19 Interesting Things You May Not Know About Great Britain during the Crushing Blitz of 1940-1941
19 Interesting Things You May Not Know About Great Britain during the Crushing Blitz of 1940-1941

19 Interesting Things You May Not Know About Great Britain during the Crushing Blitz of 1940-1941

Larry Holzwarth - October 24, 2018

The term blitzkrieg was invented by journalists to describe the three-pronged attack unleashed by the German military on Poland during the Second World War. It was started with a smashing air attack, which crushed enemy air forces on the ground, followed by driving columns of armor which broke through enemy defenses, which were then destroyed by the infantry columns. Supporting paratroop forces isolated enemy fortifications. It was a new form of warfare, and its effectiveness against the militaries of Europe was unsurpassed. But it could be stopped, or at least blunted, through control of the air. During the battle for France, British squadrons of fighter planes which were the equal of the best planes of Germany’s Luftwaffe were withheld from the fighting, kept in England for the fighting to come.

19 Interesting Things You May Not Know About Great Britain during the Crushing Blitz of 1940-1941
Children sitting among the rubble in London’s East End in September of 1940. Wikimedia

With France defeated and Luftwaffe fighters, a short distance away across the channel, England stood alone against the German assault. It has gone down in history as the Battle of Britain, and the phase of the battle in which London was bombed repeatedly is known as the Blitz. London was far from the only city of Great Britain to feel the onslaught of German bombs, but that city’s courage in the face of the attack came to be a symbol of Great Britain. Christopher Wren’s great dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral wreathed in the smoke of London’s many fires became an international icon. England withstood the blitz and the threat of invasion from July 1940 through June 1941, defended by the Royal Air Force, immortalized by Churchill as the few.

Here are some of the incidents of the Battle of Britain and the bombing of London and other British cities during what history knows as the Blitz.

19 Interesting Things You May Not Know About Great Britain during the Crushing Blitz of 1940-1941
Although the official written policy of the Luftwaffe was not to target civilian residential areas, stray German bombs could and did strike anywhere. Imperial War Museum

1. Hitler wanted to negotiate peace with Great Britain after France was defeated

By the end of June 1940, Germany’s enemies on the continent of Europe were defeated, and Hitler’s staff hoped to bring about a negotiated peace with Great Britain by enforcing a naval and air blockade against the island, which was unable to feed itself without trade. With the French ports in German hands, the U-boat flotillas were to establish a long-range blockade of the trade routes from the United States and Canada, supported by air bombardments and naval mines along the British coast. German surface raiders also kept the Royal Navy on edge. The British Royal Air Force had not fared well against the German Luftwaffe in France, largely because they were outnumbered and received little effective support from their French allies.

Fighting over Great Britain was a different matter. England had kept a watchful eye on Luftwaffe developments during the 1930s, and the Royal Air Force had prepared to meet a German onslaught through the development of several commands, supported by a system of radar outposts known as Chain Home stations, with fighter squadrons coordinated from the ground to meet oncoming German attacks. The German Luftwaffe had not developed plans for the bombing of cities, regarding such action as a waste of strategic assets which could be better used against defensive establishments and air bases of the enemy. Nor was the bombing of civilians deemed to be a means of bringing about a negotiated peace. When Britain refused to negotiate with the Germans the Luftwaffe was given the destruction of the RAF as its top priority, just as the summer of 1940 began.

19 Interesting Things You May Not Know About Great Britain during the Crushing Blitz of 1940-1941
Though Churchill spoke frequently of the threat of invasion to raise public awareness, privately he believed the Germans has no intention of invading while the RAF resisted. Wikimedia

2. Neither side’s military leaders believed that an invasion was imminent

After the fall of France and the British evacuation from Dunkirk, the German High Command, though it went forward with planning, considered a cross channel invasion of the British Isles only as a last resort to force British surrender after the RAF was destroyed. The threat of invasion was exaggerated by Churchill in his public rhetoric (much of it aimed at audiences in the United States), and privately he informed the War Cabinet that a German invasion was unlikely and that it would be “suicidal” for the Germans to attempt to support an invading force without naval superiority. To Churchill, who gave the upcoming fight its name, the Battle of Britain, in a speech before it began, the issue was always to be settled in the air. The RAF was well equipped for the type of battle that emerged before the Blitz began.

