Blitz War Walks


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Blitz

Richard Holmes traces the events of a night of the Blitz, from the sector control room where the incoming raiders were plotted through to the efforts to save St Paul's.


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AIR-RAID SIRENS

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From mid-September, 1940, London faced night after night of continuous bombing.

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It became almost a matter of horrific routine,

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with wardens helping people to the shelters as the sirens wailed over blacked-out streets.

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But one night and one image encapsulate the London Blitz - the 29th of December,

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the second Great Fire of London, when St Paul's rose in its glory amongst the smoke and flames.

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On that night, the cathedral was surrounded by a ring of fire

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as centuries of history went up in smoke.

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The landscape of London was changed for ever and those who were there will never forget it.

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There was just one big red glow.

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-Everywhere was red.

-You couldn't make out Tower Bridge or St Paul's?

-It was all afire.

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Everywhere you looked was alight.

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The Blitz was a new kind of warfare -

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total war. Its victims were civilians - men, women and children,

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attacked in their own homes and on their own streets.

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Throughout the summer of 1940, the Germans had tried to destroy British air defences.

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But the British had a new secret weapon. Radar.

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It gave the RAF warning before the bombers appeared.

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The system was barely completed before the German attack began.

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For inexperienced young operators, many of them women,

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sitting at screens like this was tense. It took only six minutes for German aircraft to cross the Channel.

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Getting RAF pilots airborne in time and at the right place depended greatly on these radar operators.

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Within minutes of receiving notice of incoming bombers,

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RAF fighter pilots were scrambling to their planes.

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By the end of August, the British seemed to be getting the upper hand.

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Every German shot down was one fewer to bomb Britain.

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Then German strategy changed. As usual, it was cock-up, not conspiracy, that provoked the change.

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Hitler had argued against bombing of civilians on the grounds that it wouldn't achieve anything useful.

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But on the night of August 24th, two German aircraft, hopelessly lost,

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dropped bombs on central London - strictly off-limits to bombers.

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The first fell here at St Giles' Church, in the City of London,

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where Shakespeare worshipped, Cromwell was married, and Milton was buried.

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Nine were killed and 58 injured.

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It was no longer a combat between young men high in the air,

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but a war against ordinary men and women going about their daily business.

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In retaliation Churchill ordered the RAF to bomb Berlin the next night.

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Hitler decided that the Luftwaffe should attack British civilian targets as a reprisal.

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The daylight Blitz had begun.

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Saturday, September 7th, started the German bombing campaign proper.

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On Black Saturday, the Germans dropped 300 tons of bombs on London,

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not only devastating the docks, their real target, but demolishing great areas of the East End

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and killing or wounding nearly 2,000 civilians.

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When the bombers came back at night, they found London easily. Its flames were visible from mid-Channel.

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The Luftwaffe seemed to have the edge at last.

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In the next week, the Luftwaffe mounted repeated daylight bombing raids on London,

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but under constant attack from the RAF.

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Among the German bomber pilots was Ernst Wedding.

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The greatest threat was fighters -

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much faster than a bomber.

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And when he lets fly with his eight guns...

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He only needs to puncture a radiator or oil tank

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and you'd be in trouble.

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The war in the air was not personal. It was a target.

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You saw an aircraft. The fighter - the boys - attacked it.

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It was, "Can we avoid the fighter?

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"Can we run away or hide in the clouds?" That was our method of survival.

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On the morning of September 15th, the pilots who would bear the burden of the battle were up early.

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At Tangmere and Kenley, at Croydon and Biggin Hill, at Hornchurch, North Weald and Duxford,

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veterans aged 25 rose at dawn to meet the German attack.

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This is the actual control room

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of Fighter Command's 11 Group at Uxbridge,

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responsible for the defence of southeast England, including London.

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On September 15th, Winston Churchill sat here, watching 20-odd young men and women gathered round that map.

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At about 10.30 that morning, warnings from radar stations

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brought the first markers of attacking enemy aircraft on to the map.

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In reply, the British sent up planes from a dozen airfields, beginning with two squadrons from Biggin Hill.

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As the first attackers crossed the coast, the battle began.

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There was fierce fighting over London that day - even Buckingham Palace was hit.

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But by nightfall it was clear that the Luftwaffe was losing.

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Two days later, Hitler abandoned invasion plans and turned to the bombing by night of civilian targets.

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By bombing at night, German planes were less vulnerable to attack by the RAF.

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They also hoped to destroy British civilian morale.

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Coventry got it in one night in November.

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Over 500 people were killed and a 14th-century cathedral was reduced to ruins.

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Many other cities suffered appallingly. This is Plymouth.

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But London was the worst hit.

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From mid-September, it was bombed almost every night.

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Christmas 1940 had been very quiet. There was an informal truce in bombing operations on both sides.

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But at about 5.20pm on December 29th, enemy aircraft were detected on the radar.

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The warning was passed on to Fighter Command headquarters at RAF Bentley Priory

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and down to the sector control rooms.

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Here, as ever, they plotted the incoming aircraft

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tonight coming in from the south.

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As the Germans approached, 29 fighters were sent up.

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But night-interception was still very much in its infancy

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and no raiders were shot down.

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The Germans flew on. They were heading for Target Area Otto - the City of London.

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And by ten past six, they were over St Paul's.

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SIRENS

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As the sirens wailed, the people of London went underground, many into street shelters like this -

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basically, a hole in the ground lined with corrugated iron and covered with earth or sandbags.

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Night after night was spent down here,

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neighbours trying to sleep on benches like this while sounds of war raged overhead.

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One Londoner wrote: "It's not the bombs I'm scared of any more, it's the weariness.

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"Trying to work and concentrate with your eyes sticking out like hatpins after being up all night.

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"I'd die in my sleep happily if only I COULD sleep."

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For children in London, the shelters became almost a home from home.

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Peggy Chusonis was 12 when the war began.

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-Here's where we went into the shelter.

-That was...?

-OUR entrance.

-That's just here.

-Yeah.

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We ran up here every night.

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It had cubicles with special names - the Ritz, the R.O., Number 10 Downing Street...

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-And we used to make the tea in the house where we lived.

-You made the tea for everybody?

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Everybody in the shelter got a cup of tea, made in a watering can.

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Stirred it with a broom handle. You never had a spoon long enough.

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We used to have a piano down there.

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Really...had a good laugh.

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But many of the PUBLIC shelters were far from safe, offering little protection against a direct hit.

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In one raid, 164 people were killed when a block of flats collapsed on the packed air-raid shelter beneath.

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Among them were Wolf Kramer, his wife Mildred and their daughter Pearl.

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Wolf's body was identified, so he could be given a proper burial.

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What remained of Pearl and Mildred was buried here -

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a jumble of ordinary people in a mass grave.

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The safest place to be was several hundred feet below the surface.

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This is Aldwich Underground Station, where hundreds of families took refuge every night,

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coming down these stairs laden with torches, blankets and Thermoses -

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mothers and babies, courting couples and old people alike.

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Down below, whole communities were created in Tube stations across London.

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# If today your heart is weary

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# If every little thing looks grey

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# Just forget your troubles

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# And learn to say,

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# "Tomorrow is a lovely day!" #

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But it wasn't all the cosy community of mythology.

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The Government censored information, and pictures of demoralised civilians simply weren't published.

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Tales of cowardice and hysteria were untold, casualty figures left vague.

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There was a black market in the best places to kip.

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And in one station several people were killed in the rush to get down.

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The lists of civilian war deaths

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record many children killed in a tube shelter accident.

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But on December 29th, it was far safer down here than up there.

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Above ground, teams of soldiers, mostly Territorials,

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manned giant searchlights whose beams lit up the sky

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to pinpoint enemy bombers and help the anti-aircraft gunners take aim.

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But at this stage in the war, searchlights only reached 12,000 feet.

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Above that and the raiders were safe from the dazzle of the lights.

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These anti-aircraft guns could punch ten rounds a minute into the sky, yet they offered little protection.

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They were powerful enough,

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but despite searchlights and predictors which estimated the flight path of incoming aircraft,

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they were often literally shooting in the dark.

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On the night of December 29th, the guns defending London didn't shoot down a single German aircraft.

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But they made a vital contribution to morale.

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To tens of thousands of civilians in their shelters,

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the constant roar of the guns above was living proof that we were "letting them have it".

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By 6.17 that evening, the bombs were falling all over the city.

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Many of them were high explosives containing between 200 and 1,000 kg of explosive.

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But that night

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the Germans were experimenting with incendiary bombs.

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Their warheads, made of magnesium,

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burned so hot they melted steel.

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They could penetrate the roofs of buildings to burn undetected in their very hearts.

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A bomber could carry 700 of them.

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It was the Sunday after Christmas and there were few firewatchers. By 6.30 the city was in flames.

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As one fireman put it, "The whole bloody city is lit up."

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BELL RINGING

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All over London, fire engines were racing to the City and East End. But it was a losing battle.

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Then the message came through that St Paul's itself was under threat.

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Churchill gave the order that the cathedral must be saved at all costs.

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But the firemen needed ammunition - water -

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and bombs were hitting and destroying the mains. London was running out of water fast.

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There was only one place to get more water -

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the Thames.

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The Germans were lucky. The tide was at an exceptionally low ebb that night.

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To make matters worse, there was an unexploded parachute mine lurking somewhere in the mud just downstream.

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Fireboats could pump the water out, but the firemen had to struggle with the hoses across 50 yards of mud

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to get the water to a vast reservoir tank to be pumped into the City.

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The firemen desperately hauled the heavy hoses through the streets towards St Paul's,

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at constant risk from bombs, debris, embers and falling masonry.

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One fireman,

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Sam Chauveau, began the evening on a roof in the heart of the Square Mile.

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By the time we'd tackled the incendiaries on the Exchange roof,

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the sky, which was ebony black when we first got up there,

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was changing to a yellowy orange colour.

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And it looked as though there was an enormous circle of fire.

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It involved St Paul's Churchyard, St Martin's-le-Grand,

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Aldersgate Street, Chiswell Street, Wood Street, Gresham Street...

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Fires were developing in these streets almost simultaneously.

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I had this terrible feeling of helplessness.

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It was excellent planning on the Germans' part -

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first send in the pathfinders and the fire-raisers

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followed by high explosives, more incendiaries, and lots and lots of parachute mines.

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Tens of thousands of incendiaries descended on the city

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released from aircraft so that they fell in a cluster.

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On the Stock Exchange we had a cluster of these bombs on a flat roof.

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Six enormous conflagrations engulfed the Square Mile,

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flames leaping from building to building,

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consuming banks, offices and London's history as they went.

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In the centre of it all was Christopher Wren's masterpiece, St Paul's Cathedral.

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Eight Wren churches had already gone.

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The Guildhall was in flames and down the river the docks were lighting up the sky.

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The area around St Paul's was ablaze and bomb after incendiary bomb was landing on the cathedral itself.

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Teams of volunteer firewatchers, armed only with sandbags and stirrup pumps,

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constantly patrolled the passageways in this vast building, dousing the fires as they started.

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The most dangerous patrol was up here - on the stone gallery that runs round the famous dome.

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Volunteers for this were selected for their head for heights.

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At about 9pm, an incendiary bomb became lodged up on the dome.

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The roof lead began to melt and fire in the timbers was imminent.

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American reporters cabled that St Paul's was lost.

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But suddenly the crisis passed.

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The bomb slipped down here on to the floor of the stone gallery and was put out with a sandbag.

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Elsewhere in the City, firemen were having to give up.

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In the Moorgate area, they ran out of water completely, like an army running out of ammunition.

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They were surrounded by fire.

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There was a grille leading to a tunnel down which the men could escape. But their equipment was gone.

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Down the river, in the docklands below Tower Bridge, a public shelter had caught fire.

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Peggy Chusonis was among the women and children who fled on to the burning street.

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You just ran and hoped you'd be all right.

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I can't remember where my mother was, or what had happened. We ran but nobody knew where we were going.

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We went into the Metropolitan Wharf, which was opposite, one floor up,

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stayed there all night, talking and just sitting on the concrete - we had no bedding.

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And the dock wall was all this gunge, all coming through - butter, sugar or whatever...

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through these slits, down the wall, where it had all caught alight.

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And the smell of everything... was terrible.

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SIREN

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Just after midnight came the welcome sound of the All Clear.

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Fog in the Channel had stopped more planes from coming over.

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But the battle to save London was far from over.

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The firemen fought throughout the long December night,

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still handicapped by the shortage of water.

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The situation was that dozens of appliances were standing around doing nothing

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because there just wasn't water.

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It wasn't until about three or four in the morning,

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when the tide turned,

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that we were able to bring some water in

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into the fire zone.

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We had a complete relay going into this area,

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by St Paul's, by about five in the morning.

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By dawn, together with my crew - I had a crew of five and myself...

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we all of us had to go along for treatment to the St Bartholomew's Hospital,

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and had our eyes treated.

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Due to the smoke, the heat and the cold air,

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we were all suffering with, eh... burning eyeballs.

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Morning revealed the extent of the damage.

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Among the many volunteers who'd spent the night helping the Fire Brigade was Jim Smith.

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That one was blown out, I'm sure.

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He was only 16 at the time,

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on his first night as a volunteer firewatcher.

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There was nothing but rubble. There was no traffic running. No traffic running at all.

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As it started getting daylight, towards the morning, you started seeing the shells of buildings -

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buildings on both sides of the road.

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Tram lines were up in the air...

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Everywhere you looked, there was rubble. London had really copped it that night.

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It was a bad night. That will never go out of my mind -

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the most terrifying experience I'd ever been in.

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A dozen firemen were killed that night,

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and many others were badly burned.

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Elsewhere in London, civilians had also suffered.

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Here in Loncroft Road in Camberwell, this side of the street came through unscathed. The other wasn't so lucky.

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At number 38, 13-year-old Edward Marriner died.

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At number 32, William Regardsoe and his baby son John were both killed.

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At 29, the three Probert brothers - Arthur, Frank and Edward - all got it.

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At number 27, they seem to have been having a party.

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Violet Jeffries, her son Samuel,

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her 16-year-old daughter Julia, and eight other teenagers were all killed.

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The street was decimated, and it was just one amongst many.

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162 civilians died that night and many more were seriously injured.

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The German bomber crews had done their job.

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When you drop your bombs, that's it. Now home.

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Self-preservation sets in.

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Because you want to get home alive as well.

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What happens where you dropped the bombs - that was immaterial to you.

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See, later on, when you saw the destruction that had been created,

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then it drove home to you - "Oh, I could have killed children, women..."

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But there it was. That was war.

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The next morning, people across London woke up to devastation

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and set off for work.

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Commuters at London Bridge Station that morning saw a completely different city.

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Few had offices to go to.

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They picked their way along, in a desperate semblance of normality. A vast clearing-up job had to begin.

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Amongst the hundreds of buildings destroyed that night was a pub, The Blue Last,

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which had stood here, just down from St Paul's, for over a century.

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On the morning of December 30th, it was a heap of ruins.

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Rescue teams searched for bodies. Others demolished walls left close to collapse.

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Elsewhere, bomb disposal squads dealt with unexploded bombs,

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including one parachute bomb hanging from the steel rafters of Charing Cross Station.

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The legacy of the Blitz remains.

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It is estimated that over 100 unexploded bombs lie beneath the streets of London.

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Miraculously, St Paul's was saved that night,

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but the landscape of the City of London was transformed.

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And it was just one night amongst many.

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30,000 people died in the Blitz on London.

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Another 11,000 were killed in raids on other cities across the country.

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Thousands more were made homeless.

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Families were destroyed and lives were wrecked.

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Centuries of civilisation were reduced to rubble. No-one was safe.

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The reality of modern warfare had come home to roost.

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The Blitz on London strengthened the resolve of the British High Command.

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In 1940, this was the roof of the Air Ministry.

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On that terrible night, when the City of London blazed and St Paul's was wreathed in flames,

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Air Chief Marshal Harris - "Bomber" Harris - was up here.

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The story goes that as he watched the city burn, he said, "Well, they're sowing the wind."

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In due course, the Germans would reap the whirlwind

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when the RAF bombed the civilians of Hamburg and Dresden.

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Subtitles by Anne Morgan BBC Scotland 1997

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One night and one image encapsulate the London Blitz - December 29th 1940, the night of the second great fire of London when St Paul's rose in its glory above the smoke and flames. Richard Holmes traces the night's events, from the sector control room where the incoming raiders were plotted through to the efforts of the firemen to save St Paul's.