*** World War II air campaign -- Battle of Britain the Blitz war and social upheaval: World War II air campaign -- Battle of Britain the Blitz

World War II Battle of Britain: Blitz Phase (July-November 1940)

Blitz St. Paul's
Figure 1.--After the failure of the fierce air battles over London (September 1940), the Germans turned to nighttime terror raids on British cities--the Blitz. This is one of the most iconic images of World War II, taken on December 29, 1940. It became the symbol of London's resistance during the Blitz. St. Pauls was hit and incendiaries dropped by the Luftwaffe very nearly set the great cathedral afire. It was saved by a hard-pressed staff fighting the fire. NAZI Propaganda Chief Josef Gobbels, who would later bitterly decry the Allied bombing of German cities, had a very different view of bombing cities in 1940. He was so pleased to see London burning that he ordered this photograph published in German newspapers with the caption, 'Die City von London brennt!" Meaning, "The city of London is on fire!." One wonders as the bombs began falling on German cities, how many Gerrman civilians had reservtions about bombing British and other cities in 1940. Notably images like this never appeared in Allied newspapers as German cities burned later in the War.

Shortly after becoming Deputy Chief of the Air Staff, Arthur Harris asked Air Chief Marshal Charles Portal to join him on the roof of the Air Ministry to observe the NAZI Blitz. The Old City surounding St. Paul's was in flames. They watched without comment for a while. Harris remembers speaking first, 'Well ... they are sewing the wind."

-- Sir Arthur Harris, Bomber Offensive (December 1940).

With the fall of France (June 1940), Germany achieved control over the entire coat of France. The Luftwaffe rapidly began taking over French air bases and building new ones close to the coast. Britain was now exposed to Luftwaffe attacks. The resulting Battle of Britain was one of the crucial engagements of World War II. The ufolding of the Battle of Britain is somewhat different than often presented in popular histories. Many believe that the Blitz on London began because of a British attack on Berlin in September. In fact the British had begun attacks on Berlin, albeit with only small formations, before the August 25-26 raids that are often cited and there is considerable accuracy to the German claim that the Blitz was begun as a retalitory raid. It is true, however, that the German Blitz was the turning point of the Battle of Britain in that it releaved pressure on Fighter Command. The failure of Göering's Luftwaffe tob defeat the British began an obsession on his part. Britain was the first country to sucessfully resist Hitler. And as a result, he decided to destroy the city. While the Blitz included attacks on all major British cities, London took the brunt of the Lufwaffe raids. Hitler who he saw a defeated nation could noyt understand why they would not surrender. But to teach the British a lesson, he was going to wipe London off the face of the mind. This was not unusual on his part. He was determined to desrtroy Soviet citiies and replace the Soviet Union with a vast German agricultural colony. Brutish resistance and American aid meant that the NAZIs did not have the capability to defeat Britain. Thus Hitler turned the Panzers east in wehat he thought would be easier pickings, but turned into an apocalptic showdown with Stalin and the Societ Union (June 1941). Huitler would, however, never, was able to let go of this obsession to destroy London, even as the NAZI war machime began to falter. He poured vast resources into three secret Vengence Weapoins--The V-1, V-2, and V-3. All of wich had one primary purpose, to destroy London. The city, however, had one 8insurmountable defense--its size. Here we are taklking about not only population, but especially area. This mean a low population density. London was the most geographcally spread out city in Europe and covered by one- and-two story dwealings. In the grisly calculation of war, Hitler simply did not have the force required to destroy London. Not only that, but he was expending Grmany's limited military resporces to destroy houses at the same time he was preparing to tke on the two countries with greater resources than Germany--the Soviet Union and the United States. A huge military miscalculation.

German Western Offensive (May-June 1940)

The German Western Offensive in May and June dramtically changed the complexion of the air war. The Luftwaffe was primarily used in a tactical role during the German offensive. The success of Blitzkrieg made attack on cities unecessary. There were some attacks on cities, most notably Rotterdam. The Germans threatened further attacks, leading to the Dutch capitulation. After the fall of France (June 1940), German cities were no longer as vulnerable to Allied attacks. The distances involved in raids rom Britain made attacks difficult for Britain's existing bomber force.

Launching the British Strategic Bombing Campaign (May 10-11, 1940)

The first German city to suffer a severe raid was Freiburg (May 10, 1940). Considerable controversy surrounded the attack. There were 57 people killed, many of whom were children in a playgrond. The Germans charged the city was bombed by the British or French. In fact it was the Luftwaffe. Luftwaffe pilots mistook Freiburg for Mühlhausen in Alsace. [Rumpf, p. 24.] The opening of the strategic bombing campaign against Germany can be dated to this time. The RAF bombed München-Gladbach/Mönchengladbach (May 10-11). The raid was conducted at night, meaning that secific tagets other than the city could not be targetted. The French strenuously opposed the raid, but 36 bombers struck the city. Little was gained and the British as the Allied position in France detrirated did not have the capability to immediately persue the campaugn, but this was the first raid in what was to become the Allied strategic bombing campaign. [Spaight]

First Phases of the Battle of Britain

With the fall of France (june 1940), Germany achieved control over the entire coat of France. The Luftwaffe rapidly began taking over French air bases and building new ones close to the coast. Britain was now exposed to Luftwaffe attacks. The first attacks were on coastal shipping, a German tactic to draw the RAF out to battle. Then the Luftwaffe began hammering the RAF bases in southeastern England (Kent and Surrey. The objective was to gain air superority over the landing potential beaches. Here the Luftwaffe by late August had achieved considerable success.

Popular Senario

Off-course German bombers accidentally bombed London on August 23-24, 1940. RAF Bomber Command on August 25-26 directed a small reprisal raid against Berlin. The British raid August 25-26 was not the first raid on Berlin, but one of several as well as raids on other German cities.

The Blitz

Hitler growing inpatient with the air battle and troubled by the losses of planes and crews was furious over the British raids. A strong believer in terror tactics, he was outraged that such attacks should be used against Germany. He called the British "night gangsters" and ordered an immediate change in Luftwaffe tactics. Rather than completing its offensive against the RAF infrastructure, Hitler ordered a "Blitz" on British cities which began in earnest on September 7. Goering was disturbed because the RAF resistance was making him look bad in frnt of Hitler. He had promissed an swift victory to his Führer. For the new phase of the battle he had brought his personal train to Pas-de-Calais to take charge from his Luftwaffe commanders. [Gilbert, p. 339.] (Goering was a fighter ace in World War I and Hitler had made him the Commander of the Luftwaffe. He had none of the training or technical capabilities of the highly professional Luftwaffe command.) The attack on September 7 included 300 bombers and 600 escorts. The target was the London docks, but the surronding residential area waslso heavily hit. The followup day a smaller attack on September 8 hit electrical power plants and railway stations. The 200 attackers were swarmed over by FAF fighters and 88 were shot down, devestating total. The attacks on London rather than the forward air fields in Kent and along the coast brought the Luftwaffe bombers in range of Lee Malory and 12 Group's big wing. This was a shock to Luftwaffe pilots who had been told that RAF Fighter Command had been reduced to less than 200 fighters.

The Blitz as a German Reprisal

The unfolding of the Battle of Britain is somewhat different than often presented in popular histories. Many believe that the Blitz on London began because of a British attack on Berlin in September. In fact the British had begun attacks on Berlin, albeit with only small formations, before the September raids that are often cited and there is considerable accuracy to the German claim that the Blitz was begun as a retalitory raid. A British historial of the air war writes, ":The Germans were strictly justified in describing this (the Blitz) as a reprisal, especially as they had, prior to our sixth attackon Berlin announced that they would take such action if we did not stop our night bombing of Berlin. Moreover, it must be admitted that, notwithstanding their bombing superiority, they took the initiative a few weeks later in proposing a mutual agreementthat would put a stop to such city bombing. Moreover, several times they discontinued their attacks when there was a pause in tghe much lighter British raids, thereby showing their desire for a truce in the inner-city bombing competition." [Hart, p. 72.]

British and German Policies

It seems difficult to understand at this point why Hitler sought to end the bombing of cities when he had a bombing force in place and why Churchill refused to consider the offer. As far as I know Hitler never explained his motivation. NAZI propaganda posed the offer in humanitarian terms. This obviously was not an importan consideration to Hitler. It seems likely that once it was clear that the Blitz was not going to force the British to capitulate that ending strategic bombing would be a step to negotiating an end to the war with Britain so he could concentrate on Russia. And as a German historian explains, "The Luftwaffe's first defeat came in the Battle of Britain. Even then Germany's leadrs were not greatly cast down by this set-back; they were confident that once Russia had been defeatedthey would have plenty of time to deal with Britain--once and for all this time." [Rumpf, p. 39.] Strangely at this stage of the War, it was Hitler who wanted peace and Churchill who was preparing Britain for a total war with NAZI Germany. British bombing while at this stage was only nusiance raids, was an embrassment to the NAZI regime--especially as they Hitler was tring to convince the world and especially the Soviets and Spanish that the War was essentially over and won. Churchill has written extensively on the War, but as far as I know has not explained his failure to respond to Hitler's overtures. Churchill describes how he and the War Cabinent were intent on defying Hitler and striking back. [Chuchill, Finest, p. 342.] At this stage of the War, strastegic bombing was the only way to do this. He does not, however, discuss the German overtures. Here I think he saw that any effort to negotiate with Hitler was a step to negotiating an end to the War. Some in the British Government were willing to reach a deal with Hitler after the fall of France. And some might have accepted the German offer. Churchill and others in the British Government understood that there was no way to negotiate with Hitler. Munich had shown what Herr Hitler's signature was worth. In addition the ruins of Warsaw, the images of which were widely distributed by German news services and engrained on the British public that this was how NAZI Germany conducted war.

Significance of the Blitz

It is true, however, that the German Blitz was the turning point of the Battle of Britain in that it releaved pressure on Fighter Command. And a regrouped Fighter Command inflicted severe casualties on the Luftwaffe which eventually forced it to shift to night time raids. Flying at night the Luftwaffe was no longer a threat to RAF bases protecting the Channel beaches. The Luftwaffe at night could hit cities, but not specific military targets. Thus shifting to the Blitz on London and other cities meant that an onvasion was no longer possible. There is considerable debate over how serrious Hitler was about an invasion. Hrre there is some doubt. What is knwon is that the British Army came back from Dunkirk without its equipment. A German invasion in September would have encountered a largely disarmed British Army. Weather made an incvasion impossible after October and by 1941 the Germans would have faced a well armed British defense force.

Edward R. Murrow

American CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow when war broke out in Europe, Murrow moved to London. He began his London broadcasts with the phrase for which he would become famous, "This is London calling ...." When the Blitz began, Murrow decided that he needed to string wires from his studio to the roof of Broadcasting House the iconic art deco BBC hadquaters with a towering antenn in the center of London. He decided this would help him vividly describe Luftwaffe air raid in progress. Government officials were concerned that that the Luftwaffe would pick up his report and use it to brag about their successes or detect a radio beam pathway to important targets, especially Broadcasting House. The question ultimately went all the way to the Prime-Minister. Churchill decided that Murrow’s reports of a defiant Britain standing alone against the NAZI savagery was precisely what America needed to hear. Thus many of Murrow's broadcasts to America were punctuated by the sctual the sounds of air raid sirens, bomb explosions, and anti air-crdft fire. He brought the War into American living rooms. All the Americand listening to Murrow were presented with the reality of nAZI barvarity and many could not help but think that American ciuties were next. They were an important factor in building the public support Roosevely needed to aid Britain. Despite the dmage done, the Blitz was a dister for Hitler and the NAZIs as it helped change public opinion in America which would write Britin a bknk check--Lend-Lease (March 1941). The CBS offices and the studios where Murrow broadcasted from were bombed. Each night, he ended his broadcasts with, "Good night and good luck," what Londoners began telling each other every night. Murrow published some of his 1939-40 broadcasts in 1941. [Murrow]


The Battle of Britain was compared to other campaigns a rather small operation, but in many ways the key battle of World War II. The significance of the Battle of Britain was at the time was not fully appreciated. Even after the success of the RAF in staving off invation, Hitler still controlled virtually all of Western Europe and it was the startling German successes that still dominated headlines. Britain continued to be bombed and soon the Wehrmacht would launch the titalic struggle with the Soviet Union with another series of spectacular successes. The Luftwaffe was bloodied over Britain, but not seriously damaged. What did occur was the Germans experienced not only superiot tactics, but for the first time an opponent was able to match German technology. Even more importantly, the British scored a not fully appreciated stategic victory. Hitler's strategy was based on destroying his opponents quickly before they could unite and produce modern armaments. He succed with Poland, France, and the small countries of Western Europe (Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxenburg). Brtains's survival meant that it would not be a short war, but a longer struggle in which superior Allied resources could gradually be brought to force on Germany. The failure to defeat Britain meant that he would have a dangerous enemy in the west when he launched his invasion of the Soviet Union. It also mean that America would have time to rearm and a key ally when it entered the war. If Britain had fallen, not only could Germany focused the full force of its arms on a single ememu, but America would have had no Euroean bases from which it could strike at Germany.


Churchill, Winston. Their Finest Hour (Houghton Mifflin: Boston, 1949), 751p.

Hart, B.H. Liddel. The Revolution in Warfare (Faber & Faber:London, 1946).

Rumpf, Hans. Edward Fitzgerald, trans. The Bombing of Germany (Holt, Rinehart and Winston: New York, 1962), 256p.

Spaight, J.M. Bombing Vindicated (London, 1953-55).


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Created: 4:16 AM 8/14/2005
Last updated: 7:13 AM 8/20/2022