Virginia Woolf: Witness to the Blitz

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In the summer of 1940, Virginia Woolf spotted her first German plane during the blitz while staying at her country house in Rodmell.

Although she had heard air raid sirens and German planes buzzing over England previously that summer, it wasn’t until August 16th that she saw her first German bomber up close and knew that the war had begun. She recorded the experience in her diary that day:

“They came very close. We lay down under the tree. The sound was like someone sawing in the air just above us. We lay flat on our faces, hands behind head. Don’t close your teeth, said Leonard. They seemed to be sawing at something stationary. Bombs shook the windows of my lodge. Will it drop I asked? If so, we shall be broken together. I thought, I think, of nothingness – flatness, my mood being flat. Some fear I suppose. Shd we take Mabel to the garage. Too risky to cross the garden L. said. Then another came from Newhaven. Hum & saw & buzz all around us. A horse neighed on the marsh. Very sultry. Is it thunder? I said. No guns, said L. from Ringmer, from Charleston way. Then slowly the sound lessened. Mabel in the kitchen said the windows shook. Air raid still on, distant planes.”

Since Rodmell was in Southeast England, near the English Channel, Virginia and Leonard were directly under the flight path of the German planes as they took off from occupied Northern France and headed for London and other cities throughout the blitz.

German bomber flying over Britain during the Blitz

German bomber flying over Britain during the Blitz

Although Rodmell was not a primary target for the Germans, it was sometimes hit by bombs when they targeted nearby railway tracks.

The sight of low-flying German planes became a common occurrence over the summer as the blitz raged on. Only a few days later, Virginia recorded another sighting:

“Monday August 19

“Yesterday, the 18th, Sunday, there was a roar. Right on top of us they came. I looked at the plane, like a minnow at a roaring shark. Over they flashed, 3 – I think. Olive green. Then pop pop pop – German? Again pop pop pop, over Kingston. Said to be 5 Bombers hedge hopping on their way to London. The closest shave so far. 144 brought down – no, that was the last time. And no raid (so far) today….”

Just a few weeks later she watched as a German plane crashed somewhere outside Rodmell:

“The plane swung off, slow & heavy & circling towards Lewes. We looked. Leslie saw the German black cross. All the workmen were looking. Its a German; that dawned. It was the enemy. It dipped among the fir trees of Lewes and did not rise. Then we heard the drone. Looked up and saw 2 planes very high. They made for us. We started to shelter in the Lodge. But they wheeled and Leslie saw the English sign. So we watched – they side slipped glided swooped and roared for about 5 minutes round the fallen plane as if identifying and making sure – then made off towards London. Our version is that it was a wounded plane, looking for a landing. ‘It was a Jerry sure eno’ the men said: the men who are making a gun hiding by the gate. It would have been a peaceful matter of fact death to be popped off on the terrace playing bowls this very fine cool sunny August evening.”

The reality of the situation hit Virginia hard towards the end of August:

“Saturday, August 31st

Now we are in the war. England is being attacked. I got this feeling for the first time completely yesterday; the feeling of pressure, danger, horror. The feeling is that a battle is going on – a fierce battle. May last four weeks. Am I afraid? Intermittently. The worst of it is one’s mind won’t work with a spring next morning. Of course this may be the beginning of invasion. A sense of pressure. Endless local stories. No – it’s no good trying to capture the feeling of England being in a battle. I daresay if I write fiction and Coleridge and not that infernal bomb article for U.S.A. I shall swim into quiet water.”

During this time period, Virginia and Leonard still traveled to London occasionally to stay in their apartment at Mecklenburgh square for a few days at a time.

A British and German plane in a dogfight over Bristol on September 25, 1940

A British and German plane in a dogfight over Bristol on September 25, 1940

During their trips there they were often caught up in air raids and saw numerous buildings destroyed and turned to smoldering rubble.

Eventually, the inevitable happened and both of Virginia’s London apartments were destroyed or damaged by German bombs that autumn, making the apartments, as well as the city of London, uninhabitable for the couple.

The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume Five: 1936 – 1941

Virginia Woolf Witness to the Blitz

About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is a freelance writer and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Rebecca graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in Journalism in 2001.