Local Eastenders will tell you that there were a lot of changes to the area after the Second World War and some parts were probably unrecognisable from the way they looked in pre-war years.
The East End in the Second World War
The area was heavily targeted and bombed by the Germans, and much of the regeneration in the East End came about in the late 1940s and 1950s to repair war damage and rebuild local infrastructures that had disappeared.
Why was the East End targeted by the Germans?
The East End of London contains some of the city’s most important dockland areas. At the time, it was a hub for imports and was used to store vital goods for the war effort, making this a prime target for bombing raids. In basic terms, if the Luftwaffe could disable the East End, it cut off a pivotal part of London’s supply chain. If you could do that, you also caused a severe strain all over the United Kingdom and weakened the country as a whole.
At the time, the East End was densely populated with local families and dock workers who settled here because of their jobs. The fact that so many civilians could potentially be killed or injured in bombing raids also led the Germans to hope that this would reduce support for the war. On the first night of the Blitz, 430 civilians were killed and over 1500 wounded.
By 1940, the East End was known as Target Area A by German bombers who made life extremely difficult for locals, especially during the Blitz. The German propaganda broadcaster, Lord Haw-Haw predicted before the Blitz even started that the Luftwaffe would “smash Stepney”. They certainly tried to. During this period of the war, London was bombed every night for 57 days.
The East End in the Blitz
Locals became used to intense bombing raids that decimated their homes and businesses. Although the government tried to protect against damage, this was hard to do in the face of such targeted bombing. Many local children and their mothers were evacuated and remaining residents became used to spending their nights in local tube stations, many of which were adapted into makeshift bomb shelters. Others built Andersen shelters or makeshift shelters at home and hoped for the best.
Although you cannot state how many bombs were actually dropped on the East End, the estimates are shocking. Bethnal Green was badly affected with around 80 tons of bombs falling on that area alone in this period.
It is also estimated that over 2,000 Eastenders died in raids in Tower Hamlets and nearly 47,000 houses were completely destroyed. Even if you managed to survive a bombing raid unscathed and still had a home standing, you were likely to struggle to cope with your everyday life. Bombing raids regularly cut out local services such as water, gas and electricity supplies and many locals lost their jobs as businesses were destroyed.
The nightly trials of the East End in the Blitz were well known across the country. Most famously, when Buckingham Palace was bombed in 1940, the Queen is reported to have said that she was pleased that they had been bombed as this meant that: “Now I can look the East End in the face”.
The East End was also the first place in Britain to be hit by a V-1 flying bomb. This one bomb hit Mile End in 1944 and single-handedly killed six people, injured 30 and left 200 people without a home.
Not all casualties were down to bombs, however. The biggest tragedy in the East End in the Second World War happened at Bethnal Green tube station in 1943. One evening, 173 people died in a crush on the entrance steps as they tried to get into the station, which was being used as a bomb shelter. The irony is that the air raid warning that sent them into the shelter was a test and they did not need to be there at all.
The East End after the war
By the end of the war much of the East End was unrecognisable or in ruins. The Port of London lost a third of its warehouses and St Katherine and West India docks had been so badly bombed that they were unusable.
Tens of thousands of homes and buildings had also been destroyed or severely damaged and the area’s remaining residents faced lots of problems with housing and infrastructure. This led to an initiative to build quick and easy to construct prefabricated housing.
These temporary buildings were dotted all over the area; although they were only supposed to give a one or two year solution to housing needs, many stayed in place until the 1970s when regeneration was closer to completion. Sadly, many of the historic buildings in the area were destroyed and large areas were rebuilt in the 1950s and 1960s.