Virginia Woolf’s Experiences in World War II

Virginia Woolf was not only a prolific writer but she was a also a witness to many historic events in the early 20th century, including World War II and the Battle of Britain.

Being a detailed diary keeper, Virginia often recorded her experiences in her diaries and letters. This gives us a unique opportunity to not only know what happened but how it affected her and the people around her.

The following is an overview of Virginia Woolf’s experiences during World War II:

Virginia’s Trip Through Nazi Germany:

In the spring of 1935, Virginia and Leonard Woolf decided to take a road trip to France and Italy, passing right through Nazi Germany.

Since Leonard was Jewish, they were warned by the Foreign Office not to go through Germany but the couple decided to make the journey anyway, against their better judgment.

In case any trouble arose, Leonard secured a letter of passage from Prince Bismarck who worked at the German Embassy in London.

Luckily, the couple also brought along their pet marmoset, Mitzi, who perched himself on Leonard’s shoulder as they drove, charming the Germans and diverting attention away from them.

Leonard and Mitzi in 1932
Leonard and Mitzi in 1932

It’s not certain whether Virginia and Leonard truly were not intimidated by the Nazis or if they were just trying to put on a brave face but when it took them longer than usual to get through customs at the German border, Virginia noted it in her diary on May 9, 1935:

“Sitting in the sun outside the German customs. A car with the swastika on the back window has just passed through the barrier into Germany. L. is in the customs…Ought I to go in & see what is happening? The Dutch Customs took 10 seconds. This has taken 10 minutes already. The windows are barred. Here they come out & the grim man laughed at Mitz…We become obsequious – delighted that is when the officers smile at Mitzi – the first stoop in our back….”

Relieved that they had made it over the border, the couple continued on their journey yet quickly realized what they had gotten themselves into:

“By the Rhine, sitting at the window…We were chased across the river by Hitler (or Goering) had to pass through ranks of children with red flags. They cheered Mitzi. I raised my hand. People gathering in the sunshine- rather forced like school sports. Banners stretched across the street ‘The Jew is our enemy’ ‘There is no place for Jews in – .’ So we whizzed along until we got out of range of the docile hysterical crowd. Our obsequiousness gradually turning to anger. Nerves rather frayed…”

It is not exactly clear what Virginia Woolf meant when she wrote “I raised my hand.” Did she give the Nazi salute? Did she wave? She doesn’t explain but the repeated mention of the couple’s “obsequiousness” and the state of their strained nerves suggests she may have given the Nazi salute to blend in and prevent any suspicion.

Although Leonard doesn’t mention Virginia’s gesture in his autobiography, he did describe being surrounded by the saluting Nazis, who were waiting for Hermann Goring:

“When they saw Mitz, the crowd shrieked with delight. Mile after mile I drove between the two lines of corybantic Germans, and the whole way they shouted ‘Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler!’ to Mitz and gave her (and secondarily Virginia and me) the Hitler salute with outstretched arm.”

Leonard, realizing that it was the presence of Mitzi who probably saved them from the Nazis, later sarcastically wrote in his autobiography that “no one who had on his shoulder such a ‘dear little thing’ could be a jew.”

The couple managed to make it through Germany without any problems but it was the last time they would attempt such a dangerous journey.

It didn’t matter though because the danger soon came home to England a few years later when World War II broke out in 1939 and the Battle of Britain began in July of 1940.

Virginia & the Battle of Britain:

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

Virginia Woolf (left) and a German bomber flying over London during the London Blitz (right)

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.

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 attacks 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.

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.

Virginia’s Homes Bombed in the London Blitz:

In the fall of 1940, Virginia Woolf’s London homes at 52 Tavistock square and 37 Mecklenburgh square were damaged by German bombs during the early phase of the London Blitz.

Virginia and Leonard were not living in the homes at the time because they had moved to their country home, Monk’s House, in Rodmell for the summer.

Mecklenburgh square was damaged on either September 16th or 17th when German bombers dropped over 200 tons of bombs on the city. Virginia and Leonard had only lived at Mecklenburg for a year, after having moved there from their other home in Tavistock square, where they had lived since 1924.

London on fire after being bombed during the Blitz in September of 1940

They housed their printing press, Hogarth press, in the home which they used to print all of Virginia’s books, as well as books of other authors such as E.M. Forster and Vita Sackville-West

Upon learning about the damage to Mecklenburgh square, Virginia recorded the news in her diary:

“Wednesday 18 September

We have need of all our courage’ are the words that came to the surface this morning; upon hearing that all our windows are broken, ceilings down, &; most of our china smashed at Meck. Sq. The bomb exploded. Why did we ever leave Tavistock? – whats the good of thinking that? We were about to start for London, when we go on to Miss Perkins who told us. The Press – what remains – is to be moved to Letchworth. A grim morning. How can one settle into Michelet & Coleridge? As I say, we have need of courage. A very bad raid last night on London. Waiting for the wireless. But I forge ahead with PH all the same.”

Exactly a month later, Tavistock Square was destroyed during attacks on the night of October 15th. These bombings were primarily targeted at London railway lines and air force bases but the destruction was widespread and many residential and public buildings were hit, such as No. 10 Downing street, the War Office, the Treasury, Piccadilly Circus, St. James Church and Kensington Palace. Over 1,300 people were killed and close to 4,000 were injured.

Once again, Virginia took to her diary to record the news:

“Thursday 17 October

Our private luck has turned. John says Tavistock sqre is no more….But its almost forgettable still; the nightly operation on the tortured London. Mabel wants to leave it. L. sawing wood. The funny little cross on the Church shows against the downs. We go up tomorrow….the Siren, just as I had drawn the curtains. Now the unpleasant part begins. Who’ll be killed tonight? Not us, I suppose. One doesn’t think of that – save as a quickener. Indeed I often think our Indian summer was deserved; after all those London years. I mean, this quickens it. Every day seen against a very faint shade of bodily risk.”

The following day, Virginia and Leonard traveled to London to see the extent of the damage to their two homes and to salvage what they could of their belongings.

During the trip they also witnessed lines of people waiting to be admitted to underground shelters in the subway stations. Virginia wrote about the trip to London in her diary that Sunday:

“Sunday October 20

The most – what? – impressive, no, that’s not it – sight in London, on Friday was the queue, mostly children with suitcases, outside Warren st. tube. This was about 11.30. We thought they were evacuees, waiting for a bus. But there they were, in a much longer line, with women, men, more bags & blankets, sitting still at 3. Lining up for the shelter in the night raids – which came of course. Thus if they left the tube at 6 (a bad raid on Thursday) they were back again at 11. So to Tavistock sq. With a sigh of relief saw a heap of ruins. Three houses, I shd. say gone. Basement all rubble. Only relics an old basket chair (bought in Fitzroy sqre days) & Penmans board To Let. Otherwise bricks & wood splinters. One glass door in the next house hanging. I cd see a piece of my studio wall standing: otherwise rubble where I wrote so many books. Open air where we sat so many nights, gave so many parties. The hotel not touched. So to Meck. All again litter, glass, black soft dust, plaster powder….Books all over dining room floor. In my sitting room glass all over Mrs. Hunter’s cabinet – & so on. Only the drawing room with windows almost whole. A wind blowing through. I began to hunt out diaries. What cd we salvage in this littler car?…No raid the whole day. So about 2.30 drove home. L. says 10 [pounds] wd cover our damage. Cheered on the whole by London. Damage in Bloomsbury considerable. 3 houses out in Caroline place: but miles & miles of Hyde Park, Oxford & Cambridge Terrace, & Queens Gate untouched. Now we seem quit of London…Exhilaration at losing possessions – save at times I want my books & chairs & carpets & beds – How I worked to buy them – One by one. And the pictures. But to be free of Meck. Wd now be a relief. Almost certainly it will be destroyed – & our queer tenancy of the sunny flat over…But its odd – the relief at losing possessions. I shd like to start life, in peace, almost bare – free to go anywhere. Can we be rid of Meck. though?”

Virginia never returned to their London homes and lived the rest of her life at their house in Rodmell. After Virginia’s suicide, only five months later in March of 1941, the press speculated that the bombings and ongoing war may have been factor in her suicide.

Camden town district of London after bombings during the London Blitz on September 8, 1940
Camden town district of London after bombings during the London Blitz on September 8, 1940

Leonard later returned to their home in Mecklenburg Square after Virginia’s death but soon found the bombed out home too depressing to live in. He eventually returned to their house in Rodmell.

Virginia & Hitler’s Blacklist:

After WWII ended, a black book containing a list of over 2,300 prominent British citizens was discovered among the papers of Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler.

