London 1945 Life in the Debris of War

Maureen Waller

St. Martin's Griffin



Trade Paperback

528 Pages


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London at the outset of war in 1939 was the greatest city in the world, the heart of the British Empire. By 1945, it was a drab and exhausted city, beginning the long haul back to recovery.

The defiant capital had always been Hitler's prime target. The last months of the war saw the final phase of the battle of London, as the enemy unleashed its new vengeance weapons, the flying bombs and rockets. They were terrifying and brought destruction on a vast scale but fortunately came too late to dent morale seriously.

The people of London were showing the spirit, courage, and resilience that had earned them the admiration of the world during a long siege. In the harshest winter of fifty years, they were living in primitive conditions. Thousands were homeless, living in the Underground and deep shelters. Women lined up for horse meat and were lucky to obtain one egg a month. They besieged emergency coal dumps. Everyone longed for peace. The bright new world seemed elusive. As the victory celebrations passed into memory, there were severe hardships and all the problems of postwar adjustment. Women lost the independence the war had lent them, husbands and wives has learn to live together again, and children had a lot of catching up to do. Yet London's loss has often been its opportunity. Its people had eagerly embraced plans for a modern metropolis and an end to poverty. They voted overwhelmingly for a Labour government and the new, fairer social order that was their reward for all they had endured. The year of victory, 1945, represents an important chapter in London's—and Britian's—long history. In this important study, acclaimed historian Waller draws on a rich array of primary sources, letting the people tell their own story. In so doing, she recreates a crucial moment in modern history, and brings to that moment the social insight at which she excels.


