‘The greatest target in the world, a kind of tremendous fat cow … tied up to attract the beasts of prey.’ This was Winston Churchill’s gloomy view in 1934 of London and its prospects in another world war. He was not alone in prognosticating doom. A foreign air force equipped with modern bombers would surely devastate the British capital in weeks, perhaps even hours. Millions of Londoners packed into cramped tenements – especially the city’s Jewish and foreign-born residents – would, it was said, panic, flee or riot. There was little confidence that London could take it. The likelihood instead was furious, terrified anarchy.
Perhaps, as Jerry White explains in his impressive history of the capital at war, people wondered if the problem was London itself: too big, too bloated with the nation’s resources, too parochially self-absorbed. Between 1918 and 1939, London’s acreage had doubled. By the eve of the Second World War, the city had reached thirty-four miles across from east to west, with over 8.7 million residents, most of them living in the suburban sprawl outside the County of London proper. The city’s population growth was twice the national average. This concentration of people, wealth and power within easy flying distance of the Continent represented not just a national security threat, critics charged, but also an unhealthy drain on the rest of the country. Perhaps seeing London cut down to size a bit would do the rest of Britain good.
In fact, when the Blitz came in September 1940, it was London’s vast size that helped it to absorb the blow. The city’s ordeal was nationally unique. During the nine months of the ‘Big Blitz’, which lasted until the end of May 1941, it suffered eighty-five major Luftwaffe