Harrowing destruction, limited military impact: The Blitz, 80 years on

Smoke rising from fires in the London docks near Tower Bridge, September 7, 1940.
Smoke rising from fires in the London docks near Tower Bridge, September 7, 1940. © Wikimedia Creative Commons

On September 7, 1940, the Luftwaffe launched the Blitz, starting with an aerial attack aimed mainly at the Port of London. The Nazi bombing campaign against Britain killed some 43,000 civilians, with raids on cities across the country lasting until May 1941. However, the Blitz did not achieve any military objectives or break British morale, failing to diminish the UK as a thorn in Adolf Hitler’s side.

Advertising

When the Blitz started in September 1940, the Battle of Britain, which had been launched three months earlier, was drawing to a close before ending in October. It had become increasingly clear to the Nazis that the Royal Air Force was defeating the Luftwaffe in the skies.

Still, the bombing of British cities went ahead – even though it had been planned as part of Operation Sea Lion, the Nazi invasion of the UK that would soon be shelved amid the Germans’ defeat in the Battle of Britain and would never to take place.   

In addition to the tens of thousands of civilians killed, more than two million homes were destroyed, 60 percent of them in London. The capital was the major target, but industrial centres such as Coventry, Birmingham and Sheffield, and port cities including Portsmouth, Glasgow and Belfast were also victims of the Blitz, as the press dubbed it using the German word for “lightning”.  

The damage to Coventry in the West Midlands was particularly horrifying. Coventry Cathedral – a 14th-century Gothic masterpiece; one of the jewels in the crown of the Anglican Church – was reduced to ruins. Its roofless remains still stand as a testament to the pity of war. 

This destruction contrasts with the negligible impact of the bombing on the outcome of the war, with minimal damage to the UK’s strategic infrastructure. By and large the British people kept calm and carried on.

Eighty years on, FRANCE 24 discussed the Blitz with Richard Overy, professor of history at Exeter University and author of a variety of books on modern history, in particular the Second World War, including The Bombing War and Why the Allies Won.

Winston Churchill visiting the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, September 1940.
Winston Churchill visiting the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, September 1940. © Wikimedia Creative Commons

What motivated Adolf Hitler and Hermann Göring to launch the air raids on the UK? 

When they sent the Luftwaffe to Britain on September 7, they hadn’t worked out the entire campaign; they hadn’t thought about the Blitz as it was going to become. In fact, the September 7 attack was really part of the preparation for Sea Lion; a big air attack against London a week or so before Sea Lion had been planned in order to disrupt government administration, attack trade and shipping, and so on. So the idea was the launch a large shock attack against London, and then the invasion would take place about a week or 10 days later. But it’s often been misinterpreted, as if it was revenge for attacks by British bombers on Berlin.  

How did the Blitz develop into a campaign that lasted several months? 

The German invasion of Britain of course didn’t take place. They hadn’t defeated the RAF and Hitler realised it and postponed Sea Lion, finally cancelling it the following year, but he wanted to put pressure on Britain so he demanded a blockade campaign. Bombing was directed mainly at British ports and shipping, and the hope was that they could put pressure on Britain as its trade supplies would decline and the Churchill government would seek some kind of compromise with Hitler. But Hitler was always very iffy about it; he never had any confidence that the Luftwaffe could actually deliver what he wanted. So the invasion couldn’t take place but Hitler wanted to keep going at Britain, and the only way he could think of doing it was by intensifying the blockade in the hope that that would be decisive.

It was only when it had become clear, by November, that the bombing had not achieved anything that Hitler decided that he was going to turn against the Soviet Union, and he would do that because it would put pressure on Britain and would also – the idea was – give Germany resources it could then use to turn against Britain and the United States at a later date. 

A German Luftwaffe Heinkel bomber flying over Wapping and the Isle of Dogs in the East End of London at the start of the Luftwaffe's raids on September 7, 1940.
A German Luftwaffe Heinkel bomber flying over Wapping and the Isle of Dogs in the East End of London at the start of the Luftwaffe's raids on September 7, 1940. © Wikimedia Creative Commons

How extensive was the damage the Blitz caused?

The physical damage was much less than what the Luftwaffe had hoped for – and it indicated how weak the German bomber arm was. It had a relatively small force, not capable of carrying heavy loads of bombs. It very soon lost the ability to navigate accurately, its navigation being intercepted. In German pilots’ bugged conversations, they would talk to each other and say: “What’s the use? We simply couldn’t bomb accurately; we didn’t know what it was they wanted us to do.”

Britain’s potential war production was probably reduced by no more than 5 percent. Only 0.5 percent of Britain’s oil stocks were destroyed; the supply of oil soared. When gas or electricity supplies were disrupted, in most cases it could be restored within a day or so. After the bombing of Coventry, it took two or three weeks to restore services. But seeing as there were always people to restore services, the impact of the bombing was always going to be quite limited. 

The human damage was quite different. The Blitz killed 43,000 people. It was the first time that such a number of people were killed from the air. They were killed chiefly because the Luftwaffe focused on port cities and working-class districts were clustered around the ports. When they couldn’t hit the ports, they hit the working-class districts. They hit the East End of London because that’s where the port of London was. Many people tried to shelter in their own homes and were killed in large numbers.

This wasn’t really what the Luftwaffe was aiming for. It was a by-product of not being able to bomb very accurately. 

Psychologically, it was a boost to the morale of the people not being bombed; they could feel they were showing the Blitz spirit, and they wanted reprisals against Germany. In areas that were bombed, there was plenty of evidence of demoralisation and temporary panic. But there was nothing on a scale that could have amounted to social crisis. The government was very alive to this and made all kinds of efforts to provide shelter, food and so on. The immediate effect of the bombing was much less than one might expect.

There was a lot of loose talk in the 1930s that city life would collapse, that there would be a social revolution. But during the Blitz there was no political backlash. People criticised but also appreciated what it was that the British government was trying to do. There wasn’t going to be riots in the streets; people weren’t going to overthrow the government. Although they were demoralised by the bombing, it didn’t then follow that it would produce a social or political crisis. That was the mistake made on the British side too, when it came to bombing Germany. They thought that somehow a certain level of bombing would produce a social or political crisis, but even in Germany – where hundreds of thousands of people were killed in the bombing and 60 percent of urban areas destroyed – it didn’t produce any kind of social or political collapse.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning