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The Blitz


Though the ‘Blitz spirit’ is legendary, the devastating air raids of 1940–41 are widely acknowledged as the toughest aspect of life on the Home Front in World War II – more so than the hardships of rationing or evacuation. It is difficult today to imagine the fear and ruination that blitzkrieg caused, particularly in London, but also across Coventry, Hull, Liverpool and other industrial centres.

Over 40,000 people were killed by the Luftwaffe’s bombs, and many more were injured. Housing and infrastructure suffered badly and rebuilding was slow, with building materials in short supply. Much of the damage would remain until after the war, the rubble serving as children’s playgrounds.

Even before World War II broke out, there had been mass public fear of bombing raids, stoked by the destruction wreaked at Guernica and memories of the terror caused by Zeppelins in World War I. But this heightened awareness meant Britain was well prepared for what was to come.

Defensive measures included anti-aircraft batteries and barrage balloons, as well as a focus on developing technology such as radar to detect and repel the bombers. Elaborate dummy targets were set up to lure enemy planes away from their real objectives. Attack was considered to be the best form of defence, and there were many retaliatory strikes on economic, military and civil enemy targets, with equally shattering effects on the German population, such as at Dresden.

Meanwhile, the Air Raid Precautions was formed as early 1924 and played a key role in planning for raids and managing the response to them. Gas masks were issued in case of gas attacks from the air, Anderson shelters dug in gardens and blackout procedures put in place. When the sirens sounded, local air-raid wardens helped those fleeing to safety and patrolled the streets, putting themselves at risk to help their communities.

The Auxiliary Fire Service was formed as part of the ARP in 1938 and played a similarly vital role in tackling the blazes that resulted from the Blitz bombings. These voluntary organisations were supported by medical services, the Home Guard and even the Scouts, who would direct fire services to where they were needed. Equally important were the Royal Army Pay Corps and Pioneer Corps, who helped clear the rubble and salvage belongings from the ruins.

The Women’s Voluntary Service was instrumental in providing care for those who had lost their homes. They set up WVS canteens and sanitary facilities, and collected clothing and other necessities for the victims. They also worked to make the public shelters more comfortable for those taking refuge there.

In particular, Underground stations provided protection for hundreds of thousands of Londoners every night. At first the government was concerned about the effect of closing the Underground on business and industry, and refused to open stations as shelters, but it quickly relented as the Blitz took its toll. Deep below ground, these makeshift shelters provided safety and comfort in numbers. They were, however, overcrowded and chaotic, so a direct hit would result in mass casualties.

The goal of Hitler’s ferocious ‘lightning war’ was to damage the British wartime economy by destroying factories and at the same time it would demoralise civilians. It did not achieve these aims. Production actually increased in 1941, thanks to the effective mobilisation of workers by the Ministry of Labour.

And though London’s Docks were devastated and Coventry’s historic cathedral famously burned to ground, St Paul’s Cathedral remained defiantly standing. It became an enduring symbol of hope for Londoners in particular, and British morale never broke, despite being stretched to its limits.

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