March 7, 2017

1940. Edward R. Murrow on the "Sense of Unreality" of the London Blitz

Sense of Unreality in Wartime London

In this broadcast for CBS News, Edward R. Murrow reports from London on the "sense of unreality" of living in the city under the Blitz. One day earlier, on August 24, 1940, he delivered his famous broadcast from Trafalgar Square. A month later he spoke from a rooftop overlooking London.
Edward R. Murrow

CBS London

August 25, 1940

The damage done by an exploding bomb to windows in a given area is a freakish sort of thing. A bomb may explode at an intersection and the blast will travel down two streets, shattering windows for a considerable distance while big windows within a few yards of the bomb crater remain intact. The glass, incidentally, generally falls out into the street rather than being blow inwards.

I've seen a number of air battles and bombings, and heard more. Perhaps this is a good time to give one observer's impressions, something in the nature of an interim report. The strongest impression one gets of these bombings is a sense of unreality. Often the planes are so high that even in a cloudless sky you can't see them.

I've stood on a hill watching an airdrome being bombed two miles away. It looked and sounded like farmers blasting stumps in western Washington. You forget entirely that there are men down there on the ground. Even when the dive bombers come down looking like a duck with both wings open, and you hear the hollow grunt of their bombs, it doesn't seem to have much meaning. It's almost impossible to realize that men are killing and being killed, even when you see that ever-thickening streak of smoke pouring down from the sky, which means a plane and perhaps several men going down in flames.

On the other hand, when the bombs fall nearby it's possible to assume the most undignified position in the world without effort and without thinking. The position officially recommended: flat on the ground, face down, mouth slightly open, and hands covering ears. Even then, the bombs somehow don't seem to make as much noise as they should. But they do seem real. In one village, you will see people standing in doorways all staring in the same direction; their faces, expressionless, reflect no fear and little anxiety. It's another village or another town that's being bombed. I don't believe the proceedings seem very real to them either.

I'm trying to tell you that this business of being bombed and watching air fights is the sort of thing which fails to produce the anticipated reaction. The sense of danger, death, and disaster comes only when the familiar incidents occur; the thing that one has associated with tragedy since childhood. The sight of half a dozen ambulances weighted down with an unseen cargo of human wreckage has jarred me more than the war of dive bombers or the sound of bombs.

Another thing that has meaning is fire. Again, that's something one can understand. Last night, as I stood on London Bridge and watched that red glow in the sky, it was possible to understand that that fire was the result of an act of war. But the act itself, even the sound of the bomb that started the fire, was still unreal.

What had happened was that three or four high school boys, with some special training, had been flying around over London in about a hundred thousand dollars worth of machinery. One of them had pressed a button. The fire and a number of casualties was the result. We could see the fire and hear the clanging of the sirens and bells, but we hadn't seen the bomber; had barely heard him.

Maybe the children who are now growing up will in future wars be able to associate the sound of bombs, the drone of engines, and the tearing sound of machine guns overhead which end in tragedy and disaster. But for me the ambulances and the red flare of fire in the night sky are the outward signs of death and destruction.