Can we really be ‘at war’ with a virus? There are no shortage of challenges but, as this report of an air raid in 1940 London illustrates, life during wartime was very different: fragile, unforgiving and, at every moment, perilously close to its end.
A few minutes past midnight on Tuesday 10 September 1940, an air raid struck Mecklenburgh Square. From number 45, John Lehmann heard gunfire rumbling in the distance, the hum of aeroplanes at an insistent crescendo until “three whistling, ripping noises” directly overhead were followed by the unmistakable tinkling of breaking glass. Climbing out of bed, he opened the blackout curtains to find his windows shattered and the London skyline obscured by flames. His friend Stephen Spender’s house on nearby Lansdowne Terrace, usually visible from ahis second-floor window, appeared to be enveloped in a burning cloud. “Well,” Lehmann found himself thinking, surprised at his state of calm. “Poor old Stephen’s the first to go.”
Lehmann left his room and hurried downstairs, shouting out to his sleeping landlord as he passed. Before he could open the front door he felt the building tremble with another explosion. “The house seemed to clench itself like a fist for a moment, then silence,” he later recalled. As he tentatively peered outside, he was met with the sight of “an enormous bellying cloud of grey dust advancing down the road towards me like a living thing”. Instinctively, Lehmann ran into the square – the searchlight had broken, plunging the area into total darkness – and collided with neighbours in pyjamas rushing the other way. An acquaintance from number 46, wearing a tin helmet, explained that an unexploded time bomb was lodged in the square’s garden and the shelter there had been evacuated. Five houses on the east side of the square formed Byron Court, a block of residential accommodation for nurses from the Royal Free Hospital on Gray’s Inn Road. As his eyes accustomed to the dark, Lehmann thought that it looked rather odd, then realised after a few seconds that he was seeing a tree beyond – the building had been smashed to bits, one side standing sliced open like a doll’s house.
For the first time in the war, death felt very close to Lehmann. But for the moment, there was little he could do. He sat on a doorstep and chatted to a woman in Auxiliary Territorial Service uniform while the residents of Mecklenburgh Square waited for dawn to confirm the end of the raid. Couples lay in the road entwined for warmth under improvised coverings; someone produced a Dostoevsky novel and began to read as the sun rose; a group of young women, rescued from Byron Court, huddled together in a stairwell. At last, the all-clear sounded and the makeshift party dispersed, back to their flats if they dared, or to find shelter in nearby churches, underground stations or hotels.
When he returned to Mecklenburgh Square later that morning, broken glass glittered on the pavement while firemen’s hoses snaked across the garden. Rain had dissolved the dust that had coated the bushes at dawn but the grass was scorched with the detritus of incendiary bombs. A squad of firemen was trying to control the smoke still pouring out of Byron Court, while ambulances and blood-transfusion units stood by alongside hordes of police. Numbers 30, 31 and 32 had been demolished by a delayed-action high-explosive bomb; 17 residents had been admitted to the Royal Free Hospital, with people still being stretchered out at 11.00. Six nurses died.
All day the square was busy with arrivals and departures, as London’s Blitz bureaucracy cranked into its hastily established routine: gas inspectors searching for leaks; the electricity board collecting meters and cookers; deliveries of chloride of lime to disinfect the remaining houses; the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals enquiring about distressed animals; and the overworked mortuary van, drawing up to collect the dead. A warden was instructed to authorise and record all comings and goings in the square, as residents returned to pick up post and retrieve business papers, bedding and ration cards. “09.26 Mr Jackson, No. 8 Mecklenburgh Square, fed cat.” “13.50 Mrs Harrington, room 52 Byron Court searching for property – left 14.17 none found.” “15.40 Mrs Golding given permission to empty wardrobe in road.” “20.13 Dead body removed. Female.”
Virginia and Leonard Woolf, John Lehmann’s neighbours and colleagues in the Hogarth Press, arrived from Sussex that afternoon to find a crowd gathered in Doughty Street, the entrance to Mecklenburgh Square cordoned off and access to their flat at number 37 forbidden. Virginia could see that her friend Jane Harrison’s former home, yards away at 11 Mecklenburgh Street, was “a great pile of bricks... Scraps of cloth hanging to the bare walls at the side still standing. A looking glass I think swinging. Like a tooth knocked out – a clean cut.” A neighbour told the Woolfs that the previous night’s explosion – the culmination of three nights of German air raids aimed at nearby King’s Cross station – had blown him right out of bed. Leaving the square and wandering, dazed, around her usual haunts – from Holborn, where the streets gushed with water from smashed pipes, down the gridlocked Chancery Lane, where her typist’s office was destroyed, around Lincoln’s Inn and over to Regent’s Park – Virginia saw smoke rising from gaps in the streets, a shell of a cinema with its stage visible from the road, a beaten-up restaurant ruefully offering wine to passers-by. As she and Leonard drove away that evening, a siren went off and people began to run; the Woolfs raced through empty streets, dodging past haphazardly parked cars and frantic horses released from their shafts.
A week later, on 16 September, the time bomb exploded, bringing down the ceiling of the basement room which housed the printing press, blowing several doors off their hinges, breaking every window and all the Woolfs’ china. Sparrows fluttered in through holes in the roof and perched on the rafters; the pipes issued spurts of water at unpredictable intervals which cascaded down the stairs. On her next visit, Virginia returned to a Bloomsbury utterly altered from the one she knew. Her old home at 52 Tavistock Square was destroyed (“rubble where I wrote so many books. Open air where we sat so many nights, gave so many parties”). Number 37 Mecklenburgh Square was uninhabitable; a chalk cross she found marked on the door gave Virginia a shivering vision of the Black Death.
Sirens wailed outside while the Woolfs and John Lehmann, along with the grimly cheerful overalled clerks from the solicitors’ office upstairs, shared cold sausages and attempted to sort the salvageable (the works of Darwin, the silver, some Omega Workshops plates) from the irreparable (most of their crockery and the gramophone), while the wind blew through the splintered windows. A local gardener was enlisted to help excavate the carpet with a spade. On her hands and knees, Virginia scrabbled through the shards of glass and plaster powder, emerging, momentarily triumphant, with 24 volumes of her diaries – “a great mass for my memoirs”. She never lived in London again. And Mecklenburgh Square – home, through its 200-year history, to pioneering activists, lawyers, doctors, artists and writers – was now in ruins.
Monocle comment: It has been all too easy to slip in to the language of battles to be fought, of a war to be won. But when this pandemic is over, London will look the same. This story shows why the war, or the Blitz, should not be so swiftly called upon to explain today.
About the author: Francesca Wade is editor of The White Review and winner of the Biographer’s Club Tony Lothian prize. This is an extract from her book Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars.