The Blitz

The Blitz
The Blitz
Part of Second World War, Home Front
St Paul's Cathedral surrounded by smoke after an air raid
The undamaged St Paul's Cathedral surrounded by smoke and bombed-out buildings in December 1940
Date 7 September 1940 – 10 May 1941[1]
Location United Kingdom
Result German strategic failure[2]
United Kingdom United Kingdom Nazi Germany Nazi Germany
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom Winston Churchill
United Kingdom Hugh Dowding
United Kingdom Frederick Pile
United Kingdom Owen Tudor Boyd
United Kingdom Sir Leslie Gossage
Nazi Germany Adolf Hitler
Nazi Germany Hermann Göring
Nazi Germany Hugo Sperrle
Nazi Germany Albert Kesselring
Nazi Germany Hans Jeschonnek
Casualties and losses
~40,000[3]–43,000 civilians dead,[4] ~46,000 injured
figures for wounded possibly as high as 139,000[4]
3,363 aircrew
2,265 aircraft (Summer 1940 – May 1941)[5]

The Blitz (from German, "lightning") was the sustained strategic bombing of Britain by Nazi Germany between 7 September 1940 and 10 May 1941,[1] during the Second World War. The city of London was bombed by the Luftwaffe for 76 consecutive nights and many towns and cities across the country followed. More than one million London houses were destroyed or damaged, and more than 40,000 civilians were killed, half of them in London.[3]

Other important military and industrial centres such as Glasgow, Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Coventry, Hull, Liverpool, Manchester, Portsmouth, Plymouth, and Southampton, Swansea, also suffered heavy air attacks and high numbers of casualties. Birmingham and Coventry were heavily targeted due to the Spitfire and tank factories in Birmingham and the many munitions factories in Coventry; the city centre of Coventry was almost completely destroyed.

The bombing did not achieve its intended goals of demoralising the British into surrender or significantly damaging their war economy.[6] In fact, the eight months of bombing never seriously hampered British production and the war industries continued to operate and expand.[7] The Blitz did not facilitate Operation Sea Lion, the planned German invasion of Britain. By May 1941, the threat of an invasion of Britain had passed, and Hitler's attention was focused on Operation Barbarossa in the East.

Several reasons have been suggested for the failure of the German air offensive. First, the Luftwaffe High Command (Oberkommando der Luftwaffe, or OKL) failed to develop a coherent long-term strategy for destroying Britain's war industries. It frequently switched from bombing one type of industry to another, and no sustained pressure was put on any one of them. Second, the Luftwaffe was not equipped to carry out a long-term strategic air campaign. It was not armed in depth, and its intelligence on British industry and capabilities was poor. All of these shortcomings denied the Luftwaffe the ability to make a strategic difference.



The Luftwaffe and strategic bombing

Walter Wever

In the 1920s and 1930s, the air power theorists Giulio Douhet and Billy Mitchell espoused the idea that air forces could win wars by themselves, without a need for land and sea fighting.[8] It was thought there was no defence against air attack, particularly at night. Enemy industry, their seats of government, factories and communications could be destroyed, effectively denying them the means to resist. It was also thought the bombing of residential centres would cause a collapse of civilian will, which might have led to the collapse of production and civil life. Democracies, where the populace was allowed to show overt disapproval of the ruling government, were thought particularly vulnerable. This thinking was prevalent in both the RAF and United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) between the two World Wars. RAF Bomber Command's policy in particular would attempt to achieve victory through the destruction of civilian will, communications and industry.[9]

Within the Luftwaffe, there was a more muted view of strategic bombing. While OKL did not oppose the strategic bombardment of enemy industries and or cities, and believed it could greatly affect the balance of power on the battlefield in Germany's favour by disrupting production and damaging civilian morale, they did not believe that air power alone could be decisive. Contrary to popular belief, the Luftwaffe did not have a systematic policy of what became known as "terror bombing". Evidence suggests that not until 1942 did the Luftwaffe adopt an official bombing policy in which civilians became the primary target.[10]

The vital industries and transportation centers 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.[11]

Throughout the National Socialist era, until 1939, debate and discussion raged within German military journals over the role of strategic bombardment. Some argued along the lines of the British and Americans.[12] Walter Wever—the first Chief of the General Staff—championed strategic bombing and the building of appropriate aircraft for that purpose, although he emphasised the importance of aviation in operational and tactical terms. Wever outlined five key points to 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 motorised 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.[13]

Wever argued that the Luftwaffe General Staff should not be solely educated in tactical and operational matters. He argued they should be educated in grand strategy, war economics, armament production, and the mentality of potential opponents (also known as mirror imaging). Wever's vision was not realised; the General 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.[14]

In 1936, Wever was killed in an air crash. The failure to implement his vision for the new Luftwaffe was largely attributable to his immediate successors. Ex-Army personnel Albert Kesselring and Hans-Jürgen Stumpff are usually blamed for the turning away from strategic planning and focusing on close air support. However, it would seem the two most prominent enthusiasts for the focus on ground-support operations (direct or indirect) were actually Hugo Sperrle and Hans Jeschonnek. These men were long-time professional airmen involved in German air services since early in their careers. The Luftwaffe was not pressured into ground support operations because of pressure from the army, or because it was led by ex-army personnel. It was instead a mission that suited the Luftwaffe's pre-existing approach to warfare; a culture of joint inter-service operations, rather than independent strategic air campaigns.[15]

Hitler, Göring and air power

Hitler and Göring, March 1938

Hitler failed to pay as much attention to bombing the enemy as he did to protection from enemy bombing although he had promoted the development of a bomber force in the 1930s and understood it was possible to use bombers for major strategic purposes. He told the OKL in 1939 that ruthless employment of the Luftwaffe against the heart of the British will to resist could and would follow when the moment was right. But he quickly developed a lively 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".[16][17]

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 an imminent 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.[16]

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.[18] Hitler was much more attracted to the political aspects of bombing. Where the mere threat of it had produced diplomatic results in the 1930s, he expected that mere threat of German retaliation to 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—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 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.[18]

A major problem in the managing of the Luftwaffe was Hermann 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".[19] 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.[19] In 1940 and 1941, Göring's refusal to cooperate with the Kriegsmarine denied the Wehrmacht the chance to strangle British sea communications, which may have had strategic or decisive effect in the war against the British Empire.[20]

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 the original heavy bomber programme in 1937 his own explanation was Hitler only wanted to know how many bombers there were, not how many engines each had. In July 1939, Goring 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.[21]

Battle of Britain

Although not specifically prepared to conduct independent strategic air operations against an opponent, the Luftwaffe was expected to do so over Britain. From July–September, the Luftwaffe attacked RAF 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 RAF Bomber Command, RAF Coastal Command, and the Royal Navy could not operate effectively under conditions of German air superiority.[22]

Thanks in part to poor Luftwaffe intelligence, which at times could not even correctly locate them, attacks on factories and airfields failed to achieve the results desired. British fighter aircraft production continued at a rate surpassing Germany's by 2 to 1.[23] In overall production, the British produced 10,000 aircraft in 1940, in comparison to Germany's 8,000.[24] 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 flyers could fly again if they survived being shot down. German crews, even if they survived, faced capture. Moreover, bombers had four to five crewmen onboard, representing a greater manpower loss.[25] 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.[26]

The decision to change strategy is sometimes claimed as a major mistake by the Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (OKL). It is argued that persisting with attacks on RAF airfields might have won air superiority for the Luftwaffe.[27] Others argue the Luftwaffe made little impression on Fighter Command in the last week of August and first week of September and the shift in strategy was not decisive.[28] It has also been argued it was doubtful the Luftwaffe could have won air superiority before the "weather window" began to deteriorate in October.[29][30] It was also possible, if RAF losses became severe, they could pull out to the north, wait for the German invasion, then redeploy southward again.[30] Other historians argue 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.[31]

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 Luftwaffe air fleets (Luftflotten) taking punishing losses, the OKL was keen for a change in strategy. To reduce losses further, a change in strategy was also favoured to take place at night, to give the bombers greater protection under cover of darkness.[32][Notes 1]

Instead, it was decided to focus on bombing Britain's industrial cities in daylight to begin with. The main focus of the bombing operations was against the city of London. The first major raid in this regard took place on 7 September. On 15 September, on a date known as the 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 in order to reduce losses. This became official policy on 7 October. The air campaign soon got underway 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,[34] but were incapable of doing greater damage because of bomb-load limitations.[35] 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; the 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.[36]

Although it had equipment capable of doing serious damage, the problem for the Luftwaffe was its unclear strategy and poor intelligence. OKL had not been informed Britain was to be considered a potential opponent until Spring 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.[37] The Luftwaffe's strategy became increasingly aimless over the winter of 1940–1941.[38] Disputes among the OKL staff revolved more around tactics than strategy.[39] This method condemned the offensive over Britain to failure before it began.[40]

