A gracefully rendered portrait of a great city at war.
Waller (Ungrateful Daughters, 2003) 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.