13 September 1940, London


“A week of air raids. Our ears have grown sharp for the sounds of danger– the humming menace that sweeps from the sky, the long whistle like an indrawn breath as the bomb falls. We are as continually alive to danger as animals in the jungle.

During a raid the empty streets wait for the shock like ‘a patient etherised upon a table’. The taxis race along carrying their fares to the shelters. A few pedestrians caught out in the streets make their way with as much restraint as possible to the nearest shelter, keeping an eye open for protection–for friendly archways. They try to saunter but long to run.

In the parks the fallen leaves lie thick upon the paths. No one has time to collect them into bonfires and burn them. The paint is beginning to peel off the great cream coloured houses in Carlton House Terrace and the grand London squares. The owners will do nothing about it until ‘after the war’. London is beginning to look down-at-heel and a bit battered. Every now and then one comes upon a gap in a row of houses or a façade of shops. In the gap is a pile of rubble where the bomb has hit. I suppose gradually there will be more and more such gaps until the face of London is pitted and furrowed with them.

The other night I was caught on my way home from Chelsea in a heavy barrage with falling shrapnel and turned into a public shelter to wait until things were quieter. There were half a dozen old women of the Belcher charwoman variety, two conversational old men in battered bowlers and a drunken Irish maid-servant who kept mocking the English for their credulity and stupidity. ‘You English, sure you’re the dumbest nation on earth. Now do you believe all this you read in the papers about how many German planes were shot down. Don’t you see it is all propaganda now.’ Her haranges were greeted with sardonic amusement. These people were all cold and all sleepless. They had spent three nights in this shelter and outside was the recurrent roar of the barrage. Their homes in Chelsea have been badly pasted. The shelter itself was a feeble affair giving no protection from the bombs. But their stolidity was unshaken. Their retort was the Englishman’s immemorial reply to danger–irony. The kind of joke which hinges on the thought, ‘Well it ain’t the Ritz exactly.’ They were not afraid but they did want one thing–‘a cup of tea’.”

Charles Ritchie served as Second Secretary at the Canadian High Commission in wartime England.

The Siren Years 1937-1945, Charles Ritchie, Macmillan of Canada, 1974.

Photo: A North London air raid shelter, 1940. Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer