Back in December of 2009, I wrote a two-part article about the British home-front of the Second World War. Although I covered a lot of things, upon reviewing that posting, it’s become apparent to me that I didn’t really write that much about the Blitz, the concentrated aerial bombardment of British cities by the German Luftwaffe from 1940-1941.
This posting will concentrate on the purpose, aims and effects of the Blitz on London during the Second World War.
What was the Blitz?
The Blitz is probably the most famous event of the Second World War. Although it was by no means the first time that civilians were exposed to aerial attacks, it is certainly the most memorable.
The Blitz was the deliberate and concentrated bombing of British cities and towns (although the main target was London), by the German Luftwaffe in the period between the 7th of September, 1940 to the 10th of May, 1941.
The Blitz gets its name from the German word “Blitzkrieg“, ‘Lightning War’. This new, mobile form of warfare brought the war to the enemy, instead of waiting for the enemy to make the first move. The whole point was to strike first and strike fast. Just like lightning does, hence the name.
The Purpose of the Blitz
After the fall of France in mid-1940, the German war machine turned its attention to the British Isles. It was the German intention to invade Britain, but they realised that an invasion would be impossible if they didn’t manage to knock out at least one of the Britain’s two most formidable fighting forces.
Great Britain was defended by the Royal Air Force (the RAF), and the Royal Navy, then the most powerful blue-water navy in the world (and had been for the past 200 years).
The Germans knew that they couldn’t hope to fight and win against the Royal Navy, but they hoped that they would be able to attack and destroy the Royal Air Force. So began the Battle of Britain.
The Battle of Britain was supposed to knock out British air-superiority and allow the Germans to launch their invasion of Britain with unchallenged air-support. Unfortunately for the Germans, the British were made of tougher stuff than they’d supposed, and after several weeks of vicious aerial combat, the Germans were forced to surrender. It was the first battle in the war that the Germans had lost.
Unable to beat the RAF, the Luftwaffe decided instead to try and destroy British cities and towns to demoralise the British people. The Nazis thought that, by doing this, they could force the British to surrender to the might of the Aryans and cease their hopeless and useless attempts to struggle onwards in vain. So began the Blitz.
Preparing for the Blitz
The British Government planned for months for the coming of the Blitz. They never expected the Germans to play nice, so they had plans for every eventuality and scenario, including large-scale aerial bombardment of heavily populated cities.
Amongst these preparations were…
– Evacuation of children, babies, toddlers, expectant mothers, the ill and the elderly from towns along the south coast and major cities, to country towns further north, out of the effective range of German bomber-planes. This mass evacuation, which started on the 1st of September, 1939, was called Operation Pied Piper. It was the first of several evacuations from large British cities throughout the war.
– Issuing everyone, man, woman, child and even babies, with gas-masks. The British fully expected the Germans to bomb them with mustard gas, chlorine gas and other nasty and potentially deadly gases. No such gas-bombings ever took place, but nevertheless, civilians were urged to carry their gas-masks with them everywhere they went, and were reminded to keep them in a place at night where they would be instantly accessible.
– Enforcing a blackout throughout England. Street-lights were turned off. Car-lights were covered. Bicycle-lamps shielded. Thick, heavy blackout curtains were distributed to every single home and business and every night, these curtains had to be put up over a building’s windows so that not a single streak of light could be seen. The blackout was enforced with amazing strictness. You could be fined for showing even the smallest amount of light!…Even the glowing tip of a cigarette!
– Issuing the public with personal air-raid shelters. Anderson Shelters and Morrison Shelters (more about those later).
– Inflating enormous barrage-balloons. Barrage-balloons were huge, gas-filled floating balloons that were shaped like blimps. They floated above the cities and towns of England (and other allied countries) to protect people from low-flying enemy aircraft. If a low-flying German plane appeared, it would have to fly around, or over the barrage balloon, or risk crashing into it and having the balloon’s tethering-cables wrap around its propellers, causing it to stall and crash. Some balloons had explosive charges on them, so that any plane that crashed into them set off the charges and the balloon exploded, taking the plane down with it.
Barrage balloons floating over central London during the War. The building at the bottom of the photograph is Buckingham Palace
Surviving the Blitz
So…what happened during an air-raid?
Fortunately for the British, they were equipped with a new wonder-technology. It was called Radar. Or correctly, R.A.D.A.R, which stands for “RAdio Detection And Ranging”. Although it was in its relative infancy at the start of the war, RADAR allowed the British to monitor enemy airplanes. Where they were, how many there were, how high they were and where they were going. The Germans never figured out what RADAR was until after the war. They never equated the huge radio towers on the south coast of England with aircraft detection.
RADAR allowed the British to keep an eye on enemy planes. And most importantly, it allowed the British to warn large cities of incoming enemy air-raids. RADAR posts would be contacted by radio and telephone and then the warnings went out in the form of air-raid sirens.
There were two types of air-raid sirens in the war. The smaller, hand-cranked ones which could be operated by one man, or larger, electromechanical ones which were powered by electricity. There were a number of warnings that these sirens could give out, but the two most common ones were “Red Danger” or “Red Alert” (continuous high-low tone), and “All Clear”, (continuous high-pitched tone).
Even with radar. Even with sirens. Even moving as fast as you could, the chances of being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time during a raid could be pretty high. From the moment that the sirens went off, you had between 10-15 minutes to make it to an air-raid shelter before the bombs started to fall.
To give you an idea of just how terrifying a raid was, imagine the following scenario:
You finish work early and go home. During the war, businesses closed shop early so that people could get home in time for air-raid preparations. Perhaps you have to walk, tripping over rubble, broken glass, wood, masonary, blown up cars, around cordoned off streets…in the dark, because there’s no street-lights burning…and the Underground is out of action from power-shortages and bombing.
Imagine getting home to a small, rationed dinner, putting up the blackout curtains and going upstairs to bed in your cold bedroom. It’s cold because like everything else, coal is rationed, so you can’t keep your furnace burning all the time like you used to.
You fall asleep. Exhausted. You’re woken up at one o’clock in the morning by the steady, wailing, high-low tones of the nearest air-raid siren. You’re groggy, dizzy, tired. You can’t see straight in the half-light, and you’re only dressed in your night-clothes…and you have ten minutes to run out of your house with all the things you hold dear…and make it to a bomb-shelter before your house is blown to pieces and you become another statistic. If you live with your family, imagine having to round up the kids…your wife, your husband, your brothers, sisters, your parents, grandparents…and getting them all up and moving and out of the house in the middle of the night when they’re all asleep..in ten minutes. In fact make that five minutes. Because after ten minutes, you’re dead.
Imagine staying in your shelter during the raid. You can’t sleep because of the sirens, the fires, the explosions, the rattling of the flak-guns and the reports of anti-aircraft cannons going off, mixing with the sound of aircraft engines overhead.
You stay up all night, wondering if the next bomb has your name on it. When the raid is over, you leave the shelter and wonder if your house is still standing. Whether your friends are still alive, whether that one person who didn’t make it into the shelter on time is dead or not, or whether they managed to hide somewhere and survive. Imagine having to clear away rubble and pick through the remains of your destroyed house. Imagine not being allowed to go back home because there was an unexploded bomb in the middle of your street.
Newsreel footage of the Blitz
Imagine having to do this for seven months. That was how long the Blitz lasted.
Imagine having to do this every single night, after night, after night, after night, for two and a half months without pause. That was how long the Blitz concentrated on London alone.
That was the reality of the Blitz.
Air Raid Precautions
Now that you have a mental picture of the panic of an air-raid, you can imagine the sheer terror that gripped people when those sirens went off every single night.
So how did they cope with it?
Well, enter the A.R.P.
A.R.P. stands for “Air Raid Precautions”.
The ARP was responsible for the safety of civilians during air-raids in Britain during the Second World War. They evacuated people from their houses, they did head-counts, they directed people to shelters, they assisted with raid-related emergencies such as fires, rescues, unexploded bombs (or UXBs as they were called) and collapsed buildings.
The men on the ground doing the work for the ARP were the ARP wardens, with their metal Bodie-style helmets and dark blue uniforms.
Apart from the above-mentioned duties, ARP wardens also enforced the blackout. “Put that light out!” was a common thing to say if a light was visible from the street. Wardens also issued gas-masks, personal air-raid shelters, patrolling the streets at night, and handling bomb-damage. ARP wardens and fire-watchers would carry buckets of sand with them during an air-raid to put out incendiary bombs that had exploded and set things on fire. Incendiary bombs were firebombs filled with nasty liquids that would fizzle, burn and explode if you tried to put the bomb out with water, so sand was thrown on them instead to prevent the fire from spreading. ARP wardens also gave raid-victims first-aid and would help the police and firemen recover dead bodies from destroyed buildings and shelters. Apart from their helmets, ARP wardens were also given handbells and specially-manufactured Metropolitan police-whistles with “A.R.P” stamped onto them, to use as alarm and attention-attracting devices during a raid.
An ARP helmet, bell and metropolitan-style ‘ARP’ police whistle
Amazingly, the ARP existed long before the War ever started. It was formed back in 1924!
Well, during the First World War, London was bombed by German zepplins and bomber-planes. During these early raids, there was no prescribed way of handling the situation, since it was completely new in the history of warfare. Determined to be prepared if it happened again, the ARP was established to assist people during an air-raid if London was ever bombed again in the future.
The ARP wardens had among the most dangerous jobs in England during the War. Imagine having to run from your house in a raid to find a shelter in the pitch black when the sirens went off. Imagine having to roam around the streets directing human traffic, having to order people around, having to calm hysterical women, screaming children and panicking men while sirens scream and bombs explode around you, knowing that at any second, a bomb could go off, a building could collapse or catch fire, and you’d be dead. Imagine having to try and herd dozens, hundreds, of panicking people into an air-raid shelter in the height of the chaos, with only your hands and your police-whistle to direct people and get attention – Don’t bother shouting out orders – nobody would hear you over the sound of the explosions and sirens.
Such was the reality of being an air-raid warden.
So what exactly were you supposed to do when the air-raid sirens went off?
Well, in the five or ten precious minutes of warning that RADAR and sirens were able to give you, you had to snatch all your worldly belongings, gather the people of your household, get your gas-mask (you HAD to take it. No exceptions. Even the Queen Mum carried hers with her everywhere she went) and run for the nearest shelter.
What kinds of shelters were available to people during the War?
In Britain, air-raid shelters varied significantly. They might be railroad bridges, church crypts, the cellars and basements of big buildings, or most famously – Underground Tube stations. Seventy nine of them were converted into air-raid shelters and underground workshops during the War.
But what if you couldn’t make it to a public air-raid shelter or gathering-point in time? What did you do then? Perhaps the nearest shelter was four blocks away.
Can you run four blocks in two minutes?
If you couldn’t, then you had to rely on the government-issued air-raid shelters. They came in two styles. The Anderson Shelter and the Morrison Shelter.
Designed in 1938, a year before the war even started, this crude air-raid shelter was named for Sir John Anderson, the chap in charge of air-raid precuations.
The Anderson Shelter was a cheap, D.I.Y. shelter. It came delivered to your house (or you could go out and buy one) in fourteen prefabricated parts: Six roof-panels, six side panels, and two end-panels (one with a door, to create an entrance).
When properly assembled, the Anderson shelter was designed to hold six people. The shelters were six feet high, four and a half feet wide, and six and a half feet long. And it wasn’t just a matter of bolting them together in the garden as a children’s cubbyhouse. You had to dig a hole in the back yard! Six and a half feet long, four and a half feet wide (for the length and breadth of the shelter), and four feet deep! You assembled the shelter in the hole, with additional space for the door, and then you covered the entire thing with earth to provide shock-protection.
Despite how flimsy the whole construction sounded…these things did save lives.
But what if you didn’t have a garden, and you lived miles from the nearest public shelter?
Then you used the…
The Morrison Shelter was named for Herbert Morrison, then Minister of Home Security. The Morrison shelter was a heavy, steel table with wire sides between the legs and base. It was designed to hold two to three people and protect them in the event of a raid. Because of their design, Morrison shelters often doubled as coffee-tables or dining-tables in people’s living-rooms during the War. In a pinch, you could open the side of the shelter, crawl in and slam it shut behind you.
The Purpose of the Shelters
Duuuh. To protect you against bombs!
Anderson Shelters and Morrison Shelters were not, and never were, designed to protect you against bombs.
Be serious. Is a metal table or a few sheets of corrugated steel, going to protect you against a bomb weighing thounds of pounds?
Of course not.
Well then what was the point of having them?
The point of these shelters was not to protect you from bombs. They were never designed to take a direct hit. Instead, they were designed to protect you from shrapnel.
When a bomb drops and explodes, it sends out heaps of shrapnel. The metal shell-casing, bricks, glass, wood, mortar, chunks of concrete and all other kinds of flying debris. Every single one of these things is a potentially lethal missile. If they hit the sides of the Anderson Shelter, you would be safe. This was why the shelters were dug into the ground and covered with soil. To protect against shrapnel.
Morrison shelters protected you from above. They were designed to withstand the force of the house collapsing on top of you if it was bombed. The table-shelter would give you a ‘safe-zone’ in which to hide, protected from the rubble, until ARP wardens and fire-watchers could extinguish the flames and get you out alive.
If you didn’t have a garden or space for a Morrison Shelter in your apartment, then in an air-raid, you could use a public air-raid shelter. The most famous public air-raid shelters were the seventy nine Tube stations that were converted into bomb-shelters and underground workshops during the War. Some stations which were no-longer used might be converted into storage-areas or workshops. But other stations which still received regular traffic were used as air-raid shelters.
Ducking down in the Tube was hardly pleasant. How would you like to spend the night in a cold, draughty, piss-soaked subway station with dozens of other people, with blankets and cold food and no toilets and rats and water and the wailing of the sirens, the blasting of anti-aircraft cannons and the explosions of bombs up above you all night?
The British Government initially dissuaded people from using the Tube as an air-raid shelter. They were scared that, once everyone went underground, they’d never want to come out again.
When these fears were proved groundless, the government picked out the nearly eighty stations across London that could be used to house people in air-raids. They were fitted with extra toilets, lights, running water, bunk-beds and even special trains that came by with hot food! At night, Tube workers would cut the power so that Londoners could sleep on the railway tracks without getting electrocuted by the current that ran along the third rail which powered the subway trains.
Of course…you had to be able to wake up on time in the morning, otherwise you might get run over by the morning rush-hour!
People kept their spirits up down in the Tube with songs and games. Many people would actually arrive early! They’d show up in the station after work with their wives and husbands and kids, tea and sandwiches, blankets, coats and pillows, and pick out the best spots in the station to bunk down for the night.
Other public air-raid gathering points included basements, cellars, church-crypts and bridges. While none of these provided complete safety from aerial attack (almost nothing could protect you from a direct hit), they were made available for those people who had nowhere else to run.
Despite the provision of private shelters and the setting-up of public ones, a significant number of Londoners actually chose to sleep in their own homes during the air-raids. Since sleeping in the shelters didn’t guarantee safety, some Londoners decided that if they were going to die anyway, they’d prefer to die in their own homes.
The Baedeker Blitz
The main body of the Blitz on the United Kingdom was over by mid-1941. However, that didn’t mean that the danger had completely passed, and throughout the war, the Germans continued to conduct air-raids on British cities and towns. The next most famous set of raids were collectively called the Baedeker Blitz.
These air-raids were named after the famous Baedeker (pronounced ‘Bay-Decker’) guidebooks. The Baedeker Co. (ironically, a German company!), was famous for printing in-depth guidebooks of famous countries and cities for the travelling public, covering everything from England to France, Italy to China. They were the Lonely Planet of their day.
These raids, which took place between April-June of 1942, targeted the famous tourist and cultural centers of the British Isles, such places as would be mentioned in the famous Baedeker Guidebooks (hence the name).
Cities targeted included York, Bath, Norwich, Exeter and Canterbury. The famous Canterbury Cathedral was one of the targets during the Baedeker Blitz. Fortunately for the British, the bomber missed the Cathedral (although not by much). Unfortunately for the British, the bomb struck the cathedral’s archives building, destroying it in a direct hit.
V1s and V2s
By the last year or so of the war, the Germans were in deep trouble. The Allies were closing in from the East and West. From France, British, Canadian, French, Polish and American forces were charging towards Berlin. In the East, the Russians were steamrolling the Germans back, taking bloody revenge for their fallen comrades, whom the Germans had previously captured…and killed…in their hundreds of thousands.
But that didn’t stop the Germans from trying to strike at England. In 1944 and 1945, they developed and launched first the V1, and then the V2 rockets. These crude weapons were the predecessors to today’s guided missiles.
Launched starting shortly after D-Day, the V1s were nicknamed ‘Doodlebugs’ because of the buzzing noise they made when they flew overhead. Although probably a powerful psychological weapon, in reality they were not as effective as the Germans had hoped. Doodlebugs were slow and cumbersome. British anti-aircraft cannons could take them out with relative ease. And even when the Germans launched doodlebugs en-masse, only one in four ever made it past the anti-aircraft guns.
The V-1 ‘Doodlebug’
The V2s, much faster and more accurate, were so advanced for the day that they were beyond the capabilities of anti-aircraft gunners to shoot down. Deciding that it was impossible to destroy the rockets once they were in the air, and unable to destroy the launching areas (hidden and well-protected), the British instead relied on disinformation and espionage to defeat the Germans and their fearsome new Weapon of Mass Destruction.
For the duration of the war, the British had been training a large number of spies. Some spies were British. Other spies were Germans who spied for Germany, but who were captured by the British and turned into double-agents, spying for both countries, but only supplying useful information to the British. Some German spies actually hated the Nazis. They would sign up for spy-duties, get sent to England, and the moment they could, they would hand themselves into British authorities, divulge their mission-details and any handy bits of information, and then switch sides and spy for the British.
This complex network of spies and misinformation was called the Double Cross System. And the British used their extensive network of agents and spies to screw up the Germans and their V1s and V2s.
Because of the crudeness of these early missiles, the Germans had to rely on their agents in England to tell them how successful the weapons were. Egged on the British, the German double-agents would send back misleading reports.
If a missile missed London (or another prominent target), information sent back to Berlin was that the missile was on target and that nothing should be changed.
If a missile hit its target, then a message sent back to Berlin would say that the missile had been ranged too long (or short) and that corrections would have to be made. These ‘corrections’ would in fact result in the previously-accurate missiles going off-target and striking smaller communities or exploding harmlessly in the countryside.
Using these tactics, the British were able to redirect the majority of German V-2 rockets into less-populated (or completely unpopulated) parts of the country, where a bomb-explosion was less likely to kill someone.
By early 1945, with the Allies closing in on Germany on all fronts, and the Germans running short on everything from food, to water, fuel, ammunition and more essential things like lederhosen, their campaigns of terror against Britain finally ceased.
Cities all over the British Isles were devasted by the bombing. Streets were cordoned off, buildings were demolished, entire families might be wiped out. Apart from London, probably the hardest-hit city was that of Coventry, where almost the entire city was flattened by German bombing in one night. So intense was the bombing that the Germans invented a new word to describe the sheer level of destruction – Koventrieren – to Coventrate – or to destroy something completely.
Few people today can imagine the terror of exploding bombs, the scream of air-raid sirens and living in constant, daily fear. For many people, it’s something they read about in history-books, see in movies or in episodes of ‘Foyle’s War’…But it did happen.