Book review: London at War 1939-1945
Based mainly on personal accounts, London at War is as much a vivid biography of Londoners during the Second World War as of the city itself. Ranging from the digging of trenches in Hyde Park during the Phoney War, to the horrors of the Blitz, and the frantic outbursts of dancing on the streets of VE-day, Ziegler’s account gives equal balance to the mundane, the melodramatic and the downright bizarre details of life during the war.
It is full of entertaining stories from all levels of society: like the German-Swiss Kensington resident accused of signalling to the enemy by puffing vigorously on his cigar; the government’s reluctance to provide deep-shelters during the Blitz, as they feared this would breed a population of troglodytes amongst the working classes, or the housewife of West Hampstead, who thought Canadian soldiers were too common to entertain in her own house, but happily served high-tea for dozens of Polish soldiers.
Rationing, the blackout and the fraying of the traditional social fabric caused by evacuees and an influx of British and foreign soldiers alike, naturally caused grumbling in some of London’s quarters. Ziegler refreshingly mixes less admirable (albeit very human) responses to the effects of the war on the home front with the more commonly told accounts of bravery, good-humouredness and neighbourly co-operation.
He brings London to life, by colouring-in its familiar silhouette with a multitude of curious facts. Did you know that in preparation for war, Harrods sold war toys like ‘Build Your Own Maginot Line’ (“an assembly of tiered dugouts with little soldiers performing a variety of duties”)? Or that at Kew gardens, the 200 litre aquariums were drained, all the fish eaten, and the manatees shot, as they posed a significant safety risk if they were to be blown to pieces? Snippets like these, makes London at War an invaluable mixture of fact and anecdotes for anyone interested in the popular history of London life.
Philip Ziegler, London at War 1939-1945 (London: Pimlico, 2002)
text: Rebecka Mustajarvi