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For the 72 Million

The Blitz, 1940-1944

The switch from the tactical objective of eliminating the Royal Air Force (RAF) to the strategic objective of pounding the British into surrender was not a task the Luftwaffe was well prepared for. Unlike the other major combatants in World War II, the Germans did not develop a heavy bomber for strategic operations.The mainstay of the German bombers was the Heinkel He-111, a two-engined, medium range bomber that carried roughly 5,000 pounds of ordinance. It was a level bomber designed for attacking tactical targets as part of a Blitzkrieg campaign, sort of flying artillery. Its payload was not heavy enough nor its range long enough for sustained operations against civilian targets. Other German bombers, like the Dornier Do-17 and the Junkers Ju-88, were similarly excellent tactical aircraft, highly adaptable to battlefield conditions, but not suitable for strategic missions.

In contrast, the Americans and the British had developed “heavies” — four-engined, heavily armed aircraft that could fly great distances to attack the enemy at home. The Allies believed that the heavy bombers were capable of winning a war alone. The fighter aircraft were a secondary adjunct to the bombers.

Small shelters of corrugated iron were distributed. Homes with yards were encouraged to dig larger shelters that could hold a Morrison shelter, which could sustain the collapse of building on itself. Fewer of the Morrison shelters were available.

Goering was desperate to get back into the good graces of Hitler after failing to destroy the RAF during the summer of 1940. The misguided attack on London by a lost He-111 on August 24 prompted a retaliatory attack by RAF Bomber Command on the night of August 26. While the RAF caused negligible damage, Hitler was incensed and ordered attacks to hit London on September 4.

The first heavy raids on London came on September 7. 300 bombers escorted by 600 fighters came over London starting in the afternoon. They caused great damage to many parts of London and other cities, started major fires on the London docks, and killed over 400 people.

This was the first of fifty-eight consecutive nights of bombing attacks on London. Churchill was so agonized he wore a groove in his chair in the briefing room at the war rooms under 10 Downing Street. The Communists used the raids to bring people into posh hotels like the Savoy, demanding that all shelters be open to everyone. The owners and their staff were aghast at the crossing of class barriers but the government recognized they had no choice. The Communists also encouraged people to ignore the government ban on staying out of the Underground; they led demonstrations that smashed the gates and brought Londoners and others into the tunnels. The above-ground shelters, nothing more than brick buildings, were inadequate when directly hit. Some people slept in crypts in churches, or in caves every night. Churchill’s administration feared the public would break, but they held. The Labour Party nominally took over from Socialists and Communists running shelters, but in some places they were just figureheads while the leftists continued to run the venues. The air raid system also bult schools for the children and hospitals for the sick. In some ways, the air raid shelters paved public opinion for the National Health System that was created after the war. Air raid shelters were totally inadequate and the populace took refuge in the underground stations. With little water, no bathrooms, and overcrowded with people, the stations were ill suited for a sustained stay, but the people nevertheless turned the Blitz into a glorious battle for survival. Unfortunately for Goering’s prestige, the Luftwaffe’s efforts did not break the will of the Londoners to carry on the fight. Productivity in war related industries faltered, but never seriously dipped.

Barrage balloons, trailing steel cables, intended to foul German aircraft propellers, were inflated and soared above British cities. They were as much a morale boost as actual defense. German aircraft could fly above them.

The British discovered knickbein (crooked leg), the German guidance system for their bombers. They figured out how to misdirect or jam the frequency to confuse the bombers. Over 1,300 antiaircraft guns ringed London, but without proximity fuses introduced in 1943, they mostly were there to boost public morale.

By October 1940, some 250,000 Londoners were homeless, and many moved in with friends or relatives for the duration of the war. Housing was critically short, but London continued to function as a capital and as city.

On the night of November 14-15, 1940, almost 500 bombers dropped high explosives and incendiaries on Coventry. A major war materiel production center, it was a prime target for strategic bombing. 550 people were killed, 1,000 injured, and 50,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. The bombed out Cathedral became a symbol German aggression. Coventry became a rallying cry for the far heavier raids on Germany by the Americans by day and the British by night after 1942.

The Blitz fell all over the British Isles, and even Belfast in 1941. Attacks hit the industrial cities of the north, the ports along the southern coast, Scotland, and Wales. Throughout the winter of 1940-41, the Germans returned by night over London. The heaviest raids came on the night of May 10-11, 1941. 2,000 fires were started; 1,212 were killed and 1,769 injured.

By the end of the summer of 1941, the raids tapered off, as the aircraft were needed in Greece and the Eastern Front. Death from the air would come in periodic raids throughout the war, then the V-1 and V-2 strikes in 1944.

The Blitz killed over 41,000 Londoners, injured over 49,000, and destroyed 46,000 dwellings. Buckingham Palace and the House of Commons were hit, creating a bind between the Royal Family, the government, and the common people who were suffering the most.

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