Praise for London 1945

"In her thoroughly engrossing London 1945, Maureen Waller describes a city on its last legs, hanging on desperately in the waning months of the war and looking forward, with a forlorn sort of hope, to a newer, better peacetime Britain. Mingling statistical data with eyewitness accounts, she builds up a detailed picture of daily life in London that moves easily from the horrific (mangled flesh hanging from trees) to the mundane (the annoyance of having to wear short socks). Food, fashion, and bombs all get equal treatment, for the very good reason that Londoners spent at least as much time worrying about how to get a lamb chop as they did about dodging the next rocket."—William Grimes, The New York Times
"Wartime London is a great literary subject. The ravages were so terrible (pieces of children littered the bomb sites), so poignant (treasures such as the Guards' Chapel and the Great Synagogue lost, five million books destroyed in a single night in a bombing raid), and so surreal (walking back from lunch at Simpson's, an editor of the Evening Standard noticed that the blast from a V-1 flying bomb had stripped the leaves from the trees and replaced them with human flesh). Also, the sustained attack over five years on a great and civilized city provided ample scope for the usual mixture of cowardice and heroism, selfishness and altruism, fecklessness and pluck. And finally, so many sensitive and articulate people recorded and distilled their experiences there. Of course these include George Orwell ('The Lion and the Unicorn'), Anthony Powell (The Valley of Bones, The Soldier's Art, The Military Philosophers), Evelyn Waugh (Sword of Honour), Mollie Panter-Downes (London War Notes), Henry Green (Caught), Elizabeth Bowen (The Heat of the Day), Harold Nicolson (Diaries and Letters: The War Years), and Graham Greene (The End of the Affair). But hundreds of literate and well-spoken ordinary men and women—clerks, housewives, doctors, social workers—also wrote vivid, funny, moving, and stylish diaries and letters, or were interviewed during the war (in its efforts to keep citizens productive and healthy, officialdom collected information of unprecedented depth and range about their everyday lives) . . . [Waller's] 528-page book is at once abundantly and discerningly detailed (she aptly quotes a Walthamstow woman's description of the silent V-2s, successors of the droning V-1s, as 'bombs with slippers on'), and her depiction of the daily fabric of wartime life in the capital is unrivaled. Moreover, Waller has used the last year of the war as her cynosure, an illuminating approach that allows her to show how the previous five years ruptured all of London life, from the cityscape to family relations to fashion. More important, [this book] reveals not the familiar story of indomitable Londoners facing the Blitz but, rather, how the fervor of 'their finest hour' modulated into a squalid and dispiriting routine, how defiance lapsed into snappishness, and how resilience gave way to exhaustion, cynicism, and not infrequently despair (one Croyden woman who gassed herself wrote in her suicide note simply: 'The war lasted too long for me. I can't go on'). This is a sad book about a city staggering to victory."—Benjamin Schwarz, The Atlantic Monthly
"If you want to know what it was actually like to be a Londoner in 1945, this is the book for you . . . [Events are] memorably, even indelibly, portrayed . . . Ms. Waller's skill both as a stylist and as organizer of her material ensures that London 1945 will be enjoyed both by those who have devoured every book on this ever-fascinating topic and by the lucky ones whose introduction to it is through this latest tome . . . Adept as Ms. Waller is at putting in those quotidian details that do indeed tell us so much about what it actually was like to live in the battered and brutalized London of 60 years ago, she is also an acute observer of matters political. Indeed, the twin poles of her enterprise enhance each other and render her book one of the most revealing yet about the political climate that led to the stunning defeat of Winston Churchill in the election of July 1945 . . . Maureen Waller's achievement has been to show us just how hard that time was, as well as its consequences social and political. And to make us understand—almost at times to feel—the individual experiences that added up to London's finest hour."—Martin Rubin, The Washington Times
"An excellent, wide-ranging analysis . . . Waller's narrative smartly captures both the fear and the plucky spirit of ordinary people facing extraordinary danger."—Al Hutchison, The Tampa Tribune
"A gracefully rendered portrait of a great city at war. Waller writes with illuminating and abundant detail: Whereas other histories of WWII mention that the historic, square-mile City of London was badly damaged in Luftwaffe bombing raids, she notes that 'a total of 417 high explosive bombs were dropped on the City alone, 13 parachute mines, 2,498 oil bombs, and thousands of incendiaries.' Other parts of the metropolis fared no better, and thousands of civilians died. By 1945, the last year of the war, the numbers of dead were declining somewhat as Hitler's forces turned to a desperate defensive war, but the toll was still heavy. Londoners escaped as best they could—physically, by burrowing underground, and emotionally, by indulging in such outlets as they could, some good, some bad. Waller takes a daily-life approach to chronicle that last year, which seemed to dawn without promise of relief. January, she writes, was the coldest in half a century: 'There were sheets of ice in the Straits of Dover and in London Big Ben froze.' Food supplies were dwindling, too, though Londoners made do with what they could get until rations were slashed after the peace was signed. Waller writes of the renaissance in book publishing as Londoners turned to reading as never before, even as publishers were forced to make do with printing paper that, George Orwell grumbled, was flimsier than toilet tissue; and of the equally remarkable flourishing of prostitution as London filled with foreign soldiers and once-respectable neighborhoods sprouted brothels that, as a patriotic measure, put low-paid British servicemen on a different tariff from the higher-paid Yanks. If there was a good side to it all, Waller observes, it was that the bombings afforded London a chance to rebuild an overgrown and somewhat decrepit city, though the job of rebuilding took 50 years. She concludes, 'It has been worth the wait.' Vivid and highly readable: for students of WWII and urban history alike."—Kirkus Reviews
"Waller has written a chilling account of London life during the last months of World War II and the dawn of the postwar era. Suffering under the deadly attacks of Hitler's newly developed V-2 rocket, launched from nearby Holland, Londoners learned to tell by sound just how close these horrible missiles (dubbed 'doodlebugs') would land. Waller describes the chronic food and clothing shortages and the incredible stress on families. She also presents the remarkable and, at times, unbelievable spirit of defiance that carried most Londoners through their darkest hours. Waller's book masterfully supplements Philip Ziegler's London at War, 1939-1945 and provides the reader with a well-crafted story of war and its cruel impact on a large European city. Recommended."—Library Journal
"Waller has written a compelling account of the final year of a valiant city's stand against the Fuhrer. Hitler's fury came in the form of supersonic V-2s, fiendish weapons impervious to all the defensive countermeasures England deployed. Waller memorializes the thousands who perished—while checking out a book at the library or riding a bus to work. She also chronicles the valor of the rescue crews who snatched hundreds from beneath the rubble. Beyond the constant threat from the skies, Londoners also coped with ubiquitous shortages by carefully husbanding rationed milk and coal and growing small victory gardens. Londoners even coped with periodic shortages of truth in censored and occasionally jingoistic media. Waller herself provides unvarnished veracity in recounting wartime prostitution in Hyde Park, London's black market, and the looting of bombing victims' goods. Even in the joy of victory, Waller discerns a dark undercurrent, as the iconic Churchill faces restive voters. Despite the postwar disillusionment, Waller marvels at how the city astride the Thames set about replacing blackened ruins with thriving new enterprises. History alive with real human faces."—Booklist
"In late 1944, London women were gathering at Woolworth's to purchase rarely available saucepans when yet another one of Hitler's Vengeance weapons left 'no doubt as to the full, horrific reality' of the final German attacks: 'The blow fell at lunchtime. Everyone from four-week-old babies to adults in their seventies were hurled in the air along with the debris . . . In shock, a woman pushing a pram, her clothes torn and askew, continued towards the store, intent on buying that saucepan.' When not queuing or under attack, Londoners endured the bureaucracy put in place to handle day-to-day destruction and scarcity. Dissatisfaction was inevitable as people tired of hunger, cold, shabby clothes, crime, displacement and fear. By choosing such a momentous year as her touchstone, Waller illuminates Londoners' long-term suffering while offering insights into future obstacles to the country's rebuilding. In chapters addressing the themes of the home front—the basic struggle for food, shelter and clothing set against rationing, propaganda and social welfare—with London as the protagonist, Waller teases out of a debris-littered landscape the physical manifestations of deeper change among the city's working women, disrupted children and displaced families. 1945 may have seen the end of World War II, but not the end of bombing; the return of husbands and children to the urban center, but not the reconstruction of family or home; the end of many British war programs, but not the end of the government's involvement in the lives of the individual. In the end, the inevitable call to ensure a more personal security would result in the unseating of Winston Churchill's government. Waller, who tackled London in the late Stuart era for her last book, Ungrateful Daughters, balances an enormous amount of data with a journalistic attention to anecdote and oral history in this stunning book."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Maureen Waller attended University College London and Queen Mary College and holds a master’s degree in British and European history. After a brief spell at the National Portrait Gallery, she has worked at several prestigious publishing houses.

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  • Maureen Waller

  • Maureen Waller was educated at University College London, where she studies medieval and modern history. She received a master's degree at Queen Mary College, London, in British and European history, 1660–1714. After a brief stint at the National Portrait Gallery, she went on to work as an editor at several prestigious London publishing houses. Her first book was the highly acclaimed 1700: Scenes from London Life. She currently lives in London with her husband, who is a journalist and author.
  • Maureen Waller