by Chloe Bowerbank

The first major bombing raid by the German Air Force, known as the Luftwaffe, against the United Kingdom during the Second World War took place in London on the 7th September 1940.

Thereafter followed 57 continuous nights of air raids on the capital. From November 1940 to May 1941, other industrial towns and cities were targeted.

This period of heavy bombardment from the air would come to be known as ‘the Blitz’.

The sights and scenes that played out in the sky and on the ground would be witnessed not only by civilians and servicemen, but also by artists and photographers.

IWM has recently acquired three works by one of these artists. Henry Moore experienced the Blitz and saw first-hand the human cost. His works, and many others, enable us to see what happened in the world above, and how a new world was created below the ground.

(Accepted in lieu of inheritance tax by HM Government from the estate of Tan Jiew Cheng and allocated to the Imperial War Museum, 2020 © Art.IWM ART 17977) ‘Shelter Drawing’ by Henry Moore. One reclining figure with a baby, a blanket draped over the legs. Another seated couple huddled together under a blanket.

At the start of the War there was an assumption that British cities would be targets for the new German Air Force.

Even before the bombs fell people were encouraged to build shelters in their gardens. Poisonous gas had been used during the First World War, and it was feared that bombs dropped on cities could carry the same deadly payload. It therefore became a punishable offence to not carry a gas mask.

The image of an Air Raid Warden with a mask was used and reused to spread the message.

(© IWM D 4053) An Air Raid Warden wearing his steel helmet and duty gas mask during the Second World War, c.1941. Photograph by a Ministry of Information photographer.
(© Art.IWM ART LD 1290) ‘Gas Mask’ by William Brealey.

Even as it began, the Blitz was being recorded. This image was captured by a German Dornier Do 217 bomber aircraft as it began its raid over Plumstead, Crossness and the Royal Arsenal on the 7th September 1940.

This first raid was conducted in daytime, mirroring the same tactics used against RAF bases during the Battle of Britain.

(© IWM C 5424) Photograph by unknown German photographer, Two Dornier Do 217 bombers flying over the Plumstead sewer bank, Crossness pumping station and the Royal Arsenal butts on Saturday 7 September 1940.

Joseph Gray witnessed the destruction from the ground. He later recorded what he saw in a series of sketches that captured London being attacked from above.

Up until this point, the measures put in place to protect the civilian population - blackouts, air raid shelters, gas masks - had been seen by some as a nuisance. The period between September 1939 and the fall of France in June 1940 was called the ‘Phoney War’.

But after the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the beginnings of aerial bombardment over Britain, it was clear that the ‘Phoney War’ was well and truly over.

(© Art.IWM ART 15672 1) ‘Battle of Britain: The First Blitz’, by Joseph Gray.

The first few days of the Blitz on London caused giant fires that could be seen for miles around.

Firefighters from the London Fire Brigade and others brought in from counties outside London tackled these blazes in exhausting and dangerous conditions.

London witnessed a second ‘Great Fire’ on 29th December 1940, when in one night German bombers dropped over 100,000 bombs on the city.

The fires raged for days and destroyed a greater area of London than the first ‘Great Fire’ of 1666.

This dramatic image of firemen in action was created by Leonard Rosoman. He had a first-hand view of this event as a fireman himself.

Rosoman had signed up as an Auxiliary Fireman at the start of the war and continued working as an artist in his London studio.

In 1945, Rosoman was appointed as an official war artist and sent to record events in the Far East.

(© Art.IWM ART LD 1353) ‘A House Collapsing on Two Firemen, Shoe Lane, London, EC4’, by Leonard Rosoman.

London was not the only city to suffer a night-time attack, and Manchester was also targeted as a major industrial centre.

It was home to heavy engineering works including Metropolitan Vickers and other munitions factories that were a key target for the Luftwaffe.

On consecutive nights from the 22nd to the 24th December 1940, Manchester was attacked from the air.

Almost 2,000 incendiary bombs were dropped on the city. One side of Manchester Piccadilly station was almost completely destroyed in the raids.

Six hundred fires were started by incendiaries over the two nights.

Blocks of commercial and warehouse premises – as shown in this photograph – were particularly badly hit, with many completely burnt out.

Many of Manchester's 3,500 full and part-time fire fighters, and Civil Defence workers had not returned from Liverpool where they had been sent several days before to help fight fires caused by air raids. This left the remaining fire services spread thinly across the city. A thin line against an onslaught of destruction.

(© IWM H 6324) Buildings burning in Manchester after a German air raid on the night of 23 December 1940.

Throughout this chaos, great concern was felt within the government about the effect of this destruction on civilian morale.

