Some 4,000 rockets from Gaza have been launched into Israel over the past 50 days.
For many Israelis, especially those living along the Gaza border, the fighting with Hamas has changed the way they feel about their own security. In Israel’s major cities, residents are listening for sirens, running for shelter, and figuring out how to help their children cope. Tens of thousands of Israelis have evacuated border communities and headed north, away from the mortars and Kassam rockets. For those living through it, especially the children, it’s an experience they won’t soon forget.
But there are some Israelis for whom this summer’s fighting is a bookend on a life whose formative years were also spent finding shelter from bombs and rockets, albeit on an entirely different scale.
Those immigrants who grew up in London during World War II witnessing German dive bombers and V-2s again find themselves scanning the heavens for rockets, taking shelter, and observing how a nation deals with bombardment. Not surprisingly, they have strong opinions on their experiences in both conflicts.
Four immigrants who survived World War II in England shared their thoughts with The Times of Israel, notably on leadership, stoicism, and the Iron Dome.
‘A life adventure’
Much like the children living on the Gaza border, around a million of London’s children were evacuated by train with the outbreak of war.
“They were all within a day or two from their families,” Naftali Wertheim, a member of Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi who came to England from Germany on the Kindertransport, remembered, “two to three children to a private home. It was highly organized and very well executed.
‘At the beginning of the Blitz, we went into the coal cellar. Later, we were allotted beds on a Tube station platform’
“My sister Margot and myself and another girl went to Mrs. Noble in St. Ives, Huntingtonshire, and suffered,” recalled Wertheim, who was 10 years old when the war broke out, “Everything was strange, primitive and mainly chazzer treif [nonkosher foods like pork]. We begged our parents to take us home, which they did after two months.”
Wertheim’s schoolmate Asher Cailingold, 84, a former head of the Jewish Agency Aliyah Division who lives in Jerusalem today, was evacuated to Luton. He too remembered there being a “great danger of losing our Jewish identity.”
Those who stayed in London, or returned from their host families in the country, spent a lot of time in bomb shelters. There were bombings almost every night during the Blitz. “At the beginning of the Blitz,” said Wertheim, “we went into the coal cellar. Later, we were allotted beds on a Tube station platform.”
Well-to-do families often had shelters in their homes or backyards. “We began sleeping in the shelter, which was basically a reinforced room in the house,” Aron Vecht, who escaped to England from Belgium, explained. “After six or seven weeks we got fed up with that, and went to sleep in our bedrooms…The poorer families went to the Underground.”
“We would wake up, look up, and see the sky red with fire in the morning in the East End.”
Cailingold returned to his family in London for good just before Passover in 1940. The local government built his family a shelter in the basement. “The most effective ones were in the cellar, where they reinforced the roofs,” he explained. “You get used to it. It becomes second nature.”
Initially, it wasn’t rockets that Londoners faced, but German bombers. For eight months from September 1940, Luftwaffe planes struck London 71 times, killing over 40,000 people while losing 3,300 pilots. They would drop incendiary bombs in an attempt to burn entire neighborhoods. As frightening as that sounds, the men didn’t seem especially scarred by the experience. “If the firebombs were treated early enough,” said Vecht,”you just threw sandbags on them and it stopped. Water would make it worse.”
The Germans tried to sow panic in various ways, including putting sirens on Stuka dive bombers. “I don’t know how other children reacted but I was bloody scared,” Wertheim said, “especially as the bombs had a screaming device as they fell, added for that purpose.”
Generally, they did not remember much panic at all among those who stayed in London. And as growing boys, they saw the German bombardment as an exciting period, “a life adventure,” in Cailingold’s words.
‘You could hear the buzzing of the V-1 bomb, then it would stop. That’s when you needed to take cover’
“The war was a very exciting time,” said Vecht. “It was also very sad. The war to me was a remote and interesting time. I remember watching the dogfights over London.”
All of them remember collecting shrapnel from rockets and planes. “Oh God, I had a huge collection,” said Cailingold. “Pieces of shells, pieces of bombs. Cones of rockets, bits of wings and planes….People who lived in the country were able to keep what they found. They used parachutes they found as wedding dresses.”
Wertheim remembered that after a German plane was shot down, all the boys would try to be the ones to find the piece bearing the swastika emblem.
And, like Israeli children in the south who can tell the difference between the sound of a rocket strike and an Iron Dome interception, the kids growing up in London developed a finely tuned ear. “We learned the difference between German engines and British engines,” said Vecht.
