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Good evening, this is Michael Anthony and you’re listening to British History 101, brought to you by Audible.com. Audible is the Internet’s leading provider in spoken-word entertainment and you can get a FREE audiobook download of your choice when you sign up at audiblepodcast.com/british101. Check out Audible NOW and browse their extensive library when you logon at audiblepodcast.com/british101.
In this episode of our show, we are going to discuss one of the most well-known and oft-invoked events in British history – the World War II Blitz of Britain by Hitler’s Luftwaffe. The Blitz calls to mind the quintessential British spirit, the emergence of Albion from the smoke and flames with which Hitler so desperately tried to soften up Britain before an invasion. Ultimately, the Fuhrer’s attempt failed and his attention had to be directed elsewhere, but it is certain that the events of 1940-1941 will be remembered alongside the Conquest, King Alfred’s Viking wars, Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, and other such landmarks for countless generations.
The commonly used term Blitz derives from Blitzkrieg, the trademark World War II strategy employed by the German army (most effectively in the invasion of Poland in September 1939). By the time the Blitz began on 7 September 1940, the Battle of Britain had been raging in the skies over the island for several months. The Luftwaffe had been trying to wear the Royal Air Force down and gain air superiority over the course of the summer to allow a seaborne invasion. This invasion would have completed the Nazi’s Operation Sea Lion, obviously with disastrous results for the British people (and likely the rest of Europe and beyond). Hitler’s intentions were clear, and predictions were dire when considering the bombing campaign that was surely coming. In the spring of 1939, before Germany invaded Poland but the likelihood of war was becoming larger and larger, government estimates of casualties in the event of a bombing campaign were horrific – estimates predicted 600,000 killed, with double that number – 1.2 million – injured. In an attempt to prevent children from becoming a part of this estimate, 650,000 of them were evacuated from cities to the surrounding countryside.
This evacuation is an interesting event in itself. Many of the children had never been far away from home, much less outside of the city in which they lived. The rural experience was an entirely different world from that to which they were accustomed, and the results of such a transition varied widely. Many of the evacuees enjoyed the excursion, marveling at the open spaces, kindness of villagers, meals cooked with homegrown food, and the many other aspects of country life that obviously differ from the urban upbringing. Some children came from very poor families and the good treatment they received made them reluctant to return to the cities. Many were less than well behaved – accounts abound of foul-mouthed youngsters, boys relieving themselves in the middle of the road, petty theft of anything not tied down, and outright refusal to bathe. Although the 1939 estimate of casualties ended up being an exaggerated number, city dwellers were undoubtedly grateful that their precious children – salty mouths or no – were safe in the countryside.
The Blitz is usually said to have begun on 7 September 1940, when over 300 German bombers and 500 fighters attacked London, mostly targeting the docks along the River Thames. Many of the bombs dropped from the bays of German airplanes missed their targets and fell on residential areas, killing over 400 Londoners. On that first night of bombing, London’s anti-aircraft defenses were far less than adequate and few German bombers were harmed. Nighttime raids continued, and from mid-September to mid-November German bombers dropped their deadly cargo on every single night except one. One of the worst nights was 15 October, when over 400 bombers attacked London for six hours. This early phase of the Blitz forms part of so-called “downward spiral” of violence in warfare. It is difficult for those of us who did not experience the war firsthand to imagine the terror and chaos that this caused. I would challenge anyone who hasn’t lived through long-term bombing to just try and understand what it was like to experience continual bombardment every single night, knowing that the enemy’s entire goal is to kill innocent civilians in an attempt to break national morale, as this is precisely what Hitler aimed to do.
From November 1940 to February 1941, the Luftwaffe began heavier bombing of industrial and port cities. In addition to breaking morale, this would theoretically cripple British war production and disable ports that could launch warships. Aside from London, the clear and away heaviest hit city of the Blitz, bombs fell all around the British Isles: Belfast, Manchester, Sheffield, Glasgow, Hull, Plymouth, Coventry, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Liverpool, Portsmouth, Southampton, Clydebank, Avonmouth, Swansea, Sunderland, and Newcastle were all hit. The bombing of 29 December led to what has been called the Second Great Fire of London, an event captured in the famous photo of St. Paul’s Cathedral surrounded by smoke and flames but miraculously unharmed itself.
