How Thousands of Civilians Were Killed by British Shells in the London Blitz

Simon Webb

Twentieth Century World War Two
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Between 1940 and 1945, over 52,000 civilians were killed in Britain during bombing raids by German aircraft. The most intense series of these raids took place from September 1940 to May 1941 in a period that has become known as the Blitz.

The Blitz holds a special place in British history for the light which it supposedly sheds on the character of those being bombarded from the air.

For many years, the assumption has been that those tens of thousands of men, women and children who died during the bombing were killed by the explosion of German bombs.

This is not so.

A large proportion of the deaths, perhaps as many as half, were caused not by the German air force, but rather by the British army and their artillery.

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Response to German bombers

During the First World War, German aeroplanes began flying over England and dropping bombs.

Since rifle and machine gun fire was not able to hit anything more than 3,000 feet above the ground, the decision was made to use heavy artillery, typically naval guns as shown below.

Naval gun Blitz
Three-inch naval gun, the standard anti-aircraft gun of the First World War (Credit: Simon Webb).

Such weapons were removed from ships and fixed emplacements on shore, bolted onto lorries and then driven to London.

The results of firing artillery in the middle of a large city were disastrous. Many shells failed to explode in the air and only detonated on impact, when they landed.

On 7 July 1917, for instance, 22 bombers flew across London, dropping bombs in different parts of the city.

The British responded by firing more than 2,000 artillery shells into the sky; none of which hit any of the German planes. Many only exploded when they landed in the streets of London.

A total of 55 civilians were killed during the bombing, 10 of whom died as a result of the artillery fire.

‘The bomber will always get through’

London Blitz
View from St Paul’s Cathedral after the Blitz, 1941 (Credit: H. Mason).

The scientist J.B.S. Haldane was a member of a government committee in the 1930s which examined possible defences against bombing. In 1938, he wrote bluntly about the British artillery shells used during the First World War:

They killed a number of Londoners in 1916-1918. In some raids they caused as many casualties as the enemy bombs.

It was the experience of the First World War which caused Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to assert in 1932 that, ‘The bomber will always get through.’

It was accepted that shooting down bombers with artillery was almost impossible and more likely to kill your own civilians than to harm the enemy.

When the Blitz on British cities began in September 1940, the military doctrine was that the only defence against such an offensive was to launch counter-attacks on German cities.

This left the inhabitants of London and other cities feeling that the government was doing nothing to protect them. The fear was that there would be a mass flight into the countryside, which would disrupt the war-effort by removing workers from the factories.

It was accordingly decided to bring artillery into play once more, to persuade ordinary people that the government was fighting back. This artillery was far more powerful than that used during the First World War.

Twin 5.25-inch guns of an anti-aircraft battery at Primrose Hill in London, 1943 (Credit: War Office Second World War Official Collection).

A gun-turret from a battleship was carried to the top of Primrose Hill, overlooking London Zoo, firing shells weighing 80 lb (36.3 kg). Other artillery were also fired over the streets of Britain’s cities.

Defective shells and artillery

It is almost impossible to hit a fast-moving aeroplane with artillery, and the shells which did explode rained down hundreds of thousands of heavy chunks of metal.

Blitz shell
Nosecone from a 3.7 inch anti-aircraft shell manufactured in 1940 (Credit: Simon Webb).

These caused many deaths, but even worse was the fact that many of the shells had defective timing mechanisms. This meant that instead of exploding 10,000 feet overhead, they plunged to earth and exploded there.

One expert working at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory estimated that half the shells exploded at ground level and that they killed as many people as the German bombs.

If true, this would mean that the British army and their artillery were responsible for over 25,000 deaths in Britain during the Second World War.

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More people killed by shells than bombs

Beginning on Sunday, 8 September 1940, when an artillery shell landed outside a café near Kings Cross, killing 17 people, the death toll from anti-aircraft fire was constant and unrelenting.

Nor were the deaths limited to London. On 14 September 1940, members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service were sitting down to dinner at the hotel in Lee-on-Solent where they were billeted.

A shell fired by artillery in Portsmouth flew through the window of the dining room and exploded, killing 10 of the young women.

In some areas of the country, there is no doubt that more people were killed by shells than bombs.

 London Blitz
Children outside the wreckage of what was their home in London, 1940 (Credit: Sue Wallace / New Times Paris Bureau Collection).

In the Midlands district of Tipton, 23 civilians were killed during air raids during the Second World War. 11 of these deaths were caused by German bombs, but 12 died during an incident on 21 December 1940, when a wedding party was taking place in a pub in the village of Tividale.

An artillery shell weighing 28 lb (12.7 Kg) was fired from nearby Rowley Hills and sailed down the chimney of the building where the party was being held. The bride was killed, the bridegroom lost both legs and 11 other guests died.

The strange thing is that during the war, the number of injuries and deaths from anti-aircraft fire was common knowledge and widely reported in both national and provincial newspapers, despite the censorship. On 29 March 1944, for example, the Western Mail reported that:

Anti-aircraft shells, one of which exploded in a crowded factory, killing 12 people, including seven women, and injuring as many more, were the chief cause of damage during activity over the South Wales coastal area on Monday night.

It is only since 1945 that we have chosen to forget about the unpalatable fact that our own artillery was shelling towns and cities and massacring thousands of civilians.

Simon Webb is the author of a number of non-fiction books and works as a consultant on the subject of capital punishment to television companies and filmmakers. He is also a contributor for TES, Daily Telegraph and the Guardian. His book, Secret Casualties of World War Two: Uncovering the Civilian Deaths from Friendly Fire, is published by Pen & Sword Books.

Simon Webb