RAF fighters included the workhorse Hawker Hurricane, which had proven to be inferior to the German Messerschmidt Bf-109 over France, and a growing number of Supermarine Spitfires, which had proven to be the equal of the German aircraft. England’s shortage of trained pilots was eased with the arrival of airmen from around its vast empire, and they were supported by exiled pilots from some of the nations the Germans had overrun, including Poles, Czechs, Dutch, Belgians, and French. The Germans went forward with the attack focused on the destruction of the RAF, while simultaneously destroying coastal shipping and port facilities. There was no initial planning for the random bombing of cities and civilian areas put forward by either side.

19 Interesting Things You May Not Know About Great Britain during the Crushing Blitz of 1940-1941
The Hawker Hurricane was a workhorse of British Fighter Command in all theaters throughout the war, including the Battle of Britain. Wikimedia

3. The early stages of the Battle of Britain were driven by economics

Churchill’s famous few were never as few as he implied in his rhetoric, and in fact, the RAF held several advantages in the early days of the Battle of Britain. By the summer of 1940 British aircraft production was running at about 300 airplanes per week, but RAF fighter pilot training was only producing pilots at a rate of about 200 per week, and these had no combat experience as had the Germans over France and the rest of Europe. Despite an initial pilot ratio of about 1.5: 1 in favor of the Germans, the RAF quickly achieved near parity in the skies over England, where pilots were directed to incoming German squadrons via the efficient Chain Home network. The RAF pilots also received the support of land-based anti-aircraft gunfire, which was most effectively used against the incoming German bombers, though it was more of an irritant to the Germans than a threat.

From July 1 to September 1940, the German Luftwaffe and the British RAF engaged each other in the air, with German bombers attacking airfields and production facilities, and the British responding with attacks on the bombers and their escorting fighters. As German aircraft were lost their experienced pilots and crew were usually lost with them, even if they did manage to parachute from their stricken plane. Many British pilots managed to return to the battle after losing an aircraft, either by landing the damaged airplane or by parachuting over friendly territory. As the summer of 1940 wore on it became evident that the British were winning the battle for air supremacy over their island, and a change of strategy became a priority for the Germans. On September 4, Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to begin day and night raids on the industrial centers of Great Britain.

19 Interesting Things You May Not Know About Great Britain during the Crushing Blitz of 1940-1941
Heavy smoke rises from London docks along the Thames River in early September, 1940, the beginning of the Blitz. Wikimedia

4. The Blitz began in London and spread to other cities and towns

Long-range navigation of the German bombers was often hampered by the notorious climate of the Channel and the British Isles, and port cities were a major target of the new German strategy, since they were easier to find and offered warehouses, docks, repair shops, and shipping as targets of opportunity. The German plan was altered to include the around-the-clock bombing of the British cities, with bombers escorted by fighters. The plan was to draw the RAF fighters into action against the slower and less agile bombers, where they would be engaged by the German fighters. Initially, the Blitz was a mostly daytime operation, but the RAF attacks on the Germans cost the Luftwaffe an inordinate amount of bombers and gradually the attacks shifted to being launched mostly at night.

The first major raid on the Port of London was launched on September 7, 1940, and did heavy damage to docks and other waterfront areas along the Thames. Further attacks in September resulted in little damage to the British in comparison to the losses sustained by the Germans. This was in part because the Germans lacked a long-range heavy bomber in their arsenal, and relied instead on medium bombers which could only deliver lighter payloads. The Germans also encountered a problem which the Allies would later face in reverse. Escorting fighters were limited in the amount of time they could engage the enemy, otherwise, they would have insufficient fuel to make it back to their bases. These factors forced the Germans to change to the concept of night bombing, despite the difficulties in navigation and bombing accuracy night operations posed.

