At 11.15 on the morning of Sunday, 3 September, 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain addressed the British people in a radio broadcast.
In sombre tones he announced:
“This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that unless we heard from them by 11.00 am that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.”
It was a fearful blow for Chamberlain who had in October 1938 returned from a Conference in Munich with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini to declare that he had “secured peace in our time.” Now, less than twelve months later, and just 21 years after the end of the most catastrophic conflict in human history, Britain was once more at war.
All Chamberlain’s efforts to keep the peace in Europe had come to nothing and he would hereafter be accused of appeasement but even though Britain remained ill-prepared for war he had at least brought his country time.
Although the liner SS Athenia had been sunk by U-30 on the same day war was declared with the loss of 117 lives, the land campaign was to stagnate for six months almost as if there was a reluctance to fight, at least on the Allied side.
This so-called “phoney war” was to end in April 1940 however, when the Germans invaded Norway in a move designed to pre-empt an expected Allied landing.
The disastrous Allied campaign in Norway was a huge embarrassment for Chamberlain who on 8 May 1940 faced a vote of censure in the House of Commons which despite winning by 281 votes to 200, the number of abstentions from among those in his own Party had undermined his authority and left him mortally wounded. The following day unable to garner the support of the Labour Party for a Coalition Government he resigned suggesting to the King that he appoint the First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill over the favoured choice Lord Halifax, who had turned pale at the prospect, as Prime Minister.
The same day that Churchill took up the reins of office the Germans invaded the Low Countries.
In a whirlwind campaign that adopted the new tactic of Blitzkrieg (massed tank formations in the vanguard accompanied by close air support) the Germans tore apart the French Armies.
Lord Gort, the Commander of the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F) appalled at French incompetence and the defeatist attitude of their Generals could see the writing on the wall and so disobeyed a direct order to support a planned French advance and instead ordered the B.E.F to make for the Channel Ports and possible evacuation.
The B.E.F was to be rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk by the skin of its teeth and just under a month later France capitulated.
Britain was now alone.
The Germans believed that the war was as good as won, after all the British Army had been humiliated and forced to flee leaving most of its heavy equipment behind. Surely she would now see sense and make peace.
But following the French capitulation Churchill had held an Emergency Cabinet Meeting where he had told those present that Britain would never surrender until each one of them lay upon the ground choking in their own blood.
The Nazi’s would have to plan for the continuation of the war.
The German Air Force, or Luftwaffe, was ordered to pave the way for the implementation of Operation Sea Lion – the Invasion of Britain.
They were to secure superiority in the skies over the south-east of England and ports were bombed, docks destroyed, convoys targeted, and airfields and radar stations attacked.
The tactic of destroying the British Airfields seemed to be working and the Royal Air Force was stretched to breaking point. On 24 August 1940, a small number of German bombers inadvertently discharged their loads over London. In retaliation the British launched an air raid on Berlin. It caused little damage and only ten people were killed but it infuriated Hitler.
Air Marshal Hermann Goering had promised him that no bombs would ever fall on Berlin and it just so happened that the Russian Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov was on a diplomatic mission to Berlin at the time. Hustled into a basement for his own safety he was heard to remark sarcastically: “I thought you were winning this war.” There was embarrassment all round and no little sense of humiliation.
The British raid on Berlin appeared to herald a change in German strategy.
On the afternoon of 7 September 1940, 364 Heinkel Bombers escorted by 515 Messerschmitt 109 Fighters attacked the London Docks.
The city’s air defences were woefully inadequate with only 92 anti-aircraft batteries for the entire city and these were largely ineffective. The searchlights were too weak to pierce the gloom and there were no civic bomb shelters, the Government not wanting encourage a shelter mentality. The Emergency Services were also ill-prepared.
That afternoon 436 Londoners were killed and 1,666 wounded.
The bombers were to return later that night and for the next 76 nights.
Dire predictions had been made with regards to the consequences of any German aerial bombardment. Experts had suggested that there would be a minimum of 600,000 deaths and 2 million injured, and that the use of poison gas was almost inevitable. Yet despite such apocalyptic predictions Britain had done little to prepare.
A gas mask was eventually distributed to every single person but they still refused to build bomb shelters. Instead, a corrugated iron shelter was dug in the gardens of those who could not afford to build their own. Known as Anderson Shelters they were cold, damp, uncomfortable, and provided little protection. Most people preferred to take their chances and remain in their own homes.
It was an inadequate response to a very real threat.
Hitler was thrilled by his new tactic, it was characteristic of him to try and terrorize his opponents into submission so he would bomb, and destroy, and kill until the British people begged him for peace.
