Tuesday, February 24, 2015


The Blitz began as the daylight Battle of Britain, for control of the air over the island, was reaching a climax. The Germans hoped at first to drive the Royal Air Force (RAF) from the skies, and then they sought to destroy the RAF by hitting factories and ground installations; finally, they turned to terrorizing the civilian population by bombing cities. This thrust was, in effect, triggered on the night of 24–25 August when German bombers, which were supposed to target an oil depot at Thameshaven, struck London instead. The German bombers had hardly retired when British Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill ordered a retaliatory strike on Berlin. On 5 September, German leader Adolf Hitler issued a directive calling for “disruptive attacks on the population and air defenses of major British cities, including London, by day and night.” Such bombing could not have significant military value and was intended primarily to destroy civilian morale.

In order to draw the fighters out for a decisive battle before it was too late in the year for Operation Sealion, the tactic was switched on 7 September to daylight raids on London. These had previously been avoided as Hitler still hoped the British would agree to a negotiated peace, and also feared retaliation against German cities. While causing damage and civilian casualties, this was a crucial relief for the RAF. On 15 September a mass raid was launched to overwhelm the defences, but Dowding had husbanded his resources and now threw in 12 Group as well. To the Germans, not realising that the British resources were stretched to the limit, the strength of the RAF appeared unbroken.

On 7 September 1940, the German Luftwaffe carried out a major raid that devastated the London’s East End. The bombers returned over the next two days, and more than 1,000 people were killed. From the beginning to the middle of November, London was the target. The intensity of raids varied, but with good weather and a full moon, they were massive. On 15 October, for instance, 538 tons of bombs fell on the city.

On 17 September, Sealion was postponed for 1940. Daylight raids continued, as Göring believed his Luftwaffe could secure victory on its own, but by mid- November it had switched to night raids, such were its losses.

Life was not easy in London during that period. In the first six weeks of major raids, some 16,000 houses were destroyed and another 60,000 badly damaged, with the result that 300,000 people needed places to stay. By the end of the Blitz, one in six Londoners had been rendered homeless. Many historical sites were also damaged, including Buckingham Palace. Most sites, however, survived and proved to be symbols of defiance. The king and queen remained in London, and Big Ben, despite sustaining some damage, struck every hour. London also got some respite as raids were directed against other cities. There was a major attack on Birmingham on 25 October 1940, and on 14 November, the city of Coventry was hit with a level of intensity beyond all previous efforts. Liverpool, Southampton, Birmingham, and Bristol were also struck.

London passed the Christmas of 1940 in comparative tranquility, and precautions were relaxed. Then, on 29 December, the great fire raid came. It was not the biggest raid ever, but the Christmas complacency among Londoners resulted in a slowed response, and enormous damage ensued. After another respite, March and April 1941 saw the skies again filled with German raiders. The worst nights were 16 and 19 April, which left 2,000 people dead and 148,000 homes damaged. Providers such as the Londoners’ Meal Service, which was operating 170 canteens, were strained. Once again, however, there was a relative pause—and again, precautions waned. On 10 May, crowds flooded into London for a football championship match, only to be joined by German raiders. The attack was the worst raid of the war, with more than 3,000 dead or seriously injured, 250,000 books burned at the British Museum, and pilots reporting the glow of fires visible as far away as 160 miles. It was also the last major raid of the Blitz.

The Luftwaffe continued these attacks throughout the winter and spring of 1940–41. The British dubbed it ‘the Blitz’. The Germans had developed radio beam guidance systems, Knickebein and later X-Gerät that gave them increased accuracy. British scientists eventually devised ways to jam the beams, but not soon enough to prevent the destruction of the centre of Coventry on 14/15 November 1940. Attacks took place on ports, industrial centres, cultural centres, and most particularly on London. Germany had no heavy bombers, for the Luftwaffe had not been developed for strategic bombing, but the damage was great.

The aim of the Blitz, once Sealion was cancelled, was essentially to destroy British will to continue the war. Despite outbreaks of local discontent (usually over provision of deep shelters or inefficiency in re-housing, feeding or clothing victims) it tended to have the opposite effect. It also had an impact in the US in moving hesitant public opinion more strongly behind aid for Britain. Although Dowding and Park were soon relieved of their commands, on the grounds that their tactics had been mistaken, most historical opinion now sees Park and Dowding as the victors of the Battle of Britain, along with their small cadre of pilots – not only British, but from the Dominions (with some from the US) and Poles and Czechs who had escaped when their own countries fell. One of the lessons of the Blitz was that, contrary to German expectations and intent, bombing the civilian population often strengthened its morale and determination, a lesson the Allies themselves failed to learn in their strikes against civilian targets in Germany.

References Calder, Angus. The Myth of the Blitz. London: Cape, 1991. Calder, Angus, and Dorothy Sheridan, eds. Speak for Yourself: A Mass Observation Anthology. London: Cape, 1984. Longmate, Norman. How We Lived Then. London: Hutchinson, 1971. Marwick, Arthur. The Home Front. London: Thames and Hudson, 1976. Ziegler, Philip. London at War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.

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