Bombing raids during the Blitz (September 1940 to May 1941) killed 43,000 people, half in London, and destroyed a million houses in the city.
Other major cities, industrial centers, ports and docklands suffered too—Edinburgh, Liverpool, Cardiff, Sheffield, Birmingham and Bristol to name a few. Clydebank in Scotland had only seven houses out of 2,000 left intact. The naval port of Plymouth also lost much of its housing, and every night 50,000 of its inhabitants reputedly left the city to sleep in open fields. Bombing destroyed much of Coventry, along with its munitions factories.
To safeguard the children of these cities, many were evacuated into country areas, staying with strangers who were willing to look after them for the duration of the air raids. Those left behind in the cities would spend the nights in bomb shelters or in the Underground (subway) stations.
Ivy Gilbert, whose daughters had been evacuated to Wales, arrived home after a night in an air-raid shelter to discover an unexploded bomb had crashed through the roof of her house in the East End of London. With it lodged in her bedroom, she had no choice but to join the one in six people in London who were homeless during those terrible nine months.
How did they cope with such hardships? A key part of the answer was something called the “Blitz spirit”—the idea that everyone was in this together and was fighting a common enemy. Any resistance, even just keeping up morale, was considered a victory against Hitler. Whether this feeling was a reality or a myth invented by the government of the time to try to keep people from becoming despondent and discouraged is debated in high school history classes to this day.
Certainly there was a sense of everyone pulling together, from people giving their gardens over to growing vegetables for easing the food shortages to Girl Guides collecting everything from paper, string and old saucepans to recycle for the war effort. In spite of so many disturbed nights during the Blitz, absenteeism from work was minimal. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (parents of the current Queen Elizabeth II) tried to reinforce this notion of the Blitz spirit by visiting bomb shelters and speaking to those sheltering there.
Whether it originated in the people themselves or was engendered by the government, this spirit helped many in Britain through the devastating destruction and grief of the Blitz—and through the following 4 1⁄2 years of war and the shortages that continued even after its end. Such widespread community spirit seems to be sadly missing from society today.