British War Cabinet reacts to the Blitz in kind

British War Cabinet reacts to the Blitz in kind

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In light of the destruction and terror inflicted on Londoners by a succession of German bombing raids, called “the Blitz,” the British War Cabinet instructs British bombers over Germany to drop their bombs “anywhere” if unable to reach their targets.

The prior two nights of bombing had wrought extraordinary damage, especially in the London slum area, the East End. King George VI even visited the devastated area to reassure the inhabitants that their fellow countrymen were with them in heart and mind. Each night since the seventh, sirens had sounded to announce the approach of incoming German planes, which had begun dropping bombs indiscriminately in the London vicinity, even though the docks had been their primary target on Day One of the Blitz. As British bombers set out for Germany to retaliate, they were instructed not to return home with their bombs if they failed to locate their original targets. Instead, they were to release their loads where and when they could.

On the night of September 10th, a night when British Home Intelligence had been alerted of how panicked Londoners were becoming at the sound of those air-raid sirens, Berlin was paid in kind with a cascade of British bombs—one of which even landed in the garden of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Party’s minister of propaganda.

How Winston Churchill Endured the Blitz—and Taught the People of England to Do the Same

For 57 consecutive nights in 1940, Nazi Germany tried to bring England to its knees. Waves of planes pummeled cities with high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices as part of a campaign to break the English spirit and destroy the country’s capacity to make war. One man stood strong against the onslaught: Winston Churchill.

Historian Erik Larson’s new book takes an in-depth look at this defiant prime minister who almost singlehandedly willed his nation to resist. The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz examines a leader in crisis—a challenge of epic proportions with the fate of democracy hanging in the balance. Larson, author of the New York Times best sellers The Devil in the White City and Dead Wake, details Churchill’s boldness in standing alone against the Nazi menace by urging his countrymen to overcome hopelessness and fight back. He combed archives with a new lens to uncover fresh material about how England’s “bulldog” rallied his nation from imminent defeat to stand bloodied but unbowed as an island fortress of freedom. In an interview with Smithsonian, Larson describes how he came to write his new book and what surprises he learned about the man who reminds us today what true leadership is all about.

Why did you write this book? Any why now?

That’s a question with a lot of things to unpack. My wife and I had been living in Seattle. We have three grown daughters who had all flown the coop. One thing led to another and we decided that we were going to move to Manhattan, where I’d always wanted to live. When we arrived in New York, I had this epiphany—and I’m not exaggerating. It really was a kind of epiphany about what the experience of 9/11 must have been like for residents of New York City. Even though I watched the whole thing unfold in real-time on CNN and was horrified, when I got to New York I realized this was an order-of-magnitude traumatic event. Not just because everything was live and right in front of your face this was an attack on your home city.

Feeling that very keenly, I started thinking about the German air campaign against London and England. What was that like for them? It turned out to have been 57 consecutive nights of bombings󈠉 consecutive 9/11s, if you will. How does anybody cope with that? Then, of course, there was six more months of raids at intervals and with increasing severity. How does the average person endure that, let alone the head of the country, Winston Churchill, who’s also trying to direct a war? And I started thinking how do you do something like that? What’s the intimate, inside story?

Remember, Churchill—this was one thing that really resonated with me as a father with three daughters—was not just the leader of Great Britain and a London citizen, but he was a father. He had a young daughter who was only 17. His family was spread out throughout London. How do you cope with that anxiety on a daily level? Every night, hundreds of German bombers are flying over with high-explosive bombs.

So why now? I think the timing is good because we all could use a refresher course on what actual leadership is like.

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz

In The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson shows, in cinematic detail, how Churchill taught the British people “the art of being fearless.” Drawing on diaries, original archival documents, and once-secret intelligence reports—some released only recently—Larson provides a new lens on London’s darkest year through the day-to-day experience of Churchill and his family.

Churchill writes in his memoir that he’s ecstatic over the opportunity to lead the country at such a difficult time. Anybody else would be cringing. Where did his confidence come from?

In his personal memoir on the history of the war, he exalts that he became prime minister. The world is going to hell, but he is just thrilled. That’s what really sets him apart from other leaders. Not only was he undaunted, he was actively, aggressively thrilled by the prospect of this war.

Lord Halifax, who was considered by many to be the rightful successor to [prime minister Neville] Chamberlain, didn’t want the job. He had no confidence he could negotiate a war as prime minister. But Churchill had absolute confidence. Where did that come from? I don’t know. I’ve read a lot about his past in doing research and I’ve thought a lot about it. I still don’t have a good answer.

What surprised you the most about Churchill?

A lot of things surprised me. What surprised me the most was simply that Churchill really could be quite funny. He knew how to have fun. One scene in particular will stay with me, even as I go on to other books. One night he was at the prime ministerial country estate, Chequers, wearing this blue one-piece jumpsuit he designed and his silk flaming-red dressing gown, carrying a Mannlicher rifle with a bayonet. He’s doing bayonet drills to the strains of martial music from the gramophone. That’s the kind of guy he was. He was said to be absolutely without vanity.

How did you go about your research for this book?

So much has been done on Churchill. And if you set out to read everything, it would take a decade. My strategy from the beginning was to read the canon of Churchill scholarship to the point where I felt I had a grasp of everything that was going on. Then, rather than spend the next ten years reading additional material, I was going to do what frankly I think I do best: dive into the archives.

I scoured various archives in hopes of finding fresh material using essentially a new lens. How did he go about day to day enduring this onslaught from Germany in that first year as prime minister? From that perspective, I came across a lot of material that was perhaps overlooked by other scholars. That’s how I guided myself throughout the book. I was going to rely on the archives and firsthand documents to the extent that I could to build my own personal Churchill, if you will. And then, once I had accumulated a critical mass of materials, I moved on to start writing the book.

My main source was the National Archives of the U.K. at Kew Gardens, which was fantastic. I probably have 10,000 pages of material from documents. I also used the Library of Congress in the U.S. The manuscript division reading room has the papers of Averell Harriman, who was a special envoy for FDR. It has also the papers of Pamela Churchill, wife the prime minister’s son, Randolph, who later married Harriman. And even more compelling are the papers of Harriman’s personal secretary Robert Meiklejohn, who left a very detailed diary. There is a lot of other material describing the Harriman mission to London, which was all-important in spring of 1941.

Churchill views the wreck of Coventry Cathedral, damaged by German bombs. (Fremantle/Alamy)

Numerous accounts detail how Churchill liked to work in the nude or in the tub. How did that tie into your overall view of Churchill?

He did that a lot. And he was not at all shy about it. There’s a scene that John Colville [private secretary to Churchill] describes in his diary. Churchill was in the bath and numerous important telephone calls were coming in. Churchill would just get out of the bath, take the call, then get back in the bath. It didn’t matter. He did have a complete and utter lack of vanity.

That was one of the aspects of his character that really did help him. He didn’t care. As always, though, with Churchill, you also have to add a caveat. One of the things I discovered was while he had no sense of vanity and didn’t really care what people thought of him, he hated criticism.

What fresh material did you find for the book?

The foremost example is the fact that I was thankfully given permission to read and use Mary Churchill’s diary. I was the second person to be allowed to look at it. I thank Emma Soames, Mary’s daughter, for giving me permission. Mary makes the book because she was Churchill’s youngest daughter at 17 [during the Blitz]. She kept a daily diary that is absolutely charming. She was a smart young woman. She could write well and knew how to tell a story. And she was observant and introspective. There’s also the Meiklejohn diary. A lot of the Harriman stuff is new and fresh. There are materials that I haven’t seen anywhere else.

Another example: Advisors around Churchill were really concerned about how Hitler might be going after the prime minister. Not just in Whitehall, but also at Chequers. It’s kind of surprising to me that the Luftwaffe [the Nazi air force] hadn’t found Chequers and bombed it. Here was this country home with a long drive covered with pale stone. At night, under a full moon, it luminesced like an arrow pointing to the place.

What precautions did Churchill take to stay out of harm’s way during dangerous situations?

He didn’t take many. There are a lot of cases when an air raid was about to occur and Churchill would go to the roof and watch. This was how he was. He was not going to cower in a shelter during a raid. He wanted to see it. By day, he carried on as if there were no nightly air raids. This was part of his style, part of how he encouraged and emboldened the nation. If Churchill’s doing this, if he’s courageous enough, maybe we really don’t have so much to fear.

Churchill would walk through the bombed sections of London following a raid.

He did it often. He would visit a city that had been bombed, and the people would flock to him. There is no question in my mind that these visits were absolutely important to helping Britain weather this period. He was often filmed for newsreels, and it was reported by newspapers and radio. This was leadership by demonstration. He showed the world that he cared and he was fearless.

Did Churchill and the people of Great Britain believe that the bombing would lead to an invasion?

That’s another thing that did surprise me: the extent to which the threat of invasion was seen to be not just inevitable, but imminent. Within days. There was talk of, “Oh, invasion Saturday.” Can you imagine that? It’s one thing to endure 57 nights of bombing, but it’s another to live with the constant anxiety that it is a preamble to invasion.

Churchill was very clear-eyed about the threat from Germany. To him, the only way to really defeat any effort by Hitler to invade England was by increasing fighter strength so the Luftwaffe could never achieve air superiority. Churchill felt that if the Luftwaffe could be staved off, an invasion would be impossible. And I think he was correct in that.

England survives the German bombings. What was the feeling like after the Blitz?

The day after was this amazing quiet. People couldn’t believe it. The weather was good, the nights were clear. What was going on? And day after day, it was quiet. No more bombers over London. That was the end of the first and most important phase of the German air war against Britain. It was the first real victory of the war for England.

When we talk about the Blitz, it’s important to realize the extent to which Churchill counted on America as the vehicle for ultimate victory. He was confident Britain could hold off Germany, but he believed victory would only come with the full-scale participation of the United States. Churchill acknowledged that early on when he met with his son, Randolph, who asked him, “How can you possibly expect to win?” Churchill says, “I shall drag the United States in.” A big part of the story I tell is about also how he went about doing that.

Your book covers that very crucial time in 1940 and 1941. In the epilogue, you jump ahead to July 1945 when the Conservative Party is voted out of office and Churchill is no longer prime minister.

What a shocking reversal! I was so moved when I learned how the family gathered at Chequers for the last time. Mary Churchill was saddened by what was happening. They tried to cheer him up. Nothing worked at first, but then gradually he began to come out of it. And I think at that point he was coming around to accepting this was the reality. But it was hard for him. I think what really hurt him was the idea that suddenly he had no meaningful work to do. That just about crushed him.

What did you learn in writing this book?

Writing about Churchill, dwelling in that world, was really a lovely place for me. It took me out of the present. This may sound like a cliché, but it took me back to a time when leadership really mattered. And truth mattered. And rhetoric mattered.

I love that Churchillians seem to like this book and actually see new things in it. But this book is really for my audience. I’m hoping they are drawn to the story and will sink into this past period as if they were there. I think that’s very important in understanding history.

Churchill was a unifier. He was a man who brought a nation together. As he said, he didn't make people brave, he allowed their courage to come forward. It’s a very interesting distinction. To me, as I say in the book, he taught the nation the art of being fearless. And I do think fearlessness can be a learned art.

About David Kindy

David Kindy is a journalist, freelance writer and book reviewer who lives in Plymouth, Massachusetts. He writes about history, culture and other topics for Air & Space, Military History, World War II, Vietnam, Aviation History, Providence Journal and other publications and websites.

The Blitz and The London Underground – Safety Beneath the Streets in the Second World War

In this special blog, over 80 years after the beginning of the Blitz, we take a look at how London’s main transport system – the Underground – became a popular place of shelter for those seeking protection from the German bombing campaign, using an assortment of articles and photographs all to be found within the British Newspaper Archive.

However, the government was not keen on the Underground being put to such use. An article in the Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 20 September 1940, reveals how ‘Little heed was paid last night to the appeal of the Ministries of Home Security and Transport asking the public to refrain from using the London Tube stations as air-raid shelters except in the case of urgent necessity.’

Instead, Londoners of all classes flocked to Underground platforms to keep themselves safe from the destruction that was being wrought above the ground. The Daily Herald gives an overview of how popular sheltering on the Underground had become by the end of September:

Every night London’s Underground stations are crowded with people seeking shelter. Many of them arrive early in the evening with their bedding prepared to settle down for a night’s sleep on the platforms. Some come from the suburbs and outlying districts.

Meanwhile, the Portsmouth Evening News illustrates how people of all kinds sought refuge on the platforms of Underground stations across the capital:

Families from the East End with scraps of bedding jostled West End folk with luncheon baskets and expensive travelling rugs in underground stations in the Metropolitan area last night.

The same article goes on to describe ‘bearded Bohemians, dignified dowagers, typical Cockneys [and] a young woman in black’ all passing along the platform.

So with eighty or so London tube stations crowded with thousands of people – was the Underground system able to continue? The answer is yes – that with true Blitz spirit, both shelterers and Tube travellers were able to co-exist.

Indeed, as journalist Alison Barnes discovered during her ‘Night Underground’ in November 1940, ‘There is kind of tacit understanding between Tube residents and passengers.’ Children would be reprimanded for straying into the part of the platform reserved for waiting for trains meanwhile ‘no traveller, however jostled or pushed, would dream of treading on the bedding.’

Some more inventive methods were trialled to stop shelterers getting in the way of Tube travellers. The Daily Herald reports in November 1940 that the Ministry of Home Security was considering erecting three-tier bunks in Underground stations, and by February 1941 these bunk beds had become a reality in some tube stations.

By roughly nine o’clock the stations would belong ‘almost entirely to the sleepers.’ The Bystander gives this description of the shelterers’ lights out:

The traveller’s last train has gone, and the shelterers’ last train has pulled up at the platform to give extra floor and seating space. An official ‘lights out’ has sounded, the chatter dies away, the family parties, the bands of friends, the lonely individuals who are no longer lonely here, all stretch themselves out side by side under blankets, rugs, coats, newspapers. The broad white line which marks the permitted boundary for ‘passengers who do not travel’ disappears under a tide of sleep.

But the shelterers were in for a rude awakening once the Tube service began again in the morning. However, as Alison Barnes observes in her article in the Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough, some took advantage of the arrangement. One shelterer arrived to meet his family on the platform from the last train, and hopped onto the first train of the morning to go back to work. ‘It’s so convenient for him,’ his wife commented.

With thousands of people sheltering Underground, ‘muddling along,’ as the system had been in the early days of the Blitz, was no longer enough, and the need for formalised amenities became strongly apparent.

Some took advantage of this need, such as this ‘enterprising caterer’ who was doing ‘a brisk trade in breakfasts’ at Aldwych Station.

The providing of refreshments was to be eventually formalised by the government. The Birmingham Daily Gazette reports that in November 1940 the London Passenger Transport Board had introduced the twopenny meal for shelterers, served by the Board’s own ‘waitresses.’

These women – recruited for their ‘tact, common sense and ability,’ according to the Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough – would serve cups of tea, cocoa and coffee (a bring your own mug policy being in place), as well as cakes, buns, biscuits, chocolate, apples, meat pies and sausage rolls.

Lavatory facilities and drinking water were provided in all the big stations, and shelterers were even given entertainment. Here, shelterers at Aldwych Station are treated to a concert.

However, using the Underground as a mass air-raid shelter was not without its difficulties and its risks. Journalist Alison Barnes proclaims at the end of her article that the ‘airlessness, the lack of real ventilation was far more disturbing than all the noisy concrete horrors of London above ground.’

Furthermore, an October 1940 article by Dr Edith Summerskill MP in the Manchester Evening News outlines the concerns about the effect on the health of children using the tube for safety:

These children sleep in their damp clothes, until the early morning hours, when they are dragged off to their cold homes. Already a complaint known as ‘shelter throat’ is common, but the danger to children forced to sleep under conditions which provide a breeding place for influenza, pneumonia, and tuberculosis, quite apart from the more common infectious diseases, cannot be over-emphasised.

Such conditions forced some into drastic and tragic action. According to the Daily Herald, 1 November 1940, one James Miller strangled his 75-year-old mother to ‘save her being dragged round the shelters…she was suffering, through her having to sleep on the steps in the tube.’

Elsewhere, Underground shelterers faced censure from their peers. A heated debate in the Daily Mirror saw the shelterers branded as ‘Shelter Rats.’ The point raised from Molly of the Battersea AFS was that those who were sheltering Underground were shirking their war duties by not putting themselves forward for war work – volunteering for the Home Guard, as an ambulance driver, or fire watcher, for example. The ‘Shelter Rats’ of Belsize Park hit back, proclaiming they were ‘performing a national service by keeping casualties down.’

Tragically, Underground stations were not always the safest places to be. Over 60 people were killed at Balham in 1940 when a bomb hit the street above and collapsed the tunnels below whilst in 1943 a rush at Bethan Green Station saw 173 men, women and children crushed to death in a stampede. These events, risking the nation’s morale, were kept out of the press, and as such, cannot be found within the pages of the British Newspaper Archive.

However, what can be evidenced in The Archive is how, for many Londoners, the Underground became a place of sanctuary during the most terrifying time of their lives. This was the true definition of Blitz spirit, for as Alison Barnes writes:

Don’t imagine it’s a dreary life down below. There are the home-going travellers to watch, there are card parties, lending libraries organised among the shelterers, evening papers, and books – and best of all there is undisturbed sleep to come later on.

CHURCHILL, LEADERSHIP AND THE WAR (2) – The Leader as Communicator

On 3 September 1939, King George VI spoke to Britain and the Empire, announcing his government’s declaration of war on Germany in response to German aggression against Poland. After denouncing Nazi Germany, he called on the British people to mobilize for war. The next day, the Daily Sketch published excerpts of the King’s speech, with his defining appeal as its title: “Stand calm, firm and united.” 1

As the British banded together, Winston Churchill, first at the Admiralty and then as prime minister, emerged as the figurehead of the war effort in public and in Parliament. While Churchill as premier clearly guided British military efforts abroad, his leadership on the home front was notable. His techniques included a vivid public image, powerful and compelling speeches and creation of a coalition government, which in turn rewarded him with powerful civilian support.

When Churchill assumed the premiership, German forces were conquering wide swaths of territory throughout Europe. The British watched in horror as their allies, chief among them France, fell to Germany. The Western world seemed to be collapsing upon itself, and Britain was the only power left to challenge Germany. By 5 September 1940, only a year after the declaration of war, German bombs were falling on England’s capital. Nazi leader Adolf Hitler hoped that class strife and chaos in England caused by the destruction would help pave the way for German forces to invade the island. 2

During the eight-month air attack known as the Blitz, the British government employed propaganda such as posters, videos and the British Broadcasting Corporation, a popular news source, to inform and reassure civilians. The government monitored morale and opinions of Londoners, carefully gauging the stability of the home front. 3 Although the crime rate rose, along with outcries of political dissenters, the people’s high morale and resolve shredded Hitler’s hopes for their collapse. By mid-May 1941, with other fields of conquest in mind, the Germans no longer had the will to continue the attack on Britain. Although the war was far from over, Britons could rest assured that their homeland would be safe from invasion.

The Germans had underestimated a nation determined to “Keep Calm and Carry On” 4 under the stress of war. Churchill not only organized the military effort he acted as a spokesman for the government. Civilians looked up to the prime minister who worked “with a calm assurance and a conviction that this, at last, was the realization of his destiny: to lead his beloved nation in an all-out war for survival and for the universal values it represented.” 5 Wide-spread confidence in his leadership gave the populace a cause worth fighting for and the willpower to carry on.

Churchill as a Public Figure

As one of the iconic politicians of the 20th century, Churchill made his bold and overt character a fundamental component of his leadership and a symbol of the war effort. With his quintessentially British appearance and demeanor, he enjoyed a widespread appeal. He was often portrayed in photographs and cartoons, and regularly roamed about, cigar in hand, surveying the effects of German destruction. 6 The people trusted him to protect the island, despite the frightening insecurity of World War II. 7 At the same time, British confidence gave hope among the downtrodden and overrun countries of Europe.

Churchill’s stubborn unwillingness to let war disrupt normal life in England was broadly admired. Despite the many precautions required by the emergency, he himself was famously determined to maintain his day-to-day routine. By remaining in London whenever he expected a major raid, Churchill related to Londoners during the worst of the Blitz. There were risks associated with being a leader in the path of danger, but Churchill was unmovable, convincing the people to follow his example, whatever the horror or threat of attack.

Many famous and humorous quotations exemplify Churchill’s unfaltering character. When warned by his wife and ministers of the personal risks he faced, Churchill simply replied: “… as a child my nursemaid could never prevent me from taking a walk in the park when I wanted to do so. And as a man, Adolf Hitler certainly won’t.” 8 His unwillingness to back down was an inspiration. The nation adopted his resolve.

Churchill’s physical appearance contributed to his image. In addition to his imposing figure and ever-present cigar, his dress exemplified his role and leadership. His “siren suit” was a personally-designed kind of one-piece suit, easy to put on or take off, if he wished a siesta—a habit he had learned in Cuba as a young man. Adding to the fast-accumulating Churchill legend, what the public called his “rompers” were world famous. Nor were they all utilitarian: some siren suits were made of velvet, silk and wool for the “best” parties at Downing Street. 9

A gentleman at heart, Churchill was conscious of his public persona. While respected by aristocrats, he appealed equally to the masses, suffering under wartime shortages and rationing. The image of him working away for the country, clad in his odd yet practical outfits, appealed to the people and enhanced their trust. 10

Supporting his image, photographs were distributed to show the public the inner workings of their leader’s daily life. Photographs and cartoons in newspapers and magazines, circulated widely, Churchill often displaying the “V” for Victory sign, his signature gesture. The V-sign’s origins are lost in antiquity, but recently it had been said to have represented a powerful symbol of victory, corresponding to the Morse code “V”—three dots and a dash—and the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. 11 In one photograph circulated by the Ministry of Information, Churchill strolls down Downing Street in a dark suit and Homburg, his right arm in the air, two fingers creating the “V.” 12 Through this simple gesture, Churchill displayed his optimism in a way with which people could associate, symbolizing the unwavering certainty that “all will come right.“

Another 1940 photograph shows Churchill taking shelter from bombs during his visit to the heavily damaged city of Ramsgate. 13 Apparently carefree, he smiles cheerfully for the camera, a protective steel helmet is strapped around his chin in place of his Homburg. 14 Some photos showed him surveying Blitz damage, to assure people that the government cared. A September 1940 photo captioned “Are we downhearted?” portrays Churchill on a wrecked city street, surrounded by grinning young girls and a contingent of resolute military officers. 15 Another (page 12) shows him with the King and Queen surveying the rubble of Buckingham Palace. 16 Similar is the photo of him in the House of Commons, destroyed in the last raid of the Blitz, captioned: “The stony path we have to tread.” 17 In such photos Churchill might appear grave and serious, but never desperate or hopeless. Their effect was to demonstrate that government figures shared the dire situation as civilians.

Churchill’s effort to present a positive public image was successful. Britons regarded him as a caring leader, confident yet realistic, ready for anything. The morning after the Blitz began, Samuel Battersby, a government official accompanied him on an inspection tour, recalling a teary-eyed Churchill watching as rescuers pulled civilians from the rubble of their homes. When one woman asked him, “When are we going to bomb Berlin?” Churchill ardently replied, “You leave that to me!,” raising the spirits of the desperate and confused survivors. The Prime Minister, Battersby recalled, transformed an atmosphere of despondency into one of hope in only a few words. 18

Churchill understood how to reach out to civilians, first with sympathy, then by creating confidence. In his own recollections he described how the people looked to him:

They crowded round us, cheering and manifesting every sign of lively affection, wanting to touch and stroke my clothes. One would have thought I had brought them some fine substantial benefit which would improve their lot in life. I was completely undermined, and wept. Ismay, who was with me, records that he heard an old woman say: “You see, he really cares. He’s crying.” They were tears not of sorrow but of wonder and admiration….When we got back into the car a harsher mood swept over this haggard crowd. “Give it to ‘em back,” they cried, and “Let them have it too.” I undertook forthwith to see that their wishes were carried out and this promise was certainly kept. 19

Despite all the fame created by his image and high office, Churchill remained humble, regarding his role less as a path to glory than a necessary hardship and responsibility. Victory was the goal—for the nation as a whole.

The Impact of Oratory

Churchill in the war was probably best known for his exceptional oratory. Many years before he had penned an essay, “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric,” to outline the ingredients of a good speech. He had worked to diminish his vocal impediments and improve his voice, studying the speeches of great British politicians, including his father, Lord Randolph Churchill. 20 Ascending the political ladder, he gained mastery as a speaker, but his best efforts were often improvised as he paced around his office or home, at any hour of the day or night, rehearsing. Shorthand secretaries took down his meticulously crafted words and had them typed for further review in a few hours. 21

Whether delivered in the Commons, on platforms or at the microphone, Churchill’s speeches were, as his old colleague Arthur Balfour once observed, not “the unpremeditated effusions of a hasty moment.” He took care “to weigh well and balance every word,” creating speeches which were formal literary compositions, dictated in full beforehand, fastidiously revised and polished. 22

In public and Parliament, Churchill’s words reached and motivated his countrymen. In 1898 he had said: “I do not care so much for the principles I advocate as for the impression which my words produce and the reputation they give me.” 23 Yet by the time he stepped down as premier in 1945, he had proved that the strong sentiments he wished to convey matched the rhetorical power of his speeches.

On the day Britain declared war on Germany, Churchill gave a empowering speech in Parliament that signaled the beginning of his rise to the pinnacle, stressing the importance of unity, appealing for courage and patriotic sentiments from those around him. Britons had never been so well prepared to take on such a difficult task, he said: “…the wholehearted concurrence of scores of millions…is the only foundation upon which the trial and tribulation of modern war can be endured and surmounted.” 24

Eight months later as prime minister, his oratory became more powerful, frequent and available. But now he had to prepare the public for “hard and heavy tidings.” His first broadcast as prime minister, promising “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat,” introduced themes that would appear in his speeches over the next year. Again he emphasized unity, and the need for victory at all costs. He ended his speech on a high note, saying, “Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.” 25

A few days later in his next broadcast, the theme of the homeland became paramount—the cause worth fighting for. Churchill invoked blatant nationalism: “…there will come the battle for our Island—for all that Britain is, and all that Britain means. That will be the struggle.” 26 He continued by encouraging the people to raise their resolve, declaring that it was far better “to perish in battle than to look upon the outrage of our nation, and our altars.” In the past, only the military had been asked for such devotion now civilians were asked for it too.

There was no substitute for victory, he declared. Britain had a responsibility to its empire and allies, to the bludgeoned races of Europe. His speech after Dunkirk extended the theme: “We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be.” 27 Band together, he exclaimed: put aside domestic differences, at least for a while: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’” 28

By mid-1940 the population understood that it was likely only a matter of time before the German power was unleashed on them, but they were encouraged by the elaborate military preparations, by the Ministry of Information, and especially by Churchill’s speeches, to resist the aggressor, come what may.

Before the Blitz, themes of the “island home” and “a cause greater than ourselves” were the main focus of Churchill’s speeches. The Battle of Britain (which he named) caused him to warn that the nation’s endurance and patriotism would be seriously tested. On 14 July 1940 he said, “We are fighting by ourselves alone but we are not fighting for ourselves alone.” 29 Referring to the people as “we” made them feel part of a team working toward the same goal. While Churchill demanded their resolve, he acknowledged the difficulty of the task at hand, even though the war was still many miles away. Entitling one broadcast “War of the Unknown Warriors,” Churchill glorified the contributions of every citizen.

As bombs began to rain down in August, Churchill confessed to Parliament that “it is very painful to me to see …a small British house or business smashed by the enemy’s fire, and to see that without feeling assured that we are doing our best to spread the burden so that we all stand in together.” 30 Despite efforts to ease the strain of attack, he worried that he had not done enough. Assured, however, by civilian response to the Blitz, Churchill was convinced that the country would survive. Even the King and Queen had felt the effects of the bombing, which demonstrated the equalizing effect of danger. 31

Churchill saluted his countrymen: “All the world that is still free marvels at the composure and fortitude with which the citizens of London are facing and surmounting the great ordeal to which they are subjected, the end of which or the severity of which cannot yet be foreseen.” 32 Though Churchill had declared, “We Can Take It!,” even he was surprised by the high morale of the people, who acted as if “one had brought some great benefit to them, instead of the blood and tears, the toil and sweat.” 33 Although the attacks spread beyond London and lasted many more months, they soon became a part of everyday life that people learned to live with and work around.

Following His Example

Churchill personally made many efforts to boost civilian spirit. Early on he had realized that this war would be not a distant fight but an everyday emergency. When “night and the enemy were approaching,” he felt, “with a spasm of mental pain, a deep sense of the strain and suffering that was being borne throughout the world’s largest capital city” and worried if there was a limit to the suffering civilians would take. 34 He was determined to stall dissatisfaction.

Morale was a serious concern as the bombing continued. The Ministry of Information used posters, films, pamphlets, and music to show civilians that the government cared. Other government agencies worked to distract civilians from the discomforts of the siege by providing shelters, covering the Blitz and military efforts abroad. A thorough investigation of the Churchill War Papers and Hansard shows that Churchill was not directly involved in these ministries. Although he commented on their work, they usually functioned as independent entities. He certainly demonstrated concern for projecting an effective public image and for delivering inspiring speeches. Meanwhile he supported every measure he thought would ensure the continuation of popular morale and support.

Once the Blitz had demonstrated that the war was a direct threat to civilian lives, Churchill suggested that the King create medals honoring civilian heroism: the George Medal and George Cross. 35 He asked that the BBC play the seven national anthems of the Allies each Sunday. 36 Knowing that Britons had a tradition of “gathering round the wireless,” he communicated frequently, beaming broadcasts at the occupied nations as well. 37 A BBC listener research survey in February 1941 revealed that nearly two-thirds of respondents thought the news was “100% reliable,” while only one person in 1200 thought it “completely unreliable.” 38

To Churchill’s relief, most citizens remained positive and devoted. Instead of inducing self-pity, the Blitz motivated them to defy it. “Many persons seemed envious of London’s distinction,” Churchill reflected later, “and quite a number came up from the country in order to spend a night or two in town, share the risk, and ‘see the fun.’” 39 The attitude of ordinary Britons was surprising, considering the desperation of their situation—but reflects in part Churchill’s success as a role model and their own fierce determination.

In October 1940, one month into the Blitz, 80% of the public felt it was “impossible for Germany to win the war solely by air attacks” and 89% said they were behind Churchill’s leadership. 40 Rarely did a leader have such an impact on opinion. Even as bombs destroyed landmarks, homes and ships at sea, the British people still believed they would win. It was a time, Churchill wrote, when the English, and particularly the Londoners, who had the place of honour, were seen at their best. Grim and gay, dogged and serviceable, with the confidence of an unconquered people in their bones, they adapted themselves to this strange new life, with all its terrors, with all its jolts and jars. 41

Leading in Parliament

While his rapid creation of a coalition government earned Churchill high marks, some opponents continued to regard him as a pompous blowhard who would not be able to charm the populace. Stanley Baldwin once joked that at his birth, fairies had bestowed Churchill with many talents, yet denied him “judgement and wisdom.” 42 To Baldwin Churchill was all words. Was there anything to this petty talk, or was it a case of two tenacious politicians butting heads? But Baldwin rallied to Churchill once war came, and such infighting became almost nonexistent.

Despite a coalition including many of their own leaders, some British radicals took a stance against the government. Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists, was arrested in May 1940 under the Emergency Powers Act. To its credit, the Fascist newsletter Action condemned him and called for support of the war effort but they might also have been considering their own self-interest. 43

In 1941 came the People’s Convention: communists and other leftists who met to plan a new government that “would bring peace by negotiating with the German masses, not with their leaders.” 44 Rejecting Churchill’s policy of fighting until Hitler had been defeated, these protesters wished to renew the prewar class struggles. Churchill, unconcerned, made no attempt to interfere with the Convention—demonstrating, as The New York Times put it, “the Government’s inherent strength, just as the impossibility of such a gathering in Germany, Italy or Russia proves the inherent weakness of the dictatorships.” 45

The dissenters were a small minority: 77% of people, when asked, rejected the idea of “making overtures of peace with Germany,” and 82% still thought that “ultimately, Britain would win the war.” 46 Under Churchill, the nation was ready to fight to the finish.

The strength of the coalition government contributed to solidarity. The Prime Minister maintained efficient and effective government, with a cabinet representing all parties. Their unity assured public confidence—in stark contrast to Hitler’s Germany, which often resorted to force, intimidation and oppression to buck up popular support. On 19 May 1940, shortly after formation of the new coalition government, the Evening Standard ran a David Low cartoon portraying a resolved Churchill leading a contingent of famous politicians, rolling up their sleeves and marching forward: “All Behind You, Winston.”

Churchill was himself pleased by the efficient work of Parliament: “I doubt whether any of the Dictators had as much effective power throughout his whole nation as the British War Cabinet….It was a proud thought that Parliamentary Democracy, or whatever our British public life can be called, can endure, surmount, and survive all trials.” 47 Unlike Hitler, Churchill knew the value of a coalition respected by all parties and classes. 48

Saving the West

Leading by example had created an inspirational and motivated environment that emphasized realism without resorting to jingoism. Despite the occasional critic, and two votes of no confidence which were defeated overwhelmingly, Churchill pacified his opposition through character and oratory. Some may have still thought—and some historians have argued—that backing away from the Hitler war would have been the better option. But if Churchill had taken that route, Nazism might have prevailed in Europe, delaying a Normandy invasion indefinitely. 49 The willingness of the public to follow him into the unknown emphasized his success in leading the country and saving the West—at least until the United States entered the war and Russia had joined the Allies. The poet Patience Strong poignantly portrayed Churchill’s government:

We know that we can trust them—
for we know they will not fail….
Although the ship of state may roll and rock upon the sea—
They will steer her safely to the ports of Victory.
Many are the perils, and the risks that they must take—
Many are the dangers of the journey they must make.
May they have the favour of the wind and of the tide—
As upon the waters of the unknown seas they ride.
May their hands be strengthened
by the knowledge that we place—
Reliance in their enterprise. God bless them! We shall face—
The future with new confidence in their capacity—
To bring us through the greatest tempest in our history. 50

Under Churchill’s leadership, long before the bombing of London and other cities began, Britons were prepared for the worst. They trusted in their government to lead them through the worst with Churchill the unwavering captain of the ship. He led them through their greatest challenge with staunch resolution. No other politician could have achieved so much, for so many. 51


1. “The King’s Message to His Peoples,” Daily Sketch, 4 September 1939.

2. Patricia D. Netzley and Moataz A. Fattah, Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Terrorism (Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2007) “The Blitz,” in Gale World History in Context website, GALEICX3205400078.

3. Robert Mackay, Half the Battle: Civilian Morale in Britain During the Second World War (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2002), 9.

4. Mary Dale, letter interview by author, February 2012.

5. Geoffrey Best, “Winston Churchill: Defender of Democracy,” BBC History, 30 March 2011 (

8. Kay Halle, Irrepressible Churchill (Cleveland: World, 1966), 167.

9. Paul Johnson, Churchill (New York: Viking, 2009), 113.

10. Netzley and Fattah, “The Blitz.”

11. Johnson, Churchill, 116-17.

12. “Winston Churchill displaying the V for Victory sign,” 5 June 1943, Ministry of Information Print Collection, Imperial War Museum, London.

13. “Churchill Dons Helmet,” Associated Press, 6 September 1940, New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington (

14.”World War II” in Churchill and the Great Republic, accessed 1 January 2012 (

15. David Cannadine, ed., Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: The Speeches of Winston Churchill (1989 repr., Boston: Penguin
Classics, 2002).

18. Martin Gilbert, The Churchill War Papers, vol. 2, Never Surrender, May 1940-December 1940 (New York: Norton, 1994), 788-89.

19. Winston S. Churchill, Their Finest Hour (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949), 307-08.

20. Cannadine, Blood Toil Tears and Sweat, xv-xix.

23. Patrick J. Buchanan, Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World (New York: Crown, 2008), 351.

24. Winston S. Churchill, Never Give In! The Best of Winston Churchill’s Speeches (New York: Hyperion, 2003), 197.

30. UK Parliament, “Commons Sittings in the 20th Century,” Hansard, last modified 2005 (

32. Churchill, Never Give In!, 252-53.

34. Churchill, Their Finest Hour, 316-17.

35. “George Medal,” Ministry of Defence, accessed 18 March 2012 (

37. Mary Dale, letter interview by author, February 2012.

38. Mackay, Half the Battle, 146.

39. Churchill, Their Finest Hour, 328-29.

40. Mackay, Half the Battle, 75.

41. Churchill, Their Finest Hour, 316.

42. Buchanan, Churchill, Hitler, 357.

43. British Union of Fascists: Newspapers and Secret Files, British Online Archives, Microform Academic Publishers, last modified 7 Febtuary 2009 (

44. James MacDonald, “British Leftists Demand Control,” The New York Times, 13 January 1941 (

45. “‘The People’ in Britain,” The New York Times, 14 January 1941 (

46. Mackay, Half the Battle, 86.

47. Churchill, Their Finest Hour, 315.

48. Johnson, Churchill, 110-11.

49. Buchanan, Churchill, Hitler, 358.

50. Patience Strong, “New Leaders” in The Daily Mirror (Manchester), 20 May 1940 (

51. David Low, “All Behind You, Winston,” cartoon, Evening Standard, London, 14 May 1940.


Luftwaffe and strategic bombing Edit

In the 1920s and 1930s, airpower theorists such as Giulio Douhet and Billy Mitchell claimed that air forces could win wars, obviating the need for land and sea combat. [13] It was thought that bombers would always get through and could not be resisted, particularly at night. Industry, seats of government, factories and communications could be destroyed, depriving an opponent of the means to make war. Bombing civilians would cause a collapse of morale and a loss of production in the remaining factories. Democracies, where public opinion was allowed, were thought particularly vulnerable. The RAF and the United States Army Air Corps (USAAC) adopted much of this apocalyptic thinking. The policy of RAF Bomber Command became an attempt to achieve victory through the destruction of civilian will, communications and industry. [14]

The Luftwaffe took a cautious view of strategic bombing and OKL did not oppose the strategic bombardment of industries or cities. It believed it could greatly affect the balance of power on the battlefield by disrupting production and damaging civilian morale. OKL did not believe air power alone could be decisive and the Luftwaffe did not adopt an official policy of the deliberate bombing of civilians until 1942. [15]

The vital industries and transport centres that would be targeted for shutdown were valid military targets. It could be claimed civilians were not to be targeted directly, but the breakdown of production would affect their morale and will to fight. German legal scholars of the 1930s carefully worked out guidelines for what type of bombing was permissible under international law. While direct attacks against civilians were ruled out as "terror bombing", the concept of attacking vital war industries—and probable heavy civilian casualties and breakdown of civilian morale—was ruled as acceptable. [16]

From the beginning of the National Socialist regime until 1939, there was a debate in German military journals over the role of strategic bombardment, with some contributors arguing along the lines of the British and Americans. [17] General Walther Wever (Chief of the Luftwaffe General Staff 1 March 1935 – 3 June 1936) championed strategic bombing and the building of suitable aircraft, although he emphasised the importance of aviation in operational and tactical terms. Wever outlined five points of air strategy:

  1. To destroy the enemy air force by bombing its bases and aircraft factories and defeat enemy air forces attacking German targets.
  2. To prevent the movement of large enemy ground forces to the decisive areas, by destroying railways and roads, particularly bridges and tunnels, which are indispensable for the movement and supply of forces
  3. To support the operations of the army formations, independent of railways, i.e., armoured forces and motorised forces, by impeding the enemy's advance and participating directly in ground operations.
  4. To support naval operations by attacking naval bases, protecting German naval bases and participating directly in naval battles
  5. To paralyse the enemy armed forces by stopping production in armaments factories. [18]

Wever argued that OKL should not be solely educated in tactical and operational matters but also in grand strategy, war economics, armament production and the mentality of potential opponents (also known as mirror imaging). Wever's vision was not realised, staff studies in those subjects fell by the wayside and the Air Academies focused on tactics, technology and operational planning, rather than on independent strategic air offensives. [19]

In 1936, Wever was killed in an air crash and the failure to implement his vision for the new Luftwaffe was largely attributable to his successors. Ex-Army personnel and his successors as Chief of the Luftwaffe General Staff, Albert Kesselring (3 June 1936 – 31 May 1937) and Hans-Jürgen Stumpff (1 June 1937 – 31 January 1939) are usually blamed for abandoning strategic planning for close air support. Two prominent enthusiasts for ground-support operations (direct or indirect) were Hugo Sperrle the commander of Luftflotte 3 (1 February 1939 – 23 August 1944) and Hans Jeschonnek (Chief of the Luftwaffe General Staff from 1 February 1939 – 19 August 1943). The Luftwaffe was not pressed into ground support operations because of pressure from the army or because it was led by ex-soldiers, the Luftwaffe favoured a model of joint inter-service operations, rather than independent strategic air campaigns. [20]

Hitler, Göring and air power Edit

Hitler paid less attention to the bombing of opponents than air defence, although he promoted the development of a bomber force in the 1930s and understood it was possible to use bombers for strategic purposes. He told OKL in 1939, that ruthless employment of the Luftwaffe against the heart of the British will to resist would follow when the moment was right. Hitler quickly developed scepticism toward strategic bombing, confirmed by the results of the Blitz. He frequently complained of the Luftwaffe ' s inability to damage industries sufficiently, saying, "The munitions industry cannot be interfered with effectively by air raids . usually, the prescribed targets are not hit". [21]

While the war was being planned, Hitler never insisted upon the Luftwaffe planning a strategic bombing campaign and did not even give ample warning to the air staff, that war with Britain or even Russia was a possibility. The amount of firm operational and tactical preparation for a bombing campaign was minimal, largely because of the failure by Hitler as supreme commander to insist upon such a commitment. [21]

Ultimately, Hitler was trapped within his own vision of bombing as a terror weapon, formed in the 1930s when he threatened smaller nations into accepting German rule rather than submit to air bombardment. This fact had important implications. It showed the extent to which Hitler personally mistook Allied strategy for one of morale breaking instead of one of economic warfare, with the collapse of morale as an additional bonus. [22] Hitler was much more attracted to the political aspects of bombing. As the mere threat of it had produced diplomatic results in the 1930s, he expected that the threat of German retaliation would persuade the Allies to adopt a policy of moderation and not to begin a policy of unrestricted bombing. His hope was—for reasons of political prestige within Germany itself—that the German population would be protected from the Allied bombings. When this proved impossible, he began to fear that popular feeling would turn against his regime, and he redoubled efforts to mount a similar "terror offensive" against Britain in order to produce a stalemate in which both sides would hesitate to use bombing at all. [22]

A major problem in the managing of the Luftwaffe was Göring Hitler believed the Luftwaffe was "the most effective strategic weapon", and in reply to repeated requests from the Kriegsmarine for control over aircraft insisted, "We should never have been able to hold our own in this war if we had not had an undivided Luftwaffe." [23] Such principles made it much harder to integrate the air force into the overall strategy and produced in Göring a jealous and damaging defence of his "empire" while removing Hitler voluntarily from the systematic direction of the Luftwaffe at either the strategic or operational level. When Hitler tried to intervene more in the running of the air force later in the war, he was faced with a political conflict of his own making between himself and Göring, which was not fully resolved until the war was almost over. [23] In 1940 and 1941, Göring's refusal to co-operate with the Kriegsmarine denied the entire Wehrmacht military forces of the Reich the chance to strangle British sea communications, which might have had a strategic or decisive effect in the war against the British Empire. [24]

The deliberate separation of the Luftwaffe from the rest of the military structure encouraged the emergence of a major "communications gap" between Hitler and the Luftwaffe, which other factors helped to exacerbate. For one thing, Göring's fear of Hitler led him to falsify or misrepresent what information was available in the direction of an uncritical and over-optimistic interpretation of air strength. When Göring decided against continuing Wever's original heavy bomber programme in 1937, the Reichsmarschall's own explanation was that Hitler wanted to know only how many bombers there were, not how many engines each had. In July 1939, Göring arranged a display of the Luftwaffe ' s most advanced equipment at Rechlin, to give the impression the air force was more prepared for a strategic air war than was actually the case. [25]

Battle of Britain Edit

Although not specifically prepared to conduct independent strategic air operations against an opponent, the Luftwaffe was expected to do so over Britain. From July until September 1940 the Luftwaffe attacked Fighter Command to gain air superiority as a prelude to invasion. This involved the bombing of English Channel convoys, ports, and RAF airfields and supporting industries. Destroying RAF Fighter Command would allow the Germans to gain control of the skies over the invasion area. It was supposed Bomber Command, Coastal Command, and the Royal Navy could not operate under conditions of German air superiority. [26]

