Was Britain ‘bombed and burned into democracy’? Military Times explores how massed air attack conjured a democratisation of war during the Battle of London between September 1940 and May 1941.
A bomb explodes and a house collapses. The local ARP warden rushes to the scene, crunching over glass and brick-dust through streets illuminated by giant fires in the docks. Searchlight beams crisscross the sky over looming barrage-balloons. The crash of gunfire and thud of high-explosive fill the night. Reaching ‘the incident’, the warden makes a quick assessment, then runs back to her ARP post to phone in a report.
Occupants likely to be trapped. Adjacent properties unstable. Gas-pipe ruptured.
But the phone line has been cut, so the message is carried to control by bicycle. Then calls go out to police, heavy rescue, ambulance services, utility companies, and the demolition team.
By the time specialists arrive, a crowd has gathered: wardens, Home Guards, Women’s Voluntary Service housewives, local residents willing to help. Tea is brewing. Blankets are on hand. Some people have heard muffled screams inside the debris.
It is September 1940. The scene could be anywhere in inner London. A new kind of war has just begun. Its victims have dubbed it ‘The Blitz’.
Every night bar one for ten solid weeks, from 7 September to 14 November, London was attacked by an average of 160 bombers. Thereafter, until 10 May, the capital was attacked
more spasmodically, as other British cities were bombed on other nights – Southampton, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Bristol, Cardiff, Coventry, Birmingham, Nottingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool, Hull, Newcastle, Glasgow, and Belfast.
The first night – 7 September – was one of the worst. The night bombers followed daylight raiders, and the fires already started in the docks guided the second wave to its targets. More than 400 were killed and 1,600 seriously injured.
The 15 October was another very bad night. Four hundred bombers dropped 540 tons of high explosive, causing massive disruption to the entire transport network, rail, tube, and road.
On 29 December, the attackers dropped large numbers of incendiaries in an attempt to create a ‘firestorm’ (see WMD: Incendiary Bombs). A total of 1,500 fires were started that night, 52 of them classed as ‘serious’, 28 as ‘major’, and 6 as ‘conflagrations’ – the largest of which covered half a square mile. The fire services were stretched to their absolute limit.
But the last night – 10 May – was the worst. The bombers started 2,200 fires, including a giant conflagration at Elephant and Castle, killed more than 1,400 people, and left 155,000 families without gas, electricity, or water.
When the London Blitz finally ended in the early hours of 11 May 1941 – though the inhabitants did not know it, expecting the ‘knockout blow’ to come that following night – 28,556 Londoners had been killed and 25,578 seriously enough injured to require hospital care. Across Britain, two million homes had been damaged or destroyed, but the majority of these were in the capital, where 1.5 million people were homeless.
It had been the most determined attempt so far to win a war by bombing from the air. Twenty-five years before, London had been the principal target of the first experiments with this new kind of war. But air-power was then in its infancy. It was not even clear that heavier-than-air aeroplanes – rather than lighter-than-air airships – were the way forwards. The primitive bombers of the First World War, despite huge investment and repeated raids, managed to kill a mere 1,400 civilians between early 1915 and late 1918.
But these were pioneers, and some saw great potential represented in their clumsy efforts. Enthusiastic interwar air-power theorists, above all the Italian military aviator Giulio Douhet, argued that future wars might be won by bombers alone. ‘Normal life would be impossible in this constant nightmare of imminent death and destruction,’ he proclaimed.
Many were convinced, including the British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, who told the House of Commons in 1932, ‘No power on Earth can protect the man in the street from being bombed. Whatever people may tell him, the bomber will always get through.’ Because this view was widespread, pre-war British strategic planning favoured bombers over fighters – on the basis that the only effective defence was deterrence: a bomber fleet of one’s own that could threaten the enemy as he threatened you. Meantime, as war fears grew in the late 1930s, British Civil Defence officials prepared for up to 200,000 air-raid casualties per week.
Some Nazi leaders, notably Luftwaffe chief Herman Goering, shared these exaggerated expectations. Terror bombing had proved effective in Spain. The dropping of 50 tons of incendiary and high-explosive by 23 German bombers on Guernica in 1937 had destroyed 70% of the ancient Basque city. Exaggerated reports of 5,000 casualties were widely believed. The German commander judged the operation a ‘technical success’. Four days after the bombing, the Nationalists captured the city.
Now, in the early autumn of 1940, the Germans would attempt to replicate this ‘technical success’ on the grand scale: the enemy capital was to be devastated and terrorised by aerial bombing to the point where its political leadership was forced to sue for peace. Hitler had little interest in a war with Britain and little stomach for a seaborne invasion – especially with RAF Fighter Command still intact and contesting air supremacy over the Channel. Hitler, dominant on the Continent, now aimed at empire in the east. The British could be left alone on their island, if only they would accept the new Nazi order in Europe. This was the issue over which the Battle of London was fought.
Churchill’s position – ‘we shall go on to the end … we shall never surrender’ – was not unassailable. It had been touch and go whether he or Halifax would succeed Chamberlain as Prime Minister in May that year, and for some time afterwards Halifax remained Foreign Secretary and campaigned within government for ‘a compromise peace’. Churchill’s hawkish speeches in the Commons were consistently cheered more loudly on the Labour benches than on his own: the Tory Party was full of appeasers.
That summer, almost 90% of the population supported Churchill. Almost 60% of them were regularly tuning in to his radio broadcasts. The British people seemed determined to fight on – alone and against the odds. The Blitz was to be the great test of whether this resolve could be broken.
On 15 September, the RAF won a decisive victory over the Luftwaffe, shooting down 60 aircraft involved in a massed attack on London for the loss of only 26 fighters. Thereafter, daylight attacks were greatly reduced, and the Germans concentrated on night bombing. Operation Sealion was indefinitely postponed. The strategy was no longer to win air supremacy by drawing the RAF into action and destroying it in a battle of attrition. The aim now was to pulverise London until the British gave up. And with the shift to night bombing, the advantage switched to the attackers.
The British air-defence system combined radar, ground observation, massed gunnery, and aerial interception. At night, the defenders were half-blind, dependent on the moon and searchlights to track bomber formations moving at perhaps 200mph. The capital’s anti-aircraft batteries were ordered to put up barrages of ‘unseen’ fire during raids, but this was done mainly to sustain civilian morale, and perhaps to disconcert the bomber-crews, not in great expectation of hitting anything. Fighter pilots scrambled to intercept night-bombers faced an equally hopeless task. In the whole of December 1940, ack-ack fire brought down only 10 enemy planes, fighter attack just four.
Not until the British night-fighters – principally the Bristol Blenheim and the Bristol Beaufighter – were equipped with effective Aerial Interception (AI) radar did the tide turn. This techno-fix gave the defenders 75 kills in April 1941, the last full month of the Blitz. But by then, anyway, Hitler was planning to redeploy the Luftwaffe, to the eastern front for his long-intended assault on Russia. It was not the RAF that won the Battle of London. It was Londoners themselves.
The German plan had been to reduce the city to rubble and ashes, to shatter the infrastructures of everyday life, to paralyse administration and industry, to leave the population exhausted, terror-struck, cowering in shelters. From this, it was hoped, would come the request for peace.
Strategic bombing dissolves the distinction between battlefield and homeland, turning a distant city into an embattled ‘home front’. The docks, warehouses, and munitions plants of London were obvious targets, but so were the utilities and transport networks that served them, and the millions whose labour was the city’s lifeblood. In a modern industrialised war, a ‘total war’ of matériel and attrition, the people of London became targets. As such, they faced a choice: they could be mere victims, waiting in the damp and muck of a crowded shelter for the bomb that destroyed them – or they could become combatants in their own right and fight back.
‘It so happens that this war, whether those in authority like it or not, has to be fought as a citizen’s war,’ proclaimed J B Priestley, well-known novelist and no-nonsense Yorkshire radical, whose ‘Postscript’ radio broadcasts were being listened to by as many as one in three Britons in the Summer of 1940. ‘There is no way out of that,’ he continued, ‘because in order to defend and protect this island, not only against possible invasion but also against all the disasters of aerial bombardment, it has been found necessary to bring into existence a new network of voluntary associations such as the Home Guard, the Observer Corps, all the ARP and fire-fighting services, and the like …’
It seemed to Priestley that a new type of ‘organised militant citizen’ had been called into being, that ‘the new ordeals blast away the old shams’, and that Britain was ‘being bombed and burned into democracy’.
Under the 1937 Air-Raid Precautions Act, the country had been divided into 12 Civil Defence Regions, of which Greater London and an inner ring of commuter towns close to it, formed one. Almost a million people were enrolled in Civil Defence, the great majority volunteers, working as ARP wardens and ambulance drivers, staffing decontamination units and communication centres, and employed on heavy rescue and demolition teams. At the height of the Blitz, moreover, one in six ARP wardens was a woman, and 50,000 women worked full-time for Civil Defence.
ARP wardens were on duty during the bombing, enforcing the blackout, guiding people to shelters, watching for incendiaries, attending and reporting ‘incidents’. Under fire doing essential work, they were as much combatants as the soldiers manning AA guns, searchlights, and barrage-balloons. The ARP suffered 3,808 casualties during the war, 1,355 of them killed.
The firefighters of both the existing National Fire Service (NFS) and the wartime Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) were also under fire. Preventing a firestorm depended on thousands of men fighting fires while bombs continued to fall.
On 7 September 1940, when the Quebec Yard of the Surrey Docks went up, ‘There were pepper fires, loading the surrounding air heavily with stinging particles, so that when firemen took a deep breath it felt like burning fire itself. There were rum fires, with torrents of blazing liquid pouring from the warehouse doors and barrels exploding like bombs themselves. There was a paint fire, another cascade of white-hot flame… A rubber fire gave forth black clouds of smoke so asphyxiating that it could only be fought from a distance.’
On this, the first night of the Blitz, only one in five of London’s firefighters had had any previous experience, and the dangers faced were numerous and unpredictable. Altogether, during the war, more than 800 firefighters were killed and more than 7,000 more or less seriously injured, many of them blinded by heat or sparks. At the end of the ten-week London intensive Blitz, fire-crews were all were utterly exhausted by lack of sleep, excessive hours, irregular meals, extremes of temperature, and the constant physical and mental strain.
The firefighters were supported by a first-line defence provided by volunteer Fire Guards, who formed Supplementary Fire Parties (SFPs) as part of Civil Defence. Three people, often women, formed an SFP, equipped with stirrup-pump and sand bucket, each team responsible for 30 houses or 150 yards of street. Their job was to locate and extinguish incendiaries and other small fires.
Rescue teams, ambulance crews, and others attending incidents also worked under fire. What they confronted was often a mix of chaos and horror that might take many hours, sometimes days, to disentangle (see box-feature: A Nurse at an Incident).
When Barbara Nixon attended her first incident as a warden, it was a true baptism of fire. ‘I was not let down lightly. In the middle of the street lay the remains of a baby. It had been blown clean through the window, and had burst on striking the roadway. To my intense relief, pitiful and horrible as it was, I was not nauseated, and found a torn piece of curtain in which to wrap it.’
The survivors – some slightly injured, some in shock, many homeless and distraught – were cared for by other volunteers, often members of the Women’s Voluntary Service, who ran canteens, escorted the bombed-out to emergency accommodation, transported food, clothes, and bedding, and organised a range of services like laundries, libraries, and information-points. Even the WVS had its casualties: 241 were killed on duty.
London was perceived at the time as a battlefield. The novelist Margaret Kennedy was in the country, but her husband was in London serving as an air-raid warden. She refrained from jamming the telephone lines to the capital: ‘If he was a soldier, I couldn’t ring him up in the middle of a battle to ask how he is getting along. I must wait, like a soldier’s wife.’
Priestley, as so often, captured the essence of the moment. ‘At least we are sharing such danger as there is, and are not leaning back watching all our young men wither away,’ he opined, contrasting the experience of the Blitz with that of the Western Front. ‘… we’re not really civilians any longer but a mixed bag of soldiers – machine-minding soldiers, milkmen and postmen soldiers, housewife and mother soldiers… Instead of being obscure and tucked away, we’re bang in the middle of the world’s stage with all the spotlights focused on us …’
For a year, from June 1940 to June 1941, Britain fought alone. Through eight months of bombing, and especially through the ten-week intensive Blitz from 7 September to 14 November 1940, London was the principal battlefield of the world war. The struggle was an asymmetrical one, pitting the destructive power of massed bomber formations against the energy and morale of a modern urban population. Despite heavy casualties, massive destruction of homes, and severe disruption of everyday life, despite mental strain, physical exhaustion, and lack of sleep, Londoners ‘took it’ and survived and therefore won their battle.
What made this possible was the democratisation of the war. Mass mobilisation contained the devastation, succoured the victims, and repeatedly restored the city’s physical and human fabric, such that life could carry on. Not only that: those who fought back in this way were empowered and uplifted. They became the activist kernel of London’s civilian morale.
Lady Violet Bonham Carter, daughter of former Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, ‘did her bit’ as an ARP warden. ‘Today we have our reward,’ she wrote in November 1940 in The Spectator. ‘We are conscious, as never before in our lives, of fulfilling a definite, direct, and essential function. We are a front-line service, in action every night in the defence of London. We know that our neighbours in every walk of life turn to us in their hour of need and look on us as their friends. We would not exchange our jobs for any other.’
And just like frontline soldiers, it was small-group solidarity and peer pressure that kept men and women together, working and fighting, under fire. As an anonymous auxiliary firefighter commented: ‘It was all new, but we were all unwilling to show fear, however much we might feel it. You looked round and saw the rest doing their job. You couldn’t let them down, you just had to get on with it.’
The Battle of Britain was a victory of ‘the Few’: that of a small military elite of fighter pilots. The Battle of London was a victory of ‘the Many’. The bombing plane, coming at night, got through. It rained down death and destruction. But it was defeated by the mass mobilisation of a million ordinary Londoners in defence of their city.