Opinion Articles

The Blitz can show us how to respond to a tragedy

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Important questions are being raised following the Grenfell Tower fire. Discussion has centred on fire safety and communication between the building’s owners and residents. The local council, and national government, have also stood accused of failing to show enough ‘humanity’ to the victims and survivors.

This is not the first time that ordinary Londoners have found themselves at the centre of such a tragedy. There are real similarities between the Grenfell Tower fire and the London Blitz of 1940-41. The Blitz damaged over a million homes and put ordinary people on the ‘Front Line’ of the Second World War. Around 10,000 fires were tackled by the London Fire Brigade during the first six weeks of the Blitz alone. It is estimated that these fires made between 100,000 and 250,000 people homeless.

The responsibility for managing the crisis rested with Britain’s Civil Defence services. In London, each local authority had a Civil Defence controller who co-ordinated the activities of air-raid wardens, fire guards, rescue services, rest centres, and volunteers. Official accounts of this work emphasised its efficiency. On 14th July 1941, for example, Winston Churchill praised ‘The courage of Londoners, and the organization of our many defence and municipal services’.

Unofficial accounts were less sanguine. The journalist Ritchie Calder reported on the Blitz for the Daily Herald, and published a selection of his writing in the book The Lesson of London in 1941. He highlighted serious deficiencies in the official response. Reports from September 1940 described families being forced to walk miles for shelter, insufficient food being available, and a profound lack of communication between the services involved. Calder believed that despite ‘Years of “preparation,” the Government was unprepared for dealing with human problems’. He responded by calling for fundamental changes to both Civil Defence and British society. In The Lesson of London, the communal response to bombing was directly linked to a socialist vision for the future. The political nature of the response to tragedy is nothing new.

Leaving this to one side, there are specific lessons that we can learn from the wartime Government’s response. The most important is that they accepted there was a problem. Most of the issues that Calder documented were the result of miscalculation by pre-war planners. It had been assumed that there would be unrelenting attacks with large numbers of civilian deaths. What had not been foreseen was that people might survive the destruction of their homes. The mental impact of air raids had also been severely under-estimated. This resulted in a lack of effective support for those who emerged from air-raid shelters to find that they had lost their material possessions.

In the first weeks of the Blitz, volunteers worked tirelessly to support survivors, but their efforts lacked co-ordination and were unsuited to the scale of the problem. Provisions designed for 10,000 people were stretched by the numbers needing support. It took time for effective rest centres to be established by the London County Council. Municipal buildings, theatres, cinemas and public halls were hastily converted into ‘first line’ centres during September and October 1940. These offered food, clothing, blankets, places to wash, and a place to sleep. Stocks of food and clothing were carefully co-ordinated to ensure that each could open as soon as a raid had occurred. In the words of Stephen Spender, who worked as a volunteer fire fighter in 1940, it was ‘The very simplest kinds of attention, such as keeping people warm and giving them cups of tea … [that were] among the most important’.

The rest centre system worked because it was able to combine effective leadership with voluntary effort. Helpers were often recruited from those who had previously used the service, providing survivors with a sense of agency. ‘First line’ centres were also supported by those run by voluntary organisations. In London, the Women’s Voluntary Services was made responsible for those in need of longer-term accommodation and established a network of volunteers within local communities. Its ‘Housewives Service’ became the first point of contact for many of those affected by later raids. These networks continued after the Blitz, with many volunteers later offering childcare to war workers or help to older neighbours. This suggests that community spirit created under tragic circumstances can be maintained.

The problem of re-housing proved more difficult. The government had been quick to requisition property. But, as late as mid-October 1940, only 7,000 people had been officially rehoused. This failing owed much to a lack of understanding. Attempts to rehouse people quickly resulted in families being moved between boroughs, kinship networks being broken, and the mental impact of the raids exacerbated. Others simply refused to go, placing an even greater strain on rest centres.

The London Blitz shows that what happens after tragedy is as important as the immediate response to it by the emergency services. Official preparations before the Second World War failed to grasp the importance of post-raid relief. This failure exacerbated the strain put onto survivors and politicised the issue of Civil Defence. Despite Churchill’s rhetoric, courage alone was not enough.

The Grenfell Tower fire has seen an outpouring of ‘Blitz spirit’. History suggests that this good-will needs to be matched by strong leadership, greater appreciation of the mental impact of loss, and work with the community to ensure their spirit is maintained.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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