Surrounded by destruction and fire, buildings that remained standing became symbols of resilience and togetherness.

St Paul’s Cathedral became one of these symbols.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill stated, “St Paul’s must be saved at all costs.” The firefighters went to extreme measures to ensure the safety of the Cathedral, and a dedicated group of firewatchers ensured no incendiary bombs ignited the roof.

This photograph of St Paul’s was taken by Cecil Beaton on the morning after the heavy raid of the 29th December.

He was a society portrait photographer, recommended to the Ministry of Information by the Queen and subsequently became one of the most prolific war photographers.

He was commissioned to take the photos of British War leaders and as a result was in London at the start of the Blitz.

As an official photographer for the British Ministry of Information (MOI), Beaton had license to record the extent of damage that was done. He travelled nationally and internationally to document the impact of war on people and places in his own unique style.

He took some 7,000 photographs for the MOI covering all aspects of the Second World War.

Here we see ghostly spires of the western bell towers rising through the mist and smoke of still smouldering ruins.

Photographs like this have become iconic symbols of London standing resolute in the face of adversity.

But it was the dedicated work of volunteer and professional firefighters that saved St Paul’s. A special group of firewatchers put out the 29 incendiary bombs which fell on the cathedral that night, and members of the London Fire Brigade and Auxiliary Fire Service protected the main building from surrounding fire.

(© IWM MH 2718) Photograph by Cecil Beaton.

Beaton also captured this now-famous image of Eileen Dunne, aged three, as she sits in bed with her doll at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children, after being injured during an air raid on London in September 1940.

It was photographs such as these of the injured and homeless that became rallying cries for men and women to enlist and join the war effort.

(© IWM MH 26395) Photograph by Cecil Beaton.

The Blitz was indiscriminate. Men, women and children were caught up in the destruction.

Stanley Rothwell, an ARP Warden and amateur artist captured many of the faces he saw. This one, of a woman holding her child, staring into the distance, captures some of the horror that these people witnessed.

(© Art.IWM ART LD 6196) ‘Mother and Child Air Raid Victims, 1941’, by Stanley Rothwell.

As the world above was tumbling down around them, people living in major cities up and down the country began to live a partially subterranean life.

A world below of Underground stations, basements, shelters, church crypts and foot tunnels began to be inhabited by people seeking safety from falling bombs.

Here too, artists and photographers recorded this strange new world and its nocturnal inhabitants.

Before the Blitz began, people were encouraged to build shelters in their gardens (known as Anderson shelters) or obtain a large metal cage to sleep in (a Morrison shelter) if they did not have access to a garden.

Public shelters were also built, often only comprising of two brick walls with a sandbag and corrugated iron roof.

Many people did not feel safe in these shelters and sought access to the subterranean parts of their city.

This image shows where Londoners felt most safe: in the tunnels of the Tube.

Initially, the government did not want people using the London Underground for shelter. They worried that once people went below ground, they would not want to leave and continue normal life.

But station staff found it almost impossible to stop people from paying for a ticket and simply bedding down on a platform.

These shelters provided a respite from what was happening above. They were well lit, warm and in the deeper stations, shelterers couldn’t hear the noise of the bombs.

By October 1940 the government relented and started building deep level shelters in Underground stations and disused tunnels.

(© IWM HU 287) Londoners sleep on the escalators while taking shelter overnight from German air raids in an underground station, London 1940. Sport and General Press Agency Photographer.

For many, the Underground stations became a home away from home. Barbara Castle, a young Labour Party councillor at the time, described how: 

‘Night after night, just before the sirens sounded, thousands trooped down in orderly fashion into the nearest Underground station, taking their bedding with them, flasks of hot tea, snacks, radios, packs of cards and magazines. People soon got their regular places and set up little troglodyte communities where they could relax … I could see what an important safety-valve it was. Without it, London life could not have carried on in the way it did. ‘

Many however did not enjoy the experience. As the nights wore on and the bombing intensified stations would become more and more crowded. There was no proper sanitation, and the smell could be awful.

The trains would also still be running, so people trying to get a good night’s sleep could be awakened by someone getting off a train to go to work.

Ministry of Information (MOI) photographers visited these shelters, and works of art depicting these underground scenes were bought by the government for the national record of the war.

The paintings, drawings and photographs of the underground Blitz experience helped to foster a perception of unity and national identity that endures to this day.

(© Art.IWM ART LD 672) ‘The Tube: October 1940’, by Feliks Topolski.

This work in ink by Edmond Xavier Kapp is part of a series titled Life Under London, depicting people sheltering from the bombs above in a new world that was created below.