By the 11 September, the number of guns defending London had been doubled and 41 fighters had been assigned to the defence of the capital. Even so, in the first four weeks of the Blitz just one German Bomber was shot down.
For a time barely 1% of the German Bomber Force was being lost and most of these were to accident. This was the happy time for the Germans but their losses would soon begin to mount.
With the Government remaining adamant that it would not build deep bomb shelters the people of London took matters into their own hands and prior to any expected air raid they would take over their local Underground Station.
The Government had strictly forbidden the use of Tube Stations as bomb shelters but the people just ignored this instruction, after all it wasn’t the politicians who were being bombed. Forced by sheer weight of numbers and what was in effect a fait-accompli the Government was made to relent.
The Government also permitted the reopening of theatres, cinemas, and nightclubs whose earlier closure was seen to be damaging to morale, but the blackout remained rigidly enforced and on its own was to be responsible for more than 2,000 deaths.
As the battle for air supremacy raged in the skies over Britain the Blitz continued.
On 14 November, Coventry was devastated by an air raid that destroyed its famous Cathedral and much of the city centre killing at least 568 people, though it is believed that many bodies were never recovered. Photographs of its obliterated Cathedral were to become an iconic image of Britain’s continued resistance during the darkest days of the blitz.
In February 1941, German tactics changed once again when they decided to re-focus their efforts on the ports and hit industrial targets outside London. They also sought to destroy Britain’s cultural heritage in the so-called Baedecker Raids, named after the famous travel guide.
On 13 March 1941, Clydebank in Glasgow, fell victim to a bombing raid that targeted its shipyards and left 528 people dead, 617 badly injured and made 35,000 homeless.
Belfast, in Northern Ireland, was a manufacturing hub and a vital part of the British war effort. With the Harland and Wolff Shipyard, the Aircraft Manufacturer Short’s, and numerous smaller factories that turned out artillery pieces and ammunition it was an obvious target had been felt that it was too far away from the European mainland to be under any serious threat.
On the night of 15 April 1941, the bombers appeared in the skies over Belfast taking the city completely by surprise. There were no bomb shelters and there was no air cover and the 22 anti-aircraft guns provided for its defence had no searchlights with which to find their targets, the city had not even turned its lights off.
In four hours of sustained bombing 900 people were killed, 1500 injured with a further 100,000 made homeless.
The Emergency Services were completely overwhelmed, the hospitals were unable to cope with the number of dead and injured, and the water pressure was so low it could not be used to fight the fires that now blazed throughout the city.
On 1 May, Liverpool endured a week of heavy bombing that killed 1,741 people, left its docks ablaze, and destroyed 6,500 buildings.
Bristol also became a target for the bombers and was attacked six times in short order in raids of increasing intensity that were to leave 1,299 people dead.
In early 1942, the Germans decided to focus their attention on their Baedecker Strategy.
They would undermine British resolve by eradicating her cultural heritage and throughout April and May smaller cities of historical significance such as Bath, Norwich, Canterbury, and York were targeted and 1,637 people killed.
There were to be few regions of Britain that were not affected by the Blitz and among other cities and towns that were hit included Aberdeen, Birmingham, Brighton, Cardiff, Eastbourne, Newcastle, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Sheffield, Southampton, and Sunderland.
The towns of Oxford and Blackpool were spared Hitler having already designated Oxford his future capital while Blackpool was to be the entertainment centre for the SS and Nazi elite.
On 10 May 1941, London endured its largest bombing raid.
The Houses of Parliament, the British Museum, St James’s Palace, and St Paul’s Cathedral were all badly damaged. Indeed, the city seemed to shudder and shake under the ferocity of the attack as the guns thundered out and the sirens wailed. By the end of the night 1,364 people lay dead and 1,616 had been seriously injured.
London was to continue to be attacked but this was the last such mass bombing raid and from 1943 onwards she was targeted by V1 and V2 rockets (Doodlebugs) which were to take a further 8,938 lives and were particularly feared because they arrived unannounced and in silence upon an unsuspecting populace.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding who had the responsibility for Britain’s air defences came in for considerable criticism for not doing more to prevent the bombing raids but he knew that the destruction of Britain’s cities would not lose the war but that the annihilation of Fighter Command and the loss of air superiority would.
A prickly character at the best of times Dowding’s inherent pessimism was often poorly received but his refusal to bow to the pressure to change strategy were to prove pivotal in the defeat of the Luftwaffe.
