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Scars of War

Last updated: 28 April 2016

Recorded on 26 May 2011

Robert Fleming explores the urban archaeological record of extant damage in London that resulted from the German strategic bombing campaign of the Second World War, and the visible legacy of the subsequent rebuilding of the city.


Robert Fleming:

Thank you all for coming. Today I’m talking about the visible legacy of the Second World War on London, and about how that conflict played a large role in shaping the city in which we live today. More specifically, about the legacy of Nazi Germany’s strategic bombing campaign, and how it dramatically impacted upon the physical cityscape of London, and how the damage from that conflict and the subsequent rebuilding can still be seen throughout the city today.

It’s a story of urban archaeology, architecture and urban planning, sometimes that’s gone wrong, and most importantly, it’s a story of the stoic, defiant resistance in the face of total devastating warfare that the Londoners showed against the Nazis. The effects of this strategic bombing campaign, as I said, can still be seen throughout the city today, and these are London’s scars of war.

Many Londoners go about their daily business preoccupied by the here and now. The affairs and demands of business, politics, the arts and many other fields in which this is one of the greatest cities of the world, preoccupy the city’s occupants. The demands are quite stressful, and it’s quite easy to slip past this great city’s unique and extraordinary past without giving it thought, and without stopping to pause and consider what they are looking at. They are part of an extraordinary machine - London is one of the world’s leading financial centres, and one of the truly great cities on this planet. They do not consider, though, how it came to be so.

Urban archaeology teaches us that all cities are founded, grow, and eventually decay and decline. Sometimes they are re-born and grow again, and London is a city which typifies this model.

According to legends in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, the city was founded by Brutus of Troy, himself a survivor of brutal war. The Brythonic peoples did farm in this area, but the city that we know today can trace its foundations back to the Roman city of Londinium.

Londinium was founded in about the year 50AD. In the first of a cycle of continuous birth, death and re-birth, Queen Boudicca’s Iceni tribe sacked and burned Londinium in 60AD. Evidence from that period which shows the Roman city, can still be found at street level in the Roman wall and the Temple of Mithras. The mediaeval city can also still be found, at the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, and the Tudor through the Banqueting House. Stuart and Victorian London abounds, and can be found all over the city.

So looking beneath the modern exterior can be quite an easy way to reveal London’s past, but perhaps more so than any of these other periods, there are two specific events throughout the 2,000-year history of London which have shaped the city more than any others. The first of course was the Great Fire of 2 September 1666, in which over the course of several days, more than 60 per cent of the city was razed to the ground. But once again, a vibrant new London rose from those ashes.

The second was a deliberate strategic attack on the city. On 7 September 1940, 340 German bombers raided London. This sustained bombing of Britain during the Second World War began with those raids on London, and continued for 76 consecutive nights, more than nine continuous months of attack. During this time, more than 40,000 Londoners were killed.

By the summer of 1940, the war was going badly for the Allies. The British expeditionary force had been forced to evacuate from Dunkirk, and Hitler’s armies controlled much of Western Europe. The Luftwaffe prepared to unleash a devastating bombing campaign against British cities, with the aim of pounding Britain into submission. Only the RAF stood in their way. Despite the best efforts of the RAF, many German bombers did find their way through, and over the course of those 76 nights, the Luftwaffe dropped 45,000 tonnes of bombs onto the city.

It caused enormous damage to infrastructure and housing, knocking out railways, ports and factories that were essential to the war effort. As I mentioned, 40,000 Londoners were killed, but as many as 139,000 others were wounded as well. Despite the enduring myth that Londoners could take it, the capital was battered almost to submission, and morale was very nearly collapsing by the time the Luftwaffe were called off.

The theory behind strategic bombing is to destroy the enemy’s morale, economic ability and public willingness to continue the fight. If this is achieved, much less risk is faced than by engaging the enemy’s forces in battle. It was a doctrine that was developed in the 1930s, but was actually not really readily accepted by the Luftwaffe. It took a great deal of convincing to actually engage in this strategy.

