“Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids.”
These are the opening two lines to C.S. Lewis’ wonderful and imaginative book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in the Chronicles of Narnia. It was published in 1949, a mere four years after the end of the war, so the war itself was worth a mention, however briefly, to set the scene and mood of the book. This also sets up why the Pevensie children are in the country: They were sent away for the air-raids. But just what were these air-raids and why did it prompt the evacuation of children?
In September 1939, several days before Britain officially entered the war, the evacuations began. From the cities and big towns, school children, their teachers, mothers with children under five, pregnant women, and some disabled people were moved by train and road to smaller towns and villages in the countryside. The government had hoped to evacuate three million people within three days, but, still impressively, one and a half million children and adults were moved in that allotted time, including 600,000 from London alone. Also around this time, Blackout rules were put into effect. During the war, everyone had to cover their windows and doors at night, before sunset, with heavy blackout curtains, cardboard, or even paint. This way the lights of the city, or the tiniest farmhouse, wouldn’t attract bombers.
During the afternoon of 7 September, 1940, German bombers appeared over the skies of London, heralding a tactical shift in Hitler’s attempt to subdue Great Britain. The Luftwaffe had been targeting RAF airfields and radar stations for the previous two months in preparation for a German invasion. The invasion, however, was eventually scrapped and Hitler turned his attention to destroying London in an attempt to demoralize the people and force the British to agree to terms of surrender. On that fateful September day, around 4:00 PM, 348 German bombers escorted by 617 fighters bombarded London until 6:00 PM. Two hours later, guided by the fires of the first assault, a second group of bombers commenced their attack, which would last until around 4:30 the next morning.
This was just the beginning of the Blitz, a period of intense bombing of London and other cities that continued until the following May. The Blitzkrieg, which means “lightning war,” was meant to be sudden, swift, and powerful attacks. London was bombed, during the day or night, for the next consecutive 57 days. Fires consumed many portions of the city. Overwhelmed and exhausted residents sought shelter wherever they could find it, many fleeing to the Underground stations that sheltered as many as 177,000 people during the night. The Blitz ended on 11 May, 1941 when Hitler called off the raids in order to move his bombers east in preparation for Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union.
There are conflicting numbers as far as damage inflicted by this Blitzkrieg: Anywhere between 32,000 and 43,000 civilians were killed and between 87,000 and 139,000 were seriously injured. Two million houses, over half of these in London, were destroyed and such iconic buildings as Buckingham Palace and St. Paul’s Cathedral were damaged during the various raids.
The London Blitz, 1940. Eyewitness to History. 2001. http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/blitz.htm
http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/homefront/evacuation/britain/default.htmGilbert, Adrian. The Blitz.
Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2018. https://www.britannica.com/event/the-Blitz