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." Interviews 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.