The German’s primary weapons were Sprengbombe, or high explosive bombs. They were the main weapons used in the bombing campaigns in London. It primarily consisted of the low-weight SC-50, which is a 50kg, or 110lb bomb, the SC-500, a 500kg, or 1,102lb bomb, as seen in that clip, and the SC-1000, a 1,000kg, or 2,204lb bomb. Most splintering damage that you see in some of the subsequent clips were caused by these sorts of high explosive devices.

There was also another variant of the small-weight, 50kg bomb known as the LC-50, or parachute flare, or licht cylindrische, which was actually a 50kg bomb that was an incendiary device.

Big bombs don’t necessarily do the best damage though. One of the most effective weapons in the German arsenal was the B1E1, a 1kg bomblet, known as the brandbombe Elektron, an incendiary device. Despite its small size, it was filled with a magnesium alloy, and an incendiary filling of thermite, which caused it to burn hot enough to melt steel. It caused most of the fire devastation that happened in London during the Blitz.

Alongside the smaller incendiaries, the Luftwaffe also used oil bombs, which were much larger and burst into enormous mushrooms of flame when they exploded. The advantage of course, of the B1E1, was that you could carry many more of these than the larger varieties.

At first the trend was for simply ever-bigger bombs, but the Luftwaffe soon reported the effectiveness of the larger bombs was not worth the difficulty in delivering the weapons under heavy opposition from the RAF.

One of the most feared weapons of the whole terror campaign were the V rockets. Their use came long after the end of the Blitz. In desperation at the suffering that German cities were facing from the retaliatory Allied bombing, Hitler demanded his own retaliation weapon, the Vergeltungswaffe. The Fieseler Fi 103, or V-1 buzzbomb was created.

The first V-1 was launched at London on the 13 June 1944, shortly after the D-Day landings. Ski-launched, it was an unguided rocket that relied on utilising a calculated trajectory to find its targets. This was very unpredictable. More than 9,000 of these devices were fired at targets in Britain, and until October 1944, when the Allies captured the last launch site, many of these struck London. The V-1 attacks caused 22,892 casualties.

The lower weapon in the slide is the V-2 rocket. Its development had actually commenced at the start of the war, and it proved to become the world’s first successful ballistic missile. Hitler’s desperation to have a wonder weapon in production for boosting German morale, lead to a ruthless production schedule at the Mittelbau plant, which saw thousands of workers, many slaves and prisoners of war, die from exhaustion and disease.

1,358 V-2s struck the capital. The first landed in Chiswick, not very far from here, and killed a 63-year-old pensioner, a 3-year-old girl and a Royal Engineer Sapper, who was on leave. 2,754 civilians were killed by V-2 attacks, and another 6,523 people were injured by them.

My interest in this topic was actually piqued when I moved into a West London house three years ago. Every time I looked at the façade of that home, I felt that something was not quite right, and I began to wonder whether or not it had been damaged in the war.

But my first thought was, I was in West London. Surely, as my understanding of it was, all of the targets that the Luftwaffe were trying to strike were in the City and the East End, and this map supports that theory. You can see the large volumes of concentrated damage around the City area.

But I decided I’d do some research, and one of the most valuable resources that I found was the London Metropolitan Archives. They house an invaluable collection of fire brigade and London County Council bomb damage maps. Along with photographic surveying, I began to piece the story together.

Many of the famous landmarks and buildings around London still show various signs of war damage. Here we see at the top left, the Guard’s Memorial at Horse Guards, with splinter damage to the left, a close-up of splinter damage at St Bart’s Hospital in the centre top, a sign on the old WH Smith HQ in Portugal Street, which has been damaged by splinter, and cannon-round damage from aerial combat over the city, which is visible in London Bridge. And also, the Memorial to Bomb Damage at the V&A Museum at the bottom. Again, we see Tate Britain at the top left, further damage to St Bart’s, bomb damage at Southwark Cathedral, and the V&A Wall along Exhibition Road. This is a close-up of the façade of the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Most people have some idea about the impact of the heavy bombing that occurred in London. Everybody has heard of the Blitz. Most people are aware that the East End suffered most terribly, but what I found most interesting was the apparent random bombing of remote places, elsewhere in the capital. What was the strategic benefit of hitting randomly a few houses in Shepherd’s Bush in West London? The cost benefit doesn’t weigh up. The risk of flying over the city to the west doesn’t weigh up.

What soon emerged though, was a picture of accidental and untargeted bombing. It became clear that most of the sites that were hit in the west of the city were probably as a result of bombers realising that they had overshot their targets, possibly because of the blacked out city, or poor weather, and then needing to discharge their payloads in order to have enough fuel remaining in order to return home. So returning to my old West London streets, I decided to figure out if my house had been a victim of such a bombing. And it had.

As this map shows, my house, the black one in the centre, was completely destroyed whilst the houses on either side, the yellow ones, were damaged by the blast. When we return to the photo, we can see that the physical evidence supports this. The centre house was destroyed, and the houses either side are also rebuilt, the rest of the street remaining untouched. As you can see from the bomb damage map. It’s a single bomb that directly struck that one house, and there were fatalities involved.

So I began to look around the area, and discover why West London had suffered in this way. Unlike the earlier map I showed of the centre, where you could see concentrated effect of bombing, you can see for the most part, around the Shepherd’s Bush area, it’s quite random. You do see whole streets with damage, but this is actually quite often caused by fire spreading from one impact.

When you actually start to examine the damage that’s been caused, it’s also very interesting. Here, we can see the black of the direct impact, the house that’s built alongside it, or the shop, it’s now the façade of a shop, you can quite clearly see in the brickwork the effect of a blast. The shape in itself is very interesting - you can tell from this that the blast has come through here and taken the top level off, but the connection of the bricks has actually dragged and pulled this section up and out of the wall, as the blast passed through the building.

This is on Shepherd’s Bush Green, near the site of the Empire Theatre. You can see how it looks today. This is actually, I’m standing in a slightly different position when I took the photo, but you can see the terraced buildings there, which correspond with these ones. The new Empire Theatre there is the site of this damage here.

Again, we see another building which has been decapitated. It’s actually had the top cleared to a certain level in rebuilding, but the entire building has been decapitated by blast.

Here we can see where one building and half of the next building have been taken out, and then re-bricked. The re-bricking evidence is actually quite interesting, because generally you see where the bricks that have been blown out from a wall have been gathered up and re-used in re-construction where they’ve still been viable. However, in some circumstances you will see situations where in fact all of the bricks from that one particular house weren’t viable, or they were so mixed up with neighbouring bricks that you get a scattered effect of different styles, such as through here. Again, you can see how the blast has travelled over and through from this building, and taken out the top.

It’s quite extraordinary how certain sections of brickwork get left behind. Here we see a very interesting effect at Baker Street, the chimneys have all been blasted off by an aerial blast, whereas most of the façade has remained intact.

And there’s another form of evidence that you can find. It’s normally the fact that roofs have been destroyed completely and you can see damage to various levels of the brickwork, but you do also see in larger, stronger structures that have survived, where only the roof has been destroyed, and you can see the evidence of repair work just in the roof.

Here we see the same thing. Some of you, as you walk out of the museum might find this building recognisable, as it is directly over the other side of the road, repairing to the roof there. This is also just around the corner, another scatter damage to the brickwork. Again, here, unusual damage with one chunk of brickwork coming out from the blast and random repair work. Again, the same thing, a semi-decapitation of the building.

And here, we see in the City, some very interesting effects. Here we can see where a large chunk of wall has fallen forward out into the street, and the same effect here, whilst the building next to it had a more lateral damage effect. Again, similar examples.

This is Gower Street, just as a second case study I decided to pick this one because I found it very interesting. Unlike most of the places where I found random, sporadic damage, here you have some kind of continuous effect along the whole street, and it occurred to me that perhaps that was a different style of bomb damage. And in fact, when I look at the map for this area, you can see that the whole street has been damaged, and in actual fact, the direct hit was on the middle of the block, and so the damage that is coming here is actually blasts striking the back of these houses and flowing back over the building. So the buildings have actually withstood part of the blast, it’s been deflected up over the top and literally flipped the roof of the front of the building.

Again, just more patchwork. You can see random pieces of the wall having pulled out, and interestingly an effect which sometimes occurs where blasts travelling through the window has dislodged surrounding brickwork. This is further decapitation of buildings.

So the aftermath of this. The effect of the bombing was to change the cityscape of London dramatically. But London is a city in a constant state of flux and change. In fact, after the bombing, several different attempts at repairing the city were made.

We quite often see sites that were left unrepaired or in a damaged state for several years after the end of the war. This was the London Stone, the site of the London Stone used to be the St Swithin’s Church, still unrepaired in 1962. This is further bomb damage in the East End, near St Paul’s, still untouched as late as 1959. I used to have a colleague at the Imperial War Museum, who mentioned to me when he first began there in the mid-1970s, he’d walk past several bombed out sites on the way to work, even that late.

When we look at the way that the bomb damage is repaired, or the site re-used after it has been bombed out, we see several different things happening. If you remember the case study of the house I used to live in, we saw one direct hit and the surrounding houses slightly damaged. You can see the rest of the street has been left as it was, and because it’s only a fairly minor section of the street that’s been damaged, they’ve decided to rebuild those houses in the exact style of the rest of the street, or in the style of how the houses were beforehand. Here’s another example of that - you can quite clearly see a new façade in an extant wall.

But there are other things that occurred. When you had a whole area that was completely devastated or destroyed, in the post-war period there was much need of urgent rebuilding of residential housing, and it was decided that pre-fabricated buildings were a much easier and cheaper option. Quite often in areas that were completely devastated by bombing, we see what now mark the London skyline all over the city - the building of towers, such as these at World’s End, just down the road from here. This is quite interesting, because you can see how the Embankment used to look as it continued along and was replaced by the World’s End estate.

The Barbican Centre as well - the Barbican Centre is an even more interesting model, because when it was designed it was considered to be the future of urban living, mixing residential, commercial and artistic or entertainment venues all into one elevated living zone, above the streetscape.

Here we see another option - cheap pre-fabricated combination. It’s basically pre-fabricated sectioning, but with brick structure. This was done in the immediate post-war period, but decided it was more expensive than using purely pre-fabricated buildings in the towers I’ve shown before, and so the concrete slab option prevailed, such as here.

We also see an interesting contrast in certain areas. In some cities you have areas of low-density housing, areas of high-density housing, but London tends to be a city which is more guided by the needs of rebuilding following the Blitz, and so you have mixtures of low- and high-density building in random locations.

Just as another interesting look at how bomb damage was dealt with, here’s the Becklow Gardens Estate, also in Shepherd’s Bush. Here we have an example of the sort of housing that was in this area before the Blitz occurred, and quite common in West London, you find these sort of Estate structures. Now, this is a very isolated building, there is terraced housing following up the rest of this road and on the other side of the Estate that way. It is quite clearly covering up a large section of Blitz-damaged housing. And when we look at the map, we can see exactly that - a direct hit. The old terraced housing where the Becklow Gardens Estate was completely damaged or severely damaged, heavy damage along the streetscape, and that literally is the corner that you see here. And so basically they’ve decided that those terraced houses aren’t worth repairing, they can get a more high-density residential block in its place, and the Becklow Gardens Estate has replaced the former housing there.

So as I said, London is a city in constant flux and change. We see a change from the old style of landscape in London into more modern architectural styles. Here we see a rising edifice known as the Shard, climbing above one of the City’s once tallest structures, St Paul’s Cathedral, and eventually it will dwarf it.

More so than any event since the Great Fire, the Blitz provided the opportunity for the city to change, evolve and become something entirely different. 16 days ago was the 10th of May, and that marked the 70th anniversary of the end of the Blitz. That was the end of an attempted terrorisation of this city, which the city refused to bow to.

Realising that the Blitz was not having the desired effect, most of the Luftwaffe were redeployed to Operation Barbarossa, or the Nazi invasion of Soviet Russia. Although Hitler was determined to resume attacking London, and sporadically did so with the V-1 and V-2 rocket attacks, in reality the Battle of Britain had seen off a direct threat to London. Despite that victory, those infamous 76 nights of terror marked and changed the capital forever, and the scars of that period are all around us to remind us forever.

Thank you very much.

1 comment

john singleton
27 October 2011, 9.52am

Have just read an interesting

Have just read an interesting account of the blitz damage to London, which has inspired me to be much more observant of my surroundings.

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