Black Saturday

Editor’s Choice: How the Blitz saved Britain

Everyone would remember the weather. On the afternoon of Saturday, September 7, 1940, “one of the fairest days of the century, a day of clear warm air and high blue skies,” as the novelist William Sansom recalled, 348 German bombers and more than 600 Messerschmitt fighters set off from northern France for England. Goering, who had arrived the day before to take direct command of the mission, watched from the cliffs of Cap Gris Nez as the planes formed up over the Channel. At 4:14, the first aircraft were over the English coast, and British spotters assumed that this unusually large bomber stream would soon disperse to attack the usual targets—airfields, sector stations, oil installations. But as it flew westward over Kent and Sussex the fleet remained intact, forming a block 20 miles wide. Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, at tea in the garden of their country house in Kent, saw the planes—the most concentrated force arrayed against Britain since the Spanish Armada—“coming over in wave after wave.” Farther west, in the countryside just outside London, the American newspaperman Ben Robertson watched the bombers as they “flew at a very great height, glistening like beautiful steel birds in the afternoon sunshine.” Minutes later, London—a city that, as he wrote, “had taken thirty generations of men a thousand years to build”—was burning. The first raid ended at 6:10, but two hours later more than 300 additional bombers came for a second attack, which lasted until 4:30 the next morning.

CIRCLES IN THE SKY: Traces of a dogfight over St. Paul's, 1940

In the preceding weeks, the Germans had made some “nuisance raids” over London, but now, for the first time, the city was subjected to sustained assault. All night the Luftwaffe circled, pummeling the docklands and their adjacent working-class neighborhoods with high-explosive and incendiary bombs. London had never suffered such fires, even during the Great Fire of 1666. Those who witnessed that night would consistently recall how the sky glowed blood-red. For Londoners, “Black Saturday” began a test of endurance for which there was no precedent: the Blitz. The bombers would come back for 76 of the next 77 nights, and the Luftwaffe’s steady campaign against London would continue until the final and bloodiest attack of the Blitz, on May 10, 1941.

In The First Day of the Blitz, the Stanford historian Peter Stansky fluently chronicles the day’s events, placing them in the wider context of Britain’s home front and the history of the Blitz (only two of the book’s nine chapters actually focus on the narrow subject of its title). No matter how smooth his storytelling, though, this book can’t help but be largely superfluous. The reason the path of the Luftwaffe’s bombers can be traced literarily is that so many writers were scribbling away on the ground. After all, with the exception of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, which encompasses both the London scene and various military misadventures, the best literature to emerge from the British experience in the Second World War concerns not the battlefield but London at war: Nicolson’s wartime diaries, Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn and columns for the Tribune and Partisan Review, Henry Green’s Caught, Graham Greene’s Ministry of Fear and The End of the Affair, Elizabeth Bowen’s wartime stories and The Heat of the Day, Waugh’s Put Out More Flags, Anthony Powell’s The Valley of Bones, The Soldier’s Art, and The Military Philosophers. Moreover, throughout the conflict hundreds of literate and well-spoken Londoners wrote vivid diaries and letters or were quoted in interviews. Or their utterances and actions were secretly written down and assessed: officialdom, in its efforts to keep its citizens productive and healthy and to monitor their morale, collected information of unprecedented depth and range about their everyday lives. And since the war, beginning in 1950 with the pathbreaking sociologist Richard M. Titmuss’s Problems of Social Policy—a volume in Britain’s official history of the conflict and a tour de force whose soporific title belies its often disturbing contents—historians have probed, revised, and re-revised nearly every aspect of this self-defined finest hour of the British people.

The upshot, as Angus Calder wrote in his seminal 1991 The Myth of the Blitz, is that “no archive of such abundance exists for any other ‘major event’ in British history.” (Calder’s biography proves his point: he’s the son of the journalist Ritchie Calder, author of Carry On London, perhaps the best-known of several contemporaneously published reports of the Blitz.) So it’s not surprising that, like most Blitz books, Stansky’s retails timeworn anecdotes and quotes oft-quoted accounts. Most readers should probably turn instead to Philip Ziegler’s London at War or Constantine FitzGibbon’s classic The Winter of the Bombs, the two best general histories, which give as detailed a chronicle of Black Saturday as all but the Blitz-afflicted could desire, and which lack Stansky’s clumsy, jejune efforts to make the Blitz relevant to post-9/11 readers (“terror is frequently counterproductive and strengthens the resolve of those who are attacked”). Still, Stansky’s approach has its rewards. By focusing on the opening of the struggle, the book illuminates the ironies, paradoxes, and unintended consequences that marked the Blitz—and reminds us that those elements always lie at the heart of history.

To the British experiencing it, September 7 wasn’t the first day of the Blitz; it was the 60th day of the Battle of Britain—the struggle between the Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force for air supremacy over the Channel and southern Britain, which Germany needed in order to launch an invasion. By that day, the contest had entered its decisive period. As the Luftwaffe concentrated its assault on Fighter Command’s airfields and communications centers, the RAF was close to breaking. Moreover, Germany had massed its troop- carrying barges across the Channel, and all intelligence pointed to an impending invasion—an event the British chiefs of staff assumed would be preceded by an intense air attack on London. As the Luftwaffe bombed the East End, the chiefs of staff meeting in Whitehall a few miles away focused on what they believed to be the immediate and dire implications of the assault. So they issued the ominous code word “Cromwell,” meaning that invasion was imminent and that troops should take up their battle stations. For soldiers and civilians in southeast England, the dominant memory of that night was less the terrible glow in the western sky than the predawn explosions as the British blew up their own bridges to slow the anticipated German advance, and the almost medieval sound of church bells ringing the alarm over the countryside in the middle of the night.

