The Luftwaffe bombing campaign

Growing up in the UK, I very early in became aware of the ‘The Blitz’. Such a dramatic and unfamiliar word was destined to stay lodged in my memory – particularly as I grew up in London - and as my interest in grew, so did my understanding of this key event.

The UK was spared much of the horror of the Second World War – the challenges faced by the British population cannot be realistically compared to those of, say – the Russian people who for several years, found themselves confronted by the full horrors of the Nazi war machine and its twisted ideology. Or, for example, the Polish population who suffered almost six years of an occupation underlined by constant persecution of its people by Hitler’s forces.

...the German Heinkel, Dornier and Junkers bombers attempted to wreak devastation on the targets below...

Nonetheless, although being an island spared the UK from taking the full brunt of the Nazi onslaught, the population did at times find itself directly on the front line, the first being during the Battle of Britain, when for the first time – thanks to Hitlers victory in the Battle of France, British people could witness first-hand the clash between the Luftwaffe and Royal Air Force, as the British Spitfires and Hurricanes slugged it out with the intruding Messerschmitt 109’s and 110’s fighters, while the German Heinkel, Dornier and Junkers bombers attempted to wreak devastation on the targets below.

The Battle of Britain saw shifting priorities and targets for the Luftwaffe though, as they sought to find a way to assert their dominance over their stubborn foe. As a result, there were periods of time that much of the civilian population would have felt spared from the direct effects of the German effort, particularly during the period when the German bombers were specifically targeting military targets such as Fighter Command airfields.

A forward machine gunner sits at his battle position in the nose of a German Heinkel He 111 bomber, while en route to England in November of 1940. The Heinkel was one of the main German medium bombers, which saw service throughout the Second World War.

AP Photo


A shifting focus

However, towards the end of the Battle of Britain, a shift in German thinking saw them focus almost entirely on the mass bombing of industrial targets – towns and cities – which given the infrastructure of such settlements, would inevitably drag the civilians living there into the battle.

A strike on London would force Fighter Command into a final battle of destruction and force the British Government to surrender, according to German intelligence, which claimed that Fighter Command was weakening.

However, the decision to change strategy is sometimes claimed as a major mistake by OKL It is asserted that the Luftwaffe might have achieved air superiority if it had continued to assault RAF airfields.

Others contend that the tactic change was ineffective since the Luftwaffe had little impact on Fighter Command in the latter week of August and the first week of September. It has also been argued that the Luftwaffe was unlikely to achieve air superiority prior to the "weather window" closing in October.

The Supermarine Spitfire. One of the main reasons the Luftwaffe's attempt to win air superiority during the Battle of Britain failed.

Ultimately. this change in strategy by the Luftwaffe, reflected their realisation that despite their best efforts, they had been unable to destroy enough RAF fighters to gain daylight air superiority over the skies of Britain.

The first German bombing of London on the night of Aug 24, 1940, was actually an accident. German aircraft heading for a military target flew off course and mistakenly dropped their bombs on central London, causing some damage and civilian deaths.

The raid was interpreted by Winston Churchill as deliberate and the following night - 25 April - 40 British bombers were sent on their first attack on the German capital Berlin. Although the bombing was not particularly successful, Berliners had the unique experience of being forced to run for the shelters.

Map showing the damage London suffered during the Blitz. Note that many of the areas marked in Black - the most heavily hit - were often dockland areas close to the Thames River, which in itself proved to be a useful navigation guide for Luftwaffe bombers.

the Blitz | Facts, History, Damage, & Casualties | Britannic,

Hitler was enraged and issued an order for retaliation on London, which would eventually occur in early September. Part of Hitler's wrath stemmed from him losing face in the eyes of his own people. He now felt that the British had made a fool of him after he pledged that no enemy aircraft would reach Berlin. However, his choice also came at a pivotal time in the Battle of Britain and had unexpected implications, such as giving the Royal Air Force (RAF) much-needed breathing room by diverting Luftwaffe attention away from pounding the RAF and its airfields and instead focussing on the major cities and industrial hubs.

This smiling girl, dirtied but apparently not injured, was assisted across a London street on October 23, 1940, after she was rescued from the debris of a building damaged by a bomb attack in a German daylight raid.

AP Photo

The 7th of September 1940 saw the new Luftwaffe policy enacted with the capital London, being continuously bombed for 56 of the next 57 days and nights, with the 15th September witnessing a particularly big daylight attack as the Luftwaffe essentially threw everything into trying to smash London into submission.

Millions of incendiaries, which specifically caused "firestorms", (particularly in the Docklands area) caused more damage than the 40,000 high explosive bombs, which accounted for a smaller portion of the destruction. (When the fire's central core is so intense that it uses up all the oxygen on hand and as a result draws large amounts of oxygen from the surroundings, this is known as a "firestorm.") 

A Luftwaffe incendiary device which burnt itself out on an asphalt roof during the Blitz.

Mary Evans Picture Library

By doing this, extremely strong winds are created, which draw everything else—consumables, people, buildings, vehicles, etc.—into the fire. Luftwaffe planes frequently attached drums of flammable liquid to the bomb clusters to facilitate this.

The worst night for fire bombing was 29th December 1940, when everything was concentrated on the City of London.

During this period, the Luftwaffe gradually switched more and more of their attacks to night, realising that with the RAF lacking a dedicated night fighter, it was harder for the defending Spitfires and Hurricanes to intercept the approaching bombers at night. By October 1940, the Luftwaffe had switched entirely to night attacks.

Buildings along Piccadilly damaged by air raids. Filmed by amateur filmmaker Rosie Newman as part of her film Britain At War.

Colour Footage Of London During The Blitz | Imperial War Museums (iwm.org.uk)

Soldiers carrying off the tail of a Messerschmitt 110, which was shot down by fighter planes in Essex, England, on September 3, 1940.

AP Photo

The Luftwaffe also started widening their scope of operations, targeting various important cities:

Liverpool with its vital Atlantic seaport found itself suffering its own ‘Liverpool Blitz’ while the North Sea port of Hull also received similar attention from the German bombers, particularly as given its location of the East coast of England, it qualified as both a valid and convenient target for German bombers who had been unable to locate their prime targets.

It wasn’t long before other major cities were also targeted: Bristol, Cardiff, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Southampton, Swansea, Belfast, and Glasgow – all port cities and all bombed. And further inland, the major industrial cities of Birmingham, Coventry, Manchester and Sheffield were also targetted by German bombers.


A ninety-minute exposure taken from a Fleet Street rooftop during an air raid in London, on September 2, 1940.

The searchlight beams on the right had picked up an enemy raider. The horizontal marks across the image are from stars and the small wiggles in them were caused by the concussions of anti-aircraft fire vibrating the camera.

The German pilot released a flare, which left a streak across the top left, behind the steeple of St. Bride's Church.

AP Photo


For eight months the Luftwaffe hammered away at the British towns, attempting to wear down the population and erode the will to resist, along with damage or hamper the British ability to wage war.

A demolished or burning factory cannot produce war materials. But they failed on both counts – the British population never came close to wishing to seek peace and production of war materials actually increased during the Blitz, despite the need to disperse production around the country.

This is not to say that significant damage did not occur: Coventry suffered serious damage which included the destruction of its cathedral. And production in Birmingham was seriously hampered for three months after a particularly effective raid (the normal recovery time for a city hit by the Luftwaffe was ten to fifteen days).

Birmingham - seen here with palls of smoke drifiting over it after a bombing raid - was a key target for the Luftwaffe.

The Blitz Around Britain - World War 2 | Imperial War Museums (iwm.org.uk)


The Luftwaffe

Despite Hitlers plans, the Luftwaffe was constrained. Its aircraft, the Dornier Do 17, Junkers Ju 88, and Heinkel He 111s, were capable of performing strategic missions, but their modest bomb loads prevented them from causing significant damage to larger areas. The Luftwaffe's decision in the interwar period to concentrate on medium bombers is due to several reasons.

  • The OKL believed a medium bomber force could perform strategic missions just as well as a heavy bomber force.
  • Hitler did not intend or foresee a war with Britain in 1939.
  • Germany lacked the resources or technical capacity to produce four-engined bombers prior to the war.

A Luftwaffe Junkers JU-88

https://dave-mech.tumblr.com

Although the Luftwaffe was initially determined in its intentions – led in part by a boastful and arrogant commander in Reichsmarschall Herman Goering - it also lacked a defined strategy and insufficient intelligence. Britain was not disclosed to the OKL as a prospective foe until the beginning of 1938. It lacked the time to compile reliable intelligence on Britain.

Additionally, the OKL was unable to decide on an effective plan of action. German strategists had to decide whether the Luftwaffe should focus the majority of its attacks on a single sector of British industry, such as aircraft factories, a network of interconnected industries, like Britain's import and distribution system, or even on a blow intended to lower morale among the British populace.

Over the winter of 1940–1941, the Luftwaffe's strategy grew more and more aimless. Staff disputes at OKL were more about tactics than strategy. It looked increasingly likely that the German offensive was doomed to failure.

Reichsmarschall Herman Goering, overall commander of the Luftwaffe - the German air force.

Color by Klimbim 0.1 – All images colored by me can be used for free for any purposes but commercial. (wordpress.com)


Civil Defence

The United Kingdom's defence and maintenance of its infrastructure, public services, buildings, and utilities during the Blitz, represented a remarkable display of resilience, ingenuity, and determination in the face of relentless adversity. Despite the heavy bombardment, the nation adopted numerous strategies to safeguard essential assets and ensure the functioning of vital services.

