The Blitz

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German bomber over the Surrey Docks, London

The Blitz, a popular English contraction of the German word Blitzkrieg, meaning "Lightning War", was the sustained and intensive bombing of the United Kingdom by Nazi Germany during 1940-1941. Although the Blitz took its name from the German Blitzkrieg, it was not an example of "lightning war" but was an early example of strategic bombing. It was carried out by the Luftwaffe against a range of targets across the UK, particularly concentrating on London. The campaign took place between 7 September 1940 through to 16 May 1941, although German aerial bombardment of UK targets continued until March 1945.



After the defeat of France, the Battle of Britain began in July 1940. From July to September, the Luftwaffe pursued a strategy of directly challenging the British Royal Air Force in an attempt to gain 'air superiority' as a prelude to a planned seaborne and land invasion (see Operation Sealion). This involved the large-scale bombardment of British airfields in an effort to destroy the RAF's ability to combat an invasion. The RAF suffered a high rate of attrition of both aircraft and pilots, although the Germans never committed more than a third of their twin-engined bomber force.

The RAF came much closer to defeat than was publicly admitted at the time and, had the Luftwaffe persisted, it would probably have achieved air superiority in due course. However, the Germans overestimated the RAF's strength and believed that they first needed to destroy strategic installations such as aircraft factories and dockyards and thus deny the RAF the reinforcements it required. In late August 1940, before the date normally associated with the start of the Blitz, the Luftwaffe attacked industrial targets in Birmingham (on 25-26 August) and Liverpool (28-31 August and 4-6 September).

On 5 September, Adolf Hitler issued a directive stating a requirement ...for disruptive attacks on the population and air defences of major British cities, including London, by day and night. The Luftwaffe consequently switched to day and night bombardment of British cities, concentrating on London. This had the unintended consequence of relieving pressure on the RAF's airfields.

The start of the Blitz

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Bombed buildings in London.

The first air raids on London were mainly aimed at the Port of London in the East End of London. The damage caused was severe, with the raid of 7 September involving 300 bombers escorted by 600 fighters. Another 180 bombers attacked that night. Due to the inaccurate nature of bombing at the time, many of the bombs aimed at the docks fell on neighbouring residential areas, killing 430 Londoners and injuring another 1,600.

Initially, British defences proved inadequate. Few of the defenders' anti-aircraft guns had fire-control systems, and the underpowered searchlights were usually ineffective at altitudes above 3,600 m (12,000 ft). Few fighter aircraft were able to operate effectively at night, and ground-based radar was not fully effective either. During the first raid, only 92 guns were available to defend the whole of London. The city's defences were rapidly reorganised by General Frederick Pile, the Commander-in-Chief of Anti-Aircraft Command, and by 11 September twice as many guns were available and under orders to fire at will. The consequent barrage was much more impressive and boosted civilian morale, though it had little effect on the raiders.

During this first phase of the Blitz, an average of 200 bombers attacked London every night but one between mid-September and mid-November. They were primarily German but also included a number of Italian aircraft operating from Belgium. Birmingham and Bristol were attacked on 15 October, while the heaviest attack of the war so far – involving 400 bombers and lasting six hours – hit London. The RAF launched 41 fighters but only shot down one Heinkel bomber. By mid-November, the Germans had dropped over 13,000 tons of high explosive bombs and over 1 million incendiary bombs but had suffered less than 1% casualties themselves.

The second phase

From November 1940 to February 1941, the Luftwaffe attacked a wide range of other important industrial and port cities across the United Kingdom. Targets included Coventry, Southampton, Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol, Plymouth, Cardiff, Manchester, Sheffield, Portsmouth, and Avonmouth. During this period, fourteen attacks were mounted on ports, nine on industrial targets located further inland and eight on London.

British defences were still fairly weak at this time and German losses were consequently easily sustainable – only 75 aircraft during this four-month period. However, the German High Command became increasingly sceptical of the effectiveness of the campaign. It was becoming increasingly apparent that with the RAF still intact, an invasion of Britain was militarily infeasible. In addition, preparations were underway for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, which (in Hitler's eyes) was a higher priority than reducing a militarily enfeebled Britain.

The third phase

In February 1941, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder persuaded Hitler to switch the focus of the bombing campaign to attacking British ports in support of the Kriegsmarine's Battle of the Atlantic. Hitler issued a directive on 6 February ordering the Luftwaffe to concentrate its efforts on ports, notably Plymouth, Portsmouth, Bristol and Avonmouth, Swansea, Merseyside, Belfast, Clydebank, Hull, Sunderland, and Newcastle. 46 attacks were mounted against those cities between 19 February and 12 May, with only seven directed against London, Birmingham, Coventry, and Nottingham.

By this time, the effort was aimed as much against civilians as against industrial targets and the raids were intended to provoke terror among the civilian population. However, British defences had significantly improved by this time. The Bristol Beaufighter, mounted with airborne radar systems, proved an effective weapon against incoming bombers when used in conjunction with ground-based radar systems that guided night fighters to their targets. An increasing number of anti-aircraft guns and searchlights were radar-controlled, improving the targeting of enemy aircraft. The Luftwaffe's losses mounted and, with the impending invasion of Russia requiring the movement of air power to the East, the Blitz was wound down in May 1941.

Who won?

The Blitz was effectively a draw for both sides. The Germans failed to achieve their key objectives of knocking Britain out of the war, or at least preparing the ground for invasion. It had been widely believed before the war that massive aerial bombardment of would dent morale to the point of governmental collapse. It was genuinely surprising to all concerned when the bombardment did not have this effect. Hitler had predicted that the poor working classes would be "incited against the rich ruling class to bring about a revolution" by aerial bombardment. This did not happen.

However, the Germans undoubtedly did inflict a huge amount of damage on Britain at a crucial time. The physical damage was profound – "bomb sites", rubble-filled places where bombed-out buildings had once stood – remained a common site in British cities until as late as the 1980s. It forced the diversion of a considerable amount of war materiél to homeland defence and greatly disrupted the normal life of the country. 43,000 civilians are estimated to have died during the campaign, with over 139,000 injured, and around a million houses destroyed. German casualties were relatively slight, losing around 600 bombers (a casualty rate of 1.5% of the sorties flown), and many of those were the result of landing accidents on returning to base.

On the British side, the fact that the Germans had been able to inflict so much damage at so little cost to themselves was an undeniable failure. The country had been severely under-equipped to deal with a strategic bombing campaign and the number of public bomb shelters fell far below the required number, forcing the authorities in London to make use of around 80 London Underground stations to house as many as 177,000 people.

The British nonetheless weathered the Blitz successfully. Great improvements were made to air defences during the course of the Blitz and the country conspicuously avoided collapse. This proved something of a propaganda coup in its own right: much was made of the stoicism of the British people, encapsulated in the 1940 propaganda film London Can Take It, made by Humphrey Jennings.

American radio journalist Edward R. Murrow was stationed in London at the time of the Blitz, and he provided live radio broadcasts to the United States as the bombings were taking place. This form of immediate live news broadcasting from a theatre of war had never been experienced by radio audiences before, and Murrow's London broadcasts made him a radio celebrity, launching his career. His broadcasts were enormously important in prompting the sympathy and support of the American people for Britain's resistance to Nazi aggression.

Major sites, structures, and churches damaged or destroyed in the Blitz

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St. Paul's Cathedral in London during a fire bomb raid on December 29, 1940.

See also

External link

  • Experience 24 hours in a city under fire in the Blitz - Liverpool Blitz (

fr:Blitz pt:Blitz


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