The Blitz Explained

It was anticipated before the outbreak of World War Two that the development of bomber aircraft and tactics since World War One, as highlighted in the Spanish Civil War, would mean the arrival of hostility on the home front on a much greater scale in any forthcoming conflict. The fears of ordinary people were also increasingly encapsulated in art and fiction during this time and contributed to the prevailing desire in 1930s Britain to maintain a state of peace.

The Battle of Britain

The Battle of France was soon followed by the Battle of Britain, which saw the Luftwaffe engage directly with the RAF in order to establish supremacy in the skies at a time of grave Allied weakness. It was intended that this would allow Hitler to implement his plan of Operation Sealion to invade the British mainland, without unnecessary risk. The Battle of Britain lasted from July 1940 until the end of October. Having been underestimated by Göring, Fighter Command had by this time definitively shown its superiority in aerial combat and thus forced Hitler to suspend Sealion.

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Spitfires flying in formation over southern England, July 1940

A Point of No Return

The Blitz morphed from the Battle of Britain into a sustained period of German bombing raids over London and other major British cities between September 1940 and May 1941. The first major bombing raid against London’s civilian population, on 24 August, had been accidental, thus showcasing the inaccuracy of bombing in the early part of the war. More significantly, it served as a point of no return in the escalation of strategic bombing across the face of the remainder of the war.

Deaths and Damage

Bombing raids over cities were almost exclusively conducted in the hours of darkness after the end of the summer to reduce the likelihood of Luftwaffe bombers being shot-down by the RAF, which was yet to sufficiently develop night-fighter capabilities. This resulted in as many as 180,000 Londoners spending their nights trying to sleep in Tube stations during the autumn of 1940, when the attacks were at their most extreme.

By the end of the year, 32,000 ordinary people had died amongst the fires and rubble, although such numbers would be made to look paltry in comparison with the bombing raids conducted against Germany later in the war.

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An annihilated Hallam Street, in Westminster, following attacks in autumn 1940

Other port cities across Britain, such as Liverpool, Glasgow and Hull, were targeted, together with industrial centres in the Midlands. The bombing of the Blitz period left hundreds of thousands of ordinary folk homeless and inflicted damage on many iconic buildings. Coventry Cathedral was famously destroyed during the night of 14 November and in early May 1941, one of the most unrelenting attacks, resulted in losses to buildings across central London, including to the House of Commons, Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London.

Effects

The Germans expected British morale to be inexorably sapped by the repeated bombardment suffered, which included fifty-seven consecutive nights of bombing over London between September and November. Conversely, the British people were on the whole galvanised by the bombings and the underlying threat of German invasion, with many signing up for voluntary service in one of the organisations set up to help remedy the devastating effects of the bombing.

Others defiantly went about their daily lives ‘as usual’. As a consequence, by Churchill’s first anniversary in office Britain had emerged from the Blitz with far greater resolution than when he had taken charge in the ominous climate of May 1940.

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Union Jacks were often planted on top of ruined buildings in a show of defiance

History graduate (and enthusiast) with postgraduate degrees in environmental history and heritage science.