The book, titled Sonderfahndungsliste G.B. (meaning Special Search List) was dated 1940 and contained a list of politicians, writers and journalists who were to be immediately arrested if Germany successfully invaded Britain.

This list included Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard as well as Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Sigmund Freud, E.M. Forster, H.G. Wells and many others.

Although it is not clear exactly what prompted the Nazis to target them, the Third Reich’s aggression and hostility towards free-spoken, anti-Nazi intellectuals was no secret. In addition, Leonard Woolf was Jewish and Virginia was his wife so neither one of them were likely to be spared.

The Nazis had compiled a similar list of 61,000 Polish activists, actors, writers and politicians who were eventually targeted, arrested or killed during Operation Tannenberg in Poland between 1939 and 1941.

The Sonderfahndungsliste G.B. was compiled by Walter Schellenberg, who was the personal assistant to Heinrich Himmler and a deputy chief in the Reich Main Security Office, along with the help of two captured British secret agents and a third rogue agent, according to an article in The Independent:

“The captured agents were Captain Sigismund Payne Best and Major Richard Stevens of the British Secret Intelligence Services, who were kidnapped by German agents during a foolish visit to the Dutch frontier in November 1939 and held throughout the war. How much they were forced to reveal was never made clear, even after they returned safely to Britain after the war. Much more seriously, a rogue British intelligence officer, Colonel Dick Ellis, admitted after his retiral that he had sold ‘vast quantities of information’ about the British secret service to the Germans.”

The list was created for a Nazi handbook, known as Schellenberg’s Informationsheft G.B, which was intended to be a blueprint for the invasion and occupation of Britain, a military plan the Nazis called Operation Sea Lion.

In preparation for Operation Sea Lion, the Nazis printed about 20,000 copies of the Nazi handbook, but only three survived the war.

Although the blacklist was included in the Nazi handbook, it was also printed in its own separate book, now known as the black book.

A copy of the black book is currently on display at the Imperial War Museum in London.

Operation Sea Lion never took place and the reason why has mystified historians ever since. Instead of invading Britain, Hitler called his troops back to Germany and began preparing for his doomed invasion of Russia.

It was unlikely that Virginia Woolf, or any of the other individuals on the list, knew about the black list at the time as it remained a secret until after the war, but Nazi atrocities towards civilians during invasions was well documented and Virginia and Leonard knew they had reason to fear.

As the war raged on, Virginia and Leonard Woolf made a suicide pact. They stored an extra can of gasoline in the garage and planned to asphyxiate themselves with exhaust fumes if Germany invaded, according to Virginia’s diary, in an entry dated May 15, 1940:

“We discussed suicide if Hitler lands. Jews beaten up. What point in waiting? Better to shut the garage doors. This is a sensible, rather matter of fact talk…No, I don’t want the garage to see the end of me. I’ve a wish for 10 years more, &; to write my book wh. as usual darts into my brain.”

Leonard Woolf also obtained a vial containing a lethal dose of morphine from Virginia’s brother Adrian, who was a psychiatrist, as a backup plan.

After her suicide in March of 1941, the press speculated that the looming threat of invasion may have contributed to Virginia’s decision to kill herself, although she didn’t mention the war in her suicide note.

Sources:
Woolf, Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf; Volume Five; 1936 - 1941
Briggs, Julia. Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life. Harcourt, 2005
Levenback, Karen L.Virginia Woolf and the Great War. Syracuse University Press, 1999
Zwerdling, Alex. Virginia Woolf and the Real World. University of California Press, 1986
Shirer, William L. Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. Pennsylvania State University, 1998
Travels in the Reich, 1933-1945: Foreign Authors Report from Germany. Edited by Oliver Lubrich, translated by Kenneth J. Northcott, Sonia Wichmann, University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: a Biography. Hartcourt Books, 1972.
Virginia Woolf.  Edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publisher, 2005.
“Nazi's Black List Discovered in Berlin.” The Guardian, 14 Sept. 1945, theguardian.com/century/1940-1949/Story/0,,127730,00.html
Dalrymple, James. “Newly Published SS Handbook Give Blueprint for Nazi Britain.” The Independent, 3 March. 2000: independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/newly-published-ss-handbook-gives-blueprint-for-nazi-britain-5371959.html
Knorr, Katherine. "Travels with Virginia Woolf." New York Times, 18 March. 1994, nytimes.com/1994/03/18/style/IHT-books-travels-with-virginia-woolf.html