After Hitler failed to gain air superiority over the RAF during the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, he tried a new tactic. The Luftwaffe began a strategic bombing campaign, targeting British cities. Hitler’s aim was to cripple Britain’s war economy and demoralize her people. The “Blitz” did succeed in destroying many buildings, but never destroyed Britain’s spirit.
July – September 1940 Battle of Britain
7 September 1940 London attacked
21 May 1941 Final bombing raid
Sir Winston Churchill
The Spirit of an Unconquered People
By the summer of 1940, France had fallen to the Germans and Hitler turned his attention to Britain. An invasion, code named Operation Sea Lion, was planned. The first phase of the operation was to neutralise the Royal Air Force so that the English Channel would be unguarded from the air which would facilitate the German invasion. For 12 weeks, the Luftwaffe struggled with the RAF to no avail. The Germans were hampered by a lack of training and equipment suited to long range operations and the British had the advantage of fighting over home territory. By early September, Hitler decided to change tactics.
In early September, Hitler proposed a strategic bombing campaign against British industrial cities. The intention was to knock out Britain’s manufacturing and transport bases, as well as to cause panic and demoralise the public. This would pave the way for the launch of Operation Sea Lion. Until now, Hitler had not considered strategic bombing as part of his campaign and consequently the Luftwaffe’s command (OKL) was unprepared. The Luftwaffe did not have heavy bombers, and also lacked intelligence of where the main areas of military industry were located. Germany’s aims were also confused, with the OKL unsure of whether they were targeting manufacturing bases to smash production, the transport network to disrupt distribution or civilians to cause terror. Despite the unclear objectives, the bombing campaign began on 7 September 1940.
In Britain, the threat of aerial bombing had been anticipated with trepidation. The government had privately predicted that there would be hundreds of thousands of deaths if Germany launched attacks. In preparation, the government instigated several measures. Around 800,000 children were evacuated from the cities to temporary homes in rural areas. A blackout began on 1 September 1939 and continued throughout the war. Bomb shelters were built, mainly Anderson shelters, which people constructed in their backyards.
Britain’s defences against bombing raids were diverse but proved largely inadequate. The RAF put up barrage balloons at sites across Britain. These prevented aircraft from attacking below 5000 feet. Searchlights and anti-aircraft guns targeted the enemy from the ground, whilst fighter aircraft engaged them in the air. Diversion tactics were also used. Outside of towns and cities, dummy airfields were set up and fires lit to simulate industrial areas, which did draw some bombs away from the real targets.
An army of volunteers shored up the country during the Blitz. Observers watched for enemy aircraft and manned the sirens. Fire-watchers were stationed on tall buildings, spotting fires set by incendiary bombs and dealing with small fires themselves. The Auxiliary Fire Service worked alongside the regular fire service. Air Raid Precaution (ARP) wardens were responsible for ensuring people kept the blackout and also organised rescues after raids. The women of the Women’s Voluntary Services for Civil Defence set up canteens, supervised centres for those made homeless by bombing and helped to organise the evacuation of children. Boys from the Scouts Association played their part too, helping guide rescue services to emergencies. As the Blitz continued, all of these organizations saw their numbers swell with people who were determined to pull together for the war effort.
London was Hitler’s initial target and he hit the city hard. On the first day, 430 Londoners were killed and 1,600 injured. The Luftwaffe began their raids in daylight, but soon switched to night time raids in an effort to increase the terror. As the Blitz progressed, people began to get used to a terrible pattern. Warning of an attack would be given by an air raid siren and upon hearing the wailing sound, people would make their way to their shelters. The enemy often dropped flares and incendiary devices first which lit up the target area for the heavy bombers. People in the shelters could often hear the whistling sound of the bombs travelling through the air toward them. Once the enemy was leaving, the siren would sound again, this time with the “all clear”.
London bore the brunt of the Blitz, but increasingly other cities were targeted. Cities like Liverpool, Birmingham, and Bristol had been bombed intermittently since the summer of 1940, but by the late autumn the Blitz campaign wreaked havoc in Britain’s industrial cities. In Liverpool, a raid that became known as the Christmas blitz left 365 people dead after a three-day raid. Many were killed in several direct hits on communal air raid shelters, the worst of which saw 166 dead in one incident. The city had some respite after the New Year, but the bombers returned for a week-long raid in May. 681 bombers dropped in excess of 2,300 tonnes of explosives on the city. The docks were severely damaged, many people lost their homes and the cathedral was damaged. This was the last major raid on the city, although bombing did not cease entirely until January 1942. 6,500 homes were destroyed; a further 190,000 damaged. One house that was hit had formerly been the home of Hitler’s half-brother, Alois Hitler and the birthplace of Hitler’s nephew, William Hitler.
