The unofficial motto of the citizens of London during the Blitz was “business as usual.” The times, however, were anything but. Britain was locked in a conflict, as Prime Minister Winston Churchill memorably put it, “against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime.”
The specter of foreign invasion of the British Isles loomed for the first time in a millennium. Hitler’s triumphs up to that point in the year-long war were as astonishing as they were unprecedented. The Nazis effectively controlled the entire continent of Europe east of the Soviet Union, having conquered more real estate in a year than Napoleon had in a decade. The British expeditionary force had just been evacuated from Dunkirk on the coast of France, escaping annihilation by the narrowest of margins.
The Blitz—the British name for the sustained bombing campaign conducted by the Germans against their cities, especially London—began seventy-five years ago today. The campaign, which ran continuously for eight months, was initially conceived as a new phase of the Battle of Britain, Hitler’s effort to gain mastery of the skies over Britain, thereby clearing the way for an amphibious invasion of England. As such, the Germans shifted the focus of their aerial attack from RAF fighter airfields and the fighters themselves to the cities, with the primary intention of destroying aircraft factories and war production facilities, as well as the cities’ infrastructure and communications network.
On the fifth of September, Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to commence “disruptive attacks on the [British] population and air defenses of the major cities, including London, day and night.” Two days later, 480 bombers and 600 fighters attacked the capital of the British Empire in three waves. Their target was the East End docks, but the lack of precision bombing meant that residential areas of the city also took a terrible pasting: 430 civilians died in those first attacks; another 1600 were seriously wounded. Especially hard hit that night, and for the duration, were the working classes, whose poorly constructed dwellings collapsed en masse in the bombardments.
London was bombed every night save one for the next 56 days. Although the population was greatly heartened by the torrent of antiaircraft fire thrown up at the raiders, the guns’ primitive radar control system and the lack of effective night fighters meant that it was rare indeed for a bomber to be hit, let alone shot down.
By the 17th of September, Hitler had shelved Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of England. The Battle of Britain was over, and the Brits had prevailed. Yet the Blitz went on, serving now as an extended campaign of terror, designed to break the morale of the British people to carry on the fight. Once morale collapsed, the thinking went in Berlin, Churchill would be forced to sue for peace, and Germany would have a free hand to concentrate on invading the Soviet Union.
By mid-November, when the bombers shifted their main effort to such provincial cities such as Birmingham, Coventry, Bristol, and Liverpool, London had been the target of more than 13,000 tons of high-explosive bombs and a million incendiaries. On the clear moonlit night of October 15 alone, German Heinkels, Junkers, and Dorniers attacked the city continuously from 10:40 pm to 4:40 a.m., knocking out a slew of railway terminals, three large water mains, the Battersea Power Station, and starting more than 900 fires.
Far from sinking into a slough of despond under this deluge of death and destruction, the citizenry of London responded with steely defiance and sangfroid. American newsman Eric Sevareid, who covered the Blitz for CBS from central London, said of the Londoners, “They were steady. They didn’t panic, didn’t get emotional.”
The Stiff Upper Lip was a far more important weapon in waging the battle against the Blitz than the anti-aircraft batteries. So was a distinctly clipped brand of British humor. “Thank God Jack’s safe in the Army,” said a middle-aged housewife of her son, as she inspected the ruins of her local shopping district the morning after a raid. Owners of half-bombed-out shops, of which there were soon hundreds in every borough, hung out signs, “MORE OPEN THAN USUAL.”
Before the advent of the war, government officials and public intellectuals warned of disaster in the event of mass bombings of the capital city. A 1938 report presented to the Ministry of Health by a group of psychiatrists forecast that huge numbers would be afflicted by neurosis and panic. The philosopher Bertrand Russell predicted that “London will be one vast raving bedlam, the hospitals will be stormed, traffic will cease, the homeless will shriek for help, the city will be a pandemonium.” War production, it was feared, might well come to a complete halt.
Nothing of this sort ever even began to happen.
Much to the surprise of the psychiatrists, civilians did not suffer nervous breakdowns in significant numbers, and the network of clinics opened to receive mental casualties closed due to a lack of demand. Everyone pulled together, seemingly energized by collective adversity and the daily challenges the bombardments posed to simply getting on with things. People referred to the raids as though they were weather. A heavy night of bombing was “very blitzy,” and excited crowds gathered at unexploded bomb sights to watch the UXB teams carry out their nerve-wracking, perilous work.
Part of the explanation for the high level of morale throughout the long ordeal surely lay in high level of civilian participation in the city’s many emergency defense and rescue services, including the Home Guard, the Women’s Voluntary Services for Civilian Defense, the Air Raid Precautions Service, and the Pioneer Corps, charged with salvage and cleanup. Suddenly almost every citizen except the very young and very old was thrust into the war effort. As J.B. Priestley told his listeners on BBC radio, “We’re not really civilians any longer but a mixed lot of soldiers—machine-minding soldiers, milkmen and postmen soldiers, housewife and mother soldiers.”
The government provided a large number of home shelters, but nowhere near enough for the entire populace. Some families sought out refuge in reinforced commercial basements in the West End; others looked to makeshift shelters in church crypts, factory basements, and underground warehouses.
