Often not recognized when many think of the devastation that proceeded from the Second World War, the city of London became a battleground as German bombs rained down, scattering the population and its property between 1940 and 1941. Certainly, this resulted in many injuries and fatalities but the health of the population was affected by more than just the immediate injuries sustained from the air raids. The state of emergency created by the Blitz, as it came to be known, affected the availability of medical care, the reliability of emergency response, and the sanitation of the public and private environment as hospitals, homes, businesses, roads and shelters were ruined by the frequent attacks. Though a great trial for London and its sister boroughs, the city held together thanks to the invaluable efforts of its medical officers.
By the end of the air raids in May of 1941, the city of London sustained more than thirty thousand deaths as a consequence along with many more injured. However, the casualties were originally predicted to be much greater (Field 12). Through quick and decisive action from the city’s leadership, many lives were saved. This started with the evacuation of many women and their children from ground zero to various residences in the surrounding rural area (13). Though many ended up returning several months later after reports of bombings had ceased for a brief period after the onset of the raids, the plan ended up removing many vulnerable persons from the way of immediate danger.
Smaller shelter were erected in the backyards of private homes to protect families and their neighbors from the attacks. Though many lives were saved by the efforts, the city was unprepared for the vast amount of people left homeless after their homes were destroyed. This problem quickly became apparent as the number of those found to be homeless reached over 250,000 just six weeks after the intense night raids (14). This led to the overpopulation of shelters with poor sanitation and an increase in the spread of disease in these close environments. A table from a Medical Officer Report from the London City Council shows that most diseases either declined or increased by a negligible amount from 1941 to 1942 except for scarlet fever and measles which both almost doubled in reported cases (Daley 1942, 4).
Additionally, one could imagine that it may be hard to find access to proper treatment when only half of the usual number of hospitals beds remained at the end of 1940 as a result of the damage to hospitals targeted by the Germans (Daley, 8). Miraculously, despite this, all who sought care were able to be accommodated, mostly due to the decrease in the number of citizens that lived in the city due to the evacuations. By the end of 1942, several of the hospitals that had closed due to damage were repaired and reopened. The city also made use of those hospitals that did not reopen by salvaging the medical supplies and furniture for use in functioning facilities (Daley 1942, 13). Though the sick and injured were treated unceasingly during this time, it was not as smooth or convenient as the success of the medical professionals made it seem. In 1944, it was reported that there were over six hundred bombs that had affected the operation of the hospitals in London, with none in the city being left untouched by the destruction (Daley 1944, 2). It became general protocol to not use the top floors of the hospitals in order to minimize the risk of patients in the event of an attack. Patients were transferred from hospital to hospital in order to remove them from areas of immediate danger.
The city also expanded its emergency response program to better suit the demand for its services. This included hiring thousands of additional drivers and attendants for their additional vehicles and first-aid posts (Daley 1940, 12). In addition to these vehicles, many lent their own private cars to the cause for the transportation of the injured. All of the vehicles were kept on both private and public spaces around the city such as garages, schools, and shelters which was advantageous for the drivers and also improved the response time to the various sites of attack. From 1939 to 1945, the ambulances around London drove over one-and-a-half million miles responding to more than three hundred thousand incidents (Daley 1946, 63). The expansions of this medical service proved to be immensely valuable, and many of those whom had previously served in temporary capacity during the war were given permanent assignments and honors in appreciation for their service.
Truly, these incredible challenges could not defeat the city of London, but were met and overcome by the wisdom and perseverance of its people. Although the issues concerning the public health of London increased in complexity during the Second World War and was beyond the work of just a few men, many lives were saved thanks to the work of the Medical Officers of Health.
Written by James Howell
Field, Geoffrey. 2002. “Nights Underground in Darkest London: The Blitz, 1940-1941”. International Labor and Working-class History, no. 62. Cambridge University Press: 11–49.