The Midlands were attacked in mid-November. Coventry was raided on 14 November in Operation Sonata which had the city’s factories as its targets. As well as destroying around a third of the factories, the Luftwaffe damaged two-thirds of the city’s homes and devastated the cathedral. More than 500 people lost their lives and more than 1,000 were injured. Days later, nearby Birmingham suffered its first major raid. In a week of bombing, more than 800 were killed, in excess of 2,000 injured and 20,000 left homeless. Birmingham endured further raids in December and the following spring. The final major raid was in July 1942, though the last bombs fell in 1943. In the surrounding areas, Wolverhampton, West Bromwich, Tipton and Dudley all suffered raids in 1941.
Other cities suffered too. Despite two decoy sites to simulate the city, much of Bristol’s medieval centre was flattened during the Blitz. Miraculously, the largest bomb to fall on the city, the 2000 kg “Satan”, did not explode. A bomb disposal team recovered it, digging down nearly 30 feet to do so. “Satan” was disarmed and was paraded in London during the VE Day celebrations. Plymouth’s naval base made it a natural target for the Luftwaffe, as did Portsmouth. Southampton, Glasgow, Hull, Belfast, Cardiff, Nottingham and Sheffield all suffered the terror of the Blitz.
Hitler subjected Britain to eight months of the Blitz, yet he failed to achieve his objectives. Wartime production did not fall, indeed it expanded, despite the destruction of so many factories. The collapse of British morale did not materialize. Indeed the country pulled together in the face of adversity and the “Blitz spirit” was born. Although many people were frightened by the bombing, in general, the public maintained a remarkably cheerful and resilient attitude. As far as possible, life went on as normal, with people going about their work and enjoying leisure time at the pubs and cinemas. Opinion polls found that the overwhelming majority of the population believed that Britain would win the war. If he had achieved anything, Hitler had cemented British unity firmly into place.
In the late spring of 1941, Hitler accepted that the Blitz had failed to pave the way for Operation Sea Lion. His plans to invade Britain were abandoned and he turned his attention eastwards to Russia, launching Operation Barbarossa. The Luftwaffe still carried out bombing raids on the Britain, but never with the sustained intensity of the Blitz.
The Blitz left more than 40,000 British dead and anywhere up to 139,000 people injured. Hundreds of thousands of homes were destroyed and historic buildings damaged. 45,000 short tonnes of bombs had been dropped, with a loss of around 2,250 German aircraft and more than 5,000 aircrew killed or missing.
The Blitz altered Britain’s built landscape, ruining many historic buildings and irreparably changing the character of several cities. It did, however, build something greater: the Blitz Spirit. The British emerged from the Blitz unbowed and everyone felt that they were a part of the war effort. War was not something far away. Instead, it was on their doorstep and they had survived the worst that Hitler could throw at them. It’s a feeling that persists today, a certainty that in times of trouble the British will pull together and overcome, whatever the odds.
Sites to Visit
The remains of the bombed ruins of St Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry sit next to the modern replacement. A Charred Cross and a Cross of Nails, each made of salvaged materials from the ruins of the bombed cathedral, are on display.
A sculpture by Tom Murphy at St Nicholas’ Church in Liverpool commemorates the city’s citizens who lost their lives in the Blitz. Another church, St Luke’s, which was bombed, has been left as a ruined shell and garden of remembrance for children who lost their lives.
Bristol’s Blitz memorial, naming the 1,300 men, women and children who were killed during the Blitz, is located in the bombed ruins of St Peter’s Church, Castle Park, Bristol.
Film and TV
Mrs Miniver (1942) starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon is set in Britain during the war. The family take refuge in their Anderson shelter at one point. The film won six Academy Awards.
The Auxiliary Fire Service were the heroes of The Bells Go Down (1943), starring Tommy Trinder and James Mason.
The History Channel’s Britain at War DVD set contains information about the Blitz.
The Blitz – Britain Under Attack (2011) by Juliet Gardiner explores the Blitz and its effects on the British
The Daily Mail’s Blitz on Britain (2010) gives a day by day account of the newspaper’s headlines during the Blitz, along with photographs.
Just a Boy from Bristol: A Memoir (2014) by Michael John Kelly is an entertaining account of a young boy growing up in Bristol during the war and includes a passage in which he recalls a bombing raid.
Merseyside Police have an archive of photographs taken by their photographers during the Blitz
Bristol in the Blitz, with accounts from survivors
Related YouTube Videos
Color footage of Bristol and the aftermath of one of the worst bombing raids
Forgotten Blitz – first-hand accounts of bombing raids on the city of Bath