Stopping the Vengeance rockets
The bombing of England moved into a new phase in June 1944 with the advent of the Luftwaffe’s V-1 Flying Bomb, which British soldiers nicknamed the Doodlebug. The V-1 was a predecessor of the cruise missile, complete with an autopilot guidance system. Almost 10,000 were launched at southeastern England in 1944, until Allied ground forces overran their launch sites.
The V-1s didn’t especially scare the boys. “You could hear the buzzing, then it would stop,” said Cailingold. “That’s when you needed to take cover.”
‘People left and went north, out of range’
“As long you heard the V-1 you were safe,” said Vecht. “Then it would come down to earth. When it stopped you had to lie on the ground. I remember I was on my bicycle, and I heard it, then the engine stopped. I got off my bike, and got on the ground. I looked up and saw it gliding, then it exploded a half mile down the road. I can still see it in my mind’s eye.
Radio host Walter Bingham, at 90 Israel’s oldest active journalist, remembered his first experience with a V-1. It was June 1944, and he was waiting to go into Europe with his British Army unit . “My division was held in what was called there a concentration camp, literally.” Then a V-1 flew in. “You heard the noise from the jet engine. When the engine stopped, you knew that it was going to fall.” He said they hit on London every day.
The V-2 rocket was much more frightening. The world’s first long-range ballistic missile, the V-2 flew several times the speed of sound, leaving no warning before it hit. “There used to be a tremendous explosion,” said Cailingold, “then you would hear the whine of rocket.”
Nazi forces launched over 3,000 V-2s, mostly at London, starting in September 1944, killing 9,000 civilians and soldiers.
“It was the first time I sensed fear,” Cailingold recalled. “There was nothing you could do, unless you spent your whole life in an air raid shelter. People left and went north, out of range.”
There was no Iron Dome-style system to protect civilians in World War II. The British tried a number of countermeasures. Anti-aircraft guns proved increasingly effective against the V-1s. Fighter planes enjoyed some success in shooting the rockets down, or even tipping them over with their wings in mid-flight.
The V-2s, however, flew way too fast for fighter planes. The Crossbow Committee charged with coming up with a solution investigated the possibility of firing hundreds of exploding anti-aircraft shells at each rocket. They estimated that if air defense batteries managed to fire 2,000 rounds at a V-2, they would have a less than 2% chance of knocking it down.
There were efforts to bomb launch sites by plane, but the missile teams were small and mobile. A March 1945 attempt to bomb rockets and launching equipment went awry, resulting in the deaths of 511 Dutch civilians.
In the end, it was capture of the actual launch sites that neutralized the threat. “It was Monty who solved the problem of the rockets,” said Cailingold, referring to British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery.
During the fighting in Gaza, stories about rockets being knocked off course by a sudden wind spread throughout Israel. The men remembered incidents during the WWII bombardments they still see as miracles.
On the first night of the Sukkot holiday in 1944, Cailingold’s family entered their sukkah in the backyard. His grandfather, who was living with them, made the Kiddush blessing over wine. Suddenly, he instructed the entire family to head inside to finish the meal, saying they could not fulfill the commandment to eat in the sukkah if they were endangering their lives.
‘We were sitting on the top floor of the school in math class. Suddenly, the whole classroom filled with smoke, then we heard the whine. Everyone dived under desks as pieces of ceiling were falling’
“That night, a rocket fell nearby,” Cailingold recalled. “I woke up first in the family, went outside into sukkah, and saw a huge piece of shrapnel in my grandfather’s chair.”
There were some closer calls, but boys at that age somehow manage to find juvenile humor in almost any situation.
“It was one of the last rockets that hit London,” Cailingold remembered. “We were sitting on the top floor of the school in math class. Our teacher was a man named Mr. License, whom we called Doggy. We used to make fun of him. Suddenly, the whole classroom filled with smoke, then we heard the whine. Everyone dived under desks as pieces of ceiling were falling.” After a few minutes, the smoke began to clear. “We couldn’t find Doggy, though. We went up to the front of the classroom, and found him passed out under the desk.”
“You can imagine his reputation after that.”
That V-2 had fallen right near their school, destroying several houses. “Thank God no one in the school was hurt,” said Cailingold, “but we had boys who were killed” in other attacks.
Throughout it all, they recalled, civilians kept their morale up. “We dealt with it through humor and determination,” said Wertheim. “The slogan was ‘Keep smiling.’”
“No matter how bad it was, there was always a joke,” Vecht recalled. A commonly quoted line from a BBC radio comedy program was, “It’s been so cheerful, it keeps me going.”
The suicide rate in London actually went down during the Blitz, noted Vecht, and people were generally healthier. “People ate less, and they helped each other.”
Israel’s Home Front Command and southern mayors canceled summer camps, concerts, and other planned gatherings in the face of rocket fire from Gaza. Ashkelon’s mayor, Itamar Shimoni, has threatened not to open unfortified schools for the new school year.
