A Seaman’s view of London in the blitz


Extract from letter G to D travelling back to training via London

We were at Kings’ Cross by ten. Some of us wanted to go straight to Chatham but George and I dug in our heels , and it was decided to see the Union Jack Club, there to get a bed — and a drink. Now the Union Jack Club is opposite Waterloo Station, so we went into a tube station. I had heard of people sheltering in tubes but, dear me, I’d had no idea what it was really like. Along every corridor and platform there were rows of people stretched out on the most horrible blankets and under the tawdriest wraps (?) — you had hardly room to move down the platform. They were miserably poor folk, dreadfully untidy and uncomfortable looking, and they depressed me terribly. Yet they seemed to be quite happy and were certainly very cheerful. Think of it! Trying to sleep there, fully dressed and between a few tattered blankets, on the dirty floor, the trains roaring past, enormous crowds moving up and down and falling over the sleepers.; and everything suffocatingly hot and stuffy. We felt guilty in our good clothes and our independence and freedom — for most of the adults there had half a dozen children crawling round them.
The train took us as far as Piccadilly Circus and no further — Waterloo line out of action. A fatuous ticket collector told us to get a bus, a saner passer-by told us that the buses weren’t running. None of us knew London well but we had some scraps of knowledge: I had piloted the party through the underground somebody else knew the way from the Strand while Fred knew the way from the Strand to Waterloo, so we thought a careful pooling of our knowledge would take us to the Union Jack, black out or no.
We needn’t have worried about the black-out. It was not as light as day outside but there was not so much difference either. The whole sky was bright with the fires the News is talking about just now; enormous clouds of red-orange smoke hung about everywhere, the streets were lit up as brilliantly as if someone had arranged some gigantic multi-coloured spot-lights. We couldn’t actually see the fires, for there were none in Piccadilly and the buildings round about were pretty high but a solitary balloon hung in the smoke and reflected, in a carnival fashion, the glare below it.
There was no sense of impending doom; the streets were quiet and yet rather gay. The one or two passers-by were cheerful and we set off in high spirits.
Presently we came out into a more open place and the first thing we saw was St Pauls’ surrounded by enormous waves of orange-red smoke and big flames. That gave me a turn, but it was such an extraordinarily fine sight that we were much more excited than scared. The dome stood out beautifully, untouched by the flames while the lesser buildings round about crackled and sparked. This was at Waterloo Bridge; and as we crossed over, we saw fire after fire, all (?) and bouncing-but none of them particularly terrifying. You didn’t get the impression of wide spread devastation that photographs of the dock fires gave you.
I don’t know if the conflagrations had anything to do with it, but it was far and away the hottest, windy night I’ve known. We carried our oil-skins and our heavy coats and our (cares?) and parcels and the lack of buses and panted and sweated like a sheep-dog on a hot day. What a broad river the Thames is! We seemed to take hours to cross the bridge, all lit-up as it was with the fires round about and offering an excellent target, we thought to any planes that might still be lurking above the smoke. We were beginning to be haunted by two fears: that the Union Jack would be full; or that it would be bombed or burnt, for there seemed to be more fires to the South. Half-past eleven saw us there, much too tired to take any further interest in fires and there was room and the building was untouched. We drank large cups of tea, arranged to be called at five, and went to bed in the dark.

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