Crashing bombs will not shatter human spirit


January 23, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

The trans-Atlantic phone line hisses and pops and then I get a clear, lightly accented "Hello?" from London.

I am looking for someone who lived through the Blitz, I say. Someone who can tell me what it is like to be bombarded night after night. What it is like to run for the shelters, the sirens howling, the fear clawing at you.

I want to know what it is like for the people of Baghdad every night. What is like for the people of Tel Aviv and Haifa and Jerusalem and Dhahran and Riyadh on some nights.

"Oh, well, yes," the voice says. "I was here for the Blitz. Oh, yes."

Marga Vogel was 17 when the bombs began to fall. She had escaped from Nazi Germany, from Mainz am Rhein, with her younger twin sisters in the spring of 1939, and they had come to London.

Now it was Sept. 7, 1940. The German bombers appeared over London that afternoon and came again that night. The damage was heavy and 1,000 people were killed. Three nights of silence followed and then the bombing began in earnest. The Blitz was on and it continued for 76 nights.

"Well, we were rather frightened," Marga says, "though I am sure it does not compare with today. I am sure today is much worse."

Perhaps. But in the book "Total War," which, despite its title, is a rather matter-of-fact chronicle of World War II, there is this about the London Blitz:

". . . in addition to the death and destruction, human beings had to contend with a lack of sleep, more dirt and more broken glass than most people had thought about, the blackout, sirens (reduced on Churchill's command from a two-minute to a one-minute wail), an increase in the accident rate especially among young children, queues, and a continuous strain which ** was not totally lifted until the war ended."

What shelters did you go to? I ask. The Underground?

"At one time we had a shelter in the back yard, in the garden," she says, "but it was so awful. So many people crammed in, you couldn't sleep. And, of course, all of us had to get up early the next morning and do war work. Everyone did war work.

"So you would come out of the shelter after the raid and sweep up the windows and then go home to bed. If your house was still standing, of course. Sometimes it wasn't."

Prewar planners had not counted on night bombing, on the difficulty of finding survivors, extracting them from the rubble and taking them to hospitals in complete darkness.

In the Persian Gulf, most of the attacks on cities have come at night.

"Everything was blacked out and London was often foggy," Marga says. "And it was very hard to find your way home. One time I ended up in the wrong house!" There is laughter on the phone like the tinkling of crystal.

She is remembering herself at 17. Picking her way through the broken streets in the inky blackness, the only light coming from the blazes off in the distance. The clanging of the ambulances. The fog and smoke. And finally finding her door, her relief that she still had a door, making her way to her room . . . to find a stranger there!

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She laughs now. She laughed then. Yes, there was laughter during the Blitz. Is there laughter today in Baghdad? In Tel Aviv? In Riyadh? I think so. Human beings may not be the best creatures on the planet, but they are the most astonishing.

"The worst bit was toward the end," Marga says. "The flying bombs. They were the worst."

The flying bombs were Germany's V-1 and V-2 rockets. The V stood for Vergeltungswaffe or "vengeance weapon." The Scud missiles that Iraq fires today are direct descendants of these rockets.

The British got very good at knocking down the V-1s with anti-aircraft fire, but the V-2s flew much faster, faster than the speed of sound, which meant they struck in silence.

When the first V-2s hit London on Sept. 8, 1944, some of the worst injuries came from flying glass as the rockets exploded unexpectedly, shattering windows. Numerous men, women and children were blinded for life that day.

But you never got demoralized? I ask Marga.

"Never," she says instantly, firmly. "Just the opposite. People were immensely kind to each other. Talkative. In the shelters, they would ask: 'How did you do last night? Is your house still standing? Do you have walls? Can we help?' There was a wonderful spirit. It is noticeable even now."

Now? You mean today?

"Yes, today, with the Persian Gulf War," she says. "I think I notice a difference on the streets, in the shops, from people of my generation. People who lived through the bombing in London, people who went through it, I think are much more supportive of each other during these days, much more sympathetic and concerned about what is now going on. You actually notice it. Londoners can be rather distant. But not now, not today."

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