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The Blitz

London's Longest Night

(PBS; US DVD: 14 Feb 2006)

Drone of Engines Overhead

In 1940, the world was a scary place. Europe was crumbling one country at a time under the hammer of Nazi Germany, and the worst was yet to come. Hitler’s air campaign against England lasted eight months, killing 40,000 civilians. The Blitz: London’s Longest Night dramatizes the infamous 29 December firebombing of London. It follows in particular detail half a dozen Londoners as they travel afoot, crouch in shelters, and tirelessly battle the fires that consumed their city.


Airing on PBS on 14 February to coincide with its DVD release, The Blitz offers more “human drama” than something you might find on the History Channel, and will also satisfy military buffs. It uses archival footage and eyewitness accounts, as well as from the diaries of American journalist William White and volunteer rescuer Bill Regan, both portrayed in the film. The cast of unknowns is adequate, and British narrator Dilly Barlow lends a BBC-ish authenticity. Still, the survivors are most compelling. When Jessica Jacobs, now 82, says, “Our very history was burning”, her pain is genuine and expressive, the memories still sharp half a century later.


Tactically, the blitz marked a shift against civilian targets, but it was also characteristic of Nazi efficacy: quick and overwhelming. The Luftwaffe’s 136 planes dropped 120 tons of high explosives and 24,000 incendiary devices, turning London into a furnace. Staged from across the Channel in occupied France, the assault marked the first time in history that England was threatened from the air. Hitler had but one purpose, to crush Britain’s will in a single night.


The attack focused on the city’s Anglican and moral centerpiece, Saint Paul’s Cathedral. At 360 feet tall and nearly the length of an aircraft carrier, the church dominates the skyline, and The Blitz, it stands amid a blazing inferno. Winston Churchill vehemently ordered the brigades to “Save St. Paul’s!” Priests worked furiously to protect the church from within. Watching them scale the cathedral’s lofty rafters to extinguish phosphorous canisters dropping inside is akin to seeing villagers stamp out burning thatch during a dragon attack.


Only through our recent experience with terrorism in New York City can Americans come close to understanding the abject terror Londoners felt. Still, we cannot imagine the scale of England’s loss. The sounds recalled here are horrifying: the drone of engines overhead, tracer fire crisscrossing the black sky, the thumping of anti-aircraft guns. The footage of searchlights scanning the night and finding the occasional underbelly of a Junkers Stuka bomber seems surreal, as does the dramatic backdrop, a hellish landscape of rising fire and thunderous explosions.


Some of the program’s most chilling scenes come directly from London’s Fire Brigade, who captured the blazing chaos on film. Interspersed with the stock photography are shots of present-day London from atop its skyscrapers, to show perspective of distance and direction, emphasizing differences between today’s glass and sharp angles, compared to the 20th-century city.


What gaps do exist in the footage, director Louise Osmond fills with effective digital recreations. We see in great detail the mechanics of a falling bomb, the methodical approach of 100 planes, and an aerial map of downtown London, colored to highlight districts and the fires that ravaged them. We watch with mounting dread as blips appear on a blank radar screen, multiplying exponentially with each spin of the dish, like a scene from Aliens.


The Blitz also how people responded to the crisis, dropping moments of normalcy amid the madness. Londoners caught in the firestorm hail cabs on vacant streets and slip into posh hotels or the Tube, seeking a moment’s sanctuary. The depiction of theatergoers suddenly interrupted by the wail of air raid sirens is especially chilling. The program poignantly highlights artist Leonard Rosoman, whose near-death experience as an auxiliary firefighter in the heart of the blaze inspired him to paint The Falling Wall years later. The stunning sketch of firemen under a collapsed tower of brick now sits in London’s Imperial War Museum, both catharsis and legacy.


Like Rosoman, many Londoners admit that awe, rather than fear or horror, overcame them during the siege. The city was consumed in a ghastly conflagration, its scope unlike anything they’d ever seen. Train rails buckled and buildings collapsed from the suffocating heat. The sky went pink, choked with low clouds of smoke. Wind howled through the streets, producing a firestorm that sucked oxygen right out of the air. “You watch the white pull of water lose itself in the fire and you think of nothing,” says one brigade survivor. Their hypnosis is eerie to watch. War correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote of this detachment, noting “the wonder in your soul that this could be happening at all.”


In the end, of course, London and St. Paul’s endured, but not without staggering loss. The blitz left 163 people dead and a full square mile of downtown London in ruins. And while England’s courage and resolve inspire, they also serve as an indictment of U.S. inaction at the time. Thousands of miles away, the United States was something of an island, still untouched by war. Its population knew (or pretended to know) little of Nazi Germany’s brutality. Despite FDR’s posturing, the U.S. didn’t declare war for another year and a half, and only then after its own catastrophe at Pearl Harbor. The Blitz has renewed relevance for a generation now learning what wide-scale terror feels like.

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