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Sex, fear and looting: survivors disclose untold stories of the Blitz

Discussion in 'WWII' started by Story, Oct 5, 2006.

  1. Story

    Story I'll Lock Up

    Sex, fear and looting: survivors disclose untold stories of the Blitz

    New history based on interviews gives unvarnished account of bombings and air battle

    Maev Kennedy
    Thursday October 5, 2006
    The Guardian

    The slackers, the looters, the promiscuous and the just plain terrified men and women of the Blitz are finally being heard, more than 60 years after the last bombs fell. The voices often edited out of the patriotic official version of Britain's finest hour resurface in a new history of the Blitz and the Battle of Britain, based on thousands of hours of recordings of survivors, held in the archives of the Imperial War Museum.

    Article continues
    Joshua Levine, who spent almost a year listening to the memories of sailors and civilians, many now dead, said: "History is never black and white. Instead it's many shades of grey.

    "There was heroism, but there are stories of real people behaving badly under stress, lots of sexual activity, fiddling rations, looting, getting through it all as well as they could.

    "This was a crucial time in the whole social structure of the country. All the barriers were down, people were eating the same food, wearing the same clothes, sheltering together. Poor city children were evacuated to much richer families. All the old rules were broken and could never be put back together again. For good or ill the origins of modern Britain lie in this period."


    The Imperial War Museum has built up the archive over the last 30 years, sending staff out to record deeply personal interviews, often capturing insights from elderly and frail people which would otherwise have been lost for ever with them. "This is history within living memory - just," Mr Levine said. "This is the last chance to hear these voices at first hand." He was particularly struck by an appalling account of the direct hit on the Cafe de Paris, whose underground ballroom was thought to be safe, recorded by the late Ballard Berkeley, the actor later to become famous as the major in Fawlty Towers.

    Berkeley, a special constable, arrived to find a scene from hell, the bandleader Snakehips Johnson decapitated, and elegantly dressed people still sitting at tables without a mark on them, but stone dead. What shocked him more was the ransacking of the corpses: looters mingled with the fire crews and police, and cut the fingers from the dead to get at their rings.

    At yesterday's launch Dame Joan Varley, then a bank clerk who went on to join the WRAF, vividly recalled spending the first night of the Blitz at her family home in Streatham, south London: "A stick of three bombs fell in the middle of our road; there was a moment - it seemed like an age but it was probably a second or two - of utter silence, and then there was a most unearthly wail, which added greatly to the terror of the moment. It was every dog and cat in the houses howling in terror - but they never did it again in any other bombing." After a few hours bolt upright on a deckchair in the Anderson shelter, in overcoat and trilby, her father declared: "I'm damned if that killer Hitler is going to keep me out of my bed." The family, worn out by his incessant grumbling, made no attempt to stop him - and after another few nights in the damp shelter concluded that if Hitler didn't get them, pneumonia would, and joined him back in the house.

    Bam Bamberger, a Battle of Britain Spitfire pilot, recalled one particularly close shave, when "there was a lot of metal flying about, and lines of holes appearing in the sides" - not from enemy fire, he suspects to this day, but from his own squadron. The plane went into a spin towards the ground, he unbuckled his harness and prepared to jump, then remembered his training in an ancient biplane - and to his amazement the Spitfire pulled out of its dive. "I thought to myself, 'Bamberger, you are brilliant'." He managed to limp back to Hornchurch aerodrome, his ailerons disintegrating on landing. The ground crew greeted him with a sour "another bloody aircraft unserviceable".

    Stan Poole, whose war began as a 14-year-old running messages for the fire service by day, and helping his mother wash the blood off her ambulance at night - "inside, and often outside as well, depending on where she'd been" - joined the D Day landings, much to his surprise. He reported for duty in west London and was told to get on the back of a lorry, which carried him to a landing craft at Tilbury, which took him to France. The journey was made almost unbearable because a shell shattered the thunder box, the toilet built on to the side of the craft, showering them with splinters and worse. "We didn't think we were winning the war, we tried not to think of it at all," he said. "We just tried to get on with it the best we could."

    'It's all right for people in authority - but we were there'

    Marie Price, civilian in Liverpool:
    "Churchill was telling us how brave we all were and that we would never surrender. I tell you something - the people of Liverpool would have surrendered overnight if they could have. It's all right for people in authority, down in their steel-lined dugouts, but we were there and it was just too awful."

