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London After Dark

CBS News

London After Dark 

Aug 24 1940

ANNOUNCER: London After Dark! At this time the Columbia Broadcasting System brings you a special broadcast: life in a blackout in the capital of Great Britain. During the next half hour you will be in various parts of London, a city which had three air raid alarms today, the nerve center of empire. There will be pick-ups from various points in London; accounts of work -- yes, and of play -- in this great city of a nation at war. And so we turn you over to Columbia's staff in the British capital and we take you now to London.


LONDON ANNCR: ...the hub of the British Empire in wartime, seen through Canadian eyes, through English eyes, and through American eyes. London at work and at play from the unceasing grind of England's war efforts to the relaxation of the crowds off duty. Come with us 'round London after dark in wartime.


LONDON ANNCR: Canada's Sandy MacPherson has led off our tour though London at the console of the theater organ in St. George's Hall, notable as the home of magic in the London of Queen Victoria's day. And now we take you into the streets of blacked-out London: down stately crescent-shaped Regent Street, along Shaftesbury Avenue of theater fame, into Charing Cross Road, London's Tin Pan Alley, and so to Trafalgar Square. Waiting there is Edward Murrow, known to you as Columbia's European director. Come in, Ed Murrow.


MURROW: This ... is Trafalgar Square. The noise that you hear at the moment is the sound of the air raid sirens. I'm standing here just on the steps of St Martin-in-the-Fields. A searchlight just burst into action, off in the distance -- one single beam, sweeping the sky above me now. People are walking along quite quietly. We're just at the entrance of an air raid shelter here and I must move this cable over just a bit so people can walk in. I can see just straightaway in front of me Lord Nelson on top of that big column. There's another searchlight just square behind Nelson's statue. I'll just let you listen to the traffic and the sound of the siren for a moment. 


MURROW: ...along casually, a man stops in front of me to light a cigarette. Here comes one of those big red buses around the corner. Double deckers they are, just a few lights on the top deck. In this blackness it looks very much like a ship that's passing in the night and you just see the portholes. There goes another bus; more searchlights come into action. You see them reach straight up into the sky and occasionally they catch a cloud and seem to splash on the bottom of it. The little traffic lights here, just a small cross on the normal globe, are now red; the cars pull up and stop. I'll just ooze down in the darkness here along these steps and see if I can pick up the sound of people's feet as they walk along. One of the strangest sounds one can hear in London these days -- or, rather, these dark nights -- just the sound of footsteps walking along the street, like ghosts shod with steel shoes. A taxi draws up just in front and stops; just waiting for that red light to change to green while the sirens howl. (CARS DRIVE OFF) There it goes and the cars move off. More searchlights are in action. We've not yet seen any burst of anti-aircraft fire overhead. And, of course, this doesn't necessarily mean that there are planes actually over London at this moment; we've had these warnings before, of course. (SIRENS HAVE FADED OUT) Can you hear the sirens just dying away in the distance now? (FOOTSTEPS BRIEFLY PASS) An air raid warden walks out of this shelter. The shelter here, you know, is the crypt underneath this famous old church just on the edge of Trafalgar Square -- the crypt where, in days of peace, homeless men and women were able to find a night's lodging. (FOOTSTEPS APPROACH) You can just hear now the steps of people coming up into this old church-- 


LONDON ANNCR: And so, farewell, Trafalgar Square. And now, after that unexpected air raid warning we're going to take you to one of London's most ultra hotels, where behind the blackout drapes men and women are dancing in the main ballroom. We'll see what the effect is over there after the air raid warning.


MAN: (MOSTLY INDECIPHERABLE ANNOUNCEMENT OF AIR RAID WARNING) Ladies and gentlemen... there is an air raid siren now sounding. 


MAN: ... will continue to play dance music.



LONDON ANNCR: And so, just after the air raid warning is announced, the dancing goes on at the Savoy Hotel. The Savoy, of course, is one of London's most famous hotels. Upstairs are suites named after the Gilbert and Sullivan Savoy Operas. Below stairs are the kitchens and cellars, and even in wartime London, few spots are busier on a Saturday night, air raid warning or not, than the Savoy kitchen. Bob Bowman of the CBC is stationed there now, with a Savoy chef, Monsieur Latry. Take over, will ya, Bob?



