John Ray is an award winning developer and technology consultant with more than 16 years of programming and administration experience. John has written or contributed to more than 11 titles currently in print, including Mac OS X Unleashed.
He graphically recalls the effects of the Blitz on British cities, industry and people, month by In this finely structured and consistently fascinating study of the campaign, Second World War historian John Ray assesses the strategies, weapons and defense tactics employed throughout the Night Blitz. He graphically recalls the effects of the Blitz on British cities, industry and people, month by month. It was decided to focus on bombing Britain's industrial cities, in daylight to begin with.
The main focus was London. The first major raid took place on 7 September. On 15 September, on a date known as Battle of Britain Day, a large-scale raid was launched in daylight, but suffered significant loss for no lasting gain. Although there were a few large air battles fought in daylight later in the month and into October, the Luftwaffe switched its main effort to night attacks. This became official policy on 7 October. The air campaign soon got under way against London and other British cities.
However, the Luftwaffe faced limitations. Hitler did not intend or foresee a war with Britain in ; OKL believed a medium bomber could carry out strategic missions just as well as a heavy bomber force; and Germany did not possess the resources or technical ability to produce four-engined bombers before the war. Although it had equipment capable of doing serious damage, the Luftwaffe had unclear strategy and poor intelligence.
OKL had not been informed that Britain was to be considered a potential opponent until early It had no time to gather reliable intelligence on Britain's industries. Moreover, OKL could not settle on an appropriate strategy. German planners had to decide whether the Luftwaffe should deliver the weight of its attacks against a specific segment of British industry such as aircraft factories, or against a system of interrelated industries such as Britain's import and distribution network, or even in a blow aimed at breaking the morale of the British population.
In an operational capacity, limitations in weapons technology and quick British reactions were making it more difficult to achieve strategic effect. Attacking ports, shipping and imports as well as disrupting rail traffic in the surrounding areas, especially the distribution of coal, an important fuel in all industrial economies of the Second World War, would net a positive result. However, the use of delayed-action bombs , while initially very effective, gradually had less impact, partly because they failed to detonate.
Regional commissioners were given plenipotentiary powers to restore communications and organise the distribution of supplies to keep the war economy moving. The estimate of tonnes of bombs an enemy could drop per day grew as aircraft technology advanced, from 75 in , to in , to in That year the Committee on Imperial Defence estimated that an attack of 60 days would result in , dead and 1.
News reports of the Spanish Civil War , such as the bombing of Barcelona , supported the casualties-per-tonne estimate. By , experts generally expected that Germany would attempt to drop as much as 3, tonnes in the first 24 hours of war and average tonnes a day for several weeks. In addition to high-explosive and incendiary bombs , the enemy would possibly use poison gas and even bacteriological warfare, all with a high degree of accuracy. British air raid sirens sounded for the first time 22 minutes after Neville Chamberlain declared war on Germany.
Although bombing attacks unexpectedly did not begin immediately during the Phoney War ,  civilians were aware of the deadly power of aerial attacks through newsreels of Barcelona, the Bombing of Guernica and the Bombing of Shanghai. Many popular works of fiction during the s and s portrayed aerial bombing, such as H. Harold Macmillan wrote in that he and others around him "thought of air warfare in rather as people think of nuclear war today".
Based in part on the experience of German bombing in the First World War, politicians feared mass psychological trauma from aerial attack and the collapse of civil society. In , a committee of psychiatrists predicted there would be three times as many mental as physical casualties from aerial bombing, implying three to four million psychiatric patients. It expected about 90 per cent of evacuees to stay in private homes, conducted an extensive survey to determine the amount of space available and made detailed preparations for transporting evacuees.
A trial blackout was held on 10 August and when Germany invaded Poland on 1 September, a blackout began at sunset. Lights were not allowed after dark for almost six years and the blackout became by far the most unpopular aspect of the war for civilians, even more than rationing. Much civil-defence preparation in the form of shelters was left in the hands of local authorities and many areas such as Birmingham , Coventry , Belfast and the East End of London did not have enough shelters.
Authorities expected that the raids would be brief and in daylight, rather than attacks by night, which forced Londoners to sleep in shelters. Deep shelters provided most protection against a direct hit. The government did not build them for large populations before the war because of cost, time to build and fears that their safety would cause occupants to refuse to leave to return to work or that anti-war sentiment would develop in large congregations of civilians.
The government saw the leading role taken by the Communist Party in advocating the building deep shelters as an attempt to damage civilian morale, especially after the Molotov—Ribbentrop Pact of August The most important existing communal shelters were the London Underground stations. Although many civilians had used them for shelter during the First World War, the government in refused to allow the stations to be used as shelters so as not to interfere with commuter and troop travel and the fears that occupants might refuse to leave.
Underground officials were ordered to lock station entrances during raids but by the second week of heavy bombing, the government relented and ordered the stations to be opened. Each day orderly lines of people queued until 4: In mid-September , about , people a night slept in the Underground, although by the winter and spring months the numbers had declined to , or less.
Noises of battle were muffled and sleep was easier in the deepest stations but many people were killed from direct hits on stations. Communal shelters never housed more than one seventh of Greater London residents. Public demand caused the government in October to build new deep shelters within the Underground to hold 80, people but the period of heaviest bombing had passed before they were finished.
Authorities provided stoves and bathrooms and canteen trains provided food. Tickets were issued for bunks in large shelters, to reduce the amount of time spent queuing. Committees quickly formed within shelters as informal governments, and organisations such as the British Red Cross and the Salvation Army worked to improve conditions. Entertainment included concerts, films, plays and books from local libraries. Although only a small number of Londoners used the mass shelters, when journalists, celebrities and foreigners visited they became part of the Beveridge Report , part of a national debate on social and class division.
Most residents found that such divisions continued within the shelters and many arguments and fights occurred over noise, space and other matters. Anti-Jewish sentiment was reported, particularly around the East End of London, with anti-Semitic graffiti and anti-Semitic rumours, such as that Jewish people were "hogging" air raid shelters.
Although the intensity of the bombing was not as great as pre-war expectations so an equal comparison is impossible, no psychiatric crisis occurred because of the Blitz even during the period of greatest bombing of September An American witness wrote "By every test and measure I am able to apply, these people are staunch to the bone and won't quit People referred to raids as if they were weather, stating that a day was "very blitzy". According to Anna Freud and Edward Glover , London civilians surprisingly did not suffer from widespread shell shock , unlike the soldiers in the Dunkirk evacuation.
Although the stress of the war resulted in many anxiety attacks, eating disorders, fatigue, weeping, miscarriages, and other physical and mental ailments, society did not collapse. The number of suicides and drunkenness declined, and London recorded only about two cases of "bomb neuroses" per week in the first three months of bombing. Many civilians found that the best way to retain mental stability was to be with family, and after the first few weeks of bombing avoidance of the evacuation programmes grew.
The cheerful crowds visiting bomb sites were so large they interfered with rescue work,  pub visits increased in number beer was never rationed , and 13, attended cricket at Lord's. People left shelters when told instead of refusing to leave, although many housewives reportedly enjoyed the break from housework.
Some people even told government surveyors that they enjoyed air raids if they occurred occasionally, perhaps once a week. Despite the attacks, defeat in Norway and France , and the threat of invasion, overall morale remained high; a Gallup poll found only 3 per cent of Britons expected to lose the war in May , another found an 88 per cent approval rating for Churchill in July, and a third found 89 percent support for his leadership in October. Support for peace negotiations declined from 29 per cent in February.
The civilians of London had an enormous role to play in the protection of their city. Only one year earlier, there had only been 6, full-time and 13, part-time firemen in the entire country. Many unemployed people were drafted into the Royal Army Pay Corps and with the Pioneer Corps , were charged with the task of salvage and clean-up.
By the end of , the WVS had one million members. Pre-war dire predictions of mass air-raid neurosis were not borne out. Predictions had underestimated the adaptability and resourcefulness; in addition there were many new civil defence roles that gave a sense of fighting back rather than despair. Official histories concluded that the mental health of a nation may have improved, while panic was a rare. British air doctrine, since Hugh Trenchard had commanded the Royal Flying Corps — , stressed offence as the best means of defence.
To prevent German formations from hitting targets in Britain, Bomber Command would destroy Luftwaffe aircraft on their bases, aircraft in their factories and fuel reserves by attacking oil plants. This philosophy proved impractical as Bomber Command lacked the technology and equipment necessary for mass night operations, resources having been diverted to Fighter Command in the mids and it took until to catch up.
Dowding agreed air defence would require some offensive action and that fighters could not defend Britain alone. The attitude of the Air Ministry was in contrast to the experiences of the First World War when German bombers caused physical and psychological damage out of all proportion to their numbers. Many people aged 35 or over remembered the bombing and greeted the threat of more with great trepidation. From —, German raids had diminished against countermeasures which demonstrated defence against night air raids was possible.
The difficulty RAF bombers had in night navigation and target finding, led the British to believe that it would be the same for German bomber crews. There was also a mentality in all air forces that flying by day would obviate the need for night operations and their inherent disadvantages. Hugh Dowding , Air Officer Commanding Fighter Command, defeated the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain, but preparing day fighter defences left little for night air defence.
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When the Luftwaffe struck at British cities for the first time on 7 September , a number of civic and political leaders were worried by Dowding's apparent lack of reaction to the new crisis. Dowding was summoned on 17 October, to explain the poor state of the night defences and the supposed but ultimately successful "failure" of his daytime strategy. The failure to prepare adequate night air defences was undeniable but it was not the responsibility of the AOC Fighter Command to dictate the disposal of resources.
The general neglect of the RAF until the late spurt in , left few resources for night air defence and the Government, through the Air Ministry and other civil and military institutions was responsible for policy. Before the war, the Chamberlain government stated that night defence from air attack should not take up much of the national effort. Because of the inaccuracy of celestial navigation for night navigation and target finding in a fast moving aircraft, the Luftwaffe developed radio navigation devices and relied on three systems: This led the British to develop countermeasures, which became known as the Battle of the Beams.
Two aerials at ground stations were rotated so that their beams converged over the target. The German bombers would fly along either beam until they picked up the signal from the other beam. When a continuous sound was heard from the second beam the crew knew they were above the target and dropped their bombs. Ground transmitters sent pulses at a rate of per minute. Three cross-beams intersected the beam along which the He was flying. The first cross-beam alerted the bomb-aimer, who activated a bombing clock when the second cross-beam was reached.
When the third cross-beam was reached the bomb aimer activated a third trigger, which stopped the first hand of the clock, with the second hand continuing. When the second hand re-aligned with the first, the bombs were released. The clock mechanism was co-ordinated with the distances of the intersecting beams from the target so the target was directly below when the bombs were released. The pilot flew along an approach beam, monitored by a ground controller. Signals from the station were retransmitted by the bomber's equipment, which allowed the distance the bomber had travelled along the beam to be measured precisely.
Direction-finding checks also enabled the controller to keep the pilot on course. The crew would be ordered to drop their bombs either by a code word from the ground controller or at the conclusion of the signal transmissions which would stop. In June , a German prisoner of war was overheard boasting that the British would never find the Knickebein , even though it was under their noses.
Jones , who started a search which discovered that Luftwaffe Lorenz receivers were more than blind-landing devices. Soon a beam was traced to Derby which had been mentioned in Luftwaffe transmissions. The first jamming operations were carried out using requisitioned hospital electrocautery machines. The production of false radio navigation signals by re-transmitting the originals became known as Meaconing using masking beacons meacons. German beacons operated on the medium-frequency band and the signals involved a two-letter Morse identifier followed by a lengthy time-lapse which enabled the Luftwaffe crews to determine the signal's bearing.
The meacon system involved separate locations for a receiver with a directional aerial and a transmitter. The receipt of the German signal by the receiver was duly passed to the transmitter, the signal to be repeated. The action did not guarantee automatic success. If the German bomber flew closer to its own beam than the meacon then the former signal would come through the stronger on the direction finder.
The reverse would apply only if the meacon were closer.
