The dangers of the Blitz spirit

The stoicism of the British people in response to the Luftwaffe raids of 1940–41 is seen as heroic, but their defiance resulted in needless deaths, says Richard Overy

A woman is carried away on a stretcher following a German bombing raid on London, c1940. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In November 1940 novelist Vera Brittain and a friend took a taxi through the ruined areas of the East End of London. On the way an air-raid alarm sounded, and a policeman stopped the taxi and warned the driver and passengers to take shelter. The taxi-man glared at the policeman with “unutterable contempt” and carried on towards Bethnal Green, with the approval of his two charges. He told them that he slept every night on the top floor of a block of flats, that had no shelter, listening to the bombs falling around him. “Unless it has me name on it, it won’t git me,” was his conclusion. Brittain thought this was typical of the fatalism expressed by Londoners in the Blitz, firm in the belief that “destiny remains unaffected by caution”. She too on occasion, at the end of a tiring day, chose to sleep in her bed oblivious to the thudding noise of the bombs and guns around her. Brittain survived, but thousands of Londoners who defied the rational impulse to shelter did not.

Bombing deaths in Britain during the nine-month German aerial Blitz on Britain were remarkably high compared with the casualties imposed by most bombing during the Second World War. Between September 1940 and May 1941, 41,480 people were killed, 16,755 of them women and 5,184 of them children. The peak month was September 1940, when 6,968 were killed; the lowest number of deaths occurred in February 1941, with 859 dead, thanks to the poor flying weather. German bombers dropped 58,000 tonnes of bombs in 1940 and 1941. British bombing of Germany in 1940 cost just 950 deaths and in 1941 a further 4,000, inflicted by 50,000 tonnes of bombs dropped by the RAF on European, principally German, targets. It took 10 tonnes of bombs to kill one German but only 1.3 tonnes to kill a Briton.

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