The Blitz

The Blitz
Part of the Western Front of World War II
Air Raid Damage in Britain during the Second World War HU36220A.jpg
The undamaged St Paul's Cathedral surrounded by smoke and bombed-out buildings and houses in December 1940 in the iconic photo St Paul's Survives
Date 7 September 1940 – 11 May 1941 (1940-09-07 – 1941-05-11)
(8 months, 5 days)
Location United Kingdom
Result German strategic failure
  United Kingdom   Germany
Commanders and leaders
Casualties and losses
~40,000 [1]–43,000 civilians dead, [2] ~46,000 injured
figures for wounded possibly as high as 139,000 [2]
3,363 aircrew
2,265 aircraft (Summer 1940 – May 1941) [3]

The Blitz was a German bombing offensive against Britain in 1940 and 1941, during the Second World War. The term was first used by the British press as an abbreviation of Blitzkrieg (lightning war). The Germans conducted mass air attacks against industrial targets, towns and cities, beginning with raids on London towards the end of the Battle of Britain in 1940, a battle for daylight air superiority between the Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force over the United Kingdom. By September 1940, the Luftwaffe had failed and the German air fleets ( Luftflotten) were ordered to attack London, to draw RAF Fighter Command into a battle of annihilation. [4] [5] Adolf Hitler and Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, ordered the new policy on 6 September 1940. From 7 September 1940, London was systematically bombed by the Luftwaffe for 56 out of the following 57 days and nights. [6] Most notable was a large daylight attack against London on 15 September.

The Luftwaffe gradually decreased daylight operations in favour of night attacks to evade attack by the RAF, and the Blitz became a night bombing campaign after October 1940. The Luftwaffe attacked the main Atlantic sea port of Liverpool in the Liverpool Blitz and the North Sea port of Hull, a convenient and easily found target or secondary target for bombers unable to locate their primary targets, suffered the Hull Blitz. Bristol, Cardiff, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Southampton and Swansea were also bombed, as were the industrial cities of Birmingham, Belfast, Coventry, Glasgow, Manchester and Sheffield. More than 40,000 civilians were killed by Luftwaffe bombing during the war, almost half of them in the capital, where more than a million houses were destroyed or damaged. [1]

In early July 1940 the German High Command began planning Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. [7] Bombing failed to demoralise the British into surrender or do much damage to the war economy; eight months of bombing never seriously hampered British war production which continued to increase. [8] [9] The greatest effect was to force the British to disperse the production of aircraft and spare parts. [10] British wartime studies concluded that cities generally took 10 to 15 days to recover when hit severely but exceptions like Birmingham took three months. [10]

The German air offensive failed because the Luftwaffe High Command ( Oberkommando der Luftwaffe, OKL) did not develop a methodical strategy for destroying British war industry. Poor intelligence on British industry and economic efficiency led to OKL concentrating on tactics rather than strategy. The bombing effort was diluted by attacks against several sets of industries instead of constant pressure on the most vital. [11] [10]


The Luftwaffe and strategic bombing

In the 1920s and 1930s, air power theorists like Giulio Douhet and Billy Mitchell claimed that air forces could win wars, obviating the need for land and sea fighting. [12] It was thought that attacks from the air could not be resisted, particularly at night. Industry, seats of government, factories and communications could be destroyed, depriving an opponent of the means to make war. Bombing civilians would cause a collapse of morale and a loss of production in the remaining factories. Democracies, where public opinion was allowed, were thought particularly vulnerable. The RAF and the United States Army Air Corps (USAAC) adopted much of this apocalyptic thinking. The policy of RAF Bomber Command became an attempt to achieve victory through the destruction of civilian will, communications and industry. [13]

The Luftwaffe took a cautious view of strategic bombing and OKL did not oppose the strategic bombardment of industries or cities and believed it could greatly affect the balance of power on the battlefield by disrupting production and damaging civilian morale. OKL did not believe air power alone could be decisive and the Luftwaffe did not have a policy of systematic "terror bombing". (The Luftwaffe did not adopt an official policy of the deliberate bombing of civilians until 1942.) [14]

The vital industries and transport centres that would be targeted for shutdown were valid military targets. It could be claimed civilians were not to be targeted directly, but the breakdown of production would affect their morale and will to fight. German legal scholars of the 1930s carefully worked out guidelines for what type of bombing was permissible under international law. While direct attacks against civilians were ruled out as "terror bombing", the concept of attacking vital war industries—and probable heavy civilian casualties and breakdown of civilian morale—was ruled as acceptable. [15]

Walter Wever

From the beginning of the National Socialist regime until 1939, there was a debate in German military journals over the role of strategic bombardment, with some contributors arguing along the lines of the British and Americans. [16] General Walter Wever (Chief of the Luftwaffe General Staff 1 March 1935 – 3 June 1936) championed strategic bombing and the building of suitable aircraft, although he emphasised the importance of aviation in operational and tactical terms. Wever outlined five points of air strategy:

  1. To destroy the enemy air force by bombing its bases and aircraft factories and defeat 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 motorised forces, by impeding the enemy advance and participating directly in ground operations.
  4. To support naval operations by attacking naval bases, protecting German naval bases and participating directly in naval battles
  5. To paralyse the enemy armed forces by stopping production in armaments factories. [17]

Wever argued that OKL should not be solely educated in tactical and operational matters but also in grand strategy, war economics, armament production and the mentality of potential opponents (also known as mirror imaging). Wever's vision was not realised, staff studies in those subjects fell by the wayside and the Air Academies focused on tactics, technology and operational planning, rather than on independent strategic air offensives. [18]

In 1936, Wever was killed in an air crash and the failure to implement his vision for the new Luftwaffe was largely attributable to his successors. Ex-Army personnel and his successors as Chief of the Luftwaffe General Staff, Albert Kesselring (3 June 1936 – 31 May 1937) and Hans-Jürgen Stumpff (1 June 1937 – 31 January 1939) are usually blamed for abandoning strategic planning for close air support. Two prominent enthusiasts for ground-support operations (direct or indirect) were Hugo Sperrle the commander of Luftflotte 3 (1 February 1939 – 23 August 1944) and Hans Jeschonnek (Chief of the Luftwaffe General Staff from 1 February 1939 – 19 August 1943). The Luftwaffe was not pressed into ground support operations because of pressure from the army or because it was led by ex-soldiers, the Luftwaffe favoured a model of joint inter-service operations, rather than independent strategic air campaigns. [19]

Hitler, Göring and air power

Hitler and Göring, March 1938

Hitler paid less attention to the bombing of opponents than air defence, although he promoted the development of a bomber force in the 1930s and understood it was possible to use bombers for strategic purposes. He told OKL in 1939, that ruthless employment of the Luftwaffe against the heart of the British will to resist would follow when the moment was right. Hitler quickly developed scepticism toward strategic bombing, confirmed by the results of the Blitz. He frequently complained of the Luftwaffe's inability to damage industries sufficiently, saying, "The munitions industry cannot be interfered with effectively by air raids ... usually the prescribed targets are not hit". [20]

While the war was being planned, Hitler never insisted upon the Luftwaffe planning a strategic bombing campaign and did not even give ample warning to the air staff, that war with Britain or even Russia was a possibility. The amount of firm operational and tactical preparation for a bombing campaign was minimal, largely because of the failure by Hitler as supreme commander to insist upon such a commitment. [20]

Ultimately, Hitler was trapped within his own vision of bombing as a terror weapon, formed in the 1930s when he threatened smaller nations into accepting German rule rather than submit to air bombardment. This fact had important implications. It showed the extent to which Hitler personally mistook Allied strategy for one of morale breaking instead of one of economic warfare, with the collapse of morale as an additional bonus. [21] Hitler was much more attracted to the political aspects of bombing. As the mere threat of it had produced diplomatic results in the 1930s, he expected that the threat of German retaliation would persuade the Allies to adopt a policy of moderation and not to begin a policy of unrestricted bombing. His hope was — for reasons of political prestige within Germany itself — that the German population would be protected from the Allied bombings. When this proved impossible, he began to fear that popular feeling would turn against his regime, and he redoubled efforts to mount a similar "terror offensive" against Britain in order to produce a stalemate in which both sides would hesitate to use bombing at all. [21]

A major problem in the managing of the Luftwaffe was Göring; Hitler believed the Luftwaffe was "the most effective strategic weapon", and in reply to repeated requests from the Kriegsmarine for control over aircraft insisted, "We should never have been able to hold our own in this war if we had not had an undivided Luftwaffe." [22] Such principles made it much harder to integrate the air force into the overall strategy and produced in Göring a jealous and damaging defence of his "empire" while removing Hitler voluntarily from the systematic direction of the Luftwaffe at either the strategic or operational level. When Hitler tried to intervene more in the running of the air force later in the war, he was faced with a political conflict of his own making between himself and Göring, which was not fully resolved until the war was almost over. [22] In 1940 and 1941, Göring's refusal to co-operate with the Kriegsmarine denied the entire Wehrmacht military forces of the Reich the chance to strangle British sea communications, which might have had strategic or decisive effect in the war against the British Empire. [23]

The deliberate separation of the Luftwaffe from the rest of the military structure encouraged the emergence of a major "communications gap" between Hitler and the Luftwaffe, which other factors helped to exacerbate. For one thing, Göring's fear of Hitler led him to falsify or misrepresent what information was available in the direction of an uncritical and over-optimistic interpretation of air strength. When Göring decided against continuing Wever's original heavy bomber programme in 1937, the Reichsmarschall's own explanation was that Hitler wanted to know only how many bombers there were, not how many engines each had. In July 1939, Göring arranged a display of the Luftwaffe's most advanced equipment at Rechlin, to give the impression the air force was more prepared for a strategic air war than was actually the case. [24]

Battle of Britain

RAF pilots with one of their Hawker Hurricanes, October 1940

Although not specifically prepared to conduct independent strategic air operations against an opponent, the Luftwaffe was expected to do so over Britain. From July until September 1940 the Luftwaffe attacked Fighter Command to gain air superiority as a prelude to invasion. This involved the bombing of English Channel convoys, ports, and RAF airfields and supporting industries. Destroying RAF Fighter Command would allow the Germans to gain control of the skies over the invasion area. It was supposed Bomber Command, Coastal Command, and the Royal Navy could not operate under conditions of German air superiority. [25]

The Luftwaffe's poor intelligence meant that their aircraft were not always able to locate their targets, and thus attacks on factories and airfields failed to achieve the desired results. British fighter aircraft production continued at a rate surpassing Germany's by 2 to 1. [26] The British produced 10,000 aircraft in 1940, in comparison to Germany's 8,000. [27] The replacement of pilots and aircrew was more difficult. Both the RAF and Luftwaffe struggled to replace manpower losses, though the Germans had larger reserves of trained aircrew. The circumstances affected the Germans more than the British. Operating over home territory, British aircrew could fly again if they survived being shot down. German crews, even if they survived, faced capture. Moreover, bombers had four to five crewmen on board, representing a greater loss of manpower. [28] On 7 September, the Germans shifted away from the destruction of the RAF's supporting structures. German intelligence suggested Fighter Command was weakening, and an attack on London would force it into a final battle of annihilation while compelling the British Government to surrender. [29]

The decision to change strategy is sometimes claimed as a major mistake by OKL. It is argued that persisting with attacks on RAF airfields might have won air superiority for the Luftwaffe. [30] Others argue that the Luftwaffe made little impression on Fighter Command in the last week of August and first week of September and that the shift in strategy was not decisive. [31] It has also been argued that it was doubtful the Luftwaffe could have won air superiority before the "weather window" began to deteriorate in October. [32] [33] It was also possible, if RAF losses became severe, that they could pull out to the north, wait for the German invasion, then redeploy southward again. [33] Other historians argue that the outcome of the air battle was irrelevant; the massive numerical superiority of British naval forces and the inherent weakness of the Kriegsmarine would have made the projected German invasion, Unternehmen Seelöwe (Operation Sea Lion), a disaster with or without German air superiority. [34]

Change in strategy

Regardless of the ability of the Luftwaffe to win air superiority, Hitler was frustrated it was not happening quickly enough. With no sign of the RAF weakening and the Luftflotten suffering many losses, OKL was keen for a change in strategy. To reduce losses further, strategy changed to prefer night raids, giving the bombers greater protection under cover of darkness. [35] [a]

It was decided to focus on bombing Britain's industrial cities, in daylight to begin with. The main focus was London. The first major raid took place on 7 September. On 15 September, on a date known as Battle of Britain Day, a large-scale raid was launched in daylight, but suffered significant loss for no lasting gain. Although there were a few large air battles fought in daylight later in the month and into October, the Luftwaffe switched its main effort to night attacks. This became official policy on 7 October. The air campaign soon got under way against London and other British cities. However, the Luftwaffe faced limitations. Its aircraft— Dornier Do 17, Junkers Ju 88, and Heinkel He 111s—were capable of carrying out strategic missions [37] but were incapable of doing greater damage because of their small bomb-loads. [38] The Luftwaffe's decision in the interwar period to concentrate on medium bombers can be attributed to several reasons: Hitler did not intend or foresee a war with Britain in 1939; OKL believed a medium bomber could carry out strategic missions just as well as a heavy bomber force; and Germany did not possess the resources or technical ability to produce four-engined bombers before the war. [39]

Although it had equipment capable of doing serious damage, the Luftwaffe had unclear strategy and poor intelligence. OKL had not been informed that Britain was to be considered a potential opponent until early 1938. It had no time to gather reliable intelligence on Britain's industries. Moreover, OKL could not settle on an appropriate strategy. German planners had to decide whether the Luftwaffe should deliver the weight of its attacks against a specific segment of British industry such as aircraft factories, or against a system of interrelated industries such as Britain's import and distribution network, or even in a blow aimed at breaking the morale of the British population. [40] The Luftwaffe's strategy became increasingly aimless over the winter of 1940–1941. [41] Disputes among OKL staff revolved more around tactics than strategy. [42] This method condemned the offensive over Britain to failure before it began. [43]

In an operational capacity, limitations in weapons technology and quick British reactions were making it more difficult to achieve strategic effect. Attacking ports, shipping and imports as well as disrupting rail traffic in the surrounding areas, especially the distribution of coal, an important fuel in all industrial economies of the Second World War, would net a positive result. However, the use of delayed-action bombs, while initially very effective, gradually had less impact, partly because they failed to detonate. [b] The British had anticipated the change in strategy and dispersed its production facilities, making them less vulnerable to a concentrated attack. Regional commissioners were given plenipotentiary powers to restore communications and organise the distribution of supplies to keep the war economy moving. [44]

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Afrikaans: Blitz
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