Maintaining morale during the darkest days of the Blitz was always a major concern for a Government uncertain how a people would react under a campaign of sustained terror bombing but as it turned out the aerial bombardment was to prove a useful propaganda tool during Britain’s darkest days. It was seen as an example of the pluck and resolve of the British people to stand alone and resist Hitler and his Nazi hordes. As Churchill said “We can take it,” even if on occasion the response would be – “We’re the ones who are taking it mate, not you.”
Britain remained a beacon of freedom and hope in a world being crushed under the heel of tyranny and oppression.
It played particularly well in an America reluctant to go to war to bail out an Old World seemingly incapable of solving its disputes other than through armed conflict; but now the dramatic nightly reports from the heart of the devastation by journalists such as Ed Murrow in his London After Dark broadcasts for CBS News brought first-hand accounts of the horror of the Blitz into the homes of the American people.
The Royal Family, so often distant from the people now also came into its own.
King George VI, a shy and retiring man would probably have been happy to perform his duties and stay quietly in the background but his Queen, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, wanted to be seen to be doing her bit and it was her idea and her decision to visit the areas devastated by the bombing and meet the people who were having to endure it.
At first her visits to the East End were not well received, her liking for fine clothes and expensive jewellery only served to alienate people who had just lost everything but having decided to dress down, at least a bit, for the occasion her determination to continue with her visits, her ready smile, and always cheery resolve eventually won the people round.
When Buckingham Palace was bombed while both she and the King were in residence she admitted to being scared but also said: “Now I can look the East End in the eye.”
On 14 October 1940, more than 500 civilians were sheltering in Balham Underground Station when just after 8 pm a 1400kg fragmentation bomb blew a huge crater in Balham High Road.
A few minutes later a bus crashed into it rupturing the sewerage and water mains and water and effluence now flooded into the Station. The safety measures that had been designed to keep water out now kept it in and 68 people died many of them drowning in the slurry.
The Balham Tube Station disaster drew few headlines, as neither did the tragedy at Bethnal Green Station on 3 March 1943, when 172 people were crushed to death in a stampede including 68 children.
But one tragedy did garner a good many headlines and as a result would cause a great deal of resentment.
The Cafe de Paris in Soho was one of the swankiest nightclubs in London a popular venue for visiting celebrities from abroad before the war it had remained open throughout the Blitz and remained a popular meeting place for London High Society.
On the night of 8 March 1941, the party was in full swing with the popular West Indian bandleader Ken “Snakehips” Johnson having just broken into his rendition of the Andrews Sisters number ‘Oh Johnny’ when the building was rocked by a tremendous explosion and people were temporarily blinded by a searing blue flash.
The nightclub had been hit by two bombs.
One had failed to go off but the other had found its way down the ventilation shaft and had landed between the stage and the dance floor. “Snakehips” Johnson was decapitated and those who had been on the dance floor were likewise torn apart, their limbs littering the floor.
Rescue workers were quickly on the scene where they were greeted by the bizarre sight of diners sitting at the tables seemingly unscathed but stone dead, their lungs having been burst by the force of the blast.
At the same time as the rescue workers arrived on the scene so did the looters.
The young actor Ballard Berkeley, who was later to find fame playing The Major in the hit comedy Fawlty Towers was a Special Constable in Soho at the time and remembered seeing wallets being stolen and jewellery being stripped from the dead, dying, and unconscious with people’s fingers being quite literally cut off to get at their rings, he recalled.
Thirty four people had been killed and many others seriously injured but some revellers, their clothes bloodied but otherwise unscathed, simply continued their partying at other clubs nearby described in much of the foreign press as an indication of a peculiar English indefatigability.
The British press expressed shock and sympathy for the well-heeled victims of the Cafe de Paris bombing and this caused great anger among the ordinary working people of London and elsewhere who felt their own sufferings had been ignored. It seemed that a rich person’s life was of greater value than someone of more humble origins.
This did more to damage the morale of the British people than all of the German air raids put together.
The Blitz lasted from 7 September 1940 to 10 May 1941, though the bombing, especially of London was to continue in some form or other for almost the duration of the war.
During this period 43,000 people were killed and 53,000 seriously injured, more than half of them in London. By the end of the war the number killed had increased to 60,915 as a result of bombing raids and rocket attacks, and more 2 million homes had been destroyed. Much of Britain’s infrastructure had also been badly damaged, but the spirit of the people had not been broken.
In early 1942, Air Chief Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris made a radio broadcast in which he declared that the Germans had “sown the wind, and now they would reap the whirlwind.”
He was to be as good as his word.
In three years of intensive bombing by day and by night, in a campaign that was to cost the lives of 55,000 British and 23,000 American airmen, Germany’s cities were devastated and some 600,000 civilians killed, 25,000 in the bombing of Dresden alone.
The Blitz had come home with a vengeance.