The Battle of London 1939-45: Endurance, Heroism and Frailty under Fire
by Jerry White
Published by the Bodley Head 2021, pp.425 price £30.00
In 1939, a fifth of the population of England and Wales lived in London. It made it a sitting target for Nazi bombers during World War II.
And, after the zeppelin raids during the previous war, there was both a public fear and a private fascination with bombing — as H. G. Wells depicted presciently in The Shape of Things to Come. In the days before the outbreak of war in September 1939, hundreds of thousands of unaccompanied children, mothers with babes-in-arms, the pregnant, the blind, the disabled were all evacuated. Universities also moved — SOAS to Cambridge, UCL to Aberystwyth, Kings to Bristol. Both the terror and the calmness of the times are captured in Jerry White’s brilliant social history of London during the war years.
Among the events he describes, are such poignant examples as that of a bomb hitting the sewage system beneath Coronation Mansions in Stoke Newington in October 1940 when 154, mostly Jewish shelterers were drowned and when in Catford, Sandhurst Road School was hit as pupils queued for lunch.
White bases his work on personal testimony, diaries and dedicated research — and depicts the seamier side of life as well as the resilience of resistance. All areas and communities suffered terribly including the Jewish East End whose destruction was doubtless a priority for Hitler. at the more personal and squalid level, within a few months of the outbreak of war, crime had reached a seven year high. In 1942, there was ‘a pilfering epidemic’ and schmutter-stealing from Polikoff’s in Hackney was a regular occurrence. ‘Flash Izzy’ Bernfield of Golders Green was sentenced to five years in 1942 for his activities. Harry Dobkin murdered his wife, Rachel and was hanged at Wandsworth prison.
Jerry Silver records a direct hit on the Café de Paris night club in Leicester Square decimating ‘Snakehips’ Johnson’s swing band of black musicians. White notes that ‘corpses were looted as first aiders fought to save the injured’.
And, though Black GIs were generally welcomed in the UK, there is a remarkable photograph in this book showing Black GIs officially segregated from their white counterparts at an Albert Hall concert.
In 1939 at meetings in Ridley Road and John Campbell Road in Hackney, the British Union of Fascists proclaimed ‘It’s a Jew’s war!’.
Oswald Mosley, shortly before his arrest and internment, told an audience that ‘we are fighting for the investments of Jewish financiers’. Mass Observation records indicated that anti-Semitism actually increased during the war. In May 1945, the unimaginable scenes of Buchenwald and Belsen were revealed to the British public in London cinemas — there was no mention that the victims were Jews.
In contrast, the locals of Little Houghton near Northampton generously offered to feed the hungry evacuees from a Hampstead Jewish day school. The pupils, waiting for kosher food from London, adamantly refused to eat — much to the consternation of the perplexed villagers.
Just another vivid memory among others illuminating Jerry White’s tour de force.
Jewish Chronicle 14 January 2022