“Regular features of the time: neatly swept-up piles of glass, litter of stone and splinters of flint, smell of escaping gas, knots of sightseers waiting at the cordons.”
— George Orwell
What was it like to live in London during and after the Blitz? George Orwell’s notebooks from the time contain a “fascinating account of everyday life in London during the Second World War,” full of journalistic detail, the British Library writes. In Orwell’s estimation, the city was riven with class divides. “Despite his criticism of Stalinism, Orwell remained a convinced socialist all his life.” He believed the war could only be won if it turned into a revolution. “When you see how the wealthy are still behaving, in what is manifestly developing into a revolutionary war,” he wrote in a diary entry that would become the 1941 essay The Lion and the Unicorn, “you think of St. Petersburg in 1916.”
Orwell may have been wrong about the revolution, but he reported honestly on much of what was happening in London. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Information produced a short propaganda film in 1940 for the American public called “London Can Take It.” The tone was in keeping with the “Keep Calm and Carry On” ethos we associate with Britain in the period. A companion film, “Britain Can Take It,” similarly sold the “illusion of social unity,” Craig Stewart Hunter writes, “created by the use of films and other media to portray positive morale.” (View many more British WWII propaganda films here.) These did not account for “growing disenchantment in urban areas, which found themselves ‘unable to take it,’ so to speak.”
Peter Watts writes in The Guardian about once-vibrant city blocks that were demolished by the firebombing, then later turned into parking garages. Many of these neighborhoods were then, in the 1960s, folded into massive estate housing projects with “high-rise towers nobody wanted to live in,” says Peter Larkham, professor of planning at Birmingham School of the Built Environment. Could London take it? It depended on which London one meant, in the long run. But during the war itself, there was perhaps more social cohesion than Orwell was willing to grant, given that something like one in every six Londoners suffered homelessness during the bombing campaign and over 40,000 civilians lost their lives.
The degree of Britain’s national unity during the war remains “a continuing historiographical debate,” writes Hunter, ever since” the generation of historians born after the war… have been able to write with more critical detachment.” And since most everyone alive then is no longer, ideas about what it felt like to be in London during WWII will change as historians view the source material differently over time.
But thanks to photography and film from the period, we’ll always have a fairly good idea of what London looked like during the war, though we’ll have to make do, until the AI “becomes more mature,” as the poster of the video compilation above notes, with inferior colorization techniques. (Yes, they know, the buses should be red.)
The various scenes have been motion-stabilized, slightly speed-corrected, enhanced and colorized by means of sophisticated Artificial Intelligence software.
The film shows remarkable scenes of bomb damage, close up filming of the release of barrage balloons, anti-aircraft gun positions, traffic at Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, military parades in front of Buckingham Palace, beautiful scenes of the Thames during daytime and at dusk, Waterloo Station, and much more.
Most of the film dates from late 1943, but some of the footage of Waterloo station and Piccadilly Circus comes from the late 1930s and it ends with a minute of VE day on 8 May 1945. All of the footage comes from the Prelinger Archives. Can we see national unity in the crowds of people going about their business amidst a city full of armaments and rubble? Is it visible to the naked eye? See timestamped descriptions of the location and action in each clip at the video’s YouTube page here.
WWII Britain Revisited in 120 Short Films, Now Free on the Web
Dramatic Color Footage Shows a Bombed-Out Berlin a Month After Germany’s WWII Defeat (1945)
How to Behave in a British Pub: A World War II Training Film from 1943, Featuring Burgess Meredith
The Oldest Known Footage of London (1890-1920) Shows the City’s Great Landmarks
How the Fences & Railings Adorning London’s Buildings Doubled (by Design) as Civilian Stretchers in World War II
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
Thia is amazing.
I must point out that a part of the footage from about 11:30 onward is not from the war years, but well before. Eros is still in situ, no black out markings and the clothes, buses and vehicles are very early 30s.