Russian Terror from the Skies: Echoes of the London Blitz
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July 20, 2023

Russian Terror from the Skies: Echoes of the London Blitz

After more than 500 days, the relentless assault of Russia on the civilians and infrastructure of Ukraine continues unabated. The ongoing and immense toll of the war on the daily lives of the Ukrainian people is captured in the words of Kate from Kharkiv (@BohuslavskaKate): “War won't let us rest or recharge. Any attempt to stop and breathe may be interrupted by air raid alert. Any attempt to just calm down may be interrupted by explosion. We don't sleep at night praying to receive the most meaningful message ‘I'm alive’ before that one account will be unavailable for days or weeks or... We are tired, anxious, and angry, but it's day 491 of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and we keep going.”

For over 500 days, Russian missiles and drones have rained down on Ukraine, for the last three nights targeting Mykolaiv, Kharkiv and the Black Sea port of Odesa. Speaking after the second night, Serhiy Bratchuk, a spokesperson for the Odesa military administration, describes a “hellish night” of “truly massive” attacks where the sound of explosions rang through the city. For many in Britain, the endless bombardments and destruction experienced daily by Ukraine will rekindle memories of the London Blitz, a pivotal moment in British history when Londoners endured the same fight to survive. In this blog, we share some memories of those who lived through the London Blitz and remember our shared humanity.

On “Black Saturday”, September 7th, 1940, the German Luftwaffe commenced an eight-month campaign of air assaults on London. The Luftwaffe air raids were usually carried out at night in attempts to increase fear and undermine the morale of Londoners. At sunset, blackouts were imposed, cloaking London in darkness in efforts to reduce visibility. Windows and doors were covered before sunset with heavy curtains, paint or cardboard.

A London girl still smiling after being rescued from the debris of a German Luftwaffe raid
A London girl still smiling after being rescued from the debris of a German Luftwaffe raid.

Many children were evacuated from London, leaving their parents behind and starting new lives in unknown places. The painful plight of children during war is all too familiar to Ukraine, with 5.6 million of Ukraine's 7.5 million children displaced within Ukraine or abroad.

A woman and two children leave Ukraine after crossing the Slovak-Ukrainian border in Ubla, eastern Slovakia
A woman and two children leave Ukraine after crossing the Slovak-Ukrainian border in Ubla, eastern Slovakia, February 25, 2022 (PETER LAZAR / AFP


Just as in Ukraine, during the London Blitz the air was filled with the sound of warning sirens as Londoners made their way to find shelter at London underground stations or, if time was short, in shelters known as Anderson shelters or Morrison shelters. Made of corrugated iron, Anderson shelters were constructed by digging a large hole in the garden and placing the shelter inside. Assembly kits of Morrison shelters, a form of reinforced table, were distributed to those without a garden.

Herbert Mason’s photograph of St Paul's Cathedral, London, 29/30 December 1940
Herbert Mason’s photograph of St Paul's Cathedral, London, 29/30 December 1940.

The children of the Blitz are now in their 80s and 90s. Stanley Ross, who lived in London during the Blitz, recalled the impact of those months: “I lived in London throughout most of the Blitz. Even today, over six decades later, just hearing that long wail of the warning siren on old newsreels and films gives me that same cold knot of fear in the pit of my stomach which I always felt all those years ago. The German campaign was traumatic for everyone, but particularly so for the older children, as we saw people we had known all our young lives, killed, burned, maimed and buried in the rubble of nearby houses. We watched the V1s, the 'doodlebugs', rattling across the skies every day and we held our breath in terror, as the unmistakable quite suddenly stopped, and if, instead of dropping straightaway as they often did, they flew silently on, we breathed again - it meant that, mercifully for us, they would fall upon somebody else.”

Doris Nundy, who lived in East London during the Blitz, kept a diary during this time, shared by her daughter with the BBC: “Last night, from six o'clock until after 11 o'clock, the air was full of the drone of enemy planes and the pounding of guns. Soon after the siren was sounded, a blaze was reflected in the sky towards the city, and as the evening wore on, this reflection broadened until it seemed the whole sky must be on fire.”

In his book, The World is a Wedding (London: McKibbon & Kee, 1963, p. 68), Bernard Kops describes the terror he experienced as a child in the East End of London during the Blitz: “I heard sirens. And sirens and sirens. Early in the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening. And we went underground to get away from the sirens and the bombs. Yet they followed me and I heard sirens until the world became a siren. One endless cry of torture. It penetrated right into the core of my being, night and day was one long night, one long nightmare, one long siren, one long wail of despair.”

The British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was a constant and reassuring presence throughout the Blitz, visiting bomb sites and surveying the damage. Today, the inspirational leadership of Volodymyr Zelenskyy continues to sustain and guide the Ukrainian people. In his green military fatigues, Zelenskyy communicates to the world the urgency and intensity of the fight for Ukraine’s freedom.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits an area damaged by Russian military strikes in Kharkiv, Ukraine
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits an area damaged by Russian military strikes in Kharkiv, Ukraine. May 29, 2022. Ukrainian Presidential Press Service | Reuters.

The resilience of the British people throughout this period is remembered as the “Blitz Spirit”, famously epitomised in the phrase, “Keep Calm and Carry On”. Today, we see this same spirit in the Ukrainian people as they remain resolute in the face of daily onslaught. The words “Slava Ukrainia” (“Victory to Ukraine”) express the determination to overcome and remind us of our shared humanity: history is best memorialised by solidarity, support and unity with those under assault today.

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