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The Battle of Britain and the Blitz

On 7 September 1940, German bombers raided the east London docks area in two waves of devastating attacks. The date has always been taken as the start of the so-called ‘Blitz’ (from the German ‘Blitzkrieg’ or lightning war), when for nine months German bombers raided Britain’s major cities. But the 7 September attack also came at the height of the Battle of Britain, the defence by RAF Fighter Command against the efforts of the German Air Force to win air superiority over southern England as a preparation for Operation Sea Lion, the German invasion of Britain.

In reality the Battle of Britain and the Blitz were closely related. The raid on London was supposed to signal the last stage of the ‘softening up’ of southern England prior to a landing planned for 15 September. By disrupting trade, transport, and services the German side hoped to create panic in the capital and hamper the government’s efforts to counter the invasion. The failure to win air superiority, made clear on the very day that Hitler had hoped to invade, 15 September (now celebrated as Battle of Britain Day), meant that the bombing of London, if it continued, would have to serve a different strategy. The Blitz, despite its reputation as an example of pure terror bombing, became part of a combined air-sea effort to blockade Britain by sinking ships, destroying port facilities, warehouse storage, milling plants, and oil and food stocks. To prevent the RAF from contesting the blockade, vital aero-engine and component firms were targeted, most famously in the raid against Coventry on 14 November. No effort was made to avoid human casualties, though Hitler rejected simple terror bombing, and the German Air Force regarded attacks on residential areas as a waste of strategic resources.

The raid on 7 September also had another purpose. It was defined as a ‘vengeance attack’ in German propaganda against RAF bombing of Germany. One of the persistent myths of 1940 is the belief that Germany started the bombing war, but from the night of 11/12 May, when bombers raided the west German city of Mönchengladbach, the RAF struck at targets in or near German towns for every night when the conditions permitted. By early September, after weeks of sheltering every night, the population of western Germany demanded reprisals. Since they had already ordered the final pre-invasion raids on the capital, it was a simple thing to define the first major raid (bombs had been dropping in and around London since mid-August) as a vengeance operation in order to still domestic complaint.

The start of the Blitz and the end of the Battle of Britain overlapped. By the time the Battle petered out, with high losses to the German side for little strategic gain, Operation Sea Lion had been postponed to the spring or, if necessary, even later. The blockade campaign followed over the winter months, imposing high losses on the German bomber fleets, chiefly from accidents caused by poor flying conditions and growing combat fatigue. Hitler had little faith in independent air power, and did not think in the end that the blockade would work, or that the British people would be sufficiently demoralized by its effects to abandon the war. But by the time it was evident that the Blitz was not going to be effective, it was too late to suspend it, partly from the political backlash at home if it was halted, partly because of the boost it would give to Britain’s wartime image, but also because the bombing would persuade Stalin that Britain was Hitler’s priority, when in fact German leaders were now planning a massive assault on the Soviet Union in the early summer of 1941.

Berlin, Adolf Hitler und Hermann Göring. German Federal Archives, CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Berlin, Adolf Hitler und Hermann Göring by German Federal Archives. CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In its own term, the German Blitz was very ineffective. Only 0.5% of oil stocks were destroyed, around 5% of potential war production was lost, and food stocks remained more or less intact. Aircraft production was not hit seriously, and though German intelligence speculated that Britain could only produce 7,000 aircraft in 1941, some 20,000 were produced, almost double German output. What the Blitz did achieve was a very high level of civilian casualty. By the time it ended 43,000 people had been killed, 28,000 of them in London. It is this large total that has always supported the idea that the Blitz was simply a terror attack to undermine civilian morale. The truth is more complicated. High casualties reflected the nature of the targets chosen, mostly port cities, or inland ports like Manchester, where there was much low-quality working-class housing crowded around the dock areas. The concentrated working-class areas were also the ones least likely to have been provided with secure shelter. A survey in London showed that 50% of people had no access to shelter at all and made do with local railway bridges, or the cupboard under the stairs. Research also found that shelter discipline was poor, and became more so as populations became habituated to bombing, as in London. Thousands of those killed abandoned the idea of finding a shelter; contemporary evidence shows that thousands chose in the end to sleep in their own beds and run their luck. There was no legal obligation to shelter, as there was in Germany, and shelter discipline was lax. In the early months of the Blitz, when casualty rates were at their highest, the government had also failed to anticipate what would be needed. A massive volunteer effort of men and women in civil defence and first aid prevented the disaster from being much worse than it was.

British bombing of Germany continued across the period of the Blitz, but the small size of the force, combined with poor navigation and inaccurate bombing, produced little effect. Although presented in popular memory as revenge for the Blitz, it was not intended as such, nor did much of the population favour meting out to the Germans what was happening in Britain. An early opinion poll in London showed 46% in favour of bombing German civilians, but 46% against. But once the cycle had started, it was as difficult for the RAF to abandon as it was for the Germans. In British popular memory of the war the Blitz has a central part to play as the moment when British society was tested to the brink and survived. It is perhaps for this reason that so many myths still surround the experience. The Blitz is no longer merely historical fact, but a metaphor of endurance against the odds.

Featured image: Children of an eastern suburb in Britain made homeless by the Blitz by Sue Wallace. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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