Fifty-Seven Nights

Having failed on a grand scale to secure air supremacy over England in the Battle of Britain, to enable the German invasion of Britain, Hermann Goering’s air force was left with the much longer-ranging task of crushing the morale of the British people and coercing them into capitulation through a campaign of nocturnal bombing. The heavy raids beginning in early September were planned, on an alternating basis, to concentrate on the destruction of civilian morale and also the British supply and production centres. This campaign to punish the British was wrought over a period of fifty-seven nights beginning on 7 September and continuing through the following May, and has become known as the Blitz. In it an estimated 41,000 civilians were killed and nearly 140,000 injured, with about half those numbers in London. More than 1,000,000 homes were destroyed or heavily damaged and enormous damage was done to military-related and other British industry. In their targetting, the Germans were attracted to the Birmingham area where local factories were heavily engaged in tank and Spitfire production, and to the munitions production in Coventry. But British war production was never seriously reduced in the eight-month bombing campaign, nor were the British people significantly demoralized or moved to want to surrender. Importantly war production was significantly expanded through and after the Blitz. The Blitz campaign of bombing in Britain, while punishing and extremely serious in the casualties and damage it caused, did not compare with the loss of life and the scale of devastation brought by the Allied combined bombing offensive against Germany in which the bombing of Hamburg alone created more than 42,000 casualties.

By Novemberthe bombing campaign had been extended to other British cities and, for the most part, the enemy raiders came and went on their deadly night-bombing assignments with very little response or interference by local or night-fighter defence. The new British Airborne Interception radar system was about to become operational against the night raiders, but had not yet been put to the test and was still essentially experimental. From the German perspective, the campaign of night-bombing was under way at a lower rate of efficiency than was customary for the Luftwaffe. Its night navigation and bombing accuracy were not up to standard, which was largely due to it having lost so many of its more experienced bomber crews in the run-up to and early part of the Blitz.

The Luftwaffe bomber crews at that point were dependent upon three main blind-bombing and navigation systems. The first was called Knickebein (bent leg) and was utilized in bomber aircraft equipped with a Lorenz blind-approach device. With this system, a pilot flew his bomber along a radio beam to the target. His bomb aimer released the bombload when his aircraft reached a second radio signal that crossed the approach beam. Advantage: the system could be employed by a large number of aircraft. Disadvantage: the system was easily jammed. The second such system was called X-Gerät (X Equipment) and was made specifically for the Heinkel He 111H-4 bombers of Kampfgruppe 100. This system comprised one approach beam that was crossed in the vicinity of the target by three other beams. The pilot received the first such signal some thirty-one miles short of the target, at which point he accurately aligned his aircraft on the approach beam. The second and third traversing beams were reached at twelve miles and three miles from the target respectively. A system computer then used the groundspeed of the aircraft to set an automatic bomb release point when the third beam signal was received. Advantage: highly accurate. Disadvantage: the system could be easily jammed. The third such system used by the German bomber crews early in the Blitz was Y-Gerät (Y equipment), a bombing aid used only in the He 111s of 111/KG 26. In this system, bomb release occurred at an accurately-measured point along an approach beam. The range computation was made by a ground radar station which sent a pulse signal to the bomber. After an established interval the bomber returned a pulse to the ground station and the range to the bombing point was then computer-calculated in milli-seconds. The ground station then relayed the bomb-release signal. Advantage: very accurate. Disadvantage: readily jammed.

Searchlights illuminating the cathedral of St Paul’s in the city of London during the Blitz of 1940-41.

English mothers and grandmothers are shown the use of a gas mask contraption designed to protect babies.

Night navigation and bombing aid accuracy were not the only problems that the Luftflotten 2, 3 and 5 had to cope with in their Blitz attacks on London and the other major cities of Britain. In theory the Luftwaffe had upwards of 1,300 bombers available for use in the attacks, but in practice only about 700 were actually serviceable and employed in the raids. In the month that followed the huge daylight raid of 7 September on the London docks, an average of between sixty and 260 bombers were utilized each night. The Knickebein blind-bombing and navigation system was the primary system in use during October and was effectively jammed by RAF Signals personnel, reducing the navigation and bombing capability of the Germans to reliance on moonlight. From 9 October, the German bomber fleets were ordered to raise the bomb tonnage they were delivering, in an increased effort to panic the British civilian population and force a capitulation. But, just as they had failed in securing air supremacy over England in the Battle of Britain, they failed too in this effort.

That failure led to an expansion by Goering of the present bombing campaign to one in which a lengthy attrition of British war-related industry was the goal. It was then that the X-Gerät navigation and bombing system entered service with the bombers of KGr 100. It was utilized in conjunction with the dropping of incendiary bombs for target-marking purposes in aid of the main bomber force to follow in to the target area. In an early example of the X-Gerät system deployment, KGr 100 attacked the city of Coventry on the night of 14 / 15 November. In the attack, a dozen Heinkel He 111s dropped more than 1,000 incendiaries on the city at 8:15 p.m. to mark it for the three separate main bomber streams then approaching from the directions of the Wash, Portland, and Dungeness. The terrifying raid lasted through the night, with wave after wave of bombers—469 sorties in all—blasting Coventry with nearly 400 tons of high explosives, as well as fifty-six tons of incendiaries and 127 parachute sea-mines. Once again, there was little in the way of air defences; an easy night for the raiders. Not so easy, however, on the night of 19 November, when the German bomber force attacked Birmingham in a heavy raid that cost the attackers five of their aircraft. Keeping up the large-scale attacks through the rest of November and December, the Luftwaffe struck heavily at Southampton, Sheffield, Liverpool, Bristol, Plymouth, and London. Only the relatively sudden appearance of rapidly deteriorating weather put a stop to a massive raid on London in the night of 29 December 1940 after two hours of attacking. The 130 sorties flown that evening were all incendiary deliveries and, despite the early curtailment of the raid, by 10 p.m. the number and scale of the raging fires in the City area of London exceeded the scale of the Great Fire of 1666. The bulk of the incendiaries fell just to the northwest of St Paul’s Cathedral and the fires they started served to guide the delivery of the high explosives of the main bomber force that followed.

By January 1941, the Luftwaffe had developed a distinct lack of confidence in the X-Gerät system of blind-bombing aid, and that, in combination with the RAF’s ability to jam the system, together with its growing use of decoy fires, helped to force the Germans to navigate and bomb mainly by moonlight and to again redirect their targetting now to the British seaports of Swansea, Cardiff, Bristol, Hull and Plymouth. As the winter progressed, the Luftwaffe was having to redeploy much of its bomber force to the Mediterranean, and to take measures aimed at making the British believe that more German bombers were taking part in the raids on Britain than was actually the case. In order to project the impression of larger-scale bombing attacks into the spring, the Germans mounted the largest raid of the Blitz on the night of 10 May, with many of the bomber crews flying up to three sorties that night in the delivery of nearly 800 tons of high explosives and some 87,000 incendiaries. Immense damage was inflicted on greater London in this raid, and another of at least equal size and intensity was levelled on the British capital two nights later.

As May dragged on, it became obvious that the German air force was radically redirecting its forces from the west, to bases in Eastern Poland and Germany in preparation for the coming major offensive against the Soviet Union. Clearly, the Blitz on Britain was drawing down and those German air units remaining in France were mostly limited in their activity to anti-shipping attacks and mine-laying. Again, the Luftwaffe had wasted the opportunity it had been given to force surrender from Britain through adherence to failed bombing policy, and having allowed the most heavily-bomb-damaged major cities and industrial areas of Britain to recover from their attacks. The final position taken by the Germans towards Britain was one of doing all they could to starve the British into submission through the continued, long-term destruction of the food and supplies destined to her by sea and air shipping, a position the Germans now anticipated to follow their expected victory over the Soviets in late 1941. Hitler had believed that his air force could terrorize the people of London into defeat and surrender Instead, the Londoners displayed a rather perverse pleasure in taking their place in the front lines of the war. Their motto became: We can take it!

St Paul’s cathedral by daylight during the Blitz.

Any consideration of the German air offensive against Britain must go into the history of the Luftwaffe and strategic bombing. Since the 1920s, when the best-known air power theorists—General Billy Mitchell, General Giulio Douhet, and Generalleutnant Walther Wever—were projecting their views on the ability of modern air forces to win wars without the traditional requirement of land and sea forces, many in military circles the world over accepted the notion that there was no effective defence against air attack. There was also wide-spread acceptance in military and political circles of the theory that the heavy bombing of civilian residential areas would lead to the collapse of the people’s will to continue the war and war production. Indeed, the bombing policy of RAF Bomber Command through much of the Second World War was based largely on what the Germans themselves later branded as ‘terror bombing’, the targetting of civilian population areas along with industrial and communications objectives. Luftwaffe planners, while accepting the concept of strategic bombing of enemy industry and cities, disagreed with the theory that the use of air power alone could be war-winning. They failed to develop a sound, long-term strategy for an efficient bombing campaign to destroy British war industry and the Royal Air Force. When Walther Wever was the Luftwaffe Chief of the General Staff in 1935, he stressed the significance of the strategic bomber and developed an outline for a new air strategy:

1. To destroy the enemy air force by bombing its bases and aircraft factories, and defeating enemy air forces attacking German targets.

2. To prevent the movement of large enemy ground forces to the decisive areas by destroying railways and roads, particularly bridges and tunnels, which are indispensable for the movement and supply of forces.

3. To support the operations of the army formations, independent of railways, i.e. armoured forces and motorized forces, by impeding the enemy advance and participating directly in ground operations.

4. To support naval operations by attacking naval bases, protecting Germany’s naval bases and participating directly in naval battles.

5. To paralyse the enemy armed forces by stopping production in the armaments factories.

In Wever’s view, the General Staff of the Luftwaffe needed to be more well-grounded in the areas of war economics, grand strategy, armaments production, and the art and science of understanding the enemy, all this in addition to tactical and operational concerns. His view was never adopted. With his death in an air crash in 1936, his successors, Albert Kesselring and Hans-Jürgen Stumpff, both advocates of a narrower tactical structuring of the Luftwaffe, chose to shape it essentially on the air support role. They were themselves supported in that perspective by Hugo Sperrle and Hans Jeschonnek, veteran German airmen.

Oddly, the offence-minded Adolf Hitler seemed less interested in the planning and details of bombing Britain into submission than he was in the protection of Germany’s cities and war production facilities from enemy bombs. In the late 1930s he had advocated strategic bombing and had talked with Luftwaffe planners about eventually using the German bomber force to crush the will of the British people. Later, during the Blitz attacks, he became quite negative about the bombing results achieved by his air force: “The munitions industry cannot be interfered with effectively by air raids. Usually the prescribed targets are not hit.” He appeared somewhat disinterested in the development of the strategic bombing campaign against Britain and declined to take a firm hand in it. He seemed to be more enthusiastic about the use of bombing as a terror weapon to wreck the civilian morale than as a realistic means to effective economic warfare and the elimination of the enemy’s war-making capacity. He seemed to believe that his 1930s-era adherence to morale-breaking through bombing would sufficiently intimidate the enemy from entering into a policy of unrestricted bombing against German targets. He appeared to be more politically concerned with protecting the German population from Allied bombing, to ward off the the threat of popular revolt against his regime. That concern played a part in his ramping up the terror-bombing against the British in the anticipation of creating some sort of stalemate wherein both the British and Germans would pull back from the bombing policy.

Hitler also was contending with the arrogant and egotistical Goering whose proprietary approach to his Luftwaffe force caused him to resist every attempt by Admiral Erich Raeder to operate and control a “naval air force” of his own for the German Navy. Hitler fended off those requests with: “We should never have been able to hold our own in this war if we had not had an undivided Luftwaffe.” Goering operated the Luftwaffe as his own little empire, a free rein allowed him for the most part by Hitler, who in later stages of the war would find it more and more difficult to intervene in the direction of the air force. This was exacerbated by Goering’s habit of misrepresenting and over-optimistically interpreting operational results and strength capabilities to the German leader. In trying to manage the news about the Luftwaffe for Hitler’s consumption, he went as far as to stage an air display in the summer of 1939 in an effort to show the Führer that his air force was better prepared for strategic air war than it actually was.

As planning for the Blitz on Britain evolved in late August 1940, the Luftwaffe General Staff concentrated initially on daylight attacks against the enemy’s key industrial cities, beginning with the London attack of 7 September. The results of the major raid of 15 September in which large air battles occurred, were quite punishing for the German air force and produced little real gain for them. A few more significant daylight raids followed between mid-September and into October, but by then the Luftwaffe had decided to minimize its losses and switch to night attacks, official Luftwaffe policy from 7 October. One factor in its inability to cause much greater damage than it was achieving to that point was, of course, the limited bombload capacity of its principle bomber aircraft, the Heinkel He 111, Junkers Ju 88, and the Dornier Do 17. In the years between the Great War and the Second World War, the Luftwaffe elected to pursue medium bombers for its inventory for three fundamental reasons: 1) The Luftwaffe General Staff was persuaded that a medium-bomber force was as capable of carrying out strategic bombing missions as a heavy-bomber force; 2) The Germans did not then have either the technical ability or the resources to build an effective four-engined strategic bomber; and 3) Hitler did not plan or project a war with Britain in 1939.

In addition, the General Staff had not been told to even consider Britain as a potential war opponent until 1938; had not really begun to research and gather sufficient intelligence about British industry; and seemed utterly incapable of agreeing an appropriate strategy of attack. The logic and reason of their eventual bombing strategy grew ever more confused and apparently aimless through the winter months of 1940-41. The British were, on the whole, ahead of the German enemy in anticipating, understanding and countering aspects of the bombing offensive, particularly in terms of dispersing military-related production facilities to reduce their exposure and vulnerability to any concentrated bombing attack. A very effective network of cottage industry was developed at that critical time and an efficient capability for the distribution of supplies, spares, parts and equipment was organized to support the growing British war economy.

By late 1938 and early 1939, many people in the British government and elsewhere in the country had come to believe that war with Germany was virtually inevitable. Experts and so-called authorities in various fields were quick to make predictions about the impact of such a war on the British people. Winston Churchill, in a 1934 speech to Parliament had said: “We must expect that, under the pressure of continuous attack upon London, at least three or four million people would be driven out into the open country around the metropolis.” War-related rumours were rampant and in 1939 the government developed a plan for the voluntary evacuation of four million people, mainly women and children, from London and other major urban areas. The plan called for ninety percent of the evacuees to be housed in private homes, and a survey was conducted to define the available households for use in the implimentation of the plan.

On 10 August 1939, a “black-out” exercise was held and, from 1 September, the day that Germany invaded Poland, Britain was plunged into a compulsory six-year-long black-out at sunset, a condition viewed by most Britons as even worse than the deprivation of rationing, which actually lasted into the 1950s. Another consideration of the period was the availability and preparation of air raid shelters nation-wide for the populous. Such arrangements became the responsibility of many local government authorities, especially in the most threatened communities like Birmingham, the East End of London, Coventry, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Southampton and Belfast, all of which lacked sufficient adequate shelter facilities. Fortunately, the combination of the “Phoney War” period and the delayed beginning of the German bombing campaign on Britain’s cities and industry, enabled some of the targetted communities to build and arrange for such sheltering facilities.

But the problem of sheltering the people of Britain from the bombs of the Luftwaffe was a big one. Many people in a target city like London naturally looked to the city’s Underground subway system with its deep stations for such protection. The British government and the London authorities were initially opposed to the use of those deep subway stations as bomb shelters. Though many Londoners had used them as shelters during the First World War, the authorities early in WW2 refused to let them be used as such on the grounds that it would interfere with commuter and troop travel, and that the shelterers might simply refuse to leave. After the second week of September 1940, however, the government relented and the people of London were allowed to shelter in the Underground stations. The greatest number of people to use the deep shelters was 177,000 on the night of a heavy raid, 27 September. Surveys showed that an average of about four percent of London residents used the deep shelters during the heaviest raids of the Blitz, while some twenty-seven percent utilized Anderson backyard shelters and, later, Morrison in-door shelters in private homes. Both types of private home shelters were distributed by the government, but many of the Anderson shelters were later abandoned as unsafe. By the time the government yielded to public demand for the building of new deep shelters in the Underground system, the shelters were not completed and ready for use until the heaviest bombing had ended. By then, the government had provided bunks in the larger shelter areas, as well as stoves, bathrooms, and canteen trains to offer food. Timed tickets were issued for the bunks in the larger shelters, which reduced the amount of time spent queuing for them. Both the Salvation Army and the British Red Cross were involved in efforts to improve the conditions in the shelters. Entertainment was even provided in some of them. It included films, concerts, plays, and books from the libraries.

The emotional and mental pressures endured by Britons in the Blitz caused many problems ranging from extraordinary fatigue, anxiety, eating disorders, a variety of mental conditions, miscarriages, and other health problems. But a special network of psychiatric clinics that opened in the period to deal with mental concerns was ultimately closed due to under-use. In general, British morale was high and remained so throughout the Blitz period, this in spite of the negative war news and the threat of invasion. A mere three percent of Britons thought that their country would lose the war and, in October 1940, eighty-nine percent of the British public approved of the Churchill government. British workers worked longer shifts and worked weekends as well. Contributions to the £5000 Spitfire Funds rose dramatically. Volunteerism grew impressively through the Blitz, with thousands joining the Air Raid Precautions Service, the Auxiliary Fire Service, the Home Guard and the Women’s Voluntary Services.

In the area of air defence, the primary emphasis had long been on daylight defences, the province of Fighter Command, with little effort and resources expended on night air defence. The RAF was still dominated by those who adhered to the doctrine of the early Chief of the Air Staff, Lord Trenchard, who believed that offence was the best defence, “the cult of the offensive.” The basis of this idea held that the prevention of German bombers hitting targets in Britain depended upon RAF Bomber Command hitting and destroying the enemy air force on its own bases, and the enemy aircraft factories, as well as its fuel reserves stored at the German oil facilities. The flaw in this idea lay in the fact that RAF Bomber Command was not yet equipped with either the aircraft or the navigation and bombing technology to carry out such assignments, nor would it be for quite some time. Thus, the air defence of Britain, by day and night, was left largely to Fighter Command, which could not do the entire job on its own. An effective night-fighter force did not yet exist at the start of the war and the ground anti-aircraft batteries were not all that effective. By late November, Air Chief Marshal Dowding, Air Officer Commanding Fighter Command, had been replaced by William Sholto Douglas who, in 1946, would be promoted to Marshal of the Royal Air Force.

It was only after the main action of the Blitz had ended, in May 1941, that a combination of relatively effective anti-aircraft defences and a useful night-fighter force was able to make a difference. Until then, the main force of German bombers had little difficulty in getting through local defences to their targets. The British had to resort to a variety of ruses in the interim in an attempt to divert the enemy aircraft from their targets; these included dummy airfields, simulated industrial and residential areas with artificial street lighting, decoy fires and a range of other diversionary tricks.

As the Blitz continued through the autumn, however, German operational losses mounted and, by 7 October, Hermann Goering had decided that they were unsustainable relative to the results being achieved. He then switched the Luftwaffe to night bombing attacks on Britain. By the end of October, more than 13,000 civilians had been killed in London, with nearly 20,000 injured.

After November 1940, the Luftwaffe broadened the scope of its night bombing of Britain, going after additional targets especially in the West Midlands with particular emphasis on Birmingham and Coventry. But throughout the fifty-seven most brutal nights of the Blitz, there was no real let-up on London, and by May 1941 the civilian casualties in the capital amounted to 28,556 killed and 25,578 injured. As the first few months of 1941 passed, the toll on the German bomber force became obvious. The serviceability of its bomber aircraft fell to the point where just 550 of 1,215 such aircraft were available for operational use.

In a final pair of major attacks of the Blitz on London during the nights of 10 / 11 and 11 / 12 May, the Luftwaffe bombers dropped 800 tons of explosives and incendiaries, causing more than 2,000 significant fires. In the second raid, 1,436 people were killed, with 1,792 injured. In the attack, the Law Courts and Westminster Abbey were severely damaged and one chamber of the House of Commons was destroyed. By late May, the sporadic bombing policies of the Luftwaffe General Staff had clearly doomed the bombing offensive against Britain. It was clear too, that by May the attentions of the Germans had shifted heavily towards the east and the Soviet Union. They had achieved relatively little strategically against the British apart from causing great infrastructure damage, killing about 41,000 Britons, and injuring upwards of 139,000. The British felt that they had learned some valuable lessons from the experience of the Luftwaffe in the Blitz. They noted that incendiaries appeared to have a greater effect than high explosives on enemy industrial targets; they were impressed by the devastation wrought on city centres and the effects on transport, utilities, and administration; they concurred on the staggering effect of the incendiaries in area attacks on enemy cities; on the validity of striking a single target each night with maximum bomb tonnage for maximum impact; and perhaps most importantly, they recognized that the morale of the British people had not been broken by the intensive bombing campaign.

A lobby card poster advertising the film The First of the Few, a 1942 release that starred Leslie Howard and David Niven. It told the story of Spitfire designer R.J. Mitchell and how the great Second World War fighter came about.

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