19 Interesting Things You May Not Know About Great Britain during the Crushing Blitz of 1940-1941
Although not yet available in large numbers in 1940, the Supermarine Spitfire proved to be a match for the front line German fighters which had dominated the sky in France. Wikimedia

5. Defending London from the air was a priority of war planning

In the summer of 1940, almost 20% of the population of Great Britain lived within the 750 square miles which comprised greater London. Nine million people lived in the area. In the late 1930s, the British government and military planners discussed the means of moving many of these people, mostly women and children, outside of the city (with similar plans developed for other British urban centers, such as Liverpool). When Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939 a blackout, which had been planned and rehearsed at the time of the Munich Crisis, was imposed in British cities and towns and remained in place for the duration of the war. The blackout was a major cause of complaint from the British people, many of whom argued that it was pointless since the German airplanes were often guided by the fires ignited by their predecessors over the cities.

During the pre-war planning and the Phoney War which preceded the invasion of France, the preparation of bomb shelters was for the most part in the hands of local authorities, and some areas suffered from a lack of adequate shelter space. Preparations were made for the relocation of the government despite the negative impact such a move was likely to have on civilian morale. During the first week of German bombings, the government refused to allow the famous London Underground stations to be used as shelters, ordering them locked when air raid sirens sounded over the city. After the second week of bombing the stations were opened as shelters and by mid-September over 150,000 Londoners slept in the Underground stations.

19 Interesting Things You May Not Know About Great Britain during the Crushing Blitz of 1940-1941
The wreckage of Madame Tussaud’s Marylebone, London, 1940, which was destroyed along with the cinema next door. Imperial War Museum

6. Londoners went about their business with gas masks at hand

Before the beginning of the Second World War, the use of poisonous gas through aerial bombardment was a very real fear of defense planners, and gas masks were designed for the wear of even the smallest children. Government planners also expected a sharp increase in anxiety-related mental disorders as a result of aerial bombardment, a belief reinforced by the unexpectedly high rate of “shell shock” diagnosed and reported among the survivors of the British Expeditionary Force evacuated at Dunkirk. A system of mental health clinics and emergency facilities was established to deal with an emergency which Churchill told Parliament could affect up to four million people. As the Blitz went on in London it was found that the opposite was true, and many of the facilities were closed since nobody was using them. One of the mental health professionals involved was Anna Freud, daughter of Sigmund Freud.

Londoners carried gas masks to work, on errands, in the pubs, and when touring the bombed-out areas of their city, which they did to such an extent that they often proved a problem to the rescue workers trying to dig people out of the rubble. Nearly all publicans reported an increase in business, probably because beer, though significantly weaker in alcohol content, wasn’t rationed throughout the war. According to polls, British morale remained high despite the pounding from the air nearly every night. Organizations and associations for the defense of the city were formed, with scouts guiding fire trucks to where they were needed, and canteens being operated in the shelters and among the ruins above ground, while other groups worked to find shelter for those displaced by the bombing.

19 Interesting Things You May Not Know About Great Britain during the Crushing Blitz of 1940-1941
Two cinemas, the Futurist (left) and the Scala, Lime Street, Liverpool in the Spring of 1941. Wikimedia

7. The Liverpool Blitz was the largest in Britain after London

In 1940 the main port for the connection of Great Britain with the ports of Canada and the United States was Liverpool. The importance of the port of Liverpool (and Birkenhead) to the British war effort was immeasurable, especially as American aid, at first paid for as “cash and carry” and later through Lend-Lease, began to support the British. Liverpool was critical as an anchorage for ships involved in the Battle of the Atlantic, in the convoy systems, and in overseas trade. By the end of the war, 90% of the war material delivered to Great Britain arrived via Liverpool, including vast numbers of American troops and military equipment. The Germans recognized the value of the port and prioritized it as a target for bombing early in the war, in what became known as the Liverpool Blitz.

The Liverpool Blitz began a week before that of London and continued throughout the ensuing winter and well into the spring of 1941, only ending when most of the Luftwaffe assets available at the time were transferred to the Soviet Union. Some of the heaviest German bombings of the war occurred on the city and its docks and other port facilities. The damage to the port was extensive, but it remained in operation throughout the war. Rail facilities, warehouses, repair yards, factories, and public buildings and churches were damaged or destroyed throughout the area. More than 6,000 private homes were destroyed, another 190,000 were damaged. Over 3,000 people from Liverpool and its surrounding Merseyside environs were killed in the German assaults, which like those of London, failed at first to demoralize the British.

19 Interesting Things You May Not Know About Great Britain during the Crushing Blitz of 1940-1941
Churchill views the bombed out ruins of Coventry Cathedral after the massive German raid which devastated the city. Imperial War Museum

8. The progressive destruction of London and British industrial centers

Throughout the autumn of 1940, the German Luftwaffe continued to pound British cities, though before September ended Hitler canceled the invasion of England – Operation Sea Lion – which he had never fully endorsed other than as a last resort means of obtaining a British surrender after they had lost control of the air. Because Goering retained control of all German military aviation and aircraft production he was actually an obstacle to Germany achieving that goal. Combined operations with the German Navy, the Kriegsmarine, such as mining operations of the estuaries and harbors of Great Britain, would have led to the Royal Navy being exposed to the attacks of German bombers. Goering was convinced that the Luftwaffe alone was sufficient to bring about victory over the British and force peace, though Hitler was no longer convinced.

German military planners were focused on the coming invasion of the Soviet Union, which would be hampered by continuing German losses over England, and was a major reason for the shift to mainly night raids when the bombers were less susceptible to the attacks of British fighters. Several British cities were bombed throughout October, often in series of several nights, including Birmingham, Coventry, Hull (which suffered the largest percentage of buildings lost to the bombing of any British city), Glasgow, and Manchester. The British railway system suffered heavy damage in the bombings, as did the docks and port facilities along the Thames Estuary. The heavy night raids were supported by fighter-bomber attacks to disrupt production in daytime raids, which were often intercepted by the RAF.

19 Interesting Things You May Not Know About Great Britain during the Crushing Blitz of 1940-1941
An air raid shelter in an Underground Station in London’s West end, likely taken in 1940 or 1941. Imperial War Museum

9. London goes about its daily business

The bombings and the nights interrupted by the air raid sirens summoning the citizens to shelters continued throughout the fall, and when the raids ended and the all clear sounded, the citizens of London emerged and went about the business at hand. Some joined in rescue efforts, others in fire-fighting and removal of wreckage, but the vast majority returned to their shops, their offices, their workbenches, or their delivery vans. London, a city under massive aerial bombardment, went about its business wherever possible. Merchants sold their rationed goods. Housewives queued at the butcher shop, the poulterer’s, or the apothecary’s. Films were shown in the cinemas, plays performed on the stages, in fine weather people strolled in the parks. Despite disruptions in the railways, the commuters somehow found a way to their destinations.

Foreign observers, including news reporters and temporary military personnel from the United States, called the pattern of the German bombing indiscriminate. The Germans lacked the types of precision bombsight to drop bombs with a high level of accuracy, and since they were often guided at night by fires the bombs were scattered over all sorts of neighborhoods, while prominent legitimate targets remained relatively unscathed. Numerous London railway stations were hit by bombs, including the famous Victoria Station. In the East End, Thames shipping was severely hampered by the destruction of river barges, and the docks were battered, but for the most part, the river’s ability to handle commercial traffic was not severely impaired. By the middle of November, it was evident that the German effort was not bringing the British to their knees.

19 Interesting Things You May Not Know About Great Britain during the Crushing Blitz of 1940-1941
Heavy damage at Hallam and Duchess Streets in Westminster during the height of the Blitz. Imperial War Museum

10. The British night defenses started the battle ill-equipped and prepared

When the Germans began their attacks on the City of London the land-based defenses – anti-aircraft guns and searchlights – were lacking in their ability to deal with the threat. The searchlights were weak, often unable to reach the altitudes of the German bombers sufficiently to illuminate them for the gunners. The guns themselves often lacked even a cursory fire control system. The firing of the guns was encouraging to British morale since it meant that the incoming Germans were at least facing opposition, but in the early phases of the battle they did little actual damage to German aircraft, and the shrapnel from their shells falling back to earth likely contributed to British damage and casualties. Airborne radar was primitive and unreliable, and fighters capable of effective night fighting were scarce, though the British began converting existing aircraft to night fighting configurations.

