Clerkenwell London During The Bombing & Blitz of World War II
The dreadful reality of war was becoming apparent to us, as in Clerkenwell London we found ourselves right in the firing line during the Blitz and bombing during World War II. On a sunny afternoon on the 7th September 1940 we Londoners experienced our first big air bombing raid. The Luftwaffe mounted a rolling raid by 247 bombers which kept us terrorised in our shelters for nine hours.
* German Bombers over Surrey Docks – 7th September 1940
Smoke rising from Surrey Docks after the bombing 7th Sep 1940
The Bombing and the Blitz
The “Blitz” had begun, and London was repeatedly bombed for the next 57 consecutive nights without abatement. Hitler planned to destroy our morale and bring the British into submission.
I vividly recall the menacing drone of hundreds of German bombers in the night sky. Often, unable to pinpoint their targets, the German pilots dropped high explosives and incendiaries at random onto the streets below. Some Londoners utilised the Underground Train stations as shelters.
My aunt Emilia however preferred to go to the cinema, where they would play films all night long. She said at least she would be enjoying herself if God decided that her time on earth was up.
In the early days in St Peter’s basement bomb shelter, in order to try and get some sleep, we had to lie in rows on the cold floor. Gradually wooden bunks were constructed, and we took supplies of blankets and pillows with us to try and make ourselves more comfortable. These would be left bundled up ready for the next night, each family would reserve their regular spot. The only toilet facility was a repulsive chemical loo. All of us huddled together in such cramped, insanitary conditions, that would in time lead to the spread of disease, as my sister and I were later to find out, to our cost. However, down in our shelter there was always a very friendly atmosphere, with a mixture of Italian, English and Irish people, and also a German family – the Fackler’s. We youngsters and children used to amuse ourselves by playing cards and board games and tried to have a bit of fun, to keep up our morale.
On nights when the bombing was particularly heavy and our nerves really frayed, one of the Priests would come down to the basement and bless everyone and say prayers. Then The old Italian ladies used to begin reciting the rosary out loud, over and over again. One poor old dear used to get so very frightened, that she used to literally shake with fear, from head to toe, and her little feet tapped on the floor. The kids saw the funny side and laughed, saying she was dancing. Looking back, if the church had been bombed, would we have stood a chance? It was full of heavy statues, which would have probably killed people sheltering there anyway!
The bombing raids often tended to come in waves. We would all heave a huge sigh of relief when the siren would eventually go off, signalling the “all clear”. People would dash off home to hurriedly make something to eat, or have a cup of hot tea, and prepare a flask to take back to the shelter, before the next round of bombing started.
Often I would arrive home after a hard day’s work, and Mamma would have dinner all laid out on the table ready to eat, when suddenly the siren would sound. Everything would have to be left as we all ran for safety. We were not sleeping or eating properly. One night we decided we had had enough and said we would sleep at home in our beds, as we hoped it might possibly be a quiet night. However, suddenly in the middle of the night the siren went off. It was pitch black because of the “blackout” and we scrambled and stumbled blindly about trying to find our clothes and shoes, in a rush to get down to the shelter.
Sometimes, after a night of bombing, when we eventually emerged from the shelters with the “all clear” signal, and we would be greeted with horrific scenes. Clouds of thick dust, the smell of explosive and escaping gas, broken glass and rubble scattered everywhere, burst water mains gushing, fires raging all around and the sky glowing bright red. I would find myself confronted by a changed landscape, sometimes it was hard to find my way to work. One night our work premises were bombed out but thankfully our boss soon got us moved to alternative premises, so at least I was able to continue earning some much needed money.
The Blitz continued like this for eight long months with bombs raining down nightly, culminating on the 10th May 1941, when London experienced its worst raid ever. The East End felt the brunt of it, but all of us Londoners suffered, several houses were struck in our neighbourhood.
Thankfully things seemed to calm down for a while, and we Londoners thought that perhaps for us the worst was over.
However, my sister had been unwell for some time, and she was eventually admitted to hospital with acute pneumonia. She had contracted Tuberculosis. Alas nothing could be done to save her. My sweet sister Rosie died on New Year’s Day 1943 aged just 33.
But for us life had to go on, and we got by the best we could. We anxiously scanned the papers and listened to newsreels at the cinema, concerned about our family back in Italy. Germany had by now taken over command of Italy, to the humiliation of Mussolini, leaving him as no more than a puppet leader.
We learned that the Allied Forces had recaptured Sicily from the Germans, and were proceeding to work their way up the leg of Italy. In July 1943, after the allied landing in Sicily, the V American Army and the VIII British Army, under the command of General Montgomery, advanced rapidly northwards. However the Germans, commanded by Generalfeldmarschall Kesserling, had set up well positioned fortifications along a line of defence known as the GUSTAV Line. Cassino was one of its main strongholds. We listened intently to reports of the bloody battles at Montecassino which was very close to where our family lived in Atina. (Some time later news arrived from Italy to say that some of our family had been killed in Atina during the Allied bombing.) Montecassino Abbey was destroyed by the bombing but Cassino was finally liberated from the Germans on the 18th May 1944. This enabled the Allies to continue their march towards Rome
Back in London, during June 1944 we once again found ourselves in the front line, when Germany launched its new flying bombs in our direction. This second Blitz, which began the week after the “D-Day Landings”, was in many ways more terrifying than the first.
Hitler had come up with a new terrifying “V-1” or the “Doodlebug” or “Buzz Bomb” as it was nicknamed, which was a sinister unmanned plane carrying high explosives. They made a distinctive droning sound and when the engine ran out of fuel they dived down in an unpredictable way. No warnings could be given as they came over in a steady stream, both by day and by night. Then September saw the arrival of the “V-2 Rockets”.
* A V-1 or Doodlebug
These were even more horrifying as they had a longer range and were each packed with a ton of explosives. They could travel faster than the speed of sound and you couldn’t even hear them coming. These continued to be launched at London all through October and November. We wondered just how much more we could endure.
During the course of the conflict, nearly 1.5 million incendiary devices and somewhere in the region of 50,000 high explosive bombs were dropped on London. Between 7th October 1940 and 6th June 1943 seventy of the latter and three parachute mines were dropped on Clerkenwell alone.
After many bloody battles, Italy eventually surrendered to the Allies on the 8th September 1943. On the newsreels we watched gruesome images of Mussolini who had been shot and strung up in Piazzale Loreto in Milan.
The Germans finally surrendered on the 8th May 1945 – “VE Day” and Japan surrendered on 15th August 1945 – “VJ Day”.
At long last we saw the end of the Second World War. How we rejoiced that we had made it through.
Photos have been accredited to the photographer / owner. Images marked * are in the Public Domain.
Photos marked with ● are believed to be in the Public Domain due of their age.
All other photos belong to my family or I have taken myself – © Louise Shapcott