The final in our series looking at London ‘battlefields’, this week we take a look at the so-called Battle of London, the air war fought over London during World War II which, along with the bombing of other British cities, is best known by the phrase The Blitz (it forms part of the greater Battle of Britain).

Blitz-memorialTaking place from the afternoon of 7th September, 1940, until May, 1941, the Blitz saw London sustain repeated attacks from the German Luftwaffe, most notably between 7th September and mid November when the city was bombed on every night bar one.

The night of 7th September, the first night of the Blitz (a short form of ‘Blitzkrieg’ – German for ‘lightning war’), was among the worst – with more than 450 killed and 1,300 injured as wave after wave of bombers attacked the city. Another 412 were killed the following night.

One of the most notorious raids took place on 29th December when  incendiary bombs dropped on the City of London starting what has been called the Second Great Fire of London. Around a third of the city was destroyed, including more than 30 guild halls and 19 churches, 16 which had been rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London in 1666.

The city was only attacked sporadically in the early months of 1941 but the night of the last major raid of the Blitz – that of 10th May, a night subsequently known as The Longest Night – saw the highest casualties of any night with almost 1,500 people reportedly killed.

The Blitz killed almost 30,000 civilian in London, and destroyed more than a million homes with the worst hit districts poorer areas like the East End.

The battle wasn’t one-sided – the RAF fought the Luftwaffe in the skies and did have some wins – on 15th September (a day known as Battle of Britain Day), for example, they shot down some 60 aircraft attacking London for the loss of less than 30 British fighters.

It was this victory which led the Germans to reduce the number of daylight attacks in favour of night-time raids which, until the launch of the RAF’s night-time fighters in 1941, meant they met little effective resistance. This included that of ground defences – throughout December, 1940, it’s said that anti-aircraft fire only brought down 10 enemy planes.

Yet, the Blitz did not lead to a German victory. For the Nazi regime, the purpose of the constant bombing of London (and other cities) was aimed at sapping the morale of its residents to the extent that they would eventually be forced to beg for peace. But the plan failed and Londoners, digging deep, proved their mettle in the face of fear.

Hundreds of thousands of people were involved in  Civil Defence working in a range of jobs – everything from air raid shelter wardens to rescue and demolition teams – and worked alongside firefighters whose numbers were supplemented by an auxiliary service. Naturally all suffered a high level of casualties.

As the weeks passed, the carnage mounted in terms of the loss of and damage to life, destruction of property and psychological toll. And yet the Londoners – sheltering Underground, most famously in the tunnels of the Tube – survived and, as had been the case after the first Great Fire of London, the ruined city was eventually rebuilt.

There are numerous Blitz-related memorials in London, many related to specific bombings. But among the most prominent are the National Firefighters Memorial, located opposite St Paul’s Cathedral, which pays tribute to the firefighters who lost their lives in the war (as well as in peacetime), and a riverside memorial in Wapping honouring civilians of East London killed in the Blitz.

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Houses-of-Parliament

Of course, no look at London sites associated with Sir Winston Churchill would be complete without a mention of the Palace of Westminster, better known as the Houses of Parliament.

Churchill made his maiden speech in the House of Commons on 18th February, 1901, having won the seat of Oldham for the Conservative Party the year before (he switched to the Liberal Party in 1904 and eventually rejoined the Conservatives in 1924).

Over his long career in politics (he was an MP for 62 years), he served in a variety of roles including the President of the Board of Trade, Home Secretary, First Lord of the Admiralty, Minister of Munitions, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and twice, Prime Minster.

Some of the most famous speeches Churchill gave in the House of Commons were during World War II – they include the ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’ speech given on 13th May, 1940 – the first after he had been made Neville Chamberlain’s replacement as PM, the ‘we shall fight them on the beaches’ speech given on 4th June, 1940, and the ‘this was their finest hour’ speech of 18th June, 1940, in which he gave the ‘Battle of Britain’ its name and, as the name suggests, first recorded the phrase “their finest hour” (the speech ended with it).

Churchill’s last speech to Parliament was given on 1st March, 1955, in which he spoke about the British development of a hydrogen bomb.

There’s several places within the Houses of Parliament which now bear Churchill’s name. Among them are the Churchill Room (named as such in 1991 when ownership of the room passed from the Lords to the Commons, it features two of his paintings and a bronze bust of the PM).

They also include the Churchill Arch – this leads from the Members’ Lobby into the Commons Chamber and is flanked by a 1969 statue of Churchill ( and one of fellow former PM, David Lloyd George (one foot on each of the statues has been burnished thanks to the practice of MPs to touch them as they enter the Commons Chamber).

It took on its current name after it was rebuilt following damage from bombs during World War II – at Churchill’s suggestion damaged stone was reused in its construction as a memorial to the “ordeal” Westminster had endured during the war. The statue of Churchill, incidentally, was the focus of recent commemorations on the 50th anniversary of his death.

Churchill’s stamp can also be seen on the Commons Chamber itself – it was he who recommended that when the chamber was rebuilt after World War II that it retain its rectangular shape rather than be redesigned in a semi-circle.

Churchill’s body lay in state in Westminster Hall prior to his funeral service in January, 1965 (for more on that, see our previous post here.

For more on Churchill’s Parliamentary career, check out the UK Parliament’s Living History page here: www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/private-lives/yourcountry/collections/churchillexhibition/.

A love letter Romantic poet John Keats wrote to his beloved Fanny Brown will be returned to the house in which it was written. Keats wrote the letter in 1820 while living next door to her at Wentworth House in Hampstead, north London – his home from 1818 to 1820 and the setting that inspired some of his most memorable poetry including Ode to a Nightingale. The City of London Corporation, who manage the house – now a museum known as Keats House, recently purchased the letter with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund for £80,000. They say it will now be returned to the house and displayed there. In the letter Keats wrote: “I shall Kiss your name and mine where your Lips have been – Lips! why should a poor prisoner as I am talk about such things.” He said his consolation was “in the certainty of your affection”. See www.keatshouse.cityoflondon.gov.uk.

Amid the host of souvenirs and trinkets up for sale in the lead-up to the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton comes news of a unusual offering from Transport for London – a limited edition royal wedding Oyster card. The card, which will go on sale in the week leading up to the ceremony, features a portrait of the couple and their wedding date – 29th April, 2011. More than 750,000 of the cards will be offered for sale. The move is not without precedent – in 1981, a unique ticket was produced for the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana.

• Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum, the youngest Spitfire pilot to take part in the Battle of Britain, was granted the Freedom of the City of London at a ceremony at Guildhall last week. Wellum was just 18-years-old when he joined the RAF in August 1939. Serving in a frontline squadron, he flew many combat missions including dogfights during the Battle of Britain and was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

• On Now: The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900 at the Victoria & Albert Museum in . Said to be the “most comprehensive” exhibition ever staged on the Aesthetic Movement in Britain, it brings together masterpieces in painting as well as sculpture, design, furniture, architecture, fashion and literature of the era and explores some of the key personalities  involved in the movement – from William Morris and Frederic Leighton through to James McNeil Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and Oscar Wilde. Organised in collaboration with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the exhibition runs until 17th July. Tickets are £12 (concessions available). See www.vam.ac.uk.

London will celebrate Chinese New Year this Sunday as it once again hosts the largest celebrations outside of Asia attracting some 250,000 people from around the globe. The event programme, which celebrates 2011 as the Year of the Rabbit, kicks off at 11am on the main stage in Trafalgar Square with firecrackers at noon, a Lion and Dragon performance at 1.10pm and dance and song during the afternoon culminating in a finale just before 6pm. There will also be a stage in Shaftesbury Avenue with performances throughout the day. Roads in the area will be closed for the event.

You no longer have to be in London to walk through the galleries of the Tate Britain or the National Gallery. Both institutions are among 17 around the world taking part in the Google Art Project which allows web surfers to virtually “walk” around the museum using the organisation’s Street View technology and turn 360 degrees to view the artworks in situ on the walls. The project also allows viewers to look through images of more than 1,000 artworks and, in addition, each institution has selected one artwork which then captured in “super high resolution” and then placed on line (Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors‘ for the National Gallery, Chris Ofili’s No Woman, No Cry for the Tate). See www.googleartproject.com for more.

Cyclists have ridden the distance to the moon and back 13 times – 10 million kilometres – since the launch of Mayor Boris Johnson’s cycle scheme. Transport for London released figures this week showing riders have made more than 2.5 million journeys on the “Boris bikes” since the scheme was launched six months ago. The TfL has announced plans to expand the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme to new areas of east London including all of the Borough of Tower Hamlets, North Shoreditch, Bethnal Green, Bow, Canary Wharf, Mile End and Poplar by spring 2012. Almost 110,000 people are now signed up to the scheme. www.tfl.gov.uk.

The youngest Spitfire pilot in the Battle of Britain is to be granted the Freedom of the City of London in a special ceremony next month. Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service in a front line squadron during the battle.

Remembrance Day

November 11, 2010

It’s Remembrance Day and all across the UK – and around the world – people are pausing to reflect on those who gave their lives fighting for their country. While the main events related to the day – the laying of wreaths at the Cenotaph and a parade – takes place on Remembrance Sunday, we’re marking the day today with a list of 10 of London’s World War I and II-related war memorials.

This list is by no means comprehensive – there are scores of other memorials in London which relate to the two world wars – but we’d welcome your comments of any others you think we should mention. Lest We Forget…

1. The Cenotaph – The most famous of London’s war memorials (pictured right), this simply designed – almost plain – monument stands in the middle of Whitehall and was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens to commemorate the dead of World War I. It is here that the Queen and other dignitaries lay wreaths on Remembrance Sunday in remembrance of the war dead of both world wars.