Airborne radar used for the interception of enemy aircraft, guiding friendly airplanes to a point where visual identification could be made, was in its infancy, was unreliable, and few airplanes so equipped were available. Still, some successes were achieved during night combat missions, leading to American scientists and military observers to note the British advances in the area of radar (the United States Navy was at the time experimenting with radar on its battleships and heavy cruisers). By the end of 1940, the British had nine-night fighter-equipped squadrons available, though most were equipped with aircraft which were all but obsolete. On the night of November 15 during a night raid on Coventry by the Germans more than two dozen factories were damaged or shut down due to the destruction of electrical power distribution. Opposition by British fighters was virtually non-existent.

19 Interesting Things You May Not Know About Great Britain during the Crushing Blitz of 1940-1941
A photograph of the city taken from the dome of St. Paul’s, and which shows the extensive damage from the Second Great Fire of London. Wikimedia

11. The Second Great Fire of London, December 29, 1940

London endured what was probably its worst night of the Blitz just after Christmas, 1940. After a week during which a series of raids struck British cities in the East Midlands, a raid on London consisting of about 130 bombers struck the City of London, the metropolis’ historic center. The Germans dropped incendiary bombs from aircraft designated as pathfinders. These ignited fires were used by following German aircraft to find and concentrate on their target, which dropped high explosive bombs into the flames. It was during the aftermath of this raid that the famed photographs of St. Paul’s Cathedral wreathed in flames and smoke were taken. When Churchill saw the photograph in the Daily Mail, he messaged that St. Paul’s, “must be saved at all costs”.

The resulting fire storm which swept through the City of London covered an area of greater size than the Great Fire of London of 1666. Several American war correspondents were in the City and reported on what they saw, including Edward R. Murrow, who reported St. Paul’s in flames, “burning to the ground as I talk to you now”. Ernie Pyle, who would become one of America’s most respected war correspondents before his death in the far Pacific, wrote, “Pinkish-white smoke ballooned upward in a great cloud, and out of this cloud there gradually took shape – so faintly at first we weren’t sure we saw correctly – the gigantic dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. St. Paul’s was surrounded by fire, but it came through“. It was later discovered that an incendiary bomb was wedged in the timbers of the dome, but had failed to detonate.

19 Interesting Things You May Not Know About Great Britain during the Crushing Blitz of 1940-1941
A German Heinkel bomber soars overhead, its bomb bay doors open. Royal Air Force

12. The Germans tried to improve their navigation and bombing precision

With the majority of the bombing missions restricted to night raids to reduce aircraft losses, the Germans relied on radio navigation systems to find their industrial targets. Radio beams transmitted from positions on the continent were aimed to converge over the desired target. German bombers flying along either beam would monitor for the other, and when it picked up the transmission they knew they were over the target and released their bombs. The system worked even in periods of low visibility over the target. The German name for the system was Knickebein, which meant “crooked leg”. Other, more complex systems were developed for the use of the leading pathfinder aircraft, and the British soon developed countermeasures, leading to a phase of the battle known as the Battle of the Beams.

Some beam sources were in the United Kingdom itself, operated by German agents. The British conducted an extensive search, eventually locating the beams and developing the means to jam them. Another countermeasure was the method of modifying the width of the beam, causing the Germans to have difficulty maintaining the strength of signal needed to remain on course to the target. After November 1940, when the heaviest bombing raids of the Blitz were launched, the majority of Luftwaffe bomber pilots no longer had any confidence in the beams and chose to navigate by the tried and true methods of dead reckoning and landmark recognition. The British success in thwarting the German navigation aids contributed to the German technique of adopting area bombing over precision bombing.

19 Interesting Things You May Not Know About Great Britain during the Crushing Blitz of 1940-1941
Mannequins and merchandise litter London streets after the stores in which they were displayed were struck by German bombs. Wikimedia

13. Underestimating the enemy was a common mistake made by both sides

When the Germans bombed Coventry in November 1940, using pathfinders armed with incendiary bombs to light the way, they achieved for the first time a concentrated bombardment on the target area. The result was devastating to the city, with at least twenty factories heavily damaged. Public utilities were knocked out, meaning another dozen factories were temporarily idled, as well as smaller supporting businesses such as machine shops, glassmakers, tool and dye makers, and so forth. Had the Germans launched follow-up raids on the area they could have severely crippled the British ability to produce aircraft for the conflict, an industrial effort at which they were already outpacing the Germans. The Germans were impressed with their own success and didn’t believe the British would be able to recover for some time, and went on to other targets.

