St Katharine Dock, London 7 September 1940.

Recruitment poster for the Home Defence Battalions.

Bombing, States and Peoples in Western Europe 1940-1945

The Bombing of Britain 1940 - 1945

The British Isles were subject to sustained bombing attack from June 1940 to May 1941 (the so-called ‘Blitz'), then to intermittent raids from 1941 to 1943, then to the ‘Baby Blitz' [Operation Steinbock] in November 1943 to January 1944, finally to a campaign by flying bombs (V1) and rockets (V2) from June 1944 to March 1945. The total deaths in the ‘Blitz' amounted to over 43,000. Total deaths from the different forms of air attack 1940-1945 were around 61,000. Of these approximately 8,800 were the result of attacks by V-Weapons.

The attacks were geographically diverse, though the majority was confined to London and those areas of southern England most easily reached from Germany 's French air bases, or within the range of V-Weapons. The furthest attacks were mounted against Glasgow and Belfast during the Blitz, and repeated attacks were made on some east coast cities, particularly Hull . During the period 1940-1 the German Air Force confined its attacks chiefly to port areas (London, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, Hull, Plymouth, Bristol, Southampton) as part of the effort to blockade Britain into submission by using a combination of air/submarine/naval warfare to cut off essential Transatlantic supplies. In 1942, in retaliation for the bombing of the ancient German port cities of Rostock and Lübeck, the German Air Force was ordered to mount spoiling attacks against British cultural sites. Heavy raids were then made on Exeter , Canterbury , Bath and Norwich . The ‘Baby Blitz' was directed largely at London , which was also the target chosen for the V-Weapons campaign. As a result of successful double-cross information, a large number of V-Weapons fell to the south of London in Surrey and Sussex . Other minor attacks were experienced throughout the war, while aircraft which jettisoned their bombs, for one reason or another, hit small towns and villages in the vicinity of major targets.

The response of British society to the bombing has usually been described in terms of growing solidarity and a breaking down of class barriers. The strengthening of a democratic society under the banner ‘we can take it' is central to what Angus Calder has named ‘the Myth of the Blitz'. The response was nevertheless more fractured than this, both in social terms but also in terms of the perception of the enemy, relations with the state and local authorities, war-willingness and cultural reaction. The real experience of British society under the impact of bombing is complex and multi-dimensional. Even the conventional view that urban society dissolved its class barriers under bombing can be shown to be at best a relative phenomenon. Middle-class households, usually with a garden, could afford to buy the garden Anderson shelters; better-off families could either move to the country with greater ease (with money for hotels and guest houses) or already had a country home to use as a sanctuary. Working-class families lived in large tenement blocks or small terraced houses with at best a concrete yard; they had to rely on the provision of public shelters, whose supply proved so inadequate by the time the Blitz began that popular pressure compelled the government to sanction the use of the Underground system in London as improvised shelters. Evacuation is usually seen as a meeting of classes as urban young were sent to rural towns and villages. But in many cases the working-class children were taken in by other working-class families, where there was no need to break down ‘class' barriers, but only the problem of coming to terms with the strangeness of country living.

The political response to the bombing was also far from homogeneous. Communist activity during the Blitz, despite the ban on the Communist Daily Worker, focused on the advantages enjoyed by the better-off and demanded a more effective shelter programme. On one occasion groups from London 's East End occupied the Savoy Hotel on the Strand demanding the right to use the hotel's shelters if there were an air raid alarm. Home Intelligence reports show a variety of positions taken, some patriotic, some defeatist, some even expressing the view that a Hitler victory would be better than sustained bombing. Pacifist groups represented another political response. They continued to meet and agitate during the bombing, both for reaching an agreement with Germany so that the war would end, or for an agreed convention outlawing the use of bombs against civilians. Some pacifists ended up in prison, others in forced labour on farms, or as civil defence workers. This is a strand of the political reaction to the Blitz that has been almost entirely ignored by historians. The debate over the legitimacy or efficacy of bombing continued over the rest of the war, reaching a high point in 1942 but lasting to 1945. Much of the argument against bombing was based on the belief that among those who had been victims of bombing in Britain , there was no broad demand for revenge. Opinion polls showed much smaller fractions in favour of bombing Germany in areas that had experienced heavy bombing than in areas that had not. Hatred for the Germans seems to have been expressed much less often than might be expected, and more commonly among the political elite.

The cultural response to bombing was equally diverse. The Churches saw themselves performing an important role in sustaining local communities under attack; while an open religiosity was less common, in a country which was much more secular than any of the other major European states, the bombing war encouraged superstitious practices and a quasi-religious language to cope with the fear and the threat. The bombing also encouraged the spread of rumour, particularly as official communiqués on the bombing war were carefully monitored and short of hard information. One of the most persistent, for example, was the belief in London that Jews always reached shelters first, and always got the best seats (a view endorsed by George Orwell when he visited shelters in 1940 and thought he found more Jews than was usual). Bombing also encouraged a variety of cultural production – pictures, photographs, poetry, literature - which tried to capture the spirit of disaster and survival. Most famous perhaps were the shelter drawings of the sculptor Henry Moore, which recreated the haunting sense of unreality or disjuncture caused by the bombing, but also the reconfiguration of community in an unfamiliar setting.

Unlike the experience in Germany and Italy , where bombing continued until almost the last days of the war, most British cities remained unbombed from 1941 onwards. As a result the bombing experience quickly became memory, subject to the myth-making requirements of local communities and the practical issues of site-clearance, planning and rebuilding. Bombing usually remained one of the chief claims of local communities for the idea that the home front was a front line. Large civil defence forces helped to sustain the idea of the ‘militarisation' of civilians and to secure in the popular mind the idea that total war involved civilian sacrifice. This mindset almost certainly made it possible for the Allied air forces to continue to destroy urban Europe and inflict over 600,000 deaths with little public criticism.