After being inside this masterpiece of architecture and thinking of it being destroyed, it is easy to understand the cultural theft that would have occurred had the Luftwaffe reduced it to rubble.
From February 1941 to the end of the Blitz, the Luftwaffe concentrated even more heavily on Britain’s numerous seaports. By this point, though, the efforts of Sir Frederick Pile, the Commander-in-Chief of Anti-Aircraft Command, had increased the effectiveness of AA guns, and more and more German bombers and fighters were being downed by brave gunners defending the cities. The 10th of May 1941 saw the official end of the Blitz, although various bombing raids would continue on and off for the rest of the war. That day sadly saw the destruction of the British Museum, the Houses of Parliament, and St. James’s Palace. However, better British defenses and Hitler’s need to turn his attention eastward in advance of his soon to occur invasion of the Soviet Union under Operation Barbarossa meant that the worst was over. Pre-Blitz casualty estimates were fortunately heavily exaggerated, but approximately 43,000 civilians still lost their lives to German bombs.
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In addition to some of Winston Churchill’s most memorable speeches, part of the iconic sound of the Blitz experience is the reporting of American CBS correspondent Edward R. Murrow. This segment is from August 1940, the month before the Blitz is remembered to have started.
Murrow’s reports from the middle of the mayhem gained much sympathy for Londoners on the part of the American people. Here’s a piece from a broadcast made during the Blitz proper.
Citizens living in target cities had few options when it came to what precisely to do during a raid. One way that many people escaped the bombing was called “trekking,” by which citizens went about their normal jobs during the day and “trekked” out to the countryside every night to sleep in relative safety, often walking many, many miles every single day. This posed a problem in that it led to a rise in absenteeism from work, especially once employees had been trekking for weeks on end – sheer exhaustion prevented many from making the hike into and out of the city every day. The other option available was hunkering down in shelters, a hotly debated and still-controversial wartime problem.
Prior to the war, the government feared the development of so-called “deep shelter mentality” if large capacity shelters were constructed for citizens to use. The fear came from the thought that if civilians were provided with central safe havens, they would not want to come back out of the shelters once a raid was over and thus would not be able to contribute to the war effort. To this end, the Anderson shelter was designed in 1938. The Anderson shelter was constructed out of corrugated metal, measuring 1.8 meters tall by 1.4 meters wide by 2 meters deep – or 6 feet by 4 ½ feet by 6 ½ feet. Either way, it was a small space designed to hold 6 people. The shelter was intended to be installed in every family’s garden, where it would be partially buried and then covered in dirt. The led to many decorative shelters: with the small building being covered in dirt, many families planted flowers and other plants on their shelters in a bid to make the ominous war-time escape from danger a tad more pleasant-looking. The Anderson was provided free to households with an annual income of less than £250; otherwise, the shelter could be had for £7. This would, in theory, allow every family to have their own private shelter to which they could quickly retreat and then emerge from after a raid. After the war, the government collected most of the shelters to be used for scrap metal, although one could keep their shelter for a small fee if so desired – because of this, Anderson shelters can still be found in gardens to this day, often used as sheds to store yard tools.
An interesting question comes up when considering the Anderson shelter: what about those families without gardens, in high-density and/or government provided housing estates? These people had no Andersons, and thus at the beginning no place to go. When the Blitz started, many sought out any public building with a basement that could be found. Ironically, one such location was the church crypt, and one can’t help but wonder how often it crossed the minds of sheltered civilians that the dead were almost literally keeping them alive. The government was slow to respond, at first building relatively small shelters in the street; these, however, were poorly constructed, unsanitary, and often simply collapsed during raids, even without a direct hit, killing all inside. An obvious place to seek refuge in London was the tube system, far enough underground to withstand all but a direct hit. Again we are reminded of the government’s fear of deep shelter mentality, and so the tube was officially off-limits as a shelter to begin with. Many Londoners simply bought tickets for the underground and never boarded, instead opting to sleep on station platforms throughout the night. Eventually even this tactic was done away with, and citizens went down into the stations of their own accord, regardless of government prohibition. It was not uncommon for passengers on the tube to ride through stations literally packed with sleeping bodies, huddled families, and crying children. Seeing the futility of combating this mass movement underground, the government eventually supplied bunk beds and toilets to tube stations, which made life under the destroyed city a bit more bearable. As many as 60,000 people per night could be found throughout London’s massive underground tunnel system.
