Where History Happened: The Blitz
From September 1940 until May 1941, cities all around Britain were subject to sustained enemy bombing. We visit nine places affected by the attacks.
From his vantage point in Normandy, Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring pointed his binoculars in the direction of the English coast. It was 7 September 1940, a fateful day in the history of the Second World War. Overhead close to 1,000 German bomber and fighter aircraft headed towards the English capital where they would shortly wreak devastation on the streets below.
This was the first day of the sustained bombing campaign against Britain, popularly known as the Blitz, which Hitler hoped would soon bring a stubborn enemy to its knees. That day Göring had made a confident broadcast on German radio: “This is an historic hour, in which for the first time the German Luftwaffe has struck at the heart of the enemy”.
The September raids were not in fact the first aerial attacks Britain had suffered in the war. There had been sporadic incidents of bombing since the previous October but these were small and infrequent, a far cry from the massed bombardment that Britain would face in late 1940 and early 1941.
For Germany the Blitz was in part a recognition that Hitler’s plan to invade Britain that summer was failing. After the fall of France in June 1940 Britain had been all that stood in the way of victory for Germany in the European war. However, because of the strength of the Royal Navy, an invasion of the British Isles would be a highly risky gamble and one that Hitler was not prepared to take without first achieving aerial superiority. Over the next few months the Luftwaffe clashed repeatedly with the RAF, hoping to win control of the skies. It was a close run thing but in the end it was the British fighters that emerged triumphant, inflicting heavy losses on their German counterparts. The legend of the battle of Britain was born.
With an invasion seemingly unlikely, Hitler switched his focus to the bombardment of British cities. This was to have the dual purpose of damaging Britain’s infrastructure and weakening civilian morale. Furthermore, on 25 August, British bombers had raided Berlin, and it is likely that the Blitz was also partly motivated by revenge.
London received the brunt of the initial attacks, being bombed for 57 consecutive days at the start of the onslaught. Other cities did not escape, however, with ports and industrial centres also selected for destruction. The bombers came over in waves several hundred strong and because they flew by night it was very difficult for British defences to prevent them getting through.
Preparations had been made for air raids including the distribution of Anderson air-raid shelters, evacuations of civilians to the countryside and the establishment of the Air Raid Precaution organisation, but nonetheless there was significant loss of life. Despite government efforts, many people were without effective shelters and so underground alternatives, notably tube stations, were commandeered for this purpose.
In May 1941 the main phase of the Blitz ended. By this time British air defences, aided by developments in radar, had improved, meaning the Luftwaffe was suffering heavier losses during the raids. Perhaps more importantly Germany was about to embark on the invasion of the Soviet Union and needed to divert resources to the east.
What is clear is that the Blitz did not achieve either of its objectives. British production was impaired but nothing like enough to knock the country out of the war. And while the population was undoubtedly shaken, civilian morale held up remarkably well in the face of the bombs.
Air raids, albeit on a smaller scale, continued throughout the Second World War. Towards the end of the conflict the British people faced a new menace when the Germans began launching V-1 flying bombs and V-2 rockets at the country. These weapons arrived too late to shift the direction of the war but were still able to inflict a great deal of suffering.
Altogether 60,000 British civilians were killed by German air raids in the war and countless buildings were damaged. But the legacy of the Blitz is not just limited to broken walls and bones. “It has become part of the mythology of the war,” says Dr Jeremy Crang of the University of Edinburgh. “The Blitz has come to represent the indomitable spirit of the British people against the odds and, along with the evacuation from Dunkirk and the battle of Britain, forms one of the planks of Britain’s ‘finest hour’.
Where History Happened
1) St Dunstan’s Church, London
Where the first bombs fell
Long before the Second World War began the British authorities were deeply concerned about the possibility of air raids in a future conflict. “The bomber will always get through,” former prime minister Stanley Baldwin had warned back in 1932. The Spanish Civil War had shown the potential for aerial destruction and, by the time Britain went to war with Germany, many feared a catastrophe. Two years earlier it had been estimated that 1.8 million might be killed or injured in a 60-day attack.
The people of Britain would have to wait a year to find out whether their worst nightmares would materialise. On 7 September 1940 the Blitz got under way when two waves of German bombers dropped their loads over London, killing or wounding 2,000 people and igniting the largest fires the city had seen since 1666.
Then, as on several future occasions, the docklands in London’s East End were the principal target. The district of Stepney took a savage mauling on that first day of the Blitz. Bernard Kops, who lived locally in 1940, later said: “That day stands out like a flaming wound in my memory. Imagine a ground floor flat crowded with hysterical women, crying babies and great crashes in the sky and the whole earth shaking”.
