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The London Blitz

Keep Calm and Carry On: The London Blitz.


Nearly thirty years ago I remember lying awake shivering in my in my sleeping bag.  It was not because of the cold as it was August—I was awake in my tent during a horrible thunderstorm.  The wind was tremendous and I heard large branches falling around me.  It was only a matter of time before the trees above me dropped their deadly limbs right on top of me and there was nothing I could do about it.  When the storm passed by morning I was still horribly shaken and doubted I would ever sleep in a tent again.  That was one night.  Imagine enduring something much worse: the deliberate bombing of your home by enemy bombers.  But it was not just one night, it went on for months.  The people of London and nearby cities suffered through the Blitz during the Battle of Britain in World War Two.  The London Blitz was the concentrated aerial bombing of major population centers in England by the Luftwaffe or German Air Force.  The Blitz was meant to crush the moral of the English and hinder its economy to force its surrender--surprisingly it had the opposite effect.


Len Phillips, now 84, of Bloomsbury, London remembered, “I was getting very fragile round the edges. I kept thinking: ‘Is it ever going to end?’ That's what I think it was: ‘Are we ever going to get out of this somehow?’ And, of course, we did. It was one of those things we had to put up with.”


By this point in World War Two the Germans controlled most of Europe from Poland in the east to France in the west.  Anything they did not control was either an ally or neutral.  Only England remained defiant.  Hitler, apparently surprised at the British refusal to surrender after the fall of France, was faced with the problem of forcing England to its knees.  But how was this going to happen?  As military historian J.A. Sherman once quipped, “The way you win a war is to eliminate your enemies will to resist you.”  Hitler had to find a way to break the will of the British civilian. 



In World War One the U-Boat blockade had nearly starved the British but eventually the Americans got involved and eliminated that threat with a combination of the convey system (massing merchant vessels together) and destroyers to protect them.  The Zeppelin (early dirigibles) and Gotha bomber raids had managed to kill about 1,400 people in and around London.  Maybe a modern air force, like the Luftwaffe, could sweep the skies clear of the Royal Air Force (RAF) and then dominate the English with the Kriegsmarine (German navy) to establish a cross channel invasion to deliver the knock-out blow. 


The invasion, called Operation Sea Lion, required air and naval superiority over the channel.  The Germans launched the operation that Winston Churchill named the Battle of Britain in July of 1940 and lasted until September of 1941.  The initial stages of the battle featured waves of Luftwaffe fighters and bombers sweeping over the English countryside attacking RAF airfields and radar installations. This strategy may have worked.  England could produce fighters (2 to 1 ratio versus Germany at the time) but could not quickly replace pilots.  Eventually, the RAF would run out of manpower.  That was until a few German bombers missed their primary targets and jettisoned their loads like so much sauerkraut onto the city of London.


Winston Churchill responded by ordering bomber raids over Berlin.  This was a psychological blow that no egomaniacal dictator could not forget nor forgive.   After two months of daily attrition the RAF was given a reprieve but at the expense of London and nearby cities. On September 7th, 1940, (or 7 September 1940 since we are talking about the British who, it also turns out, often waste perfectly good vowels in words like “colour,”) Hitler ordered the Blitz.  This day came to be called Battle of Britain Day.  His goal was to bomb the Londoners into submission while simultaneously destroying ports, docks, factories and railroads.  The British people, he reasoned, would surrender once they realized he could bomb them at will.  Londoners suffered through fifty-seven straight days and nights of bombings.  This was the Blitz. 


The people of London stoically withstood the onslaught, but how?  Luckily Britain had the foresight to anticipate a possible attack and invasion.  They implemented Operation Pied Piper or the removal of school age children out of the range of possible German bomber attacks.  3.5 million children were eventually moved away from their families during the course of the war.  But what of those who stayed behind?  They had to find shelter as best they could during the raids.  The Underground or subway system was able to shelter up to an estimated 177,000 people.  London had a population of 9 million before the war. 


People sheltered in their cellars or in the basements of public buildings—anywhere but above ground.  But they could hear the bombs and it must have seemed that it was only a matter of time before their shelter received a direct hit.  The only solace these people had while cowering in the dark was the sound of British anti-aircraft fire or the sound of RAF Spitfire and Hurricane fighters attacking the bombers.  Unfortunately, losses of Luftwaffe aircraft in daylight caused a shift to nighttime bombing and until radar was affixed to RAF night fighters they were nearly useless and the anti-aircraft was used primarily as a morale booster because they rarely hit their targets (Only ten bombers were shot down by ground fire in the whole of December).  But, moral was the most important thing that the British had and just hearing the guns meant that they were fighting back.


The British government distributed portable shelters along with posters that encouraged people to “Keep Calm and Carry On,” and “Business as Usual.”  They also organized the Home Guard, similar to a National Guard, made up of men beyond military age.  They acted as an auxiliary police force to help provide order during raids.  There were auxiliary fire services made up of both men and women and even an early form of social welfare was tested out involving the Royal Army Pay Corps by which unemployed people were paid to clean up after raids.  These activities made the Londoners feel that they were doing their part for the war effort.  They were not simply hiding underground awaiting the inevitable.  They were doing their bit to fight der Fuhrer. 


But the German Terrorangriff or “terror attack” was not working.  Why?  How could it not work?  Nearly ceaseless bombing occurred every night for almost two months and then sporadic bombing after that just to jack with your tea time.  Well, Germany had issues with their tactics and strategy.  They believed that there was no need for a four-engine bomber that could carry a huge bomb load over great distances.  They relied on faster but smaller and more lightly defended DO-17’s, JU-88’s and HE-111’s.  These are fine for limited and close range use and the JU-88 could actually dive bomb but none of these are strategic bombers like the Americans had in the B-17 and B-24 or the RAF had in their Lancaster. 


The Germans could not carry enough bombs far enough to make a significant impact on the people or economy of Britain.  But wasn’t the whole idea to sweep the RAF from the skies to have air superiority over the channel to facilitate an invasion?  Oh yeah, forgot about that.  The RAF used the time Hitler was pounding London to train more pilots to defend their island.


Hitler must have convinced himself that Great Britain was a simple sideshow and he could deal with them later.  He had bigger Borscht to fry—the Soviet Union.  By May of 1941 all ideas of an invasion of Great Britain had evaporated with the coming of Operation Barbarossa or the invasion of the USSR.  All emphasis shifted to the east until RAF Bomber Command and the US Eighth Air Force began strategic bombing over Germany.  Hitler probably wished he had wiped out the RAF when he had the chance.  He never really wanted a two front war.


The people of Britain suffered over one million homes destroyed and up to 40,000 civilians were killed during the entirety of the bombing campaign.  But the resolve of the British did not fail.  During the height of the Blitz a Gallup Poll was taken and only three percent of the people of London believed that they would eventually lose the war.  Seriously?  If Hitler had never bombed London that percentage would have probably been higher.  By the end of the war single allied raids were killing more Germans than the entirety of the Battle of Britain.  The raid on Dresden alone killed between 35,000-135,000 civilians we have no way of knowing how many actually perished as the city was crowded with refugees who had escaped the bombings elsewhere. Do not piss off a Londoner. 



londonbliz-family after a raid
The Royal Family
coventry after a 1940 air raid
children in the blitz out playing
collapsing building on victoria street 1941
london rubble
london blitz with Tower Bridge

London's Subway system was turned into a massive bomb shleter during the Blitz

Prime Minister Winston Churchill address the British people and urges them to

"Keep Calm and Carry On"

Despite months of intense bombing the British would refuse to surrender. Guess, Hitler did Nazi that coming.

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