It was to be some months before an effective night-fighter force would be ready, and anti-aircraft defences only became adequate after the Blitz was over, so ruses were created to lure German bombers away from their targets. Throughout , dummy airfields were prepared, good enough to stand up to skilled observation.
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An unknown number of bombs fell on these diversionary "Starfish" targets. For industrial areas, fires and lighting were simulated. It was decided to recreate normal residential street lighting, and in non-essential areas, lighting to recreate heavy industrial targets. In those sites, carbon arc lamps were used to simulate the flash of tram cables.
Red lamps were used to simulate blast furnaces and locomotive fireboxes. Reflections made by factory skylights were created by placing lights under angled wooden panels. The fake fires could only begin when the bombing started over an adjacent target and its effects were brought under control. Too early and the chances of success receded; too late and the real conflagration at the target would exceed the diversionary fires. Another innovation was the boiler fire. These units were fed from two adjacent tanks containing oil and water. The oil-fed fires were then injected with water from time to time; the flashes produced were similar to those of the German C and C Flammbomben.
The hope was that, if it could deceive German bombardiers, it would draw more bombers away from the real target. The first deliberate air raids on London were mainly aimed at the Port of London , causing severe damage. Loge continued for 57 nights. Initially the change in strategy caught the RAF off-guard and caused extensive damage and civilian casualties. Some , gross tons of shipping was damaged in the Thames Estuary and 1, civilians were casualties. Loge had cost the Luftwaffe 41 aircraft; 14 bombers, 16 Messerschmitt Bf s , seven Messerschmitt Bf s and four reconnaissance aircraft.
On 9 September OKL appeared to be backing two strategies. Its round-the-clock bombing of London was an immediate attempt to force the British government to capitulate, but it was also striking at Britain's vital sea communications to achieve a victory through siege. Although the weather was poor, heavy raids took place that afternoon on the London suburbs and the airfield at Farnborough.
Fighter Command lost 17 fighters and six pilots. Over the next few days weather was poor and the next main effort would not be made until 15 September On 15 September the Luftwaffe made two large daylight attacks on London along the Thames Estuary, targeting the docks and rail communications in the city. Its hope was to destroy its targets and draw the RAF into defending them, allowing the Luftwaffe to destroy their fighters in large numbers, thereby achieving an air superiority. The first attack merely damaged the rail network for three days,  and the second attack failed altogether.
The Luftwaffe lost 18 percent of the bombers sent on the operations that day, and failed to gain air superiority. On 17 September he postponed Operation Sea Lion as it turned out, indefinitely rather than gamble Germany's newly gained military prestige on a risky cross-Channel operation, particularly in the face of a sceptical Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union. In the last days of the battle, the bombers became lures in an attempt to draw the RAF into combat with German fighters. But their operations were to no avail; the worsening weather and unsustainable attrition in daylight gave OKL an excuse to switch to night attacks on 7 October.
On 14 October, the heaviest night attack to date saw German bombers from Luftflotte 3 hit London. Around people were killed and another 2, injured. British anti-aircraft defences General Frederick Alfred Pile fired 8, rounds and shot down only two bombers. Five main rail lines were cut in London and rolling stock damaged.
Loge continued during October. Little tonnage was dropped on Fighter Command airfields; Bomber Command airfields were hit instead. Luftwaffe policy at this point was primarily to continue progressive attacks on London, chiefly by night attack; second, to interfere with production in the vast industrial arms factories of the West Midlands , again chiefly by night attack; and third to disrupt plants and factories during the day by means of fighter-bombers. Kesselring, commanding Luftflotte 2, was ordered to send 50 sorties per night against London and attack eastern harbours in daylight.
Sperrle, commanding Luftflotte 3, was ordered to dispatch sorties per night including against the West Midlands. Seeschlange would be carried out by Fliegerkorps X 10th Air Corps which concentrated on mining operations against shipping. It also took part in the bombing over Britain. The mines' ability to destroy entire streets earned them respect in Britain, but several fell unexploded into British hands allowing counter-measures to be developed which damaged the German anti-shipping campaign. Outside the capital, there had been widespread harassing activity by single aircraft, as well as fairly strong diversionary attacks on Birmingham, Coventry and Liverpool, but no major raids.
The London docks and railways communications had taken a heavy pounding, and much damage had been done to the railway system outside.
The Night Blitz: by John Ray
In September, there had been no less than hits on railways in Great Britain, and at one period, between 5, and 6, wagons were standing idle from the effect of delayed action bombs. But the great bulk of the traffic went on; and Londoners—though they glanced apprehensively each morning at the list of closed stretches of line displayed at their local station, or made strange detours round back streets in the buses—still got to work.
For all the destruction of life and property, the observers sent out by the Ministry of Home Security failed to discover the slightest sign of a break in morale. More than 13, civilians had been killed, and almost 20, injured, in September and October alone,  but the death toll was much less than expected. In late , Churchill credited the shelters. Wartime observers perceived the bombing as indiscriminate. American observer Ralph Ingersoll reported the bombing was inaccurate and did not hit targets of military value, but destroyed the surrounding areas.
Ingersol wrote that Battersea Power Station , one of the largest landmarks in London, received only a minor hit. Victoria Station was hit by four bombs and suffered extensive damage. The British government grew anxious about the delays and disruption of supplies during the month.
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Reports suggested the attacks blocked the movement of coal to the Greater London regions and urgent repairs were required. The London Underground rail system was also affected; high explosive bombs damaged the tunnels rendering some unsafe. British night air defences were in a poor state. Few fighter aircraft were able to operate at night. Ground-based radar was limited, airborne radar and RAF night fighters were generally ineffective.
The difference this made to the effectiveness of air defences is questionable. The British were still one-third below the establishment of heavy anti-aircraft artillery AAA or ack-ack in May , with only 2, weapons available. Dowding had to rely on night fighters. From to , the most successful night-fighter was the Boulton Paul Defiant ; its four squadrons shot down more enemy aircraft than any other type. Over several months, the 20, shells spent per raider shot down in September , was reduced to 4, in January and to 2, shells in February Airborne Interception radar AI was unreliable.
The heavy fighting in the Battle of Britain had eaten up most of Fighter Command's resources, so there was little investment in night fighting. Bombers were flown with airborne search lights out of desperation but to little avail. Douglas set about introducing more squadrons and dispersing the few GL sets to create a carpet effect in the southern counties. Still, in February , there remained only seven squadrons with 87 pilots, under half the required strength. By the height of the Blitz, they were becoming more successful.
The number of contacts and combats rose in , from 44 and two in 48 sorties in January , to and 74 in May sorties. But even in May, 67 per cent of the sorties were visual cat's-eye missions. Curiously, while 43 per cent of the contacts in May were by visual sightings, they accounted for 61 percent of the combats. Yet when compared with Luftwaffe daylight operations, there was a sharp decline in German losses to one per cent. If a vigilant bomber crew could spot the fighter first, they had a decent chance of evading it. Nevertheless, it was radar that proved to be critical weapon in the night battles over Britain from this point onward.
Dowding had introduced the concept of airborne radar and encouraged its usage.
Eventually it would become a success. By 16 February , this had grown to 12; with five equipped, or partially equipped with Beaufighters spread over five Groups. The next night, a large force hit Coventry. Only one bomber was lost, to anti-aircraft fire, despite the RAF flying night sorties. No follow up raids were made, as OKL underestimated the British power of recovery as Bomber Command would do over Germany from — The concentration had been achieved by accident.
By the end of November, 1, bombers were available for night raids. An average of were able to strike per night. In December, only 11 major and five heavy attacks were made. Probably the most devastating attack occurred on the evening of 29 December, when German aircraft attacked the City of London itself with incendiary and high explosive bombs, causing a firestorm that has been called the Second Great Fire of London. Not all of the Luftwaffe effort was made against inland cities. Port cities were also attacked to try to disrupt trade and sea communications. In January, Swansea was bombed four times, very heavily.
On 17 January around bombers dropped a high concentration of incendiaries, some 32, in all. The main damage was inflicted on the commercial and domestic areas. Four days later tons was dropped including 60, incendiaries. In Portsmouth Southsea and Gosport waves of bombers destroyed vast swaths of the city with 40, incendiaries. Warehouses, rail lines and houses were destroyed and damaged, but the docks were largely untouched.
Seven major and eight heavy attacks were flown, but the weather made it difficult to keep up the pressure. Still, at Southampton , attacks were so effective morale did give way briefly with civilian authorities leading people en masse out of the city. Although official German air doctrine did target civilian morale, it did not espouse the attacking of civilians directly. It hoped to destroy morale by destroying the enemy's factories and public utilities as well as its food stocks by attacking shipping. Nevertheless, its official opposition to attacks on civilians became an increasingly moot point when large-scale raids were conducted in November and December Although not encouraged by official policy, the use of mines and incendiaries, for tactical expediency, came close to indiscriminate bombing.
Locating targets in skies obscured by industrial haze meant the target area needed to be illuminated and hit "without regard for the civilian population". The tactic was expanded into Feuerleitung Blaze Control with the creation of Brandbombenfelder Incendiary Fields to mark targets. These were marked out by parachute flares. These decisions, apparently taken at the Luftflotte or Fliegerkorps level, meant attacks on individual targets were gradually replaced by what was, for all intents and purposes, an unrestricted area attack or Terrorangriff Terror Attack.
The effectiveness of British countermeasures against Knickebein , which was designed to avoid area attacks, forced the Luftwaffe to resort to these methods. KGr increased its use of incendiaries from 13—28 percent. By December, this had increased to 92 percent. Other units ceased using parachute flares and opted for explosive target markers. In , the Luftwaffe shifted strategy again. Erich Raeder —commander-in-chief of the Kriegsmarine —had long argued the Luftwaffe should support the German submarine force U-Bootwaffe in the Battle of the Atlantic by attacking shipping in the Atlantic Ocean and attacking British ports.
This meant that British coastal centres and shipping at sea west of Ireland were the prime targets. Thereafter, he would refuse to make available any air units to destroy British dockyards, ports, port facilities, or shipping in dock or at sea, lest Kriegsmarine gain control of more Luftwaffe units.
He was always reluctant to co-operate with Raeder. Even so, the decision by OKL to support the strategy in Directive 23 was instigated by two considerations, both of which had little to do with wanting to destroy Britain's sea communications in conjunction with the Kriegsmarine. First, the difficulty in estimating the impact of bombing upon war production was becoming apparent, and second, the conclusion British morale was unlikely to break led OKL to adopt the naval option. They emphasised the core strategic interest was attacking ports but they insisted in maintaining pressure, or diverting strength, onto industries building aircraft, anti-aircraft guns, and explosives.
Other targets would be considered if the primary ones could not be attacked because of weather conditions. A further line in the directive stressed the need to inflict the heaviest losses possible, but also to intensify the air war in order to create the impression an amphibious assault on Britain was planned for However, meteorological conditions over Britain were not favourable for flying and prevented an escalation in air operations. Airfields became water-logged and the 18 Kampfgruppen bomber groups of the Luftwaffe ' s Kampfgeschwadern bomber wings were relocated to Germany for rest and re-equipment.
From the German point of view, March saw an improvement. The Luftwaffe flew 4, sorties that month, including 12 major and three heavy attacks. The electronic war intensified but the Luftwaffe flew major inland missions only on moonlit nights. Ports were easier to find and made better targets.
The night blitz, 1940-1941
To confuse the British, radio silence was observed until the bombs fell. By now, the imminent threat of invasion had all but passed as the Luftwaffe had failed to gain the prerequisite air superiority. The aerial bombing was now principally aimed at the destruction of industrial targets, but also continued with the objective of breaking the morale of the civilian population. These attacks produced some breaks in morale, with civil leaders fleeing the cities before the offensive reached its height.
But the Luftwaffe' s effort eased in the last 10 attacks as seven Kampfgruppen moved to Austria in preparation for the Balkans Campaign in Yugoslavia and Greece. The shortage of bombers caused OKL to improvise. The defences failed to prevent widespread damage but on some occasions did prevent German bombers concentrating on their targets.