6 September 1940
By the beginning of September, London had entered its second year in the war. Three million men were called to arms, private motoring was banned, and there was a blackout after dark. By now, there were also frequent air raid warnings, which mostly seemed to be caused by occasional enemy aircraft and therefore more a nuisance than a real threat. George Orwell noted in his diary:
“This morning an air-raid warning about 3 a.m. Got up, looked at the time, then felt unable to do anything and promptly went back to sleep again. They are talking of rearranging the alarm system, and they will have to do so if they are to prevent every alarm from costing thousands of pounds in wasted time, lost sleep, etc. The fact that at present the alarm sounds all over a wide area when the German planes are only operating in one part of it, means not only that people are unnecessarily woken up or taken away from work, but that an impression is spread that an air-raid alarm will always be false, which is obviously dangerous.”
Despite of these difficulties, life was going on. In London, Friday 6 August was a beautiful, hot summer day. New Zealand Infantry Brigade was giving a concert in Trafalgar Square, and there was boating in Hyde Park. In the evening, the city centre was crowded by servicemen and their girlfriends strolling arm in arm, seeking their way to restaurants, pubs and cinemas. “The Magic Bullet” with Edward G. Robinson was the latest success on the screen – a sentimental story of a German doctor who considered it was not immoral to search for a drug that would cure syphilis… Another film, made in Czechoslovakia before that country’s demise in 1938 was being shown in trailers. Its title was “The Fall of the Tyrant”.
In the suburbs, people tuned in to their favourite radio programmes. News, sports, comedy, variety, quiz, mystery, drama could all be found, just as on any given day. And music: all the leading bands could be heard in the evenings along with various variety shows. The radio brought the best songs and recording artists of the day, right into the living rooms.
That night, there could be a transmission from Leicester Square or Picadilly, where Decca ran its empire of dance halls. Was it Howard Jacobs and his Band at the Berkeley Hotel? Or Oscar Grasso & his Band from Cocoanut Grove at Regent Street? Or Harry Parry at the Paradise Club next door? Or the elegant dance orchestra from Astoria Ballroom at the Charing Cross Road? The City of London had something to suit every musical taste, from popular song through foxtrot and beguine to jitterbug.
The lucky ones could get a chance to listen live to media stars of the day, such as Vera Lynn, a 23-year old sweetheart who had become a familiar voice on the radio. She appeared regularly at Picadilly with the band of Loe Loss or the Ambrose Orchestra.
“Not long after he had joined the Forces, Tom had the privilege of going to see a lot of the top musical acts of the time, including Ann Shelton and the Ambrose Orchestra. One time, Tom remembers another young up-and-coming singer being introduced to them, someone he had not heard before. This singer’s name was Vera Lynn who would soon become known to everyone as ‘The Forces Sweetheart’.”
Somehow, Vera Lynn’s career seemed to be coupled with the war itself. She made her first recording in September 1939, just as the troops of the British Expeditionary Force were departing for France. Her song was entitled We’ll Meet Again. It had become an instant hit which catapulted her into stardom.
Vera Lynn recorded additional songs during the Phoney War – “I’m in love for the last time”, “It’s a lovely day tomorrow” and “Who’s taking you home tonight?”, with orchestras of Arthur Young and Bert Ambrose. Although popular, they did not match the success of her first hit. Then, on 5 June 1940, as the country was preparing for Armaggedon, she recorded her second blockbuster: “A Nightingale sang in Berkeley Square”:
That certain night, the night we met,
there was magic abroad in the air,
There were angels dining at the Ritz
and a Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square
I may be right, I may be wrong,
but I’m perfectly willing to swear
That when you turned and smiled at me
A Nightingale Sang In Berkley Square
The moon that lingered over London town;
poor puzzled moon, he wore a frown
How could he know we two were so in love,
the whole darn world seemed upside down
The streets of town were paved with stars,
it was such a romantic affair,
And as we kissed and said goodnight,
A Nightingale Sang In Berkley Square”
The evening of 6th August was to be the last peaceful one in London. Unknowlingly to anyone, the city had already been selected as the next main target of the German Luftwaffe. The magic in the air and the nightingale song – if indeed there was one in Berkeley Square – were about to be swept away by the roar of night bombers.
George Orwell woke up in the night. He had a horrible dream of a bomb dropping near him and frightening him out of his wits.