In this image, the people sheltering are asleep in bunks. After so many people used the Underground as an informal refuge, the authorities retracted their initial reluctance and started turning disused tunnels into deep shelters. These were fitted with bunk beds and ARP stations to organise the masses who sought safety.

(© Art.IWM ART LD 810) Edmund Xavier Kapp, The End of the Day, 1941.

Many others made do with what they could access. Artist Edward Ardizzone was particularly interested by the people who ventured into church crypts to avoid the chaos created by the bombs above.

In this image, people are huddled shapes in the depths of the crypt, trying to sleep.

They are slumped in various positions, attempting to rest and possibly wondering what world they will emerge into in the morning when the ‘all clear’ sounds. 

Ardizzone’s work was popular because of its cheerful and imaginative tone. He had been an illustrator for children’s books and brought a lightness of touch to his drawings that did much to boost morale. His drawings lifted spirits in the face of adversity and uncertainty.

(© Art.IWM ART LD 866) Sleepers in the Crypt, by Edward Ardizzone.

It was the image of hundreds of people sleeping that inspired artist Henry Moore.

One night in September 1940, held in Belsize Park station due to an air raid, he saw this first hand:

‘I was fascinated by the sight of the people camping out deep under the ground. I had never seen so many rows of reclining figures and even the holes out of which the trains were coming seemed to be like the holes in my sculpture.’

He saw the mass of people, but also the ‘intimate little touches’ of humanity amongst them. He made it his mission to show others that sense of humanity too.

When the artist showed a couple of early examples to Kenneth Clark, the Director of the National Gallery, Clark was moved almost to tears. Clark, who was also the chairman of the War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC) and responsible for appointing war artists, asked Moore to produce a series of drawings on the same theme.

(Accepted in lieu of inheritance tax by HM Government from the estate of Tan Jiew Cheng and allocated to the Imperial War Museum, 2020 © Art.IWM ART 17978) ‘Sleeping Shelterers’ by Henry Moore.

These drawings are part of that series. They became some of his most popular works, bought by collectors as soon as they were exhibited in 1941. They are credited with transforming London’s Blitz masses into enduringly heroic figures and transformed Moore’s reputation nationally and internationally.

Despite his first-hand experience, Moore did not sketch underground, feeling it was disrespectful to the shelterers. He would visit shelters early in the morning, making an effort not to disturb the people there. He observed and made written notes on their positions, especially on how their clothes draped over them. He would then return to his studio in Hampstead work up the drawings.

(Accepted in lieu of inheritance tax by HM Government from the estate of Tan Jiew Cheng and allocated to the Imperial War Museum, 2020 © Art.IWM ART 17976) ‘Two Women with a Child in a Shelter’ by Henry Moore. Two Women with a Child in a Shelter Two women on a bench draped in blankets, one holding a baby. A brick wall behind them.

Henry Moore met photographer Bill Brandt in 1942 when Brandt was commissioned to take Moore’s portrait in his studio. The resultant article published in Lilliput magazine compared the two artists’ Blitz shelter works. They had developed strikingly similar visual vocabularies in exploring the threat and effect of war, and capturing the sense and experience of the shelters. Brandt, who was born in Germany and moved to London in 1933, was already well known for his photographic series on British society. Published collections such as ‘The British at Home’ and ‘A Night in London’ showcased how at ease he was in documenting the lives of ordinary people, and was part of the reason he was employed by the Ministry of Information (MOI) to take photographs in the shelters.

(© IWM D 1576) A man and woman asleep under blankets in the tube tunnel, Liverpool Street Underground Station Shelter, November 1940. Photograph by Bill Brandt.

Like Moore, Brandt was fascinated by the new underground world that had been created by the people of London. He described how ‘deep below ground, the long alley of intermingled bodies, with the hot, smelly air and continual murmur of snores, come nearest to my pre-war idea of what an air raid shelter would be like.’

(© IWM D 1553) Shelterers sleep on the benches which line the wall of this London trench shelter. November 1940, Photograph by Bill Brandt.

The Blitz has become ingrained in British collective memory. Even those who were not there, separated by a generation or more know something about a spirit of endurance in the face of disaster as bombs rained down from the skies between 1940 and 1945.

The ‘Blitz spirit’ has become part of our national psyche. Created by those who experienced it first-hand, it is the art and photography of the time that now act as a window to that past.

These men and women have helped to shape our understanding of the chaos in the world above and shed light on the experiences of those forced to create a new world below.

(© IWM D 1511) Man sleeping in a stone sarcophagus in Christ Church, Spitalfields. Photograph by Bill Brandt.