Image credit: New York Times Paris Bureau Collection
Before the outbreak of World War Two, there was significant debate about the threat posed by bomber aircraft and new aerial tactics during any future conflict.
These concerns had been raised by the aggressive use of the Luftwaffe during the Spanish Civil War. The conflict saw the tactical co-ordination of air and ground troops and the razing of several Spanish cities, most famously Guernica.
Fears abounded that hostilities would have a far more devastating effect on the home front in any forthcoming conflict. These fears played a significant role in the British desire for peace during the 1930s, and consequently the campaign to continue appeasing Nazi Germany.
The Battle of Britain
After the Nazis invaded Poland, they turned their attention to the Western front. They stormed through the French defences, circumventing the Maginot Line and attacking through Belgium.
The Battle of France ended quickly, and the Battle of Britain followed soon after.
The latter saw Britain’s Fighter Command take on the Luftwaffe in a struggle for air superiority over the Channel and south-east England. At stake was the possibility of a German invasion, codenamed Operation Sealion by German High Command.
The Battle of Britain lasted from July 1940 until the end of October. Having been underestimated by the chief of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, Fighter Command inflicted a decisive defeat on the German air force and Hitler was forced to suspend Operation Sealion indefinitely.
A point of no return
The Germans, suffering unsustainable losses, switched tactics away from attacking the beleaguered Fighter Command. Instead, they launched a sustained bombing campaign against London and other major British cities between September 1940 and May 1941.
The first major bombing raid against London’s civilian population was accidental. A German bomber overshot its original target, the docks, in thick fog. This showcased the inaccuracy of bombing in the early part of the war.
More significantly, it served as a point of no return in the escalation of strategic bombing for the remainder of the war.
Bombing raids over cities were almost exclusively conducted in the hours of darkness after the end of the summer to reduce losses at the hands of the RAF, which did not yet have sufficient night-fighter capabilities.
The attacks resulted in as many as 180,000 Londoners spending their nights in tube stations during the autumn of 1940, when the attacks were at their most extreme.
By the end of the year, 32,000 ordinary people had died amongst the fires and rubble, although such numbers would be made to look paltry in comparison with the bombing raids conducted against Germany and Japan later in the war.
Other port cities across Britain, such as Liverpool, Glasgow and Hull, were targeted, together with industrial centres in the Midlands.
The Blitz left hundreds of thousands of civilians homeless and inflicted damage on many iconic buildings. Coventry Cathedral was famously destroyed during the night of 14 November. In early May 1941, an unrelenting attacks resulted in damage to buildings across central London, including the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London.
Germany expected the bombing campaign, amounting to fifty-seven consecutive nights between September and November, to crush British morale. On the contrary, the British people, on the whole, were galvanised by the bombings and the underlying threat of German invasion. Many people signed up for voluntary service in one of the organisations set up to help remedy the devastating effects of the Blitz.
In a show of defiance, many attempted to go about their daily lives ‘as usual’. As a consequence, by Churchill’s first anniversary in office Britain had emerged from the Blitz with far greater resolution than when he had taken charge in the ominous climate of May 1940.