The tube, as viable as an option as it was given the conditions beforehand, was not invincible. Station were susceptible to collapse if they suffered a direct hit, which unfortunately happened on many occasions. The government eventually acquiesced to the demands of Londoners and constructed deep shelters under the city, the first major one being in the vaults beneath the Fruit and Wool Exchange in Brushfield Street. Such a shelter held 10,000 people in safety from bombardment, but conditions inside were less than pleasant: they were dark, stale chambers, often filthy with sweat, urine, and other bodily waste. Restroom accommodations were not even part of the original plan, although they were later installed to mitigate the problem of open sewage. In the end 8 such shelters were constructed – albeit by the end of 1942, over a year after the worst period of bombing now called the Blitz was officially over.
While researching this episode, one of the sources which I read was a piece from the BBC entitled “Sorting the Myth from Reality” regarding the Blitz. It was an interesting read, to be sure, and I’d like to offer some of my own comments. The piece asserts that the so-called “Myth of the Blitz,” the community spirit which crossed class, gender, and age, the unconquerable soul of the stalwart British people (and especially Londoners) was just that – a myth, created by Allied victory. In reality, according to the BBC, the upper echelons of society were safe in their country manors and urban basement clubs, while those below them on the social ladder were left to fend for themselves in the cities. There was no real “British spirit” of defiance against Nazi terror, of showing the two-handed V to Hitler; rather, citizens sought simply to save their own lives and hide from destruction. There was no feeling of solidarity and kinsmanship with fellow countrymen. This is an assertion that I, as an historian, firmly reject. It is true that those who had to live under a constant rain of German bombs did indeed have to save their own lives and take necessary steps to protect themselves and their families; however, the fact that the government’s fear of deep shelter mentality never set it (trekking absenteeism aside) and the people of Britain, most especially London, kept about their daily business and fought for the war effort prove that there was indeed a quintessential British spirit during the dark fall, winter, and spring of 1940-1941. Thousands enlisted in voluntary service organizations, working as air raid wardens to ensure blackout measures were being taken, driving ambulances to ferry the wounded to hospitals, and fighting fires caused by explosions while bombs were still falling all around. The so-called “Myth of the Blitz” is not, in my estimation, a myth in the modern sense of the word. The British people bravely faced down the hellish onslaught brought by the Luftwaffe, and surely this generation deserves to be remembered and hallowed by their descendant countrymen. Historians and scholars often look back on honored events and people and take a critical look at the vaunted aura surrounding them, trying to decipher how much truth lies beneath some sort of victorious veneer. In the case of the Blitz, I do not think there is much of a veneer or naively vague covering. The truth of the matter is that the British people refused to be destroyed, pushing themselves toward victory in this “total war” that tore Europe apart from 1939 to 1945.
That’s all for this episode of British History 101. A transcript of this and previous episode of the podcast can be found at BritishHistory101.com. Send questions, comments, rants, and raves to BritishHistory101@gmail.com. You can also contact me by Skype under the name BritishHistory101, via Twitter under the name maskaggs, that’s m-a-s-k-a-g-g-s, and by regular mail at:
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I think I should use this opportunity to announce a brief official hiatus from the show from the 19th of May (that’s next Monday) until approximately two weeks later – not too long, I promise. I will be on holiday on the coast of Florida here in the States and will not have access to any sort of recording setup in the lodging at which I am staying. Nonetheless, the 12 days of downtime that I will have will be a valuable opportunity to do plenty of research on the next topic, so send me your suggestions and I will get cracking on our next episode, which will be released shortly after I return on the 30th! Please feel free to reach me during that period, however – I will have intermittent access to email and will answer whenever I am able to!
I’d like to thank British History 101’s sponsors at Audible.com and the wonderful music provided by John Hawksley at hawksley.net/mp3 and Simon Mulligan and simonmulligan.com. As always many thanks are owed to you, the listeners, for joining me on our excursions into the misty past of Britain. It’s always a pleasure and I look forward to joining you again. Until then, have a wonderful day and we’ll talk again soon.