Following Hitler's invasion of Poland in September 1939, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. After Poland and France surrendered, German intelligence sources believed that the British, too, were close to capitulation after their retreat from Dunkirk in battle between the Allies and Germany, and that a strategy similar to the heavy shelling and bombing used against Poland would likewise lead to a quick victory. The first attacks by the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) in the summer of 1940 focused on destroying the British Royal Airforce (RAF) by bombing airfields and RAF factories.
On August 25 1940, Luftwaffe bombers drifted off course from their military targets on the outskirts of London, and dropped bombs in the center of the city (an accident, according to many contemporary accounts). Churchill saw this as a deliberate attack on civilians, and ordered the bombing of Berlin the following night as a reprisal. In retaliation, Hitler ordered a "blitzkreig" (literally lightning war) against the population and air defenses of major British cities. London took the brunt of the bombing - starting on September 7, an average of 200 bombers dropped 300 tons of bombs on the city night after night for 76 days.
The British had long expected an attack, and beginning in 1939 the government assisted its citizens in constructing "Anderson Shelters" in their backyards, made from corrugated steel panels and accommodating up to six people. The shelters were 6' high by 4.5' wide by 6.5' long, buried at least 4' underground and covered with at least 15" of topsoil above the roof. The structures became objects of civic pride, and contests were held for best-planted shelters. 3.6 million were erected during the war, and many still survive. The fact that their walls and ceilings flexed enabled them to withstand the bombing while rigid concrete shelters cracked and collapsed. Those unable to create shelters, particularly those in London, took shelter in warehouse basements and Underground stations and tunnels. Many chose to remain above ground during the attacks, manning anti-aircraft guns, ambulances and fire trucks.
Although London was the most heavily bombed, other cities were targeted starting in November 1940. Portsmouth, Southampton, Plymouth, Exeter, Bristol, Bath, Cardiff, Birmingham, Coventry, Nottingham, Norwich, Ipswich, Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool, Hull, Middlesbrough, Sunderland, Newcastle, Glasgow, and Belfast were assailed. The worst attack came on November 14 against Coventry, an industrial city east of Birmingham in central England. 449 Luftwaffe bombers dropped 1,400 bombs and over 100,000 incendiaries throughout the night, destroying over 50,000 buildings and killing 568 people.
The bombing of Britain continued through 1941, when Hitler was forced to turn his attention to the Eastern Front, but not before causing the deaths of over 40,000 British citizens and destroying more than a million houses in London alone, leaving 375,000 Londoners homeless. The Blitz was, however, considered a major defeat for Germany and one of the crucial turning points in World War II, as the bombing failed to achieve Hitler's goal of demoralizing Britain into surrender and, while the bombers turned their attention on civilians, the pressure was taken off the RAF's airfields.
This article was originally published in March 2010, and has been updated for the
February 2011 paperback release.
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