BOWMAN: (CHEERFUL) Hello, you poor guys! We are switching you now from the supper dance room down to the kitchen here and what you're hearing is not excitement because of an air raid, but just the busy orders providing people with meals there. And of course I'm sure you're all licking your lips because, uh, this kitchen, as probably a lot of you will know, is presided over by no less a person than Françoise Latry who's certainly one of the most famous chefs in the world. As a matter of fact, his culinary ability has brought him honors from many parts of the world. He's a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor and he also is a holder of the Order of the Cordon Rouge which was established by Queen Mary. Well, tonight he's presiding over this white-tile kitchen with its red floors, its battery of chefs and flying, black-coated waiters who are serving those people who are staying on right now, staying on and still dancing upstairs. It's wartime and we have rationing. Nevertheless, I don't think you'd notice any difference at all. The menu tonight includes eight hors d'oeuvres, including caviar; eight different kinds of meat and game. Nevertheless, I don't want you to think that we're living luxuriously, sort of out of keeping with the war effort. Printed in red letters on the menu is this sentence: "By agreement with the Ministry of Food, only one dish of meat or fish or poultry may be served at a meal." Still, that's not a great hardship, is it, not to be able to have both fish and meat? And, even at that, the genius of Mr. Latry comes into effect because he's designed marvelous [croustades?] and [plaques de travail?] as he calls them, which have a fish base and which can be served before the main course. Things like - things like Crab Maryland and all that sort of thing. Well, here he is -- Françoise Latry in his tall white cap; Françoise Latry, one of the world's most famous chefs.

LATRY: (HEAVY FRENCH ACCENT) I am very happy to say hal-loo to my friends across the Atlantic, and to tell them we are well, and food is plentiful. The war has not affected my cooking.

BOWMAN: Well, hasn't the war made any difference at all?

LATRY: Not at all--!


LONDON ANNCR: But not all London's enjoyment. These are dangerous days, wartime days, and not for an instant can the watch on London be relaxed. As for example, the air raid warning we had a few minutes ago. And so, unobtrusively guarding the city -- as crowds go home, or as people sleep, or night workers start their shift in armament factories -- anti-aircraft guns are posted; searchlight batteries ready in an instant to pierce the sky. Somewhere in London at this very moment, Raymond Glendenning of the BBC is stationed at an anti-aircraft gun post, and we'll hear from him now.

GLENDENNING: Well, here, standing as I am beside the command post of an anti-aircraft battery somewhere in London, I'm able to give you a picture of Britain at war; Britain in action. Beside me, at the moment, are many khaki-clad figures, all with steel helmets and with their gas masks at the alert. Just over ten minutes ago, the sirens sounded, warning the civilian population that an air raid was in progress. Before that, the alarm had been given here and men had rushed from the huts where they were sleeping to their posts, manning the four guns, each in its own emplacement, and this central control point. The working of an anti-aircraft unit is entirely done from the command post. The instruments are on either side of us. As I stand here, just beside me is the spotter on the identification telescope, which is first able to locate the plane in the beams of the searchlights. At the moment, our actual, er-- Enemy planes are no longer in our vicinity. We've heard the drone of them overhead, but they seem to have gone away from us now to the northward and at the moment the spotter is only using a pair of binoculars. And so there's the searchlights which, but a few seconds ago, were zigzagging across the sky, stabbing in all directions a myriad shafts of light, looking for those enemy planes. They've all gone out, one by one, as the plane has passed on its way and we're left here with the men just on their incessant vigil. This is just one of the pieces of practical turnout that they do at any time during the twenty-four hours, and have been waiting to do at any time since this war started. Now beside me is this spotter identification telescope which is, soon as the searchlights will get onto an enemy plane, will locate it. From that will be called the bearings and the angles of sight which will enable a remarkable machine called the predictor in the left pit to get onto the plane, follow the target, and locate the gun. 

OFFICER: (OFF, SHOUTS) Bearing one-eight-oh!

GLENDENNING: Now here is the command from the GPO, who is the Gun Position Officer. 


GLENDENNING: The predictor works its way 'round -- the men are all standing at attention -- and now in this dim light I can see the four long tapering gun barrels snaking 'round till they come to the required bearing, which is in the direction of the expected enemy. Beside me, the height-finding apparatus, which at this time is on my right -- in the pit on my right-- 

OFFICER: (OFF, SHOUTS) Bearing one-eight-two!

GLENDENNING: He is now calling out the height at which the enemy is expected to come. 


GLENDENNING: I can now hear the distant drone of planes -- searchlights stabbing and crisscrossing, 'cross the clear sky and into the cloud and out again -- some distance away at the moment. All there is here is absolute tenseness and vigilance.


LONDON ANNCR: That was an anti-aircraft gun post and no less vital than searchlight units and anti-aircraft batteries is another now-familiar aspect of the London wartime scene: Air Raid Precautions, known simply as ARP. And so next we're going to take you to an ARP post just a few minutes after an air raid warning has sounded, where Larry LeSueur of CBS is waiting to set the scene as he sees it.

LeSEUER: Good evening, this is Larry LeSueur. The London air raid sirens have just sounded. I'm standing in the vast basement of one of the largest apartment houses in the world. Around me are about a hundred people. But they're only a small fraction of London's great Air Raid Precautions force, which is ready to push to the scene if bombs are dropped in this area. This is the organization, the one which the British gift for reducing everything to initials has shortened until it's simply called ARP. These ARP men and women are the ones who are standing by to help their fellow Londoners when the air raid sirens just sent the others eight and a quarter million into the air raid shelters. As I said before, the sirens have just sounded. And here's how the mechanics of this great Air Raid Precautions system worked. Perhaps some half-dozen German bomber pilots penetrated the coastal defenses of Britain a few minutes ago and they're heading for London. There may be only a half dozen of them, but the killing powers of each man has been multiplied to incredible limits by science and high-explosive bombs. An observer in a lonely observation post spotted these German raiders coming over. He telephoned the information to the Air Force Fighter Command. And the Fighter Command determined what point the raiders were heading for; it was London. Then they phoned the London Control Center a few minutes ago, and that telephone message was passed on to the place where I'm standing now, about ten minutes ago. The message said simply, "Air Raids Message: Yellow." The word yellow stands for the same thing it does in traffic signals: be on your guard. Everyone here grabbed up their equipment and stood up expectantly with a keen look on their faces; men and women both. Then the telephone rang again. The words came through, "Air Raids Message: Red." And a few minutes later the agonizing wail of the London sirens began, rising and falling in their quavering note. The people in this ARP station [have] all got their equipment ready now and they've started the motors of their first aid cars and their ambulances. The doctor on duty is busy sterilizing his instruments and preparing his bandages. The German bombers may be nearby now; there's a drone of engines in the air. I can't tell, though, whether they're British or German planes. If a bomb drops in this ARP district, a telephone call or messenger will instantly bring the news of its location. And each of these blue-uniformed ARP men and women, carrying their full equipment, which consists of steel helmet, gas mask, [?] clothing, boots, first aid equipment, and flashlight, will be driven to the scene in ambulances at fire-engine speeds. Now, for your benefit, Mr. William Sutton, superintendent of this ARP bureau, has arranged for a practice air raid bombing call to arrive at this station -- although no bombs have been dropped nearby, so far as I know. We'll see how long it takes his men and women to get going. 


LeSEUER: There goes the telephone now.


1ST VOICE: Air Raid Message: Red. 

2ND VOICE: Stretcher party Ten-One. Stretcher party -- one ambulance, one car -- to One-One-Four High Street, Sector Two-Two-Oh. Messenger?!



WOMAN: One ambulance, one car -- Hundred and Fourteen High Street! Don't forget your helmets!


LeSEUER: They're all in the cars now. They're out of the station already. They've gone!


LONDON ANNCR: Well, you've just heard the way that two vital spots in London's defense system reacted to an air raid warning. But now let's get back to the bright lights, away to the west, to the Hammersmith Palais, London's giant dance hall. We'll see what's happening out there now that the sirens have sounded and we'll see it and hear it from Columbia's Eric Sevareid who's standing with his portable microphone in the thick of the crowd.



