The Blitz began as the daylight Battle of Britain, for control of the air over the island, was reaching a climax. The Germans hoped at first to drive the Royal Air Force (RAF) from the skies, and then they sought to destroy the RAF by hitting factories and ground installations; finally, they turned to terrorizing the civilian population by bombing cities. This thrust was, in effect, triggered on the night of 24–25 August when German bombers, which were supposed to target an oil depot at Thameshaven, struck London instead. The German bombers had hardly retired when British Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill ordered a retaliatory strike on Berlin. On 5 September, German leader Adolf Hitler issued a directive calling for "disruptive attacks on the population and air defenses of major British cities, including London, by day and night." Such bombing could not have significant military value and was intended primarily to destroy civilian morale.
On 7 September 1940, the German Luftwaffe carried out a major raid that devastated the London's East End. The bombers returned over the next two days, and more than 1,000 people were killed. From the beginning to the middle of November, London was the target. The intensity of raids varied, but with good weather and a full moon, they were massive. On 15 October, for instance, 538 tons of bombs fell on the city.
British authorities had rejected both the idea of building deep shelters and the concept of using the Underground (subway), for fear of creating a bunker mentality: some actually worried that people would refuse to return to the surface. Londoners forced the issue on 8 September when crowds pushed their way into the subway's Liverpool Street Station for refuge. The authorities capitulated, and by Christmas, 200,000 bunks were available in the Underground, with that many more ready for installation. A decision to build deep shelters was taken in October, but the Blitz was over before the first was completed. Nonetheless, by February 1941, some 92 percent of Londoners could be sheltered in a combination of public and private facilities.
Initially, the shelters were dismal places. Overcrowding was the rule, and sanitation was primitive at best. In mid-November 1940, the government instituted a food train to supply the hungry and thirsty citizens below ground, and communities began developing. People returned to the same shelter night after night and slept in the same bunks. Sing-alongs were organized, and professional entertainment was often provided. The authenticity of this sort of camaraderie has been questioned, and some scholars have referred to the "myth of the Blitz." Certainly, the camaraderie has been exaggerated at times, but Londoners seem to have known that a brave front was expected of them, and they made real efforts to live up to the expectation. The cheerful endurance and determination that was initially claimed and then later rejected as myth was, in fact, real. Of course, it was not universal or without cracks, but Londoners by and large kept daily routines in place with humor and mutual support. Predictions of disruptions proved mostly false. Initial class discontent because working-class areas in the East End were the first targets disappeared as the Germans pounded the rest of the city.
Life was not easy in London during that period. In the first six weeks of major raids, some 16,000 houses were destroyed and another 60,000 badly damaged, with the result that 300,000 people needed places to stay. By the end of the Blitz, one in six Londoners had been rendered homeless. Many historical sites were also damaged, including Buckingham Palace. Most sites, however, survived and proved to be symbols of defiance. The king and queen remained in London, and Big Ben, despite sustaining some damage, struck every hour. London also got some respite as raids were directed against other cities. There was a major attack on Birmingham on 25 October 1940, and on 14 November, the city of Coventry was hit with a level of intensity beyond all previous efforts. Liverpool, Southampton, Birmingham, and Bristol were also struck.
London passed the Christmas of 1940 in comparative tranquility, and precautions were relaxed. Then, on 29 December, the great fire raid came. It was not the biggest raid ever, but the Christmas complacency among Londoners resulted in a slowed response, and enormous damage ensued. After another respite, March and April 1941 saw the skies again filled with German raiders. The worst nights were 16 and 19 April, which left 2,000 people dead and 148,000 homes damaged. Providers such as the Londoners' Meal Service, which was operating 170 canteens, were strained. Once again, however, there was a relative pause—and again, precautions waned. On 10 May, crowds flooded into London for a football championship match, only to be joined by German raiders. The attack was the worst raid of the war, with more than 3,000 dead or seriously injured, 250,000 books burned at the British Museum, and pilots reporting the glow of fires visible as far away as 160 miles. It was also the last major raid of the Blitz. The British—and Londoners in particular—still had to face occasional raids and the V-1 and V-2 terror weapons at the end of the war, but for the Germans, strategic and tactical plans no longer included massive assaults from the air. Of course, as time passed, their ability to make them also waned.
One of the lessons of the Blitz was that, contrary to German expectations and intent, bombing the civilian population often strengthened its morale and determination, a lesson the Allies themselves failed to learn in their strikes against civilian targets in Germany. Fred R. van Hartesveldt and Spencer C. Tucker
Calder, Angus, and Dorothy Sheridan, eds. Speak for Yourself: A Mass Observation Anthology. London: Cape, 1984.; Calder, Angus. The Myth of the Blitz. London: Cape, 1991.; Longmate, Norman. How We Lived Then. London: Hutchinson, 1971.; Marwick, Arthur. The Home Front. London: Thames and Hudson, 1976.; Ziegler, Philip. London at War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.
Fred R. van Hartesveldt and Spencer C. Tucker