The Luftwaffe's poor intelligence meant that their aircraft were not always able to locate their targets, and thus attacks on factories and airfields failed to achieve the desired results. British fighter aircraft production continued at a rate surpassing Germany's by 2 to 1. [27] The British produced 10,000 aircraft in 1940, in comparison to Germany's 8,000. [28] The replacement of pilots and aircrew was more difficult. Both the RAF and Luftwaffe struggled to replace manpower losses, though the Germans had larger reserves of trained aircrew. The circumstances affected the Germans more than the British. Operating over home territory, British aircrew could fly again if they survived being shot down. German crews, even if they survived, faced capture. Moreover, bombers had four to five crewmen on board, representing a greater loss of manpower. [29] On 7 September, the Germans shifted away from the destruction of the RAF's supporting structures. German intelligence suggested Fighter Command was weakening, and an attack on London would force it into a final battle of annihilation while compelling the British Government to surrender. [30]

The decision to change strategy is sometimes claimed as a major mistake by OKL. It is argued that persisting with attacks on RAF airfields might have won air superiority for the Luftwaffe. [31] Others argue that the Luftwaffe made little impression on Fighter Command in the last week of August and first week of September and that the shift in strategy was not decisive. [32] It has also been argued that it was doubtful the Luftwaffe could have won air superiority before the "weather window" began to deteriorate in October. [33] [34] It was also possible, if RAF losses became severe, that they could pull out to the north, wait for the German invasion, then redeploy southward again. [34] Other historians argue that the outcome of the air battle was irrelevant the massive numerical superiority of British naval forces and the inherent weakness of the Kriegsmarine would have made the projected German invasion, Unternehmen Seelöwe (Operation Sea Lion), a disaster with or without German air superiority. [35]

Change in strategy Edit

Regardless of the ability of the Luftwaffe to win air superiority, Hitler was frustrated it was not happening quickly enough. With no sign of the RAF weakening and the Luftflotten suffering many losses, OKL was keen for a change in strategy. To reduce losses further, strategy changed to prefer night raids, giving the bombers greater protection under cover of darkness. [36] [a]

It was decided to focus on bombing Britain's industrial cities, in daylight to begin with. The main focus was London. The first major raid took place on 7 September. On 15 September, on a date known as Battle of Britain Day, a large-scale raid was launched in daylight, but suffered significant loss for no lasting gain. Although there were a few large air battles fought in daylight later in the month and into October, the Luftwaffe switched its main effort to night attacks. This became official policy on 7 October. The air campaign soon got underway against London and other British cities. However, the Luftwaffe faced limitations. Its aircraft—Dornier Do 17, Junkers Ju 88, and Heinkel He 111s—were capable of carrying out strategic missions [38] but were incapable of doing greater damage because of their small bomb-loads. [39] The Luftwaffe ' s decision in the interwar period to concentrate on medium bombers can be attributed to several reasons: Hitler did not intend or foresee a war with Britain in 1939 OKL believed a medium bomber could carry out strategic missions just as well as a heavy bomber force and Germany did not possess the resources or technical ability to produce four-engined bombers before the war. [40]

Although it had equipment capable of doing serious damage, the Luftwaffe had unclear strategy and poor intelligence. OKL had not been informed that Britain was to be considered a potential opponent until early 1938. It had no time to gather reliable intelligence on Britain's industries. Moreover, OKL could not settle on an appropriate strategy. German planners had to decide whether the Luftwaffe should deliver the weight of its attacks against a specific segment of British industry such as aircraft factories, or against a system of interrelated industries such as Britain's import and distribution network, or even in a blow aimed at breaking the morale of the British population. [41] The Luftwaffe ' s strategy became increasingly aimless over the winter of 1940–1941. [42] Disputes among OKL staff revolved more around tactics than strategy. [43] This method condemned the offensive over Britain to failure before it began. [44]

In an operational capacity, limitations in weapons technology and quick British reactions were making it more difficult to achieve strategic effect. Attacking ports, shipping and imports as well as disrupting rail traffic in the surrounding areas, especially the distribution of coal, an important fuel in all industrial economies of the Second World War, would net a positive result. However, the use of delayed-action bombs, while initially very effective, gradually had less impact, partly because they failed to detonate. [b] The British had anticipated the change in strategy and dispersed its production facilities, making them less vulnerable to a concentrated attack. Regional commissioners were given plenipotentiary powers to restore communications and organise the distribution of supplies to keep the war economy moving. [45]

Pre-war preparations and fears Edit

London had nine million people—a fifth of the British population—living in an area of 750 square miles (1,940 square kilometres), which was difficult to defend because of its size. [46] Based on experience with German strategic bombing during World War I against the United Kingdom, the British government estimated after the First World War that 50 casualties—with about one-third killed—would result for every tonne of bombs dropped on London. The estimate of tonnes of bombs an enemy could drop per day grew as aircraft technology advanced, from 75 in 1922, to 150 in 1934, to 644 in 1937. That year the Committee on Imperial Defence estimated that an attack of 60 days would result in 600,000 dead and 1.2 million wounded. News reports of the Spanish Civil War, such as the bombing of Barcelona, supported the 50-casualties-per-tonne estimate. By 1938, experts generally expected that Germany would try to drop as much as 3,500 tonnes in the first 24 hours of war and average 700 tonnes a day for several weeks. In addition to high-explosive and incendiary bombs, the Germans could use poison gas and even bacteriological warfare, all with a high degree of accuracy. [47] In 1939 military theorist Basil Liddell-Hart predicted that 250,000 deaths and injuries in Britain could occur in the first week of war. [48] London hospitals prepared for 300,000 casualties in the first week of war. [49]

British air raid sirens sounded for the first time 22 minutes after Neville Chamberlain declared war on Germany. Although bombing attacks unexpectedly did not begin immediately during the Phoney War, [49] civilians were aware of the deadly power of aerial attacks through newsreels of Barcelona, the Bombing of Guernica and the Bombing of Shanghai. Many popular works of fiction during the 1920s and 1930s portrayed aerial bombing, such as H. G. Wells' novel The Shape of Things to Come and its 1936 film adaptation, and others such as The Air War of 1936 and The Poison War. Harold Macmillan wrote in 1956 that he and others around him "thought of air warfare in 1938 rather as people think of nuclear war today". [50]

Based in part on the experience of German bombing in the First World War, politicians feared mass psychological trauma from aerial attacks and the collapse of civil society. In 1938, a committee of psychiatrists predicted three times as many mental as physical casualties from aerial bombing, implying three to four million psychiatric patients. [51] Winston Churchill told Parliament in 1934, "We must expect that, under the pressure of continuous attack upon London, at least three or four million people would be driven out into the open country around the metropolis". [48] Panic during the Munich crisis, such as the migration by 150,000 people to Wales, contributed to fear of social chaos. [52]

The government planned the evacuation of four million people—mostly women and children—from urban areas, including 1.4 million from London. It expected about 90% of evacuees to stay in private homes, conducted an extensive survey to determine the amount of space available and made detailed preparations for transporting evacuees. A trial blackout was held on 10 August 1939 and when Germany invaded Poland on 1 September, a blackout began at sunset. Lights were not allowed after dark for almost six years and the blackout became by far the most unpopular aspect of the war for civilians, even more than rationing. [53] The relocation of the government and the civil service was also planned but would only have occurred if necessary so as not to damage civilian morale. [54]

Much civil-defence preparation in the form of shelters was left in the hands of local authorities and many areas such as Birmingham, Coventry, Belfast and the East End of London did not have enough shelters. [48] The unexpected delay to civilian bombing during the Phoney War meant that the shelter programme finished in June 1940, before the Blitz. [55] The programme favoured backyard Anderson shelters and small brick surface shelters many of the latter were abandoned in 1940 as unsafe. Authorities expected that the raids would be brief and in daylight, rather than attacks by night, which forced Londoners to sleep in shelters. [56]

Communal shelters Edit

Deep shelters provided most protection against a direct hit. The government did not build them for large populations before the war because of cost, time to build and fears that their safety would cause occupants to refuse to leave to return to work or that anti-war sentiment would develop in large congregations of civilians. The government saw the leading role taken by the Communist Party in advocating the building of deep shelters as an attempt to damage civilian morale, especially after the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939. [56] [57]

The most important existing communal shelters were the London Underground stations. Although many civilians had used them for shelter during the First World War, the government in 1939 refused to allow the stations to be used as shelters so as not to interfere with commuter and troop travel and the fears that occupants might refuse to leave. Underground officials were ordered to lock station entrances during raids but by the second week of heavy bombing, the government relented and ordered the stations to be opened. Each day orderly lines of people queued until 4:00 pm, when they were allowed to enter the stations. In mid-September 1940, about 150,000 people a night slept in the Underground, although by winter and spring the numbers declined to 100,000 or less. Battle noises were muffled and sleep was easier in the deepest stations but many people were killed from direct hits on stations. [58] In March 1943, 173 men, women and children were crushed to death at Bethnal Green tube station in a crowd surge after a woman fell down the steps as she entered the station. [59]

Communal shelters never housed more than one seventh of Greater London residents. [60] Peak use of the Underground as shelter was 177,000 on 27 September 1940 and a November 1940 census of London, found that about 4% of residents used the Tube and other large shelters, 9% in public surface shelters and 27% in private home shelters, implying that the remaining 60% of the city stayed at home. [61] [62] The government distributed Anderson shelters until 1941 and that year began distributing the Morrison shelter, which could be used inside homes. [63]

Public demand caused the government in October 1940 to build new deep shelters within the Underground to hold 80,000 people but the period of heaviest bombing had passed before they were finished. [64] By the end of 1940 improvements had been made in the Underground and in many other large shelters. Authorities provided stoves and bathrooms and canteen trains provided food. Tickets were issued for bunks in large shelters, to reduce the amount of time spent queuing. Committees quickly formed within shelters as informal governments, and organisations such as the British Red Cross and the Salvation Army worked to improve conditions. Entertainment included concerts, films, plays and books from local libraries. [65]

Although only a small number of Londoners used the mass shelters, when journalists, celebrities and foreigners visited they became part of the Beveridge Report, part of a national debate on social and class division. Most residents found that such divisions continued within the shelters and many arguments and fights occurred over noise, space and other matters. Anti-Jewish sentiment was reported, particularly around the East End of London, with anti-Semitic graffiti and anti-Semitic rumours, such as that Jewish people were "hogging" air raid shelters. [66] Contrary to pre-war fears of anti-Semitic violence in the East End, one observer found that the "Cockney and the Jew [worked] together, against the Indian". [67]

"Blitz Spirit" Edit

Although the intensity of the bombing was not as great as pre-war expectations so an equal comparison is impossible, no psychiatric crisis occurred because of the Blitz even during the period of greatest bombing of September 1940. An American witness wrote "By every test and measure I am able to apply, these people are staunch to the bone and won't quit . the British are stronger and in a better position than they were at its beginning". People referred to raids as if they were weather, stating that a day was "very blitzy". [68]

According to Anna Freud and Edward Glover, London civilians surprisingly did not suffer from widespread shell shock, unlike the soldiers in the Dunkirk evacuation. [69] The psychoanalysts were correct, and the special network of psychiatric clinics opened to receive mental casualties of the attacks closed due to lack of need. Although the stress of the war resulted in many anxiety attacks, eating disorders, fatigue, weeping, miscarriages, and other physical and mental ailments, society did not collapse. The number of suicides and drunkenness declined, and London recorded only about two cases of "bomb neurosis" per week in the first three months of bombing. Many civilians found that the best way to retain mental stability was to be with family, and after the first few weeks of bombing, avoidance of the evacuation programmes grew. [70] [71] [72]

The cheerful crowds visiting bomb sites were so large they interfered with rescue work, [67] pub visits increased in number (beer was never rationed), and 13,000 attended cricket at Lord's. People left shelters when told instead of refusing to leave, although many housewives reportedly enjoyed the break from housework. Some people even told government surveyors that they enjoyed air raids if they occurred occasionally, perhaps once a week. Despite the attacks, defeat in Norway and France, and the threat of invasion, overall morale remained high a Gallup poll found only 3% of Britons expected to lose the war in May 1940, another found an 88% approval rating for Churchill in July, and a third found 89% support for his leadership in October. Support for peace negotiations declined from 29% in February. Each setback caused more civilians to volunteer to become unpaid Local Defence Volunteers, workers worked longer shifts and over weekends, contributions rose to the £5,000 "Spitfire Funds" to build fighters and the number of work days lost to strikes in 1940 was the lowest in history. [73]

Civilian mobilisation Edit

Civilians of London played an enormous role in protecting their city. Many civilians who were unwilling or unable to join the military joined the Home Guard, the Air Raid Precautions service (ARP), the Auxiliary Fire Service and many other civilian organisations the AFS had 138,000 personnel by July 1939. Only one year earlier, there had only been 6,600 full-time and 13,800 part-time firemen in the entire country. [74] Before the war, civilians were issued with 50 million respirators (gas masks) in case bombardment with gas began before evacuation. [75] During the Blitz, The Scout Association guided fire engines to where they were most needed and became known as the "Blitz Scouts". Many unemployed people were drafted into the Royal Army Pay Corps and with the Pioneer Corps, were tasked with salvaging and clean-up. [76] The Women's Voluntary Services for Civil Defence (WVS) was established in 1938 by the Home Secretary, Samuel Hoare, who considered it the female branch of the ARP. [77] The WVS organised the evacuation of children, established centres for those displaced by bombing and operated canteens, salvage and recycling schemes. By the end of 1941, the WVS had one million members. [77]

Pre-war dire predictions of mass air-raid neurosis were not borne out. Predictions had underestimated civilian adaptability and resourcefulness also there were many new civil defence roles that gave a sense of fighting back rather than despair. Official histories concluded that the mental health of a nation may have improved, while panic was rare. [78]

British air doctrine, since Hugh Trenchard had commanded the Royal Flying Corps (1915–1917), stressed offence as the best means of defence, [79] which became known as the cult of the offensive. To prevent German formations from hitting targets in Britain, Bomber Command would destroy Luftwaffe aircraft on their bases, aircraft in their factories and fuel reserves by attacking oil plants. This philosophy proved impractical, as Bomber Command lacked the technology and equipment for mass night operations, since resources were diverted to Fighter Command in the mid-1930s and it took until 1943 to catch up. Dowding agreed air defence would require some offensive action and that fighters could not defend Britain alone. [80] Until September 1939, the RAF lacked specialist night-fighting aircraft and relied on anti-aircraft units, which were poorly equipped and lacking in numbers. [81]

The attitude of the Air Ministry was in contrast to the experiences of the First World War when German bombers caused physical and psychological damage out of all proportion to their numbers. Around 280 short tons (250 t) (9,000 bombs) had been dropped, killing 1,413 people and injuring 3,500 more. Many people over 35 remembered the bombing and were afraid of more. From 1916 to 1918, German raids had diminished against countermeasures which demonstrated defence against night air raids was possible. [82] Although night air defence was causing greater concern before the war, it was not at the forefront of RAF planning after 1935, when funds were directed into the new ground-based radar day fighter interception system. The difficulty of RAF bombers in night navigation and target finding led the British to believe that it would be the same for German bomber crews. There was also a mentality in all air forces that flying by day would obviate the need for night operations and their inherent disadvantages. [83]

