As this fall’s “Occupy Wall Street” movement expanded from the U.S. to Europe and beyond, protesters in the London, England offshoot camped out in front of St. Paul’s cathedral. The protesters were left alone for awhile, but eventually the church’s staff members shut the doors to the cathedral, citing a concern about potential health and safety hazards. A newspaper article about the closure mentioned that “it was the first time since the German Luftwaffe blitzed London during World War II that St. Paul’s was closed to worshipers.”
The word “blitz” – which is German for “lightning” - is not typically capitalized. However, in describing the pounding that England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland endured for eight months, courtesy of the Luftwaffe, the word gained a well-deserved capital “B” and became known for all time as “the Blitz.”
The damage statistics for this bombing campaign by Hitler against the British people are staggering. London was bombed 78 nights in a row. Overall, from September 7, 1940 until May 11, 1941, more than 40,000 British civilians were killed and more than a million houses were destroyed by bombing or burning (incendiary bombs were heavily used). Besides London and other large cities in England, major industrial areas like Glasgow in Scotland, Belfast in Ireland, and Cardiff in Wales sustained major damage.
As the Nazi war machine moved across Europe in the late 1930’s, the British knew that at some point the Nazis would attack them from the air so they did what they could to prepare for it. Many city dwellers shipped their children to the countryside to live with relatives, and, in some cases, strangers, who agreed to care for the children. Whole families took to sleeping outside in the forests, thinking it would be safer there during bombing raids than being inside in town. Many built pre-fabricated shelters underground and others built shelters in their homes. Londoners who had access to the Underground, a.k.a. the “Tube,” along with other large structurally sound surface shelters considered themselves lucky to have things so convenient.
Originally, the powers-that-be declared the London Tube stations and tunnels off limits due to concerns about the ability to move troops and clean-up crews around on the trains during attacks if the stations and tunnels were full of citizens. They relented when it became obvious that the bombings were going to continue, the attacks would be taking place at night, and a determined populace would just break in anyhow.
It’s estimated that during September 1940, between 150,000 and 175,000 people took shelter every night in the subway. Being an orderly people, everyone lined up (“queued”) for entry to the Underground, which opened up at 4:00 every afternoon. Soon, heating and sanitary facilities were improved and a canteen train ran between some stations, selling food and other necessities. These touches helped but didn’t negate the fear during the bombing raids and the concern that one’s house might be gone in the morning. They were right to be concerned - here’s a link to some Blitz pictures.
The British people endured the carnage of the night bombings until mid-May, 1941. At that point, Hitler realized that while the threat of bombardment had not frightened the British people into capitulation as it had many European countries, the actual bombardment had only brought the Brits’ determination to soldier on to the fore. Hitler (rightly) perceived the threat from the Soviet Union to be growing so he pulled the plug on the Blitz and moved his resources to the Western Front.
It would be interesting to know how we Americans would have reacted to such a direct threat from the skies. How would we have handled leaving our homes each afternoon to descend into a damp underground cavern, not knowing if our homes would be there when we emerged 12 hours later? Fortunately, except for the horror of 9/11, we’ve not been tested.
The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven 501c3 non-profit organization that operates under the auspices of the Commemorative Air Force. For more information, please visit redtail.org.