Beginning in the autumn of 1940, German Luftwaffe pilots bombed London for 57 consecutive nights. It began on Sept. 7, when 348 German bombers and 617 Messerschmitt fighters appeared in the clear skies above the British capital and began to pound the area with explosives. In the months that followed, great numbers of aghast Londoners fled to the countryside. But many more stayed put, through air raids that flattened great swaths of the city and killed 20,000 residents. When the bomb shelters filled up, tens of thousands of Londoners filed into Underground stations, where they slept, packed like sardines, on the concrete platforms.
This September marks the 75th anniversary of the Blitz (short for the German Blitzkrieg, or “lightning war”), Nazi Germany’s eight-month wartime bombing campaign against Britain. This fall, London’s robust tourism industry will commemorate the capital’s time under siege.
Already, assorted Blitz-themed walking tours abound. On a recent Sunday, several dozen tourists met near the Thames River for a “Westminster at War” tour (London Walks, 10 pounds, about $15; walks.com), led by a bespectacled gentleman tour guide who sternly warned the attendees that they “mustn’t shilly-shally,” for there was much to see.
The tour meandered toward Leicester Square where, in 1940, some well-heeled Londoners used to ignore the howling air raid sirens and spent their evenings dancing at the Café de Paris (until it, too, fell to the Blitz, demolished by a 110-pound high-explosive bomb in March 1941). Another stop brought the tour to the Savoy Hotel, where some of the staff was fired in the early stages of war because they were Italian.
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“This entire area was rebuilt in the 1960s,” the guide explained, “when we had no money and no taste.”
Several new exhibits consider how a variety of British citizens experienced the Blitz. At the Royal Air Force Museum, visitors can hop inside a Spitfire, the plane flown by British pilots as they battled the Luftwaffe (4 pounds; rafmuseum.org.uk).
One wildly popular summer exhibition has been the Imperial War Museum’s delightfully titled “Fashion on the Ration.” (10 pounds; iwm.org.uk; through Aug. 31). Objects on display included a ladies’ handbag with a built-in compartment for government-issued gas masks, and posters urging women to maintain their appearance during the air raids, lest their dowdy looks undermine the morale of British men.
The war is known to have inspired some of Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s greatest oratory, but it also solidified the leader’s sartorial legacy. A favorite print on display at the war museum showed Churchill meeting Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, dressed, astonishingly, in what we would now call a romper, or onesie, belted around his ample belly. Churchill popularized these so-called “siren suits” – one-piece zip-up garments – as practical bomb shelter attire.
If this whets the appetite for Churchill, there is also the Cabinet War Rooms, the fortified bunker that served as the prime minister’s wartime headquarters (18 pounds; iwm.org.uk).
But history-minded tourists should be wary of a British tendency to look back on the Blitz with something akin to nostalgia: not for the bombs themselves, but for the “Blitz Spirit” that they purportedly engendered. London tour guides are keen to promote the notion that a plucky, egalitarian, “We’re all in it together” sentiment dominated the time – a claim that newer generations of historians has described as romanticized.
To that end, a complete Blitz experience should include a walk through London’s East End: the once down-and-out industrial quarter where German bombers devoted their greatest efforts and where government aid was woefully lacking. Indeed, the East suffered so greatly that when Buckingham Palace was bombed on Sept. 13, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother said that she was glad for the hit, because she wanted the Blitz burden to be shared. “Now we can look the East End in the eye,” she famously said. Today, the Blitz’s legacy is seen in places like Wapping and the Barbican complex, in the absence of pretty Victorian homes and the plethora of Brutalist postwar apartment blocks.
When visitors tire of walking, they might choose to dance. The Bourne & Hollingsworth Group runs a regular Blitz Party where, for 25 pounds, attendees can experience “wartime revelry” in an “authentic air raid shelter,” with sandbags, blackout curtains, swing music and cocktail menus printed in tiny ration books. (Venues vary.) Costume attire is mandatory and taken seriously.
But those of us who live in London might hope that the Blitz remains more firmly buried in the past. In March, city officials found an unexploded 1,000-pound World War II bomb in a sports center in south London. After the bomb was defused, Southwark Councilor Lucas Green commended his constituents for their composure during the incident: “This area lived through the Blitz, and it remembers how to handle itself.”