In fact, British aircraft production did take a significant dip in the aftermath of the Coventry raid, but part of that reduction was attributable to the U-boat and surface raider successes in the Atlantic cutting into the arrival of raw materials in British ports. The British took steps to decentralize the production of war machinery, spreading it out to other locations besides those where it had been traditionally located. They also used the Coventry raid as the impetus for their own shift to night bombing raids of Germany, deciding to adopt the concept of area bombing rather than precision bombing of military or industrial targets. Coventry was the target of other raids later in the war, but the massive raid of November 1940 was the worst of them. Coventry Cathedral was destroyed in the raid, and its remaining ruins were stabilized and left as they were after the war.

19 Interesting Things You May Not Know About Great Britain during the Crushing Blitz of 1940-1941
British troops try to remove bomb damage following a German raid on Hull, a frequent target of Luftwaffe bombers. Imperial War Museum

14. The Germans return to bombing the British ports and shipping facilities

In the late winter of 1940-41, the Kriegsmarine lobbied Hitler for Luftwaffe support in the attacks on British shipping. Goering continued to resist committing the Luftwaffe to the support of naval operations, fearing that if he did so he would lose absolute control of both air operations and aircraft production, including the design of future airplanes. In February 1941 the interdiction of British imports and the destruction of port facilities and ships by the Luftwaffe was given top priority by Hitler. Goering agreed to the prioritizing of the British ports as targets but emphasized that other targets of opportunity would be included during planning, in the event that the targets in the ports were concealed by cloud cover. The aircraft would then fly on to inland targets such as factories or military installations. In March the Luftwaffe launched a raid against Clydebank, a port and shipbuilding center near Glasgow.

Clydebank saw damage to nearly twelve thousand houses, and extensive damage to facilities and other structures in a raid on March 13, 1941. The Channel port of Plymouth was the subject of several raids before the end of March. Other ports, including Belfast in Northern Ireland and Cardiff in Wales, were the targets of bombing raids. Throughout the United Kingdom, people were being rendered homeless at the rate of more than 40,000 per week. During the raids on the ports, though the docks and other port facilities were damaged, the majority of the Luftwaffe bombs fell on the business or residential portions of the cities. The eastern ports of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Sunderland were attacked, and heavy damage occurred, but the continuous trickle of supplies from North America continued to arrive in the United Kingdom.

19 Interesting Things You May Not Know About Great Britain during the Crushing Blitz of 1940-1941
By spring 1941 most British cities had large swathes of their area exhibiting extensive damage from the air bombardment. National Archives

15. The Germans attempted to destroy the Liverpool port once and for all

In early May 1941, the German Luftwaffe launched a series of night raids on the port and city of Liverpool, including its surrounding regions and communities. Beginning on the night of May 1, nearly seven hundred German bombers struck at the port and its environs, using mines, high explosive bombs, and incendiary bombs. On May 3, a munitions ship tied up at Huskisson Dock (at one of its two branch docks) was set afire by flames which had originated with incendiary bombs on the dock itself. The ship exploded a few hours following the raid which had started the fires, with such violence that most of the dock was destroyed. The ship’s anchor, which weighed more than two tons, was found more than one and a half miles from the site of the explosion near Bootle Hospital. The town of Bootle itself was heavily damaged in raids of its own.

Out of the 144 cargo berths available in the area, 69 were left out of service following the German raids, yet the port remained open and repairs to facilities began as the fires were still burning elsewhere. Civilian casualties were nearly 3,000 killed or injured, and nearly 200,000 homes in the area suffered some form of damage. Well over 6,000 were completely destroyed by the bombing and the ensuing fires. Later that month the Germans returned to bomb the Clyde facilities, just as the new British battleship Prince of Wales was sortieing to meet the German battleship Bismarck and its consort Prinz Eugen. The failure of the Luftwaffe to prevent the British convoys from arriving and departing from the island nation’s many ports was nearly as big a disaster as its failure to wrest air superiority from their enemy. By the end of May 1941, the German attacks on England’s ports from the air were effectively over.

19 Interesting Things You May Not Know About Great Britain during the Crushing Blitz of 1940-1941
The Boulton Paul Defiant achieved some success as a night fighter with the RAF, after proving to be near obsolescent in the daytime skies over France. Imperial War Museum

16. The British never achieved air superiority at night

With more and more Luftwaffe units being transferred to Poland and the Balkans in the spring of 1941, daytime attacks over England all but ceased. The bombers still came at night, in increasingly larger concentrations, in what had become what was in essence German terror bombing of the British civilian population. Towards the end of April and in May, morale was beginning to wane among the English people, who widely recognized that an invasion of Great Britain by the Germans was increasingly unlikely. The German bombers arrived somewhere in the British skies on a nightly basis, and the night fighters of the RAF, despite the advantages of ground-based radar guiding them to their targets (and in some cases air-based radar) were unable to stop most of them. German bomber losses hovered between 1-2% per mission.

In May the situation began to shift in favor of the British. The Boulton Paul Defiant, a fighter which resembled the Hurricane in appearance but which carried a turret armed with four machine guns, was considered obsolete as a day fighter. But at night it could fly beneath an enemy aircraft, firing upwards into its belly, unobserved by the Germans until the bullets shredded their aircraft. Other models of RAF night fighters joined the battle. Just as the Germans were beginning to disengage their remaining forces committed to the attacks on Britain the RAF demonstrated an improved and more deadly night fighting capability. The improvement in RAF night fighting capability led to the Germans sending a raid on London over two nights in May 1941, escorted with night fighters of their own.

19 Interesting Things You May Not Know About Great Britain during the Crushing Blitz of 1940-1941
Even hospitals felt the blast of German bombs, as this photograph of St. Thomas Hospital in Lambeth depicts. Imperial War Museum

17. The last of the major raids on London

By May 1941 the population of the British capital had endured the threat of air raids from across the Channel for nearly a full year. Whole sections of the city were reduced to rubble. The air raid siren had become a fact of life. On two consecutive nights, May 10/11 and May 11/12 the Germans came yet again. This time there was no illusion of attacking the docks or other areas of the city. In the first raid, almost 600 German airplanes dropped bombs on the city, starting more than 2,000 individual fires, and inflicting well over 3,000 casualties, including more than 1,400 dead. Coupled with the news of the pounding of Liverpool and the other ports, as well as the increasing losses to the U-boats, which were classified but which were talked about by sailors everywhere, morale sank.

It sank yet further when the Germans returned to London the next night, this time accompanied by fighters to engage the RAF, an indication that they were nowhere near giving up the attempt to bomb England into surrender. Westminster Abbey was hit by the bombs, and the nearby Law Courts, a symbol of British Common Law, were also hit and damaged by bombs and fire. The Chamber of the House of Commons was struck by more than one bomb and completely destroyed. By the end of the raid over one-third of London’s streets were closed to traffic, nearly all rail communication in and out of the city was severed, and food, medicines, clothing, and adequate shelter had all become scarce. It was then that the Germans quit coming. There was no announcement. Five weeks later the Germans invaded the Soviet Union.

19 Interesting Things You May Not Know About Great Britain during the Crushing Blitz of 1940-1941
Support for British resistance was sharply divided along class lines, with many of the working class and poor favoring a negotiated peace with the Germans. Imperial War Museum

18. The truth behind the myth of the Blitz

Through the use of Churchill’s rhetoric and through the efforts of news correspondents, many of them Americans who were eyewitnesses to the Blitz in London, the heroism and courage of the British people and their “tiny” air force resisting the Nazis entered history as representing a fully united and determined people. Everyone was portrayed as accepting their lot uncomplainingly and unflinchingly, inspired by the bulldog Winston Churchill. While it is true that the British people endured hardships and continuous peril throughout the Blitz, it is equally true that class divisions, long a feature of life in Great Britain and its empire, were prevalent in the national reaction to the emergency. Calls for a negotiated peace were heard throughout the period, particularly from the working class, and supported by Great Britain’s Communist Party.

The British shifted their offensive bombing strategy to more closely resemble the German model following the Blitz, adopting the use of incendiary bombs and creating plans to destroy city centers. This was based on the observation that when the centers of cities were destroyed administrative, financial, and transportation operations were all disrupted, often for greater periods of time than was the case with the destruction of industrial facilities. British Bomber Command reacted by adopting the concept of area bombing, with the goal of disrupting the German economic base. The British also recognized the increased destruction from the fires caused by incendiary bombs. The failure of the Luftwaffe to force the British into a negotiated peace was the first defeat inflicted on the Germans in the Second World War and a lesson well learned by their British opponents.

19 Interesting Things You May Not Know About Great Britain during the Crushing Blitz of 1940-1941
While firefighters continue to spray water, likely to keep down dust, other workers struggle to restore power connections. Imperial War Museum

19. The impact of the Battle of Britain

The Germans suffered higher casualties than their British opponents during the Battle of Britain, in both the number of airplanes lost and the number of aircrews killed and wounded. Still, after shifting to night bombing, the British only achieved a rate of downing 1.5% of the bombers sortied by the Germans throughout the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. The British demonstrated huge advances in air warfare, in particular the use of radar for controlling air squadrons from the ground, guiding them to interception of their targets. The German policy failures regarding the interdiction of convoys and the destruction of escorts contributed to the British ability to hang on until the Luftwaffe was needed elsewhere. Neither side shot the other “out of the sky”. When the Germans abandoned the continuous bombing attacks the British defenses were reeling, near the end of their proverbial rope.

The Battle of Britain and the images of the City of London’s courageous resistance did much to bring pro-British sentiment to the forefront in the United States, leading to lend-lease, convoys, and increasing American assistance in the Battle of the Atlantic. But probably its most important impact on the war was the reduction of experienced crews and combat ready aircraft for use against the Soviets in Operation Barbarossa. By the end of the summer of 1941, British bombers were attacking German cities in ever increasing strength (at night), British troops were fighting the Germans in North Africa and elsewhere, and American destroyers were assisting in the convoying of ships carrying the necessities of war to the British Isles. Churchill’s strategy throughout the Blitz had been to simply hang on as long as possible. In the end, it worked.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“How Bomber Command Helped Win The Battle Of Britain”. Imperial War Museums

“Operation Sea Lion: The German Plan to Invade Britain 1940”. Egbert Kieser. 1999

“Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain”. Len Deighton. 2000

“The First and the Last: Germany’s Fighter Force in WWII”. Adolf Galland. 2005

“The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain”. Stephen Bungay. 2000

“The Luftwaffe Bombers’ Battle of Britain”. Chris Goss. 2000

“British Intelligence in the Second World War”. F. H. Hinsley. 1979

“The Blitz”. Maureen Hill. 2002

“The Blitz”. Entry at Merseyside Maritime Museum. Online

“Hitler and Air Strategy”. Richard Overy, Journal of Contemporary History. July, 1980

“Living and Working in London during World War II”. Cheerful Kay Blackwood, BBC History. March 23, 2004, Online

“CH – The First Operational Radar”. B. T. Neale, The GEC Journal of Operational Research. 1985

“How St. Paul’s Survived the Blitz”. BBC News Magazine. December 29, 2010. Online

“The Secret War”. Brian Johnson. 2004

“Battle of Britain was won as much by German ineptitude as British heroism”. Michael White, The Guardian. August 31, 2015

“Erich Raeder: Grand Admiral”. Erich Raeder. 2001

“May Blitz”. Entry, Merseyside Maritime Museum. Online

“The Night Blitz: 1940 – 1941”. John Ray. 1996

“The Blitz: Westminster at War”. William Samsom. 1990

“The Myth of the Blitz”. Angus Calder. 2012

“The Blitz, Then and Now, Volume 2: After the Battle”. Winston Ramsey. 1987

“20 Photographs Depicting British Children During the Blitz of World War II”. History Collection

“The Terror of the London Blitz Revealed as Much More Complicated Than Previously Believed”. History Collection

Advertisement