Why the Blitz as a subject and what is its significance?

The Blitz was (arguably) the first major strategic bombing campaign in history (although the airship and aeroplane raids on Britain in the First World War also have a claim). It represents a sort of ‘ground zero’ for strategic bombing, from which both sides drew very different conclusions.

Why did the Blitz happen?

The Blitz began through a combination of lack of time, politics and an exaggerated faith in the power of the bomber.

In essence the campaign was a reversion to a traditional German strategy: the targeting of British industry and maritime trade to counter Britain’s own blockade of Germany. Yet Hitler was eager to invade the Soviet Union. The Battle of Britain was an attempt to knock Britain out of the war quickly, by first defeating the Royal Air Force and then invading (Operation Sealion). When that failed, Hitler sanctioned a return to besieging the UK through air and naval attacks. Britain would have to wait while Germany turned eastwards.

What were the German aims?

The aims of the Blitz from the outset were mixed and ill-defined. Moreover, they changed as the campaign went on.

By late August, the deadline for Sealion was looming. With time running out, some Luftwaffe commanders felt that attacks on London could force the RAF’s fighters into a decisive battle.

Secondly, although Bomber Command’s bombing of Berlin caused little damage, Hitler was humiliated. This was used as an excuse to begin the raids on London.

Finally, there was an exaggerated belief in what bombing could achieve. Some believed that a fearful and panicked populace would either force the British government to come to terms, or create the chaotic conditions which made the chances for Sealion more favourable.

Yet, as the campaign against London continued with no tangible success, attention switched against the British armaments industry and civilian morale in the industrial towns.

In spring 1941, Hitler decided to refocus on the ports in an effort to cripple Britain economically, while preparing for Operation Barbarossa.

The Blitz is often seen as an endless cycle of bombing but in fact the main focus from early 1941 was very much on the ‘strangulation’ of Britain economically – the same old strategy that had been tried before.

How did the British react?

Neither Fighter Command nor Anti-Aircraft (AA) Command were effective in hindering the Blitz in its initial stages. The overwhelming burden was therefore placed on those being bombed and on the Civil Defences (emergency services and agencies dedicated to helping those left homeless). Emergency shelters were of variable quality – and there were not enough. Many took to using London’s underground stations – despite the government’s initial concern that this would breed a ‘shelter mentality’.

As the campaign went on, the defences improved. The real breakthrough was the development of small, reasonably reliable radar sets and the new Bristol Beaufighter night fighter, which had the necessary speed and firepower, combined with the Ground Controlled Interception (GCI) system, based on a radar system with a 360° sweep. The GCI controller could ‘talk’ a night fighter crew through an interception. When they were within a few thousand metres of the bomber, the crew could use their own radar to close in and deliver an attack.

Despite these improvements the defences still only accounted for a tiny proportion of Luftwaffe bombers.

What was the result?

Although the bombing killed many civilians, the campaign failed to achieve most of its objectives. The government was clearly very worried about the possible effect of bombing on morale. Home Security reports in the National Archives shed light on some of the worst-affected towns, such as Hull, Liverpool-Birkenhead, Plymouth-Devonport and Southampton. In some of these areas, there was a definite sense of ‘war weariness’ for at least a period. Merseyside was particularly badly-hit in the closing weeks of the Blitz. In the long-run, far from inducing a wish to surrender, bombing had the opposite effect.

Productivity was scarcely affected. Although the Port of London was heavily bombed, the majority of shipping had already been diverted to the West Coast ports. Even in Merseyside, the heavy bombing in April/May 1941 failed to achieve anything like the results the Luftwaffe hoped for.

However, it is true that the Blitz caused RAF aircraft to be held back in the UK, when British forces in the Mediterranean would have benefited from more air support.

The Luftwaffe arguably should have concentrated on just one target system – in this case almost certainly the ports. Britain depended on imports, including food, oil, aluminium and much of its steel. A combined U-boat and maritime air campaign could have delivered better results. But that’s another story!

What did each side take from the Blitz?

This is one of the most interesting legacies of the Blitz. The Luftwaffe, which had mixed feelings about strategic bombing, never again attempted a campaign on the same scale. Although the Soviet Union’s cities were bombed, bombers were not available in such strength to the Luftwaffe again.

On the other hand, the RAF thought the Blitz had failed because the Luftwaffe had no ‘belief’ in strategic bombing. The RAF felt that a strategic campaign, if done ‘properly’, could yield decisive results. The effects of the bombing in Britain was later used to inform research into the British bombing of Germany.

For the British population as a whole, the Blitz provoked a desire for revenge and there was widespread public support for a campaign which would ‘give Germany a tase of its own medicine’.

The Blitz also had a notable effect on Anglo-American relations. Support for American intervention in Europe was almost non-existent in mid-1940. But by mid-1941, reporting by American journalists living in Britain and the release of the thinly-veiled propaganda film London Can Take It, had swung public sympathy behind the British fight against Nazism.

What is the legacy of the Blitz today?

The profound social change which took place in Britain after 1945 had some of its roots in the shared trauma of 1940/41.

In other ways, the legacy of the Blitz today is less what it left and more what it took. Anyone walking around London and other towns and cities today will see modern buildings mixed in with much older ones. Some bomb sites were not cleared and redeveloped for decades. As late as 1987, the Vietnam film Full Metal Jacket made use of London’s Blitzed dock area. And the word ‘Blitzed’ is still in use 80 years on!

But the most powerful legacy of all, symbolised by the cities of Coventry and Dresden, remains the spirit of Anglo-German reconciliation in the decades after 1945.

What was the most surprising thing you discovered about the Blitz?

There were many amazing aspects to the Blitz. Until autumn 1942, more civilians had been killed through enemy action than British soldiers. Another is a public survey completed in November 1940 which showed that only 40% of Londoners sought refuge each night. The rest either went to work on their night shifts – or simply stayed at home. It was actually a lack of decent sleep which hit many the hardest.

What attracted you to the subject?

There are many books that have been written on the Blitz, all with their own take on the subject. But there are very few that look at it from the point of view of the attackers and defenders, especially the former. Most either concentrate on those ‘under the bombs’ or mention the Blitz in passing as part of a larger study. For many, the Blitz is a sort of anonymous bridge between the Battle of Britain and Operation Barbarossa.

How was the book researched and what was the writing process?

The British side of things is very well covered and there is a mass of material dealing with everything from Civil Defence down to individual RAF squadron records.

Researching the Luftwaffe’s own story was not easy – especially during the Covid pandemic. It was further complicated by the fact that of the three Luftflotten (Air Fleets) involved, most of the records for Luftflotte 2 are lost.

Being familiar with the British side of the story, I was guilty of thinking I knew more about the campaign than I really did. I spent three or four months just reading and making notes about the German side. For every thousand words in the book, there are probably two or three thousand words of notes.

In trying to keep the story focused, I had to make some choices about what to include and what to leave out. For example, the story of Airborne Interception radar is well-known and there are plenty of books which discuss it in great detail. But fewer readers may know about the German electronic beam systems or various eccentric British developments, such schemes with codenames like ‘Mutton’ and ‘Pegasus’.

It is the intention to set the Blitz within the framework of the situation as in 1940 and 1941 and to show how, despite the modernity of air warfare, the Blitz was born from some fairly old ideas and methods which proved ineffective. Finally, I hope the book shows why the Blitz was, ultimately, bound to fail.

If you enjoyed today's blog post read more in The Blitz 1940–41 here.