BOMBED-OUT: East Londoners made homeless by German air raids

The attack on London in fact marked a shift in Hitler’s strategy, away from using the Luftwaffe to destroy Britain’s air defenses directly—and that shift relieved Fighter Command of the unrelenting pressure and unsustainable losses it had borne. In retrospect, then, although Black Saturday signaled destruction and chaos for London, it quite possibly brought Britain’s deliverance, as Hugh Dowding, the chief of Fighter Command, later recognized: “I could hardly believe the Germans would have made such a mistake … it was a supernatural intervention … [September 7] was really the crucial day.”

On September 7, though, no one in Britain could have greeted the bombing of London as a miraculous release. The best minds in science, the military, the civil service, and the government (including the doughty prime minister) were certain that such an attack would be all but apocalyptic. Government planners had coolly reckoned that a German air assault would kill 58,000 Londoners in the first 24 hours, and kill 600,000 and wound 1.2 million in two months. At the onset of the war, the Ministry of Health secretly issued 1 million burial forms to local authorities; the Home Office projected that 20 million square feet of timber would be needed each month for coffins. Because that was unobtainable, London officials anticipated mass dumping of the dead in lime pits and in the Channel. No wonder that when war was declared the government urgently carried out what remains the largest internal migration in British history: the evacuation from London and other cities of schoolchildren and of toddlers and their mothers.

But soon after the all-clear sounded on the morning of September 8, it was obvious that the problems the Blitz would create, though thorny and dangerous, were entirely different from those that had been predicted. On the 7th, 430 people had been killed and 1,600 seriously injured. On the 8th, the bombers would kill 400 more, and the next night another 370. By the end of the war, German bombs would kill 29,000 Londoners, nearly 20,000 of them during the Blitz. In all of Britain, 60,000 civilians would be killed (one-tenth the number of German civilians killed by the British and American air forces).

If authorities had wildly miscalculated the number of fatalities, they had correctly estimated the number of houses that bombs would render uninhabitable. For every person killed, 35 were “bombed out.” One in six Londoners would be made homeless at some point during the Blitz; although few houses were destroyed, repairmen couldn’t nearly keep up with the rate of damage. The greatest problem that confronted Londoners and the authorities charged with their welfare wasn’t shelter from the bombs—the image of Tube stations crammed with plucky cockneys singing “Roll Out the Barrel” may dominate the public imagination, but in fact even at the height of the Blitz only one in seven Londoners used the public shelters— but homelessness. That the Luftwaffe concentrated its attacks for the first several days of the Blitz almost exclusively on the militarily legitimate target of the East End docklands enormously exacerbated the potentially disastrous consequences of homelessness. The poor and working-class neighborhoods there—dense, flimsily built, and badly governed—engendered tens of thousands of confused, angry, near- hysterical bombing victims. Every subsequent analysis confirms the government’s internal intelligence assessment at the time: during the first week of the Blitz, parts of the East End came perilously close to a breakdown of public authority and to mass panic.

Once again, Germany’s mercurial bombing strategy delivered the British. After six days, the Luftwaffe extended its range of targets to include the heavily residential and prosperous West End. Although the Germans made the change in part to intensify the coercion of the city’s population, its effect was exactly the opposite. The shift somewhat relieved the East End from intense bombing, which bought the authorities time to establish systems to aid the bombed-out. More important, the Germans mended the socially corrosive rift their initial strategy had (unintentionally, if usefully) created between London’s poor and bombed and its rich and safe. As Clement Attlee, the deputy prime minister and Labour Party leader, told Nicolson, “If only the Germans had had the sense not to bomb west of London Bridge there might have been a revolution in this country.” After Buckingham Palace was bombed on September 13, the queen declared: “I’m glad we’ve been bombed. Now I feel we can look the East End in the face.”

In his conclusion, Stansky slips into well-worn grooves. The Blitz, he maintains, is “a major modern example of terror failing to alter a nation’s actions,” and he attributes Londoners’ “united heroism” to a no-fuss, understated English em­phasis on getting on with the job and “coping” and to “a tradition of participatory democracy that … enabled the populace to deal with the situation created by the heavy bombing.” The British undoubtedly possessed the admirable characteristics Stansky ascribes to them (and which they frequently ascribed to themselves). Although the sustained attack on a great and civilized city provided ample scope for cowardice, selfishness, criminality, and fecklessness, by and large the British bore their burden with astonishing decency. But the people of Berlin and Hamburg, Stalingrad, and Tokyo—none citizens of a “participatory democracy”—all remained united and resolved and never gave in to “terror,” even as they withstood bombing on a vastly more terrible scale. If trite conclusions must be drawn, they might be about the relative unimportance of ideology— no matter how uplifting—in the face of extreme duress.