One of the most devastating and sustained attacks on Britain during World War II was the Blitz – a series of air raids that took place in 1940 and 1941, when the German Luftwaffe launched a new strategy of destroying industrial and civilian targets.
The horrific bombing offensive wiped out or severely damaged towns, ports, cities and industrial sites, killing 32,000 civilians, seriously injuring 87,000 more and totally destroying two million houses – 60% of which were in London. On the first night alone of the Blitz, almost 2,000 civilians were killed or wounded in the capital.
What does the term “Blitz” mean?
The dangers of living in a major city during the war became apparent on the evening of 7th September 1940, when the air raid sirens wailed out across the capital at around 5pm, signalling the first of a series of heavy and frequent bombing attacks that were to continue until May 1941.
The city was being targeted by more than 350 bombers of the German air force, the Luftwaffe, who dropped 300 tonnes of bombs on the docks and streets of the east end. The aircraft had launched their wave of attacks from the airfields of France, which had been under German occupation since May 1940.
As the aerial attacks intensified and spread to other cities and towns in the UK, the press used the phrase “the Blitz” to describe them. Based on the German word “Blitzkrieg”, it meant “lightning war”.
Who invented “Blitzkrieg” tactics?
The term “Blitzkrieg” had first been used prior to 1940, in a factual article in an English magazine discussing the German troops’ tactics during the invasion of Poland. The strategy of using overwhelming and sudden attacks on the enemy’s weak points, with the aim of driving deep behind enemy lines, was credited to Germany’s chief of mobile troops during World War II, Heinz Guderian.
The purpose was to disrupt communications and force the enemy into unexpected directions. The tactic became frighteningly effective during World War II, although it was nothing new, dating back to the 1870s. It was reported that the 19th-century German Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen had developed the strategy that was later known as the Blitzkrieg.
He reasoned that when Germany was out-resourced and outnumbered in conflict, the military would need to compensate for this by striking hard and fast, securing a decisive victory behind enemy lines, without actually engaging the opponent’s major forces.
This was certainly the case with the Blitz, as the attacks on civilian targets had begun when the German air force changed its strategy after the Battle of Britain, which had started on 10th July 1940. It was no longer concerned with targeting just the RAF but was also turning its attention to civilians in the UK, who were ill-equipped to defend themselves.
The term “Blitzkrieg” was apt since the bombing raids were fast and unexpected – and in the same way as lightning causes devastation to buildings, including having the power to kill their occupants, so did the Luftwaffe.
How long did the Blitz last?
The Blitz continued from September 1940 until May 1941. Cities such as London were bombed almost every night, with all of the raids carried out after darkness fell, with the effect of causing as much damage, fear and panic as possible.
The night sky would be lit up, resembling a terrifying thunder and lightning storm. The only sounds and sights were the constant bombing, retaliatory gunfire and flashes in the sky from the anti-aircraft bombardment, as the ground-level guns stationed around London fired back.
The weaponry that illuminated the night sky was all the more startling since Britain was subject to the Blackout, which meant no street lights could be turned on at nightfall and properties had their windows and doors blacked out with heavy-duty curtains, so they wouldn’t be easily visible targets for the Luftwaffe pilots.
Approaching German aircraft could be seen at a great height, with shells bursting all around them as they changed their course to avoid the anti-aircraft fire. As well as the bombs being dropped on the suburbs, smaller incendiary devices were also dropped, causing fires. Newspaper reports of the day described “shaking doors and windows” on properties as the raids took place.
There were three different types of bomb: High explosive (HE) bombs of various sizes, incendiary bombs that caused fires and oil bombs.
How did civilians cope?
Life became very difficult for civilians in the heart of the cities and towns who were subject to the often nightly air raids by the German bombers.
The Blitz disrupted everyone’s lives, particularly because the bombing raids took place at night, so people’s sleep was continually disturbed, as they would be awoken by the sounds of the air raid siren and would have to get up and go to the shelter.
There, they would sit in dread as they listened for the sounds of the aircraft approaching, praying there wouldn’t be a direct hit. The air raid shelters, or Anderson shelters, were sturdy, but not particularly hospitable. They were invented during World War II and were erected by half-burying them in the ground and then heaping earth on top.
Constructed from six sheets of corrugated iron bolted together, with a steel plate at each end, the shelters measured 6ft 6ins by 4ft 6ins. The climate inside was cold and damp, but regardless of the discomfort, people had to stay in them until each bombing raid had finished.
Most districts set up community centres, where people whose home had been destroyed could find a bed, a hot drink and refreshments. In London, terrified householders abandoned their homes and many could be found sleeping in the tube stations.
Although this wasn’t encouraged by the local authorities, people often felt it was safer than staying in the air raid shelter and it was common for commuters on their way to work to be stepping over families asleep under blankets.
What happened to the schoolchildren?
Many children, particularly those living in London, were known as evacuees, as they were evacuated to safer places to stay with host families during the height of the bombing. The evacuee scheme began in London in September 1939, before the Blitz. There were mass evacuations from Euston Station.
Children as young as five were evacuated to safer towns and cities. Families that hosted evacuees were paid around 7s 6d by the government for their keep.
Some children stayed at home, but their education was severely disrupted, as in London, a lot of schools opened only part-time during the Blitz, with a limited number of staff, depending on who was still around to teach them.
Almost every night during the Blitz, the children’s sleep would have been disrupted by the air raid siren going off during the night, so they would be tired continually. They had to carry gas masks at all times in case of poison gas attacks and would have practice drills at school.
Why did the Blitz end?
The Blitz was a time of terror and confusion for people of all ages. As well as London being under heavy attack, other cities which also suffered sustained air raids were Cardiff, Swansea, Bristol, Plymouth, Southampton, Birmingham, Liverpool and Coventry.
In November 1940, Coventry was subject to the biggest air-raid the world had ever seen, causing 200 separate fires to ignite throughout the city, killing 554 people and destroying 4,330 homes.
The Blitz ended when much of the Luftwaffe was deployed to prepare for the invasion of Russia in 1941, although some aerial bombing continued in sporadic attacks long after this.
On Sunday 11th November, people across Britain will be attending Remembrance Services at churches and cenotaphs to pay tribute to the bravery all of those people who have died in conflict since World War I. It is the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War. The services will include a two-minute silence at 11am to mark the time when the war ended.
Lightning Strike joins the rest of the nation in respectfully remembering the bravery of the men and women who gave their lives, so that future generations could live in freedom. We will remember them.