The evacuation from Dunkirk on the French coast was hailed in Britain as an extraordinary achievement and the ‘little ships of Dunkirk’ swiftly entered the mythology of wartime brave deeds.
British soldiers wade out to a waiting destroyer off Dunkirk during the evacuation.
Troops evacuated from Dunkirk on a destroyer about to berth at Dover, 31 May 1940.
Troops evacuated from Dunkirk enjoying tea and other refreshments at Addison Road station in London, 31 May 1940.
Some of the 'little ships' used during the evacuation of Dunkirk being towed back along the River Thames past Tower Bridge, 9 June 1940.
German forces moved into Dunkirk hours after the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force. Here German officers inspect a memorial on the sea front at Dunkirk.
Remarkably, St Paul's Cathedral sustained only light damage during the war, despite the surrounding area being badly hit. On 12 September 1940 an unexploded bomb lodged itself in the foundations of the cathedral. It took a bomb disposal team 3 days to tunnel down to the bomb, tether and slowly remove it. It was taken to Hackney Marshes where it was detonated.
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The British government knew that Germany would target London in their bombing raids. If the capital was put out of action, it would severely affect the war effort and have a devastating impact on the nation’s morale.
The Blitz on London from September 1940 to May 1941 and the V1 flying bomb and V2 rocket attacks in 1944 caused a massive amount of damage. It is estimated that 12,222 metric tons of bombs were dropped on London and 29,890 civilians were killed by enemy action. The worst hit places tended to be the poorer districts, like the East End, but all Londoners were affected by German air raids to a varying degree.
The Blitz changed the landscape of the city. Many famous landmarks were hit, including Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London and the Imperial War Museum. Some areas, such as Stepney, were so badly damaged that they had to be almost entirely rebuilt after the war.
With the arrival of large numbers of Commonwealth and overseas service personnel, London became more cosmopolitan. After 1942, by far the overwhelming presence was that of American servicemen. It was also a busy transport hub and a popular destination for troops on leave.
London was the focus for VE and VJ day celebrations at the end of the war. Thousands of people waited to see the Royal Family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace and Churchill appear at Whitehall. On VE day, St Paul’s Cathedral and the National Gallery were floodlit, and there were bonfires in the city’s parks.
The first barrage balloons appeared over London in the autumn of 1938 at the time of the Munich Crisis. Initially 40 were deployed, forming a vital part of the city's air defences. The balloons, which were over 65 feet long (20 metres) and filled with hydrogen, were tethered to the ground with steel cables. They could be flown at a height of 5,000 feet (1,500 metres) to form a barrier against low flying aircraft.
On the outbreak of war, children, expectant mothers and other vulnerable groups were encouraged to leave London. Although almost half of London's schoolchildren were evacuated, less people chose to be evacuated than expected. As German air raids did not start immediately, many evacuees returned to London. Two further waves of evacuation took place: in September 1940 when the Blitz began and in the summer of 1944 when V-weapons were launched against London.
The Blackout was enforced throughout Britain from 1 September 1939. All householders had to put up blackout curtains and blinds in their homes to avoid any light seeping from windows or doors. Streetlights were turned off and motorists forbidden to use their headlights. Road traffic accident rates immediately soared. This London Transport poster is one of a series warning Londoners of the dangers of travelling in the Blackout.
Dutch sailors and a soldier and entering the London Underground on a night out, 1940. A Mass Observation survey found that 73 per cent of Londoners were favourable to the Dutch, 64 per cent to the Czechs, 52 per cent to the Free French and only 33 per cent to the Americans. A general complaint of the Americans was that they were 'over-paid, over-sexed and over here.' Many British people also grumbled about American soldiers' over-confident attitude and their assertion that they were going to win the war for the Allies.
People sheltering on the platform of Elephant and Castle Underground station during an air raid, November 1940. The government initially tried to prevent London Underground stations being used as air raid shelters, fearing the development of a 'deep shelter mentality' and the potential disruption of the capital's transport network. However, Londoners persisted in using the Tube and eventually the government had to reconsider. Aldwych station was closed and converted into a permanent shelter. Improvements such as bunks, better lighting, washing and toilet facilities were made at other stations.
Rudder of a German V1 flying bomb which fell on Lambeth, South London, on 9 July 1944. V1 flying bombs, nicknamed doodle-bugs, were first launched against Britain in June 1944. Many of the attacks happened during daytime and because it was impractical for people to constantly take shelter, casualties were high. The south and east of London suffered the most. The worst-hit borough was Croydon, which suffered 142 V1s that destroyed 1,000 homes.
souvenirs and ephemera
Winston Churchill visiting bomb-damaged areas of the East End of London, 8 September 1940. The Blitz began on 7 September 1940 with a huge and devastating raid on the London docks and the surrounding densely populated industrial areas of the East End. On that first night, 430 civilians died. The next day, Churchill visited the affected areas to survey the damage for himself. His visit gave a much needed boost to morale in the area.
Thanksgiving Day party held in London for British children, November 1942. American servicemen always had plenty of cigarettes and sweets, which were in short supply in Britain. Their generosity with such items made them popular with many British children. 'Got any gum, chum?' became a national catchphrase as they pestered American soldiers for chewing gum.
To reduce pressure on the transport system, people were encouraged to take 'Holidays at Home.' Local councils offered a number of entertainments to keep people amused. Londoners could take up dancing in 13 different open-air venues or see entertainers performing outdoors. Swimming pools around the capital held swimming galas and the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts organised dramas suitable for outdoor theatres.