The London Blitz Murders - By Max Allan Collins

ON THE BRINK OF WAR, London was the largest and—in the opinion of many—greatest city in the world. Metropolitan London’s population was eight million and ever-growing, the population of Great Britain herself having risen some five million souls between the First War and the coming one… a third of whom lived or worked in London.

The Port of London commanded more tonnage than any other, generating a quarter of Britain’s imports; and better than half the world’s international trade passed through the claustrophobic, clogged financial district between the East End docks and the prosperous West End. Air travel was coming into its own as well, with London at the center of a network of airways making international travel fast and practical.

London, then as now, was the seat of government—legislative, executive and judiciary, with the House of Lords the Empire’s supreme court of appeal—as well as home to the royal capital… Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s and even the Tower of London down the Thames, where heads no longer rolled and the crown jewels were under watch by guards (and tourists).

Education was well-represented by eminent grammar schools (Alleyns, Battersea) and fine public schools (St. Paul’s, Westminster), while London University rivaled Cambridge and Oxford. There were museums—the British Museum and National Gallery were only the beginning of an impressive array—and theater that made New York’s Broadway look like the shabby vaudeville it was, plus comedies and musicals representing homegrown vaudeville as gloriously tasteless as anything the Yanks could muster.

Of course, a London resident had a higher cost of living than elsewhere in the kingdom; but the standard of living was also high, and even during the Depression—quelled by an economy spurred on by imminent war—unemployment had been low. The East End still had its share of poverty, however, and some considered a Bolshevik revolution inevitable.

A greater and even more imminent threat seemed to be London itself—its vulnerability, its dense population in a relatively small area, its attraction to an enemy desirous of delivering a “knock-out blow” to a target seemingly primed for an aerial attack.

And as we know, the bombs did drop… and the city did endure.

This is one small story in that greater drama, the account of one brave woman in that brave city, who like that city survived with dignity…

… and of a murderer who did not.

FEBRUARY 9, 1942

THE WARTIME BLACKOUT, IMPOSED IN September of ’39, was a fact of life Londoners had long since learned to live with—streetlights off, vehicles turned into one-eyed monsters (with the remaining headlight wearing a shade), and either a blocking board or black curtain screening all windows. Officious air wardens, particularly in the early days, had been the bullies in charge of banishing all illumination. Now no one thought about it, really. Compliance was second nature.

The blackout was part and parcel of being at war—like the sandbags piled high along sidewalks, the vaguely animal-like barrage balloons hovering over the city (like the air wardens, well-inflated), the starkly cheerful airbrushed posters advising Londoners to “carry on” and “do their bit.” Even the sentries at Buckingham Palace had swapped their bright red uniforms for dingy battle fatigues, and streetcorner bobbies had traded in their helmets for tin hats.

Over two years into the war now, it was difficult to remember a time when children played on the sidewalks (most kiddies had been evacuated early on), and when automobiles on the street were thick as flies and not scarce as hen’s teeth—a time when the tabloids were longer than a few pages, and a sales clerk wrapped your package in precious paper.

The city, or at least its people, seemed shabby of late—the clothing drab in color, often threadbare, no matter what your social status; new clothing was a rarity in this town, and when you wore new togs, you felt vaguely ashamed. The drabness extended itself to buildings—broken windows had become the exception, not the rule, and few structures wore fresh coats of paint; it seemed lacking in taste, somehow, when neighboring structures were piles of rubble.

Not that the city allowed itself to be a dirty, dusty shambles—repairs were constant. On this typically overcast, coldly dreary Monday morning, the street and sidewalks dusted with snow, workmen were repairing potholes. The latter were not the fault of the Germans—the last major attack had been back in May, after all, on the tenth…

… a night no one living in London was likely to forget. The Thames at low ebb, the moon full, the Luftwaffe delivered the war’s worst raid thus far—Westminster