SOME 450,000 bombs fell on Britain during the Second World War. London, Bristol, Cardiff, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Southampton and Swansea were all bombed, as were Birmingham, Belfast, Coventry, Glasgow, Manchester and Sheffield. Then there were the infamous blitzes of Liverpool and Hull. About 40,000 civilians were killed by Luftwaffe bombing during the war and it’s hard to think of an area of the country that wasn’t affected in some way.
Half of the bombs fell on London, where more than a million houses were destroyed or damaged. One of these houses was 8 Martindale Road in Canning Town and it was this address which was the focus of the first episode of a fascinating new series Blitz: The Bombs That Changed Britain.
The programme followed this one bomb as it fell to earth on September 7, 1940 whistling its way at 1,000ft a second before burying itself in the midst of this tight-knit East End community. The bomb itself didn’t even go off but its impact could barely have been more devastating as this brilliantly researched documentary made clear.
The tragedy began as soon as the unexploded bomb was discovered and the residents of surrounding streets were evacuated. Whole families clambered through the rubble and the fumes coming from burning molasses of a nearby sugar factory, with some going south and others heading north. But most headed for the local primary school which had been converted into a makeshift shelter where they could get a cup of tea and a bus out the city.
The atmosphere of foreboding was almost suffocating as we heard what happened next from surviving relatives who pored over black and white photographs of long-dead relatives. The following evening with the school fit to bursting, another air raid launched another bomb which landed on South Hallsville School. The whole school building fell into the basement, leaving hundreds of people dead, dying or trapped. Once recovery attempts were abandoned and all survivors who could be reached were rescued, the government released figures showing 77 people had died but as eye witnesses statements reveal the true figure is today estimated at about 600.
What followed was a story of official incompetence that was staggering in its ineptitude. Warnings had been ignored and an administrative mix up ensured buses went to Camden Town instead of Canning Town. Held up on their way back to the East End, the buses did not arrive in time to evacuate the school as promised.
It was hard not to think of Grenfell Tower as the shell of the school was pictured and grisly local legends of how many bodies remained under the rubble were retold.
Thankfully the disaster prompted a rethink on how to evacuate and shelter civilians and ultimately, as the programme ended, we learnt it even influenced the formation of the NHS. Food for thought for all those currently working at Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council.