The blitz re-examined

Burned-out buildings in Hamburg - picture poss...

Burned-out buildings in Hamburg (Image via Wikipedia)

As its recently passed the 70th anniversary of the start of the Blitz, there has been plenty in the news recently about people’s memories of the start of the bombing.

We hear about victors justice – about how the victors in any war are able to pronounce on rights and wrongs, and to dispense justice accordingly. It could be argued too that victors also have a near monopoly on the judgement of history. The outcome of any long process is bound to frame people’s perceptions when looking back. This can increase over time, especially when concerning something so emotive as a war, and even more so with a war where so much was at stake.

We hear plenty about ‘Blitz spirit’, in a similar fashion to ‘Dunkirk spirit‘. And indeed there is a certain stoicism in the British psyche. Look at Wellington’s thin red line at Waterloo, or the South Wales Borderers at Rorke’s Drift. Gandalf’s ‘you shall not pass’ could have been inspired by British military history. And, indeed, the British people did show a remarkable fortitude in some very testing circumstances in 1940 and 1941, when the Bombing was at its height. But one cannot help but feel that over the years the Blitz has been built up into part of the national spirit, out of all proportion to the actual historical events that took place 70 years ago. Britain is by no means the only country to build an event up out of all recognition (ie, the Alamo). But I feel that by embellising something as remarkable as the Blitz, you are taking away from what was already quite some story in its own right. The average person with a passing interest in the social history of wartime Britain is more than likely to buy into the myths than the reality, which is a pity.

I’m also baffled as to why the Blitz is remembered almost solely as a London event. Other parts of the country were hit too. London did receive a large number of raids and a high tonnage of bombs, but as the country’s capital and an important port in its own right, it was always going to be a target. But in 1940 it was still a huge city, and the attacks were concentrated largely in the centre. London was the home of the Government, and the high commands of the armed forces. Yet although it was an important port and a centre of large population, its importance was more symbolic than anything else. Whereas if we look at other cities, the danger was more stark – Coventry with its motor works and Sheffield and her steel works, for example.

The example of Portsmouth during the Blitz is useful to consider. Geographically a very small island city, being on the coast it was much easier for the Luftwaffe to locate and target. Population density was also very high, which no doubt reflected in casualty rates. A Bomb dropped over Portsmouth was almost certainly more likely to cause heavy casualties, as it had more chance of hitting a built up area than in a more spread-out city. Of course the Naval Dockyard was a prime target, and large housing areas such as Portsea, Buckland and Landport were virtually next door to the Dockyard’s walls. If the Luftwaffe had been targetting the Dockyard they were seriously at risk. According to Andrew Whitmarsh’s ‘Portsmouth At War’, however, the Knickebein radar beams intersected over Southsea Common, which would suggest, with the low level of accuracy that the Luftwaffe was capable of early in the war, that they were content to area bomb the city with a mix of high explosive and incendiary bombs.

John Stedman’s Portsmouth Paper ‘Destruction and Reconstruction’ charts Portsmouth’s experience during the bombing of the war years, and in particular its effect on the people and the fabric of the city. Between July 1940 (the first raid) and July 1944 (the last V1rocket) 1,320 high explosive bombs, 38 parachute mines and 38,000 incendiaries were dropped on Portsmouth. Two V1’s also fell on Pompey. 930 civilians were killed, 1,216 were injured enough to be admitted to hospital, and 1,621 were injured less seriously. 6,625 properties were destroyed, and 80,000 damaged. This in a city of 200,000 people and 70,000 properties. Therefore some properties must have been damaged more than once. The damage was therefore more against property than person, although morale seems to have held up reasonably well. The most destructive individual raid came on 10 January 1941, when 300 planes dropped 25,000 incendiaries.  172 people were killed, and 430 injured.

No doubt these experiences were harrowing for the people of Portsmouth – in particular in a close-knit city. Yet to put these into perspective, when the Allied Air Forces began bombing Germany in earnest later in the war, Bomber Harris launched a number of 1,000 bomber raids. And Allied four-engine bombers, much larger than any planes the Luftwaffe had, could drop a much higher payload. With developments in navigation, and the use of pathfinders, raids generally hit the cities they were targetting. Lets take the example of Duisburg, Portsmouth’s twin city in Germany. The Duisburgers suffered 229 bombing raids. The first serious raid came on 12 May when 577 RAF bombers dropped 1,559 tons of bombs. The old town was destoyed and 96,000 people were made homeless. The during Operation Hurricane in 19 October 1944 967 bombers dropped 3,574 tons of high explosive and 820 tons of incendiaries. Then in a raid later the same night a further 4,040 tons of HE were dropped, and 500 tons of incendiaries. Although there are no statistics for Duisburg Casualties, it is estimated that up to 80% of the city was destroyed.

And it wasn’t just Duisburg. The Battle of Berlin between November 1943 and March 1944 killed 4,000 Berliners, injured 10,000 and made 450,000 homeless. The operation Gomorrah raids on Hamburg in July 1943 used successive waves of over 700 heavy Bombers, dropping over 9,000 tons of Bombs. In the huge firestorm an estimated 50,000 people were killed. And the most infamous raid on Germany, that on Dresden in February 1945, saw 1,300 bombers drop 3,900 tons. The casualty rate is disputed, but it is estimated that somewhere between 22,000 and 25,000 people perished.

The most infamous raid on Britain hit Coventry on 14 November 1940. 515 German Bombers dropped 500 tons of high explosive, and 36,000 incendiary bombs. Around 600 people were killed, and more than 1,000 injured. 4,000 homes were destroyed, and three quarters of the city’s industry. As harrowing as Coventry must have been for those who were caught up in it, the later raids on Hamburg, the Ruhr, Berlin and Dresden took on a whole new level of destruction and intensity. That is by no way to belittle the suffering of those who experience the blitz – much as hearing that someone else has lost two legs does not make you losing only one better, the knowledge that others had it worse was probably not as much comfort as hindsight would have us believe.

But in the modern day, when we have the benefit of numerous studies, statistics, and case studies looking at the various raids and cities, the popular media really should know better than to promulgate the myth of the blitz. Especially when the real picture is still pretty inspiring in its own right. While the good old-east end version of the Blitz would have us believe that everyone stood in the street defiantly shaking their fists at the Luftwaffe, the more realistic version of civilians calmly and quietly seeing the nights out in shelters and trying to go about their business is, to me, distinctly more British than the ‘knees up mother brown’ and jellied eels school of history.

Morale did not crack under sustained bombing, either in Britain or in Germany. Considering the onslaught that the Germans received, its incredible how their civilians kept on living. But then again, living under a brutal dictatorship might have had something to do with it. But for me, the key is, do German’s nowadays have their own version of the ‘blitz spirit’? I’ve never heard of it. And thats in a lot of studying of the Second World War, the bombing campaign, plenty of visits to Germany, including talking to elderly Germans who must have lived through it. The German experience of the Second World War means that their ordeal under bombing has been quietly left alone, whereas our eventual victory has shaped our history of the Blitz.

Is it an ironic coincidence that the 70th anniversary of the start of the blitz came during the same week that Peggy Mitchell left Eastenders?



Filed under Bombing, Royal Air Force, social history, Uncategorized, World War Two

16 responses to “The blitz re-examined

  1. I can’t speak to British knowledge, but Americans (who have a disproportionate influence on WW2 history texts) tend to pull their knowledge from media. All of our movies only speak of London; most people don’t even know where Coventry is, much less the savaging it, and Birmingham, and Portsmouth, and all the rest took. And winners ALWAYS twist history. For 45 years, the Nazis slaughtered all the Poles in the Katyn forest – just ask the Russians. It took an internal revolution to finally extract the truth, and a lot of Russians STILL think Nazi Germany was responsible. We, who know better, have to make sure history is not told by Hollywood (the Ben Affleck “Pearl Harbor” monstrosity pops to mind, as does the charge up the beach in “The Longest Day”), or ANY popular media. Just my 2 cents, feel free to disagree. (That’s worth what, about a half Euro cent right now? )

  2. James Daly

    Hi John, interesting thoughts. One day I’ll do some writing about the ‘we won the war’ thing 😉

    I think the main thing – as with most types of history – is to not accept the first thing you read as gospel. Have a read up, think about it and make up your own mind. Unfortunately with something as emotive as the blitz, if you try and suggest that the reality was something to different to what the majority of people think then you’re labelled a revisionist or as denigrating the memory of people who died.

  3. Dave Waite

    A thoughtful analysis, and quite a brave one too considering the emotions that any questioning of the ‘official’ version can provoke. I recall reading an article which referred to reports, at the time kept secret, which recorded that some British people suffering in the Blitz were less stoical, and a visit by Churchill nearly turned ugly.
    For me, the most moving record of the Blitz can be found in the CWGC online records. A search for civilian casualties, sorted by date, brings up the occasional family all killed on same day. Sometimes there are both parents and 3 or 4 children.

  4. James Daly

    Hi Dave, thank you for your comment. I quote often quote the incicent where Churchill proclaimed ‘we can take this’, and the east end housewives told him in no uncertain times who exactly was taking it. One of my lecturers at uni specialised in social history on the home front, and mass observation reports suggest that there were very real concerns of unrest and morale cracking.

    I’ve been looking at the records of Portsmouth civilians killed in the war, and you can see trends – where bombs fell on particular streets, whole families wiped out, and in one tragic case an air raid shelter in a school destroyed. I don’t think theres anything wrong with recognising that such events must have been traumatising.

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