In an operational capacity, limitations in weapons technology and quick British reactions was 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 be a positive result. However, the use of delayed-action bombs, while initially very effective, gradually had less impact, partly because they failed to detonate.[Notes 2] Moreover, 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.[41]

Civilian defensive measures

Physical protection

Bomb shelter in a London Underground station

The sprawling cities had long been recognised as difficult to defend from air attack, as aircraft technology improved in the 1930s, estimates of possible casualties from a full-scale air war were revised sharply upwards. Some contemporaries had speculated that a war might produce as many as 600,000 dead across the country, while in 1939 air power theorist Basil Liddell-Hart suggested that a conflict could result in 250,000 dead and injured in the first week.[42] Convinced that "the bomber will always get through" as they scrambled to organise civil defence, politicians and officials imagined grim scenes of social breakdown, floods of refugees, and hospitals overrun with people suffering from psychological as well as physical injuries. Speaking to the House of Commons in November 1934, Churchill warned: "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".[42] These apocalyptic notions were a sign of the fear both politicians and civilian authorities had of air bombardment.[42]

Despite this, far less was done to protect the vast majority of people who, it was clear, would remain in vulnerable areas. In part, government inaction reflected a continuing hope that war could be avoided or that Britain's own bomber force would act as a deterrent to indiscriminate raids. Much of civil defence preparations was left in the hands of local authorities without clear guarantees that their outlays would be covered. Some, as a result, moved slowly, so that when war came the supply of shelters was seriously deficient in towns like Birmingham and Coventry, while in April 1941 Belfast still had spaces for only a quarter of its population.[42] The cost of providing deep bomb-proof shelters capable of sustaining a direct hit was considered prohibitive and there were additional concerns that large communal shelters might become incubators of political disaffection or defeatism.[42]

Instead policy favoured dispersed family shelters, constructed by householders in their backyards, and—in areas of tenements and flats without individual gardens—small brick surface shelters; many of the latter were badly constructed and were soon abandoned in 1940 as unsafe. In addition, planning for enemy raids anticipated that they would be of short duration, intense, and during daylight hours. Few people, if any, predicted the nightly assaults that would force Londoners to sleep and spend long periods in shelters. And while concerns had been raised in Whitehall about morale in poor areas and especially that the East End with its large population of Jewish people (in the face of the Nazi threat) and foreigners was "likely to form a most unstable element—an element very susceptible to panic" it was precisely in such areas that shelter provision was most deficient.[42]

But the most important communal shelters were those in the stations of the London Underground. Although thousands had gone down there during the War, the government rejected their use as shelters in 1939, arguing both that unhindered movement of commuters and troops must be guaranteed and that occupants might easily acquire a deep shelter mentality and refuse to leave. The regularity of the raids, however, made it tempting for increasing numbers of people to enter the Tube and remain there. Minor confrontations occurred, orchestrated in some cases by the Communist Party of Great Britain activists, between crowds waiting to go below and Underground officials whose instructions were to lock the entrances once a raid began.[43]

By the second week of heavy bombing, however, the authorities had yielded to popular pressure and orderly queues of people outside the stations became a familiar sight, waiting for 04:00 when they were allowed onto the platforms. Many families regularly sheltered in the Tube, others went only in periods of heavy bombing. In mid-September about 150,000 a night slept there, although by the winter and spring months the numbers had declined to 100,000 or less. Especially in the deepest stations the detonation of bombs and anti-aircraft barrages was muffled and rest came easier than above ground; but heavy loss of life resulted from direct hits on several stations (Marble Arch, Balham, Bank, Liverpool Street).[43]

By mid-September, 150,000 a night slept in the Tube; the estimated peak was 177,000 on 27 September 1940. A rough census of Londoners in November 1940 placed about four percent in the Tube and equivalent large shelters; nine percent in public surface shelters; and 27% in domestic Anderson Shelters on house-hold property, usually in back gardens. This left over half the population unaccounted for—presumably spending the night in their homes. In the poorest areas the proportion of people in communal shelters was significantly higher, while many families took refuge in the Tube at some point even if they were not regulars.[44][45]

By the end of 1940, significant improvements had been made in the Underground and in many of the more notorious mass shelters. Local authorities distributed heating stoves, washing and sanitary facilities were upgraded, and food services were greatly improved by, for example, regular canteen trains on the Tube. In time, thousands of tiered bunks were installed in the larger shelters and tickets were issued to regulate the numbers of people and reduce the amount of time spent queuing. In November 1940, at Herbert Morrison's request, the Cabinet also reversed its policy, authorising the construction in the London Underground of deep bomb-proof tunnels capable of accommodating about 80,000 people. Completed after the period of heavy raids, they were never used.[46]

Civilian mobilisation

The civilians of London had an enormous role to play in the protection of their city. Many civilians who were not willing or able to join the military became members of the Home Guard, the Air Raid Precautions Service (ARP), the Auxiliary Fire Service, and many other organisations. During the Blitz, The Scout Association guided fire engines to where they were most needed, and became known as the "Blitz Scouts". Many unemployed were drafted into the Royal Army Pay Corps. These personnel, along with others from the Pioneer Corps, were charged with the task of salvage and clean-up.[47] The AFS had 138,000 personnel by July 1939. Only one year earlier, there had only been 6,600 full-time and 13,800 part-time fireman in the entire country.[48]

The WVS (Women's Voluntary Services for Civil Defence) was set up under the direction of Samuel Hoare, Home Secretary in 1938 specifically in the event of air raids. Hoare considered it the female branch of the ARP.[49] They organised the evacuation of children, established centres for those displaced by bombing, operated canteens, salvage and recycling schemes. By the end of 1941, it had one million members.[49] Prior to the outbreak of war, civilians were issued with 50 million respirators (Gas Masks). These were issued in the event of bombing taking place with gas before evacuation.[50]

Pre-war RAF strategy for night defence

Dowding and his opponents

In the inter-war years and after 1940, Hugh Dowding, Air Officer Commanding Fighter Command has received credit for the defence of British air space and the failure of the Luftwaffe to achieve air superiority. However, Dowding had spent so much effort preparing day fighter defences, there was little to prevent the Germans carrying out an alternative strategy by bombing at night. When the Luftwaffe struck at British cities for the first time on 7 September 1940, a number of civic and political leaders were worried by Dowding’s apparent lack of reaction to the new crisis.[51]

Dowding accepted that as AOC, he was responsible for the day and night defence of Britain, and the blame should he fail, would be laid at his door. When urgent changes and improvements needed to be made, Dowding seemed reluctant to act quickly. The Air Staff felt that this was down to his stubborn nature and reluctance to cooperate. Dowding’s opponents in the Air Ministry, already critical of his handing of the day battle (see Battle of Britain Day and the Big Wing controversy), were ready to use these failings as a cudgel with which to attack him and his abilities.[51]

Dowding was summoned to an Air Ministry conference on 17 October 1940 to explain the poor state of night defences and the supposed (but ultimately successful) "failure" of his day time strategy. The criticism of his leadership extended far beyond the Air Council, and the Minister of Aircraft Production, Lord Beaverbrook, and Churchill themselves intimated their support was waning. While the failure of night defence preparation was undeniable, it was not the AOC’s responsibility to accrue resources. The general neglect of the RAF until the late spurt in 1938 had left sparse resources to build defences. While it was permissible to disagree with Dowding's operational and tactical deployment of forces, the failure of the Government and Air Ministry to allot resources was ultimately the responsibility of the civil and military institutions at large. In the pre-war period, the Chamberlain Government stated that night defence from air attack should not take up much of the national effort and along with the Air Ministry, did not make it a priority.[51]

Defence by offence

The attitude of the Air Ministry was in contrast to the experiences of the First World War when a few German bombers caused physical and psychological damage out of all proportion to the resources deployed. Around 280 short tons (250 t) (9,000 bombs) had been dropped, killing 1,413 people and injuring 3,500 more. Most people aged 35 or over remembered the threat and greeted the bombing with great trepidation. In 1916–1918, German raids had scaled down in face of countermeasures which demonstrated defence against night air raids was possible.[52]

Although night air defence was causing greater concern in the lead up to war, it was not at the forefront of RAF planning. Most of the resources went into planning for daylight fighter defences. The difficulty RAF bombers had navigating in darkness led the British to believe German bombers would suffer the same problems and not be able to reach and identify their targets. There was also a mentality in all air forces, if they could carry out effective operations by day, night missions, with the attendant problems for attacker and defender, could be avoided altogether.[53]

British air doctrine had stressed, since the time of Chief of the Air Staff Hugh Trenchard in the early 1920s, that offence was the best means of defence.[54] British defensive strategy actually revolved around offensive action, what became known as the cult of the offensive. To prevent German formations from hitting targets in Britain, the RAF's Bomber Command would destroy the Luftwaffe forces on their own bases, aircraft in their factories, and fuel reserves by attacking oil plants. This philosophy was impractical as Bomber Command was not technologically equipped at that time and would not be for some years. This strategy retarded the development of fighter defences in the 1930s. Dowding agreed air defence would require some offensive action, and fighters could not defend Britain alone.[55] By the start of the war, and until September 1940, the RAF lacked specialised night fighting aircraft, and relied on antiaircraft units which were poorly equipped and lacking in numbers.[56]

Technological battle

German navigation techniques

Map of Knickebein transmitters

Because of the inaccuracy of celestial navigation for precise target location in a fast moving aircraft, the Luftwaffe developed radio navigation devices and relied on three major systems: Knickebein ("Crooked leg"), X-Gerät (X-Device), and Y-Gerät (Y-Device). This led the British to develop countermeasures, giving rise to the "Battle of the Beams".[57]

Bomber crews already had some experience with these types of systems due to the deployment of the Lorenz beam, a commercial blind-landing aid which allowed aircraft to land at night or in bad weather. The Germans developed the short-range Lorenz system into the Knickebein aid, a system which used two Lorenz beams with much stronger signal transmissions. The concept was the same as the Lorenz system. Two aerials were rotated for the two converging beams which were pointed to cross directly over the target. The German bombers would attach themselves to either beam and fly along it until they started to pick up the signal from the other beam. When a continuous sound was heard from the second beam the crew knew they were above the target and began dropping their bombs.

While Knickebein was used by German crews en masse, X-Gerät use was limited to specially trained pathfinder crews. Special receivers were mounted in He 111s, with a radio mast on the bomber's fuselage. The system worked on a higher frequency (66–77 MHz, compared to Knickebein''s 30–33 MHz). Transmitters on the ground sent pulses at a rate of 180 per minute. X-Gerät received and analysed the pulses, giving the pilot both visual and aural "on course" signals. Three beams intersected the beam along the He 111's flight path. The first cross-beam acted as a warning for the bomb-aimer to start the bombing-clock which he would activate only when the second cross-beam was reached. When the third cross-beam was reached the bomb aimer activated a third trigger, which stopped the first hand of the equipment's clock, with the second hand continuing. When the second hand re-aligned with the first, the bombs were released. The clock's timing mechanism was co-ordinated with the distances of the intersecting beams from the target so the target was directly below when the bomb release occurred.[58]

Y-Gerät was the most complex system of the three. It was, in effect, an automatic beam-tracking system, operated through the bomber's autopilot. The single approach beam along which the bomber tracked was monitored by a ground controller. The signals from the station were retransmitted by the bomber's equipment. This way the distance the bomber travelled along the beam could be precisely verified. Direction-finding checks also enabled the controller to keep the crew on an exact course. The crew would be ordered to drop their bombs either by issue of a code word by the ground controller, or at the conclusion of the signal transmissions which would stop. Although its maximum usable range was similar to the previous systems, it was not unknown for specific buildings to be hit.[58]

British counter measures

In June 1940, a German prisoner of war was overheard boasting that the British would never find the Knickebein, as it was under their noses. The details of the conversation were passed to an RAF Air Staff technical advisor, Dr. R. V. Jones, who started an in-depth investigation which discovered that the Luftwaffe's Lorenz receivers were more than blind-landing devices. Jones therefore began a search for the German beams. Avro Ansons of the Beam Approach Training Development Unit (BATDU) were flown up and down Britain fitted with a 30 MHz receiver to detect them. Soon a beam was traced to Derby (which had been mentioned in Luftwaffe transmissions). The first jamming operations were carried out using requisitioned hospital x-ray machines. A subtle form of distortion was introduced. Up to nine special transmitters directed their signals at the beams in a manner that widened its path, negating its ability to accurately locate targets. Confidence in the device was diminished by the time the Luftwaffe decided to launch large-scale raids.[59] The counter operations were carried out by British Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) units under Wing Commander Edward Addison, No. 80 Wing RAF. The production of false radio navigation signals by re-transmitting the originals was a technique known as masking beacons (meacons).[41]

German beacons operated on the medium frequency band and the signals involved a two-letter Morse identifier followed by a lengthy time-lapse which enabled the Luftwaffe crews to determine the signals bearing. The Meacon system involved separate locations for a receiver with a directional aerial and a transmitter. The receipt of the German signal by the receiver was duly passed to the transmitter, the signal to be repeated. The action did not guarantee automatic success. If the German bomber flew closer to its own beam than the Meacon then the former signal would come through the stronger on the direction finder. The reverse would apply only if the Meacon were closer.[60]

In general, German bombers were likely to get through to their targets without too much difficulty. It was to be some months before an effective night fighter force would be ready, and anti-aircraft defences only became adequate after the Blitz was over, so ruses were created to lure German bombers away from their targets. Throughout 1940, dummy airfields were prepared, good enough to stand up to skilled observation. A respectable amount of bombs fell on these diversionary targets.[60]

For industrial areas, fires and lighting were simulated. It was decided to recreate normal residential street lighting, and in non-essential areas, lighting to recreate heavy industrial targets. In those sites, carbon arc lamps were used to simulate the flash of tram cables. Red lamps were used to simulate blast furnaces and locomotive fireboxes. Reflections made by factory skylights were created by placing lights under angled wooden panels.[60]

The use of diversionary techniques such as fires had to be made carefully. The fake fires could only begin when the bombing started over an adjacent target and its effects were brought under control. Too early and the chances of success receded; too late and the real conflagration at the target would exceed the diversionary fires. Another innovation was the boiler fire. These units were fed from two adjacent tanks containing oil and water. The oil-fed fires were then injected with water from time to time, the flashes produced were similar to those of the German C-250 and C-500 Flammbomben. The hope was, if it could deceive German bombardiers, it would draw more bombers away from the real target.[60]

First phase

Loge and Seeschlange

St Katharine Docks, 7 September
Heinkel He 111 bomber over the Surrey docks and Wapping in the East End of London on 7 September 1940

The first intentional air raids on London were mainly aimed at the Port of London, causing severe damage.[35] Late in the afternoon of 7 September, the Germans began Operation Loge (after the character in Wagner's ring cycle) and Seeschlange (Sea Snake), the air offensives against London and other industrial cities. Loge continued for 57 nights.[61] A total of 348 bombers and 617 fighters took part in the attack.[62][63]

Initially, the change in strategy caught the RAF off-guard and caused extensive damage and civilian casualties. Some 107,400 long tons (109,100 t) of shipping was damaged in the Thames Estuary and 1,600 civilians were casualties.[64] Of this total around 400 were killed.[65] The fighting in the air was more intense in daylight. Overall Loge had cost the Luftwaffe 41 aircraft; 14 bombers, 16 Messerschmitt Bf 109s, seven Messerschmitt Bf 110s and four reconnaissance aircraft.[66] Fighter Command lost 23 fighters, with six pilots killed and another seven wounded.[67] Another 247 bombers from Hugo Sperrle's Luftflotte 3 (Air Fleet 3) attacked that night.[68] On 8 September, the Luftwaffe returned. This time 412 people were killed and 747 severely wounded.[61]

On 9 September the OKL appeared to be backing two strategies. Its round the clock bombing of London was an immediate attempt to force the British government to capitulate, but it was also striking at Britain's vital sea communications to achieve a victory through siege. Although weather was poor, heavy raids took place that afternoon on the London suburbs and the airfield at Farnborough. The day's fighting cost Albert Kesselring and Luftflotte 2 (Air Fleet 2) 24 aircraft, including 13 Bf 109s. Fighter Command lost 17 fighters and six pilots. Over the next few days weather was poor, and the next main effort would not be made until 15 September 1940.[61]

On 15 September, the Luftwaffe made two large daylight attacks on London along the Thames Estuary, targeting the docks and rail communications in the city. Its hope was to both destroy these targets and to draw the RAF into defending them, allowing the Luftwaffe to destroy their fighters in large numbers, thereby achieving an air superiority.[69] Large air battles broke out and lasted most of the day. The first attack merely damaged the rail network for three days,[70] and the second attack failed altogether.[71] The air battle later became commemorated by Battle of Britain Day. The Luftwaffe lost 18% of the bombers sent on the operations that day, and failed to gain air superiority.[29]

While Hermann Göring—commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe—was optimistic the Luftwaffe could prevail, Hitler was not. On 17 September he postponed Operation Sea Lion (as it turned out, indefinitely) rather than gamble Germany's newly gained military prestige on a risky cross-Channel operation, particularly in the face of a sceptical Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union. In the last days of the battle, the bombers became lures in an attempt to draw the RAF into combat with German fighters. But their operations were to no avail; the worsening weather and unsustainable attrition in daylight gave the OKL an excuse to switch to night attacks on 7 October.[29][72][73]

On 14 October, the heaviest night attack to date saw 380 German bombers from Hugo Sperrle's Luftflotte 3 hit London. Around 200 people were killed and another 2,000 injured. Pile's AAA defences fired 8,326 rounds and shot down only two bombers. On 15 October, the bombers returned. Around 900 fires were started, owing to the mixture of 415 short tons (376 t) of high explosive and 11 short tons (10.0 t) of incendiaries dropped. Five main rail lines were cut in London and rolling stock damaged.[74]

Loge continued during October. According to German sources, 41 ft 6 in (12.65 m)9,000 tons of bombs were dropped in that month, with 110 of this total dropped in daylight. Over 6,000 short tons (5,400 t) was aimed at London during the night. Attacks on Birmingham and Coventry were subject to 500 short tons (450 t) of bombs between them in the last 10 days of October. Liverpool suffered 200 short tons (180 t) of bombs dropped. Hull and Glasgow were attacked, but 800 short tons (730 t) of bombs were spread out all over Britain. The Metrovickers works in Manchester was targeted and 12 short tons (11 t) of bombs dropped against it. Little tonnage was dropped on Fighter Command airfields, RAF Bomber Command airfields were targeted instead.[75]

Firefighters tackling a blaze amongst ruined buildings after an air raid on London

Luftwaffe policy at this point was primarily to continue progressive attacks on London, chiefly by night attack; second, to interfere with production in the vast industrial arms factories of the West Midlands, again chiefly by night attack; and third to disrupt plants and factories during the day by means of fighter-bombers.[76] Kesselring—commanding Luftflotte 2—was ordered to send 50 sorties per night against London and attack eastern harbours in daylight. Sperrle—commanding Luftflotte 3—was ordered to dispatch 250 sorties per night including 100 against the West Midlands. Seeschlange would be carried out by Fliegerkorps X (10th Air Corps) which concentrated on mining operations against shipping. It also took part in the bombing over Britain. By 19/20 April 1941, it had dropped 3,984 mines, ⅓ of the total dropped. The mines' ability to destroy entire streets earned them respect in Britain, but several fell unexploded into British hands allowing counter-measures to be developed which damaged the German anti-shipping campaign.[77]

By mid-November 1940, when the Germans adopted a changed plan, over 13,000 short tons (12,000 t) of high explosive and nearly 1,000,000 incendiaries had fallen on London. Outside the capital, there had been widespread harassing activity by single aircraft, as well as fairly strong diversionary attacks on Birmingham, Coventry and Liverpool, but no major raids. The London docks and railways communications had taken a heavy pounding, and much damage had been done to the railway system outside. In September, there had been no less than 667 hits on railways in Great Britain, and at one period, between 5,000 and 6,000 wagons were standing idle from the effect of delayed action bombs. But the great bulk of the traffic went on; and Londoners—though they glanced apprehensively each morning at the list of closed stretches of line displayed at their local station, or made strange detours round back streets in the buses—still got to work. For all the destruction of life and property, the observers sent out by the Ministry of Home Security failed to discover the slightest sign of a break in morale. Over 13,000 civilians had been killed, and nearly 20,000 injured, in September and October alone.[78]

Improvements in British defences

Boulton Paul Defiant night fighter N1671

British night air defences were in a poor state.[79] Few anti-aircraft guns had fire-control systems, and the underpowered searchlights were usually ineffective against aircraft at altitudes above 12,000 ft (3,700 m).[80][81] In July 1940, only 1,200 heavy and 549 light guns were deployed in the whole of Britain. Of the "heavies", some 200 were of the obsolescent 3 in (76 mm) type; the remainder were the effective 4.5 in (110 mm) and 3.7 in (94 mm) guns, with a theoretical "ceiling"' of over 30,000 ft (9,100 m), but a practical limitation of 25,000 ft (7,600 m) because the predictor in use could not accept greater heights. The light guns—about half of which were of the admirable Bofors model—dealt with aircraft only up to 6,000 ft (1,800 m).[82] Although the guns improved civilian morale, with the knowledge the German bomber crews were facing the barrage, it is now believed that shrapnel of the anti-aircraft guns achieved little and in fact caused more British casualties on the ground.[83]

Few fighter aircraft were able to operate at night, ground-based radar was limited, airborne radar was ineffective and RAF night fighters were generally ineffective.[84] RAF day fighters were converting to night operations and the inadequate Bristol Blenheim night fighter was being replaced by the powerful Beaufighter, but it was only available in very small numbers.[85] Still, the defences—by the second month of the Blitz—were not performing well.[86]

The city's defences were rapidly reorganised by General Sir Frederick Pile, the Commander-in-Chief of Anti-Aircraft Command. The difference this made to the effectiveness of air defences is questionable. The British were still ⅓ below the establishment of heavy AAA in May 1941, with only 2,631 weapons available. Hugh Dowding—Air Officer Commanding Fighter Command—had to rely on night fighters. From 1940–1941, the most successful night-fighters were the Boulton Paul Defiant; their four squadrons shot down more enemy aircraft than any other type.[87] AAA defences improved. Using radar, searchlights, over several months, the statistics went from 20,000 shells spent per raider shot down in September 1940, to 4,087 in January 1941, to 2,963 shells in February 1941.[88]

But Airborne Interception radar (AI) was unreliable. The heavy fighting in the Battle of Britain had eaten up most of Fighter Command's resources, so there was little investment in night fighting. Bombers were flown with airborne search lights out of desperation, but to little avail. Of greater potential was the GL (Gunlaying) radar and searchlights with fighter direction from RAF fighter control rooms to begin a GCI system (Ground Control-led Interception) under Group-level control (No. 10 Group RAF, No. 11 Group RAF and No. 12 Group RAF).[89]

Whitehall's disquiet at the failures of the RAF led to the sacking of Dowding (who was already due for retirement) and his replacement with Sholto Douglas on 25 November. Douglas set about introducing more Squadrons and dispersing the few GL sets to create a carpet effect in the southern counties. Still, in February 1941, there remained only seven Squadrons with 87 pilots, under half the required strength. The GL carpet was supported by six GCI sets controlling radar-equipped night-fighters. By the height of the Blitz, they were successful. The number of contacts and combats rose in 1941, from 44 and two in 48 sorties in January 1941, to 204 and 74 in May (643 sorties). But even in May, 67% of the sorties were visual cat's eye missions. Curiously, while 43% of the contacts in May 1941 were by visual sightings, they accounted for 61% of the combats. Yet when compared with Luftwaffe daylight operations, there was a sharp decline in German loses to 1%. If vigilant crew could spot the fighter first, they had a decent chance at evading it.[89]

Nevertheless, it was radar that proved to be critical weapon in the night battles over Britain from this point onward. Dowding had introduced the concept of airborne radar and encouraged its usage. Eventually it would become a success. On the night of 22/23 July 1940, a AI night fighter of the Fighter Interception Unit, flown by Flying Officer Cyril Ashfield (pilot), Pilot Officer Geoffrey Morris (Observer) and Flight Sergeant Reginald Leyland (Air Intercept radar operator), became the first pilot and crew to intercept and destroy an enemy aircraft using onboard radar to guide them to a visual interception when they brought down a Do 17 off Sussex.[90][91] On 19 November 1940 the famous RAF night fighter ace John Cunningham shot down a Ju 88 bomber using airborne radar, just as Dowding had predicted.[92]

By mid-November, nine squadrons were available, but only one was equipped with Beaufighters (No. 219 Squadron RAF at RAF Kenley). By 16 February 1941, this had grown to 12; with five equipped, or partially equipped with Beaufighters spread over five Groups.[93]

Second phase

Night attacks

Coventry city centre following 14/15 November 1940 raid.

From November 1940 – February 1941, the Luftwaffe shifted its strategy and attacked other industrial cities.[94] In particular, London and West Midlands were targeted. On the night of 13/14 November, 77 He 111s of Kampfgeschwader 26 (Bomber Wing 26 or KG 26) bombed London while 63 from KG 55 hit Birmingham. The next night, a large force hit Coventry. Pathfinders[disambiguation needed ] from 12 Kampfgruppe 100 (Bomb Group 100 or KGr 100) led 437 bombers from KG 1, KG 3, KG 26, KG 27, KG 55 and Lehrgeschwader 1 (Training Wing 1 or LG 1) which dropped 394 short tons (357 t) of high explosive, 56 short tons (51 t) of incendiaries, and 127 parachute mines.[85] Other sources say 449 bombers and a total of 530 short tons (480 t) of bombs were dropped.[95] The raid against Coventry was particularly devastating, and led to widespread use of the phrase "to conventrate".[85] Over 10,000 incendiaries were dropped.[96] Around 21 factories were seriously damaged in Coventry, and loss of public utilities stopped work at nine others, disrupting industrial output for several months. The only bomber lost was to anti-aircraft fire, despite the RAF flying 125 night sorties. No follow up raids were made, as OKL underestimated the British power of recovery (as RAF Bomber Command would do over Germany in 1943–1945).[95] The Germans were surprised by the success of the attack. The concentration had been achieved by accident.[97] The strategic effect of the raid was a brief 20% dip in aircraft production.[7]

Five nights later Birmingham was hit by 369 bombers from KG 54, KG 26, and KG 55. By the end of November, 1,100 bombers were available for night raids, An average of 200 was able to strike per night. This weight of attack went on for two months, with the Luftwaffe dropping 13,900 short tons (12,600 t) of bombs.[85] In November 1940, 6,000 sorties and 23 major attacks (more than 100 tons of bombs dropped) were flown. Two heavy (50 short tons (45 t) of bombs) attacks were also flown. In December, only 11 major and five heavy attacks were made.[98]

Probably the most devastating strike occurred on the evening of 29 December, when German aircraft attacked the City of London itself with incendiary and high explosive bombs, causing a firestorm that has been called the Second Great Fire of London.[99] The first group to use these incendiaries was Kampfgruppe 100 which despatched 10 "pathfinder" He 111s. At 18:17, it released the first of 10,000 fire bombs, eventually amounting to 300 dropped per minute.[100] Altogether, 130 German bombers destroyed the historical centre of London.[101] Civilian casualties on London throughout the Blitz amounted to 28,556 killed, and 25,578 wounded. The Luftwaffe had dropped 18,291 short tons (16,593 t) of bombs.[102]

Not all of the Luftwaffe's effort was made against inland cities. Port cities were also attacked to try and disrupt trade and sea communications. In January Swansea was bombed four times, very heavily. On 17 January around 100 bombers dropped a high concentration of incendiaries, some 32,000 in all. The main damage was inflicted on the commercial and domestic areas. Four days later 230 tons was dropped including 60,000 incendiaries. In Portsmouth Southsea and Gosport waves of 150 bombers destroyed vast swaths of the city with 40,000 incendiaries. Warehouses, rail lines and houses were destroyed and damaged, but the docks were largely untouched.[103]

In January and February 1941, Luftwaffe serviceability rates declined, until just 551 of 1,214 bombers were combat worthy. Seven major and eight heavy attacks were flown, but the weather made it difficult to keep up the pressure. Still, at Southampton, attacks were so effective morale did give way briefly with civilian authorities leading people en masse out of the city.[98]

Children of an eastern suburb of London, made homeless by the Blitz.

Strategic or 'terror' bombing

Although official German air doctrine did target civilian morale, it did not espouse the attacking of civilians directly. It hoped to destroy morale by destroying the enemy's factories and public utilities as well as its food stocks (by attacking shipping). Nevertheless, its official opposition to attacks on civilians became an increasingly moot point when large-scale raids were conducted in November and December 1940. Although not encouraged by official policy, the use of mines and incendiaries, for tactical expediency, came close to indiscriminate bombing. Locating targets in skies obscured by industrial haze meant they needed to be illuminated "without regard for the civilian population".[77]

Special units such as KGr 100 became the Beleuchtergruppe (Firelighter Group), which used incendiaries and high explosive mark the target area. The tactic was expanded into Feuerleitung (Blaze Control) with the creation of Brandbombfelde (Incendiary Fields) to mark targets. These were marked out by parachute flares. Then bombers carrying SC 1000 (1,000 kg (2,205 lb)), SC 1400 (1,400 kg (3,086 lb)), and SC 1800 (1,800 kg (3,968 lb)) "Satan" bombs were used to level streets and residential areas. By December, the SC 2500 (2,500 kg (5,512 lb)) "Max" bomb was used.[77]

These decisions, apparently taken at the Luftflotte or Fliegerkorps level (see Organisation of the Luftwaffe (1933–1945)), meant attacks on individual targets were gradually replaced by what was, for all intents and purposes, an unrestricted area attack or Terror Angriff (Terror Attack).[41] Part of the reason for this was inaccuracy of navigation. The effectiveness of British countermeasures against Knickebein, which was designed to avoid area attacks, forced the Luftwaffe to resort to these methods.[41] The shift from precision bombing to area attack is indicated in the tactical methods and weapons dropped. KGr 100 increased its use of incendiaries from 13 to 28%. By December, this had increased to 92%.[104] Use of incendiaries, which were inherently inaccurate, indicated much less care was taken to avoid civilian property, which was closely located to industrial sites. Other units ceased using parachute flares and opted for explosive target markers.[104] Captured German air crews also indicated the homes of industrial workers were deliberately targeted.[104]

Final attacks

Directive 23: Göring and the Kriegsmarine

In 1941, the Luftwaffe shifted strategy again. Erich Raeder—commander-in-chief of the Kriegsmarine—had long argued the Luftwaffe should support the German submarine force (U-bootwaffe) in the Battle of the Atlantic by attacking shipping in the Atlantic Ocean and attacking British ports.[105] Eventually, he convinced Hitler of the need to attack British port facilities.[106] Hitler had been convinced by Raeder that this was the course of action due to the high success rates of the U-Boat force during this period of the war. Hitler correctly noted, that the greatest damage to the British war economy had been done through submarines and air attacks by small numbers of Focke-Wulf Fw 200 naval aircraft. He ordered attacks to be carried out on those targets which were also the target of the Kriegsmarine. This meant that British coastal centres and shipping at sea west of Ireland were the prime targets.[107]

Hitler's interest in this strategy forced Göring and the Chief of the Luftwaffe General Staff (OKL)—Hans Jeschonnek—to review the air war against Britain in January 1941. This led to Göring and Jeschonnek agreeing to Hitler's Directive 23, Directions for operations against the British War Economy, which was published on 6 February 1941 and gave aerial interdiction of British imports by sea top priority.[108] This strategy had been recognised before the war, but Operation Eagle Attack and the following Battle of Britain had got in the way of striking at Britain's sea communications and diverted German air strength to the campaign against the RAF and its supporting structures.[109] The OKL had always regarded the interdiction of sea communications of less importance than bombing land-based aircraft industries.[110]

Directive 23 was the only concession made by Göring to the Kriegsmarine over the strategic bombing strategy of the Luftwaffe against Britain. Thereafter, he would refuse to make available any air units to destroy British dockyards, ports, port facilities facilities, or shipping in dock or at sea, lest Kriegsmarine gain control of more Luftwaffe units.[111] Raeder's successor—Karl Dönitz—would—on the intervention of Hitler—gain control of one unit (KG 40), but Göring would soon regain it. Göring's lack of cooperation was detrimental to the one air strategy with potentially decisive strategic effect on Britain. Instead, he wasted aircraft of Fliegerführer Atlantik (Flying Command Atlantic) on bombing mainland Britain instead of attacks against convoys.[112] For Göring, his prestige had been damaged by the defeat in the Battle of Britain, and he wanted to regain it by subduing Britain by air power alone. He was always reluctant to cooperate with Raeder.[113]

Even so, the decision by OKL to support the strategy in Directive 23 was instigated by two considerations, both of which had little to do with wanting to destroy Britain's sea communications in conjunction with the Kriegsmarine. First, the difficulty in estimating the impact of bombing upon war production was becoming apparent, and second, the conclusion British morale was unlikely to break led OKL to adopt the naval option.[108] The indifference displayed by OKL to Directive 23 was perhaps best demonstrated in operational directives which diluted its effect. They emphasised the core strategic interest was attacking ports but they insisted in maintaining pressure, or diverting strength, onto industries building aircraft, anti-aircraft guns, and explosives. Other targets would be considered if the primary ones could not be attacked because of weather conditions.[108]

A further line in the directive stressed the need to inflict the heaviest losses possible, but also to intensify the air war in order to create the impression an amphibious assault on Britain was planned for 1941. However, meteorological conditions over Britain were not favourable for flying and prevented an escalation in air operations. Airfields became water-logged and the 18 Kampfgruppen (bomber groups) of the Luftwaffe's Kampfgeschwadern (bomber wings) were relocated to Germany for rest and re-equipment.[108]

British ports

Anti-aircraft guns in Hyde Park London.

From the German point of view, March 1941 saw an improvement. The Luftwaffe flew 4,000 sorties that month, including 12 major and three heavy attacks. The electronic war intensified but the Luftwaffe flew major inland missions only on moonlit nights. Ports were easier to find and made better targets. To confuse the British, radio silence was observed until the bombs fell. X- and Y-Gerät beams were placed over false targets and switched only at the last minute. Rapid frequency changes were introduced for X-Gerät, whose wider band of frequencies and greater tactical flexibility ensured it remained effective at a time when British selective jamming was degrading the effectiveness of Y-Gerät.[108]

By now, the imminent threat of invasion had all but passed as Germany had failed to gain the prerequisite air superiority. The aerial bombing was now principally aimed at the destruction of industrial targets, but also continued with the objective of breaking the morale of the civilian population.[33]

The attacks were focused against western ports in March. These attacks produced some breaks in morale, with civil leaders fleeing the cities before the offensive reached its height. But the Luftwaffe's effort eased in the last 10 attacks as seven Kampfgruppen moved to Austria in preparation for the Balkans Campaign in Yugoslavia and Greece. The shortage of bombers caused the OKL to improvise.[108] Some 50 Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers and Jabos (fighter-bombers) officially classed as 'light bombers' (Leichte Kampfflugzeuge) sometimes called Leichte Kesselringe (Light Kesselrings). The defences failed to prevent widespread damage but on some occasions did prevent German bombers concentrating on some targets. Occasionally, only a ⅓ of German bombs reached their targets.[114]

The lack of heavier bombers owing to the diversion to the Balkans also meant the crews and units left behind were asked to fly two or three sorties per night. Bombers were noisy, cold and vibrated badly. Added to the tension of the mission which exhausted and drained crews, tiredness caught up with and killed many. In one incident, Peter Stahl of KG 30 was flying on his 50th mission on the night of 28/29 April. He fell asleep at the controls of his Ju 88 and woke up to discover the entire crew asleep. He roused them, ensured they took oxygen and Dextro-Energen tablets, then completed the mission.[115]

Regardless, the Luftwaffe could inflict huge damage. With the German occupation of Western Europe, the intensification of submarine and air attack on Britain's sea communications was feared by the British. Such an event would have serious consequences on the future course of the war, should the Germans succeed. Liverpool and its port became an important port for convoys heading through the Western Approaches from North America, bringing supplies and materials. The considerable rail network distributed to the rest of the country.[116] Operations against Liverpool were successful. Around 75% of the ports capacity was reduced at one point, and it lost 39,126 long tons (39,754 t) of shipping to air attacks, with another 111,601 long tons (113,392 t) damaged. Minister of Home Security Herbert Morrison was also worried morale was breaking, noting the defeatism expressed by civilians.[115] Other sources point to half of the 144 berths rendered unusable, while cargo unloading capability was reduced by 75%. The roads and rails were blocked and ships could not leave harbour. On 8 May 1941, 57 ships were destroyed, sunk or damaged amounting to 80,000 long tons (81,000 t). Around 66,000 houses were destroyed, 77,000 people made homeless, and 1,900 people killed and 1,450 seriously hurt on one night.[117] Operations against London up until May 1941 could also have a severe impact on morale. The populace of the port of Hull became 'trekkers', a term used to describe the mass exodus of people from cities before, during, and after attacks.[115] However, the attacks failed to knock out or damage railways, or port facilities for long, even in the Port of London, a target of many attacks.[35] Port of London in particular was an important target, bringing in one-third of overseas trade.[118]

The Blitz: Estimated Luftwaffe sorties.[80]
Month/Year Day Sorties (losses) Night Sorties (Losses) Luftflotte 2 sorties Luftflotte 3 sorties Major attacks Heavy attacks
October 1940 2,300 (79) 5,900 (23) 2,400 3,500 25 4
November 1940 925 (65) 6,125 (48) 1,600 4,525 23 2
December 1940 650 (24) 3,450 (44) 700 2,750 11 5
January 1941 675 (7) 2,050 (22) 450 1,600 7 6
February 1941 500 (9) 1,450 (18) 475 975 2
March 1941 800 (8) 4,275 (46) 1,625 2,650 12 3
April 1941 800 (9) 5,250 (58) 1,500 3,750 16 5
May 1941 200 (3) 3,800 (55) 1,300 2,500 11 3

On 13 March, Clydebank port near Glasgow was bombed. All but seven of its 12,000 houses were damaged. Many more ports were attacked. Plymouth was attacked five times before the end of the month while Belfast, Hull, and Cardiff were hit. Cardiff was bombed on three nights, Portsmouth centre centre was devastated by five raids. The rate of civilian housing lost was averaging 40,000 per week in September 1940. In March 1941, two raids on Plymouth and London accounted for 148,000.[119] Still, while heavily damaged, British ports continued to support war industry and supplies from North America continued to pass through them while the Royal Navy continued to operate in Plymouth, Southampton, and Portsmouth.[6][120] Plymouth in particular, because of its vulnerable position on the south coast and close proximity to German air bases, was subjected to the heaviest attacks. On 10/11 March 240 bombers dropped 193 tons of high explosives and 46,000 incendiaries. Many houses and commercial centres were heavily damaged, the electrical supply was knocked out and five oil tanks and two magazines exploded. Nine days later, two waves of 125 and 170 bombers dropped heavy bombs, including 160 tons of high explosive and 32,000 incendiaries. Much of the city centre was destroyed. Damage was inflicted on the port installations, but many bombs fell on the city itself. On 17 April 346 tons of explosives and 46,000 incendiaries were dropped from 250 bombers led by Kampfgeschwader 26. The damage was considerable, and the Germans also used aerial mines. Over 2,000 AAA shells were fired, destroying just to Ju 88s.[121] By the end of the air campaign over Britain, only eight per cent of the German effort against British ports was made using mines.[122]

In the north, substantial efforts were made against Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Sunderland which were large ports on the English east coast. On 9 April 1941 Luftflotte 2 dropped 150 tons of high explosives and 50,000 incendiaries from 120 bombers in a five-hour attack. Sewer, rail, docklands, and electric installations were damaged. In Sunderland on 25 April, Luftflotte 2 sent 60 bombers which dropped 80 tons of high explosive and 9,000 incendiaries. Much damage was done. However, as with the attacks in the south, the Germans failed did not prevent maritime movements or cripple industry in the regions.[123]

The last major attack on London was on 10/11 May 1941, on which the Luftwaffe flew 571 sorties and dropped 800 tonnes of bombs. This caused more than 2,000 fires which affected morale badly. Another raid was carried out on 11/12 May 1941.[115] Still, 1,436 people were killed and 1,792 seriously injured.[119] Westminster Abbey and the Law Courts were damaged while a chamber of the House of Commons was destroyed. One-third of London's streets were impassable. All but one railway station line was blocked for several weeks.[119] This raid was significant as 63 German fighters were sent with the bombers indicating the growing effectiveness of RAF night fighter defences.[115]

Potency of RAF night fighters

German air supremacy at night was also now under threat. British night-fighter operations out over the Channel were proving highly successful.[124] This was not immediately apparent.[125] The Bristol Blenheim F.1 was undergunned, with just four .303 in (7.7 mm) machine guns which could not hope[126] to down the Do 17, Ju 88, or Heinkel He 111. Moreover, the Blenheim struggled to reach the speed of the German bombers. Added to the fact an interception relied on visual sighting, a kill was most elusive even in the conditions of a moonlit sky.[126]

The Boulton Paul Defiant was a much better aircraft in the night fighter role. It was faster and able to catch the bombers, and its configuration was also beneficial. Placing its armament of four machine guns in a turret instead of fixed forward it could (much like German night fighters in 1943–1945 with their Schräge Musik configuration) engage the unsuspecting German bomber from beneath. Attacks from below offered a larger target, compared to attacking tail-on, as well as a better chance of not being seen by the bomber (so less chance of evasion), as well as greater likelihood of detonating its bombload. In subsequent months a steady number of German bombers would fall to night fighters.[127]

Better news was in the offing with the Bristol Beaufighter. It would prove formidable, but its development was slow.[127] The Beaufighter had a maximum speed of 320 mph (510 km/h), an operational ceiling of 26,000 ft (7,900 m) and a climb rate of 2,500 ft (760 m) per minute. Its armament of four 20 mm (0.79 in) Hispano cannon and six .303 in Browning machine guns offered a serious threat to German bombers.[128] On 19 November, John Cunningham of No. 604 Squadron RAF shot down a bomber flying a AI-equipped Beaufighter. It was the first air victory for the airborne radar.[128]

In November and December 1940, the Luftwaffe flew 9,000 sorties against British targets and RAF night fighters claimed only six shot down. In January 1941, Fighter Command flew 486 sorties against 1,965 made by the Germans. Just three and 12 were claimed by the RAF and AAA defences respectively.[129] In the bad weather of February 1941, Fighter Command flew 568 sorties to counter the Luftwaffe which flew 1,644 individual sorties. Night fighters could claim only four bombers, and lost four themselves.[130]

By April and May 1941, the Luftwaffe was still getting through to their targets, taking no more than one to two percent losses on any given mission.[131] On 19/20 April 1941, in honour of Hitler's 52nd birthday, 712 bombers hit Plymouth with a record 1,000 tons of bombs.[131][131] Losses were minimal. In the following month, 22 German bombers were lost with 13 confirmed to have been shot down by night fighters.[131] On 3/4 May, nine were shot down in one night.[131] On 10/11 May, London suffered severe damage, but 10 German bombers were downed.[131] In May 1941, RAF night fighters shot down 38 German bombers.[132]

By the end of May, Kesselring's Luftflotte 2 had been withdrawn, leaving Hugo Sperrle's Luftflotte 3 as a token force to maintain the illusion of strategic bombing.[115] Hitler now had his sights set on Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union in June. The Blitz came to end.

Aftermath and legacy

German losses

Between 20 June 1940, when the very first German air operations began over Britain, and 31 March 1941, the OKL recorded the loss of 2,265 aircraft over the British Isles. A quarter were fighters, and ⅓ were bombers. No fewer than 3,363 Luftwaffe airmen were killed, 2,641 were missing and 2,117 wounded.[5] Total losses could be high as 600 bombers, just 1.5% of the sorties flown. A sizeable proportion were wrecked in landings, or owing to bad weather.[4]

Effectiveness of bombing

The military effectiveness of bombing varied. The Luftwaffe dropped around 45,000 short tons (41,000 t) of bombs during the Blitz disrupting production and transport, reducing food supplies and shaking the British morale. It also helped to support the U-Boat blockade by sinking some 58,000 long tons (59,000 t) of shipping destroyed and 450,000 long tons (460,000 t) damaged. Yet, overall the British production rose steadily throughout this period although there were significant falls during April 1941, probably influenced by the departure of workers of Easter Holidays according to the British official history. The British official history on war production noted the great impact was upon the supply of components rather than complete equipment.[5] In aircraft production, the British were denied the opportunity to reach the planned target of 2,500 aircraft in a month, arguably the greatest achievement of the bombing, as it forced the dispersal of industry.[133] In April 1941, when the targets were British ports, rifle production fell by 25%, filled-shell production by 4.6%, and in smallarms production 4.5% overall.[133] Strategic effect against industrial cities was varied. Most cities took 10–15 days to recover from heavy raids, though Belfast and Liverpool took longer. The attacks against Birmingham took war industries some three months to recover fully from. The exhausted population took three weeks to overcome the effects of an attack.[133]

A street of ruined houses in London

Both the air offensive against the RAF and British industry failed to have the effect desired. More might have been achieved had OKL exploited a British weak spot, in particular the vulnerability of British sea communications. The Allies would do so later when RAF Bomber Command targeted rail communitions and the United States Army Air Forces targeted oil. However, this would have required an economic-industrial analysis of which the Luftwaffe was incapable.[5] Instead, OKL sought clusters of targets which suited the latest policy (which changed frequently) and disputes within the leadership were about tactics rather than strategy.[134] Militarily ineffective, the Blitz caused enormous damage to Britain's infrastructure and housing stock. It cost around 41,000 lives, while figures for the wounded may have been as high as 139,000.[4]

RAF evaluation

The relieved British began to assess the impact of the Blitz in August 1941, and the RAF Air Staff used the German experience to improve Bomber Command's offensives. They concluded bombers should strike a single target each night and use more incendiaries because they had a greater impact on production than high explosives. They also noted regional production was severely disrupted when city centres were devastated through the loss of administrative offices, utilities and transport. They believed the Luftwaffe had failed in precision attack, and concluded the German example of area attack using incendiaries was the way forward for operations over Germany.[134] Some writers claim the Air Staff ignored a critical lesson, however: British morale did not break. Targeting German morale, as Bomber Command would do, was no more successful.[135] Aviation strategists dispute that morale was ever a major consideration for Bomber Command. Throughout 1933–39 none of the 16 Western Air Plans drafted mentioned morale as a target. The first three directives in 1940 did not mention civilian populations or morale in any way. Morale was not mentioned until the ninth wartime directive on 21 September 1940.[136] The 10th directive in October 1940 mentioned morale by name. However, industrial cities were only to be targeted if weather denied strikes on Bomber Command's main concern: oil.[137] AOC Bomber Command Arthur Harris did see German morale as a major objective.[138] However, he did not believe that the morale-collapse could occur without the destruction of the German economy. The primary goal of Bomber Command's offensives was to destroy the German economic-industrial base (economic warfare), and in doing so reduce morale. In late 1943, just before the Battle of Berlin, he declared the power of Bomber Command would enable it to achieve "a state of devastation in which surrender is inevitable."[18][139] A summary of Harris' strategic intentions was clear:

From 1943 to the end of the war, he [Harris] and other proponents of the area offensive represented it [the bomber offensive] less as an attack on morale than as an assault on the housing, utilities, communications, and other services that supported the war production effort.[139]

Popular imagery and propaganda

A converse popular image arose of British people in the Second World War: a collection of people locked in national solidarity. This image entered the historiography of the Second World War in the 1980s and 1990s.[dubious ] It was evoked by both the right and left political factions in Britain during the Falklands War when it was embedded in a nostalgic narrative in which the Second World War represented aggressive British patriotism successfully defending democracy.[140][141] This imagery of people in the Blitz was and is powerfully portrayed in film, radio, newspapers and magazines.[142] At the time it was a useful propaganda tool for home and foreign consumption.[143] Historians' critical response to this construction focused on what were seen as over-emphasised claims of righteous nationalism and national unity. In the Myth of the Blitz, Angus Calder exposed some of the counter-evidence of anti-social and divisive behaviours. What he saw as the myth—serene national unity—became "historical truth". In particular, class division was most evident.[140]

Raids during the Blitz produced the greatest divisions and morale effects in the lower-class areas. Lack of sleep, insufficient shelters and inefficiency of warning systems were causes. The loss of sleep was a particular factor, with many not bothering to attend inconvenient shelters. The Communist Party of Great Britain made political capital out of these difficulties.[144]

In the wake of the Coventry Blitz, there was widespread agitation from the Communist Party over the need for bomb proof shelters. Many Londoners, in particular, took to using the Underground railway system, without authority, for shelter and sleeping through the night there until the following morning. So worried were the Government over the sudden campaign of leaflets and posters distributed by the Communist Party in Coventry and London, that the Police were sent in to seize their production facilities. The Government, up until November 1940, was opposed to the centralised organisation of shelter. Home Secretary Sir John Anderson was replaced by Herbert Morrison soon afterwards, in the wake of a Cabinet reshuffle as the dying Neville Chamberlain resigned. Morrison warned that he could not counter the Communist unrest unless provision of shelters were made. He recognised the right of the public to seize tube stations and authorised plans to improve their condition and expand them by tunnelling. Still, many British citizens, which had been members of the Labour Party, itself inert over the issue, lost many members to the Communist Party. The Communists attempted to blame the damage and casualties of the Coventry raid on the rich factory owners, big business and landowning interests and called for a negotiated peace. Though they failed to make a large gain in influence, the membership of the Party had doubled by June 1941.[145] The Communist threat was deemed important enough for Herbert Morrison to order, with the support of the Cabinet, the stoppage of the Daily Worker and The Week; the Communist newspaper and journal.[146]

The brief success of the Communists also fed into the hands of the British Union of Fascists (BUF). Anti-Semitic attitudes became widespread, particularly in London. Rumours that Jewish support was underpinning the Communist surge were frequent. Rumours that Jews were inflating prices, responsible for the Black Market, were the first to panic under attack (even the cause of the panic) and secured the best shelters via underhanded methods were also widespread. Moreover, there was also racial antagonism between the small Black, Indian and Jewish factions. However, the feared race riots did not transpire despite the mixing of different peoples into confined areas.[147]

In other cities, class conflict was more evident. Over a quarter of London's population had left the city by November 1940. Civilians left for more remote areas of the country. Upsurges in population south Wales and Gloucester intimated where these displaced people went. Other reasons, including industry dispersal may have been a factor. However, resentment of rich self-evacuees or hostile treatment of poor ones were signs of persistence of class resentments although these factors did not appear to threaten social order.[148] The total number of evacuees numbered 1.4 million, including a high proportion from the poorest inner-city families. Reception committees were completely unprepared for the condition of some of the children. Far from displaying the nation’s unity in time of war, the scheme backfired, often aggravating class antagonism and bolstering prejudice about the urban poor. Within four months, 88% of evacuated mothers, 86% of small children, and 43% of school children had been returned home. The lack of bombing in the Phoney War contributed significantly to the return of people to the cities, but class conflict was not eased a year later when evacuation operations had to be put into effect again.[42]


  1. ^ Williamson Murray's Strategy for Defeat indicated a serious decline in operational readiness. In mid-September, Bf 109 units possessed only 67% of crews against authorised aircraft, Bf 110 units just 46%, and bomber units 59%.[33]
  2. ^ This was caused by moisture which ruined the electrical fuzes. German sources estimated 5–10% of bombs failed to explode; the British put the figure at 20%.[41]
  1. ^ a b Stansky 2007, p. 3
  2. ^ Hooton 1997, p. 42.
  3. ^ a b Richards 1954, p. 217.
  4. ^ a b c d Dear and Foot 2005, p. 109.
  5. ^ a b c d Hooton 2010, p. 89.
  6. ^ a b Cooper 1981, p. 174.
  7. ^ a b Cooper 1981, p. 173.
  8. ^ Cox and Gray 2002, p.xvii.
  9. ^ Montgomery-Hyde 1976, p. 137.
  10. ^ Corum 1997, p.7.
  11. ^ Corum 1997, p.&nbs;240
  12. ^ Corum 1997, pp.238–241.
  13. ^ Corum 1997, p. 138.
  14. ^ Corum 1997, p.252.
  15. ^ Corum 1997, p. 248
  16. ^ a b Overy July 1980, p.410.
  17. ^ The British Bomber Command would suffer from the same accuracy problem.
  18. ^ a b c Overy July 1980, p. 411.
  19. ^ a b Overy July 1980, p. 407.
  20. ^ Corum 1997, p. 280.
  21. ^ Overy July 1980, p. 408.
  22. ^ Mckee 1989, pp.40–41.
  23. ^ Faber 1977, p.203.
  24. ^ McKlee 1989, p.294.
  25. ^ Faber 1977, pp.202–203.
  26. ^ Price 1990, p.12; Mckee 1989, p.225.
  27. ^ Wood and Dempster 2003, pp.212–213.
  28. ^ Bungay 2000, pp.368–369.
  29. ^ a b c Hooton 2010, p. 80.
  30. ^ a b Corum 1997, p. 283.
  31. ^ Corum 1997, pp.283–284; Murray 1983, pp.45–46.
  32. ^ Ray 1996, p. 101.
  33. ^ a b Murray 1983, p. 52.
  34. ^ Corum 1997, p. 282.
  35. ^ a b c Overy 1980, p. 35.
  36. ^ Murray 1983, pp. 10–11.
  37. ^ Murray 1983, p.54; McKee 1989, p.255.
  38. ^ Overy 1980, pp. 34 & 37.
  39. ^ Hooton 1997, p. 38; Hooton 2010, p. 90.
  40. ^ Bungay 2000, p. 379.
  41. ^ a b c d e Hooton 2010, p. 84.
  42. ^ a b c d e f g Field 2002, p. 13.
  43. ^ a b Field 2002, p. 15.
  44. ^ Field 2002, p. 44.
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  46. ^ Field 2002, p. 18.
  47. ^ Hill 2002, p. 36.
  48. ^ Ray 1996, p. 51.
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  50. ^ Ray 1996, p. 50.
  51. ^ a b c Ray 2009, p. 124.
  52. ^ Ray 2009, p. 125.
  53. ^ Ray 2009, p. 126.
  54. ^ Hyde 1976, pp. 138, 223–228.
  55. ^ Ray 2009, p. 127.
  56. ^ Ray 1996, pp. 127–128.
  57. ^ Ray 1996, p. 194.
  58. ^ a b Mackay 2003, p. 89.
  59. ^ Mackay 2003, pp. 88–89.
  60. ^ a b c d Mackay 2003, p. 91.
  61. ^ a b c Bungay 2000, p. 313.
  62. ^ Bungay 2000, p. 309.
  63. ^ Shores 1985, p. 52.
  64. ^ Hooton 1997, p. 26.
  65. ^ Stansky 2007, p. 95.
  66. ^ Bungay 2000, p. 310.
  67. ^ Bungay 2000, p. 311.
  68. ^ Collier 1980, p. 178.
  69. ^ Price 1990, p. 12.
  70. ^ Goss 2000, p. 154.
  71. ^ Price 1990, pp. 93–104.
  72. ^ Shores 1985, p. 55.
  73. ^ McKee 1989, p. 286.
  74. ^ Ray 1996, p. 131.
  75. ^ James and Cox 2000, p. 307.
  76. ^ James and Cox 2000, p. 308.
  77. ^ a b c Hooton 1997, p. 34.
  78. ^ Richards 1954, p. 206.
  79. ^ Shores 1985, p. 56.
  80. ^ a b Hooton 1997, p. 33.
  81. ^ Richards 1954, p. 201.
  82. ^ Richards 1954, p. 202.
  83. ^ Gaskin 2006, pp. 186–187.
  84. ^ Price 1990, p. 20.
  85. ^ a b c d Shores 1985, p. 57.
  86. ^ Dobinson 2001, p. 252.
  87. ^ Taylor 1969, p. 326.
  88. ^ Ray 1996, p. 193.
  89. ^ a b Hooton 1997, p. 32.
  90. ^ White 2007, pp. 50–51.
  91. ^ "The Airmen's Stories – F/O G Ashfield", The Battle of Britain London Monument 
  92. ^ Holland 2007, pp. 602–603.
  93. ^ Ray 1996, p. 189.
  94. ^ Cooper 1981, p. 170.
  95. ^ a b Hooton 1997, p. 35.
  96. ^ Gaskin 2005, p. 156.
  97. ^ Price 1977, pp. 43–45.
  98. ^ a b Hooton 2010, p. 87.
  99. ^ Hooton 1997, p. 36.
  100. ^ Gaskin 2005, p. 193.
  101. ^ Mackay 2003, p. 94.
  102. ^ Stansky 2007, p. 180.
  103. ^ Ray 1996, p. 185.
  104. ^ a b c Hooton 2010, p. 85.
  105. ^ Raeder 2001, p. 322.
  106. ^ Over 1980, p. 36.
  107. ^ Isby 2005, p. 110.
  108. ^ a b c d e f Hooton 2010, p. 88.
  109. ^ Ray 1996, p. 195.
  110. ^ Isby 2005, p. 109.
  111. ^ Overy 1980, p. 37.
  112. ^ Murray 1983, p. 136.
  113. ^ Murray 1983, p. 135.
  114. ^ Hooton 2010, pp.88–89.
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  116. ^ Ray 1996, p. 205.
  117. ^ Ray 1996, p. 207.
  118. ^ Ray 1996, p. 16.
  119. ^ a b c Calder 2003, p. 37.
  120. ^ Calder 2003, p. 119.
  121. ^ Ray 1996, p. 215, 217.
  122. ^ Neitzel 2003, p. 453.
  123. ^ Ray 1996, p. 225.
  124. ^ Faber 1977, p. 205.
  125. ^ Mackay 2003, p. 88.
  126. ^ a b Mackay 2003, pp. 86–87.
  127. ^ a b Mackay 2003, p. 87.
  128. ^ a b Mackay 2003, p. 93.
  129. ^ Ray 1996, p. 190.
  130. ^ Ray 1996, p. 191.
  131. ^ a b c d e f Mackay 2003, p. 98.
  132. ^ Ray 1996, p. 208.
  133. ^ a b c Hooton 1997, p. 38.
  134. ^ a b Hooton 2010, p. 90.
  135. ^ Garrett, Stephen A. Ethics and Airpower in World War II (St. Martin's, 1993).
  136. ^ Hall 1998, p. 118.
  137. ^ Hall 1998, p. 119.
  138. ^ Hall 1998, p. 120.
  139. ^ a b Hall 1998, p. 137.
  140. ^ a b Summerfield and Penistion-Bird 2007, p. 3.
  141. ^ Field 2002, p. 12.
  142. ^ Summerfield and Penistion-Bird 2007, p. 4.
  143. ^ Calder 2003, pp. 17–18.
  144. ^ Calder 2003, pp. 125–126.
  145. ^ Calder 2003, p. 83-84.
  146. ^ Calder 2003, p. 88.
  147. ^ Field 2002, p. 19.
  148. ^ Calder 2003, pp. 129–130.


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