- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 15, 2005

THE LONGEST NIGHT: THE BOMBING OF LONDON ON MAY 10, 1941

By Gavin Mortimer

Berkley Caliber, $24.96, 356 pages

REVIEWED BY PHILIP KOPPER

Part walk through a moment in history, part chronicle of Armageddon, “The Longest Night” has lessons for today. The question to ask before cracking its spine is whether now is the right season of the right year for such a cataclysmic narrative. I say it is exactly the read for the wake of two monster hurricanes and one continuing war. The volume reconstructs England’s worst hours during Germany’s Blitzkrieg, a term that plucky Brits abbreviated into “blitz,” which long since entered our common language in venues as distant from its origins as advertising and football. The German word meant “lightning war,” a boast of the Nazi murderers who had wrested control of their nation’s government, then invincibly marched, bombed and parachuted roughshod across Europe.

May 10, 1941 marked what sports commentators call a “career high” for Adolph Hitler’s air force, the Luftwaffe, in terms of the number of offensive planes flown and the weight of ordnance dropped from the night sky to bring London to its knees. When Britain fell, the lightning would brighten into the dawn of the new era, world rule by the Third Reich (read empire) which Hitler vowed would last a thousand years. Shortly before midnight the first wave of 507 planes, an armada that would cover 800 square miles, began to shock and awe London, dropping 711 tons of high explosives. The bombs ran from 86,173 one-kilo incendiaries, which burned at 2,500 degrees centigrade, to seven 1,800-kilo monsters called “Satans” locally.

Coining wry names for such demonic devices was one way Englishmen coped with their terror, as Gavin Mortimer observes. Like pistols which were developed with one use in mind, these tools of war were invented for a single purpose: To destroy what they hit. And they were designed smartly: With one flick of the trigger, a bombardier serially released clusters of incendiary bombs that cascaded to ignite a strip of city stretching a mile, say the distance from the Watergate to the White House.

These cunning inventions caused 2,154 major fires that night, destroyed 11,000 homes, rendered 380 roads impassable, blew up all but two Thames bridges and added 1,454 souls to the list of 13,339 killed in London in the last three months of 1940. They burned 150,000 books in the British Museum alone, gutted the House of Commons and incinerated beautiful, ancient, unique buildings. What the Germans did was to rain terror in a cogent effort to destroy London itself, the capital of a nation, the font of democratic government in the western world, the seat of English-speaking culture.

As for the book’s nuts and bolts, Mr. Mortimer’s writing is competent but uneven, sometimes rising to eloquence and stooping to hyperbole. One serious flaw is the lack of notes. I want to know when and where the Laborite Clement Attlee told the aristocrat Sir Harold Nicholson, “If only the Germans had had the sense not to bomb west of London Bridge, there might have been a revolution in this country.” But the blitz had now “smashed about Bond Street and Park Lane,” elite parts of town, no longer concentrating on the industrial East End with its squalid slum neighborhoods “already seething with social injustice.”

Was the source Nicholson’s famous diaries or some new obscure text that could alter our view of the period? Throughout the book, I wondered about the source of this anecdote, the authority of that speculation, the accuracy of another stated fact. In the same sorry vein, the index is deplorable; it lists neither the aforementioned Attlee or Nicholson. A book like this deserves the accessories of scholarship to prove the validity of its details that brick upon brick create a bastion of defensible argument and truth.

Still, it is moving in the repetitive facts and random stories that pile up like a mountain of rubble. In episode after episode gas mains explode, buildings bury people alive to be rescued (or not), firefighters who months earlier were called draft-dodging shirkers are honored for heroic deeds that become commonplace, Joe Blokes tackle unexploded bombs (UXBs) that sometimes blow them to bits.

Inevitably there are stomach-churning details: people gathering up other people — as headless corpses and in little pieces — in hopes that most of the dead may be identified in crowded morgues. There are laugh-out-loud moments, as when a streetwalker emerges on Piccadilly with her “umbrella up, and she was singing ‘I’m Singing in the Rain’ [when] the only rain coming down was the incendiary bombs.”

There are moments to shake your head at human nature’s dark side, as when Mr. Mortimer reports that 4,500 cases of looting occurred during the blitz and juvenile crime soared. There are ironic moments as when the storied Old Bailey criminal court was blown open, so that one thief “picked his way through the mess … and removed the judiciary’s supply of 1,000 of the finest Havana cigars.” At such moments today’s reader, our catastrophic hurricanes fresh in mind, might realize that the looting in New Orleans did not show something uniquely awful in America, only the inevitable opportunism of any city’s have-nots.

There are many moments of stout English pluck, even combined with a quiet Christian pluck that strident evangelism can never match. Gladys Shaw, a missionary who made her regular rounds to hold prayer meetings in bomb shelters, said “I never thought to question my faith … . I accepted the suffering and tried to preach a message of peace; that it was better to love your enemy than hate him. I remember one old woman whose roof was blown off by a bomb as she lay in bed. ‘I’ve forgiven that Hitler,’ she told me. ‘Yes, I forgive him. But may God give him his due.’”

There are wise moments such as the observation that “The blitz had a way of forcing people to reveal their true nature. Character, like buildings, could be exposed by the emasculating bombs.” Thus today’s reader, fresh from weeping at the tragedies of Katrina and Rita, might take solace in episodes of courage when one ordinary person rescued another, whether from a flood or a bomb crater.

Likewise a reader fresh from scanning today’s headlines might resonate with the Colliers magazine report by Quentin Reynolds: “I walked around the still burning streets of London on Sunday morning. The streets were filled with grim-faced, sullen-looking men and women. They were through ‘taking it.’ They wanted to give it. Every bomb that the Nazis dropped during the night carried germs with it — germs of hatred. I could feel the hatred rising from the ruins infecting everyone. Tight-lipped men and women stared at the debris of treasured landmarks and you could feel the hatred of Nazi barbarism emanating from them.”

When a conqueror crosses a certain psychological line, his victims are less defeated than enflamed with a deadly drive to seek righteous vengeance. I wish more of my neighbors inside the Beltway could have read this book and thought about its lessons before we began bombing Baghdad.

Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press in Chevy Chase, writes regularly about culture and history.

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