Aerial Warfare, Civilians and the City since 1911
The Blitz Companion offers a unique overview of a century of aerial warfare, its impact on cities and the people who lived in them. It tells the story of aerial warfare from the earliest bombing raids and in World War 1 through to the London Blitz and Allied bombings of Europe and Japan. These are compared with more recent American air campaigns over Cambodia and Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, the NATO bombings during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s and subsequent bombings in the aftermath of 9/11. Beginning with the premonitions and predictions of air warfare and its terrible consequences, the book focuses on air raids precautions, evacuation and preparations for total war, and resilience, both of citizens and of cities. The legacies of air raids, from reconstruction to commemoration, are also discussed. While a key theme of the book is the futility of many air campaigns, care is taken to situate them in their historical context. The Blitz Companion also includes a guide to documentary and visual resources for students and general readers. Uniquely accessible, comparative and broad in scope this book draws key conclusions about civilian experience in the twentieth century and what these might mean for military engagement and civil reconstruction processes once conflicts have been resolved.
During August 1940, as the Battle of Britain drew towards its conclusion, the Luftwaffe began sporadic attacks on London and the City of London. Following a reprisal attack on Berlin by the RAF which did little serious damage, angered that the capital of the Reich had been breached, Hitler declared that ‘If they threaten our cities, then we shall erase theirs’.60 With the blessing of Winston Churchill, the RAF continued its air raids on Berlin, causing Hitler to operationalize his threat. Sporadic bombing raids on London and other British cities occurred through late August and early September but on 7 September the Nazis shifted tactics to the continuous heavy bombing of London.
The London Blitz continued, with only a few respites, until May 1945. It remains, for the British at least, the most significant and emotive aerial bombardment in modern history. During the longest air campaign on a major urban centre in Europe during the twentieth century, heavy explosives and incendiary devices rained down on London night after night. Yet London did not suffer alone. Most urban-industrial centres were attacked during the Blitz. Many smaller industrial cities and towns and maritime cities were also heavily bombed, and in the case of Coventry in the West Midlands, the centre was almost completely destroyed.
Although the ferocity of the Blitz faded into recent memory as the war progressed, later raids served to remind the British they were still prey to Nazi hatred. During the spring and early summer of 1942, the so-called ‘Baedeker Blitz’ targeted the most beautiful cities in England. In 1944 the V1 flying bomb was launched against Britain, and the V2 flying rocket attacks, mostly on London, lent a fearful new dimension to aerial warfare in 1944–5. Hence in this chapter the Blitz refers specifically to the air raids of September 1940 to May 1941, but later bombing campaigns against British towns and cities during the war are also covered.
In their 1940 Invasion Plans for the British Isles, codenamed Operation Sea Lion, Nazi Military High Command outlined the invasion strategy for Britain in general and of what Churchill had called the ‘fat, valuable cow’ of London in particular. They had certainly done their research, although dependence on British materials in German libraries meant that some maps and demographic data were probably out of date. The British capital was the largest city in Europe by 1940, with a population of over 8 million (much the same as it is today). This swelled to over 10 million, however, when the hinterlands beyond suburban London were included in the German calculation: London, with its suburban settlements and dependent towns: approximately 10 million (i.e. a quarter of the entire population of England and Wales).
The London Basin: the London Basin is bound by the Chiltern Hills to the north, Reading to the west, and the North Downs or the High Weald to the south. Its population has everywhere, to some extent or another, merged with that of London itself. The more heavily built-up area displays a strong industrial presence in its northern, eastern and southern parts; they are generally distinct from the commercial and administrative centre of the City, and the purely residential districts of the western sector.62
The rationale for the aerial bombardment of London was quite straightforward. Having lost the Battle of Britain during the summer of 1940, and with Berlin breached, the Germans served the dish of revenge hot, attacking the British capital to disrupt its infrastructure, to reduce iconic buildings to rubble, and undermine civilian morale. This would in theory render the population unable to defend itself from the invasion forces poised to sail over from occupied France and the Low Countries.
The River Thames was a significant point of reference for the Germans, because it flowed into London from the west and snaked through the centre of the capital to the east where it widened out into the Thames Estuary in the county of Essex. Along with the River Medway in Kent, the waterways were convenient guides to the capital for in-flying enemy pilots, who were also well aware of the residential and industrial zones that sat alongside the riverbanks. A moonlit night was a strong navigation aid, as the rivers were silver far below.63 When the moon was low or little more than a nail paring, the knickebein, a beam transmitted from a ground station in occupied Europe, guided the bombers to their destinations. As Max Hastings shows, however, Winston Churchill was contemptuous of the knickebein in 1940, and later Sir Arthur Harris dismissed the beam as of little assistance to the Germans in their raids on Britain.
A little over a year after war was declared, the Anti-Aircraft and Civil Defence apparatuses would be subjected to a prolonged and severe testing. An official wartime publication entitled Front Line: 1940–1941 assessed how the Home Front in Britain weathered the Blitz. It divided the air raids into ‘the onslaught on London’ and ‘the ordeal of the provinces.’65 Published in 1942, Front Line provided the first historical summary of the Blitz, and while by no means uncritical of the anti-aircraft measures and civil defence machinery, it pictured the wardens, fire fighters, medical service personnel and others in uniform as the heroes and heroines in a dramatic battle.
The Onslaught on London
During the late afternoon of the 7 September 1940 a young man, cycling through suburban south-east London, was among the first to see the awe-inspiring sight of the German bombers massing over London. His oral testimony is a good example of how memory and words can evoke the atmosphere and sense of trepidation on that first day of the Blitz:
It was the most amazing, impressive, riveting sight. Directly above me were literally hundreds of planes, Germans! The sky was full of them. Bombers hemmed in with fighters, like bees around their queen, like destroyers round the battleship. So came Jerry.
The first area of London to come under sustained attack was the East End, a historic mostly working-class district of the capital city, only a few miles from the wealthy and powerful West End yet many miles from it, figuratively, in social and economic conditions. Just as they had been in the First World War, the docks were an obvious initial target because of their importance to the import and export trade. On ‘Black Saturday’ the Woolwich Arsenal and the Silvertown Docks were hit, and as they went up in flames, millions of pounds of foodstuffs and other goods were destroyed.67 On the first night of the Blitz 1,800 lost their lives or were seriously injured.
One of the many tragedies of war from the air is that poorest people suffer the most, and the bombing of one of the poorest districts of London which initiated the eight-month Blitz is a stark reminder of that fact. The working-class districts around the extensive docklands were crammed with high-density, often poor-quality, housing. Wharves and warehouses populated the muddy waterside of the River Thames from Tower Bridge via Wapping to Canary Wharf on the North Bank, and from Tower Bridge via Rotherhithe to Greenwich along the South Bank. This urban warren was a legacy of unplanned urbanisation during the Victorian years.
The ARP and the emergency services were overwhelmed. Fire crews were brought in from Nottingham in the East Midlands and elsewhere to help fight the raging infernos.69 Transport access to fires and victims was impeded by the amount of rubble lying across roads and streets. During the first weeks of the Blitz the physical destruction and the accumulation of debris was so extensive that about 1,800 roads were blocked, while over 3 million tons of rubble and detritus had built up, requiring an extensive clearing-up and repair operation to the infrastructure of the capital city.70 Barrage balloons had done little to stem the tide of German attacks, and the air raid warning siren was no longer sounding for practice or to indicate a few lone bombers. To make matters worse, during the first two nights the anti-aircraft guns were largely impotent, unable to bring down large numbers of German aircraft, and even failing to fire properly in some installations. As Winston Churchill noted in his history of the Second World War, first published in 1959, when the anti-aircraft artillery finally launched its salvoes into the London night, many huddling in their shelters or on voluntary duties felt a sense of relief.71 Yet few were convinced the AA guns offered a robust and reliable defence to the Luftwaffe, whether along the coast or at fixed points in the major urban centres. The American reporter Ed Murrow was living in Hallam Street in London during the Blitz, and his compelling live broadcasts of the Blitz with the sound of bombs in the distance were relayed back to an American audience. His broadcasts showed that civil defence was under strain.