By late September, close to 170,000 Londoners a night were using the Underground stations as their sleeping quarters. Before long stoves, toilets, and bunks were provided, and canteen trains served up tea and hot food. “Londoners clung together,” writes A.N Wilson, “a return to the shared beds of childhood, or even to the mysterious darkness of the womb itself.” And in the morning, after the all clear sirens, they resurfaced, cleaned up, and went on with their work, and their lives, only to do it all again the next day.
The great sculptor Henry Moore first attained notoriety as a war artist who produced strikingly evocative black-and-white drawings of nurturing mothers and their children, of row upon row of reclining people trying to sleep, of strangers forming into intimate cliques in the close, dank confines of the Tube tunnels and platforms. “What I was trying to portray,” Moore wrote later, “was the profound depth of this place where people were talking and sleeping, the distance they were from the war that was raging above their heads, but also of the awareness of [the war] in their faces, in their attitudes, in the stale air around them. ... They were a bit like the chorus in a Greek drama telling us about the violence we don’t actually witness.”
The battered capital soon became a symbol of pride to inhabitants who’d long taken it for granted, as well for the British people as a whole. “Dear London! So vast, so ugly and so strong!” confided the noted diplomat and politician Harold Nicholson in his diary on February 14, 1941:
You have been bruised and battered and all your clothes are tattered and disarray. Yet we, who never knew we loved you (who regarded you in fact like some old family servant, ministering to our comforts and amenities, yet slightly incongruous and absurd), have suddenly felt the twinge of some fibre of identity, respect and love. We know what is come to you. And our eyes slip along your old untidy limbs, knowing that the leg may be gone tomorrow, and that tomorrow the arm may be severed. Yet through all this regret and dread pierces a slim clean note of pride. “London can take it.”
The spirit of London’s defiance, her indefatigable will, was perhaps best captured in Herbert Mason’s iconic photo of St. Paul’s Cathedral amid the swirling winds and flames of “the Second Great Fire of London” on the night of December 29, 1940. Flames engulfed most of the buildings around the great cathedral, which sits atop Ludgate Hill, the highest point in the city.
Fire brigades were pushed beyond the limits of endurance attempting to tackle 1,500 separate fires. Glass melted and iron gates twisted, and an eerie, reddish, apocalyptic light seemed to glow everywhere.
On a roof in Fleet Street, photographer Mann captured the magnificent site of the cathedral’s great dome rising up above the smoke and devastation. It happened that Ernie Pyle, the American war correspondent, was in the vicinity. He filed this dispatch:
The greatest of all the fires was directly in front of us. Flames seemed to whip hundreds of feet into the air. Pinkish-white smoke ballooned upward in a great cloud, and out of this cloud there gradually took shape--so faintly at first that we weren't sure we saw correctly--the gigantic dome of St. Paul's Cathedral. St. Paul's was surrounded by fire ... It stood there in its enormous proportions—growing slowly clearer and clearer, the way objects take shape at dawn. It was like a picture of some miraculous figure that appears before peace-hungry soldiers on a battlefield.
Churchill ordered St. Paul’s saved at all costs.
And so it was, thanks to Herculean efforts by firefighters manning something like 1,700 water pumps, the prayers of thousands of anxious onlookers, and more than a bit of luck. It had been a close run thing, as the Thames feeding the pumps was at a low ebb tide, and many of the hoses clogged up with mud.
One fireman understood the gravity of his mission just as well as his embattled Prime Minister: “If St. Paul’s goes down,” he said to his mates in the early-morning hours, “then we all go down.”
By the morning of the 30th of December, the flames and the bombs together had consumed more real estate than the Great London Fire of 1661. Nineteen churches were destroyed. Paternoster Row, center of London’s publishing trade, was destroyed. Five million books went up in smoke in one night.
All told, 43,000 civilians died in the Blitz, and 139,000 were wounded. In the capital city alone, 28,556 people perished, and 1.4 million Londoners—one in six—lost their homes.
Many military historians believe Hitler’s decision to launch an air assault on Britain’s cities was wrongheaded from the start. For one thing, the Luftwaffe’s medium weight bombers lacked adequate payloads to seriously curtail aircraft production, let alone to bring a modern industrialized society to its knees. The ordeal strengthened the resolve of the British people to carry on with the fight, and earned them the admiration and support of millions all over the world, especially in the United States.
Indeed, it could be said that the American press corps’ coverage of the Blitz, spearheaded by Edward R. Murrow’s stirring and vivid nightly radio broadcasts, and the writing of correspondents like Quentin Reynolds and Drew Middleton detailing the British people’s pluck and plight, became an integral part of Churchill’s propaganda campaign to win over the American people to the cause. And that campaign was by and large successful.
If Hitler had opted to forgo the bombing campaign and instead to have seized Egypt, or the great British base at Malta in the Mediterranean, thereby leaving “Churchill’s people to stew on their island,” opines historian Max Hastings, “the Prime Minister would have faced great difficulties in sustaining national morale.” Such humiliating losses, suffered at a time when Britain’s army was incapable of mounting a vigorous response, “would have dealt heavy blows to the credibility of Churchill’s policy of fighting on.”
Having come through the Blitz considerably stronger and more confident than they’d been when it had begun, there was never again any serious doubt that the British were in the fight against the “monstrous tyranny” to the finish.