80 years ago, Blitz began

On September 7, 1940, the German Air Force launched a bombing campaign against Britain, mainly in the port of London. This Nazi offensive, called the “Blitz”, killed more than 43,000 civilians in nine months, but these bombings did not reach their military goals or British morale.

Eighty years ago, in early September 1940, the Battle of Britain had raged for three months. In the sky, since the evacuation in June of British troops from the French coast, the Royal Air Force has risen up against the Luftwaffe under the command of Hermann Göring.

Adolf Hitler aims to invade Britain, a plan called the Sea Lion. To achieve this, he multiplies attacks on British air forces, but without success. On September 7, 1940, he decided to launch a bombing campaign against the cities to destroy the enemy population. For nine months, a rain boom fell on the other side of the canal. The British will know Blitz with reference to the German term “lightning”.

The capital London is mainly targeted. Coventry, Birmingham, Sheffield, Portsmouth, Glasgow and Belfast are also suffering. More than 43,000 people lose their lives and more than two million homes are destroyed. But this damage ultimately has little effect on the outcome of the war. British infrastructure is slightly affected, while the population remains calm and able.

Eighty years later historian Richard Overy, professor at the University of Exeter and author of “Under the Bombs, a New History of Air Warfare” (Flammarion) returns to France 24 in this episode of World War II.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill walks through the ruins of Coventry Cathedral in September 1940. © Wikimedia Creative Commons

France 24: Why did Adolf Hitler and Hermann Göring launch this bombing campaign against Britain?

Richard Overy:When they sent the Luftwaffe to Britain on September 7, they had not imagined this campaign as a whole, nor what would become Blitz. In fact, it was a preparation for Operation Sea Lion: a massive attack on London, which lasted about a week before the plan, which would disrupt government, trade and shipping, was launched. The idea was to start bombing before the invasion began a week or ten days later. But these attacks on September 7 are often misinterpreted. Some people mistakenly believe that this is retaliation for the British bombing of Berlin.

How did Blitz become a campaign that stretched over several months?

Finally, the German invasion of Britain did not take place. They failed to defeat the Royal Air Force. Hitler finally decided to postpone Operation Sea Lion before interrupting it the following year. But he wanted to continue to put pressure on the British by launching a blockade campaign. The bombings were mainly aimed at ports and maritime transport. The purpose of the Germans was to reduce British resources in order to obtain compromises from the government. But Hitler had doubts. He was not sure of the Luftwaffe’s ability to meet his expectations. The invasion did not take place, but he wanted to continue his pressure. The only way to do this was to intensify the blockade in the hope that it would be decisive.

In November, when it became clear that the bombings had not served their purpose, Hitler finally decided to turn to the Soviet Union. The idea was also to raise new resources to turn militarily in the future against Britain and the United States.

A German bomber over the East End of London when Blitz began on September 7, 1940.
A German bomber over the East End of London when Blitz started on September 7, 1940. © Wikimedia Creative Commons

How was Blitz affected?

The physical damage was not as great as the Luftwaffe had hoped. This shows how inefficient the German bombers were. Their forces were small and they could not carry bombs with very heavy loads. The devices also lost their ability to navigate with precision very quickly, their communication was intercepted.

Eventually, British war production fell by only 5% and oil reserves were destroyed by only 0.5%. When the gas or electricity supply was affected, it was usually restored within 24 hours. During the bombing of Coventry, it took only two or three weeks to restore all services.

But when it comes to human harm, it turned out to be very different. Blitz killed 43,000 civilians. This is the first time so many people have been killed in the air. The Luftwaffe focused mainly on port cities and working class areas were concentrated around ports. When they could not meet them, they turned to those neighborhoods. They touched the East End of London because that was where the harbor was. Many people tried to find protection in their homes and that was how they were killed in numbers. The Luftwaffe had not really planned for this result. It stemmed more from his inability to bomb exactly.

Children in the ruins of a neighborhood in the eastern suburbs of London, September 1940.
Children in the ruins of a neighborhood in the eastern suburbs of London, September 1940. © Wikimedia Creative Commons

Psychologically, it strengthened the morale of those who were not subjected to the bombings. They were able to lift the spirits in Blitz and show that they were for reprisals against Germany. Conversely, there was a lot of demoralization and movements of panic. But in the end, it did not create a social crisis. The government has put everything in place to provide protection, food, etc. In the end, the immediate effects of the bombings did not have as much effect as expected.

In the 1930s, there was a lot of talk about the collapse of city life and that it would be a social revolution. But during Blitz, there was no political backlash. There were no riots or an attempt to overthrow the government. Despite the demoralization after the bombings, this did not create a social or political crisis. It was this error of judgment that the British also made when they attacked Germany. The bombings, which killed hundreds of thousands of people and destroyed more than 60% of the cities, did not cause any political or social collapse there either.

Original article translated by Stéphanie Trouillard.