The 70th anniversary of the day Nazi bombs dropped on London, starting the "blitz" that rocked English cities, was marked with veterans’ memorials and a Spitfire fighter plane parked at the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, whose towering dome survived months of aerial attacks that marked a new era in warfare.
Hitler’s air campaign, designed to psychologically devastate Britain before a planned naval and land attack on the island nation, began with 364 Luftwaffe bombers at tea time on Sept. 7, 1940, and lasted until May 1941. At one point, the Luftwaffe hit London 76 nights in a row.
The blitz killed 48,000 Londoners and wounded more than 71,000, but is remembered here for a spirit of resolve and endurance that thwarted Nazi plans, and impressed a US public deeply skeptical of joining a second Europe-wide war.
“I believe that without the spirit of Londoners at this time, we would have given in,” says Cyril Bridge, a Royal Air Force veteran outside St. Paul’s in a jacket replete with medals. Remembering Sept. 7 1940 he said, “I had never seen the sky so full of aircraft: German bombers, fighters, Spitfires trying to take them down. I suppose I was a little afraid.”
Understanding the blitz
World War II has libraries devoted to it. Yet this 70th anniversary shows the blitz isn’t exhausted as a research topic. There are new books on diaries of Londoners living in the blitz, an exhibit on how civil and fire brigades managed, documentaries on the bombings of other cities like Birmingham, Plymouth, and Bristol – even works reappraising (again) Winston Churchill's leadership.
Mainly, the blitz was the first sustained use of one of modern warfare's most destructive weapons – the aerial bomb – to cow a civilian population into submission and destroy industry.
For this reason, the blitz “isn’t somewhat meaningful, it is completely meaningful,” says Michael Evans, at St. Paul’s with a group of war archive enthusiasts. “People will never forget. We have a certain pride in surviving. We may not talk about it, and the younger generation doesn’t know much about it. The area we are standing in was wiped out. Only St. Paul’s remained.”
Author Francis Beckett's new history “Firefighters and the Blitz,” published here today, and other accounts by Angus Calder and Juliet Gardiner show that British authorities were worried about 600,000 casualties but hadn’t counted on the number of refugees created. There was great public anger at the British Home office, as well as at Adolf Hitler.
The blitz was a time of great heroism and sharing – but also unscrupulous looters roaming the city. Most remembrances are of fires that swept through the city and of the “red skies” at night.
“We think of it as a time when cheerful cockneys defied the Nazi menace; and that’s not wrong, but it is a small part of the story,” says Mr. Beckett. “People knew someone had blundered. Britain had plenty of time to prepare.”
A special section in the The Guardian newspaper today carries interviews with a range of ordinary blitz survivors. Dorothy Roberts remembers after the bombs fell in Manchester: “I had a brother who was too young to go in the army, so he’d joined the Local Defense Volunteers; his job was to dig people out. He was out all night, and we didn’t see him until well into the next day. He came home black…The next day there was no transport, and I remember hundreds and hundreds of people walking to work. They were walking into sheer bedlam, but no one would miss work.”
Alan Hartley, an aerospace factory worker at age 16, witnessed the bombing of Coventry in November of 1940: “The Germans bombed Coventry very systematically. They bombed in straight lines from east to west, and then they started from north to south. It was like darning a sock.”
The blitz and its spirit is perhaps most synonymous with the character of Mr. Churchill, who had replaced Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain months before. In recent years scholars have turned to Churchill’s views of ethnic minorities, his disdain of Mohandas Gandhi, and his efforts to keep alive British Empire and colonial reach. Such work is countered by a new wave of more balanced biographies that focus on Churchillian virtues.
Churchill and the war cabinet members were sometimes the main British officials that would go out and greet ordinary people after a night of bombing. Many upper-crust Londoners sought shelter outside the city.
The German paper Spiegel last week described Churchill as “the man who saved Europe.” Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker last month, reviewing a new round of Churchill biographies, argues that Churchill’s spirit of defiance just prior to the blitz set a tone for England to endure, at a time when many in his party were willing to “settle for the best deal you could get from the Germans.”
Mr. Gopnik argues of this period: “At that moment when all seemed lost, something was found, as Winston Churchill pronounced some of the most famous lines of the past century. 'We shall go on to the end … We shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.' Churchill’s words did all that words can do in the world. They said what had to be done; they announced why it had to be done then; they inspired those who had to do it.”