    Sapper George Ingram, 22 Bomb Disposal and 89 Bomb Disposal Companies, Royal Engineers:
    "I remember one sapper who was an absolute nervous wreck. He was courting and she was a very nice young woman, but he committed suicide by putting his head in a gas oven."

    Alison Hancock, Women's Auxiliary Air Force:
    "I was at a station where you had to suck up to the sergeant because he'd decide where you were going to be posted. I remember sitting on a bench and letting him kiss me because I wanted to go to Fighter Command to be a plotter."

    Dorothy West, constable with Metropolitan police:
    "If we saw a couple on the floor under a blanket - 'Hey! Hey!' We turfed them out. We couldn't have things like that going on, could we?"

    Hugh Varah, Auxiliary Fire Service, Hull:
    "If I close my eyes, I can still see his head come bowling back up the slope, like a hairy football."

    Sylvia Clark, post office worker in London:
    "I remember watching firemen attending to a building that was on fire, coming back down the ladders wearing mink coats, mink capes and fur hats. They were singing like mad as the bombers were still coming over."

    William Heard, conscientious objector imprisoned in Feltham borstal:
    "There were quite a few people who committed crimes in order to end up in prison rather than serve in the armed forces."

    Private Herbert Anderson, Pioneer Corps:
    "I remember specially a big factory that had been bombed - Hartley's - which was quite well known as makers of marmalade and jam. And the situation there was indescribable, because the dead were covered in marmalade."

    Christabel Leighton-Porter, model for Daily Mirror cartoon pinup Jane:
    "When the war was ending, a lot of old people were terribly distressed, wondering what they were going to do with their evenings. They'd enjoyed their nights down the tube stations."

    ¬? Forgotten Voices of the Blitz and the Battle for Britain, Ebury Press and the Imperial War Museum.
  2. The Blitz, I never knew of this. The horrors of war from all survivors every where. I recall stories of Russians coming into Germany, Berlin at the end of WWII, the Russians committed rape, looting while drunk, and American and British troops simply turned looked away. No one cared, pure Madness!!!
  3. Twitch

    Twitch My Mail is Forwarded Here

    Made me think of the French Resistance for some reason. While its popularized as to make us imagine every Frenchy was assissting somehow the truth was less than 10% at any given time were involved at all.
  4. Haversack

    Haversack Practically Family

    During the past two years leading up to the centennial this past April, accounts of the looting which took place and of how many actually died in the 1906 San Francisco Firequake have been coming out. There was a concerted effort immediatly after the Fire to downplay the ugliness and tragedy in order to speed rebuilding. And of course people prefer to remember the good over the bad so myths get built and reinforced over the years.

  5. "War is all hell."

    -- General William Tecumseh Sherman (who knew)

  6. Archie Goodwin

    Archie Goodwin One of the Regulars

    That was then, this is now

    Reading those stories gives me a new perspective on the Blitz, and what happned here in New Olreans after Katrina. The stress, the terror, and the adrenaline seemed to bring out the best and the worst in people. Only, the worst seems to get better ratings. I am not trying to be in any way political, but I do wonder what our perception from today would be on events like the Blitz if there had been television teams with unrestricted access? Would we see the heroism or the villiany?
  7. Curt Chiarelli

    Curt Chiarelli One of the Regulars

    Actually, none of this surprises me one bit. It's all consistent with what we know about human behaviour. Do I have any less respect for the English now that the real truth is known (as opposed to the officially censored/sanitized version which held sway for 60 years)? Absolutely not. They were average people placed under unbearable stress and privation during a time of national crisis.

    An ancient Chinese proverb says that trying to supress the truth is similar to trying to hold down a bubble of air at the bottom of a pool. Eventually it will rise to the surface and break. Regarding the Blitz (or anything else, for that matter), it was just a matter of time before the whole truth surfaced.
  8. Tomasso

    Tomasso Incurably Addicted

    Ground Zero Was Looted..............

    ..........even as the towers were falling. And, not only by civilians.:(
  9. this is what gets me:

    Christabel Leighton-Porter, model for Daily Mirror cartoon pinup Jane:
    "When the war was ending, a lot of old people were terribly distressed, wondering what they were going to do with their evenings. They'd enjoyed their nights down the tube stations."

    Only because I've previously read of british survivors relating what a good time they had during the war. The intimacy, the comradery, the partying....
  10. BigSleep

    BigSleep One of the Regulars

    Not that it wasn't pure madness but I think they looked at it like revenge for what the Germans had done in Russia.
  11. That's news to me...

    Do you have a source to cite on that?
  12. Tomasso

    Tomasso Incurably Addicted

  13. Well it may not be "pure" madness but madness just the same, I do agree that Russia did take revenge, but ordinary citizens didn’t know what the SS or Nazi‘s did in occupied countries, still the Russians killed indiscriminating numbers of men, women, and children. U.S. and British turned a blind eye.

    I have to add: The area where most of the killings, looting was mostly occupied by the Russians or Russian sector, as Berlin divided into three sectors, the Americans and British really couldn’t do anything unless they wanted to continue the war with the Russians. Having Russia as an allied was almost like a pack made with the devil, in this case Stalin.
  14. Brevet

    Brevet New in Town

    Interesting to read some of those stories; I have to say that I welcome the 'honest' approach to recent history, so at least we may have a chance to understand. There is always a danger that the official history can sweep aside uncomfortable and unpleasant truths.
  15. Hamandbacon

    Hamandbacon New in Town

    Thanks for the Post!

    I appreciate your post, Story. I have always enjoyed reading and hearing stories born from individuals' accounts of historical moments. Too often, those of us who weren't there, compile and digest a much more innocent and sweetened version of how such things really were.

  16. With respect, you say, 'the real truth is known (as opposed to the officially censored/sanitized version...)' and, 'it was just a matter of time before the whole truth surfaced'. In fact, anyone who was in Britain during World War 2 (not just during the Blitz) has stories such as are described above. It was widely known that there was panic, looting, black marketeering and other symptoms of the breakdown of law and order. This has happened the world over since war began - why would it be any different for Britain in 1939-45?

    As far as I can see, as an amateur historian growing up just after WW2 people talked of such matters freely. They were not widely reported at the time in newspapers and radio news so as not to give 'succour to the enemy' who would have seen any major lack of public order as an indication of success of its bombing policy. That's not sinister supression - it's an obvious policy. Many history books written since the war have mentioned the good as well as the bad of public behaviour under the stress of war in Britain. For instance, the rape, riots and looting carried out (or not) by Commonwealth troops during the fall of Singapore have been well discussed 'for and against'.

    Here's a little known fact. In the English Midlands in 1944, there were race riots between white US soldiers who were training for D-Day and black US GIs based at a big local supply depot, with local people siding with the black troops. Local special police (my father was one) were issued weapons and ordered to fire on the (white) US troops if things got too far out of hand before the 'snowdrops' (US Military Police) arrived to restore order. Now, how would that have been reported at the time if the situation had reached its logical conclusion?
  17. Story

    Story I'll Lock Up

    The powers-that-be would probably have slapped a "SECRET" label on any and all reports related to the matter. Remember the torpedoing of the troopship practicing landings, just prior to D-Day?

    I'd once read an article that claimed there were around 10,000 deserters (US/UK and German) and mailingerers in northern France, in the second half of 1944. They made a practice of hijacking supplies from the Red Ball Express.
  18. nightandthecity

    nightandthecity Practically Family

    It was my elderly great-aunt who first alerted me to this other side of the Home Front. It was in the 70s when there was one of those periodic scares about street crime, and she casually mentioned that she had been mugged during the war. When I pressed her further she said it was during the black out, that it used to happen a lot, and that the perpetrators were often deserters - she explained that they were particularly after ration books (without one it was hard to live of course).

    It was even earlier (in the 60s) I first heard about race riots between black and white GIs. Even though Britain was itself full of racial tensions in the 60s the story tellers always took pride in the fact that the local people had supported the black GIs. Several people told me the old wartime joke “these yanks are OK, but I don’t like those white bastards they’ve brought with them”.

    Desertion in WW2 is a whole subject in itself really. I’ve read bits about the gangs in France (and the UK, and Germany). In Europe they were sometimes very mixed, with former Axis and Allied Troops working together. Nor were they always purely criminal: Axis deserters played a minor but real part in the European resistance movements.

    Anyone interested in this stuff, some of the same issues are touched upon in this current thread too..

  19. Another interesting book is To The Victor The Spoils "focusing on the day-to-day experiences of the British and Canadian troops involved in the campaign to liberate Europe." From the publishers blurb:

    I read it a while ago, and I seem to remember it had a whole chapter on deserters - I'll get it off the shelf when I get home from work today and confirm that.

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