2. The Monument to the Women of World War II – Located just along from the Cenotaph, this much criticised memorial marks the role more than seven million women played during World War II. Unveiled in 2005, the memorial was designed by John W. Mills and depicts a series of coats worn by women during the war hanging as though on pegs.

3. The Tower Hill Memorial – This memorial, which was originally unveiled in 1928 and then added to after World War II, commemorates the men and women of the merchant navy and fishing fleets who were killed in either world war and have no known grave. It lists more than 36,000 names. For more information, see www.cwgc.org/search/cemetery_details.aspx?cemetery=90002&mode=1.

4. The Battle of Britain Monument – Located on the north bank of the Thames at Victoria Embankment, this monument pays tribute to those who took part in the Battle of Britain during World War II. Sculpted by Paul Day, it features scenes from the battle in high relief bronze with virtually life-sized statues of airmen scrambling to their aircraft at its centre. Unveiled on 18th September, 2005, the 65th anniversary of the battle. For more information, see www.bbm.org.uk

5. The National Firefighters Memorial – Marking the role played by firefighters during the Blitz of London in World War II (as well as the role of firefighters generally), the memorial (pictured right) was designed by John Mills and features the “Blitz” statue – two life-sized firefighters and an officer cast in bronze – standing atop a plinth. First unveiled in by Queen Elizabeth II in 1991, it originally featured the names of 997 men and women who died during the Blitz inscribed upon it but this was extended to include firefighters who have died in peacetime and an additional 1192 names were added prior to a rededication in 2003. Located just south of St Paul’s on the main route to the Millennium Bridge, it is the focus of the annual Firefighters Day of Remembrance held each September. For more information, see www.firefightersmemorial.co.uk.

6. The Animals in War Memorial – Commemorating all the animals that died alongside British, Commonwealth and Allied forces during the wars and conflicts of the 20th century, this unusual monument at Brook Gate in Park Lane was unveiled in 2004. The sculptures include two mules, a horse and a dog all cast in bronze while other animals are depicted in bas-relief on a wall of Portland stone. For more information, see www.animalsinwar.org.uk

7. Canada Memorial – Located in Green Park (just inside Canada Gate), the memorial, designed by Quebec artist Pierre Granche, honors the more than 100,000 Canadians who died in the world wars as well as the more than one million who served. Made of red granite inset with bronze maple leaves, it was designed to create the impression of maple leaves floating down a stream. Unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II in 1994.  www.vac-acc.gc.ca/remembers/sub.cfm?source=memorials/ww2mem/green-park-memorial

8. Australian War Memorial – Located close to Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner, this monumental wall (pictured right) marks the role Australians played in both World Wars. More than 100,000 Australians died during the conflicts and the names of the 23,844 towns in which they were born are inscribed on the wall over which is superimposed the names of 47 battles in which Australians fought in. Unveiled on the 85th anniversary of Armistice Day, 2003. For more information, see www.awmlondon.gov.au.

9. New Zealand War Memorial – Located at Hyde Park Corner diagonally opposite the Australian War Memorial, this monument was designed by architect John Hardwick-Smith and sculptor Paul Dibble and features 16 bronze cross-shaped ‘standards’ of varying heights set in formation and inscribed with text, patterns and some small sculptures. Dedicated on Armistice Day, 2006, by Queen Elizabeth II.

10. Soviet War Memorial – Found in the Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park – adjacent to the Imperial War Museum in Southwark, the Soviet War Memorial was unveiled in 1999. Designed by sculptor Sergei Shcherbakov, it commemorates the 27 million people who died in the Soviet Union during World War II. For more information, see www.scrss.org.uk/sovietmemorial.htm.

Around London…

September 16, 2010

A 9 ft (2.7 metre) tall bronze statue of Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park, commander of the RAF in London and the south-east during the Battle of Britain, was unveiled in Waterloo Place, just off Pall Mall, this week. Sir Keith, a New Zealander who joined the RAF after fighting at Gallipoli and the Somme during World War I, was described as the “brain” behind London’s air defences. The unveiling of the statue on Battle of Britain Day (12th September) follows a three year campaign to honor Sir Keith, who died in 1975, with such a monument. A prototype of the statue occupied the Fourth Plinth at Trafalgar Square for six months after it was unveiled in November last year. For more information, see www.sirkeithpark.com.

Spend a night at the museum (well, part of one anyway). The Natural History Museum is opening its doors for one night only as part of European Researchers’ Night on Friday, 24th September. Scientists will be on hand to chat and there will be opportunities to see rare specimens not usually on display including a giant squid. There will also be three bars offering drinks and food. The event, which we can promise won’t include you being chased down hallways by dinosaur skeletons, runs from 4pm – 10pm. For more information, see www.nhm.ac.uk.

Don’t forget! Open House London kicks off this weekend. For more information, see last week’s Around London post.