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Sixty Years Ago ...
An American in London
by Jennifer King and Timothy Rollins

July 28, 2003

Reflections on World War II

Second of Two Parts

TAP Columnist Jennifer King TAP Columnist Timothy RollinsA Special Note to Our Readers: Not too long ago, Jennifer and her family made a trip to Europe, part of which involved stops in Great Britain and France. During her time there, she got to see much of the history that remained from the time of World War II. Here is her account of her time in England. Her account "An American In Paris" was featured recently in TAP. We hope you enjoy this article. - Jennifer and Tim

On our European trip, we spent nine days living in London, right in the middle of the city. We did the usual tourist things, riding the doubledecker busses and gawking at the imposing figure of Admiral Nelson atop his monument in Trafalger Square. One of the other things we also did was to tour a lot of sites related to Britain’s role in World War II.

Sir Winston Spencer Leonard Churchill (1874-1965)One of the sites we visited was Imperial War Museum’s Cabinet War Rooms - the rooms where Winston Churchill (right) and his staff conducted the day to day business of war.

The First World War had brought home the harsh reality of “total war”. War had been waged mercilessly against defenceless cities, aimed at subduing the populace and interrupting the functions of government. The bombing of cities had been practiced both during WWI and the Spanish Civil War, causing many civilian casualties.

During the 1920s and 1930s, British War Planners were forced to confront the realities of this modern warfare tactic. RAF personnel projected a scenario in which 600 tons of bombs could be dropped on London in a week - causing up to 200,000 casualties. It was decided that a secure, fortified location - capable of housing the most crucial war personnel - was needed. Various locations were scouted, but eventually discarded as being too far away from the usual seat of government. The planners didn’t want civilians to lose heart, thinking their representatives were abandoning them for the relative safety of the countryside!

Eventually, it was decided that the basement chambers of the Office of Works building would suffice, and work began on fortifying them in June of 1938.

Of course, history has a way of galloping ahead of man’s plans, and the fall of 1938 saw the advent of the Munich Crisis, the carving up of Czechoslovakia and the craven appeasement of Neville Chamberlain. Barely a year later, Poland would fall to the Nazis, and Britain would declare war.

Cabinet War RoomThe Cabinet War Rooms (left) are set up exactly as they were left when the doors were closed in 1945. It is not difficult to picture Churchill and his Cabinet ensconced in the war room, planning Britain’s defence during the dark days of the early war.

During the time between the declaration of war (3 September 1939) and the onset of actual war (7 September 1940), the British lived in an uneasy semi-peace, during a time dubbed by wags “The Sitzkreig” or “The Phony War”.

Real war, however, was being waged ferociously on the Continent. After the fall of Poland, Hitler set his sites on Norway and her ports. From 9 April to 4 May 1940, the Norweigens battled until they succumbed to the Nazi war machine. Deftly bypassing the useless Maginot Line, the Germans invaded Belgium, the Netherlands and France on 10 May. The embattled British Expeditionary Forces were evacuated from Dunkirk from 25 May to 4 June, with a loss of 235 vessels and 68,000 men. When France fell on 22 June, Germany moved her Uboat operations to France and Admiral Doenitz was free to unleash the full forces of his Wolf Pack upon the hapless British merchant ships.

The situation was bleak, when Winston Churchill and his Cabinet assembled below the streets of London. Hitler and his Nazis bestrode the Continent. Their vast empire controlled virtually all of Europe and large parts of North Africa. The German war machine was unlike anything ever encountered before. Flush with victory, Hitler proceeded with his plan - Operation Seelowe (Sea Lion) - to invade England.

On 10 July, Reichsmarshall Hermann Goering launched the first salvo in the upcoming Battle of Britain. The RAF was hopelessly outnumbered, with only 900 aircraft to the Luftwaffe’s 2800. There was only one fully equipped air division, under the command of General Bernard Montgomery. Nevertheless, in the first month of the war the Germans lost 227 planes, while the RAF lost 96. The main phase of the Battle of Britain started on 13 August, but the Germans continued losing planes due to the British employing the new technology of radar. After the British bombed Berlin in a retaliatory action for a bomb which had landed on London, Hitler became enraged. He authorized the unlimited bombing of London, the London Blitz, which began on 7 September 1940. On 15 September, Hitler quietly suspended Operation Seelowe.

The real ordeal for Londoners, however, was just beginning. The German Luftwaffe dropped 5,300 tons of high explosives during the month of September alone. Londoners took refuge in Andersen shelters, the Tube stations or in their own beds ensconced under metal boxes designed to shelter them from collapsing houses. Food, clothing and other essentials became scarce and were rationed. The Blitz would continue until May of 1941, but it failed in its intended purpose. Rather than crushing morale, it merely enforced Britain’s determination to never surrender to the Nazi invasion forces poised on the nearby French shore.

Below the shattered streets, Winston Churchill and his Cabinet hung grimly on, planning the actions that would eventually lead to victory. ***

2003 Jennifer King and Timothy Rollins

All writers retain rights to their work.


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