London at the outset of World War II in 1939 was the greatest city in the world, the heart of the British Empire. By 1945, it was a drab and exhausted city, beginning the long haul back to recovery.
The defiant capital of England had always been Hitler's prime target. The last months of the Second World War saw the final phase of the battle of London as the enemy unleashed its new vengeance weapons, the flying bombs and rockets. They were terrifying and brought destruction on a vast scale, but fortunately came too late to dent morale seriously.
The people of London were showing the spirit, courage, and resilience that had earned them the admiration of the world during a long siege. In the harshest winter of fifty years, they were living in primitive conditions. Thousands were homeless, living in the Underground and deep shelters. Women lined up for horse meat and were lucky to obtain one egg a month. They besieged emergency coal dumps. Everyone longed for peace.
The bright new world seemed elusive. As the victory celebrations passed into memory, there were severe hardships and all the problems of post-war adjustment. Women lost the independence the war had lent them, husbands and wives had to learn to live together again, and children had a lot of catching up to do.
Yet London's loss has often been its opportunity. Its people had eagerly embraced plans for a modern metropolis and an end to poverty. They voted overwhelmingly for a Labour government and the new, fairer social order that was their reward for all they had endured.
The year of victory, 1945, represents an important chapter in London's---and Britain's---long history. Acclaimed historian Maureen Waller draws on a rich array of primary sources, letting the people tell their own story, to re-create that moment, bringing to it the social insight at which she excels.
In late 1944, London women were gathering at Woolworth's to purchase rarely available saucepans when yet another one of Hitler's Vengeance weapons left "no doubt as to the full, horrific reality" of the final German attacks: "The blow fell at lunchtime. Everyone from four-week-old babies to adults in their seventies were hurled in the air along with the debris... In shock, a woman pushing a pram, her clothes torn and askew, continued towards the store, intent on buying that saucepan." When not queuing or under attack, Londoners endured the bureaucracy put in place to handle day-to-day destruction and scarcity. Dissatisfaction was inevitable as people tired of hunger, cold, shabby clothes, crime, displacement and fear. By choosing such a momentous year as her touchstone, Waller illuminates Londoners' long-term suffering while offering insights into future obstacles to the country's rebuilding. In chapters addressing the themes of the home front-the basic struggle for food, shelter and clothing set against rationing, propaganda and social welfare-with London as the protagonist, Waller teases out of a debris-littered landscape the physical manifestations of deeper change among the city's working women, disrupted children and displaced families. 1945 may have seen the end of World War II, but not the end of bombing; the return of husbands and children to the urban center, but not the reconstruction of family or home; the end of many British war programs, but not the end of the government's involvement in the lives of the individual. In the end, the inevitable call to ensure a more personal security would result in the unseating of Winston Churchill's government. Waller, who tackled London in the late Stuart era for her last book, Ungrateful Daughters, balances an enormous amount of data with a journalistic attention to anecdote and oral history in this stunning book.