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The London Blitz

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

In the early part of the Second World War as England faced the very real prospect of a full scale German invasion.

However, this invasion was effectively canceled by Hitler in September 1940.

Although the invasion had been called off, the bombing of London continued and if you take one of the many London walks routes that follows the trail of destruction caused by the bombing you get some idea of the sheer task that faced Londoners as they attempted to fend off these attacks.

From 18 September 1940 the Luftwaffe tried to reduce losses by only mounting night raids, and these continued without break until November, by which time London had been bombed continuously for fifty-two days.

Poor weather in late November and early December brought a brief respite, and as Christmas came and went it seemed that the Luftwaffe was on holiday. It was an illusion.

It is time to turn to the scene on the ground in England. Preparations for the defence of Britain against air attack were put in hand after the Munich conference of 1938.

Trenches were dug in public parks in London, gas masks issued to the entire population, air raid drills organized. The actual planning of Civil Defence was delegated to the different County authorities, some of which did much, others virtually nothing.

A reason for the lack of activity on the part of many County Councils was the anticipated results of civilian bombardment. The Government, heavily influenced by the works of such theorists as the French Air General Douhet, believed that the effects of civilian bombing would be cataclysmic and that preparations to protect civilians would be useless: the only thing to do was to prepare for mass burials, injuries, etc., and contemplate how best order could be maintained in the breakdown of local civilian government that would surely follow city bombing.

A clear idea of the popular image of civilian bombing can be drawn from the 1938 Alexander Korda production of H G Wells’s The Shape of Things To Come. The Home Office, believing that there would be 20,000 civilian dead within the first week of the bombing of London, was largely concerned with the ordering of cardboard coffins, and very few purpose-built bomb shelters were constructed before the Blitz actually began.

However, the County government of London was a different matter. London County Council (LCC) was under the control of the Labour Party led by Herbert Morrison (later Lord Morrison of Lambeth). The LCC was politically at odds with the government, strongly anti-fascist and not at all convinced by Prime Minister Chamberlain’s assurances of ‘peace in our time’.

The LCC consulted with veterans of the British Battalion of the International Brigade, which had fought in the Spanish Civil War. These veterans, led by Tom Wintringham, had experienced the bombing of Madrid by the Italian and German bombers of Mussolini and Hitler, and so had some idea of the likely outcome of such attacks and what could be done to minimize casualties.

They advised Morrison that the decisive matter was the reorganization of the Fire Brigade and its expansion to deal with the task ahead.

Morrison heeded this advice. Twenty-eight thousand men and women were recruited to the Auxiliary Fire Brigade and given a brief training course, after which they returned to their regular occupations to await the emergency.

The LCC ordered several thousand trailer fire pumps and began the construction of 300 sub-fire stations (the peacetime strength of the LCC Fire Brigade was approximately 4,000 firefighters based on 30 fire stations).

The LCC also ordered the manufacture of shelters which could be constructed within the home; steel frames into which three or four people could huddle and so, hopefully, survive the collapse of the building above them. These shelters were known as ‘Morrison Shelters’ and were later to be superseded by the government issue ‘Anderson Shelter’ which could be constructed in a back garden.

Plans were also commenced to recruit Air Raid Wardens and Heavy Rescue Squads (to dig people out of the ruins); church, school and other halls were marked down for use as local information centres, temporary accommodation for those made homeless by the bombing, etc. Companies were instructed to designate certain employees as fire- watchers and first line fire fighters for their premises.

The net result of these and other plans was that London was, if not fully equipped to deal with the onslaught, better prepared than most of the rest of the country.

The Fire Brigade was reorganized throughout the entire London region (which was more extensive than the London County area), with Sir Aylmer Firebrace appointed as Regional Fire Officer commanding sixty-six Fire Brigades from his underground control room at London Fire Brigade headquarters in Lambeth.

Our story of the London Blitz will cotinue in tomorrows blog. But for now why not peruse our previous blogs or just read through the rest of the site for a choice of the exciting and fascinating London walks that we offer.

Walking London in the Blitz

Friday, June 19th, 2009

Those who participate in our London walks that take in the City will often see the remnants of bombed out churches that are now lovely City gardens. These little islands of greenery can be an absolute joy to discover.

They are, of course, leftovers from the Second World War and the story of the Blitz  – as told on our London walks – is the theme of our current blog.

The Luftwaffe assembled two bomber fleets — Luftflotte and Luftflotte III — with a combined operational strength of 860 Heinkel 111, Junkers 88A and Dornier medium range bombers based at airfields in Northern France, Belgium and Holland.

Luftflotte II was commanded by army General Albert Kesselring, based in Brussels.

Luftflotte III was commanded by Generalfeldmarschall Hugo Sperrle (a veteran of Baron Von Richthofen’s World War One ‘Flying Circus’, as was Luftwaffe Commander in Chief Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering) based in Paris.

Operations against England began after Dunkirk with attacks by the Luftwaffe on coastal shipping convoys and the dropping of mines in the shipping lanes, thereby pursuing the first of Jodl’s strategies. However, impatience with results led to a switch on 19 August 1940 to attacks on radar stations (Dover, Ventnor, etc.) and to attacks on RAF forward fighter stations (those in the immediate area of the Channel, e.g. Tangmere and Manston).

These raids were costly to the Luftwaffe as they were operating over British airspace, and so aircrews bailing out of stricken planes became prisoners of war, whereas RAF Fighter Command crews might (and often did) go up again the same day in another plane.

Added to this was the fact that British aircraft production was organized on production line methods and was more rapid than German production. The result was that losses for Germany meant an absolute decline in operational strength, whereas Britain’s operational strength increased despite heavy losses. Consequently, on 31 August attacks were switched to the RAF Sector Stations covering London. There were seven of these control centres handling fighter operations in London and the South-East; fighters of 11 and 12 Group Fighter Command received battle orders from them.

These attacks continued for a week and were proving very damaging; had the Luftwaffe sustained its offensive for another week there is little doubt that the ability of the RAF to co-ordinate defence in the battle area would have been destroyed. Strangely and unaccountably, the Luftwaffe switched tactics again on 7 September and began the bombing of cities — point 2 of Jodl’s strategy. The Blitz had begun.

As early as July 1940, Admiral Raeder, Commander in Chief of the German navy, had urged Hitler to bomb London. Hitler refused because ‘the great mass of people cannot be evacuated’.

This should not be mistaken for a humanitarian concern; Hitter’s aim was to negotiate a peace with Britain and the outrage that would be provoked by bombing London would make this impossible.

Conversely, on this side of the Channel Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, Commander in Chief of Fighter Command, was advocating the bombing of German cities as a device to provoke German bombing of English cities. The logic behind this was that it would take pressure off the airfield and the RAF could engage the Luftwaffe to advantage over the cities and approaches. Initially neither proponent of civilian bombardment was to have his way.

On 24 August 1940, German bombers attacked the petrol storage depot at Thameshaven (Shellhaven Creek). One or two of the bombers dropped their bombs on central London due to poor navigation and thereby provided the excuse for a retaliatory attack on Germany.

The speed with which the RAF reacted clearly shows that they had planned in advance. The very next night(25 August) eighty-one planes of RAF Bomber Command attacked Berlin. Dowding’s strategy was about to be realized with a vengeance.

On 4 September Hitler announced that he intended to ‘wipe out’ British cities and very next night rescinded his orders against the bombing of London. Next day Hermann Goering arrived at the Channel coast to take command of the ‘Battle of London.’

In the late afternoon of 7 September 300 bombers of Luftflotten II and III, accompanied by 600 fighter escorts, raided the London docks (Woolwich Arsenal, Poplar, Stepney, Bermondsey, West Ham, Victoria and Albert, and the Surrey Commercial docks).

The raid came in two waves; the first was attacked by seven squadrons each of 11 and 12 Groups Fighter Command as it turned for home. The second wave was intercepted on the bomb run, but most got through, though bombs fell as far off target as Tottenham (five miles north).Forty-six German planes were shot down for a loss of twenty-eight RAF craft.

On the ground the devastation was appalling. By midnight there were nine fires raging in London that required 100 pumps (fire engines) each, two fires rated 300 pumps and five fires were technically ‘out of hand’. A description from Front Line, a government publication of 1941, gives a graphic impression of the scene:

‘At Woolwich Arsenal men fought the flames among boxes of live ammunition and crates of nitro-glycerine … in the docks there were pepper fires, rum fires, paint fires, rubber fires … sugar burning in liquid form.. ..’ An AFS (Auxiliary Fire Service) man quoted in Front Line said, ‘Most of us had the wind up to start with especially with no barrage. It was all new, but we were unwilling to show fear however much we might feel it.’

The raids continued by day and night until 18 September, when daylight raiding ceased. On 14 September Hitler postponed his decision on ‘Operation Sealion’ for three days pending the result of the air battle. The following day the decision was effectively taken for him: 200 bombers and 700 fighters were sent over London, of these 60 were shot down for the loss of 26 RAF fighters — this was the day that is now commemorated as Battle of Britain Day. The bombing continued but on 17 September Hitler canceled the invasion of Britain.

Our Lonodn walks that cover the City in the Blitz take you to the places that saw the bombing and recount the bravery of the men and women who lived through the Blitz.