SEVAREID: I'm standing in the middle of a great big dance floor. I guess it's the biggest in England and it's got the biggest crowd I ever saw trying to dance at one place at one time. There are fifteen hundred people in the place at the moment. It's fifteen minutes before midnight and that's the wartime closing hour for Saturday night. There was an air raid alarm, as you know, fifteen minutes ago. The orchestra leader simply announced they'd go on playing if the crowd wished to stay and I don't think more than a half a dozen people have left. They simply put up a big cheer and went on with their song. Eddie Caroll's orchestra's playing a song called "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square." This crowd loves this song and judging from the last one, they're partial to "Oh, Johnny." We're a long ways from Berkeley Square where a sixpenny bus rides from the heart of London. They come here by bus and subway. This is not Mayfair. Nobody comes here to be seen or to see. They come to dance for the pure pleasure of dancing. And any American who thinks the British are a phlegmatic race should see them dancing around me here tonight. They love dancing and these shopgirls, these workers, these grocers, clerks -- these people who make up the stuff of England -- they dance wonderfully well. They're not all English by a long ways. They're New Zealanders, Australians; and Canadian soldiers and sailors are here. And I just met a couple of Texans now in the R.A.F. There's a few French and Polish soldiers and there, right in front of me, is a brave-looking Dutch officer in his well-tailored green just gliding past. When they come in, these men take off their army boot and they're given little black dancing pumps. This was a dance place at the end of the last war.


LONDON ANNCR: Well, it seems that it takes more than an air raid siren to dampen the gaiety at the Hammersmith Palais. But now, another long hop back to London's West End, from west to east, to the hub of the universe, center of cosmopolitan life in happier days, which we hope will soon return. We're taking you to London's heart of hearts, where on a balcony, stories above Piccadilly Circus, Vincent Sheean of CBS is standing to describe Piccadilly after an air raid warning.


SHEEAN: I'm standing on a balcony on Piccadilly. And perhaps I'd better tell you exactly where. It's the Piccadilly Hotel about, um, a hundred and fifty yards from Piccadilly Circus, a little bit beyond St James's Church. Um, as you know, I suppose, I don't know if you heard the siren, but there is an air raid on. Um, an air raid alarm, that is. Ten or fifteen minutes ago, there was plenty of traffic in this street, even in spite of the blackout. Um, now, good deal of it has drawn up to the curb or disappeared one way or another. People -- I suppose a good many of them -- have gone into shelters. And it's a little bit quieter than it usually is. Even in spite of the blackout and these alarms, which people in the center of London don't usually hear much of, Piccadilly is still the center of the shopping and the theater and café and restaurant life of London. I had dinner not long ago in a restaurant just off Piccadilly Circus where there were Hungarians and Austrians playing their music, much as usual. The food didn't seem much different, nor did the crowd, except there were a lot of officers, and, uh, people on leave from the army and the navy; Saturday night. They played Viennese waltzes and other music of those countries which no longer are able to play their music. The traffic, um, seems to be not very much disturbed by the air raid. We've got taxis and you probably can hear -- I don't know whether you can hear or not -- the buses still going on, some of them. The moon has just come up over the black buildings over there on the other side of Piccadilly Circus; the Criterion Restaurant. And, uh, the searchlights, which a few minutes ago were stabbing the whole sky with great long beams, seem to have disappeared altogether.


LONDON ANNCR: Well, that was Piccadilly in the blackout during an air raid warning. And now from Piccadilly we take you to a London terminus: smoky, sprawling Euston Station. It only costs a penny to buy a platform ticket which allows us to mingle with the travelers who are about to leave for night rides north. And at Euston we're going to hear from Michael Standing and Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, both of BBC.


STANDING: Well, you're on Number Thirteen Platform in Euston Station and let me tell you right away that this air raid warning has had very little effect here except to slow things down and quiet things down a bit. The platform's dim: there are only those very faint blue lights, blue disks, lighting up the numbers of the platform, a few little dim red lights and otherwise complete [and abysmal?] darkness. Well, we are here on this platform to watch the eleven fifty-five up to Manchester start off on her journey. She's got a couple of minutes yet before she starts off and she's drawn by the Royal Scott -- Number Sixty-One Hundred -- you've seen that powerful crimson beauty out there in the United States and Canada some seven years ago, and now here she is taking care in her home country and going to draw eleven coaches and a complement of passengers up on a routine journey up to the north. Well, Euston's a fairly busy place in this wartime -- as the stationmaster, Mr. Harrison, will tell you for himself. That's right, isn't it?

STATIONMASTER: Very, very. Just at the present time, uh, practically, uh, fifty percent of our mainline trains today have been duplicated. Incidentally, within the last two hours we've dealt with approximately two hundred tons of newspaper traffic which is going all over the British Isles.

STANDING: Well, we watched the newspapers being loaded up; tomorrow morning's newspapers being taken up to the north. Well, now, this train has a moment or two before she's due to leave and so let's spend that moment or two pushing through the doors of the YMCA canteen and see what's happening in the canteen.


