The Blitz started without any warning. Churchill and the defence chiefs met for an emergency meeting the day before it began but their concerns were intelligence reports indicating that the invasion of England–Operation Sealion–was about to start. Nerves were stretched to the breaking point and the code-word Cromwell, which meant “invasion imminent”, was announced without Churchill’s knowledge.In Sussex, the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division was ordered to “standby at immediate notice”. Everyone would be needed no matter how incomplete their training or equipment. However, Hitler had decided on another form of assault; the whole strength of Germany’s air force was to be used against British cities and civilians.
Hitler had not hesitated to bomb Warsaw or Rotterdam and civilian refugees had been deliberately targeted throughout the Battle of France, but attacks on British cities would bring retaliation so Hitler held off until some bombs fell on Berlin. Frustrated with the Luftwaffe’s failure to overcome Fighter Command he agreed to a change in air strategy that led to the first systematic area-bombing campaign in history.
The Blitz began on the night of Sept. 7, 1940, and lasted until May 16, 1941. At first the Luftwaffe concentrated on London and for 68 consecutive nights hundreds of bombs and incendiaries rained down on the city. Initially morale was shaky and thousands fled the bombed areas. Charles Ritchie, a Canadian diplomat in London, described the mood in his diary:
Sept. 14, 1940
The attacks on London have only been going on for 10 days. So far people are steady, there has been no panic. But they are depressed. Everyone is suffering from lack of sleep and nervous tension. There is some feeling that the poor are taking it the hardest and many complaints about lack of shelters. The ideal thing from Hitler’s point of view would be to continue this all winter and then to attack in the spring. Is he strong enough to wait? That is the question hanging over us. His raids certainly have not been a spectacular success, but they are making a dent all right.
As the bombing continued the casualty lists grew. During one night in mid-October more than 900 fires were reported in the London region and 400 civilians were killed, many of them in shelters that collapsed. Damage to public utilities, docks and railway stations caused great hardship and the problem of unexploded bombs kept everyone on edge.
Contrary to all expectations morale improved in October and November. One factor was the decision to fire continuous anti-aircraft barrages during raids, even though ack-ack was known to be wildly inaccurate.
Searchlights weren’t effective at altitudes greater than 12,000 feet and the chance of actually hitting an enemy aircraft without radar-controlled guns was just about nil. The first gun-laying radar consisted of an antenna on top of a small hut that was rotated, hut and all, by bicycle pedals. Anti-aircraft radar was steadily improved and it played an important role against the V-1 flying bomb or “buzz” bomb in 1944 but it was of little use during the Blitz. Nevertheless people wanted to believe they were hitting back and noisy gunfire, even if blanks had to be used, was proof that the army was trying.
The opinions of ordinary Britons were carefully surveyed throughout the Blitz period in an attempt to identify and head off any sign of defeatism or panic. Home intelligence reports developed by the Ministry of Information as well as Mass Observation surveys prepared by volunteers noted isolated cases of despair and apprehension about the lack of air cover or ack-ack support. Overall, however, people recovered quickly from even the heaviest raids.
Before the war psychiatrists had warned that air raids would lead to thousands of nervous breakdowns as fragile individuals cracked under the strain of continuous bombing. Mental hospitals in the south of England transferred their patients in preparation for a new influx but it never came. Under the pressure of the Blitz neurotic symptoms disappeared as even the most isolated individual became caught up in the collective struggle to survive and help the less fortunate. A Gallup Poll taken in November 1940 reported that more than 80 per cent of the population was optimistic and confident Britain would win the war.
By Nov. 13 the German air force had dropped more than 13,000 tons of bombs and 12,500 incendiary canisters on London. On an average night 163 aircraft attacked the city. The Luftwaffe decided to begin a new series of raids on industrial towns employing radio beams to guide pathfinder aircraft that would mark the targets with incendiaries.
The most successful of these raids occurred on Nov. 14 when 449 bombers struck a devastating blow at Coventry. More than 500 tons of high explosive and 900 incendiaries destroyed the famous cathedral and much of the city killing 507 men, women and children and seriously injuring 420 more. In the 1940s the government believed that two more raids of similar intensity would cripple the city’s war production for months to come but the Luftwaffe turned its attention elsewhere boasting that it would “Coventrate” other British towns.
The Luftwaffe staged a series of major assaults on Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester. Southampton, Plymouth, Portsmouth and Bristol were also frequent targets while Cardiff, Sheffield, Belfast and Glasgow were hit in carefully organized large-scale raids. Plymouth may have been the worst blitzed city in Britain. The central area was completely destroyed and more than 1,100 civilians were killed in 59 separate raids. Glasgow and the Clydebank were the primary targets on five separate occasions. The worst attack on May 5 involved 386 bombers using a high proportion of incendiaries. More than 200 bombers returned the next night again attempting to set fire to the city. Belfast was attacked only twice but more than 2,600 incendiaries were dropped in one night and the fires quickly got out of control forcing thousands to flee their homes. Overall more than 51,000 British civilians died from wartime bombing and 61,000 were seriously injured.
By the spring of 1941 British scientists had learned to “bend” or block the German radio beams and Royal Air Force night fighter defences were slowly improving. Whereas in December 1940 just 14 aircraft were shot down, 10 by ack-ack, four by night fighters, German losses in April totalled 75 bombers.
Canadians serving with the RAF played an imporant role in the night battle and three Royal Canadian Air Force night-fighter squadrons, 406, 409, and 410, were formed and equipped by the spring of 1941. The improved night-fighter defences were rarely tested for Hitler ordered the transfer of most of the Luftwaffe to Poland to prepare for the invasion of Russia. London’s last big raid came on May 10, 1941, when 507 bombers struck the city. Night fighters destroyed seven German aircraft and Air Marshal Sir William Sholto Douglas was quite serious when he claimed: “If the enemy had not chosen that moment to pull out we should soon have been inflicting such casualties in his night bombers that the continuation of his night offensive on a similar scale would have been impossible.”
Our memory of the horrors of the Blitz has been overshadowed by the much more devastating bombing of German and Japanese cities. More people were killed in Hamburg and Tokyo in one night than were killed in the entire war in Britain so the importance of the bombing of London and other British cities is said to be diminished. This is a curious view of the past that ignores cause and effect. In 1941 the British believed, correctly, that they had survived one of the most terrible experiments in the history of war. Hitler had threatened to exterminate the population of their cities and he had tried his best to achieve that goal. Was it any wonder that popular and parliamentary opinion supported retaliation?
Churchill was by no means certain that Britain should place a priority on strategic bombing. After the German invasion of Russia he wanted to explore a number of other options designed to take the offensive against Germany. His military advisers rejected schemes for the invasion of Norway and tried to resist pressure to attack prematurely in North Africa. Churchill continued to press for a Turkish declaration of war against Germany and suggested British troops be used to assist the Russians in Persia. Something had to be done to help the Soviet Union survive and in the end the only force available to accomplish that goal was Bomber Command.
When the newly appointed Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris prepared his first report on the actions of Bomber Command in June 1942 he reinforced Churchill’s decision to give priority to strategic bombing. Harris wrote: “Bomber Command provides our only offensive action yet pressed home directly against Germany. All our other efforts are defensive in their nature, and are not intended to do more, and can never do more, than enable us to exist in the face of the enemy. Bomber Command provides the only means of bringing assistance to Russia at this time. The only means of physically weakening Germany to an extent which will make subsequent invasion a possible proposition, and is therefore the only force which can, in fact, hurt our enemy in the present or in the future secure our victory.
Hitler and the Luftwaffe had sown the seeds, German civilians would reap the harvest.
Historians have not hesitated to challenge this straightforward interpretation of the Blitz. The raid on Coventry became one of the most hotly debated issues when allegations were made that the British government had identified the target through special intelligence but failed to take action for fear of compromising the Ultra Secret. This controversy led to the publication of Professor F.H. Hinsley’s multi-volume British Intelligence in the Second World War which carefully examined such issues. He concluded that the Government Code and Cypher School had decrypted Luftwaffe signals, radioed via their Enigma machines, which referred to a large-scale raid called Moonlight Sonata. Unfortunately nothing in the messages confirmed the target or date and it was not until 1500 hours on Nov. 14–when the German radio beams were intersected over Coventry–that the target was identified and defensive preparations, including an RAF Bomber Command attack on German airfields, begun.
A more fundamental challenge to the traditional interpretation was launched by a historian previously known for his sympathetic study published in 1969 with the title The People’s War, Britain 1939—1945. By the 1980s Angus Calder had become a Scottish nationalist and trenchant critic of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. He set out to revise his own work which he saw as having confirmed a myth about the unity of the British people and their cheerful courage in the face of adversity. Other historians were attacking the “myth” of Dunkirk and writing sensational attacks on Churchill’s leadership so Calder tried “to undermine the credibility of the mythical narrative” by questioning everything, including evidence about the morale of the British people.
Fortunately, Calder is an excellent historian with a good analytical mind. His new book, The Myth of the Blitz, begins with the statement that “myth” does not mean “untruth” and goes on to demonstrate that traditional narratives including his own are strongly supported by the available evidence. Calder’s real grievance is with postwar politicians whom he believes have exploited wartime ideals but he cannot bring himself to distort evidence in support of contemporary political views.
When Churchill issued the call to his countrymen “to ride out the storm of war and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone” he was expressing views which the vast majority embraced. When he spoke of the threat posed by the large German bombing forces that were deployed against Britain, the words were simple and direct: “I do not underrate the severity of the ordeal which lies before us but I believe our countrymen … will be able to stand up to it, and carry on in spite of it, as well as any other people in the world. Much will depend on this; every man and every woman will have the chance to show the finest qualities of their race, and render the highest service to their cause. For all of us, at this time, whatever our sphere or our duties, it will help to remember the famous lines:
He nothing common did or mean
Upon that memorable scene.
Calder recognizes that Churchill was the embodiment of a spirit which animated the people of Great Britain. There were of course incidents that were common and mean. People were not always heroic, self-sacrificing or united in 1940 but no one can deny the bravery and resolution of those who endured the Blitz and emerged ready to carry on a war intended to liberate Europe. As Tom Harrison, the founder of Mass Observation, put it: “The final achievement of so many Britons was enormous…. Maybe monumental is not putting it too high. They did not let their soldiers or leaders down.”
- Originally published in Legion Magazine, on January 1st 1996