July 14, 2011

Battle of Britain: Part II - The Blitz - England Under Siege

St. Paul's Cathedral, London Blitz 1940
The Blitz, defined as "lightning" was the German strategic offensive against England which lasted from September 7, 1940 to May 10, 1941. The Luftwaffe bombed London for 76 consecutive nights including many other important military and industrial centres such as Aberdeen, Barrow-in-Furness, Belfast, Bootle, Birkenhead, Wallasey, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Clydebank, Coventry, Exeter, Glasgow, Greenock, Sheffield, Swansea, Liverpool, Kingston upon Hull, Manchester, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Nottingham, Brighton, Eastbourne, Sunderland, and Southampton. After London the cities of Bootle and Hull had suffered the worst damage with many buildings destroyed or rendered uninhabitable. The Luftwaffe bombed Spitfire and tank factories in Birmingham, and munitions factories in Coventry virtually destroying the city center in the process.

Politicians and officials scrambled to organize civil defences,fearful of the disastrous consequences that bombardment would have on large sprawling metropolises such as London and Birmingham. Such fears were prevalent even before war broke out. In November 1934, Winston Churchill addressed the House of Commons, and echoed the fears of the British public that a large-scale German invasion of England would result in apocalyptic upheaval of British life as they knew it, with up to 600,000 dead, and millions of refugees fleeing into the countryside. Despite their efforts to prepare the public, there was little that the government could do to ensure the safety of millions of people throughout the British Isles. The horrible reality was that vast numbers of citizens remained vulnerable to bombing attacks. When war finally did come the supply of shelters was drastically insufficient especially in Birmingham and Coventry. By April 1941, the shelters in Belfast could not accomodate more than a quarter of the population. The poorer East-End of London also vulnerable to bombing attack and was targeted in particular due to its large Jewish population.

The organization of civil defence was largely left to the local authorities - without the provision of a clear set of procedures to follow. Lack of sufficient communal shelters made it necessary for many citizens to build their own, if they had a backyard. The Anderson shelter was one of the options available, and was designed to accommodate up to six people. Constructed of galvanised corrugated steel, its panels were bolted together and buried four feet into the ground, and its roof covered by about 15 inches of soil. Apparently the shelters tested well under blast and ground shock, and demonstrated that they were able to absorb a great deal of energy however they could not survive a direct hit.

Anderson Shelter

However, when winter came around, the Anderson shelters were cold and damp, and often flooded. It was quickly replaced by the Morrison shelter, an indoor shelter which resembled a large steel cage into which two adults and one child could fit. The cage measured 6 ft 6 in (2m) long, 4 ft (1.2m) wide, and 2 ft 6 in ( 0.75m) high with a solid steel plate table top of 1/8 in (3mm) thickness. The wire mesh sides were welded together with the addition of a metal lath "mattress" floor. Its cage was designed to absorb the shock of the upper floor falling. While these shelters could not protect its occupants from a direct hit, they provided some protection from blast damage. Tragically, many of these shelters were badly assembled and were soon abandoned as unsafe.

Morrison Shelter
Thousands of Londoners flocked to the London Underground for shelter during air raids. In 1939 the government had prohibited its use as a shelter  to avoid the disruption that would be caused to the movement of commuters and troops. There were minor incidences between crowds waiting to go below and Underground officials who were instructed to lock the entrances once a raid began. But by the second week of bombing however the authorities finally succumbed to public pressure.

Many civilians sought shelter in the Tube, already lining up outside for 04:00 pm when they would be permitted to enter.   By mid-September approximately 150,000 people a night slept there and the numbers peaked to 177,000 by the end of the month, but it declined somewhat during the winter.  Though the Underground was much safer than other options, it was not a guarantee of protection. Bombs hit several stations - Marble Arch, Balham, Bank and Liverpool Street.

The British population had been categorized as the largest civilian army in World War II.  Participation in various organizations was widespread.  Over 1.5 million volunteers enlisted in the Home Guard. These were civilians who were unable to join the military, usually due to age, and served as auxiliary defence forces, guarding coastal areas, airfields, factories and explosive stores.  They were nicknamed, "Dad's Army". Originally they were called the Local Defence Volunteers, or LDV. (in slang it was Look-Duck-Vanish, hence the name change to Home Guard).

Home Guard 1940
Home Guard Improvised Weapons
Initially their role was to observe and report enemy movements but they soon assumed a more aggressive role in their duties. They were expected to face combat with the enemy however their own training was negligible and their only weapons were pitchforks and shotguns, or museum-grade firearms. They did patrol duty on foot, by bicycle, on horseback, as well as river patrols in private craft.  Although they did not wear uniforms, their armband clearly identified them - LDV.  A few members of the Home Guard even constructed make-shift armoured vehicles which consisted of steel plates added to cars or trucks - some of which were armed with machine guns.  In addition were a few armoured cars  that had previously been discontinued by the army.

ARP Warden
The Air Raid Precautions Service (ARP) was created in 1924 because of the development of enemy bomber aircraft and the threat it posed on the British public. During the Blitz, the ARPs' responsibilities were the protection of civilians from air raids; the issuing of gas masks, pre-fabricated air-raid shelters, such as the Anderson shelters and Morrison shelters,ensuring the upkeep of local public shelters, and maintaining blackout periods. They were also part of teams helping to rescue people after air raids. Some of the ARP volunteers were women who served as ambulance attendants. They gave first aid to casualties, searched for survivors, and helped to recover bodies.

In 1941 the main functions of the ARP were incorporated into the newly formed Civil Defence Service, though the term ARP remained in usage for the remainder of the war. The ARP were disbanded in 1946 and replaced by the Civil Defence Corps in 1949.

ARP wardens patrolled the streets during periods of blackout to ensure that no light was visible. If light was visible, an order was shouted to "Put that light out!" or "Cover that window!" Anyone who refused to comply were reported to the local police. Other duties involved extinguishing incendiary bombs with sandbags, if at all possible, as well as helping citizens in bombed areas. The ARP were trained in fire-fighting and first aid and provided essential help until official rescue services arrived.

ARP fire-fighters London Blitz 1940

Hull - search for survivors
Approximately 1.4 million ARP wardens served in Britain during the war, mostly part-time unpaid volunteers. Many, like Thomas Alderson, went beyond the call of duty.  Alderson was the first ARP to be awarded with the George Cross, for having saved civilians in Bridlington in 1940.

Other organizations included the Auxiliary Fire Service, and the Scout Association also known as the "Blitz Scouts" because they guided fire engines to the most needed areas. In 1938 the AFS had only 6,600 full-time and 13,800 part-time personnel in all of England but by July 1939 its ranks swelled to 138,000.

The Womens's Voluntary Services for Civil Defence, established in 1938, was considered the female branch of the ARP. The WVS' were instrumental in the evacuation of children, established centres for civilians who were displaced by the bombing, operated canteens and organized salvage and recycling efforts. By the end of 1941, one million women had joined its ranks.

Evacuation of British children 1940
The evacuation of British children to rural areas was the largest civilian mobilisation of its kind during World War II.  The first massive evacuation took place on September 1, 1939, just two days before England declared war on Germany.  Almost 4 million people were displaced; children, mothers, pregnant women, disabled persons, teachers and various other assistants.  In May 1940, the Children's Overseas Reception Board (CORB) was formed to organize the evacuation of children to Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. The second evacuation commenced in May 1940 after the fall of France.   By July more than 200,000 children were removed from coastal towns in southern and eastern England.  Over 210,000 applications were made but the entire plan was scrapped after the sinking of City of Benares on September 17, 1940.  

The SS City of Benares evacuated 90 children and was headed toward Canada when the German U-48 submarine targeted and torpedoed it.

Seventy-seven children died.


Phase One

The first phase of the attack, code-named Operation Loge began in late afternoon on September 7, 1940 and lasted for 57 days targeting the Port of London as well as areas around London and other major cities. The Luftwaffe armada consisting of 348 bombers and 617 fighters caused very heavy damage to shipping in the Thames estuary. Air battles were much more intense during daylight hours and resulted in heavy losses. British casualties were 1,600 civilians 400 of whom were killed. Fighter Command lost 23 fighters, and casualties were 6 killed and 7 wounded. The Germans lost 41 aircraft, 14 bombers, 16 Bf 109 Messerscmidts, 7 Bf 110s, and 4 reconnaissance aircraft. Later that night 247 German bombers returned. The next day, German bombs killed 412 people and wounded 747.

The Battle Of Britain (Part 1/5) (00:10:00m)

By September 9 it was apparent that the OKL (Oberkommando der Luftwaffe) was following two strategies: continuous round-the-clock bombing of London, and targeting England's vital sea communications, all in an effort to force England's surrender. Despite the poor weather, the Germans conducted intense bombing raids on the London suburbs and the airfield at Farnborough. Luftflotte 2 lost 24 airplanes including 13 Bf 109s. Fighter Command lost 17 fighters and six pilots.

September 15, 1940 came to be known as Battle of Britain Day. During the day two large fleets of the Luftwaffe  bombed the London docks and rail communications. The Luftwaffe attempted to gain air superiority by luring the RAF into battle and destroying them in as large numbers as possible. The first bombing was successful and caused damage to the rail network for three days, but a subsequent attack failed. The Luftwaffe lost 18% of their bombers and efforts to attain air superiority again failed. Casualties were 57 to 61 aircraft; 20 severely damaged; 63-81 killed, 63-64 captured; 30-31 wounded and 21 missing. The RAF suffered casualties of 29 aircraft destroyed, 21 damaged; 14-16 killed, 14 wounded, 1 captured.

During the month of September there were at least 667 hits on British railways. In one incident there were about 5,000 to 6,000 wagons idle on the track due to delayed action bombs. But despite the heavy attacks, rail traffic did resume and Londoners were able to get to their work.  In September an average of 40,000 homes were lost per week. Despite the widespread destruction and deaths, British morale remained resolute.

These battles were by no means conventional. In fact it was for the most part a secret, electronic war. The Luftwaffe had developed three major devices for radio navigation: Knickebein, ("Crooked leg"), X-Gerat (X-device), and Y-Gerat (Y-device).   In June 1940 the British inadvertently discovered the secrets of the Knickebein when a German POW was overheard talking about it in detail. It was reported to the RAF Air Staff technical advisor, Dr. R.V. Jones, who began an in-depth investigation to determine its validity. In response, the British introduced the first jamming operations using apparatus as simple as hospital x-ray machines, which when used in conjunction with nine special transmitters, directed signals at the beams that widened its path and thus interfered with the Germans’ ability to track targets accurately.

 X and Y-device beams were intentionally directed over false targets, and switched only at the last minute.  The Luftwaffe attempted to confuse the British by maintaining radio silence until the bombs fell. Once the British had developed jamming devices they were able to degrade the effectiveness of the Y-device. In response, the Germans established wider band of frequencies for the X-device to compensate for radio interference. This came to be known as the “Battle of the Beams”.

Operation Loge continued into October during which over 9,000 tons of bombs were dropped during night raids, two thirds of them on London.. About 500 short tons of bombs were dropped on Birmingham and Coventry in the last ten days of October as well; 200 short tons on Liverpool and lesser tonnage elsewhere. In all about 800 short tons were dropped out throughout Britain. Though RAF Bomber Command airfields were heavily bombed, there was little tonnage dropped on Fighter Command airfields.

Coventry Blitz

The Luftwaffe began to include nightly raids in their campaign; 50 sorties were dispatched over London every night while eastern harbours were bombed during the day, and 250 sorties per night were sent over the West Midlands. The German 10th Air Corps (part of the Sealion contingent) also took part in the bombing and by April 20, 1941 had dropped dropped 3,984 mines, capable of destroying entire streets. The few that did not explode were salvaged by British forces to use in counter-measures against the Germans.

London Blitz 1940 Fireboats on Thames River
London Necropolis Railway Station 1940

By mid-November 1940, the Germans had dropped over 13,000 short tons of high explosives on London and approximately 1,000,000 incendiaries. There were no major raids outside London except for harassing activity by aircraft and diversionary maneuvers against Birmingham, Coventry and Liverpool. A great deal of damage had been done to the London docks and railway communications. Over 13,000 civilians had been killed, and nearly 20,000 injured, in September and October alone.  Yet for all the destruction and loss of life,  observers sent by the British Home Security noted that morale remained steadfast.

British Defenses

The British employed ingenious ruses as a means to lure German bombers away from their targets. Throughout 1940, dummy airfields were assembled and were convincing enough to pass for the real thing even with skilled observation. As a result a significant amount of bombs fells on these targets. In an effort to protect industrial and residential areas, the British used simulated fires and lighting. Carbon arc lamps were used to simulate the flash of tram cables, and red lamps were used to simulate blast furnaces and locomotive fireboxes.

London Airspotter
In addition, reflections made by factory skylights were created by placing lights under angled wooden panels. However, the fake fires had to be timed very carefully so as not to begin until the bombing started over an adjacent target. Another technique, called the boiler fire, emitted flashes similar to those of German C-250 and C-500 Flammbomben. It was generated by two adjacent tanks containing oil and water - the oil-fed fires being injected intermittently with water.

British night air defences were in a poor state: anti-aircraft guns and fire-control systems were ineffective against enemy aircraft flying at over 12,000 ft. (3,700m). In July 1940, the British had only 1,200 heavy and 549 light guns in the entire country. Many of them were not equipped with fire-control systems. Of the heavy guns, about 200 were the outdated 3 inch (76mm) type. The remaining guns, the 4.5 in (110mm) and the 3.7 in (94mm) had a theoretical ceiling of 30,000 ft (9,100m), but only a practical limitation of 25,000 ft (7,600m) because the predictor in use could not accept greater heights. Half of the light guns were Bofor models and had a range up to 6,000 ft (1,800m). However it is believed that the shrapnel created by these models caused more damage on the ground than in the air.

British defences were woefully inadequate and still not effective into the second month of the Blitz. Few fighter aircraft could operate at night, the ground-based radar had its limitations, airborne radar was ineffective, The Bristol Blenheim night fighter was replaced by the more powerful Beaufighter, though the latter was available in very small numbers. The most successful night-flyers were the Boulton Paul Defiant which shot down more enemy aircraft than any other type.

Airborne Interception radar (AI) was unreliable. RAF Bombers were flown with airborne search lights due to lack of other resources. However the GL (Gunlaying) radar was very promising, which used searchlights with fighter direction from RAF fighter control rooms to begin a GCI system (Ground Control-led Interception).

The failures of the RAF led to the dismissal of Dowding, who was replaced with Sholto Douglas on November 25, 1940.  Douglas organized additional squadrons, and dispersed several GL sets to create a carpet effect in the southern counties. However by February 1941 the RAF had only seven squadrons left with 87 pilots, consisting of less than half of the required strength. The GL carpet was supported by six GCI sets controlling radar-equipped night-fighters. By the height of the Blitz, their efforts proved successful.

In 1941, the number of contacts and combats rose from 44 and two in 48 sorties in January 1941, to 204 and 74 in May. A total of 643 sorties were conducted but 67% of them were visual cat's eye missions. Oddly, while 43% of the contacts in May 1941 were by visual sightings, they accounted for 61% of the combats: when compared that of the 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.

John Cunningham by Cuthbert Orde
From this point forward radar was the critical weapon in the night battles over Britain. Dowding was responsible for the introduction of airborne radar which eventually proved successful. On the night of July 22/23, 1940, an AI night fighter of the Fighter Interception Unit intercepted and destroyed enemy aircraft using onboard radar which guided them to a visual interception. The pilot, Flying Officer Cyril Ashfield, the observer Pilot Officer Geoffrey Morris and the Air Intercept radar operator, Flight Sergeant Reginald Leyland were credited with having taken down the Do 17 off Sussex. On November 19, 1940, RAF night fighter ace John Cunningham shot down a Ju 88 bomber also using airborne radar. By the middle of November, nine squadrons had become available though only the No. 219 Squadron from RAF Kenley was equipped with Beaufighters. By February 16, 1941 there were twelve squadrons, with five of the Groups equipped with Beaufighters.

Beaufighters RAF

Phase Two

In the second phase of battle, from November 1940 to February 1941, the Luftwaffe continued its attacks on London and the Midlands. On November 13-14, 77 He 111s bombed London, while Birmingham was hit by 63 planes from the KG55, the most famous squadron of the Luftwaffe. The following night Coventry was attacked by 437 bombers of the 12 Kampfgruppe 100. The Lehrgeschwader 1 dropped 394 short tons of high explosives, 56 short tons of incendiaries and 127 parachute mines. (Statistics vary according to source.) By the end of the campaign over 10,000 incendiary bombs had been dropped. About 21 factories were badly damaged, as well as nine others causing disruption of industrial output for several months. Five nights later, 369 German bombers hit Birmingham. By the end of November the Luftwaffe had at the ready 1,100 bombers to run sorties but on average 200 planes were conducting nightly bombing raids. In November alone there were 6,000 sorties, and in a two month period over 13,900 short tons of bombs were dropped.

British Anti-Aircraft Artillery 1940 Blitz

By December the Luftwaffe conducted only 11 major attacks and 5 heavy attacks. But on December 29th, Luftwaffe bombing caused a firestorm which spread rapidly throughout the London. A day which became known as the Second Great Fire of London. At 18:17 hours, 10 "Pathfinder" He 111s and 130 German bombers were dispatched to drop the first round of 10,000 incendiary and high explosive bombs over London. It amounted to 300 bombs dropped every minute. The action destroyed the historical centre of London.

In an effort to disrupt trade and communications the Luftwaffe also targeted port cities. In January 1941, about one hundred bombers dropped about 32,000 high concentration incendiaries on Swansea.  Four days later Portsmouth was hit by waves of 150 bombers dropping 40,000 incendiary bombs. There was widespread destruction and devastation of homes, warehouses and rail lines. But the docks were for the most part untouched. By the following month bad weather made it difficult for the Luftwaffe to keep up momentum but in truth less than half of German planes were combat worthy.

Final Attacks

Throughout the month of March 1941, the Luftwaffe flew 4,000 sorties and conducted twelve major and three heavy attacks, focusing on western ports. But the intensity of attacks eased off in the last ten air raids. German command had redeployed seven of the Kampfgruppen to Austria in preparation for their Campaign against Yugoslavia and Greece.  The OKL was faced not only with a shortage of bombers but the increased burden placed on the exhausted aircrew, and units left behind. In one incident, on the night of April 28/29, German pilot Peter Stahl of the KG30, flying his 50th mission, fell asleep at the controls of his Ju 88. Upon awakening he discovered that the entire crew had also been asleep. The mission eventually resumed.

On March 10 to 11, 240 bombers attacked Plymouth dropping 193 tons of high explosives and 46,000 incendiaries causing heavy damage to residential and commercial buildings and knocked out the electrical supply, five oil tanks, and two magazines. Nine days later, 295 bombers returned and in two waves dropped 160 tons of high explosives and 32,000 incendiaries. The city centre and port installations were heavily damaged.

Plymouth 1940

Two days later, Clydebank port near Glasgow was bombed. Of its 12,000 houses only seven were undamaged. Plymouth port was attacked five times. Cardiff was bombed for three nights. Belfast and Hill were also hit. The centre of Portsmouth was targeted by five raids and suffered the heaviest bombardment owing to its close proximity to German air bases. Though British ports were severely damaged, they managed to continue to operate in Plymouth, Southampton and Portsmouth.


The blitz against Liverpool was successful, as well as that against Bootle and Wirral causing heavy damages to its ports. Over 75 per cent of Liverpool's port capacity had been reduced in addition to having lost 39,126 long tons of shipping, and 111,601 long tons damaged. Roads and rails were blocked and ships could not leave the harbour.  

Liverpool 1940

The Luftwaffe heavily targeted the port cities of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and Sunderland on the north-east coast. On April 9th, 120 bombers dropped 150 tons of high explosives and 50,000 incendiaries during a five hour attack causing damage to rail, docklands, electrical installations and sewers.

On April 17, 250 bombers led by Kampfgeschwader 26, dropped 346 tons of explosives,46,000 incendiaries and aerial mines over Plymouth. Damage was extensive. British forces launched 2,000 AAA shells but managed to destroy only two JU 88s.

Luftflotte 2 dispatched 60 bombers on April 25 to Sunderland dropping 80 tons of high explosives and 9,000 incendiaries causing heavy damage. Despite German efforts they were incapable of crippling British maritime movements in either the north or south of England.

The Port of London was bringing in one-third of overseas trade making it a prime target of the Luftwaffe. On May 8, 1941, about 80,000 long tons of shipping were destroyed, sunk or damaged, 66,000 homes were destroyed, while casualties were 1,900 killed and 1,450 seriously wounded.  The last major attack on London took place on May 10 to 11, 1941 during which the Luftwaffe flew 571 sorties, dropping 800 tons of bombs, followed by another raid on May 11 to 12 resulting in over 2,000 fires throughout the city. Casualties were 1,436 killed and 1,792 seriously injured. Westminister Abbey and the Law Courts were damaged, and a chamber of the House of Commons destroyed. A third of London streets were rendered impassable and all train lines except for one were blocked for several weeks. Noteworthy is that the Luftwaffe had to send  63 German fighter escorts with their bombers - an indication that the RAF night fighter defences were becoming a force to contend with.

Despite reports of civilian morale being high, the Minister of Home Security Herbert Morrison noted that general morale among the population had fallen drastically. The widespread damage caused by the Luftwaffe was immense and caused great fear and trepidation.  With the intensification of U-boat attacks on British sea communications and the Nazi occupation of Western Europe, the British had reason to fear what consequences might occur should the Luftwaffe succeed. Great Britain counted on its ports for importing supplies and materials from North America, and the British railway for its considerable network of distribution to the entire nation.


Hitler complained about the Luftwaffe's failure to inflict sufficient damage, and had said: "The munitions industry cannot be interfered with effectively by air raids...usually the prescribed targets are not hit." The failure of the Luftwaffe to achieve the desired results was in part due to poor Intelligence on their part. At times they could not even locate the factories and airfields. As a result, British production of fighter aircraft continued at a rapid pace and surpassed that of Germany by a ratio of 2:1. British produced 10,000 aircraft while Germany's output was 8,000.

Though both RAF and Luftwaffe struggled to keep pace with losses to aircrew, the British were in a more advantageous position, as the were operating over home territory. British pilots who survived being shot down could fly again, whereas German crews in the same situation would face capture. German losses were much higher as their planes had four to five crewman aboard. German losses were 2,265 aircraft, a fourth of which were fighters and a third were bombers. About 3,363 Luftwaffe airmen were killed, 2,641 missing and 2,117 wounded. An additional number of planes were wrecked due to bad weather or landings.

That the Germans failed to destroy the RAF and British industry was due to ineffectual leadership of the OKL, as well as limited Intelligence. They had followed a policy of frequently changing clusters of targets and though it was military ineffective they caused enormous damage to Britains infrastructure and housing stock. Over 41,000 British people lost their lives and 139,000 wounded. However,in the eight months of bombing, the Germans could not destroy Britains war economy nor demoralise the British civilians. By May 1941, it was apparent that an invasion of Britain had passed. Hitler turned his attention to the east focusing on Operation Barbarossa.

Coming July 21, 2011
Battle of Britain: Part III - Famous Polish Ace Pilots

NB: Sources and Suggested Links will be provided at the end of this series.

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