VAUGHAN-THOMAS: Well, here in the canteen we've had a constant stream of men in uniform coming in all through the night; sailors from [?] ships and sailors piled high with rifles and equipment and they always seem to want that quick cup of tea. Well, and they've been getting it, too, with clockwork efficiency because the canteen's being run by an American lady, Mrs. [Loomis?]. Well, she's got a job on, all right. Everybody in the services turns up here sooner or later and they get not only tea, but quick meals -- just like burly seaman Bob Smith who has been tucking in here all night. What are you eating, Bob?

BOB: Well, I had some egg and chips and really enjoyed it. Been servin' it all day. They got plenty of food in this country so there's not too much to worry about when you get good feed.

VAUGHAN-THOMAS: Well, it's largely due to the seamen like Bob Smith that we're getting that food. But his pal, who is Sapper Helen -- he's also been tucking in.

SAPPER: Yes, we've had a jolly fine evenin' here. We've had eggs and chips and plenty of tea, that's the main thing. As long as we get something to drink and some good food.

VAUGHAN-THOMAS: And they've got that. It takes more than bombs to stop these boys [from] getting into this canteen and it takes more than bombs to stop that eleven fifty-five going out. And we take you back to the platform now to see if she's getting out on time.



STANDING: We were paused for a moment and are just waiting for the guard to swing his green lamp that's going to set this mighty giant train in motion. And here he is, he comes stumbling along back to the van, at the rear of the train, and in a moment she'll be starting off on her journey to the north. There's a little activity. All the doors are closed; all the windows, of course, are blacked out; and in a moment or two she'll be pounding away through a blacked-out Britain up to Manchester, which she'll reach in about four hours' time. There's still a moment or so; she's just a trifle late. Of course, this air raid alarm has delayed the arrival of some of the goods that are being carried on her and the last block of newspapers was only piled into a van just a moment or so back. (TO STATIONMASTER) Is she gonna start on time?

STATIONMASTER: Well-- Haven't got the road yet.

STANDING: She hasn't got the road yet.


STANDING: She may be a moment or two late, but-- 


STANDING: At that rate, you'll see-- There goes the whistle. And I don't know whether we've got time to see her chuff out; I don't think we have, but I--


LONDON ANNCR: Well, seems the only effect of that air raid warning at Euston Station was to make a train a couple of minutes late. And now to our final port of call. Standing in the shadow of the Cenotaph, monument to the fallen of the last Great War is someone who needs no introduction to you wherever you may be. To close our tour of London after dark and London in an air raid warning, J. B. Priestley.


PRIESTLEY: (WITH QUIET DIGNITY) I'm sitting at an open window in Whitehall. The roar of traffic has dwindled to the few noises that you probably hear because, of course, of the air raid warning. But we still get a few buses passing, a few cars. Just opposite me is the tall, pale, rather ghostly shape of the Cenotaph commemorating a million dead -- many of them friends of mine: boys that I played with as a boy; men that might have been leaders now. Behind the great government offices -- the Home Office, the Colonial Office, the Treasury -- is the heart of our great capital city. It's also historic ground. Henry the Eighth married Anne Boleyn near here. Elizabeth saw Shakespeare's plays and the masques of Ben Johnson near here. Charles the First was executed a few yards from where I'm sitting. It's historic ground and I think today it's probably more deeply sunk in our world's history than ever -- because it's the very center of the hopes of free men everywhere. It's the heart of this bastion, this great rock, that's defying the dark tide of invasion that's destroyed freedom all over Western Europe. 

Soon I hope the all-clear will come. Soon I hope London, which has worked hard all this week, can go quietly to bed; can go to sleep. I hope it will dream of a better world -- a world when we can take the balloons out of the sky and the planes -- dream that dream and not sleep too long, but make that dream of a better world come true. Goodnight. 


ANNOUNCER: And that's London after dark, London in the blackout, London in the midst of an air raid alarm -- the world's largest city at midnight with air raiders in the vicinity. As this broadcast opened a half hour ago, the sound of sirens was heard: London's fourth air raid alarm of the day; sirens wailing and descriptions of searchlight beams fingering the sky. You were taken from point to point in this London under alarm. The defenses of London were manned, but the nightlife continued and the dance bands played on. The CBS staff in Britain and the British Broadcasting Corporation brought you the eyewitness story of this city at war. This is the Columbia Broadcasting System.