can be seen in the background.

Eager crowds await Winston Churchill's announcement of Japan's surrender just outside Downing Street in August 1945. After six years of war the bombing, the death and maiming of soldiers, sailors and airmen, the thousand wartime deprivations, had come to an end.


London: The City that Shaped the World

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As far as I am aware this project is the first of its kind to focus on Then and Now photography around the world. I am hugely excited to continue expanding the site so that eventually it includes cities, towns and battlefields from across the globe, giving people everywhere the opportunity to better appreciate the history that surrounds them.

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