During the Blitz many buildings in Stepney were reduced to rubble but the church of St Dunstan and All Saints survived with only its windows destroyed. The church is one of London’s oldest, dating back to at least the tenth century, although the main structure is chiefly late medieval. Today one of its stained glass windows recalls the Second World War, with an image of Jesus rising above the ruins of Stepney after the Blitz.
Tel: 020 7702 8685
2) Chislehurst Caves, Kent
Where people hid from the bombers
This ancient cave complex has been gradually dug out of the rock over the course of several thousand years. Up to the early 19th century Chislehurst was mined for chalk and after that it became a popular tourist attraction, which it still is nowadays. During the Second World War, however, the caves became very popular for an entirely different reason.
Londoners living through the Blitz were in desperate need of shelter. Hundreds of thousands of households had been provided with Anderson shelters by the government but these offered limited protection and were only available to those with gardens. The indoor Morrison shelter was not distributed until March 1941. So as the skies filled with bombers night after night, huge numbers of civilians sought to find alternative places of safety.
In this spirit Chislehurst Caves became a giant impromptu air-raid shelter. So many Londoners took advantage of its caverns and passageways that special trains had to be put on to transport them all there. Some even took up residence, as an observer noted in November 1940. “We were told to go to the inner caves: but they had been filled by regular visitors – who had commandeered positions weeks before. Some had taken possession of cut out rooms, and curtains were fixed in front and behind… there were tables, cooking stoves, beds, chairs behind the curtains. Bombed out families live there permanently and the father goes to work and returns there and the mother goes out to shop and that is their home.”
Tel: 020 8467 3264
3) Bethnal Green Tube Station, London
Where a tragedy of the Blitz occurred
One obvious place to shelter from the Blitz was London’s underground network, deep below the city. Initially the government sought to prevent the stations being used for this purpose but the weight of popular pressure was such that the authorities were compelled to back down. As many as 177,000 people hid from the bombers in tube stations where they were sometimes supplied with beds and toilet facilities by the authorities.
Like many other stations, Bethnal Green became a popular hideout. On 3 March 1943 it was the scene of a disaster. The worst stage of the Blitz was by then long finished but raids did still occur from time to time. That day air-raid warnings were heard and people hurried towards the station where they hoped to shelter. Exactly what happened next remains slightly unclear, however it seems that the firing of a new type of anti-aircraft gun caused panic and all at once a crowd of people surged forwards as they were descending the steps. In the resulting crush 173 people were killed and dozens more injured. Alf Morris, who was 12 at the time, later recalled the scene. “People were falling around me. I don’t know who they were, they were just falling. I went to move and couldn’t because they had trapped me. I couldn’t move at all. I was crying and screaming.”
Afterwards the survivors were told not to speak about what had happened and it was only gradually that the full story emerged. There is now a plaque at the station commemorating the incident.
4) Coventry Cathedral, Coventry
Where a city was wrecked
Two months into the Blitz, the German bombers began to target Britain’s other industrial cities in earnest. This new phase was announced in horrifying fashion on 14 November when 449 bombers emptied their loads onto the city of Coventry. It was the most concentrated attack yet carried out over the British Isles and the effects were so severe that the German propaganda machine coined a new English word: ‘Coventrate’, which meant to destroy a city from the air.
The raid cost 554 lives. The physical destruction was also great, including buildings with no military purpose such as hospitals. Coventry’s medieval cathedral sustained tremendous damage, as reported by Tom Harrisson, director of Mass Observation, at the time. “At each end the bare frames of the great windows still have a kind of beauty without their glass; but in between them is an incredible chaos of bricks, pillars, girders, memorial tablets”.
In the aftermath of the war it was decided to let the ruins stand and construct a new cathedral close-by. The architect Basil Spence was commissioned to design the replacement structure, which was consecrated in 1962. Unlike so much of the postwar reconstruction, Spence’s cathedral is a majestic achievement, often held to be the architect’s greatest work. He utilised the talents of several leading artists in the new cathedral, notably Graham Sutherland, whose tapestry of Christ the Glory is stunning.
Tel: 024 7652 1200
5) St Paul’s Cathedral & The National Firefighters Memorial, London
Where a London icon survived
In 1940 London was bombed 126 times. The last great raid of the year on 29 December was also one of the worst. Incendiary bombs were dropped around the square mile of the City causing an inferno that was dubbed the Second Great Fire of London. That night photographer Herbert Mason took a photograph of St Paul’s Cathedral’s distinctive dome emerging out of the smoke. This picture was shown on the Daily Mail front cover two days later and is probably now the defining image of the Blitz.
Many of the buildings around St Paul’s were ruined during the war but Christopher Wren’s masterpiece (completed in 1710) avoided major damage, even though it was struck by 28 bombs. The cathedral’s survival owed much to a group of volunteers called St Paul’s Watch who took it upon themselves to douse incendiary bombs and prevent fires taking hold.
Close to the cathedral is The National Firefighters Memorial. This bronze sculpture was created by artist John Mills in 1991 to recognise members of the United Kingdom Fire Service who risked their lives tackling the blazes of the Blitz. The names of 997 who died in the conflict are inscribed on the memorial. More recently the names of firefighters killed in peacetime have also been inscribed on the monument.
6) St Luke’s Church, Liverpool
Where a church recalls Merseyside’s pain
Britain’s ports enabled vital supplies to be brought into the country so it is little surprise that they were targeted in earnest by the Luftwaffe. Bristol, Portsmouth, Cardiff, Swansea, Plymouth and Southampton were all hit. Merseyside, then the country’s second most important port, endured a particularly torrid time, with almost 4,000 killed in the area between August 1940 and January 1942.
The most intense period of bombing in Merseyside occurred from 1–7 May 1941. This ‘May Blitz’ saw 870 tonnes of high explosives dropped on the area, resulting in 1,741 people being killed. Among the Liverpool buildings damaged in these raids was St Luke’s Church, which was the recipient of an incendiary bomb on 5 May. The late-Georgian church’s ruins were left as they were after the war to act as a reminder of the trauma of the Blitz. It is now popularly known as ‘the bombed-out church’ and also contains a memorial to the Irish potato famine.
7) Dalnottar Cemetery, Clydebank
Where victims of Scotland’s Blitz lie
Most of Scotland avoided serious damage in the Blitz. The main exceptions were Glasgow and the neighbouring Clydeside towns that served as hubs of industry and shipbuilding. In the spring of 1941 they were subjected to heavy raids by the Luftwaffe. One of the worst casualties was the small town of Clydebank, which was ravaged in successive nights of bombing on 13 and 14 March.
Clydebank had been earmarked as a potential victim at the start of the war and most of its women and children had been evacuated in 1939. However when the expected attacks failed to materialise many of the evacuees returned to a town that they hoped had been spared.
These illusions were shattered in dramatic fashion on the first night of the raids when 1,650 incendiaries were dropped along with 272 tonnes of high explosive bombs. By the end of the second night Clydebank had been devastated. It was reported that only seven of the town’s 12,000 houses escaped harm in the fierce bombardment. The number of dead was 528 and hundreds more were seriously injured. As it happened the industrial sections of the town were less badly damaged, meaning that the cost to British production was relatively limited.
Earlier this year a new monument to the Clydebank Blitz was unveiled at Dalnottar cemetery, where some of the Blitz victims are buried. Designed by artist Tom McKendrick the memorial contains the names of all those who were killed in the 1941 attack.
8) Northern Ireland War Memorial, Belfast
Where the Belfast Blitz is remembered
This April a new sculpture was added to the Northern Ireland War Memorial on Belfast’s Talbot Street. It was created by Carolyn Mulholland and recalls the horrors visited on the city by the Luftwaffe.
Belfast was spared the bombers for the first few months of the Blitz, but with its valuable shipyards and factories it was never likely to escape entirely. Yet the local authorities seemed reticent to prepare for this eventuality, which meant that Belfast’s air-raid precautions left a lot to be desired.
The Luftwaffe struck the city on three occasions in April and May 1941, wreaking havoc with high explosives, incendiary bombs and parachute mines. In total around 1,000 people were killed, most on the night of 15 April when the loss of life was significantly higher than after the attack on Coventry. “It was like an earthquake that night,” said resident Jimmy Penton. “The ground shook and the people squealed and yelled. They thought it was the end of the world.”
Tel: 028 9032 0392
9) RAF Middle Wallop, Hampshire
Where British fighters took on the bombers
The British tried several tactics to stop the bombers getting through. Searchlights, anti-aircraft guns and night-fighter planes were all employed for this purpose, yet with limited success initially. Early in the Blitz it was taking an average of 30,000 shells to bring down a single Luftwaffe aeroplane.
As time progressed, the use of radar and the introduction of the Bristol Beaufighter enabled the defenders to make life more difficult for the bombers. Spearheading the attack was John ‘Cat’s Eyes’ Cunningham of the RAF’s 604 Squadron. He accounted for several German aircraft, earning both the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Distinguished Service Order for his efforts in 1941. His morale-boosting achievements were trumpeted in the press where his remarkable ability to track down enemies at night was attributed to a diet of raw carrots. In reality, his secret was the Beaufighter’s airborne interception radar. RAF Middle Wallop was completed in 1940 and utilised as an RAF base for the remainder of the Second World War. It remains in military use today. One part of the site is now the Museum of Army Flying, which traces the development of army aviation since the 19th century.
Tel: 01264 784421
Words by Rob Attar. Historical advisor: Dr Jeremy Crang, co-editor of The Burning Blue: a New History of the Battle of Britain (Pimlico, 2000)
This feature was first published in the December 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine.