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The Blitz

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Summary

'Blitz' is the German word for lightening, and it was adopted in Britain during World War Two to describe the campaign of aerial bombardment, against both military and civilian targets, carried out by Nazi Germany between September 1940 and May 1941. However, this wasn’t the end of German aerial attacks, and German bombing techniques evolved from plane to rocket. Tens of thousands died and millions lost their homes.

Preparations

Britain declared war on Germany on September 3rd 1939. Fears about aerial bombing had grown in the run up to the war- with predictions of massive loss of life - as the Germans were expected to bomb civilian as well as military targets. Britain immediately acted to try and prepare for such raids, surrounding targets with anti-aircraft guns and barrage balloons, although the former were initially inadequate in defending cities from the Blitz and had to be hurriedly reinforced once civilians became a target. In addition, 38 million gas masks were issued in case chemical weapons were dropped, millions of people – mainly children – were evacuated from urban to rural areas, a ‘blackout’ - where all lights at night had to be either switched off or masked by blinds and curtains – was organised and a body of air raid wardens over a million strong was formed to patrol and enforce the rules. Air raid sirens were set up to warn of attack.

Targets

Initial German bombing raids focused on mainly military and industrial targets –to prepare for an invasion – and the ‘Battle of Britain’ took place for dominance of the sky. However, on September 7th 1940 a new phase in the war occurred when Hitler broadened the focus to include the “terror bombing” of cities and civilians. This was an attempt to shatter British morale and force surrender, and that night over 300 bombers dropped more than 300 tonnes of bombs designed to either explode or cause fire. It has been argued that in doing so, German bombers turned away from military targets when they were about to force a change in British strategy, and that this was a mistake on Hitler’s part.

Either way, despite Britain having won the ‘Battle of Britain’ and the German’s postponing the invasion plan, almost continuous bombardment of British cities occurred during the rest of 1940 and into May 41, killing, maiming and leaving people homeless. As well as London, which was the main target and at one stage suffered fifty seven continuous nights of bombardment, cities such as Coventry, Bristol, Southampton, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester were bombed. On the night of November 14-15, Germany decided to devastate Coventry. They dropped over 500 tons of high explosive and 30,000 incendiaries to waste the city. 1/12 of houses were destroyed, 2/3 damaged, and 1/3 of the factories were put out of action. Germany had a new word – koventrieren – meaning to totally destroy from the air. Mass burials had to be held, yet production, and life, carried on. By January 1941 the bombers had begun focusing on ports, to try and stop imports from abroad, but also continued aiming at civilians too.

In the first year, 43,000 died and 70,000 were seriously wounded. Roads were blocked or destroyed, communications shattered, utilities ruptured, shelters flattened, businesses ruined, sleep disturbed, exhaustion caused, life massively disrupted and fear spread. Pets were banned from shelters, and 400,000 animals died in the first week alone. The name adopted by Britain for this was the ‘Blitz’. While deaths were less than the pre-war estimates, the numbers of homeless were far more: around 2 ¼ million, and the government had to quickly adapt to deal with them.

Shelters

The government, at both local and national level, began a programme of shelter building to better protect civilians (and, in some instances, themselves). Some were large communal shelters of brick and concrete, others were small ‘Anderson’ shelters built from corrugated iron that were given out to people with gardens. Small, damp and cold, they offered some protection. There was also the Morrison shelter, which was effectively an iron cage for indoor use. All human life continued in the shelters.

However, shelter provision was rife with problems. Some public shelters were poorly constructed after confusion in the instructions and provided bad conditions and, even worse, failed during raids. For a while the government feared that deep bunkers would cause a negative, maybe even defeatist attitude in people, a mentality from which they would never emerge. Londoner’s were initially banned from using Tube stations, although they disregarded this rule and continued to use them until official recognition was given. Eventually, as civilians began to occupy ever more cellars and other suitable rooms in public buildings, forming their own rules and communities to deal with life underground, government attitudes did change and deeper and better shelters were created. However, many people had to simply shelter under tables or in cupboards at home. Wherever you where, a direct hit was often fatal.

During the Blitz

While many people were encouraged to seek immediate shelter during the bombing, others had jobs in the open. Air Raid wardens patrolled, ready to aid, organise and enforce, even douse small fires. Firemen, boosted by a 60,000 strong volunteer Auxiliary Fire Service, tried to contain blazes caused by incendiary bombs, while medical teams sought to rescue and aid the injured. Fire watchmen stood out to deal with incendiaries before their fire spread. During the day rescue squads worked to save people from beneath rubble and clear wreckage, while other teams worked to repair the infrastructure. Danger was ever present, with bomb disposal teams trying to clear unexploded ordnance, which constituted roughly a tenth of the bombs dropped, including those with time delay mechanisms to catch rescue and relief workers.
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