The situation was markedly different in England. “I cycled to school and from school,” said Vecht. “My mother never ever said I shouldn’t go to school, or play rugby or cricket or whatever it was. There was a lot of suffering, but the British are very funny. They’re very hard to get irritated. When they get irritated they can really go mad.”
Towering moral leadership
A common thread in their accounts was the towering moral leadership of prime minister Winston Churchill. “Churchill’s speeches had tremendous effect on morale,” said Cailingold. His family, who were quite religious, nevertheless left the radio on during the Sabbath. “Whenever he spoke we were glued to the radio. He was the main man, the main source of morale. I can still hear his voice.
“I saw Winston Churchill at a victory parade,” Vecht boasted. “It was on Shabbat, so I walked. There was no security. Less than 50 yards away I saw everybody — the king, Churchill, Montgomery, all chatting.”
“Churchill was not a man of the people,” Wertheim explained, “he was a leader, an aristocrat of the old school. I would liken him to a medieval lord whose job it was to protect his subjects in times of trouble — and did it.”
“There’s not a leader like that in Israel now,” Cailingold lamented. “Ben-Gurion was.”
Still, some said, Israelis are even more stoic than the British were. “The people who live here and stay here are sure this is their home,” Cailingold surmised. “A far greater proportion, I think, than of any other country’s civilians have a military background. Your husband’s in the reserves, or your son’s in the reserves. When you’re doing something instead of being passive, I think that prepares you for hard times.”
An exception might be the phenomenon of civilians suffering from shock. In Israel, it is extremely common for emergency crews to treats multiple civilians for shock after a rocket strike. “We’ve treated over 150 cases of shell shock in the last four days — much more than physical injuries,” said a Soroka Hospital spokeswoman during Operation Cast Lead in 2009. During the fighting in Gaza in 2014, Israeli hospitals treated around 1,500 people for shock.
‘Our good fortune is to have something that didn’t exist in the Second World War, a counter rocket’
This was largely unheard of in England. “I don’t remember civilians having shell shock,” said Cailingold.
“I’m sure there were some cases of panic, but I never saw any,” said Vecht.
“I am sure there must have been shell shock or trauma,” said Wertheim, but I don’t remember any treatment, no social workers or psychiatrists. I do remember an elderly man coming to our house very immediately after his house was hit by a V2.”
Some surmise that the high incidence of shock in Israel stems from how much it is talked about in the media and in society — in other words, people believe that shock exists, so they fool themselves into thinking they are suffering from it.
Psychologist Raphael Wald doesn’t buy it. ”The fact that it is mental does not in any way mean that it can be prevented by ignoring it or pretending it doesn’t exist…There are many possible explanations for those that claim that shock didn’t exist in England including the likelihood that doctors and first responders at the time did not fully understand what they then called ‘shell shock.’ Another explanation is that, thankfully, it is far more acceptable to seek assistance for psychiatric distress in the present day than it was then.”
There were other marked differences between the reactions of the two countries. A major one was the degree to which civil liberties were curbed during the war. “If you said something against the war, you could get arrested,” Vecht explained. In Israel, on the other hands, thousands of citizens demonstrated against the fighting while soldiers were still battling in Gaza.
Vecht recalls tuning into Wiliam Joyce (known widely as Lord Haw Haw), the English Nazi propagandist who would broadcast into England from Germany. “I remember listening to those: ‘Germany calling, Germany calling, here’s the news in English.’ And this man was captured after the war, and he was executed. That shows how seriously people took anti-government speech. Here, for some reason, people can say anything they like.”
The experience of hearing warning sirens again this year did not induce panic, they all said. Cailingold was in Efrat when sirens sounded (the rocket ended up hitting a Palestinian village nearby). “Our good fortune is to have something that didn’t exist in the Second World War, a counter rocket…Because of this wonderful thing, we are safe here.”
Still, he allowed, Hamas’s larger rockets “were far more serious than the V2. The V2 were far more frightening though.”
Bingham, the nonagenarian journalist, was covering the Gaza fighting from the border city of Sderot when he had to rush into shelter. The experience brought him back to his army days, when as an ambulance driver he came under mortar fire while trying to evacuate an anti-tank unit that had come under attack from German Tiger tanks, armed with 88-mm cannons.
“Twelve mortars were fired at the same time, all with a different whistle.” His actions that day — finding another ambulance and getting the wounded out under fire even after the doctor and orderly had been hit — earned him the Military Medal “for gallantry and devotion to duty under fire.”
“I suppose you think about it all the time when you’re in a war situation,” Bingham said.