London’s dark days

By AGNES “PAT” PFLUEGER

This month will mark this writer’s remembrance of an important World War II event that happened in London, England on Saturday, Sept. 7, 1940. It was the first day of what would later be named the “London Blitz.” At that time, I was 18 years old and living with my feisty 70-year-old grandmother in London’s East End. My only other kin, my father and brother, were serving in the armed forces overseas. I was awaiting my own call into the Women’s Army.

On that Saturday afternoon I went with a boyfriend to a soccer game at the East End’s West Ham Stadium. At that time, sports events had not been banned. Previously, it had been a warm sunny summer and single enemy sneak air attacks had been aimed at our south and east coast areas only.

My friend and I went to the game by double-decker bus, which on arrival at the game parked in a long line of other buses.

We were well into the game’s first half when the air raid sirens sounded their mournful wail of the “Take Cover” warning. Within minutes, we and everyone else were running toward the exits. Swept along with the crowd, we finally reached the gate where our bus had previously been parked, only to see it pulling away with its upper and lower decks and outside platform filled to capacity. We decided to walk the five miles home.

Emerging from the stadium and out on the street, we were met by a milling crowd and a scene of confusion and deafening noise. Fire engines and ambulances were already on the scene and a loudspeaker on a police car was giving out instructions how to reach the nearest underground railway shelter. It was not located in the direction we had to go, so we joined a large group of people on foot and on bicycles going in our direction. By now we could faintly hear the droning sound of what we had learned to recognize as the engines of German Messerschmitt bombers. Fellow walkers ahead of us began to scatter, looking for shelter. The sound of explosions in the near distance could be heard. Added to this were sounds of our own anti-aircraft artillery.

We were now passing a row of small shops. Outside a Greek restaurant was its owner, shouting excitedly in Greek and urging everyone to go inside. Inside, a few anxious patrons, having been told by the owner that he had no basement shelter, were still sitting at tables. As we joined them we could hear the bombers roaring overhead and the noise became deafening. By this time, we had all retreated to the rear of the room. Alarmed and tense, we sat behind a makeshift barrier of tables and chairs. A short time later the restaurant’s large front glass window shattered inward from bomb blast, showering shards of glass over the area where we had been sitting previously.

Squadron after squadron had followed the first wave of bombers. I was worried about Nan, only two miles away at home. At last, the density of the attack gradually died down and then ended as the last salvos of our guns died away and the sirens sounded the “All Clear.”

We emerged out onto the street to a chaotic scene. Dense clouds of black smoke hung in the air and broken glass, bricks and mortar lay everywhere. A row of nearby shops had received a direct hit and were still burning. Storekeepers were busy putting up makeshift shutters for their damaged storefronts. My friend and I started once again for home. On the way we saw some dead animals including a donkey lying in a ditch, still tied to its cart.

On reaching our street I was relieved to find all the houses were intact. The street was littered with slate tiles and bricks, and lying on the ground were some live canisters of exploded incendiary bombs, still alight, hissing and spitting out burning magnesium like angry little vipers. I found Nan safe and as cheerful as ever. At the first siren’s warning she had taken her cat and knitting into our family bomb shelter (located at the bottom of our back garden). There she had sat placidly knitting while mayhem raged around her.

When darkness came the enemy returned, and we returned to the shelter again with blankets and flashlights. We had barely gotten settled when again came the ominous sound of approaching aircraft and the frightening bombardment started all over again. As the night wore on, we huddled on two benches (we hadn’t yet built them into bunks) and vainly tried to sleep through the booming of our own gunfire and the crunch of earth-shaking explosions.

At about midnight there came a lull and we ventured outside to stretch our cramped limbs. In the distance we could see raging fires burning over the docks and warehouses on the Thames. I decided to dash back to the house to make some hot cocoa. The bombardment started again as I was making it and flak was falling as I was returning to the shelter at a crouching run, spilling half of it.

Dawn was breaking as at last we left the shelter, tired and hungry. In anticipation of a hot breakfast, we returned to the house to find that we had no water or gas, due to damaged lines nearby. That morning, after eating some dry cereal, I went to work.

So ended my first day in the London Blitz.

Agnes “Pat” Pflueger is a Dunkirk resident.