April 2, 2017

1940. Bill Downs on the Damage in Wartime London

First Impressions of a City Under Siege
The aftermath of an air raid on Portman Street in London, September 19, 1940 (source)
Printed in the Kansas City Kansan, December 1940:
Finds London Bomb Damage Not Severe
William Downs, United Press Reporter From K. C. K., Finds Blackout Traffic Biggest Thrill
Editor's Note: William Downs, son of Mr. and Mrs. William R. Downs, has just arrived in London from New York. He is a United Press staff correspondent. In the following article he gives his first impression of the effect of German air raids.

The former Kansas City Kansan is 26 years old. He was born and educated in this city. He started from the ground up in journalism, carrying The Kansan when he was in Northwest junior high school. At Northwest he was sports editor of the school paper and at Wyandotte high school business manager of the Pantograph. At the University of Kansas, where he graduated in 1937, he was managing editor of the school paper his senior year. He has been with the United Press three years, having worked in the Kansas City, Denver and New York bureaus prior to sailing for London, December 1.
United Press Staff Correspondent

London. — (UP) Traffic in the Thames and on the streets flows almost as normally here as it does in New York.

In Trafalgar Square pedestrians walk casually around a bomb crater with scarcely a glance into it, and around St. Paul's Cathedral they glance up at the progress of workmen repairing bomb damage with about the same idle curiosity that Americans stand around building projects.

There is plenty of bomb damage but it is less than I expected to see. The character of the city helps to hide the wounds. Some of the buildings are so old they look like they might have received their damage in some ancient war, or have collapsed peacefully by decay. The church, St. Martin-in-the-Field, in the heart of the city, for example, has been so blackened by time that only a close inspection will show where flames from a recent German bomb scarred the walls.

On a ride of several blocks through the hard-hit poverty flats of the East End, no damage was visible from the street until I came to an open window. Then I could see that the undamaged building fronts were shells concealing the devastation of a whole row of flats. One huge bomb had caused more destruction there than I ever had seen before.

The statues of Abraham Lincoln in Parliament Square and of George Washington in front of the National Gallery were undamaged, although bombs have fallen within a few hundred yards of both.

Britons speak dispassionately of the Germans as "they." "We ain't wasting our time calling the bloody Germans bloody," a bus driver said.

Americans who are proud of their automobile driving should see London cabbies and bus drivers perform in a blackout. They seem to be guided by instinct around pedestrians, safety islands, light posts and other cars in narrow, crooked streets. To a newcomer, the first blackout ride seems more terrifying than the first air raid alarm.