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Smoke from the West India Docks, ablaze after a Luftwaffe raid 7th September 1941
Smoke from the West India Docks, ablaze after a Luftwaffe raid 7th September 1941

Docklands at War - The Blitz

The government had prepared plans for the evacuation of thousands of children from the threatened area early in 1939.  But when evacuation really began in August  the plans quickly dissolved into chaos.  Many children from the East End were evacuated by boat or train to East Anglia or Kent.  On arrival they found the local authorities completely unprepared to accommodate or feed such large numbers.

Often, accommodation in the country areas could only be found in the homes of the more affluent – an extremely different environment from the poorer parts of the East End.  The result was often a terrible culture-clash.  Children were sometimes treated extremely badly or abused and they were often miserable.

The situation became worse when it was realised that these ‘safe’ areas might also be subject to air raids.  Many children were moved again, as far a field as South Wales or the Lake District .

Despite the frantic preparation for war, London was barely affected between September 1939 – April 1940 and this time became known as the Phoney War.  In May 1940, however, German armies over-ran France and a largely British army was trapped on the north coast of France at Dunkirk.  Responding to a call from the Government an armada of vessels, including many from London, set off to rescue the besieged troops.

Among them were sixteen Thames sailing barges which, because of their shallow draft, could get close to the Dunkirk beaches.  Eight of them ran aground and had to be abandoned.  Several  Thames paddle steamers, which had been used before the war for pleasure trips also took part.  The famous Crested Eagle was bombed and sunk, but the Royal Daffodil returned to London having rescued 9,000 troops despite being machine gunned, bombed and torpedoed.

The end of the Phoney War marked an intensification of preparations for the defence of the port.  Anti-aircraft guns had been installed around the docks and barrage balloons were located to protect vulnerable areas like lock gates.   Many port workers volunteered to serve additionally in the Auxiliary Fire Service or the Port of London’s own section of the Home Guard.

On the river, a new River Emergency Service (RES) had been formed to assist damaged ships, help with casualties and clear the river of mines.  In addition to its launches, the RES also had 14 ambulance vessels crewed by a doctor, nurses and boat handlers.  The women of the RES were trained in a wide range of skills, from signalling to seamanship.

By September 1940, the anti-climax of the Phoney-War and the unhappiness of many of the evacuee children had resulted in a gradual drift back to the threatened areas of London.  As a consequence there were still around half a million school-aged children in the London area.  In the evening of 7 September 1940 the German Luftwaffe began their attack on London.

Initially the main targets were the gasworks at Beckton, the Royal Arsenal factory at Woolwich and the docks.  These were easy to locate, as the German pilots simply had to follow the river until they reached their targets.  However, thousands of bombs rained down on the surrounding densely packed streets of East and South East London.   At the Surrey Docks 250 acres of timber were set alight by incendiary bombs.  North of the river warehouses full of sugar, rum, paint and spirits caught fire.  Blazing rivers of molten liquid poured out onto the quaysides and onto the water.

An eyewitness taking a boat down Limehouse Reach during the raid recorded:

“the scene was like a lake in hell.  Burning barges were drifting everywhere…We could hear the hiss and roar of the conflagration, a formidable noise, but we could not see it, so dense was the smoke. Nor could we see the eastern [isle of Dogs] shore”. (People’s War p 157.)

On the first night of the blitz, 430 civilians were killed and 1600 seriously wounded.   Government plans to provide shelters quickly proved horribly inadequate.  Deep public shelters had not been built because the government thought they would be bad for morale.   Instead, the government had provided smaller ‘Anderson’ shelters to be installed in peoples back gardens – overlooking the fact that a great many East End houses had no gardens.

As the blitz continued for 76 consecutive nights (with one exception) many East Londoners sought to escape the bombs by camping out overnight in Epping Forest, despite protests from nearby residents.  On the night of 12 September a crowd of Londoners forced their way into the  underground stations for the first time and the Government was forced to accept their use as public shelters.

Some shelters were erected above ground;  but these were often shoddily built – often with no cement – and it had never been  planned that they would be in use for 14 hours at a stretch.  There were no facilities for sanitation, food or sleeping.  The situation was little better in the crowded underground stations, where the tunnels were used as toilets, lice proliferated and diseases like scabies and impetigo spread rapidly.

There were some roughly improvised public shelters.  The most notorious was the ‘Tilbury Shelter’ – in the underground goods yard beneath the railway arches in Stepney.  Part of this had been organised by the local authority as a shelter for 3,000 people, but on some nights it was occupied by as many as  14,000 -16,000 people.  There was no sanitation and poorer families were forced to occupy the more unpleasant areas where the floors were covered by excrement and discarded margarine.  One observer reported: “The place was a hell hole, it was an outrage that people had to live in these conditions”.
As the blitz continued it seemed to many people that the less affluent residents of the East End were suffering much more than other Londoners.  The buildings of the West End were more strongly built than the Victorian terraces of the East End and so, when bombs did begin to fall there, the damage was less significant.   Many of London’s richer families simply shut up their town houses and moved out to second homes in the country.  London’s population fell by 25% as people left the city but, significantly, it was the poorer families and those who were needed for work who were forced to remain.

The growing sense of inequality was not lessened by the habit of rounding off an evening at a fashionable West End restaurant by a visit to the crowded underground stations to gawp at those huddled there.  A tide of resentment built rapidly – and it was rumoured that the King and Queen had received a hostile reception when they tried to tour the bomb-shattered areas of the East End.

The government responded quickly by trying to improve the conditions in the shelters.  Between 1940 – April 1941 600,000 bunk beds were installed, along with small coal stoves or electric heaters.  Better arrangements were made for providing food.  Furthermore, to counter any apparent collapse of morale,  the government encouraged the partly mythical image of the cheerful cockney emerging from the rubble with a defiant joke on his lips.

As the bombing moved further westwards the sense of resentment began to decline, especially after Buckingham Palace was bombed and the King and Queen claimed that they too were suffering with ordinary Londoners.

To continue learning about the Docklands at War please use the link below:

Visit the Docklands at War gallery page.

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