Hugh Dowding, Air Officer Commanding Fighter Command, defeated the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain, but preparing day fighter defences left little for night air defence. When the Luftwaffe struck at British cities for the first time on 7 September 1940, a number of civic and political leaders were worried by Dowding's apparent lack of reaction to the new crisis. [84] Dowding accepted that as AOC, he was responsible for the day and night defence of Britain but seemed reluctant to act quickly and his critics in the Air Staff felt that this was due to his stubborn nature. Dowding was summoned on 17 October, to explain the poor state of the night defences and the supposed (but ultimately successful) "failure" of his daytime strategy. The Minister of Aircraft Production, Lord Beaverbrook and Churchill distanced themselves. The failure to prepare adequate night air defences was undeniable but it was not the responsibility of the AOC Fighter Command to dictate the disposal of resources. The general neglect of the RAF until the late spurt in 1938, left few resources for night air defence and the Government, through the Air Ministry and other civil and military institutions was responsible for policy. Before the war, the Chamberlain government stated that night defence from air attack should not take up much of the national effort. [84]

German night navigation devices Edit

Because of the inaccuracy of celestial navigation for night navigation and target finding in a fast-moving aircraft, the Luftwaffe developed radio navigation devices and relied on three systems: Knickebein (Crooked leg), X-Gerät (X-Device), and Y-Gerät (Y-Device). This led the British to develop countermeasures, which became known as the Battle of the Beams. [85] Bomber crews already had some experience with the Lorenz beam, a commercial blind-landing aid for night or bad weather landings. The Germans adapted the short-range Lorenz system into Knickebein, a 30–33 MHz system, which used two Lorenz beams with much stronger signals. Two aerials at ground stations were rotated so that their beams converged over the target. The German bombers would fly along either beam until they picked up the signal from the other beam. When a continuous sound was heard from the second beam the crew knew they were above the target and dropped their bombs. [86] [87]

Knickebein was in general use but the X-Gerät (X apparatus) was reserved for specially trained pathfinder crews. X-Gerät receivers were mounted in He 111s, with a radio mast on the fuselage. The system worked on 66–77 MHz, a higher frequency than Knickebein. Ground transmitters sent pulses at a rate of 180 per minute. X-Gerät received and analysed the pulses, giving the pilot visual and aural directions. Three cross-beams intersected the beam along which the He 111 was flying. The first cross-beam alerted the bomb-aimer, who activated a bombing clock when the second cross-beam was reached. When the third cross-beam was reached the bomb aimer activated a third trigger, which stopped the first hand of the clock, with the second hand continuing. When the second hand re-aligned with the first, the bombs were released. The clock mechanism was co-ordinated with the distances of the intersecting beams from the target so the target was directly below when the bombs were released. [87] [88]

Y-Gerät was an automatic beam-tracking system and the most complex of the three devices, which was operated through autopilot. The pilot flew along an approach beam, monitored by a ground controller. Signals from the station were retransmitted by the bomber's equipment, which allowed the distance the bomber had travelled along the beam to be measured precisely. Direction-finding checks also enabled the controller to keep the pilot on course. The crew would be ordered to drop their bombs either by a code word from the ground controller or at the conclusion of the signal transmissions which would stop. The maximum range of Y-Gerät was similar to the other systems and it was accurate enough on occasion for specific buildings to be hit. [87] [88]

British countermeasures Edit

In June 1940, a German prisoner of war was overheard boasting that the British would never find the Knickebein, even though it was under their noses. The details of the conversation were passed to an RAF Air Staff technical advisor, Dr. R. V. Jones, who started a search which discovered that Luftwaffe Lorenz receivers were more than blind-landing devices. Jones began a search for German beams Avro Ansons of the Beam Approach Training Development Unit (BATDU) were flown up and down Britain fitted with a 30 MHz receiver. Soon a beam was traced to Derby (which had been mentioned in Luftwaffe transmissions). The first jamming operations were carried out using requisitioned hospital electrocautery machines. [89] The counter-operations were carried out by British Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) units under Wing Commander Edward Addison, No. 80 Wing RAF. The production of false radio navigation signals by re-transmitting the originals became known as meaconing using masking beacons (meacons). [45] Up to nine special transmitters directed their signals at the beams in a manner that subtly widened their paths, making it harder for bomber crews to locate targets confidence in the device was diminished by the time the Luftwaffe was ready to conduct big raids. [89]

German beacons operated on the medium-frequency band and the signals involved a two-letter Morse identifier followed by a lengthy time-lapse which enabled the Luftwaffe crews to determine the signal's bearing. The meacon system involved separate locations for a receiver with a directional aerial and a transmitter. The receipt of the German signal by the receiver was duly passed to the transmitter, the signal to be repeated. The action did not guarantee automatic success. If the German bomber flew closer to its own beam than the meacon then the former signal would come through the stronger on the direction finder. The reverse would apply only if the meacon were closer. [90] In general, German bombers were likely to get through to their targets without too much difficulty. It was to be some months before an effective night-fighter force would be ready, and anti-aircraft defences only became adequate after the Blitz was over, so ruses were created to lure German bombers away from their targets. Throughout 1940, dummy airfields were prepared, good enough to stand up to skilled observation. An unknown number of bombs fell on these diversionary ("Starfish") targets. [90]

For industrial areas, fires and lighting were simulated. It was decided to recreate normal residential street lighting, and in non-essential areas, lighting to recreate heavy industrial targets. In those sites, carbon arc lamps were used to simulate flashes at tram overhead wires. Red lamps were used to simulate blast furnaces and locomotive fireboxes. Reflections made by factory skylights were created by placing lights under angled wooden panels. [90] The use of diversionary techniques such as fires had to be made carefully. The fake fires could only begin when the bombing started over an adjacent target and its effects were brought under control. Too early and the chances of success receded too late and the real conflagration at the target would exceed the diversionary fires. Another innovation was the boiler fire. These units were fed from two adjacent tanks containing oil and water. The oil-fed fires were then injected with water from time to time the flashes produced were similar to those of the German C-250 and C-500 Flammbomben. The hope was that, if it could deceive German bombardiers, it would draw more bombers away from the real target. [90]

Loge and Seeschlange Edit

The first deliberate air raids on London were mainly aimed at the Port of London, causing severe damage. [39] Late in the afternoon of 7 September 1940, the Germans began Operation London (Unternehmen Loge) (the codename for London) and Seeschlange (Sea Snake), the air offensives against London and other industrial cities. Loge continued for 57 nights. [91] A total of 348 bombers and 617 fighters took part in the attack. [92] [93]

Initially, the change in strategy caught the RAF off-guard and caused extensive damage and civilian casualties. Some 107,400 gross tons of shipping was damaged in the Thames Estuary and 1,600 civilians were casualties. [94] Of this total around 400 were killed. [95] The fighting in the air was more intense in daylight. Loge had cost the Luftwaffe 41 aircraft 14 bombers, 16 Messerschmitt Bf 109s, seven Messerschmitt Bf 110s and four reconnaissance aircraft. [96] Fighter Command lost 23 fighters, with six pilots killed and another seven wounded. [97] Another 247 bombers from Luftflotte 3 (Air Fleet 3) attacked that night. [98] On 8 September the Luftwaffe returned 412 people were killed and 747 severely wounded. [91]

On 9 September the OKL appeared to be backing two strategies. Its round-the-clock bombing of London was an immediate attempt to force the British government to capitulate, but it was also striking at Britain's vital sea communications to achieve a victory through siege. Although the weather was poor, heavy raids took place that afternoon on the London suburbs and the airfield at Farnborough. The day's fighting cost Kesselring and Luftflotte 2 (Air Fleet 2) 24 aircraft, including 13 Bf 109s. Fighter Command lost 17 fighters and six pilots. Over the next few days weather was poor and the next main effort would not be made until 15 September 1940. [91]

On 15 September the Luftwaffe made two large daylight attacks on London along the Thames Estuary, targeting the docks and rail communications in the city. Its hope was to destroy its targets and draw the RAF into defending them, allowing the Luftwaffe to destroy their fighters in large numbers, thereby achieving air superiority. [5] Large air battles broke out, lasting for most of the day. The first attack merely damaged the rail network for three days, [99] and the second attack failed altogether. [100] The air battle was later commemorated by Battle of Britain Day. The Luftwaffe lost 18 percent of the bombers sent on the operations that day and failed to gain air superiority. [33]

While Göring was optimistic the Luftwaffe could prevail, Hitler was not. On 17 September he postponed Operation Sea Lion (as it turned out, indefinitely) rather than gamble Germany's newly gained military prestige on a risky cross-Channel operation, particularly in the face of a sceptical Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union. In the last days of the battle, the bombers became lures in an attempt to draw the RAF into combat with German fighters. But their operations were to no avail the worsening weather and unsustainable attrition in daylight gave the OKL an excuse to switch to night attacks on 7 October. [33] [101] [102]

On 14 October, the heaviest night attack to date saw 380 German bombers from Luftflotte 3 hit London. Around 200 people were killed and another 2,000 injured. British anti-aircraft defences (General Frederick Alfred Pile) fired 8,326 rounds and shot down only 2 bombers. On 15 October, the bombers returned and about 900 fires were started by the mix of 415 short tons (376 t) of high explosive and 11 short tons (10.0 t) of incendiaries dropped. Five main rail lines were cut in London and rolling stock damaged. [103]

Loge continued during October. 9,000 short tons (8,200 t) of bombs were dropped that month, about 10 percent in daylight, over 6,000 short tons (5,400 t) on London during the night. Birmingham and Coventry were subject to 500 short tons (450 t) of bombs between them in the last 10 days of October. Liverpool suffered 200 short tons (180 t) of bombs dropped. Hull and Glasgow were attacked but 800 short tons (730 t) of bombs were spread out all over Britain. The Metropolitan-Vickers works in Manchester was hit by 12 short tons (11 t) of bombs. Little tonnage was dropped on Fighter Command airfields Bomber Command airfields were hit instead. [104]

Luftwaffe policy at this point was primarily to continue progressive attacks on London, chiefly by night attack second, to interfere with production in the vast industrial arms factories of the West Midlands, again chiefly by night attack and third to disrupt plants and factories during the day by means of fighter-bombers. [105]

Kesselring, commanding Luftflotte 2, was ordered to send 50 sorties per night against London and attack eastern harbours in daylight. Sperrle, commanding Luftflotte 3, was ordered to dispatch 250 sorties per night including 100 against the West Midlands. Seeschlange would be carried out by Fliegerkorps X (10th Air Corps) which concentrated on mining operations against shipping. It also took part in the bombing over Britain. By 19/20 April 1941, it had dropped 3,984 mines, 1 ⁄ 3 of the total dropped. The mines' ability to destroy entire streets earned them respect in Britain, but several fell unexploded into British hands allowing counter-measures to be developed which damaged the German anti-shipping campaign. [106]

By mid-November 1940, when the Germans adopted a changed plan, more than 13,000 short tons (12,000 t) of high explosive and nearly 1,000,000 incendiaries had fallen on London. Outside the capital, there had been widespread harassing activity by single aircraft, as well as fairly strong diversionary attacks on Birmingham, Coventry and Liverpool, but no major raids. The London docks and railways communications had taken a heavy pounding, and much damage had been done to the railway system outside. In September, there had been no less than 667 hits on railways in Great Britain, and at one period, between 5,000 and 6,000 wagons were standing idle from the effect of delayed action bombs. But the great bulk of the traffic went on, and Londoners—though they glanced apprehensively each morning at the list of closed stretches of line displayed at their local station, or made strange detours round back streets in the buses—still got to work. For all the destruction of life and property, the observers sent out by the Ministry of Home Security failed to discover the slightest sign of a break in morale. More than 13,000 civilians had been killed, and almost 20,000 injured, in September and October alone, [107] but the death toll was much less than expected. In late 1940, Churchill credited the shelters. [108]

Wartime observers perceived the bombing as indiscriminate. American observer Ralph Ingersoll reported the bombing was inaccurate and did not hit targets of military value, but destroyed the surrounding areas. Ingersol wrote that Battersea Power Station, one of the largest landmarks in London, received only a minor hit. [109] In fact, on 8 September 1940 both Battersea and West Ham Power Station were both shut down after the 7 September daylight attack on London. [110] In the case of Battersea power station, an unused extension was hit and destroyed during November but the station was not put out of action during the night attacks. [111] It is not clear whether the power station or any specific structure was targeted during the German offensive as the Luftwaffe could not accurately bomb select targets during night operations. [112] In the initial operations against London, it did appear as if rail targets and the bridges over the Thames had been singled out: Victoria Station was hit by four bombs and suffered extensive damage. [112] The bombing disrupted rail traffic through London without destroying any of the crossings. [113] On 7 November, St Pancras, Kensal and Bricklayers Arms stations were hit and several lines of Southern Rail were cut on 10 November. The British government grew anxious about the delays and disruption of supplies during the month. Reports suggested the attacks blocked the movement of coal to the Greater London regions and urgent repairs were required. [114] Attacks against East End docks were effective and many Thames barges were destroyed. The London Underground rail system was also affected high explosive bombs damaged the tunnels rendering some unsafe. [115] The London Docklands, in particular, the Royal Victoria Dock, received many hits and Port of London trade was disrupted. In some cases, the concentration of the bombing and resulting conflagration created firestorms of 1,000 °C. [116] The Ministry of Home Security reported that although the damage caused was "serious" it was not "crippling" and the quays, basins, railways and equipment remained operational. [117]

Improvements in British defences Edit

British night air defences were in a poor state. [118] Few anti-aircraft guns had fire-control systems, and the underpowered searchlights were usually ineffective against aircraft at altitudes above 12,000 ft (3,700 m). [119] [120] In July 1940, only 1,200 heavy and 549 light guns were deployed in the whole of Britain. Of the "heavies", some 200 were of the obsolescent 3 in (76 mm) type the remainder were the effective 4.5 in (110 mm) and 3.7 in (94 mm) guns, with a theoretical "ceiling"' of over 30,000 ft (9,100 m) but a practical limit of 25,000 ft (7,600 m) because the predictor in use could not accept greater heights. The light guns, about half of which were of the excellent Bofors 40 mm, dealt with aircraft only up to 6,000 ft (1,800 m). [121] Although the use of the guns improved civilian morale, with the knowledge the German bomber crews were facing the barrage, it is now believed that the anti-aircraft guns achieved little and in fact the falling shell fragments caused more British casualties on the ground. [122]

Few fighter aircraft were able to operate at night. Ground-based radar was limited, and airborne radar and RAF night fighters were generally ineffective. [123] RAF day fighters were converting to night operations and the interim Bristol Blenheim night fighter conversion of the light bomber was being replaced by the powerful Beaufighter, but this was only available in very small numbers. [124] By the second month of the Blitz the defences were not performing well. [125] London's defences were rapidly reorganised by General Pile, the Commander-in-Chief of Anti-Aircraft Command. The difference this made to the effectiveness of air defences is questionable. The British were still one-third below the establishment of heavy anti-aircraft artillery AAA (or ack-ack) in May 1941, with only 2,631 weapons available. Dowding had to rely on night fighters. From 1940 to 1941, the most successful night-fighter was the Boulton Paul Defiant its four squadrons shot down more enemy aircraft than any other type. [126] AA defences improved by better use of radar and searchlights. Over several months, the 20,000 shells spent per raider shot down in September 1940, was reduced to 4,087 in January 1941 and to 2,963 shells in February 1941. [127]

Airborne Interception radar (AI) was unreliable. The heavy fighting in the Battle of Britain had eaten up most of Fighter Command's resources, so there was little investment in night fighting. Bombers were flown with airborne search lights out of desperation but to little avail. Of greater potential was the GL (Gunlaying) radar and searchlights with fighter direction from RAF fighter control rooms to begin a GCI system (Ground Control-led Interception) under Group-level control (No. 10 Group RAF, No. 11 Group RAF and No. 12 Group RAF). [128] Whitehall's disquiet at the failures of the RAF led to the replacement of Dowding (who was already due for retirement) with Sholto Douglas on 25 November. Douglas set about introducing more squadrons and dispersing the few GL sets to create a carpet effect in the southern counties. Still, in February 1941, there remained only seven squadrons with 87 pilots, under half the required strength. The GL carpet was supported by six GCI sets controlling radar-equipped night-fighters. By the height of the Blitz, they were becoming more successful. The number of contacts and combats rose in 1941, from 44 and two in 48 sorties in January 1941, to 204 and 74 in May (643 sorties). But even in May, 67 percent of the sorties were visual cat's-eye missions. Curiously, while 43 percent of the contacts in May 1941 were by visual sightings, they accounted for 61 percent of the combats. Yet when compared with Luftwaffe daylight operations, there was a sharp decline in German losses to one percent. If a vigilant bomber crew could spot the fighter first, they had a decent chance of evading it. [128]

Nevertheless, it was radar that proved to be the critical weapon in the night battles over Britain from this point onward. Dowding had introduced the concept of airborne radar and encouraged its usage. Eventually, it would become a success. On the night of 22/23 July, 1940, Flying Officer Cyril Ashfield (pilot), Pilot Officer Geoffrey Morris (air observer) and Flight Sergeant Reginald Leyland (Air Intercept radar operator) of the Fighter Interception Unit became the first pilot and crew to intercept and destroy an enemy aircraft using onboard radar to guide them to a visual interception, when their AI night fighter brought down a Do 17 off Sussex. [129] On 19 November 1940 the famous RAF night fighter ace John Cunningham shot down a Ju 88 bomber using airborne radar, just as Dowding had predicted. [130] By mid-November, nine squadrons were available, but only one was equipped with Beaufighters (No. 219 Squadron RAF at RAF Kenley). By 16 February 1941, this had grown to 12 with 5 equipped, or partially equipped with Beaufighters spread over 5 Groups. [131]

Night attacks Edit

From November 1940 to February 1941, the Luftwaffe shifted its strategy and attacked other industrial cities. [132] In particular, the West Midlands were targeted. On the night of 13/14 November, 77 He 111s of Kampfgeschwader 26 (26th Bomber Wing, or KG 26) bombed London while 63 from KG 55 hit Birmingham. The next night, a large force hit Coventry. "Pathfinders" from 12 Kampfgruppe 100 (Bomb Group 100 or KGr 100) led 437 bombers from KG 1, KG 3, KG 26, KG 27, KG 55 and Lehrgeschwader 1 (1st Training Wing, or LG 1) which dropped 394 short tons (357 t) of high explosive, 56 short tons (51 t) of incendiaries, and 127 parachute mines. [124] Other sources say 449 bombers and a total of 530 short tons (480 t) of bombs were dropped. [133] The raid against Coventry was particularly devastating, and led to widespread use of the phrase "to coventrate". [124] Over 10,000 incendiaries were dropped. [134] Around 21 factories were seriously damaged in Coventry, and loss of public utilities stopped work at nine others, disrupting industrial output for several months. Only one bomber was lost, to anti-aircraft fire, despite the RAF flying 125-night sorties. No follow-up raids were made, as OKL underestimated the British power of recovery (as Bomber Command would do over Germany from 1943 to 1945). [133] The Germans were surprised by the success of the attack. The concentration had been achieved by accident. [135] The strategic effect of the raid was a brief 20 percent dip in aircraft production. [10]

Five nights later, Birmingham was hit by 369 bombers from KG 54, KG 26, and KG 55. By the end of November, 1,100 bombers were available for night raids. An average of 200 were able to strike per night. This weight of attack went on for two months, with the Luftwaffe dropping 13,900 short tons (12,600 t) of bombs. [124] In November 1940, 6,000 sorties and 23 major attacks (more than 100 tons of bombs dropped) were flown. Two heavy (50 short tons (45 t) of bombs) attacks were also flown. In December, only 11 major and five heavy attacks were made. [136]

Probably the most devastating attack occurred on the evening of 29 December, when German aircraft attacked the City of London itself with incendiary and high explosive bombs, causing a firestorm that has been called the Second Great Fire of London. [137] The first group to use these incendiaries was Kampfgruppe 100 which despatched 10 "pathfinder" He 111s. At 18:17, it released the first of 10,000 firebombs, eventually amounting to 300 dropped per minute. [138] [ failed verification ] Altogether, 130 German bombers destroyed the historical centre of London. [139] Civilian casualties on London throughout the Blitz amounted to 28,556 killed, and 25,578 wounded. The Luftwaffe had dropped 18,291 short tons (16,593 t) of bombs. [140]

Not all of the Luftwaffe effort was made against inland cities. Port cities were also attacked to try to disrupt trade and sea communications. In January, Swansea was bombed four times, very heavily. On 17 January around 100 bombers dropped a high concentration of incendiaries, some 32,000 in all. The main damage was inflicted on the commercial and domestic areas. Four days later 230 tons were dropped including 60,000 incendiaries. In Portsmouth Southsea and Gosport waves of 150 bombers destroyed vast swaths of the city with 40,000 incendiaries. Warehouses, rail lines and houses were destroyed and damaged, but the docks were largely untouched. [141] In January and February 1941, Luftwaffe serviceability rates declined until just 551 of 1,214 bombers were combat-worthy. Seven major and eight heavy attacks were flown, but the weather made it difficult to keep up the pressure. Still, at Southampton, attacks were so effective morale did give way briefly with civilian authorities leading people en masse out of the city. [136]

Strategic or "terror" bombing Edit

Although official German air doctrine did target civilian morale, it did not espouse the attacking of civilians directly. It hoped to destroy morale by destroying the enemy's factories and public utilities as well as its food stocks (by attacking shipping). Nevertheless, its official opposition to attacks on civilians became an increasingly moot point when large-scale raids were conducted in November and December 1940. Although not encouraged by official policy, the use of mines and incendiaries, for tactical expediency, came close to indiscriminate bombing. Locating targets in skies obscured by industrial haze meant the target area needed to be illuminated and hit "without regard for the civilian population". [106] Special units, such as KGr 100, became the Beleuchtergruppe (Firelighter Group), which used incendiaries and high explosives to mark the target area. The tactic was expanded into Feuerleitung (Blaze Control) with the creation of Brandbombenfelder (Incendiary Fields) to mark targets. These were marked out by parachute flares. Then bombers carrying SC 1000 (1,000 kg (2,205 lb)), SC 1400 (1,400 kg (3,086 lb)), and SC 1800 (1,800 kg (3,968 lb)) "Satan" bombs were used to level streets and residential areas. By December, the SC 2500 (2,500 kg (5,512 lb)) "Max" bomb was used. [106]

These decisions, apparently taken at the Luftflotte or Fliegerkorps level, meant attacks on individual targets were gradually replaced by what was, for all intents and purposes, an unrestricted area attack or Terrorangriff (Terror Attack). [142] Part of the reason for this was inaccuracy of navigation. The effectiveness of British countermeasures against Knickebein, which was designed to avoid area attacks, forced the Luftwaffe to resort to these methods. [142] The shift from precision bombing to area attack is indicated in the tactical methods and weapons dropped. KGr 100 increased its use of incendiaries from 13 to 28 percent. By December, this had increased to 92 percent. [142] Use of incendiaries, which were inherently inaccurate, indicated much less care was taken to avoid civilian property close to industrial sites. Other units ceased using parachute flares and opted for explosive target markers. [142] Captured German aircrews also indicated the homes of industrial workers were deliberately targeted. [142]

Directive 23: Göring and the Kriegsmarine Edit

In 1941, the Luftwaffe shifted strategy again. Erich Raeder—commander-in-chief of the Kriegsmarine—had long argued the Luftwaffe should support the German submarine force (U-Bootwaffe) in the Battle of the Atlantic by attacking shipping in the Atlantic Ocean and attacking British ports. [143] Eventually, he convinced Hitler of the need to attack British port facilities. [144] At Raeder's prompting, Hitler correctly noted that the greatest damage to the British war economy had been done through the destruction of merchant shipping by submarines and air attacks by small numbers of Focke-Wulf Fw 200 naval aircraft and ordered the German air arm to focus its efforts against British convoys. This meant that British coastal centres and shipping at sea west of Ireland were the prime targets. [145]

Hitler's interest in this strategy forced Göring and Jeschonnek to review the air war against Britain in January 1941. This led to Göring and Jeschonnek agreeing to Hitler's Directive 23, Directions for operations against the British War Economy, which was published on 6 February 1941 and gave aerial interdiction of British imports by sea top priority. [146] This strategy had been recognised before the war, but Operation Eagle Attack and the following Battle of Britain had got in the way of striking at Britain's sea communications and diverted German air strength to the campaign against the RAF and its supporting structures. [147] The OKL had always regarded the interdiction of sea communications of less importance than bombing land-based aircraft industries. [148]

Directive 23 was the only concession made by Göring to the Kriegsmarine over the strategic bombing strategy of the Luftwaffe against Britain. Thereafter, he would refuse to make available any air units to destroy British dockyards, ports, port facilities, or shipping in dock or at sea, lest Kriegsmarine gain control of more Luftwaffe units. [149] Raeder's successor—Karl Dönitz—would—on the intervention of Hitler—gain control of one unit (KG 40), but Göring would soon regain it. Göring's lack of co-operation was detrimental to the one air strategy with potentially decisive strategic effect on Britain. Instead, he wasted aircraft of Fliegerführer Atlantik (Flying Command Atlantic) on bombing mainland Britain instead of attacks against convoys. [150] For Göring, his prestige had been damaged by the defeat in the Battle of Britain, and he wanted to regain it by subduing Britain by air power alone. He was always reluctant to co-operate with Raeder. [151]

Even so, the decision by the OKL to support the strategy in Directive 23 was instigated by two considerations, both of which had little to do with wanting to destroy Britain's sea communications in conjunction with the Kriegsmarine. First, the difficulty in estimating the impact of bombing upon war production was becoming apparent, and second, the conclusion British morale was unlikely to break led the OKL to adopt the naval option. [146] The indifference displayed by the OKL to Directive 23 was perhaps best demonstrated in operational directives which diluted its effect. They emphasised the core strategic interest was attacking ports but they insisted in maintaining pressure or diverting strength, onto industries building aircraft, anti-aircraft guns, and explosives. Other targets would be considered if the primary ones could not be attacked because of weather conditions. [146]

A further line in the directive stressed the need to inflict the heaviest losses possible, but also to intensify the air war in order to create the impression an amphibious assault on Britain was planned for 1941. However, meteorological conditions over Britain were not favourable for flying and prevented an escalation in air operations. Airfields became water-logged and the 18 Kampfgruppen (bomber groups) of the Luftwaffe ' s Kampfgeschwadern (bomber wings) were relocated to Germany for rest and re-equipment. [146]

British ports Edit

From the German point of view, March 1941 saw an improvement. The Luftwaffe flew 4,000 sorties that month, including 12 major and three heavy attacks. The electronic war intensified but the Luftwaffe flew major inland missions only on moonlit nights. Ports were easier to find and made better targets. To confuse the British, radio silence was observed until the bombs fell. X- and Y-Gerät beams were placed over false targets and switched only at the last minute. Rapid frequency changes were introduced for X-Gerät, whose wider band of frequencies and greater tactical flexibility ensured it remained effective at a time when British selective jamming was degrading the effectiveness of Y-Gerät. [146]

By now, the imminent threat of invasion had all but passed as the Luftwaffe had failed to gain the prerequisite air superiority. The aerial bombing was now principally aimed at the destruction of industrial targets, but also continued with the objective of breaking the morale of the civilian population. [37] The attacks were focused against western ports in March. These attacks produced some breaks in morale, with civil leaders fleeing the cities before the offensive reached its height. But the Luftwaffe ' s effort eased in the last 10 attacks as seven Kampfgruppen moved to Austria in preparation for the Balkans Campaign in Yugoslavia and Greece. The shortage of bombers caused OKL to improvise. [146] Some 50 Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers and Jabos (fighter-bombers) were used, officially classed as Leichte Kampfflugzeuge ("light bombers") and sometimes called Leichte Kesselringe ("Light Kesselrings"). The defences failed to prevent widespread damage but on some occasions did prevent German bombers concentrating on their targets. On occasion, only one-third of German bombs hit their targets. [152]

The diversion of heavier bombers to the Balkans meant that the crews and units left behind were asked to fly two or three sorties per night. Bombers were noisy, cold, and vibrated badly. Added to the tension of the mission which exhausted and drained crews, tiredness caught up with and killed many. In one incident on 28/29 April, Peter Stahl of KG 30 was flying on his 50th mission. He fell asleep at the controls of his Ju 88 and woke up to discover the entire crew asleep. He roused them, ensured they took oxygen and Dextro-Energen tablets, then completed the mission. [153]

The Luftwaffe could still inflict much damage and after the German conquest of Western Europe, the air and submarine offensive against British sea communications became much more dangerous than the German offensive during the First World War. Liverpool and its port became an important destination for convoys heading through the Western Approaches from North America, bringing supplies and materials. The considerable rail network distributed to the rest of the country. [154] Air attacks sank 39,126 long tons (39,754 t) of shipping, with another 111,601 long tons (113,392 t) damaged. Minister of Home Security Herbert Morrison was also worried morale was breaking, noting the defeatism expressed by civilians. [153] Other sources point out that half of the 144 berths in the port were rendered unusable and cargo unloading capability was reduced by 75 percent. Roads and railways were blocked and ships could not leave harbour. On 8 May 1941, 57 ships were destroyed, sunk or damaged, amounting to 80,000 long tons (81,000 t). Around 66,000 houses were destroyed and 77,000 people made homeless ("bombed out" [155] ), with 1,900 people killed and 1,450 seriously hurt on one night. [156] Operations against London up until May 1941 could also have a severe impact on morale. The populace of the port of Hull became "trekkers", people who made a mass exodus from cities before, during and after attacks. [153] The Luftwaffe attacks failed to knock out railways or port facilities for long, even in the Port of London, a target of many attacks. [39] The Port of London, in particular, was an important target, bringing in one-third of overseas trade. [157]

