Germany's bombs set our cities and homes alight, but we carried on

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The first raid of the Blitz, on 7 September 1940, saw bombing for over eight hours. After a second, two days later, 850 civilians had died and more than 2,000 been seriously injured. Historian Correlli Barnett recalls it clearly

Nazi Germany's relentless campaign of nightly bombing British cities – London, above all – throughout the winter of 1940-41 has passed into British legend as the Blitz, so called from the German Blitzkrieg ("lightning war"). The Blitz was the first attempt in history to cripple an enemy's war economy and break the morale of the people by bombing.

The Blitz on London began even before the Battle of Britain had been finally won by RAF Fighter Command. Between 8pm on 7 September and 4.30am the next morning, some 250 German bombers homed in on raging fires already started by an earlier daylight raid. Two nights later, the bombers came again, running a "shuttle service", lasting nine-and-a-half hours, from their bases only some 60 miles away in northern France. Railway termini and telephone exchanges were put out of action. Huge new fires were started around the London docks and in the City of London. The close-packed houses of the East End were smashed by high-explosive bombs or burned down by phosphorus firebombs. In these two initial raids alone, nearly 850 civilians were killed, and more than 2,000 seriously wounded.

So was set the grim pattern that would be repeated almost every night during the long winter months.

The pattern shaped my own life as a 13-year-old schoolboy living with my family in the south London suburb of Norbury, and under the incoming track of bombers. We heard the sirens wailing their evening alarm; we took precarious shelter under the stairs; we listened to the heavy throb of German aero-engines; we heard the anti-aircraft guns banging away blindly into the sky; we froze at the whistle of a falling bomb; we felt the house shake at the near misses; and in the morning after the "all clear" we looked to see what had happened in our own road.

In climactic raids on 29 December 1940 and again on 10 May 1941, the Luftwaffe started colossal conflagrations in central and eastern London, causing the first-ever firestorms in which the sheer heat of combustion sucked in gales of wind to create roaring furnaces beyond the power of hoses to quell. From the attic window of our house on these nights, you could see the whole northern horizon over London glowing bright orange.

It was during the raid of 29 December that St Paul's Cathedral narrowly escaped destruction from the surrounding fires – a moment captured for ever in the now famous photograph of the dome of St Paul's silhouetted against the flames.

Yet all too soon the Luftwaffe high command extended the Blitz to other great British cities, especially the ports and centres of war industry, including shipbuilding. In major raids between November 1940 and May 1941, Sheffield and Manchester were each attacked twice; Belfast, Portsmouth and Southampton each three times; Hull and Clydeside each four times; Birmingham and Liverpool (with Merseyside) each seven times.

At a time when RAF Bomber Command still relied on night navigation by the stars, the Germans were employing a radio beam to guide their bombers to their targets. A cockpit alarm warned the pilot whenever his aircraft had drifted off the beam.

It was this device that enabled 400 Luftwaffe bombers to tear the heart out of Coventry on the night of 14 November 1940, destroying the medieval cathedral. The codeword for the raid, "Moonlight Sonata", had been decrypted by the government's code and cipher centre at Bletchley Park from a signal of the Luftwaffe's "Enigma" electro-mechanical enciphering machine. Unfortunately, Bletchley Park could not identify the actual city to be attacked.

Yet the raid failed to destroy Coventry's motor vehicle and engineering factories, which lay on the city's outskirts. In fact, the Blitz as a whole failed to inflict serious damage on the British war economy, even though the Luftwaffe had its local successes, as when an attack on a plant making magnetos slowed up output (and hence production of engines) for several months.

Even where war factories took direct hits, the impact on production was minimised, thanks to emergency repairs and replacement kit – and, above all, to the resilience and ingenuity of the British workforce in the aftermath of the air raids. In one case where the roof of a factory had been destroyed by fire, the workers carried on under the open sky for two months, covering their machine-tools with a tarpaulin when it rained.

Although the savage attacks on the port and shipyard cities reduced central districts to rubble, they failed to inflict truly crippling damage on wharves and docks. With foodstuffs and vital supplies of raw materials (and North American machine-tools) continuing to be unloaded, the nation would not starve and its war industries would not slow to a halt.

So Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring was disappointed in his beliefs that his bombers would bring Britain's war industry to a standstill. He was likewise disappointed in his belief that he could break the morale of the British people. Certainly, there were localised moments of panic, when a public air-raid shelter was hit. But the Blitz actually served to stiffen British morale: it brought the nation together in a community of resistance to a dictator they despised and ridiculed.

The close-packed streets of working-class districts had always been communities. But now households living in the semi-detached houses of leafy suburbs began to reach across the privet hedges to their neighbours, to offer succour after an air-raid or an egg from a newly acquired chicken.

My parents had virtually nothing to do with their neighbours in peacetime. Now we found ourselves spending the winter of the Blitz in our neighbour's cramped concrete air-raid shelter after a shared supper.

For others, the Blitz served as a liberating experience, as in the case of the spinster lady in our road who became an ambulance driver, undaunted by the crash of bombs and the clatter of falling shrapnel from burst anti-aircraft shells: a lady well able to cope with the dead or maimed bodies pulled from the rubble of a collapsed house.

All branches of Civil Defence (as it became known in 1941) played their parts. The firefighters (regular and volunteers of the auxiliary service) grappled with "hundred-pump" blazes for 40 hours at a stretch. In one raid in London, no fewer than 1,724 fires were started, and the firefighters' task was rendered all the more desperate when water mains were smashed by bombs.

Every house and every major building had its firewatchers, the first defence against the Luftwaffe's incendiary bombs. Our house – like everyone else's – was equipped with its bucket of sand and long-handled shovel. It was the firewatchers in the roof of St Paul's Cathedral who spotted and successfully dealt with the firebombs that could have destroyed it.

And every street had its air-raid warden, also a civilian volunteer. They were usually the first on the scene of a bombing, and it was their job to report the location and details to the district control centre. That was the signal for the back-up services – police, ambulance, rescue – to move as fast as rubble-strewn roads or burning buildings would permit. The sound of anti-aircraft gunfire would be cut through by the clanging of the bells on fire-engines and ambulances. And doctors and nurses in the overstretched hospitals toiled long hours to save the wounded.

It must be remembered that, whatever their uniform, whatever the title on their steel helmet, many Civil Defence volunteers had plunged straight from ordinary jobs into what was essentially a battlefield. They did not flinch. As one Civil Defence controller wrote: "The Civil Defence Service... acquitted themselves with the skill and courage which one expects. Observation everywhere leads one to believe that they are willing to face any amount of active service, even of this severity."

When the Blitz came to its end in May 1941, the Luftwaffe had dropped on London alone a total of nearly 14,000 tons of bombs. Yet it had utterly failed to terrorise the people. Except during an air raid itself, the trains, trams and buses still ran; the theatres and cinemas stayed open. The cafés and restaurants did good business, even if the customers had to duck under the tables from time to time.

All the Blitz had done was to pull the British nation together in a resolve that Nazi Germany must, and would be, beaten. In the words of the future commander-in-chief of Bomber Command, Sir Arthur Harris, as he watched the fires burn around St Paul's: "They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind." And they did.

The Luftwaffe's total of 74,000 tons of bombs dropped on Britain was utterly eclipsed by the nearly two million tons dropped by RAF Bomber Command and the US 8th Air Force by the end of the war in 1945. Berlin and other great German cities were reduced to burnt-out hulks of buildings and heaps of rubble.

And yet although allied bombing certainly slowed the growth in war production, it failed to bring it to a standstill. And the German people's morale did not crack.

There is a lesson here which today's proponents of "shock and awe" through airpower have not heeded.

Correlli Barnett is a Fellow of Churchill College Cambridge, and author of 'The Audit of War' (Faber)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY - An outstanding high level opportunity...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick