BRITAIN SURVIVES THE BLITZ, SEPTEMBER 1940–MAY 1941 Part III

Let us examine two nights of heavy bombing to investigate what damage the Luftwaffe could inflict on these targets in London. On the nights of 14–15 and 15–16 October, London was repeatedly bombed. On the first night five factories were hit, including one that made instruments for aircraft. In addition six gas works, three electricity supply substations and a water main were damaged, two telephone exchanges were put out of action and six hospitals. No. 10 Downing Street and the Treasury were hit, 10 major roads blocked and five Underground lines affected. Railway services had to be suspended from Broad Street, Fenchurch Street, Marylebone, Charing Cross and London Bridge. Only restricted services could run from Euston, St Pancras and Waterloo.

The next evening the Luftwaffe returned in equal strength. On this night seven factories, two gas works, four electricity supply substations and three water supply facilities were hit, and five docks put out of action. One water culvert at New Bridge Road, Edmonton, supplied London with 46 million gallons of water per day. Fifteen million gallons were restored within 24 hours, but it took 2,000 workers some time to excavate the 2,000 cubic yards of soil to get to the source of the problem. Meanwhile many London suburbs had no running water. Also that night, railway services were again hit badly and the position deteriorated further from the previous bombing. Damage was inflicted on four additional Underground lines, and services from three telephone exchanges were suspended. Finally Marlborough House, the BBC and four hospitals were hit.

This amounted to substantial damage. It made everyday life difficult, getting to work inconvenient, and it did affect the efficient running of the capital. But what the bombing did not do was radically affect the war effort. A total of twelve factories were hit but over 600 were not. The docks were back in operation in short order. The railway lines could be repaired. Buses could replace damaged Underground lines. Routes could be found around blocked roads. Interruptions to electricity and gas supplies were usually short. Couriers could be used by some firms instead of the telephone. The Home Security Report on electricity supply was an indicator of a more general trend:

London suffered the most [of any city in this area]. 30 power stations and three transformer stations were hit, while 1,393 main and secondary transmission cables and 8,590 distribution cables were involved in the general damage. Despite all this it was unusual for stoppages of supply to last longer than an hour. The most seriously affected generating station was that at Fulham, where a 190,000kw plant was not in full operation for a year. The load, however, was taken over by the grid system and the supply was only interrupted for a matter of hours.

This situation applied generally to all of London’s facilities. As for its output of war materiel, it was just too widely spread for the Luftwaffe to make much of an impact. Overall just 35 factories were totally destroyed. Damaged factories were usually soon back in operation and a sophisticated system of sub-contracting provided many alternative sources of supply.

#

So far we have dealt only with the Blitz on London. But there was another aspect of the German air assault – the assault on British provincial cities. These phases of the Blitz are not discrete events – there was much overlap between the raids on London and those on the provinces. As we have seen, the Luftwaffe never gave up on attacking the capital. And some heavy raids on the provinces took place while London was being bombed. However, as a generalisation and with one notable exception, London bore the brunt of the enemy attacks from September to December 1940, whereas the Germans concentrated more on the provinces in the early months of 1941. And in this case we cannot stop the story on the last day of December 1940. The campaign to break the British people and the industrial capacity of the country was just as severe in the New Year as it had been in 1940.

The main problem for the Luftwaffe was that provincial Britain was what would now be called a target-rich environment. In the north there were the industrial cities of Birmingham, Manchester, Coventry, Sheffield and Leeds. South Wales also had a concentration of industry around Cardiff and Swansea. Along the south coast lay the major ports of Plymouth, Portsmouth and Southampton. In the north-east were major shipbuilding and industrial areas around Hull and Newcastle. Major shipbuilding centres were located at Clydeside and Belfast. Each group of cities could be given a high priority. Spitfires were made around Southampton and at Castle Bromwich near Birmingham. The south coast ports commanded the Channel. The west coast ports saw vital supplies of oil and raw materials arrive from the United States. The ships that kept the trans-Atlantic trade flowing were built and based at Liverpool, the Clyde, the Tyne and Belfast.

Given the plethora of targets and given the fact that the Luftwaffe was hard pressed to assemble many more than 400 bombers per night, it was vital to the fulfilment of their objectives that a plan be developed to maximise the effectiveness of their bombing. No such plan eventuated or even formed in the minds of Goering, Kesselring or Sperrle. All they knew was that the attack on London had neither reduced the RAF to manageable proportions nor collapsed morale. Nor had the capital’s industry and infrastructure been reduced to rubble. Yet they would continue to attack London, while at the same time sending small packets of bombers to a variety of targets around Britain and mounting major raids on a selection of provincial cities. This was the opposite of a concentration of effort, but it was what the Germans would carry through from November 1940 until March 1941.

In that period heavy raids (defined as the dropping of over 100 tons of bombs) would be carried out on London on 12 occasions. Cities such as Southampton, Liverpool, Bristol, Portsmouth, Manchester and many others would be visited by small numbers of bombers and occasionally attacked in force.

The limitations of such methods can be demonstrated by examining one of the best-known provincial raids, the attack on Coventry on 14–15 November 1940. In many ways the city was an ideal target for the Luftwaffe. Coventry was small (a population of just under 250,000 in 1940) but it had many factories making such warlike goods as aero engines, motor vehicles and munitions. Some of these works (such as Daimler) were large, but there was a great number of smaller factories clustered with houses in the city centre around the medieval cathedral. The raid was carefully planned by the Germans. The special pathfinder group (Kg 100) led the way, guided by radio beams that the British failed to jam. Around 7.00 p.m. they dropped a mixture of high explosive with some accuracy on the city centre. The fires started guided the main force of about 440 bombers to the city.

Around 11.45 p.m. the raid reached its height but bombing continued until 6.15 a.m., some German aircraft returning to France to refuel and then bombing a second time. In all over 500 tons of high explosive and 30,000 incendiary bombs were dropped. The havoc caused was considerable. The medieval cathedral of St Michael was destroyed beyond repair. A total of 41,500 houses (three-quarters of all houses in the city) suffered some damage. Of these 2,300 were totally destroyed and 6,000 rendered unliveable. In addition 624 shops and 121 offices were destroyed. The war economy was badly hit. Overall 111 out of 180 factories were damaged and 75 of them completely destroyed. The casualties (570 dead and 1,100 wounded) would have been more severe had not a proportion of the population been out of the city on their nightly trek.

Mass Observation rushed a team to Coventry and they reported on 18 November. The investigators found the damage greater than in any other city including London. They found a feeling of ‘helplessness’ among the population, many of whom had no idea what to do. There were signs of hysteria, terror and neurosis. It would indeed be surprising had there not been such feelings in a city small enough for almost everyone to know one of the dead or injured and with such widespread property damage. The mood soon improved, however. The army was drafted in to help clear rubble and essential services slowly returned. Two days after the raid, arrangements had been made to transport 10,000 people out of the centre, but only 300 actually left.

Nevertheless, considerable damage had been done to the war economy. One of the Daimler aero-engine factories was completely wrecked. It was estimated that it would take a month to restore production. A further 14 factories making engines or components for aircraft had suffered damage, as had such firms as Triumph that made parts for tanks and armoured cars.

Coventry, if not quite ‘finished’ as one observer put it, was certainly on its knees. Further raids of this nature by the Luftwaffe were greatly feared. Home Security concluded that ‘Another such raid might well have put Coventry beyond the possibility of repair.’ But the Luftwaffe did not return. In subsequent days and weeks it turned its attention back to London, then to Birmingham, then Bristol and then to other cities. Coventry did not suffer another major raid for some five months, when 100 aircraft dropped 100 tons of high explosive and incendiaries on it. Casualties were high – some 281 killed and 525 severely wounded. The Daimler works was again put out of operation for several weeks. On the night of 10–11 April there was a further major raid but on this occasion no important target suffered significant damage. These raids were certainly intense, but the five-month interval had allowed Coventry to recover – both in spirit and in productive capacity. By repeated bombing the Germans probably could have obliterated Coventry and that would have slowed British aircraft production significantly. This was a lesson that its citizens were happy for the Luftwaffe not to learn.

This pattern of dreadful destruction and then neglect was repeated by the Luftwaffe throughout the Blitz. Bad weather drastically curtailed their operations in January and February 1941, but by then some in the German High Command were becoming disturbed by the lack of results. On 4 February Admiral Raeder, General Jodl and Field Marshal Keitel expressed their concerns to Hitler. Raeder emphasised the importance of British dependence on imports and its need to continually build escort and merchant ships for the trans-Atlantic trade. As a result Hitler issued a new directive that gave the Luftwaffe at least some direction. He ordered that major raids be concentrated on the western ports that either built ships or received imports. Accordingly, when the weather cleared the Luftwaffe launched a major raid on Clydebank, which contained some of Britain’s largest shipbuilding yards. On the night of 13–14 March over 400 bombers dropped 1,100 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs on Clydebank. The loss of life was massive because many workers lived close to the shipyards – over 1,200 were killed and 1,000 injured. Clydebank was a rather self-contained area just to the west of Glasgow. Of its 60,000 inhabitants, just 3,000 remained after the raids – the rest had fled to safety. Indeed, there was not much to return to – only seven houses out of a total of 12,000 remained undamaged. The damage to the actual shipyards was not extensive, but the dispersal of the population had serious repercussions for the industry. John Brown’s shipyard normally employed 10,000 workers, yet a week after the raids just 6,500 had reported for work. Another week was to pass before the yard was 75 per cent effective.

For one of the very few occasions during the Blitz the deductions drawn by Home Security were alarming:

There is a real danger that continued and concentrated attacks on the residential areas of the ports will lead to a large-scale movement of the population, as a result of damage to houses and public services. These attacks may prove more effective in hampering the work of the ports than accurate bombing of the port facilities themselves. Undoubtedly provision of relief for the homeless and facilities to enable the workers to get back to work is of vital importance.

Home Security was no doubt correct. Many more raids on this scale would have seen vital works such as John Brown’s shut down through lack of labour. Yet once again the Luftwaffe did not follow up the attack. Over time the workers were rehoused and returned to their tasks.

In keeping with Hitler’s directive, Belfast suffered a major raid in mid-April. The shipbuilders Shorts and Harlands were out of production for three weeks. Some 20,000 people were made homeless by this single raid. Yet there was again no follow-up and shipbuilding in Northern Ireland was soon back to normal.

If we follow the pattern of bombing during February, March and April 1941, we can see that the Luftwaffe attempted to follow Hitler’s directive. There were raids on Swansea, Hull, Bristol, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Barrow and the Tyne in this period. But the pattern of one or two night raids repeated itself. Plymouth was hit particularly hard in April to the extent that civil administration almost broke down. Mass Observation reported much dissatisfaction with the local authorities. Yet Plymouth survived. This time there would be no more raids because Hitler had begun to regroup the Luftwaffe for operations against Russia.

The last period of the Blitz presents one of the great question marks over German strategy. Liverpool was the port through which flowed most supplies from America. Before May 1941 the weekly tonnage handled by the docks was 181,562 tons. It was an obvious target for the Luftwaffe. Indeed, Liverpool was raided on over 60 occasions between the outbreak of war and May 1941. Yet many of these raids were flights by just one or two aircraft and most did not attain the status of a major raid. The main exceptions were the nights of 12–13, 13–14 and 14–15 March. In these three nights over 450 tons of high explosive were dropped, causing damage to the docks and to commercial and residential buildings.

Despite these three nights it could be reasonably stated that before May 1941 Liverpool had not received from the Germans the attention warranted by its importance. That all changed in the first week of May. From 1 May the city was bombed for seven consecutive nights. In all 839 tons of high explosive were dropped along with hundreds of thousand incendiaries. The raids killed 1,900 people and seriously injured 1,450. At one stage four miles of docks were engulfed in flames. On the night of 3–4 May the SS Malakand, which had 1,000 tons of ammunition on board, was hit and exploded, virtually destroying the Huskisson Dock. A total of 70,000 people, almost 10 per cent of the total population, were made homeless and trekking became a way of life for many. Mass Observation reported widespread dissatisfaction with the local authorities and described an atmosphere of ineptitude, lack of energy and drive on their part. A strong rumour circulated that martial law had been declared. It had not but this was probably a comment on the population’s view of the local leadership.

By the end of the week the capacity of the docks had been reduced to just 25 per cent, a potentially disastrous situation for Britain. Yet even during the Merseyside Blitz the Germans could not concentrate on just one target. In the middle of their campaign against Liverpool they diverted major forces of bombers to Barrow, Belfast, Glasgow and Hull. Thus the number of bombers over Merseyside dropped from 293 on the night of 3–4 May to 55 on the following night, to 27 on the following two nights, then back up to 166 on the final night.

But the surpassing folly from the German point of view was that this series of devastating raids came at the very end of the Blitz. After one more massive attack on London on the night of 10–11 May, the bombers were gradually withdrawn to the east for the impending attack on the Soviet Union. Slowly Liverpool returned to some kind of normality. By mid-May the docks were unloading just less than half their normal tonnage and by mid-June they had returned to full capacity. The thousands of trekkers also returned. In fact most of the dock workers who trekked only did so at night and returned to their jobs during the day, so the same everyday imperatives that acted to keep London going through the Blitz applied at Liverpool as well. For the remainder of the war Liverpool continued to be the main destination for American imports. Any chance that the Germans might have had to cut this lifeline had gone.

#

The Blitz failed in its objectives. The Germans could neither cow the British people into surrender nor destroy the fundamentals of their war economy. The Luftwaffe, which was never developed as a strategic weapon, proved inadequate to the task. It had too few aircraft that carried inadequate bomb loads, had too many targets to hit and lacked a coherent overall plan. Civilians, it was proved, could stand up to bombing over a prolonged period without cracking, despite the rather feeble defences the British could deploy against the night Blitz and the government’s ramshackle shelter policy.

However, this is much more apparent now than it was then. When they put their minds to it the Luftwaffe could deliver concentrated blows – against London, Coventry, Glasgow, Belfast, Plymouth, Birmingham and other centres – that caused havoc and destruction to an extent never witnessed in Britain before. To those under the bombs this certainly did not seem like an air force too feeble to prevail. No city or country had ever been subjected to the level of aerial bombardment experienced by Britain in these months. In this sense those in charge of Home Security were only being prudent in their attempts to test the daily ‘morale’ of the people. Their methods might appear amateurish today but there seems little doubt that the overall tenor of the reports must have given some comfort to those in authority. Panic at times was reported; there was some looting; defeatist talk was occasionally expressed. But the solidarity of the population was no myth. Most carried on with their lives as best they could. After the constant series of reverses that marked the first part of the year, the ordeal suffered by the British might have been the last straw. That it came nowhere close to delivering a knock-out blow says much about the resolution of a determined people. They had accepted Churchill’s proposition that this war had to be fought to the end. Indeed, there was some concern that the government might fall below this level of resolve. Churchill’s presence in the bombed cities reassured them that this would not be the case, as did his assurances that when the time came Nazi Germany would receive a greater measure of destruction than had been meted out to Britain. He was as good as his word.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.