London's citizens contributed significantly to the defence of their city. The Home Guard, the Air Raid Precautions Service (ARP), the Auxiliary Fire Service, and numerous other civilian organisations welcomed many civilians who were unable or unable to enlist in the military. 138,000 people worked for the AFS as of July 1939.

There were just 6,600 full-time and 13,800 part-time firemen nationwide just a year earlier. Before the conflict, 50 million respirators (gas masks) were sent to residents in case a chemical attack started before evacuation.

Office workers making their way through debris as they go to work after a heavy air raid on London.

Imperial War Museum

As the "Blitz Scouts," the Scout Association directed fire trucks to the areas where they were most needed. Numerous unemployed persons were enlisted in the Royal Army Pay Corps and given the Pioneer Corps' salvage and cleanup duties.

Samuel Hoare, the Home Secretary, founded the Women's Voluntary Services for Civil Defence (WVS) in 1938 and viewed it as the organization's female counterpart to the ARP.

The WVS ran canteens, salvage operations, and recycling programmes in addition to setting up centres for people displaced by bombing. One million people had joined the WVS by the end of 1941.

Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) ground crew tethering a barrage balloon, 1941.

H.F. Davis—Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Despite bombings targeting utilities, efforts to maintain them were relentless. Skilled repair crews worked round-the-clock to restore power, water, and gas services in affected areas. These services were crucial for hospitals, emergency services, and households.

Strict building regulations were enforced to enhance the resilience of structures. Builders employed reinforced materials and construction techniques to withstand bombings. Public buildings, hospitals, and utilities were prioritized for reinforced construction.

Emergency repair teams, known as "spider teams," swiftly responded to bomb damage, reinforcing damaged structures to prevent further collapse. This rapid response ensured that essential buildings remained functional.

The implementation of strict blackout measures, which required all buildings to be darkened at night, helped to hide potential targets from enemy aircraft. Additionally, buildings were camouflaged to reduce their visibility from above.

Public information campaigns educated citizens on the importance of protecting infrastructure. Propaganda posters and broadcasts emphasized the role of individuals in safeguarding their homes and community.

Key services, such as utilities and transportation, were equipped with redundant systems. This meant that if one service was disrupted by bombings, an alternative could be activated quickly to ensure continuity.

London shop windows in Mayfair, specially designed to minimise damage during the Blitz. Filmed by amateur filmmaker Rosie Newman as part of her film Britain At War.

Colour Footage Of London During The Blitz | Imperial War Museums (iwm.org.uk)


Once the 'all clear' had sounded and the German bombers had departed, it was the job of the rescue workers to find any survivors amongst the wreckage.

Working tirelessly and often in hazardous conditions (unstable, damaged buildings and broken gas pipes to name but two of the dangers they regularly faced) - they performed a vital and heroic service, detecting and recuing survivors who were often buried beneath piles of rubble. 

Here we see various rescue workers at the site of badly damaged building, somewhere in the UK during The Blitz.


To safeguard crucial wartime production, factories and industrial facilities were often dispersed to less vulnerable areas, reducing the impact of bombings on war-related industries.

Communities played a significant role in defending infrastructure. Citizens often banded together to extinguish incendiary bombs, clear debris, and protect local assets.

Creative solutions were employed to maintain services. Mobile canteens, for example, provided food and beverages to affected communities, ensuring that basic needs were met during the worst of the bombings.

Despite the immense challenges posed by the Blitz, the United Kingdom's resilience and resourcefulness in defending and maintaining its infrastructure, public services, buildings, and utilities were instrumental in ensuring that essential services continued to function.


Evacuations

During the tumultuous years of the Blitz, a massive evacuation effort unfolded across the United Kingdom, exemplifying the nation's commitment to protecting its citizens from the relentless aerial bombings launched by Nazi Germany during the Second World War. It did a thorough assessment to establish the amount of space available and made meticulous preparations for conveying evacuees because it anticipated that around 90% of them would stay in private houses.

Operation Pied Piper, the official name for this massive undertaking, was initiated in September 1939, just before the full-scale bombings began. Over the course of the Blitz, approximately 3.5 million people were evacuated from cities and urban areas to the perceived safety of the countryside.

One of the most prominent groups among the evacuees was children, with around 1.5 million school-aged youngsters removed from the cities. The primary objective was to shield them from the immediate dangers posed by air raids and potential gas attacks. Many of these children were billeted with host families, schools, or community centers that had been converted into makeshift shelters.

London: The capital city was among the most heavily targeted during the bombings. A staggering 1 million Londoners, particularly children, were evacuated to regions considered less susceptible to enemy attacks, such as Wales, the West Country, and the Midlands.

