World War 2 and East London

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

London Underground Air Raid Shelter

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 WW2 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.

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19 comments on “World War 2 and East London
  1. Terry Clark says:

    Janet

    I have looked on street name change database and still have no Caley, Cayley or such. Good luck in finding it.

    https://www.maps.thehunthouse.com/Streets/Old_to_New_London_Street_Name_Changes.htm

  2. Steve Worland says:

    Does anyone remember or have knowledge of a street market which as a child I remember being held in an area that was still looking like a bombsite called the Waste or mabe Kingston Waste.
    ^0 years some of my memories are vague but would welcome any help to research this.

    • Bill Goldby says:

      I believe this was in Dalton, my Father always said on a Saturday that he was going
      to the “Waste” Although I often heard this as a child I did not know what it referred
      to. An area that had been bombed makes sense.

  3. Ann says:

    My Ancestors lived in Bethnal Green in 1881 census, last name Stanton. My Great Grandfather came to Canada as a home child in 1877 although he was 14 at the time. He returned to Bethnal Green and married my Grandmother there. They immigrated to Canada w children before 1890. The lived at 8 Oakley Street, Bethnal Green in 1881, head person being Samuel George Stanton, wife Mary Ann Elizabeth Lee. I’ve often wondered what happened to the brothers and sisters of my Grandfather who stayed in London area. Particularly with the heavy bombing during WWII. They were Joseph George Stanton, Mary Ann Elizabeth Stanton and Samuel Edwin Stanton.

  4. janet briggs says:

    my mother used to tell us stories about going through the Rotherhithe tunnel and up the stairs to the park. she also said the family lived in Caley street Stepney, I have been unable to find any references to Caley street. Can any one shed any light on this for me, has the name changed.
    the name of the family was Donovan and murphy.

  5. Vicki Friend says:

    My Father Kenneth Friend and Grandfather Charles had the textile/dressing gown factory at 3/5 Globe Road around the corner from Bethnal Green Station. I used to love as a child going to help at the factory. Does anyone remember Margaret Reardon, upstairs Manager or John Cox downstairs Manager. Lena Elliot was my Dad’s secretary and Rose one of the treasured ladies who worked the upstairs sewing machines.
    Such happy times.
    We used to lunch in the local pub with Mark Harris who owned the undertakers. In fact either he or his Son made the treasured headstone after my Father’s death. There was also a Mr Bassett another friend, a very tall well dressed man with a moustache. I don’t remember his 1st name. They all had local business in common.
    I’d love to hear from anyone who remembers any of those mentioned or indeed the factory. Thanks. Vicki Friend

  6. Jessie Lampitt says:

    Oh how reading this bought back lots of mixed memories some very happy ones but some very sad, like the Bethnal Green Tube disaster,where I lost my best friend and almost lost my life too, somebody in the crowd held me back from following my friend down the stairs, it has always been a vivid memory with me for 73 yrs,I was 10yrs old when it happened in 1943,it started when a lady carrying a large bundle of bedding for her family suddenly tripped after someone in the crowd shouted that there was a bomb coming, once the lady went down everyone was just pushing everybody in front of them,and at that time there was no central rail down the stairs, although I remember people complaining about this before the accident, but nobody did anything about it,and I think that is way this was put under the carpet. it was not long after the accident that a rail was put there !I still remember my friend Joan’s face as I was pulled from her hand and everyone behind her just kept pushing her, and that was the last I saw of her.

  7. P. Webb says:

    That’s interesting. My mother grew up in Dempsey Street at number 13 and lived there until she married and moved to Seven Sisters.
    She was part of a large family who used to run a haulage business out of the rear of the premises. The horses and carts would drive up a wide alley between number 13 and number 15. Their first floors formed a sort Of arch way over the front. The horses were stabled out the back underground with the yard above. Later they were replaced by lorries. The firm used to pick up huge rolls of paper at the Docks and take them to Fleet Street for the newspaper printing presses. As a lad I can remember sitting on the step in the summer watching the fun and games at a pub on the corner. My grandparents lived at number 13 until they were relocated to Burdett Road when Dempsey Street was demolished in the 1960s.

  8. Shirley Perry says:

    I lived in Stepney during the war I remember vividly running into the Anderson air shelter one night a shell hit it and my mother said no more so future air raids found us under the kitchen table. I lived at 48 Dempsey Street, Stepney E1. One night a buzz bomb fell from the sky and completely demolished one end of Dempsey Street.

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