In the early stages of World War II, Winston Churchill declared that London was “the greatest target in the world.” His assessment was strikingly accurate.
Adolf Hitler wanted to destroy the British morale, so his air fleet (the terrifying Luftwaffe) launched a sustained bombing offensive that ultimately killed or seriously injured more than 80,000 and destroyed a million buildings in the London area.
During the Blitz (meaning lightening war), September 1940 until May 1941, nightly raids by the Germans relentlessly pounded the city — 30,000 bombs were dropped in a display of unstoppable air power.
But Hitler failed to achieve his goal. The British developed a “Blitz spirit,” a defiant attitude in the face of massive adversity. They were more determined to stay the course after the assault than before it.
This spirit is especially impressive because conditions on the ground were in disarray — even more unsettling during the air raids. There were public shelters and private shelters, but confidence in these structures was shaky.
The public facilities were erected quickly and were, at best, satisfactory. They were never perceived as completely secure.
The home shelters came in two varieties: “Morrison” assembly kits and “Anderson” bunkers (which were called concrete sandwiches). The Morrison kit, named for the then Minister of Home Security, resembled a large play-pen topped by metal. Inside was a space which contained a mattress upon which the occupants could rest. The Anderson was more of a traditional shelter, a semicircular corrugated steel design which could be buried in the ground. Its namesake was Lord John Anderson, an official in charge of air raid preparedness.
The other alternative, initially opposed by the government, was to shelter in the subway system, the “tubes.” This quickly became a popular option with as many as 170,000 a night descending into the underground. The crowds began arriving around 4 in the afternoon; the trains stopped at 10:30 p.m. and the “tubites,” as they were called, retired shortly thereafter.
British officials had numerous concerns: disease (“personal hygiene pretty well went out the window,” one tubite said), panic, people unwilling to leave the subway during the day, and a group dynamic that might lead to poor morale. Finally, Winston Churchill intervened on behalf of the practice and government opposition disappeared.
Len Phillips, who was a boy when he slept in the tubes, described the experience: “It was cold and there was always the fear that if they burst a water main, we might get flooded…you could hear the bombs echo…we got on fairly well and we mucked in together…it was one of those things we had to put up with.”
Images of this “mucking in” have been memorably preserved in the work of two influential artists, photographer Bill Brandt and sculptor Henry Moore.
Brandt, who had been a student of Man Ray, was commissioned by the Ministry of the Interior to document sheltering in the tubes. These were places “that gave the appearance of death” while having the purpose of saving life, Brandt later commented. Here is one of the 39 photographs he took:
The “huddled intimacy” in the tubes, as author Julian Andrews has pointed out, was a natural subject for Moore. The sculptor, one of the finest ever, was always focused on the human figure, usually reclining or seated and often in a family unit.
An Official War Artist, Moore first saw the tube scenes when he and his wife were forced to stand on an underground platform to wait out a heavy night of Nazi bombing. “It was like a huge city in the bowels of the earth,” Moore recalled. “I was fascinated visually. I went back again and again.”
Moore had always been an excellent draftsman — he filled three notebooks with tube drawings. “Naturally I couldn’t draw in the shelter itself, I drew from memory on my return home,” he said.
Seventy five finished drawings emerged from the sketches he made in the notebooks. They are, according to historian Kenneth Clark, “among the most precious works of art” in the twentieth century.
These magnificent drawings convey what art dealer James Goodman called “vulnerability and tenacity. The best drawings Henry Moore ever made.”
Here are some examples:
While it’s difficult to equate the Second World War with our current Covid-19 woes, it’s possible to learn some lessons from those sheltering in the tubes: they had hope and resilience, two qualities that are vital today.