There is no shortage of books, historical and fictional, on the bombing of London during World War II. Peter Stansky’s new book, “The First Day of the Blitz,” combines history, political commentary and firsthand testimony in a compelling account.
The “Blitz,” misnamed for its expected quick knockout blow to Britain, officially started at 5 p.m. on Sept. 7, 1940. The bombing was extensive and lasted for 56 of the next 57 days. Over the course of the war, 40 percent of London’s housing stock was made uninhabitable.
Stansky’s book focuses on the first day, when the complacency of the Phony War (a preceding time of relative calm and frequently ignored air raid sirens) was replaced by shock, then terror, then resolve.
One of the first accounts details a recurring theme, the importance of afternoon tea:
“It must have been about 4 o’clock, because my mother had made afternoon tea … in the little silver-edged tray, complete with cups and saucers, a small matching china jug with milk and a teapot under its cosy.”
When the bombing started, they took refuge in a cupboard under the stairs.
“The air of the parlour condensed and became opaque as if turned instantaneously to a red-brown fog, the floor heaved unbelievably, the [wall] leaned and rocked as though it had become flexible and … the slates from the roof came pouring down, crashing through the roof of the glass conservatory with huge clatter, smashing all the glass and piling brokenly into the room….
“[As the bombing subsided], everything was covered with a heavy brown dust, which lay so thickly on the floor that it concealed the carpet. The little china milk jug was lying on its side, and the spilt milk lay in a rivulet dripping over the edge of the table to a white pool in that thick layer of dust below.
“My mother made an instinctive movement to pick up the jug and staunch the flow of milk, but realised how useless it was. What normally would have been a serious accident spoiling the carpet, was tiny in this new scale of destruction.”
At the Anti-Defamation League, we have many programs designed to teach about the Holocaust, and we know how well personal testimony and artifacts — a survivor’s story, an excerpted diary, a single shoe — attest to the human condition and bring history lessons to life. For me, Stansky’s book was especially close to home, as my mother and father lived through the Blitz, and their stories were part of the fabric of my childhood.
Reading Stansky’s book brought back memories of my mother’s experiences, both sad and funny — seeing a postman blown into the air; spending an air raid crouched under the heavy dining room table, where her older relatives sat telling jokes and playing cards, and just getting on with everyday life. I pored through the stories of this book as I would read my mother’s own diary. I was so eager to get to the next firsthand account, I often had to stop and re-read Stansky’s historic conclusions.
Stansky gives conflicting evidence of Britain’s preparedness, noting on one hand, the remarkable volunteer efforts of the air raid wardens, and on the other, the misplaced micromanagement of the British government (distributing postcards so people could write relatives of their safety and free up telephone lines, yet withholding blankets so people would not be “tempted to stay too long” in the shelters).
Stansky addresses the “myth of the Blitz” — that the British people behaved calmly, the country was unified by patriotism, and the experience led to a vast expansion of social services from “cradle to grave” in post-war times. There was truth to the myth, but it was an oversimplification.
The British resolved not to dwell on the situation (those who did were called “bomb bores”), but there was a nationalist strain to their patriotism. “[T]hey had little interest in including all who might claim to be British. This was most notable, ironically, in the case of Jews, some of whom were as badly blitzed as anyone.”
Stansky makes note of the presence of anti-Semitism, quoting rumors that Jews were hoarding prime space in the shelters, and including a report that anti-Semitism arose “not so much on account of a marked difference between Jews and Cockneys, but because the latter, seeking a scapegoat as an outlet for emotional disturbances, pick on the traditional and nearest one.”
Finally, Stansky draws parallels to modern terrorism, equating the qualities of Londoners in the days following Sept. 7, 1940, to those of New Yorkers in the days following Sept. 11, 2001. “Both days, 61 years apart, were marked by death and destruction, but they also provided evidence of our ability to survive as human beings.”
Not everyone will have the personal draw to the material that I did, but any student of history will enjoy “The First Day of the Blitz” as much for its social and political commentary as its compilation of great stories. I recommend it with a cup of afternoon tea.
Amanda Susskind is regional director of the Pacific Southwest Region of the Anti-Defamation League.