On 13 March, the upper Clyde port of Clydebank near Glasgow was bombed (Clydebank Blitz). All but seven of its 12,000 houses were damaged. Many more ports were attacked. Plymouth was attacked five times before the end of the month while Belfast, Hull, and Cardiff were hit. Cardiff was bombed on three nights Portsmouth centre was devastated by five raids. The rate of civilian housing loss was averaging 40,000 people per week dehoused in September 1940. In March 1941, two raids on Plymouth and London dehoused 148,000 people. [158] Still, while heavily damaged, British ports continued to support war industry and supplies from North America continued to pass through them while the Royal Navy continued to operate in Plymouth, Southampton, and Portsmouth. [9] [159] Plymouth in particular, because of its vulnerable position on the south coast and close proximity to German air bases, was subjected to the heaviest attacks. On 10/11 March, 240 bombers dropped 193 tons of high explosives and 46,000 incendiaries. Many houses and commercial centres were heavily damaged, the electrical supply was knocked out, and five oil tanks and two magazines exploded. Nine days later, two waves of 125 and 170 bombers dropped heavy bombs, including 160 tons of high explosive and 32,000 incendiaries. Much of the city centre was destroyed. Damage was inflicted on the port installations, but many bombs fell on the city itself. On 17 April 346 tons of explosives and 46,000 incendiaries were dropped from 250 bombers led by KG 26. The damage was considerable, and the Germans also used aerial mines. Over 2,000 AAA shells were fired, destroying two Ju 88s. [160] By the end of the air campaign over Britain, only eight percent of the German effort against British ports was made using mines. [161]

In the north, substantial efforts were made against Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Sunderland, which were large ports on the English east coast. On 9 April 1941 Luftflotte 2 dropped 150 tons of high explosives and 50,000 incendiaries from 120 bombers in a five-hour attack. Sewer, rail, docklands, and electric installations were damaged. In Sunderland on 25 April, Luftflotte 2 sent 60 bombers which dropped 80 tons of high explosive and 9,000 incendiaries. Much damage was done. A further attack on the Clyde, this time at Greenock, took place on 6 and 7 May. However, as with the attacks in the south, the Germans failed to prevent maritime movements or cripple industry in the regions. [162]

The last major attack on London was on 10/11 May 1941, on which the Luftwaffe flew 571 sorties and dropped 800 tonnes of bombs. This caused more than 2,000 fires 1,436 people were killed and 1,792 seriously injured, which affected morale badly. [158] Another raid was carried out on 11/12 May 1941. [153] Westminster Abbey and the Law Courts were damaged, while the Chamber of the House of Commons was destroyed. One-third of London's streets were impassable. All but one railway station line was blocked for several weeks. [158] This raid was significant, as 63 German fighters were sent with the bombers, indicating the growing effectiveness of RAF night fighter defences. [153]

RAF night fighters Edit

German air supremacy at night was also now under threat. British night-fighter operations out over the Channel were proving successful. [163] This was not immediately apparent. [164] The Bristol Blenheim F.1 carried four .303 in (7.7 mm) machine guns which lacked the firepower to easily shoot down a Do 17, Ju 88 or Heinkel He 111. [165] The Blenheim had only a small speed advantage to overhaul a German bomber in a stern-chase. Added to the fact an interception relied on visual sighting, a kill was most unlikely even in the conditions of a moonlit sky. [165] The Boulton Paul Defiant, despite its poor performance during daylight engagements, was a much better night fighter. It was faster, able to catch the bombers and its configuration of four machine guns in a turret could (much like German night fighters in 1943–1945 with Schräge Musik) engage the German bomber from beneath. Attacks from below offered a larger target, compared to attacking tail-on, as well as a better chance of not being seen by the crew (so less chance of evasion), as well as greater likelihood of detonating its bomb load. In subsequent months a steady number of German bombers would fall to night fighters. [166]

Improved aircraft designs were in the offing with the Bristol Beaufighter, then under development. It would prove formidable but its development was slow. [166] The Beaufighter had a maximum speed of 320 mph (510 km/h), an operational ceiling of 26,000 ft (7,900 m), a climb rate of 2,500 ft (760 m) per minute and its battery of four 20 mm (0.79 in) Hispano cannon and six .303 in Browning machine guns was much more lethal. [167] On 19 November, John Cunningham of No. 604 Squadron RAF shot down a bomber flying an AI-equipped Beaufighter, the first air victory for the airborne radar. [167] In November and December 1940, the Luftwaffe flew 9,000 sorties against British targets and RAF night fighters claimed only six shot down. In January 1941, Fighter Command flew 486 sorties against 1,965 made by the Germans. Just three and twelve were claimed by the RAF and AA defences respectively. [168] In the bad weather of February 1941, Fighter Command flew 568 sorties to counter the Luftwaffe which flew 1,644 sorties. Night fighters could claim only four bombers for four losses. [169]

By April and May 1941, the Luftwaffe was still getting through to their targets, taking no more than one- to two-percent losses per mission. [170] On 19/20 April 1941, in honour of Hitler's 52nd birthday, 712 bombers hit Plymouth with a record 1,000 tons of bombs. [170] Losses were minimal. In the following month, 22 German bombers were lost with 13 confirmed to have been shot down by night fighters. [170] On 3/4 May, nine were shot down in one night. [170] On 10/11 May, London suffered severe damage, but 10 German bombers were downed. [170] In May 1941, RAF night fighters shot down 38 German bombers. [171] By the end of May, Kesselring's Luftflotte 2 had been withdrawn, leaving Hugo Sperrle's Luftflotte 3 as a token force to maintain the illusion of strategic bombing. [153] Hitler now had his sights set on attacking the USSR with Operation Barbarossa, and the Blitz came to an end. [172]

Luftwaffe losses Edit

Between 20 June 1940, when the first German air operations began over Britain, and 31 March 1941, OKL recorded the loss of 2,265 aircraft over the British Isles, a quarter of them fighters and one-third bombers. At least 3,363 Luftwaffe aircrew were killed, 2,641 missing and 2,117 wounded. [173] Total losses could have been as high as 600 bombers, just 1.5 percent of the sorties flown. A significant number of the aircraft not shot down after the resort to night bombing were wrecked during landings or crashed in bad weather. [2]

Effectiveness of bombing Edit

British output index
September 1940 – May 1941 [174] [c]
Month Output
September 217
October 245
November 242
December 239
January 244
February 266
March 303
April 284
May 319

The military effectiveness of bombing varied. The Luftwaffe dropped around 45,000 short tons (41,000 t) of bombs during the Blitz, which disrupted production and transport, reduced food supplies, and shook British morale. The bombing also helped to support the U-boat blockade by sinking some 58,000 long tons (59,000 t) of shipping and damaging 450,000 long tons (460,000 t) more. Despite the bombing, British production rose steadily throughout this period, although there were significant falls during April 1941, probably influenced by the departure of workers for Easter Holidays, according to the British official history. The official history volume British War Production (Postan, 1952) noted that the greatest effect on output of warlike stores was on the supply of components and dispersal of production rather than complete equipment. [175] [3]

In aircraft production, the British were denied the opportunity to reach the planned target of 2,500 aircraft in a month, arguably the greatest achievement of the bombing, as it forced the dispersal of the industry, at first because of damage to aircraft factories and then by a policy of precautionary dispersal. [11] In April 1941, when the targets were British ports, rifle production fell by 25 percent, filled-shell production by 4.6 percent and in small-arms production 4.5 percent. [11] The strategic impact on industrial cities was varied most took from 10 to 15 days to recover from heavy raids, although Belfast and Liverpool took longer. The attacks against Birmingham took war industries some three months to recover fully. The exhausted population took three weeks to overcome the effects of an attack. [11]

The air offensive against the RAF and British industry failed to have the desired effect. More might have been achieved had OKL exploited the vulnerability of British sea communications. The Allies did so later when Bomber Command attacked rail communications and the United States Army Air Forces targeted oil, but that would have required an economic-industrial analysis of which the Luftwaffe was incapable. [3] OKL instead sought clusters of targets that suited the latest policy (which changed frequently), and disputes within the leadership were about tactics rather than strategy. [176] Though militarily ineffective, the Blitz cost around 41,000 lives, may have injured another 139,000 people and did enormous damage to British infrastructure and housing stock. [2]

RAF evaluation Edit

The British began to assess the impact of the Blitz in August 1941 and the RAF Air Staff used the German experience to improve Bomber Command's offensives. They concluded bombers should strike a single target each night and use more incendiaries because they had a greater impact on production than high explosives. They also noted regional production was severely disrupted when city centres were devastated through the loss of administrative offices, utilities and transport. They believed the Luftwaffe had failed in precision attack and concluded the German example of area attack using incendiaries was the way forward for operations over Germany. [176]

Some writers claim the Air Staff ignored a critical lesson, that British morale did not break and that attacking German morale was not sufficient to induce a collapse. Aviation strategists dispute that morale was ever a major consideration for Bomber Command. Throughout 1933–39 none of the 16 Western Air Plans drafted mentioned morale as a target. The first three directives in 1940 did not mention civilian populations or morale in any way. Morale was not mentioned until the ninth wartime directive on 21 September 1940. [177] The 10th directive in October 1940 mentioned morale by name but industrial cities were only to be targeted if weather prevented raids on oil targets. [178]

The AOC Bomber Command, Arthur Harris, who did see German morale as an objective, did not believe that the morale-collapse could occur without the destruction of the German economy. The primary goal of Bomber Command was to destroy the German industrial base (economic warfare) and in doing so reduce morale. In late 1943, just before the Battle of Berlin, Harris declared the power of Bomber Command would enable it to achieve "a state of devastation in which surrender is inevitable". [22] [179] A summary of Harris' strategic intentions was clear,

From 1943 to the end of the war, he [Harris] and other proponents of the area offensive represented it [the bomber offensive] less as an attack on morale than as an assault on the housing, utilities, communications, and other services that supported the war production effort.

in comparison to the Allied bombing campaign against Germany, casualties due to the Blitz were relatively low the bombing of Hamburg alone inflicted about 40,000 civilian casualties. [180]

Popular imagery and propaganda Edit

A popular image arose of British people in the Second World War: a collection of people locked in national solidarity. [ citation needed ] This image entered the historiography of the Second World War in the 1980s and 1990s, [ dubious – discuss ] especially after the publication of Angus Calder's book The Myth of the Blitz (1991). It was evoked by both the right and left political factions in Britain in 1982, during the Falklands War when it was portrayed in a nostalgic narrative in which the Second World War represented patriotism actively and successfully acting as a defender of democracy. [181] [182] This imagery of people in the Blitz was embedded via being in film, radio, newspapers and magazines. [183] At the time it was seen as a useful propaganda tool for domestic and foreign consumption. [184] Historians' critical response to this construction focused on what were seen as over-emphasised claims of patriotic nationalism and national unity. In the Myth of the Blitz, Calder exposed some of the counter-evidences of anti-social and divisive behaviours. What he saw as the myth—serene national unity—became "historical truth". In particular, class division was most evident during the Blitz. [181]

Raids during the Blitz produced the greatest divisions and morale effects in the working-class areas, with lack of sleep, insufficient shelters and inefficiency of warning systems being major causes. The loss of sleep was a particular factor, with many not bothering to attend inconvenient shelters. The Communist Party made political capital out of these difficulties. [185] In the wake of the Coventry Blitz, there was widespread agitation from the Communist Party over the need for bomb-proof shelters. Many Londoners, in particular, took to using the Underground railway system, without authority, for shelter and sleeping through the night. So worried were the government over the sudden campaign of leaflets and posters distributed by the Communist Party in Coventry and London, that the police were sent to seize their production facilities. The government up until November 1940, was opposed to the centralised organisation of shelter. Home Secretary Sir John Anderson was replaced by Morrison soon afterwards, in the wake of a Cabinet reshuffle as the dying Neville Chamberlain resigned. Morrison warned that he could not counter the Communist unrest unless provision of shelters were made. He recognised the right of the public to seize tube stations and authorised plans to improve their condition and expand them by tunnelling. Still, many British citizens, who had been members of the Labour Party, itself inert over the issue, turned to the Communist Party. The Communists attempted to blame the damage and casualties of the Coventry raid on the rich factory owners, big business and landowning interests and called for a negotiated peace. Though they failed to make a large gain in influence, the membership of the Party had doubled by June 1941. [186] The "Communist threat" was deemed important enough for Herbert Morrison to order, with the support of the Cabinet, the cessation of activities of the Daily Worker and The Week the Communist newspaper and journal. [187]

The brief success of the Communists also fed into the hands of the British Union of Fascists (BUF). Anti-Semitic attitudes became widespread, particularly in London. Rumours that Jewish support was underpinning the Communist surge were frequent. Rumours that Jews were inflating prices, were responsible for the Black Market, were the first to panic under attack (even the cause of the panic) and secured the best shelters via underhanded methods, were also widespread. There was also minor ethnic antagonism between the small Black, Indian and Jewish communities, but despite this these tensions quietly and quickly subsided. [188] In other cities, class divisions became more evident. Over a quarter of London's population had left the city by November 1940. Civilians left for more remote areas of the country. Upsurges in population in south Wales and Gloucester intimated where these displaced people went. Other reasons, including industry dispersal may have been a factor. However, resentment of rich self-evacuees or hostile treatment of poor ones were signs of persistence of class resentments although these factors did not appear to threaten social order. [189] The total number of evacuees numbered 1.4 million, including a high proportion from the poorest inner-city families. Reception committees were completely unprepared for the condition of some of the children. Far from displaying the nation's unity in times of war, the scheme backfired, often aggravating class antagonism and bolstering prejudice about the urban poor. Within four months, 88 percent of evacuated mothers, 86 percent of small children, and 43 percent of schoolchildren had been returned home. The lack of bombing in the Phoney War contributed significantly to the return of people to the cities, but class conflict was not eased a year later when evacuation operations had to be put into effect again. [48]

Archive audio recordings Edit

In recent years a large number of wartime recordings relating to the Blitz have been made available on audiobooks such as The Blitz, The Home Front and British War Broadcasting. These collections include period interviews with civilians, servicemen, aircrew, politicians and Civil Defence personnel, as well as Blitz actuality recordings, news bulletins and public information broadcasts. Notable interviews include Thomas Alderson, the first recipient of the George Cross, John Cormack, who survived eight days trapped beneath rubble on Clydeside, and Herbert Morrison's famous "Britain shall not burn" appeal for more fireguards in December 1940. [190]

Bombsite rubble Edit

In one 6-month period, 750,000 tons of bombsite rubble from London were transported by railway on 1,700 freight trains to make runways on Bomber Command airfields in East Anglia. Bombsite rubble from Birmingham was used to make runways on US Air Force bases in Kent and Essex in southeast England. [191] Many sites of bombed buildings, when cleared of rubble, were cultivated to grow vegetables to ease wartime food shortages and were known as victory gardens. [192]

Bombing raid statistics Edit

Below is a table by city of the number of major raids (where at least 100 tons of bombs were dropped) and tonnage of bombs dropped during these major raids. Smaller raids are not included in the tonnages.

The Blitz and World War Two

The Blitz is the title given to the German bombing campaign on British cities during World War Two. However, the term ‘Blitz’ is more commonly used for the bombing campaign against London. After the failure of the Battle of Britain, the Germans attempted to bomb London into submission – a tactic used again with the V weapons campaign in 1944-45.

Flats destroyed by bombing

The huge fear generated by the Guernica bombing during the Spanish Civil War, convinced many people that a civilian population could be bombed into submission. The theory was that the population, in constant fear of a sudden and violent death, would put pressure on their government to surrender. If that government did not surrender, then the population would take to the streets, riot and overthrow the government. The whole point of a sustained bombing campaign was to destroy a nation’s morale.

By mid-September 1940, the Battle of Britain had been lost by the Germans. This was the first setback Hitler had received during World War Two. The Blitz on British cities – night-time raids as opposed to daytime to enhance the fear factor – was Hitler’s attempt to destroy Britain’s morale. The attacks started on September 7th 1940 and continued to May 1941.

London was especially badly hit. At the start of the campaign, the government did not allow the use of underground rail stations as they considered them a potential safety hazard. However, the population of London took the matter into their own hands and opened up the chained entrances to the tube stations. In the Underground they were safe from the high explosive and incendiary bombs that rained down on London night after night. With one or two exceptions, their confidence was rewarded. The City tube station was hit when a bomb went through the road and fell into it. Over 200 were killed.

“By 4.00 p.m. all the platforms and passage space of the underground station are staked out, chiefly with blankets folded in long strips laid against the wall – for the trains are still running and the platforms in use. A woman or child guards places for about six people. When the evening comes the rest of the family crowd in.” An eye-witness account.

To start with the government underestimated the potential use of the underground stations. The government estimated that 87% or more of people would use the issued shelters (usually Anderson shelters) or spaces under stairs etc. and that only 4% of the population would use the underground stations. Each night underground stations played host to thousands of families in London grateful for the protection they afforded.

Despite blackout restrictions, the Luftwaffe had a relatively easy way of getting to London. They simply had to follow the route of the River Thames – which also directed them to the docks based at the East End of the city. Each night, the first bombs dropped were incendiary bombs designed to give the following bombers the most obvious of markers. After the incendiary bombs, came the high explosives.

A barrage balloon over London

The government used its control over all forms of the media to present a picture of life going on as normal despite the constant nightly attacks. They did not show photos of people known as ‘trekkers’ – the families who would spend the night away from their homes, preferably in local woodland or a park where they felt safer from attack. Such photos were censored. An American film – “London can take it” – presented the image of a city devastated by bombs but one that carried on as normal. The narrator makes the point that “bombs can only kill people, they cannot destroy the indomitable spirit of a nation.”

However, we know that life was not quite as easy as propaganda showed. London could take it but only because there was little else they could do. Under wartime restrictions, people could not simply leave their homes and move elsewhere. The poorest in London lived in the East End and it was this area that was especially hit hard by bombing because of the docks that were based there. However, most of the families there could do little else except stay where they were unless specifically moved by the government. These families developed what became known as a ‘war-time spirit’. They adapted their lives to the constant night-time bombing.

By May 1941, 43,000 had been killed across Britain and 1.4 million had been made homeless. Not only was London attacked but so were many British cities. Coventry and Plymouth were particularly badly bombed but most of Britain’s cities were also attacked – Manchester, Glasgow, Liverpool etc.

“When morning came we left the shelter and made our way home. There was no home. All that was left was a pile of bricks. We had nowhere to live except the shelter, and that was to be our home for six months.” A victim of bombing from Liverpool.

The defence of these cities relied on anti-aircraft guns, searchlights and an early warning system. The Royal Observer Corps played a vital role in this as many units were based on the coast and could inform the authorities in London of impending attacks. ROC units based on the West Coast could also given early warning of German bombers coming in from Norway. As Britain had no night-time fighters then, the bombers ‘only’ had to cope with AA fire and avoiding barrage balloons and searchlights.

Within the cities, the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) wardens, police and other services organised the emergency services after a raid. The AFS (Auxiliary Fire Service) played a vital role both during and after a raid in coping with the many fires caused by incendiary bombs. The part played by the Women’s Voluntary Service is well documented.

Britain also adopted a bombing campaign against German cities. ‘Bomber’ Harris, commander of Bomber Command, was a strong believer in aerial bombardment destroying a nation’s morale – hence the attacks. However, the same ‘war-time’ spirit shown in British cities during the raids, was also shown in German.

The Blitz on Britain was called off in May 1941. Hitler had a far more prized target. In the following month, Operation Barbarossa was launched – the attack on Russia. The huge military force needed for this attack included many bombers and two-thirds of the German military was to be tied up on the Eastern Front for the duration of the war.

The Impact of the Blitz on London

The Blitz came to London on September Saturday 7 th 1940 and lasted for many days. The Blitz and what was known as ‘Black Saturday’ was the start in Britain of what Poland and Western Europe had already experienced – total war. This was when warfare deliberately included civilian populations. Ironically, the Blitz was the result of an accident by the Luftwaffe but it was an accident that was to have dire consequences for Britain and Nazi Germany.

On August 24 th 1940 the Luftwaffe targeted oil depots to the east of London. In terms of what the Luftwaffe was trying to achieve – the destruction of Fighter Command – this would have been a legitimate target. However, a number of Luftwaffe bombers missed their intended target and hit homes in the East End of London. Hitler had always stated that under no circumstances was London to be targeted without his express permission. It seems that he was genuinely furious when told what had happened. On August 25 th , Bomber Command on the orders of Winston Churchill flew a retaliatory raid on Berlin. This time Hitler was furious with the British response and in a broadcast to the German people he stated that the Luftwaffe would drop I million kg of bombs on London if that was what was required. Two weeks later on September 7 th , the first raid took place.

‘Black Saturday’ was a huge shock for Londoners. The Luftwaffe arrived in the late afternoon during a day of very good weather when many Londoners were on the streets enjoying the sunny weather. The sirens first started at 16.43 at the start of a twelve-hour attack. The ‘all clear’ was sounded at 05.00 on September 8 th . Few could have believed the damage done to London in just one raid. 430 people were killed and over 1600 were seriously wounded. Hospitals simply could not cope. During September 8 th Winston Churchill visited the East End – where the raids had been concentrated to destroy the docks.

In the following raids – and they occurred without break everyday for two months – the Luftwaffe changed its tactics. On ‘Black Saturday’ it had flown during daylight and had encountered fighter aircraft of Fighter Command. After this, all attacks were at night, which meant that Fighter Command could not do anything to stop them.

On ‘Black Saturday’, just 92 anti-aircraft guns had protected London. Churchill immediately ordered a major improvement to the capital’s defences. Within 4 days the number of AA guns around London had doubled. The crews that manned these guns were ordered to fire at the attackers whether they had one in sight or not as this gave the impression that they, as defenders, were doing a robust job and it was considered that this was good for morale.

In the early days of the Blitz, the Luftwaffe’s preferred bomb was the SC-50 – a 50kg bomb that carried 25 kg of TNT. A Heinkell III carried 40 of these bombs. Not only did the 25 kg of TNT cause a major blast that damaged buildings, the shrapnel thrown of by the metal casing was deadly as in the initial stages of the explosion, metal shards came off at 7,000 mph and even the smallest of pieces of shrapnel were deadly.

Theoretically Londoners should have been safe from shrapnel as they should have been in shelters. However, this was not the case for the emergency services and those who volunteered to help out in an attack. Another cause of death was what was known as ‘Blast Lungs’. This was where a bomb blast sucked the air out of a victims lungs, causing the lungs to rise up within the rib cage and malfunctioning. The victim suffocated but usually suffered no obvious sign of physical harm. A survivor of the Blitz simply stated in later years:

“It’s hard to describe the horror.”

That horror escalated when the Luftwaffe started to drop more powerful bombs on London. The SC-500 carried 250 kg of TNT. Four could be carried by a Heinkell III compared to forty SC –50’s. Their potential for destruction was huge. As the Blitz continued, SC-500’s were used in conjunction with incendiary bombs – a combination that was designed to terrify Londoners into forcing their government to surrender.

Londoners now took to the Underground that provided 15 miles of underground shelter. The reason why the government did not allow this at the start of the Blitz was because they feared that the people might develop ‘Deep Shelter Mentality’ – where the population would be too scared to come out of the Underground. By the end of October 1940, 250,000 Londoners were homeless.

However, the fact that Londoners refused to give in to the Luftwaffe was sufficient for Hitler to order an expansion of the bombing. In November 1940, the raids were expanded to encompass many other cities in the UK. The SC-1000 was designed to destroy factories. This was a bomb that was loaded with amatol – a mixture of ammonia nitrate and TNT. Its explosive capability was huge.

The SC-1000 was used en masse in the raid on Coventry on November 14 th 1940 – ‘Operation Moonlight Sonata’. Heavy bombs such as the SC-1000 were dropped along with 10,000 incendiary bombs.

The only respite from the bombing occurred on Christmas Day 1940. On Boxing Day 1940, the raids resumed but with one difference – the Luftwaffe now put far more emphasis on incendiary bombs as opposed to high explosive bombs.

When an incendiary bomb caught fire it burned at 2,500 degrees Centigrade. German bombers carried incendiaries in ‘bread baskets’ with each one carrying 700 incendiaries.

On December 29 th 1940 Hitler ordered a massive raid on London. The date chosen was deliberate. The River Thames was at its lowest. 100,000 incendiary bombs were dropped and fire fighters in the City area of London had to cope with temperatures in excess of 800 degrees Centigrade. A severed main water pipe did not help the fire fighters. What water the Thames could provide was used but it required fire fighters to crawl across mud banks to simply get to the water. Historian Juliet Gardner simply referred to December 29 th as “a dreadful night”.

The first four months of the Blitz had resulted in 22,000 deaths – much lower than the government had expected. A report in 1938 estimated that there would be as many as 2 million deaths. Why was the actual figure so much smaller than the projected one?

It is generally accepted that the shelter policy introduced by the government saved very many lives. In London the government had grudgingly allowed the Tube system to be used. In other cities, Anderson shelters were issues. These were given free to any family that had an income of less than £250 a year. Any family that had an income above £250 had to pay for one. Over three million Anderson shelters were issued. If they were built properly – and this required a three to four feet hole to be dug in a garden – they provided commendable protection from bombs even if they were damp and cold. The curved shape of the shelters allowed a bomb blast to travel around them while the earth piled on top absorbed shrapnel etc.

By February 1941, the raids on British cities had not achieved what the Nazi hierarchy had hoped for. Therefore they moved away from city centres and targeted ports in an attempt to starve Britain in submission. Belfast, Swansea, Plymouth, Clydeside and Liverpool were all bombed. When Churchill visited these bombed areas he stated, “I found their morale to be high.”

On May 8 th 1941, a retaliatory raid against Bremen and Hamburg was made in an effort to raise morale. 400 British bombers raided both ports. Both cities suffered much damage and many deaths. In his fury, Hitler ordered that London should suffer a raid like it had never suffered before. This raid was the last major bombing raid London suffered but it killed over 1500 people. Shortly after it Hitler switched his attention to the Soviet Union – Operation Barbarossa – and London was free from attack until the summer of 1941.

Just seven days after D-Day on June 6 th 1944, a new bomb hit London. In this case, it was not delivered by an aircraft but just seemed to happen. It was the V1 – the ‘Doodlebug’. These were armed with 880kg of RDX – a very powerful explosive. On June 18 th 1944, a V1 hit the Guards Chapel near Buckingham Palace and killed 121 people – the largest number of people killed by a single V1.

How Churchill Led Britain To Victory In The Second World War

Winston Churchill became Britain's prime minister on 10 May 1940. As he was later to write: 'I felt. that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial'.

On the very day that Churchill fulfilled his life's ambition, Germany had, that morning, invaded France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Britain faced its supreme test. It is for his leadership through these fraught years of 1940-1941 - through Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz - that Churchill is best remembered.

Crucially, he rallied the nation in defiance of Hitler. In the words of Labour politician Hugh Dalton, Churchill was 'the only man we have for this hour'. This view was shared by the overwhelming majority of the British people.

Less obviously, Churchill made planning and decision-making - both political and military - simpler and more efficient. His force of personality was instrumental in cementing the 'Big Three' Alliance with Britain's powerful allies, Russia and the United States. His unbounded energy and determination meant that he was not always easy to work with. But, as Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke wrote, 'It is worth all these difficulties to have the privilege to work with such a man'.

In July 1945, with Nazi Germany defeated and Japan near to collapse, Churchill's Conservative Party lost a general election in a landslide victory for Labour. An electorate weary of war was looking ahead to a new Britain. Winston Churchill, the man who had done so much to secure eventual Allied victory was, once again, out of office.

In the dark early days of the Second World War Churchill had few real weapons. He attacked with words instead. The speeches he delivered then are among the most powerful ever given in the English language. His words were defiant, heroic and human, lightened by flashes of humour. They reached out to everyone in Britain, across Nazi-occupied Europe, and throughout the world. As journalist Beverley Nichols wrote, 'He took the English language and sent it into battle.'

Winston Churchill is cheered by workers during a visit to bomb-damaged Plymouth on 2 May 1941. This was one of many morale-boosting visits he made across Britain. Public opinion polls, then in their infancy, show that between July 1940 and May 1945, never less than 78 per cent of those polled said they approved of Churchill as prime minister.


The King and Queen took a real interest in the work that people were doing. This raised morale and gave factory workers a renewed enthusiasm for their work. The Ministry of Supply studied the effects of royal visits and found that, in most cases, production figures dropped on the day of the visit but the weekly production figures invariably rose

Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret spent most of the war years at Windsor Castle and, like many other British children, were often apart from their parents. In October 1940, 14-year-old Princess Elizabeth broadcast a message to evacuees on the radio programme Children's Hour, urging them to have courage.

At the age of 19, Princess Elizabeth joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). After joining, she trained as a driver and mechanic with the rank of Second Subaltern. Five months later she was promoted to Junior Commander, which was the equivalent of Captain. Her younger sister Princess Margaret was a Girl Guide and later joined the Sea Rangers.

At 6pm on VE Day, 8 May 1945, the King again broadcast to the nation. During the afternoon and evening, the King and Royal Family made eight appearances on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to acknowledge the crowds gathered below. The princesses were allowed to leave the palace and secretly take part in the celebrations.

Find out more

The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany, 1939 - 1945 (Official History) by Sir Charles Webster and Noble Frankland (vols 1-4, HMSO, 1961)

The Army Air Forces in World War Two by WF Craven and JL Cate, (vols 1-3, University of Chicago Press, 1948-51)

The Bomber Command War Diaries edited by Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt (Midland Publishing, 1996)

Despatch on War Operations by Sebastian Cox (Frank Cass Publishing Co, 1995)

The Strategic Air War against Germany by Sebastian Cox (Frank Cass Publishing Co, 1998)

Strategic Bombing in World War Two by David MacIsaac (Garland Publishing Company, 1976)

The Hardest Victory by Denis Rechards (London, 1994)

The Air War, 1939-1945 by Richard Overy (New York, 1980)

Bomber Command by Max Hastings (New York, 1979)

Bomber Offensive by Anthony Verrier (London, 1968)

Courage and Air Warfare by Mark Wells (London, 1995)

A Forgotten Offensive by Christina JM Goulter (London, 1995)

Wings of Judgement by Ronald Schaffer (Oxford, 1985)

Watch the video: The Blitz 1940-41