Liverpool: This vital port city faced relentless bombing due to its strategic importance. Approximately 400,000 residents were evacuated from Liverpool and its surrounding areas, seeking refuge in comparatively safer regions.

Coventry: Following the devastating bombing of Coventry in November 1940, which resulted in extensive casualties and destruction, a substantial number of its residents were evacuated to protect them from further harm.

Birmingham: As an industrial hub, Birmingham was no stranger to the Blitz. A significant portion of its population, especially children, was relocated to rural areas, away from the constant threat of air raids.

The evacuation effort posed considerable challenges, including the emotional strain of separated families, the adaptation to rural life for urban dwellers, and the demands placed on host communities and resources. Nevertheless, these evacuations undoubtedly saved lives and provided a measure of safety and respite during a perilous time.


Sheltering from the bombs

The London Underground stations were the most significant communal air raid shelters that were already in place. The government forbade the use of the stations as shelters in 1939 despite the fact that many citizens had done so during the First World War out of concern for the safety of commuters and troops as well as the possibility that occupants could refuse to leave. During bombings, station entrances were to be locked, but after the second week of intense bombardment, the administration gave up and authorised the stations to be unlocked.

Londoners sheltering for the night in Holborn underground station.

Hindsight Colouring (colourisedphoto.com)

More than one-seventh of the population of Greater London was never housed in communal shelters. The number of people using the Underground as shelter peaked on September 27, 1940, with 177,000 people using it.

A census taken in November 1940 revealed that only 4% of Londoners were using the Underground and other large shelters, 9% were using public surface shelters, and 27% were using private homes as shelters, suggesting that 60% of the city's residents stayed at home. The Morrison shelter, which could be used inside homes, was first delivered in 1941 after the government had already issued Anderson shelters.


The 'Blitz Spirit'

In 1937, the Committee on Imperial Defense predicted that a 60-day assault would leave 600,000 people dead and 1.2 million injured. The 50-casualties-per-tonne estimate was supported by news accounts of the Spanish Civil War, including the bombing of Barcelona.

By 1938, most experts anticipated that Germany would attempt to drop up to 3,500 tonnes in the first 24 hours of the conflict and 700 tonnes on average every day for a number of weeks.


(Right) A London barbershop that lost its windows in a bombing raid during the Blitz, November 21, 1940.

the Blitz | Facts, History, Damage, & Casualties | Britannica

Twenty two minutes after Neville Chamberlain proclaimed war on Germany on 3rd September 1939, British air raid sirens went off for the first time. Although bombing raids did not suddenly start during the Phoney War, newsreels from Barcelona and the Bombing of Guernica which occurred during the Spanish Civil War, and the Bombing of Shanghai during the Second Sino-Chinese war, made public aware of the lethal force of aerial attacks.

The Bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.

www.shutterstock.com

Politicians had feared the collapse of civic society and widespread psychological damage caused by aerial strikes, in part because of the effect of German bombing during the First World War. A team of psychiatrists anticipated that aerial bombing would result in three to four million psychiatric patients, or three times as many mental casualties as physical ones. Fear of societal unrest was exacerbated by panic during the Munich crisis, which led to the migration of 150,000 people to Wales.

However, even during the height of the bombing in September 1940, there were no mass psychiatric crises brought on by the Blitz. "The British are stronger and in a better position than they were at the start of the conflict, according to every test and metric I am able to use," one American witness wrote. A day was "extremely blitzy," people would say, comparing raids to the weather. Surprisingly, unlike the soldiers in the Dunkirk evacuation, London's civilian population did not experience widespread shell shock.

One of the mobile canteens donated by Americans through the Allied Relief Fund in operation in a bombed area of London. The vans provide hot food and drink to air-raid victims.

Getty Images/Central Press



Summary

  • More than 40,000 civilians were killed by Luftwaffe bombing during the war.
  • Almost half of the total civilian casualties occurred in the capital, London, where more than a million houses were destroyed or damaged.

Workers wielding pickaxes and shovels are tasked with clearing away the remains of bombed building that would have once stood next to this Central London church.

Time & Life/Getty Images


Assessment

Ultimately, the attack failed as the Luftwaffe failed to develop an overarching, achievable strategy for destroying the British war industry. They did not concentrate their attacks on a specific industry or target, instead spreading their offensive operations across several sets of industries. This essentially diluted their effort rather than focussing it.

A Messerschmitt is lifted by a crane in September 1940 in Windsor Great Park in Surrey. The aircraft had made a forced landing after being damaged by fighters during a bomber escort mission to London. In executing the emergency landing, Oblt Karl Fischerís plane turned over onto its back although, miraculously, Fischer was captured unhurt.

Pen and Sword/Exclusive Pics Media


Further reading